Which Team Will Surprise in 2015?

February 26, 2015
 
Welcome back, everyone. 
 
This is an annual article, in which I try to figure out what teams have a chance to surprise us in the coming baseball season. I’ve been running this article for a while now, with mixed results. You’re welcome to scroll back through the archive and see the hits and misses.
 
One of the reasons I like writing this article is that is the rare projection that ignoresa lot of the noise of the off-season. The metric, cobbled out of some stuff Bill wrote a couple decades ago, does not consider how much better the Red Sox are because they acquired Hanley Ramirez and Pablo Sandoval. It doesn’t take into account the many moves that the White Sox or Padres made. Actually, that’s not completely true: one of the tens metrics does consider a team’s off-season…so a team’s offseason moves have some influence. An iota of influence. A mote of influence. But for the most part, the teams selected aren’t the teams that made headline-grabbing moves during the offseason.
 
This is intentional: while I enjoy following the offseason as much as any fan, I think a lot of the bigger moves tend to be just noise.  It’s very rare for the ‘winners’ of an off-season to go on and win the actual season. Sometimes it happens, but it mostly doesn’t happen. Sorry, San Diego.
 
Before we get to this year’s system and teams, I like to check back on how we did last time. Last year, for those of you just joining us, I looked for a ‘surprise’ team from each league, from all of the teams that were under .500 in 2013. How’d our system do?  
 
Well, we got the AL team right. The system picked the Angels (78 wins in 2013) as the most likely ‘surprise’ team in the AL, and in all of baseball. And they did surprise: the Halos improving by 20 wins. They were the most improved team in baseball last season.
 
The other surprise team in the AL in 2014 were the Mariners. Our system didn’t pick Seattle as a particularly strong contender to surprise, but they certainly improved, going from 71 wins to 87 (+16).
 
But…actually, the second-most improved team in the AL wasn’t the Mariners: it was the Astros, who jumped from 51 wins to 70 wins (+19). And Houston was the American League team that came in second by our metric: we thought that the Angels and Astros would be the two most improved teams in the AL, and they were.
 
This is, by the way, a fascinating tidbit about the AL West in 2014: they had three teams that improved dramatically….three teams that improved by 16-20 wins. I don’t know if that’s happened in the Wild Card era before: a division seeing three teams take significant steps forward like that. The AL power seems to be shifting westward.  
 
We didn’t do as good a job in the NL, but we were pretty close. Two teams finished tied at the top of our NL list: the Padres and Brewers. The damned Padres keep showing up in these articles, and they never do anything. They won’t be our pick this year, mostly because of spite.
 
But the Brewers certainly were a surprise team: they led the NL Central for much of the first-half, and remained in contention until a September fade. They improved by 8 games, going from 74 wins to 82 wins. They didn’t reach the playoffs, and no one will remember them as a surprise team in three years, but they certainly defied expectations.
 
The Giants improved by 12 games….and won another World Series. Our system picked them as a likely surprise team: they finished behind San Diego and Milwaukee in last year’s tally, but not far behind them. The system certainly liked their chances to improve. We didn’t pick the Giants, but our system wasn’t surprised by their success.
 
The most improved team in the NL was actually Miami, who went from 62 wins to 77 (+15). Our system was pretty ambivalent about Miami’s chances: they finished about middle-of-the-pack in our rankings.
 
Overall, we did a pretty solid job: we got it right with the Angels, Astros, Giants, and Brewers, made a mistake guessing the Padres, and didn’t quite give enough credit to the Mariners or Marlins. I’m happy with that.
 
*             *             *
 
Onto our system…I’ve rejigged some of the math, but we’re using the same indicators. 
 
-          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 .550 or better (a 90-win season), 3 points if they were at .500.
 
-          September W-L Record. This considers a team’s September record, only. Two points if the team was .500 or better, three points if they were over .540.
 
-          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. If a team won 81 games, but had a Pythagorean record of 86 wins, we give them a little credit for that: the difference minus two, or three points. It’s worth noting that a team can get negative points here: if they’re actual record is better than their expected record, we do the same math in reverse. We put a cap on this: four points either way. The Rockies were nine games worse than their expected record in 2014…they are credited with four points for that, instead of seven. Sorry, Rox.
 
-          Were They Good in 2014? 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 again 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. And we’ve thrown in negative numbers…-1 if a system ranks 21-25, -2 is the system was 26-30.
 
-          Projected Standings. I used FanGraph’s projections for the upcoming season: a team gets 5 points if they are expected to win 90 or more games, 4 points if they are in the 85-89 win range, 3 points for 82-85, and 1 point for 78-81.
 
-          Number of Positive Indicators They Check. This is sort of a ‘check’…it’s an indicator of positive indicators. In how many of the previous nine categories did the team receive points? The team get that count, which could be anywhere from zero to nine points.
 
The best total a team could possible get is 47 points….maybe I should have adjusted it somewhere to get it up to fifty, but I didn’t. There’s always next year, and anyway none of this year’s teams came close to forty-seven points.
 
One team did register zero points…one teams has absolutely no positive indictors going into 2015. That seems remarkable to me, though maybe it’s not so remarkable. Can you guess which team has no positive indictors going into 2015?
 
*             *             *
 
Let’s go league-by-league again, starting with the AL. Here are the losing teams in the AL last year:
 
Team
2014 Record
Rays
77-85
White Sox
73-89
Red Sox
71-91
Astros
70-92
Twins
70-92
Rangers
67-95
 
I’ll start with a caveat: I’ve decided not to consider the Red Sox as a ‘surprise’ team.
 
I did this, in part, because I’m a Red Sox fan, and I don’t want people to think my bias is informing this article. I really do go into this exercise blindly: every year I have teams I want to see come out on top, of course, and I have teams that I think should come out on top, but I check the numbers as I go, and I don’t tinker with them afterwards.
 
Mostly, however, I knocked the Red Sox off the list because they’re not really a surprise team: going into the 2015 season, they seem like the favorites in the AL East. They made big moves in the offseason, they’re richer than Croesus (and tougher than leather), they have a terrific farm system, and they won the World Series in 2013. It wouldn’t be surprising if they contended: they damned well better contend in 2015. 
 
So we’re not counting Boston. That leaves us with just five teams to consider.
 
By our system, the White Sox are the least likely to surprise us in 2015: they are a young team, and they have a decent farm system, but they haven’t showed any real sign that they’re turning around at the big league level. They didn’t have a stronger second-half, and they weren’t great in September. That said, the Pale Hose have had another good off-season: every year I love the decisions the White Sox make, and I think there are reasons to be optimistic if you’re a South Sider. They just don’t score well by our math.
 
And I should note: they don’t score badly, either: they have the same score, essentially, that the Mariners had last year. They have some positive indicators for 2015.
 
The Twins and Rangers are tied on our list, a few points ahead of Chicago. If I had to pick one, I’d take the Twins, who have the better farm system. Texas gets most of its points because the Rangers were a good team in 2013….I think they’re pretty far removed from that team, and the AL West is getting tough.
 
Houston again comes in second on our list: though they are an absolutely fascinating baseball team, I’m very glad they didn’t finish first. They improved by 19 games from 2013 to 2014, which is a monumental leap forward for a franchise that’s been pretty terrible for a long time. It would be impressive, and maybe historic, if they improved by that many victories again. I don’t think that’ll happen, two consecutive years of drastic improvement.
 
So the most likely team to bounce back in the 2015 are the Tampa Bay Rays, a team that was good in 2013, and one that looked very good for about two months last year. They’re our pick for the AL.
 
Team
2014 Record
# Pos. Ind.
Total Points
Rays
77-85
5
20
Astros
70-92
5
17
Twins
70-92
4
16
Rangers
67-95
5
16
White Sox
73-89
4
12
 
I’ll say, wrapping up the AL, that there’s a lot of parity here: the difference between the White Sox and Rays isn’t that big: one has five positive indicators, and one has four. The Angels had 30 points last year, Houston had 24….the points have adjusted slightly, but not significantly. There’s no big surprise team lurking in the AL this year: the Rays are the best candidates in a rather dull field.
 
*             *             *
 
Onto the NL:
Team
2014 Record
Braves
79-83
Mets
79-83
Marlins
77-85
Padres
77-85
Reds
76-86
Cubs
73-89
Phillies
73-89
Rockies
66-96
D'Backs
64-98
 
A lot of options here, and no problems with any of these teams being a ‘favorite’ in their respective divisions. The most buzzed-about team on the list are probably the Cubs, but they’re hardly the favorites in the NL Central: most people are picking the St. Louis Cardinals or the Pittsburgh McCutchensPirates.
 
The Phillies are our zero team. You knew that, right?
 
A few years ago, the Phillies organization had a choice: blow up their aging core and start the rebuild, or give it one more shot. They decided to give it one more shot, and they’re now paying the consequence: they’re an aging team with lots of salary owed them and a farm system bereft of top prospects. The best young player on the Phillies roster is Ben Revere, a limited defensive centerfielder and a leadoff hitter who walked 13 times in 626 plate appearances. All of their starting pitchers are on the wrong side of 30, and their quietly great bullpen is headed by a costly closer who’s losing velocity on his fastball. No team in baseball is facing a future as bleak as the Phillies.
 
Five teams rank about where the White Sox do: middling candidates to surprise us. Those teams are the Padres, Diamondbacks, Rockies, Reds, and Marlins.
 
As I noted earlier, this system doesn’t take into account off-season moves, and the Padres have had a busy offseason. I don’t particularly like the moves they executed: it seems silly to give up defense to chase homers in a gigantic outfield, and I don’t know that solving a problem for the front-running team in your division (LA’s crowded outfield) is the best strategy ever. But…some of the moves are defensible, and there’s a young core here (though a good part of that core was traded away). The Padres did have a winning record during the second-half, so maybe they’ll jump into the race.
 
I doubt too many folks thinks the Diamondback or Rockies will be playing meaningful baseball in September. The Diamondbacks have a solid farm system, but their organization prefers to look for market inefficiencies in the intangible realms of grit and clutchiness, and say snarky things about advanced metrics. That’s fine…everyone is entitled to their opinion. The Rockies have more star players, and seem a better candidate to surprise us with a run, but I’m not confident that they’ll beat the Dodgers and Giants. They certainly could breakout, though a lot depends on a healthy season from Tulo and Car-Go.
 
The Reds and Marlins are solid candidates, I suppose: the Central seems like a toss-up, and the Reds have some talented players. The Marlins have Jose Fernandez coming back in June, but their offense, outside of Giancarlo, remains pretty anemic. People are high on the Marlins, but I think they’re still a distance from contending.
 
The Braves actually do well by our system: if they were in the AL they’d rank a hair behind the Rays. This is the problem with ignoring off-season moves: the Braves don’t expect to be in contention this year: they traded away Heyward and Upton and Gattis, and are ramping up to be contenders when their new suburban stadium opens up. They won’t surprise us.
 
I fully expected the Cubs to come out on top. The Cubs were pretty good last year….they were nearly a .500 team during the second-half, and they went 12-13 in September. They are super young, and they have scads of prospects from some timely trades. They’re smartly run: if the chips fall right, the Cubs should be strong contenders in the NL Central for the next five years. 
 
But they didn’t come out on top.
 
The Mets did.
 
The Mets have seven positive indicators going into the 2014 season, the most of any team in baseball. Those indictors are:
 
-          Young hitters. Mets batters were the 15th youngest in the majors, good enough for one point.
 
-          A good second-half. The Mets went 34-33 during the second half, a tick over .500. They were pretty good during the first half, too. Three points.
 
-          A strong September. They went 15-10 in September. They also went 15-10 in July, though they don’t get points for that. In two of their last three months they were a .600 team. 3 points.
 
-          Unlucky in the ‘win’ column. Their expected W-L record was 82-80…they underperformed that by three wins. One point.
 
-          They have a good Triple-A Team. The Las Vegas 51’s went 81-63 last year, which tied them for the best record in the Pacific Coast League. 3 points
 
-          They have a good farm system. Keith Law ranked the Mets system the 4th best in the majors. Four points.
 
-          They’re projected to be near .500. The FanGraphs projections see 78 wins in their future, good enough for one point.
 
Those seven indicators net the Mets sixteen points, plus another seven points for the seven indicators where they see a positive number. Total tally: 23 points.
 
I’m happy it’s the Mets. Speaking from my limited perspective, I think there’s a good case that Mets fans are the best in baseball. Because their team isn’t a reliable winner, Mets fans tend towards pessimism, like Cubs fans. But they don’t seem defined by that pessimism: Mets fans don’t embrace loser-dom the way Cubs fans do, and they don’t wallow in their miseries the way Boston fans do. They’re knowledgeable fans, and they talk a lot about their team, but they’re not sanctimonious the way that Cardinals fans are, or Yankees fans. There’s no ‘The Mets Way’ stuff. And Mets fans tend to be pretty knowledgeable about other teams: they’re not as myopic about their fandom as other fan bases. Lastly, they care about their team, for better or worse: at least one study pegs the Mets are the most dedicate fans in the game.
 
We could have predicted this: we could have looked at the Mets when they first became a team in the early 1960’s and guessed that they’d have loyal fans fifty years later. They share a city with the Yankees, so it was inevitable that they’d wind up the ‘second’ team in the city: it’s hard to be sanctimonious when you’re the second son, and the Yankees called dibs on just about all the legacy stuff. Mets fans can’t be myopic, not when their team shares the sports page with a more photogenic sibling. At least Chicago has the decency to have two teams with generally equivalent histories.
 
The Mets have great fans mostly because being a Mets fan is a deliberate act, albeit a slightly masochistic one. After all, every Mets fan could root for Yankees. They don’t: that means something.
 
Anyway…I hope they do well this year. Here’s how the NL comes out in our tally:
 
Team
2014 Record
# Pos. Ind.
Total Points
Mets
79-83
7
23
Cubs
73-89
6
20
Braves
79-83
4
19
Marlins
77-85
3
12
Reds
76-86
3
11
Rockies
66-96
3
11
D'Backs
64-98
4
11
Padres
77-85
4
10
Phillies
73-89
0
0
 
This isn’t a runaway result, either: I am less confident about the front runners this year than I was last year. I think there will be a surprise team that comes out of the NL, but I’m not absolutely convinced it’ll be the Mets. It could be the Cubs, pulling ahead in an up-for-grabs Central. Or maybe Miami or Colorado sneaks into the Wild Card game. It could be San Diego: maybe Matt Kemp and Justin Upton will have the MVP-seasons the Padres are hoping for.
 
But the Mets should be interesting. When they signed Cuddyer early this offseason, I assumed that that was a precursor to another big deal: I thought they’d end up signing one of Shields/Lester/Scherzer. They didn’t: it seems they gave up a draft pick just to add Michael Cuddyer. It’s a curious decision, but their rotation is still a strength. So is their bullpen. They don’t have an impressive lineup, but their team doesn’t have too many gaps, and they have a great defensive centerfielder. I don’t know that they’ll beat the Nationals, but the path to the Wild Card seems easier in the East than in the Central or Western divisions.
 
And there’s something convincing about having the most positive indicators. It is telling, too that the Mets were the only team among the ones we considered to have a) played .500+ baseball during the second half, and b) had a competitive record in September.
 
The Cubs should be winners: they have really talented players coming into the majors. But it’s impossible to know if that talent will turn into actual wins, or if they’re still missing something. The Mets have won: they seem a better bet in the NL because they’ve recently demonstrated success at the major league level.
 
So the Mets are our pick: they’ll be the surprise team in the NL this year.
 
Dave Fleming is a writer living in Wellington, New Zealand. He welcomes comments, questions, and suggestions here and at dfleming1986@yahoo.com.
  
 
 

COMMENTS (13 Comments, most recent shown first)

MarisFan61
Dave: I much appreciate the reply, especially because I don't often get much resonance here on the "qualitative trumping quantitative," and I realize I shouldn't expect to.
12:08 AM Feb 28th
 
MarisFan61
My favorite such 'prediction' ever (wasn't really a prediction, just a discernment of real possibility) was Bill's piece in the 1984 Abstract (i.e. before the '84 season) about the Cubs. He put it something like "If ever there was a dead set-up for a miracle team....." I've mentioned this a couple of times before in these annual articles. What I marveled at about this the most is that Bill never gloated over it afterwards. (Unless I just never happened to be listening when he did.) :-)

It was a terrific piece, talking about the team and the division in detail, giving examples of what kinds of things might need to happen in order for the Cubs to win it, and concluding that the sum total probability seemed more like something like (I think he said) 8-1 rather than 100-1. It was beautiful, and it wound up happening just about like that.
10:35 PM Feb 27th
 
DaveFleming
Well....I think you're right, Maris: the Mariners improvement is more significant than the Astros movement. The Astros went from a historically bad team to only a seasonally bad team...that isn't exactly the same leap that Seattle made.

The origin of this series was something Bill noted, and my own surprise at just how frequently teams show dramatic improvements in their year-by-year win totals. It is very common to have a team improve by 20 games...that happens most seasons, and it often happens to more than one team.

The system, unscientific as it is, is intended to find those teams: the teams most likely to show a sudden improvement.

For most losing teams, a 20-win improvement would at least get them into the race....the D'Backs won 66 last year (I think)....winning 86 would at least have them in the hunt for the Wild Card.

The Astros are weird because they were so bad: they were thirty games under .500. We don't get too many teams that far from .500, plus or minus. So it's unlikely that we'll run into this problem again, but I'll be sure and mention it if we do.
6:38 PM Feb 27th
 
evanecurb
I think the 1990 New York Giants were a really flukey team. Here was a team that moved to San Francisco, then switched sports, came back to town, and won the Super Bowl.
3:27 AM Feb 27th
 
MarisFan61
P.S. (per the post below)
Here's an analogy for you.

Weight loss

One person weighs 700 pounds, and in a year he loses 200 pounds. Now he weighs 500. He goes from atrocious to terrible.

Another person weighs 350, and in a year he loses 150. He weighs 200, and he's in pretty good shape.

Whose improvement is "greater"? Whose is more impressive?

I suppose you could argue either way, but to me, it's clearly the latter.
2:35 AM Feb 27th
 
MarisFan61
Thank you -- I always appreciate and enjoy these.

Just a conceptual quibble, picking up on a theme I bring up in various contexts: Things not necessarily really being arithmetical.

Sabermetrics likes to compare things quantitatively. For example, the way you measure and compare team improvements is, numbers of wins. Which of course makes sense.

But I don't buy it, not completely. For many or most comparisons, I would, but not for all. It depends.

Like, take this one:

"The other surprise team in the AL in 2014 were the Mariners. Our system didn’t pick Seattle as a particularly strong contender to surprise, but they certainly improved, going from 71 wins to 87 (+16).

But…actually, the second-most improved team in the AL wasn’t the Mariners: it was the Astros, who jumped from 51 wins to 70 wins (+19)."


How many of you really consider Houston's improvement from 51 wins to 70 as being greater than Seattle's from 71 to 87? Maybe most of you do -- and you might even say that if anything, Houston's advantage is greater than the small arithmetical difference, because, their proportional gain was very much greater.

But I would say that an improvement from mediocrity to within a whisker of making the post-season is a 'larger' improvement than going from awful to mediocre.

The problem about this, besides that it defies the arithmetic, is that it's subjective, and any attempts to sort of quantify it would be subjective too. But that's how things are sometimes. :-)
1:57 AM Feb 27th
 
the_slasher14
The 1973 Mets were a completely fluky team. They suffered from injuries all year and came down to August 30 in last place, ten games under .500. Then they went 21-8 to win the division with a record of 82-79.

They were, once they all got healthy, tough to beat. Their starters were Seaver, Koosman, Matlack at his peak, and Sadecki, and they had McGraw in the bullpen. The rest were journeymen except for CF Don Hahn, who was never as good as a journeyman, and OFs Cleon Jones and Rusty Staub, who were All-Stars from time to time. Interestingly, they were the opposite of the 1969 team in that they had a set lineup, whereas the 1969 team had only two regulars.

1969 and 1973. Two of the most improbable pennants ever.


8:06 PM Feb 26th
 
mikewright
I really thought my Beloved Braves would be the zero.
7:58 PM Feb 26th
 
ventboys
I shoulda said four game spread - oops.
10:06 AM Feb 26th
 
ventboys
Thanks, Dave, this is one of my favorite articles of the year… I agree that the Mets are the most likely to improve – not counting the Diamondbacks and Rockies, who are being pulled against the Plexiglas principle like rubber bands – but they wouldn’t be my pick to improve the most, because (1) they were already pretty good in 2014 and (2) expecting health AND effectiveness from that many kids/injury risks on their pitching staff is about as reasonable as expecting a high level of offensive productivity from that many kids/injury risks dotting the rest of their roster. If I had to bet on a five game spread (Vega-style), I would probably choose 83-86 – which is a pretty darned good year for what looks to be a team built for 2016 more than 2015.
I expect the Dbacks and the Rockies to both improve by several games but still stink, and the Twins are showing a tiny bit of a pulse as well, but the interesting teams – in my opinion – are the two Chicago teams. The Cubbies, like the Mets, are built more for 2016 or even 2017, but there is plenty of talent there, and I am developing a superstitious awe of their pitching coach much like I have for Dave Duncan. His list of reclamation projects is already impressive. I put the Cubby range at 84-87, which might be enough to get them to the top of your list. The White Sox have made the spashy moves, of course; if I had a choice between their roster and the Cubby roster I would choose the Cubs, but for 2015 alone the White Sox like to me like a textbook 88-91 win team, which makes them my personal choice for the most improved team.
I don’t buy the Padres, who will either (1) have the worst defensive outfield since Abbot and Costello, or (2) be playing Cameron and Venable out there, in which case they will look remarkably like the 2014 Padres.

10:03 AM Feb 26th
 
johnvgps
Thank you for your kind comments regarding Mets fans.

The current team reminds me somewhat of the early '70s Mets-- lots of pitching, a lineup with two players who have a shot at 15+ home runs, 80 to 86 wins.

Of course the 1973 team rode an 82-win regular season all the way to the seventh game of the World Series. I had always thought the Mets were lucky to beat the Reds in the NLCS, but looking back at it, they lost two 2-1 games in the five-game series and won by scores of 5-0, 9-2 and 7-2.

Outscoring the Big Red Machine 23-8 is a hell of an accomplishment.​
8:13 AM Feb 26th
 
rfleming
Regarding the Mets, is not a real worry the injuries that come to pitching staffs? And do the Mets have even close to enough hitting to overcome that possibility? Or is the thought the pitching is deep enough to handle injury problems?
6:53 AM Feb 26th
 
OldBackstop
Asa Mets fan, I just want to say that I'm a Mets fan.


6:35 AM Feb 26th
 
 
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