The most unpredictable division in baseball is particularly unpredictable this offseason. Breaking down how each team might (?) see itself.
If you set out to list the five most surprising and the five most disappointing teams of 2015, there’s a good chance you would name at least four of the five American League Central clubs along the way. The Royals, you know about, but don’t forget the Twins, whom Sports Illustrated foresaw losing 100 games, but who were eliminated from the playoffs only on the final Saturday of the season. The same publication also picked the Indians to win the World Series, but Cleveland went 81-80. Personally, I picked the White Sox to win the division on the heels of their aggressive winter—but Chicago won 76 games. And PECOTA’s pick to cruise into October was Detroit, but the Tigers’ competitive window closed a year early, and they went 74-87.
I mention this because, if confounding expectations was the theme of the 2015 season in the AL Central, utter inscrutability might just be the theme of the winter there. I wouldn’t know where to begin forecasting next season’s standings in that division, and the major reason for that is that it’s virtually impossible to tell what any of the five teams are going to do with their offseasons. In most of the other divisions, there are clear favorites or co-favorites, and the objectives of at least three or four teams are very clear. Not in the AL Central. Let’s examine these teams one at a time.
Jason Kipnis was good, then bad, then bad still, and now he's good again. Why?
Streaks are a fascinating thing in baseball. There's an ongoing debate about whether having a hot hand is a fallacy or if there is actually some rhyme and reason to performing better for longer stretches of time.
Frankly, all that stuff is a bit beyond my interest. What I enjoy trying to figure out is why a great player is struggling, how he handles it, and how he attempts to bounce back. A month ago, I talked toAndrew McCutchen about a rough patch he was going through; his OPS was hovering around .600 at the time. He was confident he’d figure things out, and repeatedly talked about how the game is all about adjustments. Well, to no one’s surprise, Cutch has been on fire since, with a .368/.464/.691 line in his last 19 games. I’m not going to say I motivated him, but hey, you can thank me later, Pirates fans.
Kluber, fresh off an 18-K performance, strikes out a dozen; pitchers duels turn into bullpen games, Carlos Gomez bounces back from a pitch to the face, and the best defensive play of the day.
The Monday Takeaway
The last time Corey Kluber took the hill he nearly made history. The Indians ace had 18 strikeouts heading into the ninth inning of last Wednesday’s game against the Cardinals but was pulled after 113 pitches without getting the chance to break the single-game strikeout record. So naturally, Kluber struck out the first five White Sox who took their hacks on Monday.
How PITCHf/x informed Nick Hagadone's offseason improvements.
While we often use the terms “ceiling” and “floor” to describe prospects, the implication is far more certain than the facts: A prospect’s ceiling might be higher than we ever allowed, and his floor might be nearly anything. Take Nick Hagadone: He always had promise, but the floor was set by concerns about his ability to develop a solid third pitch. See it in his player comment the 2010 BP Annual:
A key part of the V-Mart trade, Hagadone missed most of the 2008 season with Tommy John surgery. In his 15 Sally League starts across both systems he impressed, showing both the good (a 93-98 mph fastball is unusual power for a lefty, plus he has good sinking movement) and the bad (control issues). A rare talent who has only given up one home run in 79 1/3 minor-league innings, Hagadone's health, lack of command, and the absence of a solid third pitch have some scouts already projecting him as a reliever, but that's one heck of a back-up plan, as we're talking about a guy with Billy Wagner's arsenal and about eight more inches of height to angle it from.
The first week of the season is overrated, overanalyzed, overdiscussed--and, also, enough to move the odds significantly.
Prospectus co-founder Joe Sheehan often says that fans would be better served by baseball writers if they all put down their pens and pushed away from their keyboards from Opening Day until Memorial Day. Rany Jazayerli—another co-founder—ran a three-part study back in 2003 that provides some objective support to that subjective statement: it takes about 48 games for a team’s seasonal performance to become more predictive of their final record than a simple blend of their three previous seasons’ records, and a regression factor. After 10 games, that rough preseason projection is still more than six times as predictive of final record as actual performance is.
Joe isn’t wrong, and Rany’s math wasn’t, either. We have some tools that change the way we perceive the early segment of the season, though. For one, we have PECOTA, which was just making its maiden voyage through April when Rany wrote up his study. For another, we have the Playoff Odds Report, which uses PECOTA and a Monte Carlo simulation that repeats the season thousands of times to give us an estimate of the chances that each team will make it to the postseason.
Are clubs getting the most out of their extension opportunities?
Wade Miley, Brian Dozier, Juan Lagares and Christian Yelich are among the most recent round of players to get extensions that cover their arbitration years and not much more. We think we mostly know why these deals happen: teams want to lock in players at below market cost and players want to lock in moneys. The discussion on the benefit to teams mainly centers on the fact that players—being people—are risk averse and overfocused on negative, small-probability outcomes, such as a career-ending injury or becoming terrible. As a theoretical consequence, players accept below-market deals in order to guarantee income.
However, the four extensions listed above did not receive the pro-team praise/anti-labor outrage that past extensions have received. Is this a coincidence? Maybe. Is this just agents and players getting smarter? Maybe. Is this a reaction to an overreaction to the Jon Singleton extension? Maybe (though the author notes that this would be a gross oversimplification of the Singleton situation). Another possibility is that such extensions lend themselves to decision-making errors for teams just as they do for players. More specifically, teams might be overweighting certainty, small-probability outcomes, and positive trends in handing out such extensions.