This time of year on the baseball calendar is basically projection season. As soon as the projections drop from various systems, we love to seek out who’s primed for success in a bigger role or which veteran might be getting too much credit for the coming season based on what they’ve done in the past. We also love to see what the projections forecast for the standings and objecting to what seems outlandish. And sure, the more granular we get with projections the more we’re opening ourselves up to the possibility of disappointment or inaccuracy. Overall, though, the systems are pretty solid.
On average, in each of the last five years, teams have fallen within three wins of their projected total for the given season. Every year gives us a team or two that exceeds expectations or underwhelms; the more extreme, the bigger the story. As you might imagine, some teams are better at topping their projected win total than others.
|Team||2015 Diff||2016 Diff||2017 Diff||2018 Diff||2019 Diff||5 Year Total||Last 3 Years|
These are the only teams in baseball that have “overperformed” what was expected of them in stretches that consider the last 3 years and the last 5 years. Some of these teams are surprising. It’s tough to accept that the Yankees or Dodgers or Astros win more than they should when (for at least two of the three) it seems like they’ve been perennial winners for generations. They also have three of the best player development programs in baseball and tend to have more analysts than everyone else, too. The Yankees and Dodgers, in particular, definitely have more resources. Atlanta has hit on superstar prospects like Ronald Acuna and Ozzie Albies. Other teams are buoyed more by dynamism, or, if you prefer, volatility. The Brewers, DBacks, and Twins all having at least one season of nine wins less than expected is pretty jarring. So what have they done that we’ve missed before the season starts?
The key seasons for the Twins in the last five years were 2017 and 2019. Collectively, they wiped out the down-and-out 2016 season where the club finished 24th in hitting fWAR and 23rd in pitching by the same metric. Let’s especially place focus on 2019. It’s the most recent success for Minnesota and their performance this past season nearly doubled how many more wins they were expected to have in 2017. It was a season that was all about the dingers.
The Bomba Squad epitomized the power approach increasingly prioritized by the entire league by hitting an MLB-leading 307 homers. A total of eight dudes hit at least 22 homers and five of them hit at least 31. Max Kepler, Miguel Sano, Eddie Rosario, and Mitch Garver all had career years. Garver’s 31 bombs were more than four times his previous career total. Some the success from this bunch was health, some of it was the rabbit ball, and some of it was tapping into power by pulling the ball. It was a display of swat never before witnessed in baseball history; one that would help any team do laps around their projected win total and that they’ll be hard-pressed to replicate in 2020. This is precisely the surge a projection system won’t be able to see and what results in things like surprise division titles.
Earlier this season, when speaking with Adam Lawler for the On the Farm podcast, or Nick Pollack for On The Corner, I talked about how the DBacks always seem to keep it interesting in one way or another. (While I can’t remember the specific episodes, you can access all our wonderful podcasts here.) 2015 and 2019 were modest successes relative to what was expected, 2016 was a bummer, and 2017 was a boon. That year, the DBacks made opponents sweat by combing power, speed, and a keen eye. They had the 2nd-highest ISO in the big leagues, stole the 7th-most bags, and were within half a percentage point of being a top-three team by walk rate. They acquired JD Martinez at the trade deadline and he came on to hit 29 bombs in 62 games.
The real stars might have been the starting pitchers, though. The team had four starters worth at least three wins, plus Taijuan Walker worth 2.5. In particular, it was the emergence of Zack Godley and the re-emergence of Patrick Corbin who bolstered the group. As a whole, the starting staff combined for the 5th-most innings pitched in baseball. They had the 4th-best K% and ERA indicators painting them as similarly awesome. While the club didn’t win the division because the Dodgers won 104 games, they did secure a wild card with 93 wins. The starting staff clicking as they did was a huge reason for the team’s overall success and put them in a position to add a difference-maker. Chalk this one up to health (playing time) and timing — things no one or no system has figured out how to predict yet.
The Brewers are maybe the most fascinating team when it comes to making the most out of what they have. Even last season, after two massive years that systems likely took into account when projecting their expected win total for 2019, they still overshot their win total by six. And what was it about those two massive years?
2017 was more about the space a fringe team might have when pushing for a wild card compared to similar teams who don’t. Those Brewers only won 86 games. They finished with the 18th-best offense, the 9th-best starters, and 12th-best bullpen. The key to it all might have been Jimmy Nelson emerging as a top-tier starter before straining his rotator cuff on a head-first slide into 2nd base after hitting. He appeared in three fewer games than the prior year and was worth more than an additional four wins, thanks to getting more whiffs on all five of his offerings and the major developments with his curveball and changeup. His performance that year highlights how one guy can mean a huge difference to a team that operates on the edges like the Brewers.
2018 saw Christian Yelich emerge as an MVP candidate and Lorenzo Cain put up an unlikely season as a 31-year-old that was worth nearly 6 wins. But beyond those two, Jesus Aguilar added another 3+ wins as a true breakout. Having been cast off from Cleveland, he got playing time with the Brewers, and not in a Roger Dorn-in-Major-League kind of way where the front office wanted to see how many losses they could string together. It was a legitimate chance to grow. He embraced aggression at the plate but balanced it with pitches he could drive, swinging more out of the zone than before but ultimately drawing more walks. The takeaway here could be that making time for a player with big-league skills at the big league level can pay dividends, despite how it may fly in the face of intuition.
So we’ve got a team that saw its power emerge at once in monstrous fashion, a team that had a starting staff mix together like a fine stew, and a team that mined a slugging first baseman off of waivers. Not at all things we can reasonably predict, but ones that can make us ask similar questions, about who they acquire moving forward and about which teams might be similarly trying to improve on the margins. Consider the Rays and their millions of moving parts, and what hitting big on a guy like Manuel Margot or Yoshitomo Tsutsugo could mean as they chase the already-battered Yankees. Think about how the Reds have wild cards like Shogo Akiyama in the outfield and an emerging pitching development program that went a step further and added Driveline’s Kyle Boddy over the winter.
Or you can sit back and enjoy it as it all unfolds because baseball is almost here and it’s going to be a blast.
Featured image by Justin Paradis (@freshmeatcomm on Twitter)