Perhaps the emphatic sweep of Vanderbilt over the weekend wasn’t the most satisfying series of the season for Auburn baseball. After all, only three weeks ago the Tigers were busy scoring a record 44 runs in taking all three games from Alabama and bringing home the program’s first sweep from Tuscaloosa since 1976.
But if “most satisfying” is debatable, best series of the season is not. In the Commodores, Auburn took on a top-25 opponent with a winning SEC record and one of the league’s best recent pedigrees. The Tigers beat them by a combined 29-6 score over the three games. Casey Mize delivered a program-record-tying 15 strikeouts in the Game 1 win before the Auburn bats — and a Game 3 gem from Andrew Mitchell — carried the next two, 11-5 and 14-0.
If 42 years seems like a long time since the Tigers managed a sweep in Tuscaloosa, have a gander at how long it’s been since Auburn outscored an opponent from the current SEC East by 14 runs:
First sweep vs. Vandy since 2002. ☑️
First shutout against the Commodores since 1998. ☑️
Largest margin of victory vs. the @SEC East foe since 1967. ☑️
All in a day's work.
— Auburn Baseball (@AuburnBaseball) May 6, 2018
With a series like that under their belts and the Tigers now only a game back in the corset-tight SEC West race, college baseball’s leading polls unsurprisingly gave Auburn a noticeable bump. D1Baseball.com returned the Tigers to its rankings at No. 19. Baseball America likewise moved Auburn from outside its top 25 to No. 18. The National College Baseball Writers Association shifted the Tigers from 27th to 19th. Etc.
But if the human polls are in near-consensus agreement the Tigers belong somewhere between Nos. 15 and 20 in the national rankings, statistical power rankings are now in almost equal consensus that those rankings are selling Auburn’s true quality short. Start by considering the Tigers’ SEC performance in terms of Pythagorean expectation, the widely used mathematical formula that offers how many games a team “should” win based purely on how many runs it hass scored and allowed. Here’s the SEC through 24 games, ranked in terms of Pythagorean win percentage:
|Team||Runs scored/allowed||Expected win %||Expected wins||Difference|
|Florida||180 / 93||.770||18.48||-.48|
|Auburn||140 / 100||.609||14.61||-1.61|
|Georgia||135 / 108||.600||14.42||+.58|
|Arkansas||147 / 119||.595||14.29||-.29|
|South Carolina||148 / 128||.567||13.58||-.58|
|Ole Miss||152 / 140||.538||12.90||+.10|
|LSU||122 / 128||.478||11.47||+.53|
|Texas A&M||117 / 125||.474||11.38||+.68|
|Kentucky||132 / 155||.427||10.25||+.75|
|Vanderbilt||108 / 137||.393||9.43||+1.57|
|Missouri||88 / 112||.391||9.39||-.39|
|Alabama||100 / 157||.305||7.31||-1.31|
|Tennessee||102 / 161||.303||7.26||+2.74|
The right-hand column above shows the difference between each team’s expected record and its actual one. For the overwhelming majority of the league, there’s no meaningful difference, save for a handful of exceptions: Tennessee and Vanderbilt on the fortunate side, and Alabama and Auburn on the unfortunate.
Between the Tigers’ titanic beatdowns of the Tide and Commodores and a handful of narrow defeats, no SEC team has underperformed its number of expected wins more than Auburn. Put another way: based purely on runs scored and allowed, only Florida has been better in SEC play than the Tigers.
To be fair, 24 games is a tiny sample size in a sport with as many random fluctuations as baseball. The Tigers’ Georgia-less league schedule to date could be more rigorous, and it’s debatable whether Auburn’s two fantastic series should so forcefully outweigh the other much less impressive six*. A better approach — even given the vast differences in quality of mid-major opponents and the vagaries of midweek action — might be to calculate win expectation from every Division I game a team has played.
That’s what WarrenNolan.com does — and it ranks Auburn second in the SEC, ninth among all Power 5 teams**. Prefer an Elo-style schedule-strength-based rating rather than a scoring-margin-based one? The Tigers are top 10 by that kind of metric, too. Prefer a “proprietary ranking algorithm” that incorporates a variety of statistical measures such as the Collegiate Baseball Scouting Network’s? Auburn’s fifth there. Oh, and then there’s the good ‘ol RPI, where Auburn’s No. 7.
Across the board, computer and statistical rankings systems argue that Auburn’s better than the human pollsters believe. Whether the Tigers will prove them correct over the season’s final two weeks, and postseason, remains to be seen. But those ratings would have called Auburn a better team than the polls believed before they faced Vanderbilt, too — and you can ask the Commodores which argument appears to have better pegged the Tigers’ ceiling heading into that series.
Computer rankings and statistical calculations aren’t fate, of course. But if they’re indeed accurate about Auburn baseball’s potential, the remainder of the Tigers’ 2018 season should be one to remember.
*Bear in mind that from a statistical perspective, of course the Vanderbilt and Alabama series count as heavily as they do in these calculations; you can’t put in less data and expect an equally accurate result. But it’s worth acknowledging the wild variance in Auburn’s SEC season to date.
**An imperfect method of sorting in baseball, since a team such as Southern Miss is a much more traditional power than a Big Ten team such as Minnesota. But given the teams ranked in front of Auburn here (the Golden Eagles, Golden Gophers, Kent State, Indiana, etc.) it appears to even out.