31 October 2019

Projections 2019: First in War, First in Peace, First in the Major Leagues

I guess I'll start from the beginning.

One of my favorite baseball memories involves a road trip to Montreal I took with my friend Dan in the Summer of 2003. We saw the Montreal Expos host the San Francisco Giants at Olympic Stadium. We bought tickets from a scalper in the parking lot under the park for less than face value ($20 CAN/ea. if I recall correctly). We took seats along the third base line. We ate smoked meat sandwiches.

It was a better attended game than usual. This was the middle of Barry Bonds' monster years, plus it was Dennis Martinez bobblehead day, and El Presidente himself threw out the first pitch. Unfortunately for fans hoping to see Bonds, Barry did not play: he had left the team to be with his ailing father Bobby who would pass a short time later.

Sidney Ponson, recently traded to the Giants from Baltimore, held the Nats scoreless for 8.1. Ponson had the lead. He was cruising. It unraveled so quickly that you could have blinked and missed it.

Jose Vidro doubled. Ponson walked Vlad. Ponson walked Orlando Cabrera, pushing Vidro and Vlad over and loading the bases. Giants manager (and former Expos manager) Felipe Alou pulled Ponson for Tim Worrell. He got Wil Cordero to strike out. The Giants were one out away. Brad Wilkerson was not impressed.*

*Everything is from memory except this passage. Thank you, Internet and Associated Press.

If my memory serves, and it often doesn't, it was a towering blast to center. There was no doubt when it left the bat. The Expos won on a walk-off grand slam in a game where they hadn't even previously scored. They swept the series.

They swept the season series.

I was hooked.

Projections as of 31 October 2019

It felt like kismet, honestly. I had just started graduate school at the University of Maryland in College Park, on the outer reaches of the Washington, DC, Metro commuter line. I was already lonely and overwhelmed.

A ray of sunshine burned through my overcast mood when, on September 29, 2004, Major League Baseball, the owners of the Montreal franchise following some shuffling that would indirectly result in World Series championships for the Marlins in 2003 and the Red Sox in 2004, announced that the franchise would be relocating to the nation's capital.

The Expos! They followed me down to Washington!

Just over six months later, April 14, 2005, I'd be sitting in the lower bowl behind home plate with my friend Peter when President George W. Bush threw out the ceremonial first pitch, when Mayor Tony Williams was cheered and Councilwoman Linda Cropp was booed, and when Livan Hernandez threw the first official pitch in a regular season home game in Washington, DC, in a third of a century.

It was way outside. The umpire called it a strike. It was a good sign.

Livo got the win. Chad "Chief" Cordero got the save on the way to a league-leading 47. Vinny Castilla needed a single for the cycle when he was pegged by Randy Choate, the boos raining down nearly as hard as they did for the aforementioned councilwoman. It was a celebratory win on the way to the Majors' best record at the All Star Break and a disappointing 81-81 finish. It was the high water mark of the franchise. Until June 8, 2010.

I don't know how many losses I sat through, but it was far fewer than I deserved to see considering the Nationals' abysmal record from 2006 through 2009. I witnessed Ryan Zimmerman walk-offs and triumphs on the Fourth of July on the way to 90- and 100- loss seasons. But when the Nationals used their overall number one pick to land Stephen Strasburg in the 2009 draft, it felt like something was about to change.

It would still be another two years before the Nationals would reach the postseason, but there was never before anything like the atmosphere at the reasonably new Nationals Park when Stephen Strasburg made his major league debut. The crowd was electric. The crowd was red. Not Philly red, or Braves red, and definitely not Oriole orange, but Nationals Red. My then girlfriend, later fiancee, now wife Jen and I purchased Strasburg shirseys before he even threw his first MLB pitch. It was a sound investment.

I sincerely doubt any moment at Nationals Park surpassed that first "Strasmas" until the Nationals clinched their first pennant at home against the Cardinals this past October.

With raised expectations often come disappointment, and boy was their disappointment. I wasn't at game five in 2012, but I was listening to it on the radio in Memphis, which is decidedly Cardinals territory, while Jen sat (actually, stood) through the ecstasy of taking the big lead and the agony of giving it away. We would watch more postseason leads slip away from the safety of our home, first alone but for our loyal hound, later crying in muted screams with our firstborn sleeping soundly a couple of rooms away.

By late May 2019, Nats fans had to start wondering: had the window closed? Bryce Harper, whose home debut Jen and I also attended, whose shirsey I had also purchased having never seen him play, had moved on. The Nats might have frittered away the best opportunity of any team between 2012 and 2018 to win a title. It felt like the bad years might be coming down the bend, once again.

That's why it was a treat to watch them fight their way back to respectability by late summer. Fending off the Mets, Phillies, Cubs and Diamondbacks on the way to claiming the top wild card spot was enough. It really was. After being 12 games below .500 before it even got hot outside, it would have been greedy to expect more.

The best way to gamble is with the house's money. It was the only currency Nationals fans carried with them this fall. They weren't supposed to win when they were trailing the Brewers in the 7th inning of the wild card game. They weren't supposed to beat the 106-win Dodgers. They... well they were probably supposed to beat the Cards.

They sure in hell weren't supposed to beat the Houston Astros, probably the best team in baseball, with a rotation that drew comparisons to late-1990s Pedro Martinez and a lineup that drew comparisons to current-day Mike Trout. What did the Nationals have? Great starters? Sure. Clutch hitters? Yeah, but how long can you coast on clutchness? The bullpen? They were excellent so far in October but they were historically bad in the regular season.

But they had house money. They had Brian Dozier and Calma. They had GERARDO PARRA AND BABY SHARK FORCRISSAKES. They had just enough talent, and a heaping helping of good luck. They had #OnePursuit.

And they had the fans who never quit. Not when their team was losing 100 games. Not when Adam Dunn and Ryan Zimmerman couldn't even get correctly printed goddamned jerseys. Not when the Cardinals crushed their hopes in 2012.

Today, fans of the DC baseball club get what every loyal fan base deserves. They get redemption. They get a parade. The 2019 Washington Nationals are the 2019 World Series Champions.

30 October 2019

Projections 2019: Astros over Nats in Game Seven is Matter of Degree

Game Seven. It's the greatest phrase in all of North American sports. And yet, in the World Series at least, it happens surprisingly often. After a dearth of games seven from 2003 through 2010, five World Series have gone to the seventh game in the last nine seasons (including this one). The ten-year moving average of games played per World Series has gone from five to six games in that span.

If we were to assume that one team has to have home field advantage, and that interleague advantage is about 55%, we should see six-game and seven-game World Series happen at about equal intervals, something like 31% of the time; five-game series should happen about a quarter of the time and four-game sweeps should occur about one in every eight World Series.

Over the last 107 World Series held since the best-of-seven rule was made official in 1922, that means we should have seen about 13 sweeps, 26-27 five-gamers, and 34 six- and seven-game Fall Classics. In fact, 38 of the 107 World Series held since the best-of-seven rule was made official in 1922 have gone all the way. It's nearly twice as likely that a World Series goes seven games than six.

Perhaps the more surprising thing is that there are so few five- and six-game Series.

So what's going to happen tonight? My model gives the Houston Astros a 61% chance of winning at home, but keep in mind that I do not consider lineups or pitching match-ups in my model. Other systems, and bettors, do, and they have more faith in the Washington Nationals than my spreadsheet does.

Projections as of 30 October 2019

For the first time this postseason, touts like the Nationals more than I do. Much has been made of Max Scherzer starting game seven despite missing game five due to debilitating neck and trap spasms. Systems and bettors that consider the rotation in their calculus seem to believe he'll be the difference maker. The smart money is still on Houston, but as 56% favorites rather than 61%.

Two other systems are even more bullish on DC, thanks to their accounting for the talent of Max Scherzer. Both FiveThirtyEight and FanGraphs' ZiPS projections make the Astros marginal favorites at best.

The debate between analytics and gut instinct rages on, but there is grandeur in this view of life, with its several powers, having been originally breathed by the Creator into a few forms or into one; and that, whilst this planet has gone cycling on according to the fixed law of gravity, from so simple a beginning endless forms most beautiful and most wonderful have been, and are being evolved.

28 October 2019

Projections 2019: Astros' Third Straight Victory Means Another Win or Die for Underdog Nats

The Washington Nationals' Cinderella story is one game away from an ignominious ending. With a second straight drubbing and third straight victory, the Houston Astros took a 3-2 lead in the 2019 World Series. They are one win away from their second Commissioner's Trophy in three seasons. They are 62% favorites to finish the job in game six.

Projections as of 24 October 2019

My numbers and 5Dimes bettors agree on the odds for the first time all series.

Up out of the lampshade, startled by the overhead light, flew a large nocturnal butterfly that began circling the room. The strains of Baby Shark rose up weakly from below.