It was a dramatic one Sunday in Kansas City. The Royals played the Rangers in a late-season matchup of wild-card hopefuls, and the game was scoreless going into the bottom of the tenth when the Royals loaded the bases with none out. Then, after Mike Moustakas hit, there was one out. Then, after George Kottaras hit, there were two out. Up came Justin Maxwell, and the count ran full, and on what would be either a decisive pitch or a foul, Maxwell swung and lifted the ball out for a walk-off grand slam. A single would’ve done, or an error would’ve done, or a walk would’ve done, but a grand slam is emphatic, and the Royals celebrated like the Royals seldom have over the past however many years.
However, with a week left in the season, the Royals still don’t have much of a shot of advancing. They trail the Indians by three and a half games, the Rays by four. The Rangers are two games in front of them, and the Indians play a soft schedule. Our own playoff odds give the Royals a 1-in-71 shot, so while they’re happily playing meaningful baseball in late September, it’s unlikely there’ll be meaningful baseball in early October. Featuring the Royals, anyway. And that’s too bad for a team that might be one of baseball’s best.
The Royals own baseball’s 13th-best raw winning percentage, at .529. They’re right between the Nationals and the Yankees, and they’ve guaranteed themselves a winning season. In that sense, kudos, Royals. I know this place hasn’t been real kind to the Royals for a while. But look what happens when you sort by total team WAR. The Royals shoot up the table, with a 41.7-WAR sum that puts them between the Rays and the A’s. They’re nowhere close to the Red Sox and Tigers — those teams are running away with it — but the Royals, right now, have more WAR than the Dodgers. They have more than the Braves. They have more than everybody but the Red Sox, Tigers, and Rays, looking in this regard like a legitimate playoff team. The Royals presumably won’t make the playoffs, but they’re off their WAR winning percentage by more than five wins. That feels unfortunate, for a franchise that’s had its share of misfortune.
Let’s look at a table, now, featuring 2013’s ballclubs. There are two statistical categories, each saying the same thing in a different way. Presented is the difference between actual team success and expected team success, based just on WAR. The table is sorted from most positive difference to most negative difference.
The Cardinals have an actual winning percentage of .583. By WAR, it “ought” to be .535, and the Cardinals are blowing that away in large part because of their extraordinary success with runners in scoring position. At the other end, we find the Rockies and Tigers, who are off the pace by even more than the Royals. The Red Sox and Tigers have simultaneously been terrific and arguably unlucky, if you consider this somewhat a measure of luck.
I’m not going to dive into examining the differences. That would probably be another post. But, what can we say about the relationship between winning percentage and WAR? Unsurprisingly, the relationship is super strong, because WAR is a measure of productivity, and teams with productive players win more games. Here’s winning percentage against WAR winning percentage over the past century:
Linear, but not perfectly so. No relationships are perfect. Accepting that, in each year, there will be differences, what do those differences mean? What does it mean when a team wins more or fewer games than WAR would suggest?
We can look at this a few ways. Real quick-like, let’s just compare 2012 and 2013. I calculated the 2012 differences between winning percentage and WAR winning percentage, and split into three groups: 10 most negative differences, 10 middle, and 10 most positive differences. How have those groups gone on to do in 2013?
There’s pretty heavy regression: in 2012, between the negative and positive groups, there was a difference of .082. In 2013, it’s .022. Now let’s look at this in reverse. I calculated the 2013 differences between winning percentage and WAR winning percentage, and split into the same three groups. How did those groups do in 2012, before?
Between the negative and the positive, there’s a difference of .077 in 2013. Last year, it was .030. Now we might as well look at a way bigger sample.
Consider this the master chart, or something, covering the window from 1998-2013. The chart might look complicated, but it isn’t. On the x-axis, we have a team’s difference between winning percentage and WAR winning percentage. On the y-axis, we have the same thing for the following season. Do we see any hints of sustainability? That is, how consistently have teams beaten or under-performed their WAR?
A relationship exists, but it doesn’t seem to be much of one. And the regression is strong. Over time, winning percentage and WAR winning percentage converge. This is basically along the same lines as examining the relationship between winning percentage and Pythagorean winning percentage. Teams like last year’s Orioles can out-perform their run differentials, because the season stops at 162 games, but going forward, that doesn’t project as a skill. All that matters in the moment is winning. What matters in the future moments, though, are the numbers that underlie winning. This is all stuff you’ve heard before.
So perhaps it’s a silver lining for the Royals. For once, the numbers are on their side, even if the number they care about isn’t. They’ve undershot their numbers in 2013, but they shouldn’t do that again in 2014, given identical numbers. Which, naturally, can’t be taken for granted. Other teams, also, have things to think about. The Angels look better by WAR than they do by record, and for this reason they could be contenders a season from now if Albert Pujols looks more like himself. At the other end, almost the whole National League Central could be examined at length.
The bad news for Kansas City is that they probably won’t make it to the wild-card playoff. The good news is they arguably deserve to, and though that doesn’t soften any 2013 disappointment, maybe next year. For the Royals, the motto has long been “maybe next year,” but this time around it means something a little different.
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