Every single team has a chance … yes, even the Phillies

Do you like an origin story? This post was originally going to be about the nature of spring-training optimism. Among players, even, not just fans. It seems like, every single February, when players show up to camp, you get quotes from everywhere about how a given team has a great bunch of guys, and if they play the kind of baseball they’re capable of, there’s no reason the season can’t be magic. I started looking for such quotes for every single team. The way I figured, they had to be out there. And as a matter of fact, I even found one for the Phillies. The same Phillies whose own front office has finally admitted that the team is rebuilding, and contention seems years off.

In case you’ve somehow been in the dark, this year’s Phillies are supposed to be bad. I mean, they aren’t supposed to be bad, but they’re expected to be bad, relative to every single other team. FanGraphs has the Phillies projected for the worst record in baseball. So does Baseball Prospectus. I’m not telling you anything new. Probably going to be a rough year in Philadelphia. But, you know who has opinions? Jonathan Papelbon. Here, he talks to Jim Salisbury about the possibility of being traded.

Toward the bottom of the post:

Papelbon said the Blue Jays would "fit his criteria" because they project as a contending club, but he was quick to add that he believes the Phillies can still be a contender, despite management’s charting a rebuilding course.

"If we come out and play the baseball we’re capable of playing then I plan on being right here and righting the ship here," he said. […] "My storybook ending here is sneaking into the wild card and getting hot in the playoffs with these Phillies."

It’s not exactly "we’re getting those rings," but Papelbon has a certain level of confidence, a level that isn’t shared by Cole Hamels or the people in charge. Papelbon doesn’t see this as an impossible mission. And, wouldn’t you know it — it’s not an impossible mission. Let’s talk about how teams do, relative to how they’re projected to do.

If I wanted to be totally clear, I would’ve put the word "projection" in the headline, but I didn’t want to scare people off. There’s a whole huge group of people out there with projection fatigue, or projection distrust, and that’s fine, especially now that players are actually working out with one another. But this isn’t really a post about 2015 projections. If anything, it’s a post about how little we know.

Is Papelbon right to be optimistic? One argument would be that it’s never wrong to be optimistic in spring training, because what’s the upside of being negative, even if you’re being negative and honest with yourself? One way or another, you have to go through the grind of the whole season, so you might as well kick it off with the right attitude, before anything goes awry. The start of spring training is the one point in the year where everyone gets to start from scratch, and the hierarchies remain theoretical. As of now, the Phillies and the Nationals have the same record.

And there’s another argument. Every team in baseball this year has a chance. And I don’t just mean some non-zero chance. I’m not trying to draw lines between 0.0 percent and 0.000001 percent. We should review the last decade of team projections. There’s a lot to be learned from this exercise.

Team projections have existed for a while. Absolutely, the systems have been tweaked. Absolutely, we’re smarter than we used to be. And, absolutely, there are some differences between individual systems, such that not all projections are alike, even for the same player based on the same data. But for the most part, different projection systems are aligned, because you won’t find one system that loves a player and another system that hates the player. All projections come from the same place. And I collected team projections from between 2005 and 2014.

I drew most of the historical data from here. Everything was very conveniently arranged, so it only made sense, and I grabbed team projections that were based on blends of some number of different systems. The systems changed over the course of the decade, but I don’t think this is actually a big deal, because all the systems should mostly be in agreement. I don’t think you want to hear much more about the method, so, once I had the projection for every team, I simply found the actual records for the same teams. How did the projections do over the last ten years?

A graph:

The first takeaway: there’s enough there to show the projections aren’t random. On average, teams projected to be bad have been bad, and teams projected to be good have been good. For example, consider the teams projected to win at least 95 games. They’ve averaged 96 projected wins, and they’ve averaged 95 actual wins. Now consider the teams projected to win no more than 70 games. They’ve averaged 68 projected wins, and they’ve averaged 68 actual wins. Projections mean something. There’s both signal and noise.

The noise, though, would be the second takeaway. We observe a linear relationship, but with a lot of points bouncing around. People have found this before, but just to re-state it, for the current record: one standard deviation of the difference between actual wins and projected wins is found here to be 8.7. That’s a 17-win window, around a central projection, where a team could end up anywhere and it wouldn’t even be the slightest bit strange. I know a 162-game season can feel interminable, but it’s really not that long, mathematically. There’s room for a lot of unpredictability.

Let’s take this back to the Phillies. No one’s projected for a worse record than the Phillies. But, our sample includes 300 team-seasons. In eight of those, a team exceeded its projected win total by at least 16. That’s just about 3 percent. Another 9 percent have exceeded projected win totals by 11-15. We shouldn’t overstate these magnitudes; most of the time, teams still fall much closer to their projections. But optimism isn’t always balanced and rational. The key to optimism is legitimate hope, and there’s enough for even Phillies fans to grasp onto, if they so desire.

Our champions of the decade, in terms of beating the projected win total: the 2012 Baltimore Orioles, who were projected for 70 wins, and who actually had 93 wins. According to the ZiPS system, they were projected for 69 wins. According to the PECOTA system, 71. The Orioles were given roughly a 0.5 percent chance of making the playoffs. They ultimately tied the Rangers for the third-best record in the AL. Now, those Orioles, as you might remember, had a run differential that suggested something more like a .500 record. But for one thing, that would still be a huge success. For another thing, maybe there was something about those Orioles that allowed them to win so many extra games. And for a third thing, it really doesn’t matter — wins are wins, and fluky wins count the same as "deserved" ones. There’s some chance of the Phillies having a good run differential. There’s some chance of them lucking into a strong record despite a mediocre run differential. Both would be ways to contend.

The 2011 Diamondbacks beat their projection by 21 wins. The 2005 White Sox and the 2010 Blue Jays beat their projections by 20 wins. This kind of overachieving definitely isn’t common, and of course it goes in both directions. The 2012 Red Sox, for example, undershot their projection by 22 wins. (That’s a lot of wins.) But over 10 years, you’re looking at eight teams who beat their projections by at least 16, and that’s why being optimistic about the Phillies isn’t totally, absolutely unjustifiable. Phillies fans for this year should be the least-optimistic fans, but there really is hope until the losses start to mount. And this is a Phillies team that, if nothing else, will feature Cole Hamels, Cliff Lee, and Chase Utley. With a little health, a little luck, and a breakthrough here and there, who knows? It sounds absurd, but the absurd has happened. I’m staring at the evidence.

And if it can be said the Phillies have a chance, it can be said that everyone has a chance, because no one looks worse than the Phillies. Not the Braves, not the Twins, not the Diamondbacks, not anybody else. Jonathan Papelbon might be the most optimistic player in the Philadelphia clubhouse at the moment, but there’s at least some support, beyond it just being forgivable to have a sunny attitude in February. Miracles have been too frequent to be considered miracles. At the start of any year, every single team has a chance. Every single team but for some of those Astros.