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.
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Opening the black box--which isn't a black box at all--to illuminate Justin Verlander's brilliance this year.
Justin Verlander has been through an interesting few years. How interesting, exactly?
Using Deserved Run Average (DRA), our new metric to describe pitcher performance here at Baseball Prospectus, we can track the trend. Because we want to evaluate Verlander across several seasons, we’ll also go one step further and use DRA–. DRA– is based on DRA, but is normalized to an average of 100 for each season, with lower being better. This allows you to compare pitchers across different seasons and different run-scoring environments.
Now that we’ve got our scorecard, let’s look at Verlander’s recent seasons.
Will Daniel Norris survive the 54-pitch first inning he threw Tuesday?
Daniel Norris threw 33 pitches in the first inning of his April 19th start against the Braves, back when he was a member of the Blue Jays. He threw 38 in the second inning on April 30th. After that start, he was demoted to Triple-A, and he didn’t make it back to the majors until after the Jays traded him to the Tigers in the David Price deal. In his second start for Detroit, on August 7th, he threw 39 pitches in the first frame. Last season, working mostly in relief as a September call-up for Toronto, Norris faced 30 batters and needed 138 pitches to dispense with them—an average of 4.60 offerings per plate appearance.
In other starts, Norris has flashed not only dominance, but efficiency. He has the potential to start successfully in the majors for years. Tuesday night was another one of those rough nights, though, when that future seems less likely. He threw 54 pitches in the first inning, and Brad Ausmus not only permitted that to happen, but sent Norris back out for the second inning. Norris proved that he simply didn’t have it, though, and failed to escape that frame. He finished with 71 pitches thrown, and as many runs on the board for the Rangers as outs recorded (five apiece).
DeGrom DeGrominates, the surprisingly good Tigers' bullpen is unsurprisingly bad, Bumgarner beats Kershaw again, and the best defensive play of the day.
The Thursday Takeaway
When Jacob deGrom served up three home runs to the Yankees on April 24th, then gave up five runs in 5 1/3 innings to the Mets six days later, some wondered if regression or an injury was afoot. A rollercoaster first month isn’t what prognosticators expected from deGrom after his outstanding rookie campaign, but it’s what they got. And so, the cries of “The Yankees broke deGrom!” rang out and wouldn’t die, not even after he struck out nine Orioles in seven innings on May 6th.
Painting a table of how the season's expectations have changed.
Our lives are ruled by probabilities. All things are possible, and the varying degrees of possibility of various things govern everything from our decisions to our dispositions. Often, we’re too preoccupied by our preoccupations to look forward very far, but the truth is that few events in our lives sneak up on us. Conscious or subconscious, perceptions of the likelihood of important events inform our mood, our priorities and our choices.
Sports fandom is a unique sliver of life, though, in which those probabilities aren’t floating whispers in the background. We’re constantly reevaluating them, recalculating and recalibrating them. Even in baseball, the sport of the long season, we look for significance in every win and every loss. We try to gauge the impact of everything we see, not only in the context of the game or the series at hand, but in the big picture. That’s why spirited fans so often seem to agonize over every pitch: it affects our perception of our team’s chances in the long run, and that affects our sense of well-being about our entire investment in the team. The effect of those small things is minute, compared to what we perceive it to be, but baseball is bedeviling. It lures us into the sense of constant cataclysm that characterizes the NFL, even though the moments that really matter as much as the outcome of any given NFL game happen perhaps once a month.
Alfredo Simon exemplifies this truth in baseball. Simon's legal history makes him perhaps the least endearing player on a big-league roster. In 2011, he was charged with (then acquitted of) involuntary manslaughter arising from a shooting death. More recently, he was sued by a woman who says he assaulted and raped her in April 2013.
Taking a look at the teams who should find it easiest to upgrade.
It’s the time of year when what has happened to date begins to really carry weight. The Mets have surpassed the Nationals as the most likely team to win the NL East, even though we all know that the Mets’ hot start and the Nationals’ cold one are only loosely indicative of real differences between the talent we thought each team had and the talent they actually have. The Brewers were fringe contenders when the season began; they’re non-factors now. The Royals were long-shot dreamers; they’re now serious postseason hopefuls, though not yet favorites.
Still, in most cases, we should assume that the level of play we expected from a team before the season is still its true talent level. Only injuries should be changing any minds about that at this point. What we thought we knew about each team, about each player and position, we should generally still believe.
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.
Money, Venezuela, and barrage of trades have kept the Tigers at the top.
Every day until Opening Day, Baseball Prospectus authors will preview two teams—one from the AL, one from the NL—identifying strategies those teams employ to gain an advantage. Today: the winningest teams of the past four years and PECOTA-projected division titlists Nationals and Tigers.