Competitive Balance

Why We Should All Stop Worrying About Projections and Play the Damn Game

It seems pretty obvious that total major league payrolls are going to drop league-wide this season with the perception being a large number of teams are not interested in competing. Mariners GM Jerry Dipoto made the painfully insightful comment that “you could argue there is more competition to get the No. 1 pick in the draft than to win the World Series”. I don’t think that’s quite accurate right now because some gadfly teams will “try” for about 2 months before they inevitably field offers for whatever isn’t bolted to the ground (I’m looking at you Baltimore Orioles) but, DiPoto does have a point that there seem to be a large number of teams that aren’t interested in winning due to belief that the league is too heavy this year. These are at least somewhat backed by this year’s PECOTA projections, which show some extreme gaps between the first and second place teams in most divisions, with some of the most active traders of the offseason being the worst off in the projections.

I’ll concede that a lot of these teams are probably accurate in thinking competition with teams like the Yankees is hard and that the owners are being cheap in not sending out a quality product but, I honestly don’t think that the competitive gap is quite at the “Abandon all hope, ye who enter here” level that seems to be taking over baseball media and discussion. Both with and without cherry picking, there have been some problems with the projections.


Highly improbable things happen all the time

Super teams get injured, players break out. Let take a look at some of the surprises of recent years:

2015 Nationals/2015 Mets--Nats fans remember this season in which they were viewed as invulnerable for being riddled with injuries and super shitty management (which is fair) but, the Mets also surprised with the big 3 pitchers peaking and the team making several creative moves to address glaring weaknesses at the trade deadline.

2017 Minnesota Twins– 55 win season to a wild card berth that not even management expected after a trade deadline sell off

2013 Red Sox-The only last place to world champion to last place grouping of seasons team in baseball history

2003 Marlins– I hate this team to the very core and want to say very little about them other than they were cheap, expected to perform poorly , and won the World Series

None of these teams were expected to do that well according to pre-season projections. All of them found ways to win with strategies the projections were unable to account for. For all we know the Mets could find the magic again this season. I hope to god they don’t as holy shit nothing is more annoying than a Mets fan with hope.

2) Championship windows can kick in early:

Here are teams that by most projections/media prognostication were thought to be “1 or 2 years from getting it all together”

2015 Houston Astros– predicted to be middling, won a wild card, and took the world champions to 5 games in the playoffs

2012 Washington Nationals- Seriously, the best team in the national league was predicted to win the division by almost no one

2017 New York Yankee– The popular thought was that the new young talent needed another year to be major league ready. Aaron Judge had other ideas and the team nearly won its division and took the world champion Astros to 7 games in the ALCS

2015 Chicago Cubs- Even with Joe Maddon and Jon Lester in town, Pecota projected this team to go 82-80. They won 97 games and advanced to the NLCS before running into the buzzsaw of the 2015 magic bullshit Mets.

3) Sometimes, projection systems are just plain wrong

Seriously, the systems say the 2014-2015 KC teams were supposed to be absolutely terrible. Two pennants say otherwise. Additionally, anyone else remember the 2016 AL East Champion Tampa Bay Rays? Because, I sure don’t. Just for fun I decided to take last season’s Pecota wins and compare them with actual outcomes. The top 10 were…well,extreme.













































The obvious caveat here is that pecota is a conservative system when it comes to predicting wins so it isn’t necessarily a major surprise when a team like the Nationals wins 90+ games but, those Diamondbacks and Giants differences are pretty damn consequential.

This isn’t to say projections are always wrong. They’ve historically been broadly correct (though they’re increasingly off by an increasing degree overall) but even whiffing on one team can have massive effects on who makes the playoffs that cascade across outcomes.

Think about it this way: Imagine the Braves offense continues to be pretty strong, then highly regarded prospect Ronald Acuna comes up and hits like crazy,, giving the Braves a super outfield while the pitching is mediocre/bad instead of “hot garbage”. The team then has some lucky bounces and overperforms its pythag heading into July. The Braves then acquire some slightly less shitty cost pitching or call up guys from the minors for the stretch. That may not be a good team but its one that can end up getting a wild card in a National League.

All in all, let’s maybe put down the doom and gloom and enjoy the state of being in the game on the green field in the sun.

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