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Tampa Bay Rays: Quantifying the Team’s Bad Luck

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What we sometimes forget about baseball statistics is that how a player has done this season means a lot less moving forward that what his numbers tell us to expect from him in future years. In some cases, there are clear leading indicators that a player should regress or has really broken through. For instance, a player who strikes out many times for each walk can be expected to do worse while one who shows a clear improvement in plate discipline seems more likely to have taken a real step forward. When we talk about teams are not just individual players, though, things only get more complicated.

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We have heard about things like looking at teams’ records in one-run games and their run differentials to assess whether they are better or worse than they should be, but that doesn’t help us in every case. There are many reasons why teams can wind up better or worse than their overall statistics would seem to indicate. Luckily, we do have another stat that provides a more holistic measure of how lucky or unlucky a team is getting: Baseball Prospectus’ third-order winning percentage. Rather than using run scored and runs allowed, it determines how many runs a team should have scored and allowed using the hitting, fielding, and pitching statistics of individual players and then goes from there.

The current third-order winning percentage standings in Major League Baseball look a great deal different than the current actual standings (click to open in a new tab).

AL East
Blue Jays (92-58) —
Yankees (83-66) 9 GB
Rays (80-70) 12 GB
Red Sox (75-74) 16.5 GB
Orioles (72-76) 19 GB

AL Central
Indians (86-62) —
Royals (79-70) 7.5 GB
Tigers (69-81) 18 GB
White Sox (68-82) 19 GB
Twins (66-83) 20.5 GB

AL West
Astros (90-61) —
Athletics (77-73) 12.5 GB
Mariners (75-75) 14.5 GB
Rangers (72-77) 17 GB
Angels (71-80) 19 GB

AL Wild Card
Yankees (83-66) +3.0
Rays (80-70) —
Royals (79-70) 0.5 GB
Athletics (77-73) 3 GB
Red Sox (75-74) 5.5 GB

NL East
Nationals (82-67) —
Mets (81-69) 1.5 GB
Marlins (68-82) 14.5 GB
Braves (55-96) 28 GB
Phillies (50-100) 33 GB

NL Central
Cubs (86-64) —
Pirates (84-66) 2 GB
Cardinals (83-67) 3 GB
Reds (70-79) 15.5 GB
Brewers (65-85) 21 GB

NL West
Dodgers (90-59) —
Giants (83-66) 7 GB
D-Backs (75-75) 15.5 GB
Padres (65-85) 25.5 GB
Rockies (58-92) 32.5 GB

NL Wild Card
Pirates (84-66) +0.5
Giants (83-66) —
Cardinals (83-67) 0.5 GB
Mets (81-69) 2.5 GB
D-Backs (75-75) 8.5 GB

Wow. We could probably talk about these third-order standings for hours (and we can in the comments). What stand out the most are the Cardinals being in third, the Indians being in first, the Twins being in last, and the Nationals actually avoiding collapse and outpacing the Mets. For our purposes, though, what is especially notable is that by these standings, the Tampa Bay Rays are 10 games over .500 at 80-70 and are up a half-game for the second AL Wild Card spot. With better fortune, Rays fans would be seeing a much more exciting finish to 2015.

The Rays have experienced an 8.4-win difference between their actual wins and third-order wins, making them the fourth-unluckiest team team in baseball. Only the A’s, Indians, and Astros are ahead of them. In contrast, the luckiest teams in the sport have been the Cardinals, Twins, Royals, and Rangers. What is especially frustrating, though, is that this isn’t a new thing for the Rays. They were also the second-unluckiest team in baseball in 2014, trailing only Oakland.

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In fact, the Rays have actually been unlucky every season since 2011. Overall, they have lost 33 wins to misfortune, 4 more than any other team, losing an average of 6.5 wins per season. Most frustrating may be the 2012 Rays. That team won 90 games, but fans often lament that they didn’t make the postseason–their pitching gave them a real chance to come away with a championship. According to third-order winning percentage, the ’12 Rays should have actually won 97 games, tying them with the Yankees for the AL East crown. Since they won the season series with New York, the Rays would have not only won the division, but also had homefield advantage in the ALCS. Of course, the Yankees would have also had more to play for at the end of the year, but what would the Rays have given up just to have been in the playoffs at all?

It is difficult to figure out what to make of all this. Given that the Rays have literally been unlucky each of the last five years, did misfortune cost them chances to make the playoffs additional times and potentially win a championship? Is it just rotten luck that has them at a crossroads having posted losing records the last two years? Or has there been something systematically wrong with the Rays that has prevented them from being as good as they should have been? Whatever that “something” would be, it hasn’t changed at all even after the Rays switched from Joe Maddon to Kevin Cash.

It can’t be worth much consolation, but bear in mind that the Tampa Bay Rays should be  much better than their record this year. Maybe in 2016, their luck will finally turn around and they will get to the postseason again. Third-order winning percentage has considered the Rays to be a winning team and one that should have been in the playoff hunt until the very end each of the last two years despite the franchise’s poor results on the surface. It is suggesting that the last two years have simply been a blip on the radar in the Rays’ run of success since 2008, and Rays fans better hope that it is right.

Next: Tampa Bay Rays: Making Sense of Last Place

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