At the beginning of the season, leading baseball analytics site Fangraphs polled their staffers for their predictions for the participants in the 2015 MLB postseason. The results showed a consensus of generally accepted baseball thought at the time, and also showed just how difficult making predictions before the start of a 162-game season can be.
The staffers felt the team most likely to win its division and make the playoffs in the American League was the Cleveland Indians, with the Boston Red Sox a close second. They picked the Los Angeles Angels to win the AL West and decided the two most likely AL wild card winners were the Detroit Tigers and Seattle Mariners. Not one writer picked the defending AL Champion Kansas City Royals in the AL Central or the upstart Houston Astros in the AL West.
The National League went better for the Fangraphs experts, with the St. Louis Cardinals, Los Angeles Dodgers, Pittsburgh Pirates and Chicago Cubs all slotted into the playoffs. But the team the writers projected to do better than all of them was the Washington Nationals, whom all 38 picked to win its division.
Even if injuries can explain away the Nationals’ struggles, the way these predictions botched the American League is pretty astounding. The handicapping struggles extend beyond Fangraphs as well.
Ten of fifteen ESPN MLB experts picked the Mariners to win the ALCS. The other five picked the Indians, Tigers, White Sox, Orioles and the Angels. So of the fifteen ALCS picks made by ESPN and the five most picked AL playoff teams by Fangraphs staffers, none are in playoff spots with a month left in the 2015 season.
That’s horrifying, but all of the misplaced hype can be easily explained.
The Mariners missed the playoffs by one game in 2014, and added a huge bat they desperately needed in Nelson Cruz, as well as nice complementary pieces like Seth Smith and JA Happ. Cruz has been as advertised, but the bullpen has regressed massively, Felix Hernandez and Robinson Cano have gone through slumps, and key starters Hisashi Iwakuma and James Paxton missed huge chunks of the season.
The Red Sox were bad in 2014, but won 97 games and the World Series the year before and added two free agent sluggers in Hanley Ramirez and Pablo Sandoval to offset their lack of a true ace. Unsurprisingly, the Red Sox are third in batting average in the AL, but last in ERA. Their pitching struggles catapulted them to a clear last place in the AL East.
The team one notch above Boston in ERA, the Tigers, lead the majors in hitting. Still, losing Max Scherzer, Justin Verlander’s fall from the ranks of the elite, Miguel Cabrera’s poor health and the AL’s second-worst bullpen by ERA has them out of contention with their long-time general manager out the door, and landing in…Boston!
The team picked by some to beat the Tigers in the AL Central, the Indians, have hovered around last place all year, as their perceived elite rotation has been extremely average, and Corey Kluber (8-13, 3.43 ERA) has faded after 2014’s Cy Young campaign. They’re in the top half of both hitting and pitching as a team, but beyond special seasons from Jason Kipnis and Michael Brantley, there hasn’t been much to brag about.
Instead, the extremely overlooked Royals and youthfully exuberant Astros have charged to the top of the American League, with complete rosters from top to bottom. Both have top 5 bullpens to make up for their deficiencies, like Houston’s MLB-worst .240 team batting average and Kansas City’s bottom five home run total.
Picking all incorrect teams for the playoffs in a particular league and just 40 percent overall seems like it would be an anomaly for so-called experts and the data supports that.
Thanks to data from articles on Grantland, Fangraphs, and Replacement Level Yankees Weblog, I pieced together data on how effective projection systems (which I’m assuming highly influenced the Fangraphs staff picks) were at slotting playoff teams in a given year from 2005 to 2013 (with the exception of 2008, which had a broken link), based on RLYW’s aggregation of multiple projection systems.
In 2013, the projections predicted Toronto, Tampa Bay, Detroit, Los Angeles and Texas to make the playoffs in the AL and Washington, Atlanta, Cincinnati, Los Angeles and San Francisco to qualify from the NL. Five of those teams made the playoffs, so the projections did slightly better than 2015, but still left out the two World Series participants, the Red Sox and Cardinals.
In 2012, the first year baseball had two wild card playoff spots, the projections did much better, nailing seven out of ten teams, four of which made up both LCS series.
In the eight years analyzed, the projections never missed an entire league, even when only four teams made the playoffs. The projections nailed six of eight playoff teams in 2006 and five of eight in 2010, but generally hung around fifty-percent in a given season. The data set nailed fifty-five-percent of the playoff teams over the eight years.
The only time the combined projections correctly predicted worse than forty-percent was 2005, when upstarts like the White Sox and Astros accounted for projections only hitting on three of eight playoff teams.
So what accounts for projections having no earthly idea about the American League this year?
In the Grantland article linked above, Ben Lindbergh indicated that parity among projections has increased in recent seasons. In both 2014 and 2015, only 23 wins separated the best and worst projected teams, a number that has been in the thirties six times since 2005. The American League was especially difficult to predict, with the top projected win total at 87, the lowest in 10 years. Since so little separated the AL teams going into the year, the possibility of picking the wrong five teams was as good as it ever has been.
And that’s a huge contrast to years at the beginning of the data set. The AL East was once as simple as penciling in the Yankees and Red Sox at the top, with the lesser winning the AL Wild Card. Going into this year, first to fifth in the division were separated by a projected six games.
Additionally, three of the five projected American League playoff teams have been notorious underachievers since 2005, according to Fangraphs. The Mariners (-36), Red Sox (-27) and Indians (-19) are the AL’s three biggest disappointments this decade. No other American League team has underachieved in double digits. The experts have fallen for smoke and mirrors from these franchises before, and they did it again in 2015.
All this isn’t to say that baseball analysts and experts are getting dumber; rather, small market teams have improved how they develop young talent and have created parity in a sport once dominated by the teams that spent the most money.
The data suggests that there likely won’t be an unpredictable American League like this again for a while, and projection systems generally hit more than they miss over time. For the rest of this season, embrace the fact that anything can happen and any team can win, regardless of what numbers say.