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October 11, 2012

Overthinking It

What Teams and Players Predicted About Themselves

by Ben Lindbergh

The end of the season is the time when writers revisit their pre-season predictions. Some look back hoping to discover that they said something smart, while others look back mostly to marvel at their own inaccuracy. (I picked the Orioles to finish where?) The most anyone aspires to is a bit better than an even split between smart and stupid.

But writers aren't the only knowledgeable people who make bad predictions about baseball. Team executives, coaches, and players do it, too. They do it implicitly every time they sign a player who gets hurt or plays poorly, but they also do it in the press. Sometimes they have a motive—to drum up interest in their teams or themselves, to appease players with fragile egos, to encourage or challenge or smooth over disputes. You'll never hear a general manager of a 60-win team say, "Man, we are going to be bad." Anything a player or team source says about the future is part prediction, part propaganda.

I wanted to see how many of these propagandictions came to pass, so I dug up one prediction each team made about its immediate future between the end of last year's World Series and Opening Day. “I think we have a chance to surprise some people” doesn’t count as a prediction. Every team predicts that it will surprise some people, or that it's better than people think. Those predictions are nebulous enough to be true in all cases, which makes them meaningless.

Instead, I stuck to predictions of specific events. Most of these predictions didn’t come to pass, but not because I cherry-picked the bad ones. I mostly went with the first ones I found. It’s just that most predictions about baseball are bad, no matter who makes them. (Note: Sam Miller and I discussed some of the worst of these predictions with Carson Cistulli on the podcast last week.)

Los Angeles Angels
Predictor:
Mike Scioscia
Paraphrased prediction: The Angels would give Bobby Abreu 400 plate appearances.
Quote:

Scioscia assured Abreu that there will be a way to get him 400 plate appearances.

“Scioscia said he’s going to find a way to give me some at-bats at DH, left field, right field,” Abreu said.

“I think he’ll be in that range,” Scioscia said of Abreu and 400 plate appearances.

What actually happened: One of the many Angels storylines this spring was where Abreu’s playing time would come from, what with the seeming surplus of corner outfielders and DHs in camp. It took about three weeks to determine that it wouldn’t come from anywhere, despite Scioscia’s assurances. Abreu made seven starts and 27 plate appearances for the Angels before they released him on April 27th.

Honorable mention: Another Angels storyline this spring was where Mark Trumbo would play. The early reviews of his progress at third base were so positive that Scioscia said he expected Trumbo to play a minimum of 40 games there. Instead, he played eight games there, making four errors in 14 opportunities. Mercifully, he didn’t play an inning at third after the first week of May.

Houston Astros
Predictor:
Carlos Lee
Paraphrased prediction: The Astros would be a lot better in 2012 than they were in 2011.
Quote:

Coming off a club-record 106-loss season, the Astros improved their talent level at several spots and believe they left Spring Training with a club that's much more competitive than last year's team, which finished in last place in the NL Central.

"I think we'll be a lot better," first baseman Carlos Lee said.

What actually happened: The 2011 Astros lost 106 games with a -181 run differential. The 2012 Astros lost 107 games with a -211 run differential. Lee was worse, too, so even if that “we” was the royal we, he was still wrong.

Oakland Athletics
Predictor:
Billy Beane
Paraphrased prediction: The A’s couldn’t compete with the Angels or Rangers, or in the Coliseum.
Quote:

"We've been through this [rebuilding] cycle numerous times, and it gets shorter and shorter because the gap between us and everybody else grows," Beane said. "The fact of the matter is, for us to compete, we're going to have to have a new stadium, and I don't think there was a move we could have made that would put us in a position to compete with a club like the Angels or Texas given what they have and where they're headed and some of those signings.

What actually happened: The A’s not only competed with the Angels and the Rangers, they beat both of them. Either this was pure posturing on Beane’s part, or he didn’t see his team’s success coming any more than we did.

Toronto Blue Jays
Predictor:
Alex Anthopoulos
Paraphrased prediction: The offense would be better.
Quote:

“I think our offense should be as strong if not stronger than it was last year, and it’s not really going to rely on one guy.”

What actually happened: The Jays scored 743 runs and ranked eighth in the AL with a .262 TAv in 2011. This season, they scored 716 runs and declined to a 12th-place .255. They also relied as much if not more on one guy, though this time the guy was Edwin Encarnacion, not Jose Bautista, who was hurt. If Bautista hadn’t been hurt, Anthopoulos might have been right, but injuries are tough to see coming, which is one of the many reasons why baseball predictions are so bad.

Honorable mention: Probably the least-exciting items in this article: Anthopoulos’ belief that Brett Cecil would have a “big year” and his revelation that the pitcher who “most excited him” was Dustin McGowan. Cecil pitched 61 1/3 innings with a 5.72 ERA. McGowan didn’t pitch any innings, which wasn’t exciting at all.

Atlanta Braves
Predictor:
Fredi Gonzalez
Paraphrased prediction: Dan Uggla would have a very good offensive season.
Quote:

“I think he’ll pick up right where he left off at the end of last year,” Gonzalez said. “He’ll be a guy who hits .280, .290 with 30 homers and 90 RBIs. That’s fine. I expect him to be that type of guy all year.”

What actually happened: Gonzalez basically bet on a BABIP rebound by Uggla, and while he got one, he hadn’t counted on the power outage or the decreased contact that came with it. Overall, Uggla was worse. Not so much worse that it made sense for Gonzalez to bench him, as he did for a few days in early September, but not nearly good enough to make his manager’s prediction sound smart.

Honorable mention: From February, Frank Wren on his expectations at shortstop:

"I think we'll see a little more professional at-bats than we did from that position a year ago," Braves general manager Frank Wren said while comparing Pastornicky to the free-swinging Alex-Gonzalez.

Pastornicky walked a bit more often than Gonzalez had a year before, and maybe that’s what “professional” means. But it would be a stretch to call any at-bats that led to a .243/.287/.325 line “professional.”

Milwaukee Brewers
Predictor:
Corey Hart
Paraphrased prediction: The Brewers would be better offensively overall and at the infield corners.
Quote:

"Offensively we're going to be better than last year," said right fielder Corey Hart, who is sidelined three to four weeks following arthroscopic knee surgery for torn cartilage. "We're going to have more production at the corners than we did last year.

What actually happened: Ignoring the “[Mat] Gamel’s going to be really good” part of this prediction makes Hart seem more prescient, but for the most part, the Brewers’ batters backed him up. Some thought Milwaukee would struggle to score without Prince Fielder. Instead, the team hit even more homers and scored 55 more runs. Although Hart’s offense at first couldn’t completely replace Fielder’s, Aramis Ramirez was a big enough upgrade over Casey McGehee to make the combined infield corners more productive than they’d been the year before.

St. Louis Cardinals
Predictor:
Lance Berkman
Paraphrased prediction: The Cardinals wouldn’t need no stinkin’ Pujols.
Quote:

“I think we’ll have a better pitching staff than we did last year, I think our bullpen is more settled than it was at this time last year and when you add a guy like Carlos Beltran our offense is still going to be good.”

What actually happened: Everything Berkman predicted came to pass. The Cardinals’ staff improved from 3.79 ERA/4.45 FRA to 3.71/4.20, and their team TAv held steady at .273, the best mark in the NL.

Chicago Cubs
Predictor:
Billy Williams
Paraphrased prediction: Bryan LaHair would hit 25-30 home runs.
Quote:

"He can drive the outside pitch to left-center field, which is perfect for Wrigley Field, and he can get to the ball inside," Williams said. "I don't see him having that many holes. He could be a late bloomer. I think he can hit 25-30 home runs."

What actually happened: The Cubs Hall of Famer/senior advisor’s prediction looked spot-on in April, when LaHair hit .390/.471/.780 with five home runs in 17 starts, but he hit only 11 more the rest of the way, finishing nine homers short of 25. He hit just one home run in July, another one in August, and one more in September/October, as both his production and his playing time dwindled. Williams wasn’t way off: LaHair averaged a homer every 21.3 at-bats, and if you assume he could’ve kept hitting them at that rate, he would’ve reached 25 in just over 530 at-bats. But part of hitting homers is making enough contact to allow the power to play, and LaHair’s bat had too many holes. Whether his luck ran out or the league learned how to beat him, LaHair struck out at a Reynoldsian rate after April—99 times in 281 at-bats—and the Cubs couldn’t afford to keep playing him

Arizona Diamondbacks
Predictor:
Kevin Towers
Paraphrased prediction: Jason Kubel would be an average or above-average left fielder.
Quote: From an online chat in early February:

whtev: Are you concerned with Kubel's defense in left field?

Kevin_Towers: It's hard to compare anybody to Parra, who won a Gold Glove out there, but I would say Kubel is an average or touch above average defender, even though he doesn't have Parra's arm or speed. I doubt he'll win a Gold Glove but I think he will handle himself well out there. His defense did not scare us away.

What actually happened: Kubel’s -14.1 FRAA was the worst among NL outfielders, despite his league-leading 14 assists. One season with a lousy FRAA isn’t conclusive proof of defensive malpractice, so we can’t say for sure whether Towers was wrong, but a total that low is at least a little suggestive. As far as I can tell, Arizona didn’t make many preseason predictions, which—in light of their third-place finish—was probably for the best.

Los Angeles Dodgers
Predictor:
Matt Kemp
Paraphrased prediction: Matt Kemp would have baseball’s first 50-50 season.
Quote:

“50-50,” Kemp said on a conference call Tuesday. “I’m going to go 50-50.”

“Anything can happen,” Kempt said. I’m going to set my limits high. Yes, I’m serious. I know you’re thinking I’m crazy, but I’m going to take it to another level.”

What actually happened: Like the LaHair prediction, this one looked pretty good in April, when Kemp homered 12 times (though all that driving himself in left time for only two steals). After that, though, Kemp suffered a series of injuries that both kept him off the field and hampered him when he was in the lineup. He hit fewer homers after April then he did that first month, and he finished short of 10-10, let alone 50-50. He would’ve been better off staying on the same level instead of taking it to another one.

San Francisco Giants
Predictor:
Brian Wilson
Paraphrased prediction: Wilson would stay healthy.
Quote:

Was the three-time All-Star surprised at the speculation about his health?

"I'm not surprised at all," Wilson said. "I know that I started [last] season on the DL and I ended the season on the DL. There's going to be much concern. I understand that. I'm just letting you know that there won't be any concern once the season starts."

What actually happened: Wilson had Tommy John surgery a couple weeks after Opening Day.

Cleveland Indians
Predictor:
Chris Antonetti
Paraphrased prediction: Grady Sizemore would play in the majority of the Indians’ games.
Quote:

"We don't expect Grady to play 150 to 160 games like he has in the past," said Antonetti. "But we expect him to play the vast majority of games next year."

What actually happened: Grady Sizemore played zero games. We almost didn’t need the quote from Antonetti to make the team’s expectations clear—the Indians’ signing of Sizemore was itself a prediction that he would play baseball. Either that, or they just hated having $5 million.

Seattle Mariners
Predictor:
Eric Wedge
Paraphrased prediction: The Mariners would win more games in 2012 than they did in 2011.
Quote:

“You’ll see better baseball this season. I think we’ll win more games.”

What actually happened: The Mariners won eight more games. No, it’s not exactly going out on a limb to predict improvement for a 67-win team, but then again, Carlos Lee predicted improvement for a 56-win team and turned out to be wrong.

Miami Marlins
Predictor:
Team President David Samson
Paraphrased prediction: The Marlins would draw very well.
Quote:

“We’re going to be drawing 30,000 to 35,000 every single game.”

What actually happened: This wasn’t an unreasonable prediction—the 13 other teams that had opened ballparks since 2000 had averaged almost 37,000 fans in their stadiums’ first seasons. However, the Marlins had a steeper hill to climb that most of those teams did, attendance-wise, and they also stopped trying to contend midseason. They ended up averaging 27,000 (with a low of 14,801), which was amazing by Marlins standards but bad by the standards of every other team in a new park.

I could have done a whole article on Marlins predictions. Samson also said, “For anyone who is OK with mediocrity, we’re going to blow them out of the water,” as well as, “We think we’re in the very early stages of a long up cycle.” Jeffrey Loria said the 2012 team was better than the 2003 World Championship team. Greg Dobbs said the Marlins were the NL East’s “team to beat” and predicted, “We’re going to win and we’re going to get to the postseason.” Hanley Ramirez said he would be the best third baseman. Not the best on the Marlins. Just the best.

New York Mets
Predictor:
Sandy Alderson
Paraphrased prediction: Sandy Alderson would not be able to predict baseball.
Quote:

I’ve been around baseball a long time, and I’ve never been able to accurately predict a ceiling. Never been able to predict a floor, either. So I’ll leave that to the way the season unfolds.

What actually happened: This is the lone entry on the list that doesn’t contain a prediction, since Sandy Alderson was too smart to make one. I included it anyway, as an example to us all.

Washington Nationals
Predictor:
Davey Johnson
Paraphrased prediction: The Nationals would make the playoffs.
Quote:

“When you look at this season, when it’s all said and done, will it be a disappointment, a failure in your mind, if this team does not make the playoffs?” CSN’s Kelli Johnson asked the manager.

“No question in my mind,” the manager said. “You know, and they can fire me.”

“Strong words,” Kelli noted.

“Yeah,” the manager agreed. “I mean, we should make the playoffs. There’s no doubt in my mind.”

What actually happened: The Nationals made the playoffs, finishing with the best record in baseball. Johnson can keep his job. Of course, As Ken Rosenthal noted yesterday, it would have been nice if the Nats had also predicted that they would want to have their best pitcher at their disposal during their playoff run.

Baltimore Orioles
Predictor:
Dan Duquette
Paraphrased prediction: The Orioles would finish above .500 in 2012.
Quote:

"I like your thinking, brother," Duquette told one frustrated fan. "I'm with you. I'm with you. I don't have a lot of patience for rebuilding, frankly, and really, I don't have a lot of patience for just winning more games than we lose. I think that's going to start this year."

What actually happened: The Orioles won many more games than they lost, even if they didn’t score all that many more runs than they allowed.

San Diego Padres
Predictor:
Josh Byrnes
Paraphrased prediction: Cory Luebke would improve on his successful 2011 season.
Quote:

"We think there's even more in there. We think what he did in 2011, he's going to build off of that."

What actually happened: Luebke very likely would have improved, if not for that pesky UCL going “pop.” He had Tommy John surgery in late May, after throwing 31 innings. When making predictions about pitchers, always add an “if healthy.”

Philadelphia Phillies
Predictor:
Charlie Manuel
Paraphrased prediction: The Phillies would use more lineups.
Quote:

"I think we're going to have more lineups (this season), for sure," manager Charlie Manuel said. "In the last couple years, we've had guys hurt and had a couple different lineups, but we're going to have more this year. Definitely more different styles of lineups.

What actually happened: Manuel’s hunch was correct. The Phillies used 93 different lineups (133 including pitchers) in 2011. In 2012, with Ryan Howard and Chase Utley unavailable for much of the season and Hunter Pence and Shane Victorino shipped out midseason, they used 102 (146 including pitchers).

Pittsburgh Pirates
Predictor:
Clint Hurdle
Paraphrased prediction: The Pirates would steal more.
Quote:

So Hurdle wants his Pirates to be aggressive on the bases this spring and wants that aggressiveness to carry over into the regular season.

"We're gonna run. We're going to pick our spots, but we're gonna run," Hurdle said. "Said it all along all spring -- guys who can go are going to go."

What actually happened: No one went, and the spots the Pirates picked were poor ones. Pittsburgh was the worst basestealing team in the majors, finishing with the fewest steals, the lowest success rate (58 percent!), and the worst Stolen Base Runs total since the expansion 1998 Devil Rays.

Texas Rangers
Predictor:
Nolan Ryan and Michael Young
Paraphrased prediction: The Rangers would be even better.
Quote:

“I think we’re a better ball club,” Ryan responded when asked to compare the 2012 Rangers to the 2011 unit that went to the World Series for the second straight year.

Related Quote:

Young was asked about Nolan Ryan’s assertion that the 2012 Rangers are better than the 2011 version that went to the World Series. The All-Star didn’t mix words.

“One thing about this group is that it’s got a really competitive makeup,” Young said. “We’re ready to go out and try and beat people. Definitely, I think we’ll be better.”

What actually happened: The Rangers won three fewer games, had a run differential 77 runs lower, and finished second instead of first. Taking the over on 96 wins is a loser’s bet.

Tampa Bay Rays
Predictor:
Team President Matt Silverman
Paraphrased prediction: Carlos Pena would improve the team’s power.
Quote:

“[Pena] adds a dimension of power to the lineup that we were missing last year.”

What actually happened: Pena slugged .354, the lowest slugging percentage of any first baseman who made 600 plate appearances. His low batting average had something to do with that, but he also had the fourth-lowest ISO.

Honorable mention: Andrew Friedman said, “We think we have improved our offense and we’re going to maintain our high level of defense.” The 2012 Rays scored 10 fewer runs than the 2011 Rays, and their team TAv slipped from .273 (fifth in the AL) to .265 (seventh in the AL). Their Defensive Efficiency dropped off slightly, from .735 (best in baseball) to .723 (tied for best in baseball). So, instead of getting better in one area and holding steady in the other, the Rays got slightly worse at both. That’s all it takes to miss the playoffs.

Boston Red Sox
Predictor:
John Henry
Paraphrased prediction: The Red Sox were going to be a great team.
Quote:

“It’s turning into a productive offseason,” Henry said. “We’re going to have a great team this year.”

What actually happened: Much to the dismay of anyone who likes to laugh at bad baseball predictions, Ben Cherington and the rest of the Red Sox braintrust refrained from predicting great things for their team. Fortunately, their boss delivered some famous last words.

Cincinnati Reds
Predictor:
Chris Heisey
Paraphrased prediction: Heisey and Ryan Ludwick would both get plenty of playing time.
Quote:

The 27-year-old Heisey is in the left field mix with Ryan Ludwick, with no indication of who will get the most playing time.

“I think we’ll both get a lot of playing time,” Heisey said. “Obviously if one of us is hot, we’ll stick with that guy for a while.”

"Right now, I don’t think one of us is going to get buried on the bench unless one of us is really struggling.”

What actually happened: Heisey hit well in limited time in 2011, so when Cincinnati signed Ludwick just before pitchers and catchers reported to camp, it set up the spring’s biggest position battle. Both Heisey and Ludwick bat from the right side and play the same position, so it seemed like one would lose out. Heisey thought the Reds’ roster was big enough for both of them, and he was right. Ludwick played 125 games, and Heisey got into 120, filling in all over the outfield while Ludwick was chained to left.

Colorado Rockies
Predictor:
Alex White
Paraphrased prediction: Rockies pitchers would be good.
Quote:

"I think we're going to thrive as a pitching staff. Everyone is questioning us -- we have a lot of young guys, but we have a lot of talent. I enjoy being a part of it. By the end of the year, we're going to have some things figured out and be a pretty good pitching staff."

What actually happened: As Sam Miller put it on the podcast, the Rockies did figure some things out, and one of those things was that they didn’t have a pretty good pitching staff. Colorado finished with an NL-worst 5.22 ERA, 5.08 FRA, and 4.63 FIP. White was right about being part of it, at least. His own ERA/FRA/FIP were worse than the staff’s as a whole: 5.51/6.20/5.27.

Kansasn City Royals
Predictor:
Ned Yost
Paraphrased prediction: The Royals would easily surpass .500.
Quote:

“Playing .500 has never entered my mind,” he said in dismissing what would represent a 10-victory improvement and a level achieved only once by the Royals since 1994. “I think we’re going to play much better than .500.”

What actually happened: The Royals won 72 games, one more than they had in 2011. Their run differential was nearly 40 runs worse. It takes a special sort of overconfidence to pooh-pooh the possibility of finishing .500 after eight consecutive losing seasons.

Honorable mention: In a separate prediction, Yost also said that the Royals’ rotation—which would finish with an ERA over 5.00 in a pretty neutral park—would be “very solid.” Of course, that was probably implicit in the “much better than .500” prediction.

Not exactly a prediction, but too good not to include: Jonathan Sanchez is even better than I dreamed he would be.”—Ned Yost

Ned Yost was in a really good mood this spring.

Detroit Tigers
Predictor:
Dave Dombrowski
Paraphrased prediction: Miguel Cabrera would be able to handle the defensive demands of third base.
Quote:

"We think Miguel will be adequate at third base from a defensive perspective."

What actually happened: It seems like a long time ago now, but Miguel Cabrera’s shift back to third after four seasons as a below-average first baseman was one of the most-criticized moves of the spring. Most pundits didn’t think he could do it, and this play didn’t help. I stopped short of saying it wouldn’t work, but I did say it would be almost unprecedented, which was a nice way of saying it wouldn’t work.

Not only did Cabrera’s conversion stick, he played acceptable defense and was as durable as ever (and the increased defensive demands obviously didn’t hurt his hitting). In the wonderful words of Bob Nightengale, Cabrera “has startled scouts with his adequacy.” Dombrowski was right, and his decision may have made the Tigers’ season.

Minnesota Twins
Predictor:
Denard Span
Paraphrased prediction: If Span, Joe Mauer, and Justin Morneau would stay healthy, the Twins would be competitive.
Quote:

Span is happier talking baseball and he's motivated by proving wrong the prognosticators who say the Twins have no chance to contend in the AL Central.

He says there's been so little mention of the Twins in the division, he thought maybe they had switched to a new one.

"I definitely believe that we all get between 400 and 600 at-bats each this season, we're going to be all right,'' Span says.

What actually happened: Injuries took a lot of the blame for Minnesota’s struggles in 2011, as the team’s core of Joe Mauer, Justin Morneau, and Denard Span combined for just 928 plate appearances and 0.6 WARP. Span said that if all three of them finished with somewhere between 400 and 600 plate appearances, the Twins would be “all right.” As it turned out, each of them finished with between 500 and 700 plate appearances, and the three together totaled 1779 PA and 5.4 WARP. The Twins went from 63 wins to 66 wins, which is still closer to all wrong than all right.

Chicago White Sox
Predictor:
Jerry Reinsdorf
Paraphrased prediction: The White Sox would contend for the AL Central title, and Jake Peavy would bounce back.
Quote:

"I don't think we're rebuilding because rebuilding is when you get bad in order to get good," he said. "We fell short last season but we didn't fall a lot short. I think we could very well contend for the division if Dunn and Rios bounce back. And a guy I think will really bounce back is Peavy because that's the history of guys the second year following injuries.”

What actually happened: Reinsdorf nailed it. Dunn, Rios, and Peavy rebounded, and the White Sox were in first with just over a week left in the season. In the same article, Peavy made his own prediction: “We are not losing 95 games, let me tell you that.” Nothing says confidence like vowing not to lose 95 games.

New York Yankees
Predictor:
Pedro Feliciano
Paraphrased prediction: Feliciano would pitch this season.
Quote:

Feliciano has yet to throw a big league pitch wearing the Yankees uniform that hangs in his locker, and it is possible that he may not do so by the time his two-year, $8 million deal expires. But the 35-year-old insists that will not be the case.

"Any time soon, I'll be helping the team," Feliciano said. "I'm a hard worker, and I know that I'm going to get back healthy."

What actually happened: Feliciano helped the Yankees—the Gulf Coast League, Tampa, and Staten Island Yankees. (Misdirection!) He threw 9 1/3 innings across four minor-league levels and didn’t make it back to the majors, closing the book (or leaving the book unopened) on his Yankees career.

Honorable mentions aside, the team sources went 9-for-20, with Alderson abstaining. The lesson learned: don't trust teams that come bearing predictions.

Ben Lindbergh is an author of Baseball Prospectus. 
Click here to see Ben's other articles. You can contact Ben by clicking here

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