Touching BasesSeptember 24, 2009
It's Not Whether You Win or Lose, It's Whom You Play
By Jeremy Greenhouse

An oft-overlooked piece of information by baseball analysts is strength of schedule at the player and team level. As the regular season winds down and we try to determine who has been the best team in baseball , as well as the Most Valuable Players and Cy Youngs of both leagues, I took a look at quality of opponent to see who has been helped and who has been hurt by the competition.

Giving credit where credit is due, to my knowledge Baseball Prospectus continues to hold the best readily available data on quality of opposition. On BP's adjusted standings page, there is a column for expected runs based on a team's batting line (UEQR) and another column for that same stat, except adjusted for strength of schedule (AEQR).

I plotted the difference between how many runs a team should have scored/allowed with the same number adjusted by strength of schedule. The scale is not very intuitive, so I will explain that teams in the upper-right quadrant have scored more runs and allowed fewer runs due to a relatively easy strength of schedule, while the reverse holds true for teams in the lower-left quadrant.


If you look closely, you may noticed that each quadrant is made up of mainly teams from the same division. You see that the AL East may have the highest quality of play, the AL West the best run prevention or worst run scoring, the NL East the best run scoring or worst run prevention, and the NL Central the lowest quality of play.

Given a fair strength of schedule, the Orioles would have been expected to score some 20 runs greater and allow some 20 fewer with a fair strength of schedule. Given this fact, as well as Baltimore's youth, and the concept of regression to the mean, you can already mark me down for the Orioles' over next year. Because of the potency of the Yankees’ lineup, the rest of the AL East actually should have earned better run production marks. Unsurprisingly, the Jays and Orioles have the largest difference between their second-order wins and third-order wins, or in English, they have faced the most skewed schedules in baseball.

Adjusting for luck and schedule, the Indians have carried the strongest offense in their division by a fair margin, and will surely make for a trendy pick, as usual, among analysts in next year's predictions. With my apologies to Rich Lederer, who is probably tired of his Angels’ Pythagorean record being discussed, I have to mention oddities in the Angels’ record. Not only have they managed to outplay their run differential, but according to BP, the Angels’ have gotten lucky in the number of runs they've scored and allowed. The Halos are really the only team in their division that can hit, so their staff is likely not as good as we think. Furthermore, Angels hitters lead the league in BABIP and have been unusually successful with runners on base as compared to their production with the bases empty. However, each team in the AL West plays defense ranging from above average to excellent, so to be fair, the entire division's run-scoring has been depressed by playing each other.

The American League owned a .546 winning percentage in Interleague Play this year, marking the fifth straight year of American League utter superiority. I do wonder whether any National League team would have boasted a winning record playing in the American League East.

To check out individual players' quality of opponent, I moved on to BP's quality of batters and pitchers faced reports. The reports give quality of opposition in terms of the triple-slash-stat line.* I limited my sample to pitchers with at least 300 batters faced and batters with at least 300 plate appearances.

*Instead of GPA and OPS, why haven't we ever used what I believe to be the most sensible combination of OBP and SLG, 1.75 multiplied by OBP and then added to SLG? We could then keep it on that scale, which has a league average of exactly one, as in 1.00. Wouldn't that be a rough measure of offensive production that makes everyone happy, more or less?

The eight pitchers in baseball, and 14 of the top 15, who have faced the highest quality of opposition all hail from the American League East, including Roy Halladay coming in second to David Hernandez. Roy Halladay is awesome. Again, to illustrate the difference in quality of play between the leagues, I will refer to John Smoltz and Brad Penny. The opposing batter's quality of slugging percentages against Smoltz and Penny have gone down 20 and 11 points respectively since the pair left the AL East. Cliff Lee's difference has been a mere seven points in slugging. Todd Wellemeyer has had the easiest go of any pitcher this year.

You may not know of the stat kept at Baseball Reference called platoon percentage, but I feel it is an important piece of information in showing the competition a player has faced. Paul Maholm, whose platoon split I looked at last week, has been unlucky enough to have had the platoon advantage least often among pitchers with at least 100 innings.

The top six pitchers of the year in each league, in my opinion, excluding Lee who split time between leagues and whom I already mentioned:

Roy Halladay .268 .344 .433 0.43
Justin Verlander .265 .338 .425 0.43
Felix Hernandez .264 .337 .424 0.45
Jon Lester .262 .334 .424 0.26
CC Sabathia .261 .333 .416 0.23
Zack Greinke .261 .333 .420 0.53
Adam Wainwright .255 .329 .403 0.54
Javier Vazquez .254 .328 .403 0.49
Dan Haren .253 .328 .401 0.48
Tim Lincecum .251 .329 .397 0.45
Chris Carpenter .252 .325 .393 0.53
Ubaldo Jimenez .253 .323 .394 0.47

Chase Headley and Kevin Kouzmanoff, who both might actually be quality Major Leaguers, have had the misfortune of not only playing half their games in Petco, but also facing the most difficult slate of pitchers among hitters. This list may well be flawed, since pitchers who get to throw multiple times against the Padres will have their stats inflated. This might be the reason that Padre hitters appear to have faced quality pitchers. Following this logic, it makes sense that Melky Cabrera and Derek Jeter have faced the pitchers with the aggregate highest opposing OBP and SLG against since these pitchers have been subjected to the Yankees. I'll present the list anyway.

Derek Jeter .256 .338 .414 0.28
Mark Teixeira .255 .335 .412 1.00
Kevin Youkilis .254 .336 .406 0.28
Miguel Cabrera .252 .334 .400 0.27
Ben Zobrist .250 .333 .396 1.00
Joe Mauer .249 .332 .396 0.62
Hanley Ramirez .251 .337 .399 0.26
Chase Utley .249 .336 .397 0.65
Derrek Lee .250 .335 .400 0.18
Albert Pujols .247 .334 .398 0.26
Prince Fielder .247 .336 .395 0.73
Adrian Gonzalez .241 .328 .388 0.62


Does it seem ridiculous to anyone else how absurd the scheduling format is to allow for this sort of variance?


Interesting stuff. Quick note: the pitcher list has the same potential flaw as the hitter list: Jon Lester is more likely to throw to batters who also face the Boston bullpen, and other Boston starters, other pitchers in the AL east, and other pitchers in the AL. So each pitcher's score will in part reflect the quality of his peers weighted by a measure of proximity. It becomes a nasty chicken and egg problem.

I'm not so sure that the Angels have been "lucky" in scoring and preventing runs this year. As I've counseled before, maybe the sabermetric community needs to dig a bit deeper into the whys and wherefores of the Angels outperforming their Pythag record rather consistently for a number of years now before ascribing it to luck. Agree or disagree with the principle but Mike Scioscia tends to favor one-run strategies, which perhaps results in more victories with small margins and more losses with large margins than the average team.

As for the Angels starting pitching, I believe the Halos lead the league, if not the majors, in ERA since Scott Kazmir joined the team last month -- and this stretch of games includes series with the Yankees and Red Sox as well as a makeup game in New York. If there is a better fivesome (Lackey, Kazmir, Weaver, Saunders, and Santana) as we head into postseason, I either haven't seen it or the advantage would be minor. I realize that you usually don't need five starting pitchers in the postseason but that only gives me hope that the team's shaky bullpen is likely to be strengthened by the addition of one of the starters come October.

Daniel, I think that creating divisions is necessary, but I would agree that the difference between the leagues creates an unfair balance.

Chris, good point. I would think that hitter quality of opposition would be a more biased list, but they may well be equally skewed.

Rich, the two facts I brought up were the Angels extraordinarily high BABIP as a team and success with runners on as compared to no men on. Your argument seems to be that the Angels have the skill to out play their Pythag, which may well be true, but I'm not so sure that they have the skill to outscore their batting line. Even if they've been playing for one run, they've been getting two. Something's going on.

I admire your confidence in the Angels staff, but again, I believe some of them have deflated ERAs for reasons outside of their control. Either that or Joe Saunders is the anti Javy Vazquez.

"Does it seem ridiculous to anyone else how absurd the scheduling format is to allow for this sort of variance?"

Not really. For most of major league history, you've had different leagues, with one league older than the other, and teams in the different leagues would meet only for one end of season series. For the past fifteen years there have been a few more interleague series.

I don't see why you would want to get rid of this history just to make it easier to compare players on the Yankees and the Padres. Why don't you have all teams play in ballparks with the same dimensions, on the same latitude, while you are at it?

There is a stronger argument with putting more games in the divisions, which in current form only date back fifteen years, and its not clear how much you should treat them as mini-leagues. But again you have the history. The Yankees-Red Sox-Orioles (Browns); Indians-Tigers; White Sox-Twins (Senators)-As; Cubs-Cardinals-Reds; and Dodgers-Giants combinations have been playing each other for 109 years. Fans of these teams simply want to see more games against their rivals than against expansion teams on the opposite side of the country, and analysts just have to adjust. That's part of the fun.

Ed, I think daniel was referring to the "unbalanced schedule", not the difference in leagues. I think as long as people understand that you can't compare AL and NL records like apples to apples, we're all fine with the different leagues.

However, the problem is with the unbalanced schedules. AL teams compete with each other over the wild card as if their records should be comparable, but because schedules are unbalanced in favor of far more games within divisions (and interleague play cut out even more out of division games) teams in better divisions are very much handicapped. Of course, the better divisions tend to be the ones with more money, so this in a way balances things out (except for teams like the Rays), so maybe it isn't unfair.

By the way, this is just another reason why Adam Wainwright is highly overrated this year (along with his home/away splits). And Jon Lester is a beast.

OK, I just checked Wikipedia's list of American League Wild Card winners ( Ten out of the fourteen AL wildcards came from the American League East, with the Red Sox "earning" the distinction six times and the Yankees three times. This year will be the seventh time for the Red Sox.

The other four teams were the 2000 Mariners, the 2001 As, the 2002 Angels, and the 2006 Tigers. These teams finished 6, 20, 6, and 8 games ahead of the second place AL East winner those years (in the first three cases, the Red Sox, as it happens).

What could be happening is that the dominance of the AL East in the Wild Card era is really a story of just two teams, the Red Sox and the Yankees. Most years these teams have been good enough to have the best and second best record in the league. Or AL East teams are good enough to overcome the disadvantage of being in the AL East. But for practical purposes, the AL wild cards have come two thirds of the time from the toughest AL division.

In the National League, four Wild Card winners have come from the East, five from the Central, and five from the West. A 4-5-5 breakdown instead of the 10-1-3 breakdown the American League, which is quite a contrast.

I always get ticked at these kind of comps. Yes, I'm a Cards fan so you know where I'm coming from. The Cards can't help that the rest of the division is poor. Fact is, they've done exactly what they should do, beat the tar out of the rest of the division.

As for how the Cards, or the other NL leaders would do against the vaunted AL East? Heck if I know, but I doubt they'd struggle to see a .500 record as suggested. I'd venture to say that the Cards would do quite well, the Phillies too.

Smoltz? Are we seeing the 1996 version? No, but fact is, Boston gave up on him too soon. Boston failed to realize that Smoltz was tipping pitches, something it took the Cards all of one bullpen session to notice. Smoltz has since settled into what I think most of us expected, a guy who at this stage of his career, will go out there and pitch 5-6 decent innings, giving your team a chance to win.

Wainwright? Wait for the playoffs and see if you call him overrated. Ok, I'm done venting now, let's just get to the playoffs already so we can find out who will have bragging rights.

Seems to me the Angels can present 4 solidly above-average starters for the playoffs, whereas the other AL teams have more top-heavy rotations:

Sabathia/Pettitte/Burnett/Chamberlain or Gaudin (eek)

I'd argue that the best pitchers on the other teams (Verlander, Beckett or Lester, Sabathia) > Lackey. But the Angels make it up later. Thus, the Angels biggest worry should probably be the 1st round, no?

Weaver-Buccholtz (or maybe Matsuzaka?)

I've give Beckett a slight edge over Lackey, Lester an edge over Kazmir and Weaver an edge over Red Sox 3rd starter. Then it's back to Lackey-Beckett.

Of course, all this is subject to the basic truth that the playoffs are a crap shoot. Great pitchers can have bad games, lousy ones can pitch well (Jeff Weaver a few years back. Man that pissed me off, as a Yankees fan), etc.