Which Team Will Surprise in 2014?

February 20, 2014
Which team is most likely to surprise us in 2014? Out of the fourteen teams with a losing record last year, which team has the best chances of jumping into contention, and surprising the baseball world?
This has become one my favorite annual columns to write. It’s the ultimate ‘spring’ article: I get to spend a bit of time thinking about teams I didn’t pay attention to for most of 2014, and try to pick some potential winners out of the bunch.
I approach this article impartially: I set up a spreadsheet and check on a few indicators for each team. Then I assign ‘points’ to each indicator, based on an entirely arbitrary system of guesswork and gut instinct that I tinker with and adjust every year, and promptly lose. Certainly, there’s space for a more calculating and rational approach, but I’m no robot. I moved out of my mom’s basement years ago.
This season is interesting because we don’t have anyone like last year’s Blue Jays, or the Marlins of 2012, muddying up the waters: none of the losing teams went on a madcap spending spree, signing free agents hand-over-fist in a desperate attempt to climb into contention. Instead, the Yankees took care of that, which is the universe returning to normal. 
So we have fourteen teams to consider, fourteen teams that finished below .500 in 2013:
Blue Jays
White Sox
It’s a great list: there’s no obvious team that jumps out as being likely to rebound, no team that wouldn’t be a surprise in 2014. You could pick any of them.
I said that I approach this exercise objectively: that’s not to say that I don’t have teams that I have strong sentiments towards, teams I’d be tempted to swing the numbers towards, if I was a less honest person. Every year this happens: there’s a team that I want to pick, a team I’d like to get behind.
Admitting my biases this year: I was very tempted to pick the New York Mets.
It is, of course, absolutely ridiculous to expect the Mets to win the NL East, or even get into the Wild Card game this year. First, they’re in a division with the Braves and Nationals, two extremely good teams. Second, their best pitcher will spend most of 2014 on the shelf. They lost Marlon Byrd, their second-best hitter in 2013, to the Phillies. They replaced him with a guy who hit .229 over 61 games last year.   
But I’m rooting for the Mets. This is mostly (okay, entirely) because my sister-in-law Mary is a big Mets fan, and it’s nice having another baseball obsessive on that side of the family.
I think, too, that the Mets have had a reasonably smart off-season. I like their three big signings: Colon, Granderson, and Chris Young: those players are all likely to contribute positively to the team in 2014, and if they wash out, the money involved isn’t going to significantly hamper the team going forward. They have some good young players who could break out, especially in the rotation. I like the catcher whose name sounds like a character fromThe Three Musketeers.  I’ve spent a good bit of time trying to convince Mary that Ike Davis is a superstar in the making….so far she’s not buying it.  
So I like the Mets…I’m rooting for them this year. But they’re not the surprise team for 2014.
*          *          *
The system: I’ve re-jiggered the positive indicators and the points allotted to each of them, in an effort to make this system seem more efficient at picking the best candidates to surprise us in 2014. This year, we have a whopping ten criteria that we’re using to find our surprise teams. Let’s bullet-point them:
·         Batters Age. This is the average age of all of a team’s hitters from 2013, with youth being the important consideration. Teams whose hitters are young are likely to see those hitters improve. A team with old hitters should expect to decline. We award four points to the five youngest teams in baseball, two points for the next five, and one point for teams ranked 11th-15th.
·         Pitchers Age. Same thing, same logic, same scoring as above.
·         Second-Half Success. This considers the team’s W-L record over the second half of the season. A team gets 6 points if they were at .515 or better, 3 points if they were close to .500
·         September W-L Record. This considers a team’s September record, only. Four points if the team was over .500. Two points if the team was close to .500
·         Pythagorean Record vs. Actual Record. This considers the ‘true’ measure of the team’s performance in 2013, calculated by their runs scored and runs allowed, and checked against their actual record. The Phillies won 73 games last year, but their expected W-L record was seven games worse than that, -7. Teams whose expected W-L record is better than their actual record get the difference minus two. The White Sox underperformed by four victories in 2013 (-4)…they were a 67-win team that happened to win 63 games. So they get two points.
·         Were They Good in 2012? That is, does the team have a track-record for recent success?  Teams get five points if they were strong contenders, three points if they were above .500.
·         Was The Triple-A Team Good? Three points if a team’s AAA team finished in contention for first-place, one point if they were over .500.
·         How Does Their Farm-System Rate? I used Keith Law’s ranking of Major League Farm Systems. Four points for the top-five, two points for #6-10, one point for #11-15.
·         Playoff Expectancy. I used FanGraph’s excellent Playoff Odds page. If a team has a 10-20% chance of making the playoffs, they get three points. If a team has a 20-40% chance, they get four points. Anything over 40% gets five points. Only two of our eligible teams tallied odds better than 40%. One of those teams was the San Francisco Giants, who have a 44.6% chance of making the playoffs.
·         Number of Positive Indicators They Check. This is a positive indicator of positive indicators: in how many of the previous nine catagories did the team receive points? The team getthat count, which could be anywhere from zero to nine points. The team with the fewest indicators was the Toronto Blue Jays, who received points in just two categories. Sorry, Torontonians.
So that’s the system this year. Now onto the results.
*          *          *
American League
The Toronto Blue Jays scored just nine points, doing the worst by this measure across both leagues. They have exactly two positive indicators: a good Triple-A team and a high tally on the Fangraphs Playoff Odds Page. That said, the Blue Jays certainly could surprise us this year: Bautista, Lawrie, and Reyes missed significant time in 2013, and just getting their stars back and healthy should give them a shot at the .500 mark.
The AL Central teams, Minnesota (13 points) and Chicago (14 points), also scored poorly, as did the Seattle Mariners (11 points). This metric does not take into account a team’s off-season signings, and I think Chicago has had an excellent off-season. The Twins have two of the ten best prospects in baseball, but it’ll be a year before they are full-time players in the AL. Seattle has Robby Cano, whose laziness at running out grounders to first will probably poison their clubhouse.  
Houston does really well: 24 points. We’re not picking Houston.
No…the surprise team in the American League is going to be the Los Angeles Angels, who score an impressive 30 points. The Angels actually dominate this contest: their tally is the best among the losing teams, and they tick more indictors (seven) than any of the other teams. They have:
- The 8th youngest lineup in baseball. (2 points)
- A nearly winning record (.493) over the second half of 2013. (3 points)
- A good September (16-12). (4 points)
- Three fewer wins than their run differential suggests. (1 point)
- A good record in 2012. (5 points)
- A good Triple-A team (3 points)
- A 41% chance of making the playoffs, according to FanGraphs. (5 points).
- They tally points across seven of the nine indicators. (7 points) 
I think this is the best pick in the lot: there’s no other American team that posted a losing record in 2013, who I’d take over the Angels. They make a lot of sense.
White Sox
Blue Jays
National League
The Mets (11 points) do the worst by this metric….there was just no way to adjust the numbers and get the Mets on top. The Cubs and Phillies are nearly as bad, with 12 points each. The Rockies have 14 points, which is surprising. I like their pitching staff.
I was very surprised that the Marlins didn’t do better: they are an extremely young team, and they have two players who could vie for the Cy Young and MVP Awards. But it’s a thin team, and their offense was anemic last year. The Marlins tallied just fifteen points.
The Giants, by our metric, are strong contenders to surprise, netting 21 points. FanGraph’s Playoff Odds give the Giants an impressive 46.1% chance of reaching postseason play, the most for any of the losers (the Angels are second, at 41%).
The Giants are an old team, and the farm system isn’t great, but they won the World Series in 2012, and they were solid during the second half, and in September. Their offense is, in my opinion, extremely underrated: Posey, Belt, Sandoval, Pence, and Pagan are a very good core of hitters.
But the surprise team for 2013, in the NL is….
Two teams, actually. The Milwaukee Brewers and the San Diego Padres. They tied netting twenty-six points apiece.
They have a few parallels: both teams have youngish hitters (8th and 11th) but older pitchers (tied for 21st). Both teams had winning second halves (Milwaukee was at .529; the Padres were at .515). Both teams had winning September (15-12, 16-11). They have similar playoff odds: the Brewers are at 17%, the Padres 25%. They each get points in six indicators. 
The Padres get their additional points on their minor league system: their Triple-A team was strong, and Keith Law rates their system as the 9th best in the majors. The Brewers net their points because they had a good 2012 season, and they underperformed their Pythagorean record in 2013 by a few games. Their farm system, it seems worth pointing out, ranks dead-last in Law’s list.
I could’ve adjusted the metrics to favor one team or the other, but I decided to let it stand as a tie. This is the third year in a row where the Padres have shown up near the top of the tables in the NL, and I remain optimistic about their chances. The Brewers have lots of talented hitters, but I don’t know that they have the pitching to contend with the Cardinals or Pirates. I think both teams are, at best, vying for a shot in the Wild Card game. There will be steep competition for those two spots in the NL.
But the results are the results, and I ain’t going to quibble with them. Your surprise contenders for the NL are the Brewers and Padres.
Dave Fleming is a writer living in Wellington, New Zealand. He welcomes comments, questions, and pointed observations that he managed to write one article that didn’t mention WAR at all here and at 

COMMENTS (18 Comments, most recent shown first)

It's almost unfair the Red Sox got Grady Sizemore. Probably won't do anything, but if he's healthy and plays, whoa.
5:04 PM Feb 24th
Hey, I'm a Mets fan. The greatest moment of my life was getting Felix Millan's autograph.

Actually, the day my son was born, I guess. Then my twins....then my first wedding....actually, that was sort of a mistake. Then the Giant's NFC Championship win over the Redskins in '86.

Now that I think about it that day at Shea it rained....

Now, Travis the catcher, love this future. I hope it will come next year come soon. Tejada....the year before the last three you tracked he hit .213. Ike...nice second half at .286 but only four HRs and he had a For Sale sign on him all winter with no takers. Supposedly four team are lined up if he shows some pop early on, and I think the Mets are enamord of Duda, Duda.

Young has been in a in BA, OBP, and SBs free fall.

Anyway, your lips to God's ears. EY, Murphy, Wright, Grandy and Davis are a promising top of the order. of these years his body is going to collapse, and 2013 could have been is last hurrah at 41 and 265. Love Wheeler.

Maybe I was just crabby. I would have like to see a get-on-base guy in Young's roster spot.
5:52 PM Feb 23rd
Well....let's take a look at Travis d'Arnaud. He hit .202 last year, which is very disappointing.

Of course, much of that was bad luck. He had a .244 BABIP, which would've ranked him third (lowest) in the majors in that category. His walk rate (10.7%) was excellent; his strikeout rate was also very reasonable (18.8%). In half-a-season of at-bats in Triple-A, he posted a batting average a few ticks lower than .330. I don't think he'll be hanging around the Mendoza line in 2013.

Ruben Tejada hit .284, .289, and .202 in his last three years in the majors....which of those seems the likely outlier?

Ike Davis....I wouldn't be shocked if Ike Davis had a Young Adam Dunn season. That would be pretty valuable, even if the batting average is low.
10:28 PM Feb 22nd
I can't get enthused, and I can't ignore batting averages and OBP and OPS. Except for Wright and Murphy, the Mets projected starters hit below .250 last year, and their projected 2014 lineup (Rotochamp) has to snuggle these 2013 BAs somewhere:

Chris Young .200
Ike Davis .202
Travis D'Arnwhatever .202
Ruben Tejada .202

The Mets were 29th in BA in 2013 (thanks Miami), 29th in OPS, and 25th in OBP. Anybody else's projected lineup have four guys coming off Mendoza line seasons? Ever?

We can hope everybody gets better.....I'm afraid Chris Young ain't gonna help.
3:45 PM Feb 22nd
Chris Young was (essentially) a four-win player from 2010-2012. Last year was a bust, but $7.2 million is a reasonable gamble to see if he can come back and be a useful player.

Adam Dunn? Aside from the low BA, I don't see how they're comparable. Young is a strong defensive OF who can run the bases. Adam Dunn is not.
11:57 AM Feb 22nd
I'm a Mets fan...but...Chris Young? His BA has in the last four years gone from .257 in a steady decline to [bold].200[/bold] in 2013. With ten SBs. He's like Adam Dunn with no power. How do you put lipstick on that pig?
11:36 PM Feb 21st
On Jose Abreu.....while it's difficult to come up with an exact translation from Cuban stats to the majors, plenty of people with lots of knowledge have tried. Bill has a projection in the annual handbook, and FanGraphs' Streamer thinks he'll be a .271/.354/.536 hitter. Which is very good.

I love the White Sox offseason....adding Adam Eaton and Abreu are two terrific moves, and if I was grading teams on offseason deals, they'd rank first.

The Padres one-year deal with Josh Johnson is another terrific move.
5:09 PM Feb 21st
I've done this five times now. In 2009 I went with the Rockies, who improved by 18 games, jumping from 74 to 92 wins.

In 2011 I went with Cleveland....they improved by 11 games, going from 69 to 80 wins.

In 2012 I went with the Royals, who improved by just one game. I added two 'bonus' candidates in Oakland and the Padres. San Diego did improve a bit (+5), but Oakland improved a LOT...74 wins to 94 wins.

Last year I went with Seattle and San Diego...the Padres treaded water, winning 76 games for the second year in a row. The Mariners actually lost ground (-5) was the first 'bust' I've had.

This is, of course, the third year in a row that the Padres have shown up as strong contenders to have a break out season. I could have adjusted the measures to put Milwaukee ahead, but I think their much stronger farm system made me hesitant to give a complete nod to the Brewers.

It's possible, of course, to give credit to off-season acquisitions, but last year's most improved team in the NL (the Pirates) didn't have any acquisitions that seemed likely to improve them. Liriano did help them, of course, but it wasn't like their improvement was because of their big-time free agent signings.

The same seems true for one (well, ahem, one person) thought that the acquisitions of Drew, Dempster, Napoli,Victorino, and Gomes would get them the AL East title, but those acquisitions did help.

Certainly, it's something to think about, adding some metric for off-season moves...but I think we tend to overrate the impact of free-agent acquisitions, and underrate the improvements of young players and the impact of minor league talent trickling into the majors.

5:03 PM Feb 21st
How would someone even evaluate the White Sox new 1b?

Also, if the Padres top the list the last 3 years, might you tweak things a bit?
12:16 PM Feb 21st
First of all, Dave why don't you have a system for evaluating teams off-season moves? Anyway like what was said below, the Astros are the team most likely to win more games, but well who cares at this point anyway? My pick in the AL is the Angels, but if they improve to let's say 84-87 wins and miss the playoffs, will people be very impressed?

I think the Blue Jays will be better if they stay healthy, and in the NL I like the Giants. There's always a team that surprises everyone, and suggesting the Mets is as good as anyone.
5:36 AM Feb 21st
BTW, I don't agree that the GIANTS would be considered a "Surprise."

No matter how bad they did last year, no team that won the World Series the previous year -- and especially if they also won the World Series 2 years previous, which means they were the champs in 2 of the last 4 years -- .....I don't think any team like this would ever be considered a surprise. It would be more of a bounce-back, regardless of the exact composition of the team.
1:30 AM Feb 21st
Can't resist the opportunity to talk about the 1984 Abstract.
I thought Bill never gloated enough (or at all) over an article in there about Surprise Teams.

He talked in general about 'miracle teams' and about how a longshot team's actual odds are probably never quite as long as believed or stated. He wound up by talking about how the CUBS were a dead set-up for a miracle team, and why. And as it turned out, that's exactly what happened.

Different people respond to different things. That article has always been one of my very favorites. For some reason I find it very MOVING, maybe because I like "anything is possible" stories, and I just love how Bill stuck his neck out and came up with this specific example, and it exactly came true. I've read it again and again, often actually in tears of joy.

Surprise team this year? I'll say my Yanks -- in either direction. They could be either much better or much worse than projected. In fact I think they're projected to be either much better or much worse than projected. :-)
1:04 AM Feb 21st
I don't, mostly because it's less fun to be pessimistic in Spring. It's probably a bit easier, too.

I think a big factor would be teams that saw a sudden upswing in wins from 2012 to 2013. In the AL, that'd be Boston or Cleveland....while I think Boston has the talent to stay in contention in the AL East, I wouldn't be surprised to see Cleveland take a step backwards in 2014.

The Pirates had the biggest jump in wins from 2012 to 2013....they'd be strong contenders to decline, too, but I like their younger players. I'm more inclined to pick the Reds to decline than Pittsburgh, but that's a biased opinion.
7:18 PM Feb 20th
I expect the Astros to win more games, as well. However, even if they improve by 20 wins, all that does is make them last year's Mariners.

I could imagine the Marlins improving by enough to catch the Phillies, assuming (as I do) that the Phils will be a few games worse.

I agree with David about Angel management, which seems to be making it up as they go along. Still, they have improved the starting pitching some. As many as half a dozen wins could depend on what version of Albert Pujols shows up.

Dave, do you have a similar system for projecting which of last season's winning teams are likely to regress? Of the 90-win teams, my candidates are the Red Sox, Indians and Reds.
6:33 PM Feb 20th
David Kowalski
My choices are the Astos and the Marlins. I'm not a fan of Angels management. They consistently trade away hitting to keep defense and then acquire hitting from the free agent market that under performs. In particular, they seem to have a fixation with good defensive catchers. I think that Houston will be much improved and Texas and Oakland are already good. Even Seattle acquired Robinson Cano and Fernando Rodney as free agents and looks to add either another starter or another hitter. They already have two excellent starters in Felix Hernandez and Iwakuma although Iwakuma will missx four to six weeks with a finer injury.

What the Angels seem to have going for them are Mike Trout, Albert Pujols and Jered Weaver. Sorry, but in that division unless Josh Hamilton suddenly revives, they won't be the ones to have the biggest rebound.

I could very well be wrong but the Angels would surprise me if they were, indeed the biggest surprise team in baseball.

Houston has pretty much revamped their lineup in the past year and those who were started for all of 2013 mostly had down years (Jose Altuve and Chris Carter) or figure to improve (Matt Dominguez who had 36 walks and 21 homers at third base).

Miami has a similar story only they have a real ace pitcher in the 2013 NL Rookie of the Year Jose Fernandez (12-6, 2.19 ERA). Giancarlo Stanton dropped over 100 points in his slugging average. They have veterans like Rafael Furcal, Jarrod Saltalamacchia and Garrett Jones. They have quietly added talent in the off-season and if they start to make noise they have a history of adding talent come mid-season. Even Christian Yellich and Nate Eovaldi and Casey McGeehee could help.

The Padres, unlike the Angels seem to be a contender for this honor. I don't think the NL West as as loaded as the AL West. They will need Josh Johnson to pitch like he has before 2013.

Since we don't know how well Ryan Braun will play post Biogenesis suspension the Brewers, another contender, seem out of the picture but contenders for the most improved label.

3:48 PM Feb 20th
It was a joke. Of course. I love Robby Cano.
3:34 PM Feb 20th
You gotta be kidding me about Robby Cano's lazy base-running to first being a poison to the M's clubhouse? I think that was a joke so I'll let it be.
3:25 PM Feb 20th
I think you have the correct teams, Dave; I might go so far as to pick the Padres to win the NL West if all the suddenly rich Dodgers decide to spend more time on the golf course than in the weight room. The Angels are the best team on either list, I think, so getting back over .500 is likely. I'm not sure what I think about the Brewers. On one hand, they've added some young talent in the midst of their disastrous 2013, but a lot of their success in 2012 came because of a pitching staff that's currently kind of a mess.
3:12 PM Feb 20th
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