April 6, 2009
You Could Look It Up
There have been a few teams in baseball history that have been called "miracle" teams: the 1914 Braves, a team that went from 69-82 to 94-59 and a World Series win over the Philadelphia A's; the Miracle of Coogan's Bluff, when Bobby Thomson's home run off of Ralph Branca put the 1951 New York Giants into the World Series; or in 1991, when both World Series teams, the last-to-first Minnesota Twins and Atlanta Braves, sometimes received the miracle appellation. In all of these cases, however, the designation was inaccurate.
There are no miracles in baseball. While in most seasons some team that should win 90 games will win 95, and some team that should have won 81 games will win 76, no team that has ever deserved to win 90 has lost 90, and no team with the talent of a 90-game loser has ever won a pennant. "Miracle" teams have not been blessed by Heaven, but only misdiagnosed here on Earth, their talent not properly appreciated at the season's outset.
Such oversights being a possibility, let's consider the bottom half of Baseball Prospectus's projected standings. BP has two major projections, one based on Nate Silver's PECOTA system, and another based on Clay Davenport's Postseason Odds Report, updated daily, which simulates the remainder of the schedule one million times. The percentage of times each team makes the playoffs in the simulation represents its post-season odds. For example, Clay's report gives the Yankees a 66.6 percent chance of making the postseason, meaning they did so in two-thirds of the million simulations that he ran.
PECOTA and Playoff Odds are largely in agreement about this season's contenders and bottom feeders. The most dire projections have been reserved for the Rangers (averaging a 70-92 record in the Playoff Odds simulation; PECOTA's projection is identical), the Marlins (a 69-93 average in Playoff Odds, 71-91 via PECOTA), the Astros (68-94 and 70-92), the Pirates (64-98 in both), the Rockies (72-90 and 71-91), and the Padres (71-91 in both). Playoff Odds also rate the Blue Jays and Orioles as having less than a 10 percent chance of making the playoffs. The systems split on which of the two will finish fourth and which last in the AL East, but agree that they have almost no chance of overcoming the Yankees, Rays, and Red Sox.
If miracle teams are 90-game winners misidentified as 90-game losers, what could these eight teams be hiding? What can the projection systems be failing to appreciate? Here's how some of them might defy the odds. Warning: we now depart the realm of hardcore probability and venture into outright speculation, fantasy, and perhaps science fiction. Here is a shot not at what is likely to happen, but what could conceivably happen:
Playing in the soft AL West, the Rangers find that a few of their off-season gambles on offense and defense have paid off. Moving Michael Young to third base revitalizes both his glove and his bat, while 20-year-old Elvis Andrus, his replacement at shortstop, plays strong defense and holds his own with the bat. Jarrod Saltalamacchia finally shows he's ready to play every day on both sides of the ball, Chris Davis hits 35 home runs, and Ian Kinsler stays healthy and holds onto last year's power. Josh Hamilton has another MVP-level year, topping off an outfield in which corner-men David Murphy and Nelson Cruz play like solid major league hitters and not slightly overqualified Triple-A lifers. Even Andruw Jones shows some life. The resultant offense allows the Rangers to overcome a starting rotation that somehow allows 4.5 runs per nine innings instead of 5.5 until July, at which point top pitching prospects Neftali Perez and Derek Holland arrive on the scene ready to pitch like All-Stars. This injection of new pitching life allows the Rangers to blow past the A's and Angels.
The Marlins' new defensive alignment, with Jorge Cantu at first base and Emilio Bonifacio at third, improves the team's inner defense so dramatically that they can overlook Bonifacio's anemic middle-infielder bat, while also transforming Dan Uggla's stiff glove. Cameron Maybin gives the club its first legitimate regular center fielder in years, Jeremy Hermida rediscovers the patience that made him a great prospect, and Hanley Ramirez has another season worthy of Honus Wagner. The newly constructed starting rotation, which includes three pitchers coming off of injuries, gels, with Ricky Nolasco sustaining his 2008 breakthrough and ground-ball specialist Chris Volstad benefiting from the improved D. Meanwhile, despite a devastated Miami economy and a long history of poor attendance, fans spin the Fish-y turnstiles, encouraging ownership to acquire a bat in the second half. Alternatively (and far more likely), an internal option like first baseman Logan Morrison develops in time to give the offense a little bit of a boost down the stretch. The Playoff Odds Report gives the Marlins only a 4.3 percent chance of making the playoffs, suggesting that even if a great many things go right for the Marlins, an equal number of things will have to go wrong for the Mets, Phillies, and Braves.
With a 2008 record of 86-75, the Astros overachieved; their total runs scored and allowed argued for a record more like 75-86. Thus their projection isn't pessimistic so much as a call for more of the same-minus the good luck. To contend in 2009, the Astros will not only need to defy the laws of probability, but also physics, putting their starting rotation into a time machine so that Mike Hampton and Russ Ortiz can party like it's 1999 and Brian "Scuffy" Moehler can revisit the halcyon days of 1998. If the DeLorean still has something left in the battery after that, they can jump Roy Oswalt back to 2006, the year he led the NL in ERA at 2.98, more than half a run lower than his 3.54 of last year. Unfortunately, this won't solve the problems of the offense, which slants toward mediocrity. If the Astros are to overcome this, Hunter Pence will have to take a step forward, Lance Berkman and Carlos Lee will need to have herculean seasons, Ivan Rodriguez and Miguel Tejada will have to find the Fountain of Youth, and Michael Bourn will have to find himself in traction, replaced by a more potent center fielder.
The Pirates will return to the postseason for the first time since 1992 if a few dozen things break their way. Among these, Nate McLouth reprising his unexpected power production of last year; the Brothers LaRoche proving to be the most potent sibling teammates since Hall of Famers Paul and Lloyd Waner led these same Pirates to a pennant 82 years ago; Nyjer Morgan hitting above replacement level; Brandon Moss proving to be a quality run producer instead of the spare part he was in Boston; and Ryan Doumit maintaining last season's batting average and power. If all of those things happen, the Pirates can turn to rubbing their lucky rabbits' feet and hoping for consistency from Paul Maholm, a rebound season from Ian Snell, and something like a league-average ERA from Zach Duke. If all of that happens, they will also need last season's acquisitions from the Yankees, Jeff Karstens and Ross Ohlendorf to show that they're more than fringe parts in the fourth and fifth rotation slots. Then they'll need their bullpen to knit in the unexpected way that bullpens sometimes do, and for some kind of storm to sweep off of Lake Michigan and rain out the Cubs' entire schedule.
As for the Rockies, Padres, Orioles, and Blue Jays, winning scenarios begin with Commissioner Selig allowing them to transfer out of their respective divisions-as both the AL East and NL West are topped by teams likely to win more than 90 games-and into a new one where they can compete with each other. That, or a legitimate miracle.
A version of this story originally appeared on ESPN Insider .