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April 6, 2008

The Silly Season

Prognostication Perils

by Matt Taibbi

Opening week is a great time to watch baseball, but also one to read inane baseball predictions. I'm as much of a sucker for idle stat-based pre-season speculations as the next guy, but there are limits. Really, there are. Like last week, when I read Sporting News blogger and BP alum David Pinto arguing that Tampa Bay might have a better starting rotation than Boston or New York this year. Using PECOTA to argue that the D-Rays (or whatever the hell that team is called this year) "show strength in eqERA at every level," Pinto argues that Tampa has "a good chance of becoming the class of the AL East."

In writing this, Pinto ignores one of the eight basic rules of writing the Annual Baseball Preview piece--rule number seven, actually--which reads:

7. Despite being picked as surprise contenders by experts every year, whatever pro baseball team plays in Tampa Bay and the NFL football Cardinals (of whatever city happens to be hosting them that year) will both turn out to be wretched, sub-.500 exercises in suckitude playing to mostly empty stadiums by midseason.

This is an eternal truth of sports journalism that no amount of box-score analysis can dispel. The Rays will probably mount a serious challenge to that notion long before the Cardinals will, but until they do, a good sportswriter should obey this timeless, unwritten law. Pinto is probably right, objectively--and watching Andy Sonnanstine beat up Ian Kennedy last night, I have a sinking feeling he might be--but all the same, these early preview pieces offer ample evidence that PECOTA should be expanded to include some of the basic immutable laws of the universe.

For instance, the system should make a sharp downward adjustment in future statistical performance when a player doubles the number of times per day that he refers to himself in the third person--a Rickey Henderson exception, basically. The same thing goes for any junk-balling left-handed starting pitcher who goes on television to do an acoustic jam with Chris Isaak. In fact PECOTA should really have a Barry Zito by-law etched in stone--when a pitcher says things in public like, "I think when I was in the womb, I heard lots of music," his strikeout rates for the next seven consecutive years should go in the tank.

Sportswriters tend to forget about this stuff before the season starts. They also almost always forget a few other things, particularly during season preview season. In any case, here are some of the other rules that need to be kept in consideration at this time of year:

  1. At least a few sportswriters every year will send in their preview pieces late, and in those pieces will name the guy who had a monster game on opening day the eventual MVP/Cy Young/Rookie of the Year for the season. This happens every year; you can bank it. It's best of all if the guy who had the big game is a high-priced free agent who's just switched teams (think Opening Day hero Gil Meche last year, or two-homer-hitting Richie Sexson in Seattle three years ago) but baseball writers will take what they can get. The lucky winner this year is Manny Ramirez, who despite having his worst season ever last year was recently crowned MVP by Bill Simmons and Peter Gammons, apparently because he was back to his hilarious old get-a-load-of-me! home run act in the two Tokyo games. There's also a corollary to this rule, which I call the Chris Shelton rule...
  2. Every year, some wide-eyed rookie/journeyman minor leaguer sells his soul to Satan for three great weeks in the majors right out of the gate, gets himself at least three dates with B-list-or-higher supermodels, and at least one appearance on the Budweiser Hot Seat before he falls on his face in May and ends up selling boat insurance in North Carolina two years later. Before the crash, however, he will be mistakenly anointed as the Next Great Whatever by 28 pecent of the BBWAA. I don't know if Chris Shelton is actually selling boat insurance now, but he should be--maybe he should form a partnership with Clint Barmes. Anyway, there's always some kid who enters May on pace to hit 79 home runs and gets himself fitted for a closet full of custom Sean John sweatsuits, while the media spends its time killing slow-to-adjust future stalwarts like Hideki Matsui and Dustin Pedroia. The point is to beware of early pronouncements about young players because they're usually wrong. Incidentally, in Matsui's case the misplaced panic was linked to another rule...

  3. Sportswriters always severely undersell the Yankees early in the season. As a life-long Red Sox fan, I can report that I have never once seen the Yankees actually lose a game. A few nights ago, in fact, the Yankees reportedly lost to the Blue Jays 5-2, but the game I saw was actually an 11-3 win for the Yankees, with A-Rod hitting two home runs in the same at-bat against Jeremy Accardo in the ninth, in the process driving in an amazing eight walk-off runs. My friends keep telling me that 2004 happened, and one even gave me a DVD to prove it, but when I put it in my DVD player, my TV just plays crappy Will Smith movies like Hitch and Wild, Wild West. So I'm skeptical.

    This year the majority of national sportswriters are picking the Red Sox to repeat, and that's due to a phenomenon that should also probably have a rule of its own--writers always cravenly lick the bums of last year's World Series winner, often in defiance of all reason. Remember when the White Sox won, and every baseball analyst in the country was rushing to tell us how the secret to success involved hiring a fiery, risk-taking manager and putting together a staff of workmanlike innings-eating starters? Well, how did that turn out? It's the same with this year's Red Sox; they were one game away from losing shame-assedly to the Indians last year, and all the same they're being hailed as a dynasty now by the sporting press. It makes no sense to me.

    Meanwhile, all common sense indicates that the Yankees simply can't help being at least a 93- or 94-win team, even in the worst possible circumstances (like last year). A typical Yankees game involves some young opposing starter gamely making his way through two scoreless innings, pumping his fist and bounding to the dugout as he works his way out of that second-inning jam, at which point you're ready to anoint the kid the next Cy Young. Then in the next frame New York starts hitting six-run homers, and the next thing you know, Kyle Farnsworth is giving up three meaningless runs in the eighth as the Yanks cruise to an eleven-run victory. That's the normal state of things. Even if nature gets turned on its head, as it was last year, New York always has enough money and resources to buy stopgap solutions in June and July.

    Writers who pick the Yanks to lose or miss the playoffs (I love how this year's excuse is that the back-end starters are supposedly unreliable--as if that stopped the Red Sox from winning with Julian Tavarez taking the ball every fifth day last year) are either Boston fans or they're just plain crazy. And there are an awful lot of them this year--Pete Abraham of the Journal-News, Yahoo!'s Jeff Passan, etc. The Yankees may not be built particularly well for the postseason, but the regular season? With 19 games on the schedule against the Orioles? Please.

  4. PECOTA doesn't apply to the Cubs. It just doesn't. PECOTA accounts for many factors, but not the phenomenon of Cub-death, defined as the extremely painful slow wasting disease that eats nerve axons from the inside out once a player, particularly a highly-paid player, puts on a Cub uniform. A physician who treated Rich Hill after last year's playoffs recently told the New England Journal of Medicine that the late stages of the disorder are "like something out of a science fiction novel--nothing in the world compares to it. The vital organs liquefy before your eyes. You can't do an autopsy because you can't dissect gumbo." In a testament to the ragged poverty of the NL Central, the Cubbies made the playoffs last year, then rolled over in the playoffs like France in 1940. This is a team that has a lot of talent, a legit ace starter, lots of middle-of-the-order power, and a psychological albatross that makes the Isiah Thomas Knicks look like an "Up With People!" revival tour. With each loss and each thunderclap of hysterical Wrigley booing this team looks ready to self-immolate on the field. Hell, Ted Lilly on the mound the other day looked like a man who had just looked across a bar and spotted his wife standing next to Pierce Brosnan. In a word, it's a team that's tailor-made to be wiped out in the playoffs by a happy-to-be-there small-market club with positive karma. Despite all this, they're once again a trendy pick to win it all--even Sports Illustrated got in the act again this year. No amount of statistical analysis can justify such a pick; until the Cubs catch the gods napping some year, they should always be picked to lose in the end. However, they should make the playoffs, thanks to the next rule...
  5. Teams that overpay for mediocre relief pitching always implode early. Man, is it going to be fun watching Milwaukee Brewer fans as they live through a year of Eric (Way Back) Gagné. He was hilarious to watch in the second half of last year; his fastball, once unhittable, was suddenly the size of a casaba melon by the time it hit the strike zone, and fifth outfielders were literally running to the plate to take hacks at it. He was so bad that the other relievers in the Red Sox pen wriggled away from him on the bench to avoid being infected by his aura--even the terminally-polite Hideki Okajima made up an obsession with a stuffed parrot to get away from Gagné. Naturally, the Brewers decided to pay $10 million for this premium talent. By midseason someone in that team's front office is going to re-sign Randall Simon and try to egg him into braining Gagné with a bat during the sausage races. Readers can insert their own anti-Canada joke here; pretty much any one will apply. In any case, the Brewers were toast the moment they made that signing, just as the Blue Jays were toast this year as soon as they pronounced their own $10 million reliever, B.J. Ryan, "finally healthy." Only the Yankees, who overpaid Mo Rivera by about $3 million a year, are exempt from this rule, mainly because a) Rivera is probably worth it at any price, and b) the Yankees made up for overspending on the pen by not overpaying a broken-down starter with a bad attitude for the first time since the Carter administration. On the flip side, this last rule is also true...
  6. Overpaying for mediocre relief pitching doesn't work, but neither does underpaying. A Denny Bautista-scarred Detroit fan may actually lose his mind earlier than Gagné-scarred Brewer fan this year, mainly because the Tigers are the other sexy pick to win it all this year, and it will be comparatively that much more painful for Tiger fan to watch his team fall to .500 by late June. Sportswriters love slugging teams and love teams with big-ticket home run hitters in the middle of the lineup, which is the main reason why Detroit is getting so much love despite the fact that their pitching looks even worse than last year. Despite the fact that recent history is littered with early collapses in the form of big-slugging teams that went into the season with ignored relief staffs--think the pre-Joba Yankees last year, the pre-Wagner Mets, Boston in the hideous Byung-Hyun Kim year--sportswriters keep picking the teams that have the most home run hitters in their lineups to win the Series. Detroit is this year's chief pretender to that throne, and looks poised to prove a basic maxim, which is that games lost in heartbreaking late-inning collapses hurt more and have a more devastating effect on team psyches than other types of losses. It's the kind of thing that doesn't show up in statistical projections; by exactly how much will Gary Sheffield overswing in the sixth inning of a tie ballgame the day after Jason Grilli gives up a four-run lead to the Indians? Will D'acks manager Bob Melvin--in a desperate attempt to manufacture insurance runs on the day after another Brandon Lyon debacle--try an unprecedented sacrifice bunt with no runners on? In other words, in choosing between a team that hits a lot and has no relievers and a team that hits some and relieves well, you always take the latter. Which means Cleveland is the obvious choice for the AL Central this year.
  7. As for the rest of the league, skipping past the already-mentioned seventh rule, it comes down to this:
  8. It's not that difficult. Look, in the AL East it always comes down to New York and Boston, and when Boston wins, it's a fluke. So you pick New York there. In the Central it's Cleveland, as discussed. In the West, it's easy. Just as Methicillin-resistant Staphylococcus aureus is always the right diagnosis for a hospital-spread infection, in the West it's always the Angels and never the Rangers. The A's this year are eliminated from contention because five years after Moneyball the statute of limitations has officially expired on Billy Beane's genius. The Mariners are a possibility, but their karma is suffering from too many consecutive years of premature breakout season predictions for Felix Hernandez. So you go with the Angels to win the division, leaving Seattle and Boston as wild-card possibilities. Flip a coin there (my flip picks Seattle). In the NL, you put all the teams except the Pirates, Giants, Astros, and Marlins into a hat and pick four at random, knowing that it doesn't matter who actually reaches the World Series because that team will end up getting pounded anyway. I made my NL picks by asking my Sri Lankan doorman to pick four numbers between 1 and 12, with each number corresponding to a NL "contender." The resultant picks were Mets, Cubs, D'backs, and Dodgers. Are those picks right? I have no idea, but at least I didn't have to do much math to make them.

Matt Taibbi is a regular columnist for Rolling Stone, writes about sports for The Boston Phoenix, and is a contributor to Baseball Prospectus. You can contact Matt by clicking here.

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