With another July 31st trade deadline passed, many Pittsburgh Pirates fans were irate with the team’s trade deadline approach. An approach which only resulted in moving Tony Watson to the Dodgers and the acquisition of 40 year old Joaquin Benoit, with a few minor leaguers being shuffled around.
The feeling is that with the Pittsburgh Pirates deadline moves being so lackluster, the Pirates as an organization did nothing to improve either their current roster, nor improve the team’s chances of winning in the future.
By the numbers this is largely the case; according to Fangraphs’ ranking of the value of players moved at the trade deadline, the Pirates shipped out the number 45 prospect and got in numbers 46 and 49 in return, meaning the Pirates whole organization only really improved by a Seth McGary margin.
This is also pent up frustration from the Pirates failing to pick up a 3rd baseman when it became clear Kang would not be available, or an outfielder when Marte was suspended for 80 games.
Ultimately this frustration boils down to the fact that the Pirates did not make moves that could result in at least a World Series appearance, either in the near or long terms.
This got me thinking, what would it take for the Pittsburgh Pirates to just make the World Series?
Not this year
I don’t mean this season, that would take something short of a miracle. I mean what kind of strategy should the Pittsburgh Pirates as an organization take to maximize their chances of making the World Series in the beyond this season?
This will be a two part analysis, this, Part 1 will deal with the probabilities of making the playoffs and the World Series, based on how good a team was during the regular season.
Part 2 will focus on the economics of a small to mid-market team like the Pirates and ways for them to get to an optimal strategy of making the World Series.
To start this analysis, we first need to find out what the probabilities are for a team to make it into the playoffs based on their record. In other words, if a team has “X” number of wins at the end of the season, what is the probability of them getting into the playoffs?
In order to derive these probabilities, I will be using something known as a logit regression, which will give us the probability of an event, like making the playoffs, either happening or not happening based on something else, like a team’s number of wins.
A logit equation itself is a bit complex, but the graph that it gives us is much more intuitive. Here is a general example of what a logit line looks like;
Where the line begins at a probability of nearly 0 then rises to a probability of nearly 1 as depicted on the vertical axis.
In probabilities there is no such thing as a 100% certainty, no future event can have the probability of exactly 0 or exactly 1; however past events do have a probability of exactly 0 or exactly 1 of occurring.
Here’s an example.
If I told you a team had 88 wins, and asked you if they made the playoffs, you might say there is a probability of 0.65 (or 65%) that they made the playoffs. If instead I asked for the probability that the 88 win, 2014 Pirates made the playoffs, you would tell me it is equal to 1 (or 100%), because it happened and it will never change.
To do this analysis, I’ve used the team records and whether or not they made the playoffs from the current two Wild Card era. For the ‘12-’16 season results we get a graph that looks like this;
The red squares represent the actual results of teams making the playoffs or not based on their number of wins, and the blue diamonds represent the probabilities of a team either making the playoffs during any given season. The reason for the logit being dots rather than a line is that teams can’t have partial wins, so knowing the probability of a team with 84.5 wins is pretty useless for our purposes.
Looking at this graph teams have a probability of neatly 0 of making the playoffs when winning fewer than 80 games. At 82 wins, a team has a probability of about .01 or a 1% chance of making the playoffs, and the probability continues to rise until their 93rd win. Teams with 93 or more wins have at least a .99 probability of making the playoffs.
We see the greatest improvement, per win, in playoff chances between a team’s 82nd and 93rd wins of the season. Meaning the most impactful wins on a team’s playoff chances are when they are playing between 1 game over .500 and 12 games over .500.
This makes sense, a team with 70 wins, does little to improve their playoff chances by winning their 71st game and a team with 100 wins doesn’t do much to improve their chances by winning their 101st, but a team with 87 wins may just be able to clinch a division or Wild Card spot with their 88th.
In terms of individual wins, a team sees their playoff chances improve the most from their 87th win (44%) to their 88th win (65%) a difference of 21%. So a team that wants better than 50/50 odds of making the playoffs should shoot for 88 wins or better.
Ok but seriously, what about this year?
For the 2017 Pittsburgh Pirates team, we can use a some novel measures to estimate their playoff likelihood based on their record.
The first is to just use their record and project it out over the remaining games; .492 winning%*162 games give us an estimated record of 80-82, so their playoff odds are about 0.2%.
If instead we use the Pythagorean Expectation, we get a winning% of .474 implying a record of 77-85, which carries the playoff odds of 0.01%.
Neither of these are to say that the Pittsburgh Pirates can’t improve their record, and thus their playoff chances, just that based on their play so far, playoff chances remain slight.
Neither of these projections take into account the other teams in the division or the fact that the division is so weak, so realistically the Pirates chances are probably better than 1%, this is just a general model.
What makes this model useful is that, for instance, the Pirates front office can use this type of model during the off season when they don’t have a good idea of what the rest of the division or league will be playing like come mid-summer, but can still get a good sense of where they ought to be setting their sights in terms of wins.
Now that we’ve established playoff chances, what about World Series chances?
In order to do this I’ve used a data set of every 162 game season from 1973 to 2016. We will be assessing the odds of a team making it to the World Series based on the records of teams that made the playoffs. In other words, we want to know if a team’s regular season record, has any impact on their likelihood of playing in the World Series.
For this, I will be utilizing another logit analysis and here is the corresponding graph only highlighting important records (86+ wins);
The probability of the Pirates making the World series this year? At 80-82 the Pirates have a probability of 0.028% and at 77-85 they have a probability of 0.0014%.
There is clearly a positive correlation between a team winning more games in a season and chances of playing in the World Series, meaning the more regular season wins a team has the more likely they are to make the World Series.
The problem is that the difference between each number of wins and the probability of playing in the World Series is not that large between any given record and any better record. For instance the difference in probability of a 100 win team and a 90 win team of playing in the World Series is only about 13%.
A 13% advantage is certainly sizable, but not to the level that we expect; a 100 win team is usually thought to be a lock to play in the World Series, as if they had better than a 50% chance (it’s actually 38%). In reality though their chances are not that far improved over a 90 win team.
Meaning that the most important thing a team can do to improve their World Series chances, isn’t be the very best team in the league in a given season, but just make the playoffs.
So which is really better a 90 win team or a 100 win team? Obviously in any given year a 100 has a better chance of playing for and winning the World Series, however a 100 win team is rarely sustainable.
100 win teams need pieces to come together at exactly the right time, players having career years, the right free agents being signed, players staying healthy, prospects becoming legit major leaguers, all have to happen to have a 100 win season. This plays out in the probabilities too, a team only has a 4.3% chance of a 100+ win season, but having between 88 and 99 wins is 21.2%. Meaning that over a period of time, teams are more likely to sustain 90ish win baseball, than they are to sustain 100 win baseball.
It is also worth noting that a 100 win season cost more than a 90 win season, both in terms of payroll, and in terms of future wins. What I mean by future wins is that teams usually have to give up prospects in order to aquire enough talent to become a 100 win team. These teams are thereby shrinking their “competitive window” so to speak, because once the current talent is gone they can’t restock it with talent has been traded away.
90 win seasons ostensibly require less talent than a 100 win season so talent can be more cheaply produced internally and less costly to obtain through trades or free agency, and are therefore more sustainable over several years than 100 win seasons are.
Here’s a brief thought experiment, if we assume a team can either average 90 wins over 4 seasons or 100 wins over 2 seasons but due to losing future talent, the next 2 are 80 win seasons, which team has the higher probability of playing in the World Series at least once over that same 4 year span?
If we take the number of years, multiply it by each record’s chances of making the playoffs and then by each record’s chances of making the World Series, we can get the team’s likelihood of each type of team making the World Series at least once over those 4 years.
Probability of a 2×100 win and 2×80 win team making the World Series: 2*.9999*.3842+2*.0017*.1634=76.89%
Probability of a 4×90 win team making the World Series: 4*.9153*.2587=94.71%
So the 90 win team, that in any one given year has a 13% worse chance of making the World Series, actually has about an 18% better chance of making the World Series over 4 years than their 2-seasons-of-100-win-baseball counterparts.
Which strategy is the optimal one for a team like the Pirates to take? Obviously the 4 years of 90 win baseball; it gives you the better chances of playing for the championship and does so at a lower cost to the team.
Put more generally, a team that can sustain a winning baseball team over a number of years improves their chances of playing for a World Series drastically over a team that competes at a very high level for just a few years. For the Pirates to have a real shot at playing for or winning the World Series, they should be looking to win 90-93 games over several years.
In Part 2 of this article, I will be exploring economics of team payrolls and winning, going for the “big splash” trade at the deadline, and ultimately what the Pittsburgh Pirates should do to become a World Series contender again.