Friday, July 26, 2013

Dodgers, Rays Use June/July Spurts to Climb Standings

Quoting from a Fansided article: "As the sun rose on June 22, the Dodgers were 30-42, a season-worst 12 games under .500. They sat in the basement on the NL West, where they had resided for the bulk of the season, 9.5 games behind the Diamondbacks."

Within about 10 days (after play on July 2),the Dodgers had made up 7 games in the standings, going from 9.5 games back to just 2.5. Entering tonight's play, L.A. (53-48) is atop the division, leading Arizona by a half-game.

As of June 28, the Tampa Bay Rays, stood in fourth place in the AL East, 7 games behind leading Boston. Entering this evening, the Rays (60-42) are now just a half-game behind the Red Sox in the division.

To dramatize the Dodgers' and Rays' recent hot stretches, I created the following graphic, on which you can click to enlarge it. L.A. has gone 23-6 in its last 29 games (game-by-game log), whereas Tampa Bay has gone 19-3 (log). The teams' opponent in each game and the location (home/away) are shown in each little box.

On paper, the Dodgers would seem to have one of the best teams in baseball. However, that was not reflected much in the first half of the season, with shortstop Hanley Ramirez and pitcher Zack Greinke missing a lot of action due to injuries. The two are now back and Ramirez is hitting at a torrid pace (.384 batting average, 1.123 OPS [on-base average plus slugging]). As noted in the above-cited Fansided article, another star Dodger pitcher, Clayton Kershaw, has overcome an early-season slump. Finally, newcomer Yasiel Puig, though cooling off a bit, remains a potent offensive threat.

As the Dodgers were making their move in the NL West from June 22-July 2, all of their division-mates were heading in the opposite direction. Listed below are each team's record, place in the standings, streak, and past-10-games record as of July 2.

Streak Last 10
Arizona (42-41) Lost 5 2-8
Colorado (41-43) Lost 2 4-6
San Diego (40-44) Lost 4 2-8
LA Dodgers (39-43) Won 3 9-1
San Francisco (39-44) Lost 2 2-8

Though all four of the Dodgers' opponents experienced cold spells during the particular 10-day period, three of them were fairly severe (2-8). These events were not entirely independent, of course, as six of the Dodgers' wins during the stretch came against San Diego (2), San Francisco (3), and Colorado (1); mixed in was a four-game series vs. the Phillies, of which L.A. took 3.

I don't know how many previous instances there have been within a division of all or most of the teams concurrently winning or losing 80% (or more) of their last 10 games, but I suspect it's pretty rare.

According to this USA Today article on the Rays' revival, the team's improvement seems attributable to many domains (offense, pitching, defense) and players. Of particular note are the successful return of pitcher David Price and the emergence of outfielders Wil Myers and Desmond Jennings.

As some have noted, both the Dodgers and Rays have won a lot of games during their respective hot streaks against teams that are currently below .500 in the standings. The slate gets tougher for both teams. After their current series against Cincinnati, the Dodgers host the Yankees and (after a swing through Wrigley Field and the Cubs) play in St. Louis. The Rays, meanwhile, are starting a series tonight against the Yankees in the Bronx, then play a make-up game in Boston, and host the Diamondbacks. Fittingly, from August 9 through 11, the Dodgers and Rays will play each other in a three-game series at L.A.

Wednesday, July 03, 2013

Looking Back at Chicago-Boston Stanley Cup Finals

This year's NHL Stanley Cup finals between the victorious Chicago Blackhawks and the Boston Bruins, which ended a little over a week ago, contained some streak-related developments. To depict these streaks, as well as experiment with information graphics more generally, I created the diagram below. Just start reading in the upper-left corner (corresponding to Game 1, Period 1) and follow the path clockwise, through Games 2, 3, 4, 5, and 6. Each little box (tinted red for Chicago and yellow for Boston) represents one minute. Goals are depicted by red goal-light symbols and black boxes in the timeline, whereas penalties are denoted by referee-shirt logos and light-blue bars in the timeline. You can enlarge the graphic by clicking on it. Because of the diagram's size, I had to divide it into three sections (top, middle, and bottom), so you'll have to click on each section separately to enlarge it.

Each team went through a major scoreless streak during the series. The Bruins didn't score for a span of 100 minutes and 57 seconds (starting roughly 6 minutes into the third period of Game 1 and ending nearly 15 minutes into the second period of Game 2). This stretch is depicted via the dashed black line. The Blackhawks later topped that, experiencing a scoring drought of 129 minutes and 14 seconds; after scoring at the 11:22 mark of the first period of Game 2, Chicago didn't light the lamp again until nearly 7 minutes into Game 4. This span is shown with a dashed red line.

Another offensive difficulty for the Hawks was the power play; for the series as a whole, they scored on only 1 of 19 instances in which the Bruins had a man in the penalty box (a few times, a Chicago player was sent off at the same time as a Boston player, which would not be a power play).

The most memorable aspect of the series would have to be the closing moments. The Blackhawks led the series 3 games to 2, but trailed in the closing minutes of Game 6 by a 2-1 score. Chicago then stunned Boston with two goals just 17 seconds apart (with 1:16 and 0:59 remaining) to win 3-2. Tom Tango cited an estimate that Chicago had only a 3% chance of winning the game before its late outburst and noted the oddity of both teams being in a position to pull its goalie in the same game (a team down a goal in the closing minutes will almost always bring its goalie to the bench to substitute in a sixth attacking player).

Weird things can happen in hockey (see this video of quick goals), but Chicago's manner of clinching this year's Cup is one for the ages. 

Monday, July 01, 2013

Baseball Streaks: Pirates, Puig, Cuddyer, and Scherzer

Several streak-related stories are swirling through Major League Baseball at the season's halfway point (81 games). These stories involve a team, two hitters, and a pitcher.

Which team has the best record? Hint: It's a team that has recorded sub-.500 records for each of the last 20 years. Yes, it's the Pittsburgh Pirates. Pittsburgh has won nine straight games and has the best record in MLB at this point, 51-30 (.630). The Bucs now need to go only 31-50 (.383) the rest of the way to end their streak of losing seasons. Last year, however, Pittsburgh was in an even more advantageous position to post a winning record -- a 63-47 record as of August 8, which required playing at only a .365 clip the rest of the way -- but still finished with a losing record.

Of the two hot hitters, one is capturing the imagination of baseball fans as he helps lift his team back into playoff contention, whereas the other has quietly put together a long consecutive-game hitting streak. The first one is Yasiel Puig, a Los Angeles Dodgers outfielder from Cuba. Puig just completed the first month of his rookie year (June) with more hits (44) during a first month than any player in MLB history, except for Joe DiMaggio (48). However, Puig bested Joltin' Joe in three important offensive categories during the two players' respective first months: batting average (.436 to .381), on-base percentage (.467 to .400), and slugging percentage (.713 to .659). Puig did strike out more times (20 to 8) than DiMaggio during their respective first months. Neither walked much (Puig, 4; DiMaggio, 3). Based on Puig's game-by-game log, I made the following table, which shows that, in the majority of his June contests (14 out of 22), he's gotten multiple hits in a game.   

The quietly successful hitter is Colorado Rockies outfielder Michael Cuddyer, who yesterday got a hit in his 27th straight game. Cuddyer's streak has taken place from May 28-June 6 and (after missing five games) from June 13-30. His monthly batting averages have been .313 in April, .396 in May, and .347 in June. Even if we assume conservatively that Cuddyer is truly a .300 hitter this year, he still has a .760 probability of getting at least one hit per game if he gets four official at-bats (1 - [.700^4], where .700 is his probability of making an out in each official at-bat, which is then raised to the fourth power).

Finally, Detroit Tigers pitcher Max Scherzer has gotten a lot of attention for his 12-0 win-loss record to start the season, the first hurler to do so since Roger Clemens in 1986. Many baseball observers (your author included) do not like win-loss record as a metric of pitcher accomplishment, because much of what determines whether a pitcher will win or lose is his teammates' offensive output. As we see in Scherzer's game-by-game log, he has gotten wins in games in which he has given up 4 earned runs in 5 innings (April 6), 5 ER in 5 innings (April 24), and 4 ER in 5 innings (May 10). In fact, Scherzer currently ranks 12th among American League pitchers in Earned Run Average (ERA), at 3.10. On another pitching metric, WHIP (walks and hits per inning pitched), Scherzer does better, his .90 placing him second in the AL, only slightly behind Seattle's Hisashi Iwakuma (.88).