Monday, April 28, 2003

The best baseball blog out there is Rob and Rany on the Royals, written by two thirty-fiveish baseball columnists. One of them is Rob Neyer, whom I actually sort of know; we lived in the same college dorm. He probably wouldn't remember who I am. Anyway, though, Neyer is now a daily columnist with ESPN, and if you like baseball a lot, you ought to read him; he's one of Bill James's disciples. Warning: Neyer is a major idiotarian regarding politics, but he almost always keeps it out of the blog and his columns. We shouldn't judge his baseball writing by his political ideas.

Neyer is into a couple of offbeat stats which he and the other "sabermetric" (i.e. statisticics-interpreting) baseball writers have been talking about for a while. One is the OPS, which is simply the player's on-base percentage (better indicator than the traditional batting average of how often a guy gets on rather than making an out) plus the player's slugging average (indicator weighting how many bases the guy gets per plate appearance). It's a rough stat but really does distinguish between a guy who looks good but really doesn't do much and a guy who is better than he's normally considered to be. A pretty good major leaguer will have an OPS above 800, and a guy whose OPS is above 1000 is a damn good player. Guys like Neifi Perez whose OPS is under 500 should be playing in, like, Omaha.

Another rough stat Neyer uses to measure the overall quality of an entire team is to look at the team's position in its league in two hitting categories, home runs and walks, and two pitching categories, home runs allowed and walks allowed. A team gets one point for its league position in these four categories.This is the Beane Count, named for Oakland executive Billy Beane. The top score is of course 4, meaning you are the best in the league in all four categories. A good playoff team would be in the 20s or low 30s. The Yankees so far this year have a Beane Count of four. That's how good they are. The Royals are still in the twenties.

He also uses this thing Bill James made up called the Pythagorean Standings: looking at what a team's ratio of runs scored to runs allowed is and using that to forecast what a team's record "should be according to the stats". It's pretty accurate, usually never off by more than about 3-4 games either way at the end of the season.

Let's try that with soccer. Specifically, with teams' ratios of goals scored to goals allowed. Here's the ratios for the Spanish first division in the order of their league standings.

Real Madrid 2.12
Real Sociedad 1.45
Deportivo 1.44
Valencia 1.92
Celta 1.50
Málaga 1.11
Sevilla 1.04
Betis 0.95
Atlético Madrid 1.08
Athletic Bilbao 0.92
Mallorca 0.81
Barcelona 1.17
Racing Santander 0.83
Español 0.90
Valladolid 0.85
Villarreal 0.74
Recreativo Huelva 0.66
Osasuna Pamplona 0.74
Alavés Vitoria 0.56
Rayo Vallecano 0.50

That pans out. The five teams at the bottom are all below 0.75. The three teams that descend to Second will come from these five. The ten teams in the middle, between 0.80 and 1.20, are mediocre. Then there are three teams that are good, at around 1.50, then Valencia at 1.92, and then Madrid at 2.12. The two real anomalies are Valencia, who ought by all rights to be in second place rather than fourth, and Barcelona, which should be in sixth place rather than twelfth as the best of the mediocre crew.

So what factors are causing Barcelona's and Valencia's poor actual performance compared to their goal ratios? Well, Valencia is still fighting for a Champions' league spot, so they're not doing that lousy, and they played this year's Champions League all the way to the quarterfinals, which neither Deportivo, Real Sociedad, and Celta had to do, so their guys are a lot fresher since they've seen fewer games. Particularly interestingly, second-place Real Sociedad, who I thought would wilt under pressure, is having a terrific season and are a legitimately fine squad. It may help that their foreign stars, Nihat, Kovacevic, and Karpin, are from such non-charismatic football countries as Turkey, Yugoslavia, and Russia and don't go to big-time Nike exhibition games in, like, Japan the way the Brazilians and Argentines do.

As for Barcelona, they also played in the Champions' League through the quarterfinals, and their foreign "stars" are Brazilian and Argentinian, so being tired might have something to do with it, too, though first-place Madrid has made it all the way to the Champions' semis and their guys ought to be just as tired. But Madrid has a deep bench with Guti and Morientes and McManaman and Solari and Flavio, all of whom can pick up the slack when they need to. Barcelona's bench is crappy.

But most importantly, Barcelona is demoralized. Their players have no confidence and can't usually hold a lead. It's already been made clear that a lot of them are going to be looking for new jobs come June 30, and the coach knows he's gone at the end of the year, and the interim club president has already resigned. Nobody's running the team and everybody knows it.

Good. I hope they descend to Second.

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