Pitcher and Poet

pitchers & poets

The Power Ranking Power Rankings

Note: It's one of the long-held traditions of Power Rankings that they begin with some sort of preamble. This is not that preamble; that's why it's in italics. But if you're here for the ordinal analysis and want to skip past the metacognition, you can jump ahead by clicking here.

Yesterday, FanGraphs raised the vuvuzela that is Sports Illustrated to broadcast a set of Power Rankings that found the 3-13 Kansas City Royals at #7. Reactions to this decision ranged from indignation and derision to grim mirth. Dave Cameron, naturally, responded in straight-faced kind, having been through this sort of civilized discourse before. The conversation tumbled into a familiar jumble of complaints about timely hitting and defensive statistics. What the debate had in velocity it lacked in command. In this case, it begged the question: what's the “power” in a power ranking? There's at least four different ways to look at it.

  • Past accomplishments. Some power rankings start off with the previous year’s champions #1 because “it’s there until someone knocks them off.” Easy alternative: buy an Athlon magazine at the grocery store.
  • Momentum. Some prefer the barometric method, examining the game from the scope of the media cycle. There's nothing wrong with this, except that momentum doesn't mean much in baseball, and the teams fly up and down the list like a teeter-totter, killing the ranking's reputation.
  • True talent. This angle seems to most closely align with FanGraphs’ philosophy at SI, using fWAR to calculate which teams are powerful. This is fine, but the trouble with ignoring the results is that, predictive quality or no, they do count; the Royals are already 7 games back in the division, a significant hole.
  • Championship odds. Nothing wrong with this either, although CoolStandings.com already does this admirably and teams in weak divisions are treated as being more "powerful" than they really are.

Confusing the picture further is the obligatory flavor text that accompanies each team’s ranking, which varies in direction with whatever the author finds interesting to say about the team in question. Teams who languish at the bottom are treated as hopeless, in spite of the state of their farm team or the process behind their management. Snark is prevalent.

Of course, the primary problem with power rankings is the knowledge that you are arguing about power rankings. They have all the subjectivity of a Hall of Fame argument with none of the permanence or significance. They don’t get your team into a tournament, or give you home field advantage. They’re essentially just words from pundits, which is fine because reading words from pundits is fun. Rob Neyer, as usual, summarizes adeptly: “Really, the only way to make Power Rankings interesting is to throw some crazy shit in there.” It’s all part of the nationwide narrative woven through the season, the glittery veneer that imbues expectations and “respect”.

The concept of respect amongst the media is its own psychological quagmire, deserving of several thousand words. What we have now has spawned from the national media, as the power to write the story of our teams has been wrested from our local beat writers and eleven o’clock sports anchors. But the fact remains: just as much as it’s ridiculous that people care how others see their team, it’s also equally true. The feral popular lust for the power ranking is undeniable. And the numerical ranking isn't enough; Hollinger's statistical rankings for the NBA are excellent, but they're not as satisfying as the traditional rank-and-comment that has proliferated the web.

Why we want power rankings goes, in part, with why we want analysis in general: it's sports when there are no sports, something to chew on in the morning over a cup of coffee. It's just another element that sports holds in common with politics, where there's a second "contest" taking place beyond the primary one, the battle of words. And if this is true, the best power rankings are not the ones that are the most accurate or the most scientific, they're the ones that give us the most to think or laugh about. They're power rankings, after all; even though we take them too seriously, we know they shouldn't be taken so seriously.

With that said, here are the Official Pitchers & Poets Power Ranking Power Rankings for April 25, 2012:

1. Baseball Prospectus: These are the cream of the crop, so elite that they don’t even call them power rankings. Arcane, unexplained statistics to lend credence? Check. Daily updates? Check. Short, two sentence pithy comments? Check. And it’s not even behind the paywall!

2. Grantland: It’s Grantland, so it’s nowhere near succinct. Instead, Jonah Keri devotes quality analysis to each team. Ordinarily, you wouldn’t expect a ranking that takes fifteen minutes to read would rank so high, but it’s not as if people read the parts for other teams.

3. SI/FanGraphs: What it lacks in flavor it makes up for in substance. Their willingness to lean on their statistics in the face of intuition is a plus: if nothing else, it creates conversation, and that’s exactly what rankings are supposed to do.

4. ESPN: The choice to let the SweetSpot writers add their own insight leads to authenticity and inconsistency. As much as a festering pit as the ESPN comment section is, it’s good from a theoretical standpoint that there is one. Probably.

5. CBS: Your baseline, no-nonsense rankings: easy to read and follow. The comments are occasionally thoughtful, sometimes unnecessary, but Matt Snyder’s voice comes through without being overbearing.

6. FOX: Similar to CBS, except without the same vitality in the analysis.

7. MLB.com: It just seems strange for the official website of MLB to have unofficial power rankings; it seems as though if you were going to have a major ranking based solely on popular vote, this would be the place to do it. The fact that the rankings lack an author only adds to the discomfort.

8. Pitchers & Poets: Recursion!

9. Yahoo!: Hasn’t updated since April 5, as far as I can tell. Feels rushed. Aesthetically, the layout could use some polish; it looks like something you'd make using GeoCities.

10. Bleacher Report: Somehow manages to capture the length of Grantland, the informality of Baseball Prospectus, the humor of SI/FanGraphs and the expertise of Tim McCarver. It’s like the Pirates offense of writing.

This completes your inaugural Pitchers & Poets Power Ranking Power Rankings.