The best and worst of the NL West

We’re close to the end of the long winding road that is my review of the likely contenders in each division. Over the past few months we’ve looked at the AL East, AL Central, AL West, NL East and NL Central. Today we turn our attention to the remaining division: the NL West.

For the last few years the NL West has undoubtedly been one of the most exciting divisions in baseball. In 2004, the Dodgers and Giants fought tooth and nail with Los Angeles prevailing by a couple of games—but at one point it looked as though a one-game playoff would be required to decide it. In 2005, the Friars won five of their last six games to finish the year in the black (82-80) and avoid the humiliation of piloting home a division while winning less than 80 games. Had it not been for that final burst, the Pads’ five-game lead would have looked a little slimmer.

In 2006 the division was once more a nip and tuck affair and despite the 2005 mediocrity, midway through the 2006 season all five teams were above .500. Talk about turnaround! In the second half the Pads and Dodgers accelerated away from the pack and, once more, took the division to the final game. Fortunately for all involved both teams made the playoffs, the Padres winning the division by virtue of having a better head-to-head record.

Let’s have a look at what some great baseball minds speculated about the 2007 NL West.

Preseason predictions

Many preseason prophesies centered on whether Barry Bonds would surpass Hank Aaron’s career home run mark. Of course such speculation seems moot now that Bonds has surged beyond that particular milestone. However, there is still a division race to be won, and here is how the the Hardball Times staffers saw the outcome back in March:

                    1st     2nd     3rd     4th     5th
Richard Barbieri    ARI     SD      LAD     SF      COL
Sal Baxamusa        ARI     SD      SF      LAD     COL
John Beamer         LAD     ARI     SD      SF      COL
Brian Borawski      LAD     SD      ARI     SF      COL
John Brattain       SD      ARI     LAD     SF      COL
Matthew Carruth     ARI     SD      LAD     SF      COL
Chris Constancio    ARI     SD      SF      COL     LAD
David Gassko        ARI     SD      LAD     SF      COL
Ben Jacobs          ARI     SD      LAD     COL     SF
Larry Mahnken       SD      LAD     SF      ARI     COL
Dave Studeman       SD      ARI     SF      LAD     COL
Steve Treder        ARI     LAD     SD      COL     SF
Bryan Tsao          SF      ARI     LAD     SD      COL
John Walsh          ARI     SD      LAD     SF      COL
Geoff Young         ARI     SD      LAD     COL     SF 
Consensus           ARI     SD      LAD     SF      COL

Despite the consensus line at the bottom being eerily similar to the current standings, one thing we can agree on is that there is more consensus in the Iraqi parliament than in the THT guess-circus. To wit, both Los Angeles and San Francisco were tipped to finish top and bottom by different people!

There are a couple of broad brush conclusions, I think, that we can draw. One, LA, Arizona and San Diego were thought to be evenly matched. Two, San Francisco and Colorado would lag behind. I’d also add a third: No one was quite sure what the hell would happen.

Here is what some of the other bright sparks in the analytical community predicted:

               CHONE           Diamond Mind    PECOTA          ZiPS
               W       L       W       L       W       L       W       L
Los Angeles    82      80      83      79      89      73      86      76
San Diego      86      76      88      74      86      76      85      77
Arizona        83      79      78      84      81      81      83      79
San Francisco  82      80      77      85      80      82      79      83
Colorado       80      82      77      85      78      84      78      84

Wow, pretty interesting! For a start there were thought to be no dud teams—no club was projected to win fewer than 77 games. Also there was consensus that the division would be a two and a half team race, with the Dodgers and Padres as front-runners and the Snakes also in the mix (okay, I included the half as a sop to the THT team’s view)! Again the opinion that San Francisco and Colorado would probably bring up the rear was reaffirmed, but the tightness of win-totals implied that betting the house on any outcome was risky.

The division today

Here are the NL West standings as of Sunday, July 22 (before Sunday’s games):

National League West     Pwins  Diff
ARI     67  51 .568    0.0   57    10     
SD      62  54 .534    4.0   63    -1     
COL     60  56 .517    6.0   62    -2     
LAN     60  56 .519    6.0   60     0     
SF      49  66 .426   16.5   55    -6  

And here is the story pictorially, courtesy of the legendary THT graph:


In this case the table lies slightly. It looks as though Arizona is in charge of the division but you can see from the graph how close the race has been. The lead has changed hands a number of times, with each of the Dodgers, D-backs and Padres having the lead at one point or another in the last month. Also don’t discount the Rockies. Although they have never mounted a convincing charge they have stayed quietly in contention and a winning run could see them make a surprise challenge for their first postseason trip since 1995.

Look at the Snakes’ ascension over the past month or so. On July 17 they were about 10 games behind the Dodgers but they have gone on a 17-3 tear to claw their way back into the lead. Digest for a second the D-back’s Pythagorean record, which has them 10 games over their projected win total. Wow.

The one disappointing team in the NL West is the San Francisco Giants. Despite the offseason acquisition of Barry Zito the Giants have been thoroughly distracted by the Barry Bonds circus and find themselves 16.5 wins back from first. However, that isn’t the full story. A close look at the numbers reveals that they have been thoroughly unlucky. In fact if you compare the Giants to the Diamondbacks using Pythagorean wins the two clubs are evenly matched. That said, one look at the aged batting line-up suggests that a revolution is required at AT&T park if the Giants are to challenge anytime soon.

THT projections

Let’s see what the THT statistical model spits out when asked who will triumph in the West given each team’s start.

To recap the methodology, we use THT projections to calculate a team’s expected wins above replacement. This is based on player depth charts that I pulled together for each ball club. The division win probability is calculated from win distribution curves that work out the odds of each team finishing on top given its talent—for the technically minded, I use recursive probability functions. Here are the results:

MLB’s Diversity Fellowship Is a Step in the Right Direction
It is not a perfect program, but it certainly counts as progress.
30th March 2007                           12th August 2007
               W       L       Win %      W       L       Win %
Arizona        86      76      34%        90      72      45%
San Francisco  83      79      22%        73      89      3%
Los Angeles    82      80      19%        83      79      16%
San Diego      80      82      14%        85      77      22%
Colorado       78      84      10%        82      80      14%

Unsurprisingly given the bunching of teams and past form in the NL West (ie, going down to the wire) four of the five teams have a greater than 10% chance of taking the division. It is no surprise that we have Arizona as favorites: they are currently top and based on the THT projections had the most talent. However, taking into account their lucky streak I expect that when we look at the market a discount will be applied to that win percentage number.

Let’s turn our attention to the market now, which should look positively alpine given how often the division lead has changed hands.

What the market predicts

Below is the current win probability compared to what it was in late March, before the season got underway (courtesy of Tradesports):

                 March 30 Win %     August 12 Win %
Arizona          19%                43%
San Francisco    16%                1%
Los Angeles      36%                16%
San Diego        23%                31%
Colorado         8%                 9%

Hey—that’s reasonably in line with the THT model. Surprisingly the market hasn’t applied a discount to Arizona’s win expectancy—in effect ignoring the luck factor entirely. The only real difference between Tradesports and the THT numbers is that the market is more bullish on the Pads at the expense of the Rockies. Given the relative histories of the two teams that appears a reasonable judgment.

Now let’s look at the win expectancy graph of the contenders. First up the Diamondbacks and the Padres:


Unsurprisingly the Diamondbacks’ win expectancy has been all over the place, as they have probably been the streakiest team in baseball. The Snakes got off to a sizzling start, opening 7-2 to the delight of many analysts who picked them as the NL West’s dark horses. Then a slump set in in the guise of a 3-8 rut—and that has really been the story of Arizona’s season. Six wins on the spin, followed by five losses to end April; eight wins on the trot to finish May for a 33-22 record; eight losses in nine to begin July; and then the amazing streak that is still largely underway which started with a run of eight and is now 17-3. Ironically this Jekyll and Hyde nature completely befuddled the market and Arizona’s win expectancy remained largely static until the late July surge when it quadrupled from 10% to 40%

The Pads have had a consistent year and seemed to be asserting themselves as evidenced by their continually rising win expectancy through to July. Rightly so, because at the start of that month they were 46-34 and standing toe to toe with the Dodgers. A couple of things happened at that point. First, as we’ve seen, the Snakes struck. But second, and perhaps more importantly, the Friars stumbled, winning only one series in July, which oddly was against the Mets—perhaps the NL’s strongest team. Things haven’t been much better in August save a series sweep of the Giants and for the past month they have had the look of a .500 team, which is not going to be good enough to secure October ball.


Yikes. That Dodgers chart is unreal with win expectancy collapsing faster than George Bush’s approval ratings. LA got off to a solid start despite losing their opening series to the Brew Crew, going 13-3 to establish early dominance in the division. Indeed the market had them as favorites with a division win expectancy of 40%. That rose through the early summer and by mid-July the Dodgers found themselves 13 games over .500, but then it all started to go south. In early August they had a horrid 3-11 stretch, which combined with the D-backs’ rise led to the tanking win expectancy. Right now the market puts their chances at a measly 15% and falling.

Although the Rockies are in contention—they are only six games back—the market does not rate their chances of finishing atop the pile. Through April they were a disappointing 10-16 and seemingly headed for another mediocre season. The market thought as much and win expectancy eroded to less than 5%. By mid-May they were 18-27 but then went on a seven game streak to claw back some ground. Amazingly by mid-summer the Rockies were in positive territory at 38-34, but win expectancy remained stubbornly low. An eight game losing streak in late June seemed to have firmly dented their chances but the Rox have been on an upward trajectory since then and now sit four games over .500. The market has rewarded them with a hike in win expectancy, albeit to 9%. Fair enough—it would be a shock if Colorado stormed to the division.


PROTRADE is a sports stock market where you can buy or sell players and teams depending on whether you think they are over- or under-valued based on a fantasy scoring system.

As I discussed in a previous column this is less useful for players because arbitrary statistics are used, but for teams the scoring system is more sensible so we can build a picture as to how well people think each will do.

Here is a reminder of the points scoring system:

Price	Criteria
$1 	for each regular season win
$10	for qualifying for the playoffs
$4 	for each playoff win
$10 	for winning the league division series
$20 	for winning the pennant
$30 	for winning the World Series

Have a look at how the price of the NL West contenders has fluctuated since mid-April (when PROTRADE first launched this feature).

Team            Price (April 21) Price (August 12)  Earnings (August 12) P/E
Arizona         $99.47           $106.53            $64.00               1.7
San Diego       $102.57          $111.61            $60.00               1.9
Los Angeles     $110.11          $111.52            $60.00               1.9
Colorado        $83.54           $86.64             $63.00               1.4
San Francisco   $80.21           $82.67             $53.00               1.6

As with some of the other division races, PROTRADE (well PROTRADE users actually) takes a slightly contrarian view on the likely outcome as it stubbornly believes that the Dodgers and Padres are the two best teams—given the respective Pythagorean records you can understand this, but it is surprising the see PROTRADE differs that much from the market as both rely on wisdom of the crowds. A closer look at the price range for the three contenders—$105-110—indicates that there is some uncertainty in that conclusion. In fact all three teams have a strong NLDS expectation priced in. Perhaps the difference is that the market believes that the Dodgers and Padres have more chance of making it deeper into October than the Diamondbacks do. Who knows.

Focusing on the P/E ratio tells the story nicely. For the remainder for the season PROTRADE expects the Padres and Dodgers to outperform while the D-backs to struggle. Look at Colorado! Despite being in the mix at the moment their chances of winning the division have pretty much been dismissed. Their price of $86 indicates that the market believes they are no more than a .500 team. Life is tough in the mile high city.

Wrapping up

That brings to a close our marathon set of articles on each division. I hope you have enjoyed looking at each race with a slightly different slant. If you have any thoughts or feedback on these columns please let me know so I can improve them for next year.

Now is the time to sit back and enjoy the climax of the various pennant races. Without question this is my favorite time of year.

References & Resources
Tradesports, PROTRADE and Baseball-Reference have been a little helpful, I suppose!

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