Tuesday, July 29, 2008

Long and Winding Road (Records)

It is with tireless enthusiasm that we here at The Immaculate Inning stand strong against inaccuracy in sports journalism. Short-tempered mainstream media like Buzz Bissinger and Stephen A. Smith like to criticize blogs because we don't have training and access. Yet, along with more famous blogs such as Fire Joe Morgan or Dodger Thoughts, it is up to us to take to task those who, despite training and access, can't even do a simple Google search. For me, the journey is just as interesting as the valid goal of achieving accuracy, and many of my posts here recently have been inspired by the mistakes of others.

So, standing on the wobbly shoulders of behemoths, I offer this Red Sox-Yankees series preview. This particular piece has Matt Brown of Yahoo Sports on the by-line, but the story was taken mostly from the Associated Press. The puzzling sentence:

Trying to improve on their mediocre 23-23 road record after sweeping
Minnesota and Oakland at home, the Yankees will send Joba Chamberlain (2-3,
2.52) to the mound.

Also appears here (Minneapolis Star-Tribune), here (NorthJersey.com), here (ESPN.com), and here (Connectiuct's theday.com). The Associated Press was convinced, without much evidence, that a 23-23 road record was "mediocre." It sure seems so, compared to the team's 56-45 overall record, and brightly contrasted the six straight games they'd won in Yankee Stadium leading up to the series in Fenway. Yet, a simple check of baseball-reference.com tells a different story: The Yankees (now 25-24 on the road) have the second-best road record in the American League! In fact, the team that they were trying to "improve on their mediocre" road record against, the Boston Red Sox, have one of the worst road-records in baseball, at 24-32. It is puzzling, even disappointing, that a news agency as distinguished as the Associated Press didn't bother verifying its numbers.

Meanwhile, my "Random Baseball Stat" wheels were already churning- a .500 record is second-best in the AL? Is that an odd happenstance? Many baseball analysts point to the home-road splits of individual players to look for evidence that their home ballpark is to credit/blame for their performance: Matt Holliday is a Coors creation; Jake Peavy benefits from the large stadium in Petco. What, then, is to be made of an entire team that underperforms on the road? If the team is constructed in such a way as to benefit the home ball-park, it's certainly possible that their performance on the road will suffer more than normal. But, we must first determine what is normal.

I've tabulated the total and road records for each team in the past two seasons. You can play with the spreadsheet yourself by going here. The average AL team, in 2008, sees a winning percentage drop of 0.059 when playing on the road. The Red Sox, meanwhile, suffer a drop of .142, third-worst in all of baseball. Curiously, the two teams below the Red Sox in this category are the Rays and the Cubs, who each have higher overall winning percentages. Might having a poor road performance be not all that damaging to a team's playoff chances?

Looking at 2007, the first thing to notice is that the American League showed, overall, a lower dropoff between overall, and road winning percentages. (0.045 versus 0.059 this year) The 2007 playoff teams are all over the map, from the Angels (0.086 difference) to the Red Sox (0.037 difference). The National League is similar, especially when you consider the Mets, who lost the division in the last week of the season despite a better record on the road than at Shea.

In 2006, the story is similar. The difference in the average team's overall record versus the road record were about the same as in 2007; 0.045 for the AL and 0.046 in the NL. In the American League, the playoff teams were slightly biased toward being road warriors; the Tigers, Yankees, and Angels all had better than average road records, while the Twins were below average. The NL, meanwhile, had teams two teams above and two teams below average, including the World Champion St. Louis Cardinals, who had one one of the worst road records in baseball.

It would definitely take an examination of all 14 wild-card era seasons to make a conclusion about the relationship of road performance and playoff appearance. In addition, it would probably be helpful to look at each team from a runs scored/runs allowed perspective, to see if any team got unlucky on the road. Still, the lesson remains that "mediocre" is a term to be applied to relative status, not absolute status. It is clear that teams which underperform their overall record while on the road are not rare.

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