Friday, June 22, 2007

Five Truths About the ‘07 MLB Season

By Matt Thomas

For everything, it is said, there is a season. June is the season for the NBA Finals, the PGA's U.S. Open, tennis' French Open, and summer vacation. It also marks the unofficial start of the baseball season.

I know, I know ... baseball's Opening Day festivities come long before the ivy thickens on the Wrigleyville walls and the t-shirts come off in the Fenway bleachers. But my point is things aren't what they seem in baseball until at least June 1.

Yankees 15 games out of first ... doesn't matter, it's only May. They'll be within a half dozen by the All-Star Game. Lance Berkman with one measly double through the season's first two months ... just an anomaly. He'll hit his 30-40 by September, you can bank on that. Kansas City with one of the five worst records in baseball ... well, I suppose that one will hold true through September.

A large part of the beauty of baseball is its reliability. What you think you know is what you know, and there is a certain bit of comfort that one can draw from such stability that is unavailable in the other major North American sports.

In the spirit of this vein of reason, wouldn't it be great to be able to sort through the early season trends to determine which are reversible and which are not? Will the Brewers actually win their division? Is it possible that the aforementioned Yanks are doomed to watch the playoffs for the first time in 13 years?

Fortunately, there are some time-tested indicators that can be used to divine the future. I've chosen five such points of interest on which I will impart my wisdom onto the masses. The good news is, if you are so impressed you want more of my ultra-scientific precursors, you can always buy my book. The bad news is I don't really have a book, just a vivid imagination that has created an imaginary tome that won't be hitting stores anytime soon.

With that, read on...

Will the Yankees miss the playoffs?

In a word, no. I hate the Yankees and their overspending, overbearing, overhyped tendencies as much as the next guy and would love nothing more than to hear the brooding press conferences from A-Rod, Joe Torre, and the Boss recapping a miserably disappointing season come early October.

Unfortunately, the Bronx Bombers snagged one Roger Clemens over the offseason, and this is where the history really begins to lean in the Yankees' favor. In post-strike MLB ('95-present), teams with the Rocket on board have a winning percentage of .590 after June compared to a .533 pace before July 1. Remarkably, only twice in this span has one of Roger's teams not won at least 45 games after June and nine times those same teams have won at least 49 games in the season's second half. If you take New York's record as it stands today and project them to win that same 59% of their remaining games, you're looking at about 90 team wins, which should be plenty to cinch their playoff berth.

How many homers will Alex Rodriguez hit?

Fifty-four (54). Using simple math, A-Rod is on pace to hit 63 HRs in 2007. As we all know, such "flat" projections rarely bear themselves out over time. Taking the projection a bit further, then, and basing that projection on the more realistic concept of past production, that number is modified considerably. Over his career (excluding 2007 and his first two seasons, during which he totaled only 205 plate appearances), Rodriguez has homered in 7% of his plate appearances. So far in '07, that percentage has jumped to 9.1%.

Using my earlier premise of baseball's statistical consistency, one can assume that A-Rod's season averages represent a firm baseline for performance; Alex has averaged 41.7 HRs per full season over his career. In order to quantify his improvement in long ball efficiency we are seeing this season, you can figure out relatively simply (again through that pesky "math" thing) that A-Rod is hitting the bomb 30% more frequently so far this season than his usual rate (9.1% - 7% = 2.1%; 2.1%/7% = 30%). Now that the specifics have been figured, you can comfortably calculate that the Yankee third bagger will hit 30% more homers in 2007 than his usual average (41.7 x 1.30 = 54). Take it to the bank.

Who will win the NL Central division?

Before the question is dismissed with a nonchalant "who cares," be mindful of this: the NL Central has been the regular season home to the last three National League World Series combatants and has had at least one team in the League Championship Series in every year beginning in 2002. No other division in baseball comes close to this streak, not even the mighty AL East, which has failed to have a representative in their league's championship series three times over that same span. The NL's Central division champion may well be the team to beat come playoff time, so maybe we all should pay attention after all.

There are two trends that have consistently proven to be true almost across the board for the division winner in the NL Central. The first is run differential. Granted, it stands to reason that run differential would indicate the best team in any division, but only the NL East has a more consistent track record since 2001 of having their top team in this category take home the division pennant. Looking even deeper, you find an even more remarkable consistency. Only once since 2000 has a team won the Central without featuring the best road winning percentage (that once was last season, when St. Louis limped home over the final two weeks and wound up behind the Astros in this regard). No other division compares in consistency when reviewing this single indicator of success. So there it is, the clear requirements for Central division glory.

Looking at the standings as they are on June 15, one single team boasts the best road record and the greatest difference in runs scored versus runs against. That team is your 2007 NL Central projected champion: the Chicago Cubs. I guess this means the asteroid will hit the planet sooner than we all thought, eh?!

How many no-hitters will be thrown in MLB this season?

Seven (7). This one is simple. The last time an outgoing U.S. President named George Bush was in his next-to-last year of office was 1991. This is the new last time an outgoing U.S. President named George Bush will be in his next-to-last year of office. Okay, so this is a stretch, but at least I didn't just make something up.

Which team will win the 2007 World Series?

Quick, can anyone name the last team to win the Series and have the best regular season record in baseball? How about the 1998 New York Yankees? Almost a decade has past since the team we all expected to win heading in to the playoffs has actually won a title. This does not bode well for Red Sox Nation and the L.A. Angels of Anaheim via Hollywood by way of La Jolla (both tied at 42 wins at the time of writing). Since we've already established the NL Central winner will be playing in the World Series and we are equally sure that the Cubs (who were given this honor a few paragraphs up) have as much shot at winning a title as I do of winning Miss America, this leaves only American League teams to choose from, less the two already mentioned.

One more noteworthy factor is that item number one (also a few paragraphs up) includes the Yankees as the AL wildcard team ... but the "Roger Clemens effect" works both ways, and while the Rocket's presence all but guarantees a playoff spot, it also pretty much guarantees a playoff series loss (I'm pretty sure he sold his soul in 1998 in return for two and only two World Championship rings; two wins, 11 postseason series losses in 13 tries). So there stands only one logical choice as the eventual 2007 world champ — the winner of the AL Central. Now all we have to do is figure out that team, and you have yourself a lock you can take to Vegas.

Detroit and the White Sox are out, as no team has had a pitcher throw a no-no and won a championship in the same season this decade. K.C. is out because, well, they're the Royals. This leaves the Twins and the Indians to battle it out. Frankly, I have no magic formula for either of these teams, so I'll just flip a coin ... literally. Indians are heads, Twins are tails ... the coin is up ... to the floor ... heads it is. Congrats to the Cleveland Indians, 2007 World Series champions!

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