I've always wondered about the usefulness of a baseball statistic called "Pythagorean Win-Loss."
According to baseballreference.com, the formula was developed by stats guru Bill James to "estimate" a team's record based on the runs they scored and the runs they allowed, not on the games they actually won or lost.
For example, according to the formula, the Seattle Mariners didn't really win a record 116 games in 2001. Nope. Pathagoras says they won nine games fewer.
The web site explains that the Pythagorean Win-Loss is intended to "tell you when teams were a bit lucky or unlucky,” as if, somehow, the scoreboard lies.
Really, why attempt to "estimate" that which has already been determined on the field of play?
Nevertheless, this is brand of logic Washington Post columnist and stats geek (his word, not mine) Neil Greenberg employed in a column titled "The Cardinals are not the best team in baseball."
You can find that column on the Washington Post web site and look for the link to “Fancy Stats”.
I'm not going to argue that the Cardinals are the best team in baseball and I don't dismiss advanced metrics. It’s not Greenberg’s conclusion that’s objectionable, it’s the argument.
He makes a determination that can only be made after all 30 teams have played out their full 162-game schedules.
Until that point, records and statistics are clouded by a number of other factors Greenberg didn't consider when he concluded that the 64-36 Cardinals "have a record earned more with luck than skill."
Here are a few things Greenberg left out of the equation that prove, if nothing else, just how extraordinary the Cardinals' season has been thus far:
ACTUAL GAME RESULTS: This should be the low-hanging fruit, but predictive metrics somehow dismiss the only statistic that ever really matters in the end.
Ask Greenberg how good the Cardinals are and he'll break out a slide-rule, the periodic table of elements, and statistical formulas with names like "BaseRuns" and "Expected Fielding Independent Pitching."
I'd direct you to a simpler formula: W vs. L.
On the basis of wins and losses the Cardinals are the best team baseball, four wins better than the next-best Kansas City Royals. If they are a fraud, they'll be exposed soon enough by the 162-game season, not by the selective use of predictive mathematical equations.
ORANIZATIONAL DEPTH: If the Cardinals' "BaseRuns" or "Expected Fielding Independent Pitching" are not up to snuff, it might be because they've been making do with a lot of spare parts.
St. Louis lost staff ace Adam Wainwright for the season as well as late-inning stopper Jordan Walden. The Cardinals also lost cleanup hitter Matt Adams for the year and lineup anchor Matt Holliday for almost all of June and half of July.
This makes no mention of Jon Jay, Matt Belisle, and Jamie Garcia, who all have lost significant time with injuries. All teams have to contend with injuries, but the Cardinals continue to be the best in the standings without ever having had their best team on the field.
Put it this way, could another team in baseball achieve the Cardinals' record on their strength of schedule without a staff ace and with the kind of production they've gotten out of first base? And how much better can the Cardinals be when other pieces return?
A THINLY VEILED BIAS: It shouldn't hurt your feelings in the least bit when those outside Cardinal Nation try to knock the Redbirds off their perch. The New York Yankees, who built bonafide dynasties in the 50s, 70s and 90s, would testify that hurling rocks at the team on top is a time-honored baseball tradition.
And that's pretty much all Greenberg is doing here, otherwise his column might have focused on which team his calculations deem to be the best in baseball instead of arbitrarily singling out one team to prove that it is not.
And finally ...
OTHER ADVANCED METRICS (with a dash of irony): If you're really determined to calculate the Cardinals' competitive competence using mathematical equation, look no further than the aforementioned Pythagorean Win-Loss.
Here's the actual formula: Win% = runs scored squared/runs scored ^2 + runs allowed ^2 = 1/1+(runs allowed/runs scored) ^2.
If you’re up to it, get your calculator, plug in the Cardinals' 397 runs scored and 287 runs allowed, and the resulting record adds up to 64-36. That’s exactly what the standings say.
And it’s the best in baseball.