Hi, my name is Russell and I’m an expert.
Go ahead and click on that link. It’ll tell you that I’m an “expert” in the by-line. This past April – right before Opening Day – I was asked to engage in an annual rite of spring, whereby “experts” try to foretell what’s about to happen in the forthcoming MLB season. Now we’ve reached the point where all of the hazy outcomes that we tried to foretell in April have been revealed (at least the regular season variety). And it’s worth looking back on my predictions and asking… how on earth did anyone mistake me for an expert?
They were brutal, but here are my predictions in all their faded glory:
NL East Champion: Washington Nationals (second place)
NL Central Champion: St. Louis Cardinals (totally nailed it)
NL West Champion: Los Angeles Dodgers (as Meat Loaf told us, two out of three ain’t bad)
It would be easy for me to say “Well, a lot of other people picked similarly to how I did." The majority of my fellow "experts" tipped the Red Sox to take the AL East. Everyone thought the Nats were the best team in baseball. I was even one of four people who picked Dalton Pompey. I could even hide behind a glib “Well, you can’t predict baseball!” And sure, there’s plenty of randomness in baseball and I could say “Wow, sure didn’t see the Mets’ pitching holding up that well!”
But, I need to be honest about where a lot of these predictions came from. Here’s where I—an expert—went wrong and where I can do better next year.
The Red Sox will win the AL East and the Indians will win the AL Central
Here’s an interesting fact. From 2012-2014, the Boston Red Sox won a total of 237 games, and played in (and won) one World Series. In the same timeframe, the Kansas City Royals won 247 games and played in (and barely lost) one World Series. Last year, the Red Sox finished in last place, while the Royals were a playoff team. And yet, I felt perfectly OK with predicting the Red Sox to finish first and—as evidenced by my White Sox Wild Card pick—the Royals to finish no higher than third in the AL Central.
At the time, I justified it by saying to myself that the Royals' good fortune last year was based on the dynamite bullpen work of Greg Holland, Wade Davis and Kelvin Herrera, and since bullpen performance is unreliable, they were probably due in for a regression. They also lost their “only good starter” in James Shields to free agency and replaced him with Edinson Volquez, and that couldn’t be good. Plus, the outfield defense—and yes it was legitimately good—isn’t a stable source of value, because the number of plays that separate out the good outfielders from the bad are so small. And… Kendrys Morales.
On the other side, I reasoned that the Red Sox were building in their rotation with Wade Miley, Justin Masterson, and Rick Porcello, guys who I was pre-disposed of to think of as “under-valued” as well as signing a giant panda to play third and a guy known as a bit of a defensive liability to play the hardest left field in baseball, even though he had never played left field. But they were name-brand free agents. I hand-waved the fact that the Red Sox were obviously thin in the bullpen. They had exciting prospects (Mookie Betts, Xander Bogaerts, Rusney Castillo), and… okay, so I don’t fall for the “David Ortiz is clutch” thing, but he can still hit a little.
It’s not that I should have been expected to know that Kendrys Morales would actually pull himself together or that Hanley Ramirez and Pablo Sandoval would collapse so totally. I don’t think anyone saw that coming. The crime that I committed here was that in my head, Boston is a “good” team and the Royals are still perennial “losers” (and… not a Sabermetrically approved team) I interpreted the Red Sox moves as a correction, bringing them back in line with their proper station in life. I didn’t think the Royals would collapse to “And with the first pick in the draft…” territory, but in all truthfulness, I had them in fourth place in the Central, above their eventual division runner-up, the Minnesota Twins.
I also focused way too much on the bright, shiny, new things. I focused on Betts and Bogaerts (both of whom had excellent seasons) but forgot to inspect the rest of the parts that made up the rest of the Red Sox, such as the aging Mike Napoli and David Ortiz. Same with the Royals. I focused on their offseason moves, while forgetting to notice that Mike Moustakas and Eric Hosmer showed real signs of improvement last year, and Alex Gordon has been one of the best players in baseball that no one has noticed for years. I didn’t notice.
It’s not that I think I should have “called” the Royals and put the Red Sox further down the ladder. There was fairly obvious risk on both teams (in different forms) and the dice were kinder to the Royals this year. The problem was that I evaluated that risk through the lens of my pre-conceived notions of the two teams.
And I picked the Indians because I figured that the division would be a three-team scrum between the Indians, White Sox, and Tigers. And I’m from Cleveland.
The A’s will win the AL West
In the pre-season BP Annual, I wrote the essay for the eventual AL West champion Texas Rangers. When I was a guest on a certain podcast which shall remain nameless, I opined that the Rangers were the kind of team that wouldn’t surprise me if they won 70 or 90 games. I saw the AL West as a bit of a jump ball between the Rangers (if they were healthy), the A’s, the Mariners, and the Angels.
I’d like to say that I had a great rationale for picking the A’s, other than the fact that my high school’s colors were green and gold or that my favorite player when I was a kid was Jose Canseco. (It was 1989. That made sense back then. So did Zubaz.) There was something that smacked of a maestro juggling all of the pieces by shipping out one of the most underappreciated guys in baseball—Josh Donaldson—and bringing in one of the most underappreciated guys in baseball—Ben Zobrist. They signed Billy Butler to a “what were they thinking?” contract, but the reflex to just believe that Billy Beane knows what he’s doing is strong. Maybe it’s time to remember that Moneyball came out before I was married and my wife and I just celebrated 10 years this past July.
Yeah, they caught some bad luck, but… maybe Billy Beane is human.
The White Sox and Blue Jays will be Wild Cards
I guess I kinda got the Blue Jays right. To be honest with you, I have no recollection of why I typed the words “Chicago White Sox” into the e-mail that I sent to record my picks. I did perceive (correctly) that there was going to be a big jumble of teams in the American League fighting for the second Wild Card spot. The White Sox had a busy offseason, adding Adam LaRoche, Melky Cabrera, Zach Duke, David Robertson, and that guy who was a wide receiver at Notre Dame and whose name I can never spell. I guess I made the classic mistake of assuming that activity equaled improvement.
As to the team that did snag the second Wild Card, the Houston Astros, it’s a very strange duality. Coming into this year, the Astros were perceived—much like the Cubs—as “a year or two away,” although for those sorts of teams, if a few things break right and guys develop a little earlier than we might have otherwise guessed, then they could be realistic contenders. The question that’s worth asking is how much “if everything goes right” did the Astros need at the beginning of the season vs. how much “if everything goes right” that the White Sox would need. Looking back, it probably takes about the same amount of hope to believe either one, but again, in much different forms. The Astros needed player development to happen. The White Sox needed veterans to keep the magic going for a little longer.
For some reason, it feels wrong to pick a team a year “too early” even when it’s pretty obvious that a team’s going to be pretty good at some point soon. It feels okay to pick a team in what might be a year too late, even when it’s pretty obvious that the guys that they are relying on have a limited shelf life. I fell prey to this one, and didn’t consider the Astros at all.
Maybe I still would have picked the White Sox, but I didn’t give the Astros their due. That was a mistake.
The Nationals will win the NL East
I think we all got that one wrong. At the time, it looked like the Nats had six strong starting pitchers. The Nats had Bryce Harper leading a lineup that was going to be really good. What could possibly go wrong? Everything, of course, except Harper. 2015 will go down as a choke job (hey-yo!) extraordinaire, although oddly enough, looking back on this one, I don’t feel bad about this one.
The Cardinals will win the NL Central and the Dodgers will win the NL West
Yep. I’m an #Expert.
Although when Adam Wainwright went down “for the season” (he’s back!) I was quick to jump onto the “Pirates will win the NL Central” bandwagon in my own head. Thankfully, no one asked around then.
The Pirates and Padres will be NL Wild Cards
I sincerely believed in the Pirates and still do. It’s a shame that they geographically got stuck in the same boat as the Cardinals and the resurgent Cubs, but this is the kind of pick that was fairly obvious to make. I can’t really claim a lot of credit for making it. But the Padres…
I think every baseball season has its Yourself or Someone Like You. A pick so popular at the time that looking back, we wonder… what were we all thinking? I can’t speak to everyone else, but my journey to picking the Padres was something of a bold political statement on my part. It’s so bold that no one probably knew I was making it and I have to explain it in a column six months later. The Padres were a team that despite having a new general manager in A.J. Preller were going for it. I think that there is a little too much navel-gazing “We should be playing for two to three years in the future, so let’s not go too crazy going all in on this year” in baseball. Instead, here were the Padres damning the torpedoes, burning the ships, and charging full steam ahead. I figured I would reward them in what little way that I could, with a Wild Card berth in my head.
Of course, had I taken a few moments to note that “Oh yeah, they don’t have a decent fielding outfielder in a big park. Or a reasonable infielder” I might have thought… yeah, they’re doing something, but you don’t get points in baseball for doing something. There are specific things you need to do. And the Padres were lacking in some key skills on that list.
In some way, the Padres-Cubs dynamic was the same as the White Sox-Astros dynamic that I had driving my American League picks. Had I picked the Cubs (or the Astros), it would have been building up hope for the future, only for the possibility that it would be dashed. Picking anyone is hoping for something, but with the White Sox and Padres, I was hoping merely that something would continue happening, even though the chances of that falling apart are roughly the same as the hopes for the Astros and Cubs kids coming through. We like the idea of the “steady state” universe of baseball. If a veteran falls apart, it’s easy to scream that “How was I supposed to see that coming?” If a prospect doesn’t develop, it’s easy to scream at someone else “Why did you think he would be different this year? He’s never shown any record of being any good!” Looking back, maybe I was just taking the easy way out in my picks.
Of course, in an alternate universe where I had picked the Cubs and Astros and the Padres and White Sox really had made the playoffs, I’d be roasted for going along with some false consensus that the Astros and Cubs were “on the verge” when everyone always seems to be on the verge. I’d be trying too hard with my hipster picks.
Maybe the lesson here is that there’s no good way to play the prediction game. Baseball will humble anyone. Even an expert like me.
Award hardware will go to Trout, McCutchen, King Felix, Cueto, Bryant, and Pompey.
I don’t bat an eye looking at the Trout or Cutch picks. It’s possible neither will win (Bryce Harper will likely win the NL MVP, deservedly, but Cutch will get some well-deserved votes; Josh Donaldson will make it close with Trout, and I won’t bat an eye if he wins), but it’s not like either pick looks very shameful after the answers have revealed themselves. Felix didn’t have an amazing year, but was still good and I could have justified a pick for a few other pitchers. Cueto was me being a little contrarian, mostly the little guy in my brain yelling “Don’t pick Kershaw, don’t pick Kershaw, don’t pick Kershaw…”
The howler in there is Dalton Pompey for AL MVP. I’m no prospect hound, so I always cringe at trying to make this pick anyway (right up there with Manager of the Year), but I did fall into one other trap that I really shouldn’t have. Part of the reason that I went with Pompey was that he was on the Blue Jays’ Opening Day roster. I couldn’t have known that guys like Francisco Lindor or Carlos Correa were going to come up and do that when they finally made it to the big leagues, but the truth is that I never even considered either one. It’s not like they were mysterious guys that no one had ever heard of either. I just didn’t have the imagination to consider that a consensus top 10 prospect could come up to the big leagues mid-year and legitimately stake a claim to being the best rookie in half of baseball.
The A’s over the Nats in the World Series
In all truth, I picked the A’s because they made me pick someone. Once everyone makes it into the playoffs, you really can just reach into a bag and pull out a name. Right now, I have no idea which of the 10 teams that have qualified for the playoffs will lift the Vince Lombardi trophy at the end of October. (Yes, I know.)
And looking back, there are a lot of predictions that get made—even ones that had really good rationale that went into them—that look silly in hindsight. There’s a lot that you can’t account for in baseball. But that’s not an excuse to not account for things that should have been accounted for, and just because someone calls me an expert, it doesn’t mean that I’m immune from shoddy analysis. Looking back, I should have known (and done) better.