Baseball BeatMarch 24, 2006
Rationally Speaking
By Rich Lederer

Derek Zumsteg's guest column on the The Irrational Market prompted a discussion about the Chicago White Sox in the comments section. One reader claimed the White Sox were the worst team in the last 40 years to win the World Series and others had various takes and spins on the South Siders.

I'll be the first to admit that I underestimated the White Sox last year. I selected them to finish fourth in the AL Central. I was even skeptical after the team broke out to a fast start but began to respect the Pale Hose as the season progressed. It wasn't difficult for me to realize that I was wrong: the White Sox were much better than I had thought. In fact, I became such a believer that I picked the White Sox to beat the Red Sox in the ALDS. However, Chicago did me two better by beating the Angels in the ALCS and the Houston Astros in the World Series.

The White Sox won it all in convincing fashion. The team finished the regular season with the most wins in the AL and the second most in the majors. They swept the defending champions in the first round of the playoffs, then won the pennant by winning four of five (including four consecutive complete game victories by a quartet of starting pitchers) against the best of what the AL West had to offer, before sweeping the Astros in the World Series. Put it all together and the White Sox went 11-1 in the postseason, tied with the 1999 Yankees for the best playoff record under the current format. Since divisional play began, only the Cincinnati Reds in 1976 had a better winning percentage with a 7-0 record.

To suggest that the White Sox weren't a great team is ignoring the facts. We can form our own opinions going into a season or quote Pythagorean records but the bottom line in measuring how successful--or unsuccessful--a team is (or was) is based on actual wins, place in the standings, and performance in the playoffs. Period. It is simply a mistake to do otherwise. If we want to use Pythagoras for predicting future performance, fine, go for it. But the bottom line isn't about having the biggest run differentials; it is about winning games.

I mean, at some point, we have to put away all of our other tools and subjective reasonings and pay respect to the team that actually wins games on the field. This debate reminds me of one of my favorite stories of all time.

After Notre Dame beat USC in a football game at the Los Angeles Coliseum in the 1920s, the losing coach told reporters that the Trojans had more first downs than the Fightin' Irish. Upon returning to South Bend and reading the newspaper account of the game, Knute Rockne, Notre Dame's legendary coach, sent his counterpart a telegram with the following message: "The next time you want to play for first downs, let me know." [Update: According to research performed by Bob Timmermann, the game in question may have been the 1925 Rose Bowl between Notre Dame and Stanford, not USC.]

No baseball team won more games than the White Sox last year. And they were the only team in the postseason that won its last game. You see, the Sox may not have led the league or majors in first downs but they led in what mattered: wins.

* * * * *

Mike Hollman of Orioles Think Tank recently interviewed me about the state of the Birds, including the team's starting pitchers (Daniel Cabrera, Bruce Chen, and Erik Bedard), the bullpen, Jay Gibbons, Melvin Mora, and its prospects. I even shared my short- and long-term projections for the Baltimore franchise.

OTT: I'm sure a lot of people would like to hear that better times are ahead. Care to indulge us?

Rich: Well, everybody likes to think better times are ahead. But I have a hard time coming to that conclusion. The problem for the Orioles is that they are competing in a tough division. The Yankees, Red Sox, and Blue Jays are all better right now, and the Devil Rays are likely to be better down the road.

I hesitate to say this, but I would expect the O's to finish last more often than first over the next five years. Put the Orioles in another division and they would clearly have a better chance of succeeding. Gerrymandering, anyone?

The full transcript can be found here. Enjoy!


that smacks a little of deducing backwards from the results. i hesitate to compare you to joe morgan, but he says all the time that if a certain strategy happens to work in a given situation, then it was the right strategy because hey, it worked! nevermind that 9 times out of 10 if you make the same decision in the same situation, it wouldn't work, and therefore it's a bad choice. no, joe believes that if you luck out and that 10% happens to come up for you, it was the right call. i just can't agree with that. a bad decision is a bad decision no matter the results.

going back to pythagoras, doesn't the fact that a team outperformed its expected pythagorean record suggest that it was indeed overperforming? that it's likely they got lucky and weren't quite as good as their record indicated? there can be extenuating factors, and obviously results matter, but results can be skewed, and the best team doesn't always win. an inferior team might win a number of games at the right time and come home with the championship. i'm agnostic on the sox personally, so i'm not going to venture my opinion there, but all i'm saying is that the results are not always 100% definitive.

The White Sox deserve plenty of credit for winning the AL Central and then dominating the playoffs. However when evaluating how they stand among other world champions ignoring the luck that was involved in their run is a massive error. The White Sox where deserving champions, but they also were a good team that had a significant amount of luck on their side. That does not mean they did not win the world series or that they did not deserve to. It only means that they won because they were good and lucky and both factors should be considered when judging their overall greatness

I think we're on to something with the "luck" thing. Assume the White Sox were in fact the luckiest team in MLB last year. Why weren't the Angels as lucky as the White Sox last year? Why weren't the Red Sox as lucky as the White Sox last year? Why weren't the Indians (who looked pretty lucky at the end of the 2005 season) as lucky as the White Sox last year? There must be some researchable, quantifiable adjusted-for-the-park data that can explain all of this. I suggest that all those who need some self-assuring reason, like luck, to explain why the White Sox won the World Series last year should lock yourselves in a small room and not come out until you have the answer (please).

Why weren't the Angels as lucky as the White Sox last year? Why weren't the Red Sox as lucky as the White Sox last year?

because it's luck. luck is random. if i stand next to you at the slot machine and i win and you lose, why weren't you as lucky as me? i dunno, you just weren't.

Because the casinos program the slots next to the doors to pay off better, and you sat at one on the interior.

". . . a bad decision is a bad decision no matter the results."

How does the analogy hold? The White Sox weren't a decision, they represent a performance. There's a HUGE difference. Part of performing is getting the most out of what you have to work with. Would you make the case that a team underperforming their Pythagorean numbers in a like amount as having performed well?

Like Rich says, if you think it was luck, that may be an indicator for next year -- load up on betting the Don't.

Rich deserves much better than to be compared to Joe Morgan.

Folks, the measuring devices you have are not working.

It is arrogant to question the results; question the tools - isn't it painfully obvious that the statistical information to predict the outcome of a baseball season is nary a smidgen better than just playing one's hunch or heart.

If you chalk anything up to luck, wherein sits the difference between the casual fan and the allegedly sophisticated statistical analyst?

All of the rationalizing after the fact smacks of the vagaries, rationalizations and generalizations usually reserved for a session with one's phone psychic.

From what I've read, the White Sox are the most hated team in baseball on the internet. All you have to look at for evidence on this is any number of baseball sites that can be linked to from the Baseball Analysts. It's a very obvious and very potent dislike, and I challenge anyone to refute this statement and name a team more generally disliked, or disliked with greater vehemence.

The reason that people especially dislike the White Sox is that fans hate to be beaten by teams that aren't that much better than their teams. Fans don't mind if their team loses to a powerhouse, but not to a team that went against conventional wisdom to win it all and that people predicted would be bad--and there's the rub. The White Sox weren't supposed to win, and they certainly weren't supposed to do it against YOUR team.

There's a perception that the White Sox have gotten lucky in two ways: on the field and in the offseason. The first is demonstrably true--the White Sox were lucky on the field in 2005. The degree of luck depends on how much you think that teams with good defense and pitching (and good teams in general) overcome their pythag projections on a regular basis. The White Sox may have gained anywhere up to 8 wins with "luck."

But "luck is the residue of good design," and the White Sox have been well designed for many years now, and especially in 2005. This is what seems to upset people most. Fans everywhere hated Kenny Williams' moves, and picked the team to finally close its "success cycle" window. And yet they won the world series. People don't like having their presumptions shaken, but the fact is that since the middle of 2004, every move that Kenny Williams has made has been fantastic. Traded Loiaza to the Yanks for Contreras and boatloads of cash--people laughed. Gave up Reed and Olivo for Garcia--people laughed. Signed Dustin Hermanson--people laughed. Traded Carlos Lee for Podsednik--people laughed. signed Pierzynski--people laughed. Signed Jermaine Dye--people laughed. About the only move in the 2004 offseason that people liked was signed Tadahito Iguchi. And before that, the only moves of Kenny Williams' that people liked were fleecing the Rockies out of Uribe and signing Loiaza.

And yet, KW was right, on every single one of those moves. He just knew better. He put the team in a position to win, and it did.

And that doesn't even count picking up Ozzie Guillen as manager--he's a lightning rod for hate on a scale to rival Kenny Williams, but that's a topic for another post. Guillen is also the most underrated manager in baseball. Only a town with Dusty Baker as its other manager can fully appreciate how good Guillen really is.

On the 2005 White Sox, they were not a great team. I agree that they were a good team that may have gotten lucky. They were 206th out of 1162 teams in Pythagorean winning pct (at .568) from 1960-2005. But from 1960-2005, the following teams that won the world series had a lower Pythagorean winning pct: 92-93 Blue Jays and 80 Phillies. I did not check for more. But don't forget the 1987 Twins, who had a negative win differential. The 2005 White Sox also had a higher Pythagorean winning pct. than the 75 and 86 Red Sox, two teams that just missed. Also, the 2001 Yankees and the 1970 Reds.

I also looked at other stats and how they relate to team winning pct because maybe a team go lucky and scored more runs and/or gave up fewer runs than expected. Using all teams from 1960-2005, I ran a regression in which team winning pct was the dependent variable and the independent variables were each team's HR differential, BB differential and non-HR hit differential per game. The equation was

Pct = .5 +.047*BBDIFF + .154*HRDIFF + .066*NONHRDIFF

The r-squared was .785 and the standard error was about 5.4 wins per season. Then I plugged in each team's values for these stats using this equation. Then I ranked teams by their predicted pct. The 2005 White Sox were 361st out of 1162 teams. They were predicted to be about .535. So this is a good but not geat team. But this was higher than the 1988 Dodgers (predicted at .520) and the 2003 Marlins (predicted at .529). The 1987 Twins were predicted at .457 and had a negative differential in all three stats.

So there were some championship teams that were not as good as the 2005 White Sox.

Also, the 1963-1967 White Sox had the highest winning pct over that period in all of MLB and did not win one championship. They had the second best run differential. The White Sox would also be the second best team in predicted winning pct based on the above regression equation. So maybe the 2005 White Sox were lucky, but the White Sox have had bad luck in the past. Maybe it evens out as time goes on.

Sorry, that should have said negative run differential for the 1987 Twins, not negative win differential.

To suggest that the White Sox weren't a great team is ignoring the facts

For those who believe that luck was a big factor in the White Sox' performance last year you can add the fact that three of the White Sox starting rotation were in the top 20 luckiest pitchers as measured by ESPN's DIP%. In fairness, the Angels also had three guys on that list as well, including Cy Young winner Bartolo Coloón, and the luckiest pitcher in baseball, Jerrod Washburn; but what this mainly proves is that White Sox pitching isn't quite as good as it looked last year, and can be counted on for a regression this year. The history books will certainly record that the White Sox won the World Series in 2005, but it is the team's 2006 those of us who invoke Pythagoras are mostly concerned with.

Can you clarify something for me? Were those White Sox pitchers among the "luckiest" because they had good fielding behind them? The Sox had the second or third best defense efficiency ratio. If we are looking forward to this year, perhaps that defense behind the Sox pitchers will still be good (of course, Rowand won't be there anymore). Maybe the defense will regress a little. Also, 4 of the Sox starters were in the top 23 in the AL last year in DIPS ERA.

The 1990 Reds remind me alot of the 2005 CWS, great team defense, solid starting, a BP that never rolled over and an offense that kept them in games. I'm assuming the CWS have a bit more staying power than the Reds had (who lost 24 games in the Win column), but I expect a bit of the luster to wear off.

So many times people talk about the "good ole days" and then we think about how we had so much less in the way of technology, progress and convenience.

But, what was great about the "good ole days" when it comes to baseball, was that discussion was pretty much held to people watching the games and coming to their conclusions based on sight.

Nowadays, we have a bunch of "baseball fans" using computers and calculators to determine why a team or a player is good instead of just watching them.

These people will never believe that there are just a whole lot of things going on in a game or on a team that help determine winners or greatness and they will never be able to quantify those things.

My father used to say, "figures don't lie but liars can figure".

It's hard to define luck. But here's a try: luck (n.) is a term used by some people to explain why their team lost.

Sure the White Sox got a little lucky last year. I'm not beyond admitting that, even as a lifelong Sox fan. However, to chalk up their World Series win to "luck alone" would be a mistake.

They were 2nd in defensive efficiency, and their offense proved that with a solid pitching staff, bunching around a higher median is better than scoring 9 runs one day and 1 the next. No doubt, the Sox's ability to consistently score around 5 runs combined with an ace bullpen, rotation and defense--to win them 99 games, many of them 1-run victories.

The Sox won their Al Central Pythag Championships in 2002, and 2003 (I believe, off the top of my head...), it was nice to finally be on the right side of things luck wise.

As for using that statistical evidence of luck in 2005 for a 2006 prediction, I think that is completely logical.

Just don't let anyone know over at

Here was the Sox average runs per game in 2004 for their lowest 54 games, middle 54 and highest 54.


Now for 2005


Now lets increase each of those by 5.7% to account for the overall lower scoring in the AL in 2005 as compared to 2004:


It still looks like the Sox did about the same in low and medium run games in both years. But they lost something in their ability to score alot of runs in 2005. The only reason this did not hurt them is that they had so many pitchers have great years, which no one expected.

I think if anyone knew what the Sox would do in low, medium and high scoring games in 2005 as compared to 2004, they would have been worried. The only way you can succeed if your number of high scoring games goes down so much is if the pitching shows great improvement. And that did happen but much of it was unexpected.

Also, go to my article about the 2005 Sox at

I show the distribution of runs for the Sox in both 2004 and 2005, among other things.