March 20, 2012
Painting the Black
Naming the Next Breakout Team
We may not be wiser than projection systems, but we like to pretend we are anyway, especially when it comes to bold predictions. Make your bold prediction in the spring, forget about it in the summer, remember it in the fall, and spend the winter disowning it. Then do it all again next year. My chat from last week yielded this exchange and reminded me that the new prediction season is underway:
mdthomp (ILSTU): R.J, Which team do you expect to post the largest improvement on wins from last season? Also, who is going to be the opposite? My money is on the D-Backs to fall and the Nats to improve the most? What you think?
R.J. Anderson: I could see that on both ends. In fact I might say Arizona, too. I think Cincinnati is another team to watch for to improve their record by the most.
The above should be enough to convince everyone that I’m not the best at bold predictions. It’s not particularly brazen to pick either the Reds or the Diamondbacks. Both are rather obvious selections. The Reds added Mat Latos and Ryan Madson and have Joey Votto and Jay Bruce already in tow. It doesn’t take much intelligence to realize that they might play better this season.
The Diamondbacks are about as obvious as picks come. Bill James’ Plexiglas principle states that teams who improve dramatically in one season are likely to decline in the next. Additionally, over time, good teams will get worse and bad teams will get better—another example of regression to the mean in action.
Being conservative doesn’t often translate to interesting selections, since everyone wants to know the identity of the next big outlier, the next team equivalent of Jose Bautista. Bautista became the first player in league history to have a 50-home run season without a previous 20-home-run season under his belt. We’re all on the lookout for another, similar surprise. The problem is that there might not be another Bautista for decades, so searching for the next could be a fool’s quest.
Searching for the next Diamondbacks might be more fruitful. Yes, the D-backs could collapse this season, but they did come out of nowhere last year to make the playoffs. If it feels like there is a story similar to Arizona’s every season, it’s because there is. Consider the table below, which shows the largest year-over-year team improvement in every season since 1998:
The smallest improvement is 15 wins—or enough to make a slightly-below-.500 team into a playoff contender. One thing that should be obvious about these teams is that they started below contention. Good teams can improve, too, but it isn’t often that you see a 95-win team add 10 wins or a 90-win team add 20 wins. Here is a graphical look to provide a sense of how the average improvement compares to the largest improvements listed above:
Now that we’ve established that seeking the next Diamondbacks is potentially a more rewarding pursuit than seeking the next Bautista, let’s get to hunting. There is no wrong way to go about this, but to make up for being a boring bold predictor, I took the teams that finished last season below .500 and scratched off the banal choices. This means the Reds and Nationals are gone, as are the Marlins. From there, I drew a line through the Cubs, Mets, Astros, and Orioles, since—as everyone knows—they’re entering rebuilding phases. The Pirates’ and Royals’ future world domination plans are known well enough to be treated as no-brainer picks, too.
All that eliminating left six teams to parse through, reason about, and ultimately crown the next Diamondbacks. Luckily, PECOTA does not project any of the six teams to finish at .500 or better—a relief, since I want to tested my guts against its superior intellect. Trying to forecast an outlier is an inherently unscientific exercise, but let’s go through each of the six and figure out which of the bunch is most likely to be the next Diamondbacks.
Team: Chicago White Sox
Team: Oakland Athletics
Team: Seattle Mariners
Team: Minnesota Twins
Team: San Diego Padres
Team: Colorado Rockies
There you have it: my risky, projection-system-defying pick for 2012 surprise team is the Rockies. Just don’t hold it against me when the only thing they win is the first-overall pick in next year’s draft.