Where's Waldo and Where We are Now: Current and Projected Standings

Who is this total stranger posting on Al's blog? Well a long, long time ago I was one of the original "statheads" at BCB. After posting for a while at a couple other blogs, I wrote some pieces for last year's Maple Street Press Cubs Annual. (Still available online!) After that, Al asked me to come on board BCB to post statistical-oriented stories. I agreed... and soon thereafter disappeared. I have a good excuse, though: I was captured by the government. Well, OK. The true story is I've been working at NASA Headquarters the last year, helping run NASA's astrobiology program. As an academic that needs to publish more papers (and doesn't have much time to at work due to administrative duties) my "free time" has been spent on my research. But I recently decided to get back into the blogging game, and I started a new blog about astrobiology and Earth/space sciences. (Check it out!) Starting that up caused the "blog bug" to bite, giving me the motivation to come around here again.... and so here I am.

One thing I'd like to do here is bring over a regular feature I used to post at Another Cubs Blog: the "Where We Stand Now" post. I'll try to do this on Mondays or Tuesdays, as those are often days without games, and also come at the start of the work week. Follow me below the fold to find out where the Cubs stand as of today...

I hope you're not expecting good news down here. The Cubs are in fifth place in the division, with a 20-25 record. They're 7 games back of the Cardinals, and 4 games back of both the Brewers and the Reds. They're even behind the Pirates, a team that - based on its record - is threatening to break .500 this year.

But records aren't everything when it comes to forecasting the future. Teams can get lucky or unlucky, and that can impact their record. Because you expect luck to be neutral going forward - in other words, despite past trends you shouldn't expect the Cubs to be either lucky or unlucky going forward - we should account for any good/bad luck before making a forecast for the rest of the year. For example, consider two teams. Team A has a 30-17 record, but has been (barely) outscored by the opposition. Team B has a 26-23 record, but has outscored its opponents by a significant margin. It is bad luck that Team B dominated its competition but has the worse record to show for it. Thus, once you account for that luck, Team B has performed better despite having the worse record. While that wouldn't help Team B if the season ended after 49 games, it would bode well for the rest of the season. You'd fully expect Team B to catch and surpass Team A the rest of the year.

That isn't the only "source" of luck. Teams can also be lucky/unlucky in when their hits come. Teams that are much worse with runners in scoring position are usually less "bad" than just "unlucky." I know this is a bit controversial, but the fact is predictions are more accurate if you assume consistent performance across situations. So you should expect a team that's been particularly "bad" in these situations to do better the rest of the way, with "neutral" luck and even performance across various leverage levels. Also, a team may have just been unlucky in terms of its schedule: maybe all its difficult opponents were stacked together at the start of the year. In that case, you'd expect them to do better as the year goes on. There are exceptions to all this, and cases where what appears to be "luck" really is "skill." But not knowing that for sure, we're going to be best in forecasting the future if we essentially assume it's all luck and account for that in our predictions.

So what happens if we account for luck in the standings and projected standings? Unfortuantely, for the Cubs... not much. There is some good news: the Cubs are a tad bit better than they've been playing, and some of the teams in their division are a tad bit worse than they've been playing. The team's record is a little better than it should be based on their runs scored and allowed. So they've been "lucky" in that regard. But they've been even more "unlucky" in that their runs scored and runs allowed are way out of whack with the number of hits, home runs, walks, etc. that they've earned and given up. Finally, they've had a reasonably tough schedule so far. All of this more or less balances out: the Cubs are playing like a ".446 team" but have the record of a ".444 team." Other teams (I'm looking at you, Atlanta and Toronto) have had much larger swings in their fortunes. And while some teams in the division - Pittsburgh and Cincinnati - have been playing above their heads a little, the Cardinals and Brewers should be better going forward than they've been to date.

Considering all this, things look grim for the Cubs. Even if you account for their poor luck in how many runs they've scored/allowed, and for what may be an easier schedule going forward, their chances of making the playoffs are only 3.3%. That's not to say their season is over.... but it's grim. Very grim. There's one glimmer of hope left for this team. There's one "type" of luck that isn't accounted for in these adjusted standings or future projections. And if the Cubs are lucky on that front the rest of the way, they might be able to string together some wins and gain some ground on the division. Any idea on what "type" of luck is missing in these numbers?

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