The Problem With Power (Rankings)

Power rankings are inherently ridiculous and useful for little more than providing us with a definitive example of mass trolling with page view bait. Avoiding the subjective classification of one team over another is exactly why statistics are counted and why wins and losses are recorded.

Of course, some teams will get hot for a stretch, get cold for a stretch, and play to their exact level of talent for a stretch. It’s baseball. We’ve all witnessed this happening before. This is why I can’t wrap my head around ever wanting to know if one team is better than the other.

The fact that most of the people who read such power rankings likely already have a good idea in their minds of what the best teams are, and are unlikely to be swayed otherwise by even the most reasonable of arguments, makes the entire phenomenon even more ridiculously useless.

Nonetheless, “power rankings” continue to get churned out as production for pollution’s sake.

The latest to cause a reaction that they were in fact begging for all along is Sports Illustrated’s Power Rankings, which are awkwardly referred to as being “powered by FanGraphs.” I would’ve thought that only a single mention of power would be necessary to properly placate the lowest common denominator of sports fans, but what do I know?

What separates this version of the same old from the other versions of the same old is that it attempts to not be subjective. This is not merely the rambling of someone who thinks of himself or herself as a knowledgeable baseball fan. These rankings are brought to its eager to be outraged readership by the following methodology:

Our system is based … on how well [teams] performed at the underlying traits that predict future performance better than wins and losses. Those traits — getting on base, hitting for power, running the bases effectively, getting strikeouts while avoiding walks and home runs from their pitchers, turning hits into outs on defense — are summed up in our Wins Above Replacement metric, and then we’ve translated each team’s total WAR into an expected winning percentage based on the number of games they’ve played this season. By utilizing WAR, we can better identify which teams are actually playing well and will likely sustain their success going forward.

By this rationale, the Kansas City Royals, they of the current twelve game losing streak, rank as the seventh best team in baseball. The Toronto Blue Jays, meanwhile, a team that recently swept the Royals in a four game series, rank a dozen spots back in twentieth place.

Ridiculous? Of course. They’re power rankings. They’re meant to be this way. They’re meant to inspire these types of conversations that induce mouse clicks and page views:

Hoser A: Hey did you see the SI power rankings, bud?

Hoser B: No, eh? Why, bud?

Hoser A: They ranked the Jays real low, eh?

Hoser B: Whoa, guy. But they just won four in a row.

Hoser A: It’s not aboot wins and losses, eh?

Hoser B: Oh, I gotta see this before I finish my Timmies and drench my poutine in maple syrup. What’s the link, eh?

At least someone’s trying to do something different with this stale phenomenon. At least they’re trying to do more than merely offering up their opinion as informed and baseball savvy analysts. You can’t fault them for trying.

However, that doesn’t mean they get a completely free pass. Where things go off the rails in this particular nonsense ranking can be identified in some of the buzz phrases from the description of how they’re ranking these teams. Phrases like “predict future performance” and “sustain their success going forward” connote a stronger element of predictive ability than what actually exists in weighing the results of the first few weeks of baseball.

Matters get made even worse when you consider this:

I think the purpose of power rankings, as misdirected as the methods that typically govern them may be, is honourable: to exhibit the differences between true talent and numerical record. However, I can’t help but feel as though a 162 game schedule does a pretty good job of this, already.

Still, it’s nice to find hidden gems. It’s nice to imagine that a team seemingly struggling is actually really good statistically, and could turn things around at any moment and be one of the ten best teams in baseball. The only problem is that it’s not entirely fair to suggest this is the case when the “defense” of said case puts such enormous weight on three weeks of UZR data.

Nevertheless, FanGraphs’ Dave Cameron doesn’t shy away from the questions, explaining why the rankings find the Royals so favourable:

As it stands, the Royals have scored 57 runs and allowed 81. With a more normal distribution on timing of hits, though, it’d be pretty close to 70 for both RS and RA. And, as everyone … knows, a team’s runs scored and runs allowed are a better evaluator of how a team has played than simple wins and losses. Pythag suggests that the 57/81 split in their RS/RA means that the Royals have played more like a .313 team than a .188 team, and their underlying components of run scoring and run prevention suggest that they’ve played more like a .500 team than a .313 team.

However, the power rankings claim that the Royals are a .544 team, and that’s difficult to swallow, especially in combination with the claims of predictive relevance being placed on the three weeks of data being used. If we are to take what’s being suggested by these rankings at face value, we can expect the following division series playoff matchups:

In the American League, the Texas Rangers will play the winner of a one game playoff between the Chicago White Sox and Los Angeles Angels, while the New York Yankees play the Kansas City Royals.

In the National League, the St. Louis Cardinals will play the winner of a one game playoff between the Washington Nationals and New York Mets, while the Atlanta Braves play the Los Angeles Dodgers.

You heard it here second, a Mets and Royals World Series seems inevitable.