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The Dangerfield D-backs: We Don't Get No Respect

One of my SB Nation colleagues, Jay from Let's Go, Tribe got a nice job helping cover the post-season baseball for Esquire. However, in a preview, he wrote the following about the Cubs-Diamondbacks match-up:

While acknowledging a genuinely exciting Game One matchup, it's hard to work up much enthusiasm for this series. Its biggest mysteries are (a) how a club as unimpressive as the Diamondbacks ends up with the top seed, and (b) why the pathetic NL Central can't manage to produce a better playoff team than these Cubs... I am literally getting drowsy just typing this. It's a shame only one of these teams can lose this series, because we deserve better than either one of them.

Naturally, I was not happy with this view, and expressed my objections to Jay, pointing out things like the 49-1 differential in four blow-outs. He back-pedalled initially, and in fact, showed a degree of flip-floppery more appropriate to a Presidential candidate, by saying we were "a young, interesting and fast-improving team" - a sharp contrast to calling us "unimpressive" in his original entry. But he has gone back on the attack in his latest piece:

It would be nice if only Very Good Teams got the opportunity to win the World Series, and I'm skeptical that a team that can't win more than 85 games or outscore its opponents is a Very Good Team, let alone a Great Team. It offends me a little that they get to take their shot, and I feel that way not because I understand the math -- again, please don't throw things -- but because I simply want to see the best teams compete for the championship. Seriously, eight out of 16 teams in the NL outscored their opponents, is it really so much to ask that the D'backs be one of them?...

Well, the blowouts may distort the numbers, they're not good, and even if we throw out some "meaningless" runs, you still end up with a team that only scored one run on those four days while their pitchers got hammered. And the D'backs' bullpen patterns aren't all that different from all the other teams. The Diamondbacks got enormously lucky this season, to a degree that nearly always portends a huge step back in the next year.

Ah, yes: the old "the Diamondbacks were just lucky" argument. First, this demonstrates a basic misunderstanding, very common among statheads, about the game of baseball. It's not about having the highest team batting average. It's not about posting the best run-differential. The game is decided simply by scoring more runs than your opponent on the day. That is the only measure of "best" which actually means anything, because playoff spots are not awarded on the basis of Pythagorean Projections.

Certainly, you can look at other factors, to analyze where and how a team is performing,. But claiming the Diamondbacks are not a good team is like saying Bill Gates isn't rich because he drives a Lexus. You can look at someone's car, and it might give you a good idea of how rich they are - though why bother, when you can just look at their bank-account? Ditto baseball: while secondary stats are nice, using them to judge how "good" a team is folly.

Item #1. If the Diamondbacks were a 79-win team, as Pythagoras believes, this binomial calculator gives them only a 4.9% chance of reaching 90 wins. Item #2. Baseball Prospectus predicted a 7.0% chance of us sweeping the Cubs. Combining these two, the odds of both happening is one in 289. Really, there's a point at which blaming "luck" in the face of relentless evidence goes beyond stubborness, and begins to drift into idiocy. A good scientist, when the evidence piles up against them, will admit that their theory is flawed, and will begin to look around for a better theory. Jay, however, seems to feel that when the facts disagree with his theory, the facts must be disposed of. Blaming "luck" for an 11-game differential - especially two seasons after the same manager, for the same franchise, posted exactly the same improvement - is like continuing to play poker after your opponent gets three royal flushes in a row. There's a certain point beyond which it's time to check the deck.

Meanwhile, the Arizona Diamondbacks laugh, move along, and keep right on winning. To quote the great philosopher Eric Byrnes, "Sometimes every now and then there are teams out there that defy the numbers. We seem to be one of those teams. This is one of those things you can't really explain other than the fact that there are 25 guys in here who know how to win baseball games." Rather than whining about this, and saying the playoffs "deserve better", I would think any neutral fan would celebrate the team's slaughtering of the Run Differential sacred cow. Because sometimes, a reminder that we really don't know everything, is a refreshing thing.