Tuesday, August 21, 2007

The loss column (drive or fly?)

On the Baseball Today podcast, Peter Pascarelli frequently presents a team's position in the standings only in terms of loss column differential--as in, "The Dodgers are only five back in the loss column, so don't count them out."

The use of the loss column alone is always strange. Unlike the sensible games behind formula every newspaper uses, the loss column stat ignores what we usually think of as the most fundamental stat in baseball: team wins. At this point in the season, there's no reason at all to speak of the standings in terms of the loss column only, as the absurdity of saying a 60-20 team is tied with an 18-20 team easily demonstrates. It matters if you've already won a game.

I assume that the whole loss column business got started as a way to describe pennant races at the very ends of seasons. If a team is 1.5 games behind but tied in the loss column, that team still controls its own destiny, as the saying goes, and we humans love that sense of control. (The famous fact that almost everybody fears flying more than the much more dangerous activity of driving derives from the same illusion of control.)

Therefore, it makes sense that measuring races by the loss column at the end of the year became routine back when teams had to be good to compete for the playoffs. The grain of truth in the loss column idea would lie in the fact that really good teams are likely to win any given game, so if the Yankees are three back of the Red Sox with five to play, the loss column standings could have a real effect on the probability of a comeback. The closer the two teams' winning percentages are to 1.000, the more the loss column matters. The less glorious divisional races of the twentieth-century, in which the Cardinals could realistically make the playoffs with a losing record, make the conventional standings a much better measure of a race.