I should have run these numbers a month ago. I kept noticing that the Yankees overall numbers, particularly their Runs Scored, were not bad, and kept telling myself they were probably "a little better" than their record. As a Red Sox fan, I regarded Boston's barrage of wins as their just due, even though the Runs Scored versus Runs Against were a little weaker than expected.
There is a sabermetric formula called Pythagorean Wins. Developed (unsurprisingly) by Bill James, it predicts a team's winning percentage on the basis of runs scored versus runs allowed. Over the course of a season, the anomalies balance out and it reflects the number of actual games won pretty accurately. A more complicated version of the formula is more accurate still, but is unnecessary for our purposes here.
Its best use is to look at a team's winning percentage versus its expected percentage (according to RS v. RA) to see if there is any large discrepancy. Large discrepancies usually mean that a team's luck is temporarily out of whack, and one can look for that to even out. One month ago, the Yankees were much better than their record suggested, the Red Sox slightly worse. That is now evening out.
According to the Pythagorean Wins formula, the standings in the American League East should be:
Tampa Bay .395
The reality is
Boston .638 (meaning that they've been a bit lucky)
NYY .522 (meaning they've been very unlucky)
Toronto .478 (a little unlucky)
Tampa Bay .456 (quite lucky)
Baltimore .420 (quite unlucky)
The most logical prediction, therefore, is that the gap between the Red Sox and Yankees will close further. Dogfight again.
Also, look for Baltimore to move up as the season progresses and Tampa Bay to move down. There is a major caveat here, however. Tampa Bay is loaded with young players who are improving every month. The rule of thumb is that baseball players peak between ages 26-28, decline slowly for a few years, then fall off the cliff before age 35. For pitchers, only slightly older. Players who are 23 or younger who have already made it to the major leagues, therefore, improve enormously as a group over their next five years. Given that there are still managers with an uncanny ability to screw up young pitchers, the group improvement is even more impressive.
The name Hanley Ramirez may trouble Red Sox fans as an illustration here.
Tampa Bay has more players in this category than any other team, and so may improve consistently over the course of the season, negating their expected fall in luck. A hurried look at the TB lineup would suggest that they are going to be a force in 2008 and 2009. The Devil Rays, however, have a remarkable record of throwing away or screwing up talent. Keep your eyes on these guys, though:
Delmon Young 21. RF, fair-good, and improving month by month
BJ Upton 22. 2B - already has an OPS of .941
Scott Kazmir 23. SP, ERA 4.10
Elijah Dukes 22. CF, hits lefties well but poor against righthanders.
Plus James Shields and Carl Crawford, both 25.