Predictions, Projections, and How They Play Out

“What is it about our sports world, and society in general, that wants to know about something before it happens? I’m OK knowing about it when it happens. Our curiosity is going to be satisfied about this season. We’re going to play 162. And there’s no greater exposure of your strengths and weaknesses than a Major League Baseball season. I’m not talking about just physical either. There are no Cinderellas in our sport. You don’t get hot for a certain amount of time and have the football bounce a certain way one day. We have too round of a ball and too round of a bat. You can’t hide a bad defender. That white rat is going to find you.”

- Buck Showalter in an interview with FanGraphs

For the 2014 Orioles, pre-season predictions and projections were wildly off the mark for the AL East.  Predictions are one thing.  They are done by humans who are generally taking wild guesses as to who will be the division winners.

Projection systems, on the other hand, are supposed to be more reliable, using analytical data to give a more accurate forecast of where teams will finish.  The key word here is forecast.  And like weather forecasts, projection systems are worthy of our attention but at the same time need to be seen for what they are, analytical speculation. 

Let’s start with a sampling of the human predictions for the Orioles.

  * Not a single voter picked the Orioles for the division or a wild card spot    ** ESPN had 44 “experts” make their picks.  5 of the 44 (11.3%) voters picked Baltimore for first or a Wild Card position.     *** Picked Orioles to be American League Champions    **** On the BP podcast previewing the Orioles, Ben Lindbergh, Sam Miller, and Paul Sporer talk about the Orioles outplaying their projections in 2012 and 2013.  It is then asked if the 2014 projections should be ignored or at least cast with a big shadow of doubt.  The response was that with a three year sample size, th e  projection would be accurate for 2014.  It wasn't. 

* Not a single voter picked the Orioles for the division or a wild card spot

** ESPN had 44 “experts” make their picks.  5 of the 44 (11.3%) voters picked Baltimore for first or a Wild Card position. 

*** Picked Orioles to be American League Champions

**** On the BP podcast previewing the Orioles, Ben Lindbergh, Sam Miller, and Paul Sporer talk about the Orioles outplaying their projections in 2012 and 2013.  It is then asked if the 2014 projections should be ignored or at least cast with a big shadow of doubt.  The response was that with a three year sample size, the projection would be accurate for 2014.  It wasn't. 

Human predictions are highly flawed because humans are flawed.  But it is still worth pointing out the misses, especially by some "experts" who would make you think they have a crystal ball with all of baseball's answers in front of them. 

Instead of picking the Orioles to finish 4th or 5th on gut or pure statistical analysis, Keith Law at ESPN didn’t do an official pre-season prediction.   His brief thoughts were that the Orioles were an 82-85 win team and would have been better in another division such as the AL Central.  That is a much more nuanced prediction, based off of two years of results, off-season moves, and rational analytical thinking (blending the seeing eye with advanced stats).  Law’s prediction lined up much more with what we had seen the prior two seasons from the Orioles and the two years of data that showed a team that was luckier than most in 2012, fairly unlucky in 2013, and was continuing to trend in the right direction.

The fallacy of just using hard line statistics and models leaves with you the 2014 PECOTA projection for the American League East.  Forecast models are just that, forecast models.  How many times has a winter storm been forecasted by various weather models only to completely fall apart at the last minute?  Same thing for stock predictions on Wall Street. 

Take a look at the 2013 Red Sox.  They had a plethora of free agent signings that went as well as could be expected.  They lost two closers to injury (and poor performance) before moving their $4.5 million, 7th inning man Koji Uehara to closer, who proceeded to be lights out for the rest of the year.  Daniel Nava, almost a journeyman at age 30, had a career year.  It’s not shocking he came back down to earth in 2014.  The 2013 projections couldn’t predict Nava’s stand out year, Mike Napoli’s second best bWAR season ever at 4.2 (2011 he was at 5.4 for Texas), or Jarrod Saltalamacchia’s career season with 2.9 bWAR, doubling his previous best 1.5 effort in 2012.  And the Red Sox, the team that finished with 69 wins in 2012, went from worst to first and won the World Series. 

But for all the talk of the law of averages within the projection systems, it was pretty clear that the 2014 Red Sox were going to come back down to earth.  I wouldn’t have said that coming back down to earth would be last place in the AL East, but I certainly wasn’t assuming they were a lock for 1st or a Wild Card spot.

As a fan of the Orioles, I tend to try to take a more positive stance whenever possible.  Coming into the season, there were a couple of clear things in the AL East:

* Toronto would be better than they were in 2013. 

* Tampa would have good pitching once again but they overachieved at the plate in 2013 and should show a little regression.

* Boston would be formidable again, but they would have to come back down to earth after their incredible 2013 season of fortune, luck, and solid play. 

* New York would be an older team that would probably be able to survive due to that Yankee "charm" but were hardly a team that was going to run away with the division.

Toronto was better, Tampa regressed at the plate, Boston came way back down to earth, and the Yankees age took a toll on them through injuries, which weren't a shock.

The Orioles had to keep their heads above water through a tough April schedule and let the rest of the season play out.  They did that and through a vast improvement in Starting Pitching, combined with an excellent defense, were able pull away with the AL East by mid-August. 

And the great thing about playing 162 games, as Buck alludes to in the quote at the beginning of this post, is that your strengths and weaknesses are exposed to the world over 162 games.  Matt Wieters is lost by Mid-May for the year.  Chris Davis has a DL stint, followed by below average play, followed by a 25 game suspension.  Manny Machado comes back from his knee injury, starts slow, gets suspended for five games, and finally starts to heat up right as the stretch run comes, only to fall victim to his other knee.  Even Nostradamus would have seen this string of injuries and concluded that the Orioles were dead.

There would have been no need for Steve Pearce and his amazing season.  There would have been no use for Delmon Young to have a redemption year, being a good team mate while playing hard and well.  There would have been no use for Jonathan Schoop, someone who arguably should have been playing at AAA for the entire year, to struggle through 2014 at the plate but provide very solid defense and a few key home runs throughout the year. 

Fortunately for us, there isn't a Nostradamus.