This time of year, projections start rolling out for many sites, with writers, computer projection systems, and algorithms collaborating to create fake standings. People like to argue about the things that seem to be missing from the projections. And every year the projections get some things right and other things very wrong. The standings create arguments, and arguing about sports is a big part of why sports are so great.
This year, the arguable points from the projections involve the standings at the top of the American League. With a ton of deep, talented teams in the National League — including the Cubs, Cardinals, Pirates, Mets, Giants, Nationals, and Dodgers — it’s reasonable to think that the AL might get a bit overlooked. But last year’s ALCS match up, the Toronto Blue Jays and their high-powered offense versus the small-ball and power bullpen-toting Kansas City Royals, seem to be dumped on consistently across the board.
In 2015, the Royals won 95 games and the World Series while the Blue Jays took the AL East crown with 93 wins. Fangraphs came out with the early projections for 2016, putting the Blue Jays at 83 wins and the Royals at 79. USA Today projected the Blue Jays at 86 victories and the Royals coming in just under with 84. Baseball Prospectus’s PECOTA also gave the Blue Jays 86 but dropped the Royals down to 76 — after initially projecting the Royals at 72 wins last season. So what gives?
To recap a bit, the Blue Jays’ offseason saw them losing stud starting pitcher David Price to the Boston Red Sox. This probably plays a big factor in how the team rates, but there are other things to consider too. First, they had by far the highest-scoring offense in the major leagues last season, and that won’t likely change. Between AL MVP Josh Donaldson, Edwin Encarnacion, Troy Tulowitzki, Russell Martin, Jose Bautista, and others, the Blue Jays aren’t going to struggle to put runs on the board.
The rotation isn’t bad, either. Despite the loss of Price, the Jays will count on 25-year-old Marcus Stroman — who was limited to just four starts with the Jays last season — to step up and become the ace he appears to be so far in his short career. Joining Stroman in the rotation is 41-year-old knuckleballer R.A. Dickey, as well as Marco Estrada, J.A. Happ, and possibly either journeyman pitcher Jesse Chavez or 25-year-old former prospect Drew Hutchinson.
In a division that sees the fading Yankees and a few mediocre teams in the Orioles and Rays, it’s hard not to view the division as a battle between the Jays and the Red Sox. But to project Toronto at much less than 90 wins is a head scratcher. The Royals, on the other side, should be used to this treatment. PECOTA has long been viewed as a “Royals hater,” as if computer systems can actually form opinions.
The Royals lost starting pitcher Johnny Cueto to the Giants in free agency and second baseman Ben Zobrist to the Cubs. But the Royals acquired both of those players just a few days before the trade deadline, and prior to the trades they sported a 59-38 record (which is a .608 winning percentage). After that date, the Royals went 36-29 (just a .554 winning percentage). So the losses in free agency didn’t exactly tear the team apart.
Sam Miller of Baseball Prospectus put some thoughts together on the Royals’ low projection this season:
If I were going to make the case against projection systems — without doing any research, just a common sense objection — it would be that the formula that misses on a player (or team) one year is in no position to project what they’ll do the next. This isn’t meant as a blanket “bah humbug” to the idea of using events of the past to forecast the future — everybody does that, just in less systematic ways than a system does. But much of the information that goes into a 2014 projection is carried over into a 2015 projection, and then into a 2016 projection.
The Royals, coming into 2015, had outperformed PECOTA by 21 games in the previous three seasons. Only three teams (Baltimore, Pittsburgh, Oakland) had outdone PECOTA by more. That the Royals then overperformed yet again seems suggestive. That Pittsburgh (one of the teams in the parentheses one line up) was PECOTA’s second-biggest “miss” last year, winning 18 more games than projected, seems suggestive. That the A’s were PECOTA’s third-biggest “miss” would seem suggestive, except that the A’s won 15 fewer games than projected. Fewer. The team PECOTA had been consistently lowest on turned into the team that PECOTA was wrongfully highest on.
Despite the projection systems creating different theories on which teams may win and why, there is one thing that is constant among them: They’ll always be wrong about something. Nobody had the Cubs in the NLCS last season, and few had the Royals in the World Series again. The people who run the projections understand this. The projections create fun topics to discuss, so for that we thank them — even if they may be wrong about the two top teams in the American League.
Follow Ryan on Twitter @RyanDavisBP
Statistics courtesy of Baseball-Reference.com.