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A Simple Estimate for Pythagorean Exponents

Given the number of runs scored and runs allowed by a baseball team, what's a good estimate for that team's win fraction? Bill James famously came up with what he called the "Pythagorean expectation" \[w = \frac{R^2}{R^2 + A^2},\] which can also be written as \[w = \frac{{(R/A)}^2}{{(R/A)}^2 + 1}.\] More generally, if team \(i\) scores \(R_i\) and allows \(A_i\) runs, the Pythagorean estimate for the probability of team \(1\) beating team \(2\) is \[w = \frac{{(R_1/A_1)}^2}{{(R_1/A_1)}^2 + (R_2/A_2)^2}.\] We can see that the estimate of the team's win fraction is a consequence of this, as an average team would by definition have \(R_2 = A_2\). Now, there's nothing magical about the exponent being 2; it's a coincidence, and in fact is not even the "best" exponent. But what's a good way to estimate the exponent? Note the structural similarity of this win probability estimator and the Bradley-Terry estimator \[ w = \frac{P_1}{P_1+P_2}.\] Here the \(P_i\) are what we could call the "Bradley-Terry power" of the team. This immediately suggests one way to estimate the expectation model's exponent - fit a Bradley-Terry model, then fit the log-linear regression \(\log(P_i)\) vs \(\log(R_i/A_i)\). The slope of this regression will be one estimate for the expectation exponent.

How well does this work? I get 1.727 for MLB in 2014. The R code and data files for MLB and other sports may be found in my GitHub repo.

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