What Team Projections Miss: The As-They-Are Clubs

Baseball's version of Dennis Green's infamous "They are who we thought they were" presents two wildly different track records.

Two weeks ago, I started this mini-series. So far we’ve looked at the teams that beat their projected win totals and the teams that never live up to them. We’ve talked about team-wide power breakouts, starting staffs that play up early and often, and what opportunity means for certain players. We’ve worked through some of the human aspects of running a team that can consistently undermine its potential, like poor front office vision, talent evaluation, or player injuries. That leaves us with only one group left to discuss: the clubs who have regularly turned in the most humdrum performances. These teams have basically been what projection systems said they’d be.

When I think of these teams, I can’t help but think of a scene from 1999’s 10 Things I Hate About You, where a character named Chastity asks her friend, “I know you can be overwhelmed, and you can be underwhelmed, but can you ever just be whelmed?” Recent track records of the Phillies and Nationals tell us that we most certainly can be.

 

Teams Most Likely to Have Met Projected Win Totals

 

These are the only two teams in all of baseball to end up so close to their projected win totals over the last three and five years. Nearly every season, any positive step forward has meant a step almost immediately backward. They’ve certainly influenced which teams have had success in the NL East, whether that’s the 2015 Mets or Atlanta’s back-to-back division titles in 2018 and 2019. That said, while these two have shaken out to have the closest win totals to their projections, I’m not sure they could be more different.

 

Washington Nationals

 

We’ll start with the Nationals because between the two clubs they’re clearly the more successful one in recent history. Their rosters have been more competitive, they’ve actually been to the playoffs, and last year they went on one a terrifically exciting run that ended with a championship.

The Nats of recent history present as a challenge of constitution. They’ve had consistently great starting pitching that’s never fallen out of the top five by fWAR; their bullpens have been better more often than not, despite the earned narrative of the last couple years; and their hitters have generally floated on the fringe of the top 10 lineups in the game.

The starters are a lot of guys they’ve developed like Gio Gonzalez, Jordan Zimmermann, and Tanner Roark. The club may have squandered Bryce Harper‘s career-year in 2015 by surrounding him with talent that couldn’t support him or the pitching staff. But after that, they showed enough patience and pluck to develop and make room for guys like Anthony Rendon, Daniel Murphy, Michael A. Taylor, Trea Turner, and Juan Soto. This patience isn’t just about the major league lineup; it’s about international and minor league scouting and development, and those things are ultimately about getting enough of the org on the same page to make a difference. Having numerous, dependable bats throughout the lineup who can do damage in an increasingly matchup-heavy game sets up a team with a great pitching staff to always be in the hunt.

We saw the results of that in 2019 when the Nats improbably beat the Brewers, Dodgers, and Astros. With a team built like Washington has been, the question becomes how long do you wait? How long can you sell the prospect of success, and how quickly does the young talent coming in grab the attention of a fan base as the old talent gets older? The Nationals don’t have to answer these questions anymore thanks to last season’s World Series title. While they’ve mostly been what the projections have expected, that’s also been an above average team that’s always going to be dangerous, if sometimes disappointing. Maybe, then, we should be wary of what we might be making stale.

 

Philadelphia Phillies

 

By and large, the Phillies have been asking the same questions as the Nationals have been asking since 2015. How long do you trust the way you’ve evaluated your team’s talent, despite its demonstrated ability to fall short of expectations?

Since 2015, the team has only had one section of their club finish in the top 10 in the league in any given year, be it the starters or relievers. The hitters have consistently been bottom-10 by wRC+. They’ve pieced together one strong unit, one mediocre one, and one terrible one like clockwork. On the hitting side they’ve failed to develop the likes of Maikel Franco and JP Crawford. They’ve seen players like Odubel Herrera, Rhys Hoskins, and Cesar Hernandez get worse year-over-year. Four of those five guys are either no longer with the club or expected to wither away in the minors for the foreseeable future. Even two or three of them panning out better than they did could drastically influence how the team’s player evaluation and development is considered.

On the pitching side, their starting staff has bobbed up and down: 29th in 2015, 10th in 2016, 17th in 2017, 7th in 2018, and 23rd in 2019. Last year’s performance was a precedent-setting stinker. The front office has frequently cited bad luck as the reason for the team’s most recent failures but that excuse is paper-thin. Messaging throughout the unit has been fraught with miscommunication and a damning lack of listening to one another. Vince Velasquez continually gets told to throw more fastballs because they’ve failed to help him develop his secondaries. Nick Pivetta has mid-90s heat and a hammer curveball—traits which top clubs use to build their pitchers—but has only had underwhelming results. Zach Eflin suddenly became successful again after abandoning the organization’s philosophy late last year. Even Aaron Nola didn’t have support last year that proved useful after batters stopped chasing on his curveball. This doesn’t even consider how minimal the impact Jake Arrieta has made as a free agent signing.

This is a team that has painted a picture composed of various shades of eggshell white—the kinds that adorn soulless office buildings all over the country. Besides clocking out, they’ve inspired next to nothing. Sure, these are problems projections systems can’t necessarily foretell. But when the system goes chalk on you so many years in a row, it’s accounting for things looking the same no matter how hard a front office believes in themselves or tries to shake things up.

 

Closing Thoughts

 

This series was based on a pretty specific data point that led to anecdotal support as each team that came up was examined. There is plenty here to chip away at, should you feel the itch. For one, it implies which teams have good player development programs. For another, it suggests which teams you might want to lean on when it comes to fantasy baseball. But more than anything, it allows us a chance to see how fast baseball can change and how certain teams influence or are subjected to that change.

Featured Image by Justin Paradis (@freshmeatcomm on Twitter)

Tim Jackson

Tim Jackson is a writer and educator who loves pitching duels. Find him Going Deep for PitcherList and on Twitter @_TimJackson.

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