Thursday, March 31, 2016

It's Tough to Make Predictions, Especially About the Future

That quote's attributed to Yogi Berra, though like most quotes attributed to him, who knows whether he actually said it.

Last year predictions in baseball were particularly hard. The American League had record parity, the can't-miss Nationals missed, the can't-win Astros and Cubs was a tough year. I listed five locks for the 2015 season: the Phillies would finish last in the NL East, the Braves would be second to last, the Dodgers would win the NL West (three for three so far!), the Nationals would win the NL East (didn't make the postseason) and the Twins would finish last in the AL Central (finished second, just three games out of the postseason). Three out of five isn't bad, except that these were my locks. As I said, it was a tough season.

Before the season started, I compiled projected won-lost records from Baseball Prospectus, FanGraphs, ESPN, and this site. Here's how we all did:

American League East
            Actual    BP     FG    ESPN  OTFOP
Blue Jays    93-69  80-82  82-80  82-80  84-78
Yankees      87-75  79-83  82-80  82-80  82-80
Orioles      81-81  79-83  79-83  79-83  80-82
Rays         80-82  86-78  80-82  80-82  77-85
Red Sox      78-84  88-74  86-76  86-76  88-74

American League Central
            Actual    BP     FG    ESPN  OTFOP
Royals       95-67  73-89  78-84  78-84  79-83
Twins        83-79  70-92  74-88  74-88  70-92
Indians      81-80  80-82  85-77  85-77  84-78
White Sox    76-86  79-83  78-84  78-84  83-79
Tigers       74-87  83-79  84-78  84-78  88-74

American League West
            Actual    BP     FG    ESPN  OTFOP
Rangers      88-74  79-83  75-87  75-87  75-87
Astros       86-76  78-84  79-83  79-83  79-83
Angels       85-77  91-71  87-75  87-75  86-76
Mariners     76-86  87-75  88-74  88-74  89-73
Athletics    68-94  84-78  83-79  83-79  79-83

National League East
            Actual    BP     FG    ESPN  OTFOP
Mets         88-74  83-79  81-81  81-81  84-78
Nationals    83-79  92-70  93-69  93-69  91-71
Marlins      71-91  81-81  81-81  81-81  81-81
Braves       67-95  72-90  72-90  72-90  69-93
Phillies     63-99  68-94  68-94  68-94  64-98

National League Central
            Actual    BP     FG    ESPN  OTFOP
Cardinals   100-62  89-73  88-74  88-74  89-73
Pirates      98-64  81-81  85-77  85-77  85-77
Cubs         97-65  85-77  84-78  84-78  81-81
Brewers      68-94  81-81  79-83  79-83  78-84
Reds         64-98  76-86  75-87  75-87  72-90

National League West
            Actual    BP     FG    ESPN  OTFOP
Dodgers      92-70  98-64  92-70  92-70  94-68
Giants       84-78  84-78  81-81  81-81  84-78
Diamondbacks 79-83  72-90  74-88  74-88  71-91
Padres       74-88  85-77  84-78  84-78  86-76
Rockies      68-94  71-91  75-87  75-87  78-84

Nobody covered themselves in glory. One way to evaluate preseason picks is to calculate the difference between predicted wins and actual wins. On that basis, FanGraphs and ESPN missed by 241 wins, I did by 243, and Baseball Prospectus by 265. I'm not crazy about that method, though, for a number of reasons. I prefer the correlation between predicted winning percentage and actual winning percentage. On that basis, the standings are:

1. On the Field of Play  0.464
2. ESPN                  0.461
   FanGraphs             0.461
4. Baseball Prospectus   0.365

I'm not taking a victory lap. I was basically tied with ESPN and FanGraphs, while Baseball Prospectus lagged largely because of a few teams: It was way high on the Dodgers and Rays and way low on the Royals. 

The outlook for 2016 is more chaos in the American League. Baseball Prospectus has Tampa winning the East, ESPN has the Rays in last. FanGraphs has last year's West champion, Texas, tied for last. ESPN projects the Indians leading the Central with 84 wins with three teams (Royals, Tigers, White Sox) tied for second with just one fewer win. There's more consistency in the National League: All three forecast the AL East as Mets-Nationals-Marlins-Braves-Phillies, the Central with the Cubs, Cardinals and Pirates 1-3, and the West led by the Dodgers, Giants, and Diamondbacks, in that order. 

Here are my picks, with brief comments:

National League East
Washington Nationals, 89-73: Everybody's picking the Mets, plus the Nationals have lost some key parts (pitchers Jordan Zimmermann and Drew Storen, outfielder Denard Span), and Jonathan Papelbon's still a jerk. Still, I expect a bounceback season here, becasue just about everything went wrong last year other than MVP Bryce Harper, and pitcher Stephen Strasburg is a a pre-free agency salary drive. 
New York Mets, 85-77: Yes, I know, defending NL champs, fantastic rotation, they re-signed Yoenis Cespedes and traded for Neil Walker. But they have several fragile and/or aging guys around the diamond, and they're not particularly deep.
Miami Marlins, 82-80: If they get a full year out of Giancarlo Stanton and Jose Fernandez (I'm guessing they don't), they'll finish with a better record. This isn't a very good team, but they do get to play 38 games against the next two clubs.
Philadelphia Phillies, 66-96: There's hope. Former GM Ruben Amaro re-stocked the farm system on his way out. They've got some promising youngsters on the team now (Maikel Franco, Aaron Nola) and more on the way.
Atlanta Braves, 64-98: They're being picked ahead of the Phillies by most people and I don't know why. Quick, name some good Braves. Freddie Freeman, Julio Teheran (who wasn't that good last year)...told you. Like Philadelphia, they're reloading, but the future isn't now.

National League Central
Chicago Cubs, 89-73: Everybody's top pick. I've got them winning eight fewer games than last year and still winning the division. What's right: All those young players who came up and contributed last season will be with the team all year. What's wrong: Not all of them will be as good. What pushes them over: The offseason acquisitions of pitcher John Lackey, outfielder Jason Heyward, and second baseman Ben Zobrist.
St. Louis Cardinals, 86-76: Was last year the least impressive 100-win season you can remember? Some guys are getting old, and losing Heyward and Lackey to the Cubs hurts, but this is still a good team.
Pittsburgh Pirates, 83-79: I'll explain this one in detail tomorrow, since I know Pirates fans won't like it. In summary, they were somewhat lucky last year, they lost 60% of the starting rotation, and it's unreasonable to assume they'll continue to be uncannily injury-free, exposing a thin bench.
Milwaukee Brewers, 75-87: They're rebuilding in a tough, tough division.
Cincinnati Reds, 72-90: See above.

National League West
San Francisco Giants, 89-73: This is more about having reservations about the Dodgers than love for the Giants, though I like the Johnny Cueto and Denard Span signings. (Jeff Samardzija, not so much). Expect some regression from surprise Rookie of the Year contender Matt Duffy, offset by more time on the field from second baseman Joe Panik, and Bruce Bochy's still the manager.
Los Angeles Dodgers, 86-76: This is a good club, and they've got some great prospects who'll chip in this season, but ye gods, have they ever been injury-prone in the spring. And to the degree that injuries put players into unfamiliar roles, the trend could compound itself. The Giants had an injury-riddled 2015; this year feels like the Dodgers' turn.
Arizona Diamondbacks, 81-81: I'll confess to a blind spot with Arizona and the Twins: I'm not convinced either front office is up to the caliber of the rest of the league. They've got some great pieces in first baseman Paul Goldschmidt and outfielders David Peralta and A.J. Pollock, and they landed free agent pitcher Zack Greinke, but there are still a lot of holes.
San Diego Padres, 76-86: Last year they were the talk of the offseason, adding a lot of veteran talent and trading away a lot of young talent. Now they look like they're doing a bit of a rebuild. Oh well, they play in a great ballpark and the weather's always perfect.
Colorado Rockies, 75-87: Last season the tease was how good they'd be if Troy Tulowitzki and Carlos Gonzalez could both stay healthy. Now Tulo's gone, Gonzalez could be soon, and the relief from a very good farm system is still a year or three away. No tease.

American League East
Toronto Blue Jays, 87-75: FanGraphs and ESPN like Boston, BP still likes Tampa Bay, but I'm picking Toronto as the lone divisional champ from 2015 to repeat. The rotation lost David Price, but it gets a full year from Marcus Stroman, and can these guys ever hit.
Boston Red Sox, 85-77: The two big additions to the pitching staff, starter Price (via free agency) and reliever Craig Kimbrel (via trade), will get the attention, but a bounceback also assumes a return to form of at least one of Hanley Ramirez and Pablo Sandoval. (I'm buying the former, not the latter.)
New York Yankees, 84-78: Another year of remaining in contention while they wait for the big contracts paid to old players to run out.
Tampa Bay Rays, 81-81: Gotta love the pitching. Gotta wonder how they'll score runs.
Baltimore Orioles, 78-84: They've got a great manager, a top-notch bullpen, and they'll hit a lot of homers. But they don't get on base enough and the outfield, outside of center fielder Adam Jones, is, to put it charitably, unproven. But really, in this division, anybody could win, anybody could finish last. It's that close.

American League Central
Cleveland Indians, 86-76: Arguably the best starting rotation this side of Citi Field, an underappreciated bullpen, and a much improved defense from this point in 2015. Like Tampa Bay, the question is scoring runs, and I'm assuming they get most of a year from outfielder Michael Brantley.
Kansas City Royals, 84-78: Hey, don't get annoyed at me. Baseball Prospectus and FanGraphs have the Royals finishing last in the division, ESPN in a three-way tie for second (and third and fourth). Get on them for not giving the defending World Champions the love.
Detroit Tigers, 82-80: Everybody talks about how Tigers owner Mike Ilitch is desperately spending on this team in order to win the World Series before he dies. Fine, but he turns 87 this July. Orioles owner Peter Angelos turns 87 three weeks earlier. How come nobody's talking about Angelos wanting to buy a Series before he dies? I mean, yeah, Angelos isn't spending the way Ilitch is, but the old-owner-pushing-in-all-the-chips-to-the-center-of-the-table narrative is a little ageist, isn't it?
Chicago White Sox, 80-82: Lefty starter Chris Sale is one of the game's under-the-radar superstars. But the big story out of this team so far this year is a 14-year-old who can't hang out in the clubhouse.
Minnesota Twins, 75-87: They have some promising youngsters, but their success last year had a big dollop of luck. 

American League West
Seattle Mariners, 87-75: I picked them last year and was really, really wrong. But this year they actually addressed their primary offensive weakness, an inability to get on base, and Felix Hernandez, who had an off-year (for him) in 2015, looked good in spring (12:2 K:W, no homers in 12.1 innings).
Houston Astros, 84-78: Three things about the Astros. First, they were 51-111 just three seasons ago. Second, from the day they called up Rookie of the Year Carlos Correa through the end of the season, they were 52-52. Third, they finished only a game ahead of the Angels for the second wild card. It's like people think they're the defending division champs. They're not.
Texas Rangers, 83-79: In contrast to the Astros, the Rangers actually were the division champs last year. But they were kind of lucky--their record based on run differential was five games worse than their actual--and their rotation, even assuming a healthy return from Tommy John surgery by Yu Darvish, has a lot of question marks.
Los Angeles Angels, 80-82. In center fielder Mike Trout, they have the game's best player, and he's starting to look like this generation's Ernie Banks: Great player whose team doesn't get him to the Series.
Oakland Athletics, 76-86: Another year in the cellar looks likely, but as in the AL East, if you squint, you can see them playing into October. The American League is a big tossup.

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