January 6, 2014
Testing the Predictive Powers of 2013 Teams
Hot Stove season is slowing, which means it’s almost time for team executives and players to start telling you how good they’re going to be in 2014. There are many reasons for teams and players to predict success: to sell tickets, to avoid 0.0 Nielsen ratings, to motivate themselves and their teammates. Most of the time, predicting success makes more sense than saying “We suck.”
We know that media members make many regrettable predictions: that the 2013 Red Sox would be boring, that Mike Trout wouldn’t be worth taking early in a fantasy draft, that the Angels and Blue Jays would win the West and the East. But anything a team might tell you is equally suspect. So just like last year, I’ve trawled the internet for predictions that teams and players made about themselves before the start of last season. The only condition was that there weren’t conditions—if we stay healthy, if we play up to our capabilities, etc. Only unqualified forecasts of future events could be counted—the stronger and more specific, the better.
Every team predicted at least one aspect of its own upcoming performance. As I wrote last time, “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.”
Let’s get started.
Most general managers are tough to pin down on a preseason prediction. Ask them how many games they’re going to win, or whether they think they’ve put together a playoff team, and they’ll say something vague about being competitive, or insist that there’s no point in predicting. For instance, here’s Ned Colletti, when asked in late March how the Dodgers were going to do:
But it’s also for baseball’s most talkative GM/oversharer, Kevin Towers, who makes this exercise much too easy:
Result: Towers’ guarantee wasn’t worth the paper the Arizona Republic printed it on. The Diamondbacks won 81 again.
The outcome: The Diamondbacks scored 49 fewer runs than they had in 2012.
Towers also predicted that the Diamondbacks would be faster and less reliant on the home run:
The Diamondbacks did score a lower percentage of their runs via the homer (32.0 percent, the sixth-lowest in baseball, compared to 36.7 percent in 2012). But the speed never materialized: the D-Backs stole the fifth-fewest bases and finished with the third-worst team BRR (-9.7). Relying on the home run really isn’t that bad, provided you can hit them, which Towers seemed to accept when he traded for Mark Trumbo. I’ll make a prediction of my own: Arizona’s win total still won’t start with a nine.
GM Frank Wren, on January 29:
Result: The Braves scored 12 fewer runs than they had in 2012, but that was mostly sequencing. Fundamentally, they were a better offensive team, raising their collective True Average from .250 to .254. Okay, so maybe that’s not much improved. Blame B.J. Upton.
Much of the preseason Chris Davis discussion concerned whether he could handle full-time first base duty. Davis was confident that he could, but he also predicted additional strides on offense. In a March 26 MASN post titled “Can Chris Davis top the 33 homers he hit last season?”, Davis said:
When asked whether he had any specific numbers in mind, Davis said, “I do. But I will never tell you guys. It's something personal that I've done since I was in junior college. My coach brought that up to us as a team to sit down individually and write our goals down. It is something I do every year.” The next time Davis left his locker, Kevin Towers found the piece of paper and read it aloud to every reporter in earshot.
Result: Davis hit 53 home runs, over 40 percent of the 2013 Diamondbacks’ total.
Prior to the 2012 season, Red Sox owner John Henry predicted, “We’re going to have a great team this year.” In the wake of the 69-win season that actually ensued, the Sox played it considerably safer when foretelling the future. Asked on last March 31 whether the team would win more games than they’d lose, new manager John Farrell “grinned slightly” and responded, “Yes. I do believe we’ll win more than we lose.”
Result: The Sox won 32 more than they lost (38 more, counting the playoffs).
After arriving in the majors in August of 2012, Jackson batted .175 for the Cubs, strikeout out 59 times in 120 at-bats. That led to an “intense week of hitting” in November, in which manager Dale Sveum, hitting coach James Rowson, and assistant hitting coach Rob Deer lowered his hands and made his swing “more compact.”
“I think it’s going to benefit him a lot,” said Sveum last February. “I can be a force at the plate instead of battling as I did,” added Jackson.
Result: Jackson started the season at Triple-A Iowa, where he hit .223/.300/.367. He then spent time in the Arizona League and the Southern League, where he hit even worse. He finished the season with a .210/.296/.330 line. On the plus side, he struck out in a mere 33 percent of his plate appearances—more or less like Rob Deer, but without the patience or power.
The moral of the story: don’t be fooled by mechanical flaw fixers. Sometimes, escaping a slump really is as simple as tinkering with a stance or swing. Often, it isn’t.
“I think there’s more in this team than there was last year,” Ventura said on April 1.
Result: The White Sox won 63 games, 22 fewer than they had the year before. To be fair, Ventura simply said "more." He might’ve meant more losses.
Other predictions: On February 23, John Danks (who was recovering from arthroscopic shoulder surgery) said, “I have no doubt I’ll be on the Opening Day roster.” He went on to spend the first several weeks of the season on the disabled list, returning on May 24. Danks wasn’t the only player who regretted an Opening Day comeback prediction last season.
"He'll certainly spend a lot of time with our outfield coaches," Jocketty said about Choo on January 25. "We think he'll be able to play center field average to above average for us and make him that much more valuable."
Result: Given the uncertainty surrounding single-season defensive stats, perhaps we can’t conclusively rule Jocketty’s prediction wrong (unless we were, you know, watching). Still: Choo rated 17 runs below average in center, according to both DRS and UZR, and FRAA had him as a -5 fielder. Jocketty’s quote evinced a lot of confidence in Cincinnati’s coaching, given that Choo had rated well below average in an outfield corner in 2012.
Other predictions: Bronson Arroyo, who joined the Reds in 2006, said on March 3 that the 2013 Reds were the “best ballclub we’ve had since I’ve been here.” They went on to win 90 games, fewer than the 2010 (91) and 2012 (97) teams. However, the 2013 Reds did have a higher run differential (+109) than any of the 2006-12 teams, so Arroyo wasn’t really wrong.
Optimism about Ubaldo abounded after the volatile starter’s winter mechanical work with pitching coach Mickey Calloway. "For him to pitch well is a big part of our team. I think we're going to see it this year,” said Calloway in February. “I’m confident he’ll be a lot better than he was last year,” Antonetti added in March. “I really think he’s going to do a good job for us,” Francona said a few days before the opener.
Result: The excitement was well-placed. Jimenez rebounded from a bad 2012 to post his highest WARP total since 2010.
Other predictions: Every signing is, in a sense, a prediction that Free Agent X will make Baseball Team Y better. One such signing/prediction was the Indians’ addition of Brett Myers in early January, about which Antonneti said:
A UCL sprain ended Myers’ season in April, though he did allow more home runs (10) in his 21 1/3 innings than some full-season starters. The Indians released him in August.
"We're really going to try to drive home the fact that we're going to put the ball on the ground as a pitching staff," Weiss said on Valentine’s Day.
Other predictions: Weiss made a less successful prediction on March 25, when he said (twice), “We’re going to be a good offensive club.” The Rockies did score the second-most runs in the National League, but after accounting for Coors, their offense rated below average.
He was better than that guy, contributing a career-high 3.0 WARP.
The Tigers became one of three teams to predict a World Series victory last winter, when Kelly (of all people) called his team’s shot in a February 27 interview about his religious faith with a Pittsburgh sports blog. “I think we’ll get back to World Series [sic] and win it this year,” Kelly (of all people) said.
Result: Lost in the ALCS. Kelly went 0-for-6 in the series after spending most of the regular season trying to prove his prediction wrong.
GM Jeff Luhnow was in good spirits before last season started. On February 6, he told the Houston Chronicle:
Result: This one is on the vague side, since it’s hard to say exactly how good the “national media” and “people” thought the Astros would be in 2013. Regardless, they lost 111 games, which definitely qualifies as “a lot.”
Other predictions: Luhnow made a much more specific prediction after a March 28 split-squad game in which the Astros hit four homers. “Of our two goals this offseason, one was the rotation depth and the second was to get more thunder in our lineup, and I think we're seeing the results of that right now,” he said. “I don’t think it’s a fluke. I think we’re going to see more home runs at Minute Maid from our team than we did last year.”
The verdict: Technically true. Houston hit two more homers at home in 2013, and the same number on the road. Thunder!
Ned Yost was irrationally exuberant before the 2012 season, calling for a “much better than .500 finish” and a “very solid rotation” and capping off his forecasting tour de force by noting that “Jonathan Sanchez is even better than I dreamed he would be.” The skipper was feeling exuberant again last March, saying, "I think we're going to be much improved over what we were in the past” and adding “We've got pitching, not only in the starting department, but in the bullpen to finish games out. We've got a tremendously athletic defense.”
Result: Exuberant, yes, but this time not irrationally so. The Royals were much improved over what they’d been in the past. However, Yost also said, “I think with this group we're definitely going to win a world championship somewhere down the road, the next couple of years.” We’ll check back in on that one after 2014.
“He's done it for four years at the big league level, and we think he'll continue to do it," Dipoto said in December.
Result: He didn’t do it.
Other predictions: “With the guys we have, we’re going to be good,” a soon-to-be-injured Kevin Jepsen said about the soon-to-be-disastrous Angels bullpen in February. Mike Scioscia did a better job by correctly predicting a bounceback from C.J. Wilson in March: "I think we'll see much more of that first-half guy from C.J. than the guy who was a little erratic in the second half,” Scioscia said. "His command will be better; I think he'll definitely be able to put hitters away better.”
Kemp predicted that he’d have baseball’s first 50-50 season in 2012. In January of 2013, he settled for a more modest goal, simply predicting that he’d play:
Result: Unlike Danks, he was ready for the opener, though “good” was a stretch. In March, Kemp said:
In November of 2012, the Marlins gave Tino Martinez a three-year hitting coach contract. The following January, Martinez was asked whether he might manage in the future. He answered:
With Corey Hart injured, Milwaukee’s manager turned to an unlikely substitute: light-hitting, 36-yaer-old career shortstop Alex Gonzalez.
"He's our first baseman," Roenicke said just four days before the Brewers’ first game. "I'm planning on him being our everyday first baseman.
Result: Gonzalez started the Brewers’ first four games at first, went 1-for-13, and lost the regular gig in favor of the next-worst option, Yuniesky Betancourt. The Brewers released him in June. Despite the mid-season arrival of Juan Francisco, Brewers first basemen hit an MLB-worst .206/.259/.370.
“I think we’re going to be better,” St. Peter said when asked about his expectations for the 2013 Twins last March. “I expect that we’ll be much more competitive.”
Result: Nah. Same win total, five fewer Pythag wins, five games further out in the AL Central.
“The payroll is going to go up this year,” Wilpon said before the 2013 season.
Other predictions: “I expect we’ll be better,” GM Sandy Alderson said in early February about a team that went on to repeat with 74 wins (and a lower run differential). And while Terry Collins admitted on March 1 that Johan Santana “may not pitch Opening Day,” he did assure Mets fans that “he’ll be ready for the fourth or fifth game.” (Santana wasn’t as confident.)
The first and most famous of the back-by-Opening-Day declarants, Jeter set the standard by which all subsequent vows would be measured.
“No question,” Jeter answered on December 3, when Michael Kay asked him whether he’d be ready to play by Opening Day. “We still got a long way to go before the season starts, but I’ll be ready,” he concluded, maybe mouthing a “YEAH JEETS.” “He’ll be ready on Opening Day,” GM Brian Cashman confirmed over a month later.
This one comes thirdhand: a prediction made by manager Bob Melvin, relayed through Nakajima and Nakajima’s translator. It’s possible that the wording was changed along the way, but here’s how it appeared in the San Jose Mercury News on February 11:
Result: Nakajima didn’t get into a game for the A’s. Lowrie was the primary shortstop.
From a story about Adams’ signing in December of 2012:
Result: Adams had surgery to repair two labrum tears and a torn rotator cuff in August. The option won’t vest unless he somehow appears in 92 games next season.
Here’s Hurdle, sounding sort of crazy (and in retrospect, really smart) way back on February 28:
Result: Ninety-four wins. Hurdle deserved to win the NL Manager of the Year Award for that prediction alone. A week earlier, owner Bob Nutting had said, "We're going to be playing exciting games throughout the summer as we did last year. We're going to play meaningful games in September. We're going to compete for a championship and put ourselves in position for a sixth World Series in Pittsburgh." Not bad, but “95 wins” wins.
Result: Three reasons: a fractured thumb, a torn meniscus, and a stiff lower back.
Pagan wasted little time pronouncing the Giants 2013 champions:
Result: Win the World Series, bring back the same roster, and win it again—why wouldn’t that work? Pagan and Brian Sabean are still wondering.
Coming off his extension high, Felix was feeling pretty positive:
Result: How’s “We’ve got (Kyle) Seager coming back” for a Mariners motto? Felix wasn’t the only Mariner with delusions of grandeur after the team’s 22-win exhibition season. Here’s Brandon Maurer one day later:
"We've got a great team," said Seattle starter Brandon Maurer, who allowed two runs and four hits in four innings. "You saw how we can hit the ball today. Our fielding is amazing. We've got great pitchers. I think we will have a good season."
The Mariners won four fewer games than they had in 2012. Their fielding was anti-amazing.
The Cardinals were good enough that they didn't have to say so, so this are the closest anyone affiliated with the Cardinals came to making predictions:
Result: Furcal, who sounded quite confident himself, had Tommy John surgery to replace his healed-looking-ligament on March 15. He should have learned from Jaime Garcia, who evaded all questions about his health with a “We’ll see.”
Tampa Bay Rays
Like the Cardinals, the Rays didn’t do much talking. I found just one concrete prediction, from Joe Maddon on January 17: “Trust me, we’re going to be really good.”
Result: Maddon was worthy of our trust.
Result: According to Cot’s, it wasn’t.
Other predictions: When the March scuttlebutt said Nolan Ryan was on his way out of the Rangers front office, Daniels predicted, “I think he’ll be here in his same role at the end of spring training and the end of the season.” And he was, albeit barely: Ryan resigned on October 18.
The Jays were optimistic last spring, but they were careful to steer clear of guaranteeing victory, taking their cue from Alex Anthopoulos, who said “No one is good enough to predict who is going to do well, and that’s why I cringe a little bit when people try to predict what we’re going to end up doing.” (Mark Buehrle said, “This team I think is better [than the 2005 White Sox,” but added an all-important “on paper.”)
R.A. Dickey came the closest to a definitive statement, saying “I think we’re going to have a great team,” on February 22. And on February 12, Jose Bautista tempted fate by saying, “And this is by far the best team that I’ve played on. I just don’t see where it can go bad for us.”
Result: It went bad for them.
Result: No joy. The Nats were doomed from the start, with Pagan-propelled San Francisco and Kelly-led Detroit already destined to meet and beat each other in the Fall Classic.