We are almost at the one-quarter mark in the 2014 MLB season, and there is a logjam for first place in the American League East. The Baltimore Orioles are currently in first place, but the New York Yankees and Boston Red Sox are just 1.5 games behind.
In addition, the Toronto Blue Jays are just 2.5 games off the pace while the Tampa Bay Rays are 5.5 games behind. Are the Orioles that good, or are the Yankees and Red Sox underperforming? Does the quarter mark of the season mean anything?
Some baseball fans say that “it’s still early in the season” and that “anything can happen.” This is certainly true: teams get hot and get cold. Injuries are also a factor. However, I took a look at the numbers, and on average, the quarter mark (or 40 games of the 162-game season) does start to mean something.
Over the course of an entire 162-game baseball season, luck starts to even out but randomness still exists. For example, say we have a .600 caliber team with a “true ability” of .600 or one that would win 60 percent of its games if a million games were played. During a 162-game season, this team would average 97 wins and would win between 91 and 103 games the large majority of years. There is still variability, but the cream rises to the top.
We can apply a similar “variability study” to this year’s partial season. After playing almost one-fourth of the 2014 baseball season, the sample size is enough to start studying results. For instance, the first-place Orioles are currently playing .556 ball. The “variability study” predicts that at this point in the season, a large majority of teams are playing within .075 of “true ability”. That is, the numbers predict the Orioles will finish the season with a winning percentage of between .480 and .630.
In addition to winning percentage, we can also study actual performance. Baltimore has outperformed its Pythagorean projections, which is based on runs scored versus runs yielded. Finally, preseason predictions also have information that may be used. Before the season started, oddsmakers expected the Rays and Red Sox to battle for first place, with the Yankees and Orioles in third and fourth place, respectively.
Overall, it appears that the Orioles have outperformed expectations and Pythagorean projections due to Nelson Cruz‘s ten home runs, Matt Wieters‘ .308 batting average and a bit of old-fashioned luck.
The Yankees are performing about as expected: slightly above .500. Masahiro Tanaka is a major topic of conversation in New York and has been a shining star on a starting staff where most hurlers have an ERA above 5.00. While certain Yankee batters may improve from sub-.240 batting averages, the Yankees are not expected to make a run unless the starting pitching improves.
The Red Sox are also underperforming slightly. Several batters not named David Ortiz are batting .225 or lower. Once the Red Sox start hitting, the rest of the AL East may want to watch out. The Red Sox are stacked on the mound. With additional run support, the likes of Jon Lester, John Lackey, Jake Peavy and Clay Buchholz can put some distance between the Red Sox and the rest of the division.