February 18, 2013
Why There Probably Are No Next Orioles
“I know a lot of the national reporters say we’re going to finish last and lose a lot of games again. You know what? Oakland was supposed to be last [in the division] last year, Baltimore was supposed to be last, and they both ended up making the playoffs.” —Astros GM Jeff Luhnow, February 5.
Sometime between now and Opening Day—if you haven’t already—you’ll probably hear someone speculate about the surprise team(s) of 2013. Every spring, fans and analysts attempt to predict which teams will surpass the expectations of PECOTA and the pundits. Most of those predictions, of course, don’t come to pass. It’s tough to beat the stats, the oddsmakers, and the combined predictive powers of people who spend large chunks of their lives watching and reading and writing about baseball teams. Especially since some of the people who can beat the consensus consistently start publishing their predictions, the consensus becomes a bit better and harder to beat.
So while we all have hunches or get good vibes from certain teams, our hunches and vibes probably aren’t predictive. But it’s still fun to try to outsmart the system, and being the first to see something coming can make you look like you’re better at baseball analysis than everyone else. That means we’ll see more of the same old articles, but now there’s something new. We’re no longer settling for predicting the next “surprise teams.” We’re predicting the next Orioles and A’s.
The Orioles and A’s, as everyone knows, made the playoffs last season and won well over 90 games despite not having done either of those things for some time—15 years in Baltimore’s case, and six in Oakland’s. Someone, somewhere, might have predicted their success, but it wasn’t at Baseball Prospectus, and it wasn’t Billy Beane. It was a wonderful story, and we’re wired to want more wonderful stories. So now we need new Orioles and A’s. Some people started looking for them last year; others started looking last week.
But there’s a catch: Teams like the 2012 Orioles and A’s don’t come along often. You’ve probably heard of the Availability Heuristic, one of those handy hallmarks of human psychology discovered by Daniel Kahneman and Amos Tversky. This one, in the words of Wikipedia, is “the tendency to make a judgement about the frequency of an event based on how easy it is to recall similar instances.” In other words, if we just saw something happen, particularly in a memorable way, we’re more likely to overestimate how likely it is to happen again. Last year, we saw two teams go from afterthoughts in April to playoff teams in October in about the most memorable way possible. Maybe we’re overestimating the odds of it happening again.
It’s not that rare for a team to improve by at least 20 wins from one season to the next: Before last year, it had happened 26 times in 16 seasons during the wild-card era. Last year, it happened twice, which wasn’t that unusual either. What was unusual was the way it happened, particularly for the Orioles. The O’s improved by 24 wins, which had happened only 10 times in those 16 seasons. Their 20-plus-game improvement put them over 90 wins, which had happened only six times. (It’s probably easier to take a big jump from terrible to not too bad, like the 2003-4 Tigers, 2004-5 Diamondbacks, and 2008-9 Mariners, than it is to take a same-sized jump from not too bad to 93 wins.)