Later today, either CC Sabathia or Livan Hernandez will throw the first pitch of the 2011 baseball season, ending an offseason marked by Cliff Lee drama, courtroom melodrama, and injured pitcher hyperdrama. It’s time to make a few predictions.
If I made this year’s predictions based on gut instinct, I’d come to the same Red Sox vs. Phillies conclusion every prognosticator has been and will be harping about all spring. In search of some objectivity in projecting this year’s results, I created a simple model based on last year’s performance, offseason personnel changes, and health/aging patterns.
I started with each team’s expected 2010 record based on their runs scored and runs surrendered. It’s been proven that expected record is a better predictor of future success than actual record, as it shakes out a lot of the luck and “intangibles” that may skew a team’s record, instead focusing on the two abilities a team must have to win games: scoring runs and preventing runs.
From there, I looked at every player each team lost who had a significant impact on the team’s 2010 season and subtracted wins based on fangraphs’ Wins Above Replacement (WAR). I then looked at each team’s additions and projected the wins these new players will add to the team’s record. In case you’re not familiar with WAR, a comprehensive statistic summarizing a player’s offensive and defensive contributions to his team’s wins, a 6-win player is MVP caliber, 3-4 wins constitute an All-Star-type season, and the average full-time starter or position player is worth 1-2 wins above replacement. I tried to be mindful of limited roles, for instance, if the Rangers plan on using Mike Napoli as a part-time DH/catcher/first baseman, his 4-win bat may only be worth 2 to 3 marginal wins.
Next, I made adjustments based on age and health. The Pirates were awful last year, but they’re loaded with young players who should improve from year to year and are more likely to stay healthy than, say, the White Sox, so I added three wins to their projection. The White Sox are older and were generally healthy last season, so we might expect a small decline in performance and availability from their older stars. Hence, they lose three wins.
Finally, I added a small adjustment for basic regression to the mean. This is based on the assumption that talent is spread somewhat evenly throughout baseball, and that teams with extreme expected won-loss records are likely to regress slightly toward the middle when some of the things that went right (a few overachieving hitters; a well used bullpen…) are bound to fall back a step. This also accounts for different effort levels after the trade deadline, when the teams not in contention had given up and the good teams harvested their better players in exchange for prospects and/or salary relief. Sure, the Mariners were bad all year, but not as bad as they were after they traded Cliff Lee and gave significant playing time to September call-ups.
The results were largely predictable, but yielded a few surprises, most notably the position of the defending champs. Here we go:
National League East
The Phillies are the obvious choice here, throwing out the best rotation since the mid-’90s Braves, and one of the three or four best since the mound was lowered in 1968. They won 97 games last year with 96-win talent, and basically swapped replacement-level Kyle Kendrick for a six-win pitcher in Cliff Lee, and dropped five-win Jayson Werth for in-house solutions (Ben Francisco now, possibly followed by Dominic Brown later) who are likely to play slightly above replacement level. The age/health adjustment is mixed on the Phillies, since they suffered some injuries last year that may not recur this year, but their age is likely to cause a few more injuries (as we’ve already seen with Chase Utley, Brad Lidge), and some erosion of skills (Jimmy Rollins and Ryan Howard are candidates based on recent trends). Throw in a slight downward regression and the Phillies still look like a 93-win team and a division winner.
The Braves were a better team last year than their record indicated, playing well enough to win 94 games (they won 91). The Braves lost six wins when Martin Prado and Omar Infante left, replacing them with Dan Uggla and Freddie Freeman. Even if Uggla and Freeman are likely to produce more than Prado and Infante do this year, they’re unlikely to replace the pair’s surprising production in 2010. The Braves can expect big things from some young players (Jason Heyward, Tommy Hanson), but may see decline from the elders (Chipper Jones, Derek Lowe). My model has the Braves winning 91 games and running away with the wild card.
Florida played like a .500 team last year, and can only be better this year, with youth all over the roster (Josh Johnson, Mike Stanton, Gaby Sanchez, Logan Morrison, Chris Coghlan). We can’t expect that whole group to play better than they did last year, but my model sees 83 wins, and we can’t rule out a wild card run. The Nationals and Mets should compete for the basement, winning 76 games apiece. At least the Nats have 2013 to look forward to.
This looks like a three-to-four way race, but my model sees two teams emerging from the pack. The Brewers added pitching to their already strong offense. Milwaukee has a lot riding on Zack Greinke’s health, but if he starts 30 games, their rotation (Greinke, Yovani Gallardo, Shaun Marcum, Randy Wolf, and Chris Narveson) is the best in the division, and we know their offense may already be the best. Still, the Brewers have a lot to overcome after a season in which they should have won just 85 games. Even with new personnel (add Nyjer Morgan and Yuniesky Betancourt to Greinke and Marcum) promising ten wins and nothing of substance (Dave Bush was the best player they lost) on the way out, and a two-win regression, they stand to win just 87 games.
My model prefers the Reds, if only slightly. After a 91-win season that could easily have been 92, the Reds stood pat in the offseason, letting Orlando Cabrera and Aaron Harang go and replacing them with in-house solutions, counting on young players like Jay Bruce, Drew Stubbs, Johnny Cueto, and Travis Wood. Even with a slight regression in luck, I see them winning 88 games and the division.
The Cardinals were probably the favorites in this division when the regular season ended, but nothing has gone right for them since. First, they let defensive whiz Brendan Ryan go and replaced him with Ryan Theriot, perhaps the very definition of replacement-level player (though one with a great name). Next, they signed Lance Berkman to patrol whichever corner outfield spot Matt Holliday defers, effectively asking Colby Rasmus to cover about 80% of Busch Stadium by himself. Finally, after failing to sign Albert Pujols to a contract extension beyond this season, the Cards lost Adam Wainwright, a Cy Young-caliber pitcher (and the 6 wins he’s likely to offer), to a season-ending injury. If the Cards were truly an 86-win team before this disastrous offseason, they’d have no hope for this season, but their runs scored and prevented in 2010 suggested 92-win talent, which is not surprising on a team with Pujols, Holliday, Wainwright, and Chris Carpenter. I see 82 wins for them in 2011, one shy of their total in 2006, when they last won the World Series.
The Cubs added Matt Garza to a potentially strong rotation, and Carlos Pena to their offense, but still don’t look like a contender to me, winning just 78 games in my model, but they’re better than the Astros, who can win the 71 I’m predicting only if their young lineup takes a step forward and their front-line pitching is as strong as it was last year.
I was conservative with my regression adjustment, rarely adding or subtracting more than three wins. For the Pirates’ sake, I hope I was too conservative. Pittsburgh made very few changes after a stunningly bad season that suggested 51-win talent, relying on their youth movement (namely Andrew McCutchen, Pedro Alvarez, Garrett Jones, Neil Walker, and James McDonald) to improve in 2011. Even with a four-point age/health bonus and a three-point regression bonus (each equalling the biggest I awarded to any team), I could only get the Pirates to 58 wins. Subjectively, I see them closer to 70, but for this exercise, I’m sticking with the model.
This is where my model surprised me most. In the last five seasons, each of the five teams in the NL West has made the playoffs, each has brought up a promising young core at one time or another, and each seems to have a chance to win the division every year. Last year, the Giants put an all-pitching, no-hitting team on the field, were projected to finish third or fourth, barely held off the equally-surprising Padres to win the division, and upset the Phillies and Rangers to win the World Series. To me, this felt like a classic overachieving team, one that would regress to the middle of the pack next season, disappointing fans who expected another playoff run. Then I looked a little closer. Last year’s Giants won 92 games, but their pitching was so good they probably should have won 95. In the offseason, they dumped zero-win Edgar Renteria (despite his postseason heroics), and added Miguel Tejada, who, while certainly past his prime, should offer a win or two above replacement level in the National League. Their other moves were mostly re-signings, as they locked down Pat Burrell and Aubrey Huff. This is where we could penalize them for their age, as Burrell, Huff, Tejada, Andres Torres, and Barry Zito are all past their respective primes, but for every old player, the Giants have a Buster Posey or a Madison Bumgarner ready to break out with a huge season. Any 95-win team is bound to regress some, and it’s true that Huff, Torres, and Jonathan Sanchez probably overachieved last year, but Posey was in the minors for the first few months of 2010 and Tim Lincecum actually had his worst season as a member of the rotation. The Giants would probably be the fourth best team in the AL East, and might not be the best team in the Bay Area, but my model has them winning 95 games and running away with the NL West, and I think I’m sold on the idea.
The Rockies are always contenders in the NL West, but like the Reds, they focused their offseason on maintaining the status quo, re-signing Jorge de la Rosa and signing Troy Tulowitzki and Carlos Gonzalez to huge contract extensions. They’re basically counting on last season’s 83 win team (with 87 expected wins) to win 90 this year, but I don’t see any way that could happen without a lot of luck. I give them 86 wins, the same count as the Padres. San Diego came out of nowhere to win 90 games last year, with the run differential of a 92-win team. Then they shipped Adrian Gonzalez to Boston for prospects, signaling to the world that, despite last year’s success, they’re in rebuilding mode. Aaron Harang and Cameron Maybin may get a couple of Gonzalez’s wins back, but the bullpen can’t be as good as it was last year, and the Padres seem like a prime candidate to regress to the mean. Even 86 wins feels a little high.
The Dodgers were a mess last year, made very few changes, and look like an 80-win team in 2011, much better than the Diamondbacks, who stand to win about 67 with a bunch of players you and I have never heard of.
American League East
After the Phillies rotation, the story of the offseason was the shift in the balance of power in the AL East, as Boston seems to have made huge strides, while New York and Tampa sputtered. I do think the Red Sox are the best team in baseball this year, but it’s not as obvious as it may seem. Boston won 89 games last year, exactly as many as they should have based on their offensive and defensive output. Sure, they probably added the most wins of any team in the league, with Adrian Gonzalez, Carl Crawford, and Bobby Jenks worth about 13. But let’s not forget that, next to the Rays, the Red Sox also lost more wins than any team in the league, as Adrian Beltre was one of the five best players in the AL last year, and Victor Martinez wasn’t far behind him. Based on personnel changes, the Sox barely cross the 90-win threshold. They’re not a young team either, as David Ortiz, JD Drew, Josh Beckett, John Lackey, and others will all play this season on the wrong side of 30. Still, the key to Boston’s recovery is health. Their clubhouse could be attacked by six grizzly bears and three pythons and they still wouldn’t suffer as many injuries as they did in 2010, when Kevin Youkilis, Dustin Pedroia, Jacoby Ellsbury, Mike Cameron, and Josh Beckett all spent significant time on the shelf. I gave one of the oldest teams in the league the biggest age/health bonus I gave any team in my model, and still only got them to 94 wins. The only way they significantly outperform this estimate is if John Lackey and Josh Beckett return to form this season and Jenks and Daniel Bard pitch more high-leverage innings than the washed-up Jonathan Papelbon.
94 wins hasn’t been enough to win the AL East since other teams spent more than the Yankees, but it could happen this year, and the younger Steinbrenners are a big part of the reason. The Yankees won 95 games last year, and played like a 98-win team, so their offseason had to have been 10 games worse than Boston’s to turn over the keys to the division (although the division may have been won by a third team last year). The Yankees didn’t lose anything significant besides Andy Pettitte, a 2-win pitcher with 20-win run support, but they didn’t add much either. Russell Martin catching and Jorge Posada at DH should offer production similar to that of Posada and Nick Johnson/Marcus Thames/Lance Berkman last season. Rafael Soriano will join Mariano Rivera as the best closer/setup man combo in the league, but a setup man pitching 70-80 innings rarely adds more than a win or two above replacement. If the Yankees are to lose the division this year, age will be the culprit. Derek Jeter, Alex Rodriguez, Posada, and even Mark Teixeira have been trending downward in recent seasons, and the options they’ve brought in as potential fifth starters (Freddy Garcia, Bartolo Colon and Kevin Millwood) have all seen better days. Still, this team has one of the best players in baseball in Robinson Cano, a few underrated players (if that’s possible in New York) in Nick Swisher and Brett Gardner, and a scary bullpen. As much as it hurts to write this, the sky is not falling in the Bronx, where the Yankees look like a 93-win team and at least the wild card frontrunner.
There may be no historical precedent for the Tampa Bay Rays’ offseason. Despite winning the division for the second time in three years, the Rays couldn’t afford to re-sign two of their three best hitters (Crawford and Carlos Pena) or their closer (Soriano), so they let them walk and filled in the gaps with low-risk signings of older players (Manny Ramirez and Johnny Damon) in hopes that they have another good year in them. Tampa, like the Yankees, had 98-win talent in 2010. Unlike New York, the Rays are young, and can expect at least some of their young pitching core (David Price, Jeff Niemann, Wade Davis, and Jake McGee) to make forward strides this season. It may seem foolish to let 12 wins walk out the door, replace them with three wins, and expect your young players to progress so quickly that you can compete with the two richest and most powerful teams in the league, but this Rays regime rarely does anything foolish. I see the Rays winning 90 games and staying at least on the outskirts of the division and wild card races.
The Blue Jays overachieved their way to 85 wins last season. They should be proud of their offseason, as they somehow managed to offload Vernon Wells’ insane contract on the Angels, but they didn’t make any significant additions to this year’s team (unless you’re a big fan of Rajai Davis or Frank Francisco). The Orioles, on the other hand, will win a few “most improved” awards for their signings of JJ Hardy, Derrek Lee, Vladimir Guerrero, Mark Reynolds, and Justin Duchsherer. Though that crowd should be worth ten wins this year, ten wins barely bring the Orioles over 70, and those moves don’t make them any younger. Their young pitching is promising, and there may be a division somewhere that this team could win this year, but I’m not sure the Orioles are ready to break through in the AL East any time soon.
Red Sox 94-68
Blue Jays 80-82
This division is as wide open as any, less because teams are feverishly trying to keep up with the competition and more because, well, somebody has to win it. The basic rule in predicting the AL Central is “when in doubt, pick the Twins“, and my model agrees. The Twins won 94 games last year with an improved offense, a decent bullpen, and some seriously weak competition. They shipped out last year’s middle infield of Hardy and Orlando Hudson and imported Tsuyoshi Nishioka to play second, while Alexi Casilla takes over at short. Interestingly, my first attempt at assigning win values to personnel changes was out of balance by two wins, the exact amount I assigned to Nishioka, perhaps the league’s only significant addition from another country this offseason. The Twins should hit again, and will benefit enormously from Justin Morneau and Joe Nathan returning from injuries, but they’re not particularly young, their defense took a hit in the offseason, and there’s nothing scary beyond Francisco Liriano in the rotation. Still, they get to play the rest of the Central 76 times, so they’re a good bet to win 87 games.
The White Sox, who brought Adam Dunn to a park where he might hit 40 homers in home games, and the Tigers, who upgraded at catcher/DH with Victor Martinez, both look like average teams, and I see both of them winning 83 games. Both have underrated rotations, Detroit’s anchored by Cy Young candidate Justin Verlander, Rick Porcello, and Max Scherzer, and the White Sox led by John Danks, Mark Buehrle, and Gavin Floyd, but neither team is young and neither is especially deep offensively.
The Indians were bad last year and did nothing to improve, but could see progress from Carlos Santana, Matt LaPorta, and Justin Masterson this year. The Royals did the right thing, trading Zack Greinke for prospects and playing for 2013, but they’ll suffer in 2011, even as they start calling up pieces of the game’s best farm system.
White Sox 83-79
Like the NL West, this division is tough to pick subjectively, but my model is fairly clear as to its choice. The A’s finished right at .500 last year, but had great pitching and hit enough to suggest 86-win talent. Their pitching is a year older and ready to dominate, led by Brett Anderson, Trevor Cahill, and Gio Gonzalez, and their offense improves slightly with the additions of David DeJesus and Josh Willingham. They’re young on both sides of the ball, and they field well (particularly Chad Pennington at short and Daric Barton at first). I see Oakland winning 91 games and the division.
The only other contender in this division is the Rangers, who are counting on Brandon Webb to replace Cliff Lee’s production. Sure, the Rangers won 90 games last year, and could’ve been even better (92 expected wins), but they got a monster year from Josh Hamilton and surprising production from Vlad Guerrero. They replace Guerrero with Adrian Beltre, a major upgrade over Michael Young at third, and will use Young and Mike Napoli at DH and elsewhere, so their offense shouldn’t slide much, but to contend again, they’ll need another outstanding year from CJ Wilson, something from Webb, and either Tommy Hunter or Derek Holland to take a major step forward. It may be pessimistic, but I see 87 wins in the Rangers’ future.
The Angels had a rough regular season in 2010 and an awful offseason to follow. They inexplicably traded a useful player for Vernon Wells, and will pay $56 million to outfielders Wells, Torii Hunter, Bobby Abreu, and the long-departed Gary Matthews this season, none of whom is still capable of playing center field in the major leauges. They’ll get Kendry Morales back, but have no idea what to expect from him. They’ve got two aces (Jered Weaver and Dan Haren) in the rotation, but not much pitching (Ervin Santana, Joel Piniero, and Scott Kazmir project to round out the rotation) beyond them. I give the Angels 77 wins, 14 ahead of the Mariners, whose only hope is that they can’t possibly as unlucky (and as genuinely awful) as they were last season.
It’s customary to end a post like this with playoff predictions, but if you’ve read my past work, you know that I believe the baseball playoffs are little short of randomness, and that predicting them in March (or in October, for that matter) is a fool’s errand. We have a lot of tools to help us predict a 162-game season, but a best-of-5 or best-of-7 playoff series is subject more to the vagaries of chance than to the differences in athletic talent between two groups of 25 men. With this in mind, I’ll line up the playoffs as my model suggests and flip a coin (actually a coaster, as I don’t have a coin on me) to choose the winners.
NLDS (both the same matchups as last year):
-Braves over Giants (not utterly ridiculous, as the Braves will hit a little more, and Tommy Hanson/Tim Hudson/Jair Jurrjens/Derek Lowe could be a formidable rotation and won’t have the same mileage on their arms over the past 18 months as the Giants’ staff)
-Phillies over Reds (in a great offense vs. defense battle)
-Twins over Red Sox (an upset, but if the Twins finally get to play in the playoffs without facing the Yankees in the LDS, they’ll have to be a little looser, right?)
-A’s over Yankees (my coaster actually teetered, and I thought it might stand on edge, which means the A’s may get some game 5 revenge for the Jeremy Giambi non-slide)
-Phillies over Braves (I would’ve had a hard time justifying this one if my coaster had gone the other way)
-Twins over A’s (because, as so many teams have shown us in the Wild Card era, the worst team to make the playoffs has about the same chance to make the World Series as the best team)
-Phillies over Twins (and the Metrodome World Series magic goes the way of stadiums without corporate sponsors)
There you have it: days of research, 4,000 words of explanation, and a coaster picks the Phillies to win the World Series. I’ll stand by that coaster.