Went with my son Friday night to see Bob Dylan in concert. I saw Dylan live 30 years ago and swore I’d never pay money to see him again. In that late 80s show, he played mostly hits and it took me half way through each song to decipher what he was playing because he mumbled. But Trent wanted to see him. So somehow I ended up paying more to see Dylan again than I’ve ever paid for a concert before. The things they don’t tell you about parenthood…
Dylan didn’t mumble this time, for which I’m grateful. Was it worth the price of admission? Eh, probably not. But I decided to look at the show as payment to the musician for past services rendered. Dylan’s music brought me a lot of joy throughout the years. Plus, how often to you get to see a living legend? While I checked that off the list 30 years ago, my son got to do it. Plus he got to hear Dylan do the two songs that he covers in his shows. So, that was pretty cool.
So, why talk about Bob Dylan on a baseball blog? There’s another living legend out there who’s still doing his thing and that’s Bill James. We can argue which one had a higher peak but Dylan definitely had a longer prime. Regardless, while Dylan is still out there making albums and touring, James is a consultant for the World Champion Red Sox, a role he’s held since 2003. The following season they broke the curse and they’ve now won four World Series since he’s been around.
But no one would argue that James is a legend because of whatever role he might have performed with the Red Sox, any more so than they would suggest that Dylan is one because of his recent albums covering standards and his Victoria’s Secret commercial. And given James’ recent comments, it may be better to think that he retired after putting out the second Historical Baseball Abstract. We always like to see our heroes go out on top.
One of James’ many contributions was the idea that a team’s record could be accurately predicted based on the amount of runs it scored and allowed. Anyone who goes to Baseball-Reference today can find the Pythagorean Record for any team. James’ 2018 Red Sox had a Pythagorean Record of 103-59, meaning they overachieved by five wins.
Whenever a team over or under-achieves by more than a few games, we always look for a possible explanation. The Red Sox destroyed teams under .500, they performed very well against RHP and they had a strong record in one-run games – to name a few possible reasons. Here’s a chart of how all 30 MLB teams did last year.
Before compiling the chart, my expectation was that the Mets would have noticeably underachieved their Pythagorean Record because I knew their one-run record was not good. But that didn’t turn out to be the case at all, as they only underperformed Pythagoras by a single game.
So much attention is given to a team’s one-run record. In the pre-James days, conventional wisdom was that good teams “knew how to win the close games.” But year in and year out we see good teams that don’t play particularly well in one-run games. In 2018, the Astros were 24-24, the Cubs were 26-25, the Dodgers were 22-22, the Indians were 22-24 and the Rays were 28-31. That’s five of the 11 teams that finished with at least 90 wins being nothing special in one-run games.
In looking at the chart, the thing that jumps out about the Mets is that they played 97 games against teams with a .500 or better record, the fourth-most of any team in the majors. Compare that to the Indians, who played just 54 games against those teams. The two main factors for that are the other teams in your division and what your Interleague schedule is. The Indians did not have another team in their division finish above .500 last year. Shouldn’t be a surprise that they didn’t make it out of the divisional round of the playoffs.
Anyway, the Mets will probably improve their record in one-run games in 2019. But they’ll have to do better against the teams with .500 or better records, too. Odds are they’ll play a high percentage of games against those teams again, as there should be two teams in their division that reach that plateau and their Interleague schedule will still feature a bunch of games against the Yankees.
The Braves and Nationals both underperformed their Pythagorean Record last year. Interestingly, the Phillies overachieved by four games, even with their horrible finish to the season. How will the Nationals fare if Bryce Harper is elsewhere? Maybe it’s not a given that there will be two other teams with winning records in the division.
Circling back to Dylan, he played some chestnuts, among them Highway 61, It Ain’t Me Babe and Like a Rolling Stone, but he also played newer stuff. Was hoping to hear Mississippi but it wasn’t to be. But I think about that song a lot, how it seemingly jumps around from the personal to the political. Maybe there’s a better song out there to fit in with this particular tale but after a night out at a high school reunion on Saturday, I can’t find it in my mind. Anyway, it goes like this:
Well my ship’s been split to splinters and it’s sinking fast
I’m drownin’ in the poison, got no future, got no past
But my heart is not weary, it’s light and it’s free
I’ve got nothin’ but affection for all those who’ve sailed with me
Everybody movin’ if they ain’t already there
Everybody got to move somewhere
Stick with me baby, stick with me anyhow
Things should start to get interesting right about now
My belief is that the 2019 Mets will be freed somewhat from the past with a new general manager and all. And that we should certainly live in interesting times with this team. Now, forgive me as I go dig around for my New Historical Baseball Abstract.