During a season, it can be hard to take a step back. You get so involved in what certain teams are doing, it’s tricky to be able to see the big picture. Just think about some recent events, though. The Astros have maintained a several-game lead in the AL West. The Twins beat the Red Sox in Boston on Thursday, aided by a ninth-inning error on a bunt, and it fit with a couple team patterns. And the Mariners traded for Mark Trumbo because they’re trying to energize an offense and an overall ballclub that hasn’t met expectations. You have a sense of what’s going on in the American League. But unless you really think about it, the significance might not hit you. You might not realize how insane the AL has been.
I’m sorry for this, but I have to use the word "projections." I know that can be a major turnoff, but then, I’m not really sure why — projections are just forecasts, based on historical statistics. We make our own mental projections all the time. We all look at a talented young player and figure he could improve. We all look at an aging slugger and figure he’ll decline. If we see a pitcher whose ERA doesn’t match his other numbers, we’ll assume some better luck. And so on. Projections shouldn’t be that controversial, individually, and a team projection is just a combination of individual forecasts. This is no form of attempted sorcery.
So anyway, team projections have existed in some form for quite a while. Right here, some while back, I compared 10 years of performance against 10 years of Opening Day team projections. Obviously, the relationship isn’t perfectly linear — there are things that just can’t be predicted — but overall, the projections have done pretty well. Generally speaking, projected good teams have played like good teams, and projected bad teams have played like bad teams. There have been many exceptions. Enough to keep the sport interesting.
In that post, I compared projected full-season performance to actual full-season performance. Now, as far as 2015 is concerned, we don’t have an actual full-season performance. We have actual two-month performance. But that’s precisely what I want to examine. We know how teams have actually done. At FanGraphs, we projected how the teams were expected to do, based on their Opening Day depth charts. How are the numbers comparing at the moment?
This is what we see in the National League. It’s … pretty normal.
There’s some noise. There’s always going to be some noise. But this is the relationship we’d expect. The below-average teams have mostly been below-average teams, and the above-average teams have mostly been above-average teams. Before the year, projections said the four best teams in the NL would be the Dodgers, Nationals, Cardinals and Pirates. That’s basically what’s happened, albeit not in quite the same order and with the Mets quietly back atop the NL East. Mostly, the NL has been what it was supposed to be.
And the AL has been bananas. Straight-up bananas.
It’s not just that there’s no clear relationship. That would be easier to explain (it’s early!). It’s that there’s an inverse relationship. Let’s say, hypothetically, you’d placed some AL bets, based on the projections, regarding performance over the first two months. Those would be stupid and weird bets, but, anyway. You’d be out a good amount of money.
For fun, let’s isolate the top and bottom five projected AL teams.
Projected Win%: .536
Actual Win%: .480
Projected Win%: .472
Actual Win%: .560
Of the eight teams projected to finish over .500, just three are currently over .500, and the overall average winning percentage is .475. Of the seven teams projected to finish under .500, just two are currently under .500, and the overall average winning percentage is .539.
Think about it. Put everything together. The Mariners were thought by many to be incredibly strong, and they’re stuck in fourth place. The Red Sox were supposed to be stupidly deep, and they’re in the cellar. The A’s were supposed to be competitive, but they’ve gone through some horrible bullpen luck. The Indians have improved lately, but they’re still crawling out of a hole.
The Astros, of all teams, lead the league in wins. The Twins are right behind them, and the Twins looked like they’d be maybe the AL’s worst club. While I know the Royals just went to the World Series, the math didn’t love their 2015 chances, but here they are, keeping pace with the Twins and well ahead of the Tigers. Even the Rangers have held things together, despite continued bad luck with injuries. The Rangers were the only team forecast to be as bad as the Twins.
For some, the knee-jerk response is, "see, the projections are stupid." The projections aren’t stupid. They’re currently doing well in the NL. While the projections considered here are those published on FanGraphs, there weren’t any real meaningful differences between, say, the FanGraphs projections and the PECOTA projections at Baseball Prospectus. All the systems are using similar inputs and similar depth charts.
And it’s not like anyone out there thought the Twins and Astros would start this strong. Consensus was that the Mariners would be good. Consensus was that the Red Sox would at least be better than this. There’s nothing to blame for what’s happened. It’s just baseball at its most unpredictable. This is kind of what it does sometimes, and that makes the sport more interesting to follow.
Because of that unpredictability, every single team has a chance. Before the year, the Astros had a 1-in-7 shot at the playoffs, by our numbers. The Royals have gone from a 1-in-6 chance to roughly a 1-in-2 chance. The Twins have gone from a 1-in-25 chance to a 1-in-4 chance. It’s not that the projections think they’ll be good now; it’s that those teams have already done what they’ve already done. All those wins count. The forecasts now give the Twins a better chance at making the playoffs than the Red Sox. Before the year, the Red Sox had the advantage, 63 percent to 5 percent. What’s happening in the AL has been extremely weird, but there’s no going back now. And maybe regression won’t catch the Twins in time to knock them down.
There’s just one last thing: How much does a record matter after two months? Well, the record matters quite a lot. All those wins and losses are in the books. But how predictive are two months of team performance? We can look simply at the landscape a year ago.
Nothing there. The standings through two months were basically in no way predictive of the standings over the remaining four months. This is, by the way, all MLB, not just the American League. The top five teams through two months won 49 percent of their games the rest of the way. The top 10 through two months won 51 percent of their games the rest of the way. The bottom 10 through two months won 49 percent of their games the rest of the way. It was a very weak relationship, and while it would be better to look at more than just one season of data, this is still informative. In other words, don’t ignore what the numbers are saying about the Twins, even though they have such a good record. Records can deceive. Reality catches up, a lot of the time.
But even with regression to the expected in the AL, a lot of the damage has been done. The numbers still like the Red Sox more than the Twins, but because of what’s taken place, the Twins are projected to finish with the better overall record. Things have been weird. In half of Major League Baseball, anyway.
We want our sports to involve the element of surprise. If we always knew what was going to happen, the average baseball game would be no different than catching up on DVR when you already know the final. This year, the National League has pretty much gone according to plan. Some might call that dull. But the American League? The American League has made up for that, and then some. Some might call it too surprising.