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Which Team Will Surprise in 2013?

February 8, 2013
This is the fourth time I’ve attempted this article, so those of you who have been visiting for a while can skip a few of the preliminaries. A few bullet-points for the uninitiated:
·         We’re trying to figure out a surprise team. You probably pieced that together from the title, but just to clarify things: we’re looking for a losing team from 2012 that will make a jump into contention.
·         This sort of thing happens a lot. Really. Just last year, the Orioles improved by 24 wins. The A’s improved by 20 wins. The Reds and Nationals improved by 18 games. And the Marlins won the pennant. There were a lot of surprises in 2012.
·         We base this on a bunch of indictors. Things like the age of hitter and pitchers, the quality of a farm system, and whether the team improved in the second half. Each year I tinker with the criteria a little bit.  

·         We only pick surprising surprises. The Blue Jays have a good chance to rebound this year: they acquired R.A. Dickey, Jose Reyes, Josh Johnson, and Mark Buehrle, and are expected to be contenders in the AL East. For the purposes of this article, the Jays don’t qualify as a ‘surprise’ team, though they were sub-.500 last year.
We’ve been pretty good thus far. Here are the selections, in table form:
Previous Year's Wins
Wins in Season
Net Jump
Surprise Team!
Surprise-ish Team
Surprise Team!
Last year I went with Kansas City, but selected the A’s and Padres as my two bonus surprise teams (hence the asterisk). That was cheating, but I got right on the A’s so I’m counting it. Cleveland didn’t win the pennant in 2011, but they were certainly a surprising team, contending well through the All-Star break. The Rockies improved dramatically in 2009, though they finished a game out of first.
 These are reasonably good results: the average wins for the teams listed in the year before we pick ‘em is 71.8. Their average win total in the ‘surprise’ year is 82.8, a net improvement of eleven wins. That said, I missed the big surprises of Baltimore and Washington last year, so there’s work to be done.
This year, I tinkered with the criteria a little bit: in addition to adjusting the list of indicators, I’ve gone ahead and given weights to the indicators. This gives this exercise a significant bit of subjectivity: while the indicators are now mostly objective, the weights are decidedly subjective.That the Chicago Cubs underperformed their expected (Pythagorean) win-loss record by four games in 2012 is objectively true: it’s a fact. The weight I give their underperformance, as a measure of their chances to improve in 2013, is largely guesswork. This is a fun exercise; we’re not trying for hard science.    
That said, I’ve cut out a lot of the extraneous stuff from the years past. Last year, I went with Kansas City in part because the AL Central looked to be a weak division, and because they had a bunch of really touted prospects. I’m still optimistic about the Royals, but I don’t think making assumptions about management or division quality is particularly helpful. It’s easy to fall in love with a story; this year I’m just looking at some information and telling the results. 
*          *          *
New, completely made-up metric time....
Raw Points
15 Points – Did the team finish over .500 in the second half of 2012?
5 points – Did the team have a contending record during the second half?
5 points – Did the team have a winning record in August?
5 points – Did a team have a winning record in September?
5 points – Was the team close to .500 in 2011?
5 points – Was the team a contender in 2011?
5 points – Did their AAA team finish first or second in the standing?
5 points –Did the team underperform their expected (Pythagorean) win-loss record?
Scaled Points
Scale: 0-15 - Are the hitters young or old? Are their best years ahead of them? (Youngest team gets 15 points, the second youngest gets 14…etc.)
Scale: 0-15 - Are the pitchers young or old? (Same as above)
Scale: 0-20 – Where does their farm system rank? (This year I’m using John Sickels’ minor league rankings: 20 points for the team with the best farm system, 19 for the second-best….)
A team can get a ‘Surprise Score’ as high as 100. It is certainly possible for a good team to have a score in the eighties or nineties, but it’s unlikely that a team would score that high and finish under-.500 for the season. A Surprise Score of 50 or better, for a sub-.500 team, is a pretty good tally.
I’ll post the Surprise Scores for each of the losing teams, by division. This year we’ll pick a surprise team for each league: AL and NL.
*          *          *
The team most likely to surprise the American League in 2013 is the Seattle Mariners.
Surprise Score: 56.
Positive Indicators: The Mariners have the third-youngest hitters in baseball (13 points). They have the 12th youngest pitchers (4 points). Their second-half record was 39-36 (15 points) and they went 15-12 in August (5 points). John Sickels ranks their farm system as the second-best in baseball (19 points).
Additional Notes: I was putting the finishing touches on this article as the news came out about the Felix Hernandez contract extension. Some folks have said that it’s silly for the Mariners to commit so much money to one player, when they’re so far away from contending. It’s easy to sleep on the Mariners, as they’ve been the ignored team in the AL West for a while, but they’re certainly on the rise. It’s likely that Oakland and Texas will decline slightly next year, and while the Los Angeles Trouts are probably going to win 162 games this year, the Mariners could get into the Wild Card race. The team has young talent: if players like Ackley and Montero and Kyle Seager can take a step forward on offense, and if prospects like Nick Franklin and Michael Zunino have an impact, the pitching and defense (ranked first in defensive efficiency last year) should keep Seattle in the mix
AL Surprise Scores
Remembering that we’re only looking at losing teams…
AL East
Surprise Score
AL Central
Surprise Score
AL West
Surprise Score
Kansas City
Comments: The Red Sox come out as slightly ahead of Toronto, is part because Boston was a contender in 2011 and thus has a recent history of success. But Toronto are obviously improved: if you had to pick a surprise team from the East, the additions of Reyes, Dickey, Johnson, and Buehrle give the Blue Jarlins a significant edge on returning to competition…..The Royals remain the most likely team in the Central to make a surprise run at the division, but I almost like Cleveland’s base of talent a bit more. Minnesota is a lovely place to visit…..the single most astonishing result is how well Houston does by these metrics: they have some very positive indicators going into 2013, including a 15-15 record in September. Still, unless they have clones of Joe Morgan and Jimmy Wynn playing in their minor leagues, it’s unlikely that Houston will make a serious run in the NL West.
*          *          *
The team most likely to surprise the National League in 2013 is the San Diego Padres.
Surprise Score: 57.
Positive Indicators: Among all major league teams, the Padres have the 5th youngest hitters (11 points), and the 15th youngest pitchers (1 point). The Padres had a 42-33 record during the second half of the season, which is certainly a competitive mark (15 points & 5 points). They had a winning record in August (5 points) and they were near .500 during September (5 points). John Sickels ranks their farm system as the fifth best in the majors (15 points).
Additional Notes: The Padres were one of our bonus surprise teams last year, but as they stayed under .500, we’re going ahead and running them again for 2013. Interestingly, neither of this year’s Surprise Teams had good years at AAA. The Padres team finished last (56-88), as did the Mariners team (63-81). Quietly, the Padres have one of the better offensive teams in the NL West, with Yonder Alonso and Will Venable supporting the big bats of Headley and Carlos Quentin. Starting pitching is the big question mark: rookie Casey Kelly could be a factor in the Padres chance at a run in 2013. Yasmani Grandal’s 50-game suspension is a significant blow, but the team is young and on the rise. If the Giants and Dodgers slip, there’s a chance the Padres slip into contention.
NL Surprise Scores
Looking at last year’s losers….
NL East
Surprise Score
NL Central
Surprise Score
NL West
Surprise Score
NY Mets
Comments: The Mets and Marlins are equally likely (or unlikely) to make a run at the NL East….In the Central, the Pirates and Cubs are about even on their likelihood of pulling off an upset; another reason to visit two of the nicest parks in all of baseball…the Rockies didn’t show any strong signs of getting back into contention, and are well behind the Padres by our metric.  
So that’s it: look out for the Mariners and the Padres in 2013. Feel free to make a case for the team you think will surprise in 2012 in the comments below.
Dave Fleming is a writer living in Wellington, New Zealand. He welcomes comments, questions, and suggestions here and at  

COMMENTS (17 Comments, most recent shown first)

A very good exercise; Seattle was the worst hitting team in 2012... How much would they have to improve offensively? How their pitching would have to be? Opposite teams will have a hard time scoring runs against them, but... they'll have a hard time scoring runs of their own. An interesting prediction to keep track of, throughout the season...
8:37 PM Feb 18th
The surprising thing about Toronto is that they made all those deals. If they don't win the division, or at least contend, it will be a surprise. Somehow your formula needs to take into account what the team did during the off-season.
2:51 PM Feb 11th
At least I got the change in division right! It's strange to think of Houston as a 'western' city.
8:31 PM Feb 9th
I would take it a step further and say that Houston will definitely not contend for the NL West.
7:04 PM Feb 9th
True, the Orioles are expected to fall, so if they do, it won't be a surprise, would it? I wonder if there is a reverse-metric that might make it "obvious" who unexpectantly falls. I mean, I knew that the Phillies weren't likely to stay at 100 wins in 2012, but with Halladay, Lee, Hamels et al, I didn't really expect them to drop to .500. Almost every year, a team that makes the playoffs falls below .500 the next year. The Orioles are the prime candidate, of course; but I wonder if they are the only candidate.
6:50 PM Feb 9th
Bob, I hope your streak works with the Twins this year. May they be in contention.
3:57 PM Feb 9th
Bob, I hope your streak works with the Twins this year. May they be in contention.
3:57 PM Feb 9th
The team most likely to fall has to be Baltimore, right? They were 11 wins over their expected record, and they're in a deep division.
3:53 PM Feb 9th
Yeah...the Marlins were great last year. Really took the NL East by storm.

Relatedly: it seems like the Jays and Dodgers are following the Marlins model quite closely: make dramatic improvements by spending tons of cash and hope like hell it works.

It didn't work for the Marlins last year, and I'd bet dollars to doughnuts that it doesn't work for one of the two big spenders this year (I'm looking at you, LAD).

I love that Toronto is making a charge: the timing seems exactly right (NY is old, Boston is coming off a brutal year, Baltimore was lucky), and the players they acquired are terrific. But it's tough plan to execute: for every 2003 Marlins, there's a 2012 Marlins to serve as a counterpoint.
3:27 PM Feb 9th
The biggest surprise team to me has to be the 2012 Marlins, since they won the pennant and still nobody knows about it.
3:01 PM Feb 9th
Minnesota in the AL East is an Excel spreadsheet thing....whenever I import a table, I have to put in some sort of marker for the empty spaces, or else the cells move over to the far right. Just one of those things.
12:55 PM Feb 9th
I like the system. Mariners do look like a strong pick. Might be complicated, but if there were a scaled points category for incoming vs. outgoing players I suspect M's would score high there as well. I get the sense M's are going all in this year. A pitcher as team leader is unusual, but King Felix was just handed the job. Too bad Ichiro won't be there, but getting his salary off the books allows them to afford Morse and the other stuff. Regarding rgregory1956's collapse codicil the Philies might be a candidate. Even though they won the division in 2011, finished strong in 2012 all their core players are past their primes. An even bigger trade deadline fire sale may be in order this year.​
12:23 PM Feb 9th
RGregory -- As a Mariners fan, I'd be delighted if your prediction causes the M's to contend in 2014. I'll keep that in mind if the M's tank this year. Of course, I'd be ecstatic if Dave is right and they surprise us this year. So either way, it looks like they are almost a lock to surprise... very exciting.
10:05 AM Feb 9th
I hate to suggest what other people should study, but since you already have a metric, maybe you can adjust it and take a look at what team is most likely to collapse in '13. Just as in most years there is a team to improve by 20 wins, there is also a team that loses 20 more than the previous year. The Yankees sure look primed for a fall, but a lot of us have been saying that for a decade.
10:02 AM Feb 9th
I totally agree that it’s unlikely that Houston will make a serious run in the NL West. ;-)
8:55 AM Feb 9th
In 2010, I picked Arizona to be the surprise team. They tanked, winning only 65 games, but won 94 the next year. In 2011, I picked the Orioles to be the surprise team. They tanked, winning only 69 games, but won 93 the next year. Last year, I picked the Twins to be the surprise team. They tanked, winning only 66 games, but if my trend continues, the Twins should do very well THIS year. My surprise team for 2013 is the Mariners, which must mean that they will be good in 2014.
7:35 AM Feb 9th
Minnesota is in the AL Central, but the formatting makes it look like they are in the AL East.
6:28 AM Feb 9th
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