The Pitfalls & MisPerceptions of Projecting 2016
Pitchers and catchers have reported, baseballs are being hurled around with varying levels of ferocity and Seamheads are delirious fantasizing about the potential success of their favorite teams in 2016. Sites like Fangraphs and Baseball Prospectus have published their 2016 projections (you aren't a baseball fan if you don't love the name Pecota) based on mathematical formulas and advanced statistical number crunching.
I am here today to dash your hopes and throw ice water all over your dreams for 2016. The mass media may love your club, but I am going to tell you who is going to underperform and how I know their projections will be wrong.
I could get into run shares and calculate the xFIP of every staff and generate my own advanced statistical breakdowns, but I prefer to look at things with a rational brain using some common sense and then I apply reasonable judgment and my own sprinkle of "media adjustments" to what to expect.
I am going to be wrong about a few teams and I am going to buck the trend while being right on a few as well. The Royals finishing last in the AL Central? Hmmm, I don't know what theoretical physics went in to projecting that, but I will look at it and see if rationality jives with the number crunchers on that one.
The basics of projections don't require a combination of calculus and physics with a dab of big data that incorporates X's and Y's in equations with square roots and division symbols. It can be simple and it goes something like this:
1. Which returning players over performed and underperformed in 2015 and by how much?
2. How much better or worse is your team based on the offseason and Free Agency?
3. Adjust your projections by 10-15% because of assumed bias and the flooding of hype from the mass media that invariably spins narratives based on inaccurate premises and unrealistic expectations.
Bill Parcells once said, "You are what your record says you are." Well, that’s not actually true in baseball. Over a 10-year sample size things eventually will average out, but from year to year there are outliers and statistical quirks or anomalies that skew the results.
Now, you are ready to apply rational, reasonable and measured judgment to project 2016 based on your final reviews of 2015. This will still be difficult because fans are instinctively biased, they naturally over project performance of players they like and under estimate the ones they dislike and then there is the media.
The media is the most significant reason why projections can be difficult. The perceptions we create, the assumptions based on our perceived expertise and the narratives we entrench in the heads of readers are often in opposition to the reality that the numbers suggest or reflect.
The Red Sox were 78-84 and in an up and down kind of way met what should have been expected of them in 2015. But, if you were to base your opinion of their 2015 on the expectations set by the media prior to the season then the Red Sox were a huge disappointment. Many well-respected national baseball writers thought the Boston Red Sox had a great off-season that led them to conclude that they were an American League contender and possibly the favorite to win the AL East. There wasn't a rational or statistical basis to think that was possible, but it was a popular narrative.
The Cleveland Indians are another perfect example. In 2014, they were 85-77 and finished third in the AL Central. In 2015, they were 81-80 and finished third in the AL Central again. They scored the same exact number of runs, allowed 13 more total runs scored and three more earned runs in 2015 than they did in 2014. They were, statistically, the same team on the field while the narrative was that they were one of the bigger surprises in 2014 and a disappointment in 2015.
An advanced, more thorough analysis could lend some context to the Indians but at the end of the day they were the same team in 2015 as they were in 2014. There isn't a lot we as fans can do to stop the cause and effect that is created and then distributed through the media, but when we know this is going to happen we can actively adjust our perceptions while we read our favorite analysts. The tail wags the dog, so adapt accordingly.
An easy way to do this is to do your projections, assume that they will be over-inflated or based on false assumptions and then reduce them by 10-15%. If you project an 85-win season, drop them to 78-80.
In upcoming articles I will break down the perceptions and the realities of some of the teams most likely to be overinflated and over or under projected in 2016. For now I will throw the teams and some breadcrumbs to tempt your appetite.
The Tampa Bay Rays - 2015 80-82
There is a momentum building behind a viable Rays in 2016 as well as pushback against the idea, but there is a good foundation to justify it. The AL East lacks a well balanced, dominant team to run away with the division and a pitching staff that can impose its will night in and night out unless the Rays emerge to be that staff. They also have the potential to be significantly better by purely staying healthy and players performing to their norms.
The Minnesota Twins - 2015: 83-79
How they were able to finish above .500 with that pitching staff is still baffling to me. It is easy to see how the media could project an improvement in 2016 purely based on the expectation that a significant amount of at bats for Byron Buxton and Miguel Sano has to mean more wins this season than last. I expect fewer wins because the pitching staff hasn't gotten any better and I can't explain how they did as well as they did last season. Maybe Paul Molitor is just that good.
The Chicago White Sox - 2015: 76-86
Everyone thought they did well last off-season and they turned out to be a bust. I expect the media to double-down on their 2015 beliefs that the White Sox are a legitimate all around roster and with the addition of Todd Frazier a 12-15 win improvement is possible. That kind of turn around rarely happens, but the media rarely allows facts to get in the way of a good story.
The Detroit Tigers - 2015: 74-87
They lost David Price and Yoenis Cespedes, added Justin Upton and Jordan Zimmerman and they only need to find 15-20 wins to win the Wild Card. "Victor Martinez couldn't be worse and Miguel Cabrera isn't declining, he was injured." That’s the narrative Tiger believers will spin so keep an eye out. 15-20 wins - that is a significant turn around. We shall see.
The Houston Astros - 2015: 86-76
The story of the 2015 Astros wasn't the dominant season they had, but just how surprising it was. They only won 86 games. They have a lot of youthful potential that analysts are chomping at the bit to praise and they would love to immortalize the Astros as their advanced analytics success story. I will just say this - DECLINE. See you next week with this one.
The New York Mets - 2015: 90-72
A miserable division propped up a mediocre team with an extremely bright future. They were 18 games above .500 in the division, .500 outside of it, 11-13 against the Yankees, Blue Jays, Cardinals and Dodgers and 0-13 against the Cubs and Pirates. The off season activity, regardless of whether they got better or worse, along with all the optimism that such an impressive young staff creates and you can expect analysts to go gaga over this team.
They allowed the fifth fewest earned runs in baseball while ranking #17th in runs scored in 2015. Question: Is there room to improve on fifth best in earned runs allowed and can they score the 40-50 more runs they will need to hold off an improving division just to match their 90 wins in 2015? I will just say this - DECLINE. This one is going to be fun.
The Washington Nationals - 2015: 83-79
Dusty Baker is considered by most analysts to be a horrible X's and O's tactician but the Nationals problem was their inability to perform even close to expectations and Baker has always been pretty good about getting the most out of his players. It's difficult to project whether a player will over or under perform, but it's more difficult to see how the Nationals don't. They were suppose to steamroll the Mets and the NL East in 2015 and they will be projected by the masses to finish behind them this year, possibly even behind the Marlins. The Nationals will win the NL East and the analysts will spend the majority of September screaming at us how it was in spite of Baker.
The NL Central
This division is too good at the top to accurately project what will happen and opinions are likely to be splintered. This division defines the statement "that is why they play the games." The youthful potential and the free agent money spent by the Cubs should buy them something close to a consensus amongst the media and it is difficult to argue rationally that those arguments will be wrong, but it easily could be.
The Dodgers have been the class of this division because of their pitching staff but that is no longer the case. The Giants and the Diamondbacks added pitching while the Dodgers downgraded. It's unlikely that the media will be able to bring itself to publicly project a down 2016 for the Dodgers, which is why they will be labeled as one of the biggest disappointments of the season. They are more likely to be below .500 than win the West. The question is whether the Giants or Diamondbacks can take advantage or not. They are hardly a sure thing themselves.
It's going to be fun to see where and what and who and why the 2016 baseball season becomes what it becomes. I will be looking back to this article to see how right or wrong I was and attempting to wiggle my way out of it I am sure. There is a comments section and I am sure you will let me have it. Lets do this.
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Chris Mitchell is a staff writer for RotoExperts.com, a Contributing writer for BaseballAmerica.com, SBNation's MinorLeagueBall.com and FantasyDraft.com. He also hosts two Podcasts: "A Podcast To Be Named Later" and "The RotoExperts Fantasy Sports Show" that formerly aired on the Fantasy Sports Television Network (FNTSY). You can find him on Twitter @CJMitch73.