The Year in Review II: Snakes and Ladders

Friday, November 02 2012 @ 11:51 AM EDT

Contributed by: Magpie

Snakes and Ladders is a board game from my distant youth;  I use it to identify those teams that improved by 10 games (climbing the ladder) or declined by 10 (slipping down the snakes.)

This was a fairly typical season in the majors on the Snakes and Ladders front: six teams slipped down the snakes, while five of them were climbing the ladders. That's an exact mirror of the year before, when five were going down and six were climbing up. It comes nowhere near the utter insanity of 2009 (eight teams climbed the Ladders, ten teams slipped down the Snakes), which probably had something to do with 2010 being rather quiet on this front (three teams down the Snakes, four teams climbed the Ladders.)


Boston -21
No team fell further than the Red Sox, and no one shed any tears over it. The problems on the mound were easy to identify. The Red Sox allowed 69 more runs this past season, and that can be laid almost entirely at the door of Jon Lester and Josh Becket. In 2011, those two pitched 384.2 IP and allowed 142 runs; this past season they allowed 192 runs in just 332.1 IP. Still, most of Boston's collapse was because of the bats - the Red Sox scored 141 fewer runs than they had in 2011. David Ortiz and Jacoby Ellsbury missed 160 games between them, and Ellsbury wasn't very good when he was in the lineup. Adrian Gonzalez and Dustin Pedroia were still decent players, but both slipped considerably from the previous season.  I think there's an assumption that the Red Sox will put things right and be back in the hunt next season. I'm not so sure. You can come down the mountain much faster than you went up - but when you fall that way, it's pretty difficult to hop back to your feet. I think there's a good chance John Farrell's going to regret this...

Philadelphia -21
The Phillies fell off by just as many games as the Red Sox, and their problems were almost entirely on the pitcher's mound. They scored 29 fewer runs than in 2011, which didn't help - but they allowed 151 more runs than the previous season. No one survives that - no other pitching staff came close to such a collapse. Roy Halladay's troubles - he gave up 13 more runs in 78 fewer innings - obviously didn't help. But the damage was spread out pretty evenly among the whole staff. Everybody chipped in, Everybody gave up more runs than they did the year before - even men like Hamels and Lee, who actually pitched quite well in 2012, weren't as good as they the year before. It was a true team effort. I suppose everyone expected the Phillies stubborn commitment to the Old and Expensive to turn around and bite them in the hindquarters eventually. Maybe no one saw it coming quite this fast, but you know what? It usually happens pretty fast, and it usually takes some time to recover.

Milwaukee -13
These next two teams fell pretty far, but in both cases it was more a matter of their luck running out than real decline. Milwaukee's win total dropped from 96 to 83; but their Expected wins only fell from 91 to 86. They were lucky in 2011, they were unlucky (and a little worse) in 2012. This was entirely on the pitching. Despite losing Prince Fielder, the Brewers' offense improved significantly this year - they led the NL in runs scored (they were 5th in 2011.)  But they allowed 95 more runs than they had the previous season, and this was mainly because of the arsonists living in the Milwaukee bullpen, who allowed 105 more runs than Milwaukee relievers did in 2011.

Arizona -13
The Snakes did almost the same stuff on the field as they had the previous season - they scored 3 more runs, they allowed 26 more. What happened? Their luck changed. That is all. They were extremely fortunate in the close games in 2011 (they went 28-16) and extremely unfortunate in the same games this year (15-27). Same team, same manager, same offensive production, same pitching performance.

Cleveland -12)
The Indians went right off the cliff in 2012, and they were lucky indeed to win as many games as they did. Not that they actually won very many games. The offense was a little worse (37 fewer runs scored) and the pitching was a lot worse. The Indians allowed 85 more runs than they did in 2011. No AL pitching staff declined more than Cleveland's, only Boston's even came close.

Chicago Cubs -10
The Cubs won 10 fewer games en route to a grisly 61-101 mark, but they really weren't a whole lot worse than they were the previous year. Their pitching, such as it was, repeated the preious year's performance and they lost a little offense (41 fewer runs scored.) There was a mild Pythagorean Swing at work here. It wasn't  as large as what happened to Milwaukee and Arizona, but it was the same the same thing nevertheless. Like the Brewers and D'Backs, the Cubs won a couple more games in 2011 than you would expect from their runs scored and allowed, and won a few fewer this past year.

In fact, Colorado, Texas and the Yankees all had a greater decline in the relationship between their runs scored and allowed than Milwaukee, Arizona, or the Cubs. Those teams just didn't fall by as many games in the standings.


Baltimore +24
Thanks to their phenomenal record in one-run games, the Orioles were the biggest over-achievers in all of baseball this past season. But they were, quite legitimately, the most improved team in the major leagues. This would be true even if they had posted the 82-80 mark that makes more sense with their runs scored (712) and allowed (705.) The Orioles improvement happened entirely on the pitcher's mound - they scored just 4 more runs than they had in 2011. But they shaved the other team's scoring by a whopping 155 runs (team ERA went from 4.89 to 3.90). That's about one run a game, which is a lot - and indeed, the Orioles produced a positive swing of 159 runs.

The A's 133 run improvement (second best in the AL) was divided almost exactly between the offense (68 more runs scored) and the defense (65 fewer runs allowed.)

While Gonzalez, Strasburg, and Detwiler were certainly an upgrade over Lannan, Wang, and Hernandez, that wasn't the biggest part of the Washington story. While the Nats allowed 49 fewer runs this year, they scored 107 more than they had in 2011. That's swinging 156 runs in the right direction, second only to Baltimore. They didn't gain quite as many games from it as Oakland did, but I suspect that's because they were starting from 80 wins instead of 74 (and Oakland was a little unluicky to have only won 74 games in 2011.) The offensive improvement wasn't so much because of guys stepping up and having big years; instead they simply took ABs away from the bad hitters, especially in the outfield.
Cincinnati +18 
Like Washington, the Reds won 18 more games than they had in 2011. But while the Nats did it by swinging 156 runs in their favour, the Reds did it by swinging just 66 runs - less than half what Washington did - in their favour. And wouldn't you know it - half of Cincinnati's improvement was Pythagorean Swing - they were unlucky in 2011 (by about 3 games) and lucky (by about 6 games) in 2012. Their offense actually took a dive in 2012, scoring 66 fewer runs than in 2011. Only the Red Sox and Mets offenses took a bigger tumble. But they reduced their opponents scoring almost as much as Baltimore did, shaving 132 runs from the opposition. It was by far the biggest such improement in the NL.The bullpen went from good to phenomenal, they got a full year out of Johnny Cueto, they added Matt Latos, and they got 200 quality innings from two guys (Arroyo and Bailey) who'd been pretty crummy the year before.

The Cincinnati story leads me to digress on the ever-present tendency to confuse indicators of possible future value with markers of genuine present value. If in 2012 some imaginary great hitter had lost 30 hits on line drives into infielders' gloves, while some merely decent hitter picked up 30 hits on routine grounders that found a hole - there's a pretty good chance the merely decent hitter was the more valuable player. He was the better hitter. He probably won't be better in 2013, but we're not always talking about next year. A weak grounder through the hole is much, much better than a screaming line drive into a fielder's glove in the game you're playing that day. The same thing applies to pitchers, of course. Strikeouts are certainly an excellent indicator of future goodness - but in the game or the year just gone by, long fly balls and hard liners that find gloves are usually every bit as good. When you're looking at the year that just happened, you don't always want to get distracted by what it suggests about the years going forward.  That said: while Cincinnati won 18 more games this past year than they did in 2011, we all know that the circumstances were rather unusual. A 66 run improvement is nothing to sneeze at, but it doesn't normally lead to 18 more wins. You might even want to say that there were four teams that made bigger improvements on the field than Cincinnati, although it couldn't even buy them 10 more wins than it did the year before.

Of course, one of those team's was San Francisco, who just won their second World Series in three years. The Giants allowed 71 more runs this past season than they did the year before, but they more than made up for it with the bats, as they scored 148 more runs. Whoa. No major league offense improved as much as San Francisco from 2011 to 2012. All told, they swung 77 runs in their favour, and went from 86 wins to 94. Curiously, in both seasons they won about 5 more games than you would expect from their runs scored and allowed. I was cheering for them this October. They're not going to be in the post-season next year. (Just thought I'd throw that out there!)

There was some optimism in Pittsburgh for the first time in decades this past summer. You may recall that in late July, after 100 games, they were 16 games over .500 (58-42) and just 2 games out of first place. Ah, but then they traded Brad Lincoln... . Well, I don't really think that's why they went 21-41 from that point forward. Anyway, the Bucs' runs scored and allowed was better by 79 runs, an improvement divided evenly between the offense (41 runs better) and the defense (38 runs better). What interests me about the Pirates is that they have the makings of a pretty solid looking lineup if they can just do something about the two ugly gaping holes dragging the team down. Those holes are behind the plate and at shortstop, where Rod Barajas and Clint Barmes have gone over the hill and are tumbling uncontrollably down the far side. Now catcher and shortstop are generally very tough holes to fill, but I can think of at least one team that may have an excess at both of those positions...

Seattle was also quite a bit better this past season, but when you go from 67 wins to 75 no one cares very much.

And the great invisible leap forward this past season? The White Sox. They stumbled at the end, and Detroit blew by them - but while the White Sox could only improve their W-L record from 79 wins to 85, they made some pretty impressive progress on the field. Mostly with the bats - they reduced opposition scoring by 30 runs, while improving their own output by 94 runs. It was the second biggest offensive improvement in the AL. It was mostly veteran bats - Rios, Dunn, Pierzynski - bouncing back from disastrous years to have solid to good seasons. Not giving Juan Pierre more than 700 plate appearances also helped. They weren't an unlucky team, although they did waste some of this offensive goodness while beating the other guiys senseless - the Sox went 26-16 in blowouts. But beating the other guys to a pulp is a sign of quality. I'd be pretty optimistic about them next season if it weren't for the fact that their four best players are all on the wrong side of 30.

Well, here's some random stuff I should put somewhere...

Offense in the AL was down a fraction this season, from 4.46 in 2011 to 4.45 this past year. In the league's 110 year history, this was a middle of the road season. It ranks 62nd in runs per game, behind 2010 and ahead of 1955.

Offense in the NL picked up a little this year, going from 4.13 runs per game to 4.22 - this seasons ranks 72nd in the NL's 120 years (since the move to 60 feet 6 inches). In 71st place was 1979, in 73rd was 1990.

The best place to hit in the major leagues this season? Well, it was Coors Field. What did you expect? Things were a little stranger in the AL in 2012. I give you a Data Table for both leagues:

       Home Field  Road Game  Offensive
Team    Scoring    Scoring    Factor

CHI    796    628    1.27
BOS    842    698    1.21
TEX    821    694    1.18
BAL    765    652    1.17
DET    722    674    1.07
MIN    783    750    1.04
TOR    753    747    1.01
NYY    733    739    0.99
CLE    716    796    0.90
KC    723    805    0.90
OAK    624    703    0.89
TB    594    680    0.87
LAA    657    809    0.81
SEA    517    753    0.69

While Texas remains a great place to hit, it came back to earth this year after doing a pretty credible Coors imitation in 2011.  US Cellular in Chicago was the best offensive park in the AL in 2012, but just a year earlier the White Sox had scored and allowed more runs in their road games than they had at home. The White Sox have now pllayed 22 seasons there, and 10 times the White Sox saw more runs scoring in their road games. It's a variable park. Some of them are like that. Kaufman Field in Kansas City swings wildly from one season to the next - in 2003, it was the second best hitting environment the AL has seen in the past ten years (behind only Arlington in 2011), and it was also a great park for offense in 2006. But in 2004 and 2008 it played as one of the best pitcher's parks in the league. 

As you can see, the most neutral AL parks in terms of runs scored were the Rogers Centre and the new Yankee Stadium. I trust no one is surprised that the best places to pitch are generally on the west coast. This is true in both leagues, by the way.
    Home Field  Road Game  Offensive
Team    Scoring    Scoring    Factor
COL    1009    639    1.58
ARI    767    655    1.17
MIL    813    696    1.17
CIN    662    595    1.11
ATL    662    638    1.04
CHC    694    678    1.02
WSN    670    655    1.02
MIA    668    665    1.00
STL    701    712    0.98
PHI    671    693    0.97
HOU    666    711    0.94
NYM    634    725    0.87
LAD    573    661    0.87
SD    627    734    0.85
PIT    574    751    0.76
SF    580    787    0.74

What happened in Pittsburgh looks like very much like a one-year fluke. Like I say, these things happen. Since opening for business, the Pirates new stadium has given us three four year cycles of utterly perfectly symmetry: it plays as a hitters park for two years and then as a pitchers park for two years. The Offensive Factors have ranged from 0.90 to 1.12 until this year's strange showing. As 2012 was the second year of the Pirates third four-year cycle, a hitters year is due for th park next season.

I also think that what's happened in San Francisco these last two years may be a bit of a fluke as well. It's been almost impossible to score runs there the past two seasons but it simply wasn't always this way. While AT&T/Pac Bell played as an extreme pitcher's park in its first three seasons, since then it had been fairly neutral in its impact on runs scored. There was more offense in Giants' home games than road games in 2004, 2008, 2009 and it was as close to neutral as a park could be in 2006 and 2007. I end up wondering how much these wide swings from one season to the next have to do with the weather - San Francisco certainly has lots of that. As you can see, its overall Offensive Factor is 0.95 over the last ten years - and it's entirely the last two seasons that drag it away from perfect neutrality. Over its entire history, it's had an Offensive Factor of 0.92, which is nowhere near Petco's 0.81 overall, and 2012 was just business as usual in San Diego.  The Padres home park remains the greatest pitcher's park in the history of the game.

Here's a larger table covering the past ten years for all current parks, not all of which have been open for the entire period. They're listed in order of how hospitable they've been to the hitters.

                                            HOME                                          ROAD                    
                             Total                             Total     Offensive
Team    PARK    GPL    W     L      RS    RA    Offense      GPL     W     L     RS     RA    Offense      Factor

TEX    Ameriquest     810    465    345    4575    4148    8723        810    374    436    3762    3879    7641        1.14
BOS    Fenway Park    809    497    312    4660    3841    8501        810    410    400    3987    3737    7724        1.10
CHI    US Cellular )    811    454    357    4013    3802    7815        810    396    414    3633    3569    7202        1.08
NYY    Yankee Stadium II    324    212    112    1810    1390    3200        324    178    146    1635    1381    3016        1.06
TOR    Rogers Centre     807    442    365    3966    3725    7691        812    361    451    3710    3736    7446        1.04
KC    Kaufman Stadium    808    361    447    3684    4252    7936        812    317    495    3495    4180    7675        1.04
BAL    Camden Yards    808    388    420    3781    4153    7934        811    334    477    3613    4159    7772        1.02
DET    Comerica Park    810    434    376    3909    3789    7698        811    359    452    3769    3968    7737        1.00
MIN    Target Field    243    117    126    1055    1131    2186        243    106    137    1046    1176    2222        0.98
OAK    McAfee Stadium      810    466    344    3640    3215    6855        809    377    432    3631    3683    7314        0.94
CLE    Jacobs Field    810    420    390    3750    3673    7423        810    358    452    3873    4073    7946        0.93
TB     Tropicana Field   809    446    363    3678    3595    7273        810    339    471    3755    4100    7855        0.93
LAA    Angel Stadium    811    471    340    3722    3385    7107        809    428    381    3962    3690    7652        0.93
SEA    Safeco Field    814    417    397    3207    3428    6635        806    323    483    3534    3915    7449        0.88
COL    Coors Field    811    441    370    4677    4366    9043        810    320    490    3236    3799    7035        1.28
ARI    Chase Field     810    415    395    3810    4017    7827        810    355    455    3321    3617    6938        1.13
CHC    Wrigley Field    810    420    390    3762    3690    7452        808    374    434    3436    3521    6957        1.07
CIN    Great American Ballpark  810    422    388    3792    3974    7766        810    367    443    3575    3878    7453        1.04
PHI    Citizens Bank Park  732    415    317    3658    3253    6911        726    398    328    3534    3125    6659        1.03
MIL    Miller Park    810    447    363    3807    3739    7546        809    353    456    3580    3879    7459        1.01
MIA    Marlins Park    81    38     43     305     363     668        81     31     50     304     361     665        1.00
WSN    Nationals Park     403   202    201    1690    1818    3508        405    163    242    1671    1860    3531        1.00
HOU    Minute Maid Park     809    434    375    3554    3503    7057        810    336    474    3369    3845    7214        0.98
ATL    Turner Field    810    481    329    3823    3291    7114        810    401    409    3882    3582    7464        0.95
PIT    PNC Park    809    392    417    3436    3691    7127        809    294    515    3311    4170    7481        0.95
SF     AT&T Park      811    455    356    3428    3316    6744        807    390    417    3537    3527    7064        0.95
STL    Busch III     566    331    235    2608    2314    4922        567    271    296    2670    2623    5293        0.93
LAD    Dodger Stadium     810    457    353    3434    3117    6551        809    389    420    3569    3516    7085        0.92
NYM    Citi Field     324    158    166    1292    1346    2638        324    142    182    1403    1514    2917        0.90
SD     Petco Park     729    377    352    2727    2789    5516        730    344    386    3381    3422    6803        0.81

I think that's a wrap...