Which Team Will Surprise in 2016?

March 2, 2016
It is not uncommon for a baseball team to dramatically improve their yearly win total. By ‘drastically’ I mean by something in the vicinity of twenty wins.
A swing of twenty wins year-by-year is pretty sizeable: if your team goes from a 72-win season to a 92-win season, that’s a big improvement. The GM is getting an extension. Gold watches for everyone.
It’s a big shift, but it’s not that rare. The Cubs went from 73 wins to 97 last year, a jump of 24 wins. The Rangers improved by 21 wins. Houston improved by 16 games. We see these kinds of jumps every year: we see teams that go from having a losing record to having a really winning record. The 2014 Cubs weren’t too good, but the 2015 Cubs were a serious challenger to the World Series. The Rangers stunk in 2014: they came within a Jose Bautista bat-flip of the ALCS.
One thing I’ve endeavored to do it try to predict those teams….try to predict the upstarts. I constructed a junky little system to evaluate each team’s chances of surprising us, based on a list of criteria that ranges from the age of a team’s pitchers to how their Triple-A team did the year before. I’ll get to that list.
Last year, the system got it right. Or, pretty right.
The system pegged that the two NL teams most likely to surprise were the Mets (23 points) and the Cubs (20 points). The two most improved teams in the NL were the Cubs (24 games) and the Mets (11 games). They were the two biggest surprises in the National League….I’d say that the Mets were a bit more of a surprise than the Cubs, given what everyone was expecting of the Nationals last year.
The system picked the Rays as the most likely team to ‘surprise’ in the AL. That didn’t happen, of course: the Rays didn’t do much of anything last year.
But the system got the rest of the surprises in the AL:
Surprise Points
White Sox
The Astros and Rangers were the most improved teams in the AL last year: the system liked their chances of improving. Minnesota improved by 13 wins last year: the system had them as good candidate to do that.
And this gets to that cancelling-out-the-noise bit. A lot of people liked the moves the White Sox made last year, and thought that they’d be a surprise in the Central. They weren’t a surprise, and the system predicted that.
So…that’s last year, reviewed. We hit the NL out of the park, and did a pretty good in the AL.
*             *             *
Back-patting over: I don’t think the system is really working as well as it could be. We’re getting some picks right, but it’s very much a junk-stat project. It’s not rigorous.
That’s fine, of course. Non-rigorous analysis can be fun. One of the reasons I keep writing this article is because it is one of the articles that always surprises me: I have no idea what teams will end up with the highest scores. I just set the parameters and see what comes out. That’s fun. I wasn’t paying a lick of attention to the Mets until they came out on top of the pile last year, and they had a really fun season. It gave me a little stake in the year, made me care about a team that I usually don’t think about. That’s a positive.
The other positive is that it’s totally blind to the noise of the off-season. During last year’s offseason, the two teams making the biggest splashes were the Padres and White Sox. They were the big movers on the hot stove. Or in the stove….I don’t quite grasp that metaphor.
What happens is that those teams end up getting the most attention, while teams that are making quieter strides forward (Minnesota, the Mets) are drowned out in the preseason conversations. I like that the system mostly ignores the noise.
But I’d like it to get more rigorous. I didn’t have the time to do it this year, but I’ll try next year. We can count that as another promise I’ll end up delaying for a while.
There’s a third reason I want to get a better system in place, but I won’t get into that yet. Let’s get to the system.
*             *             *
I’ve rejigged some of the math, but we’re using the same ten indicators this year: 
-          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 five points to the five youngest teams in baseball, three 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 5 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. Four points if they were over .550, two if they were over .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. If a team won 81 games, but had a Pythagorean record of 86 wins, we give them a little credit for that. The equation is:
(Pythagorean Wins – Actual Wins) – 3 = Points
(86 wins – 81 wins) - 3 = 2 Points
The ‘3’ is just an objective number: teams that finished within three games of their expected W-L record aren’t awarded or penalized. On that ‘penalized’ bit, 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 is the most a team can get, either way.
-          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? Four points if a team’s AAA team finished in contention for first-place, two points if they were over .500.
-          How Does Their Farm-System Rate? I again used Keith Law’s rankings of Major League Farm Systems. Four points for the top-five, three 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 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, 2 points for 82-85.
-          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 fifty points. Last year it was something like 42 or 43, and now it’s fifty. Which is a kind of progress, I guess.
*             *             *
Let’s check on some teams.  
Before we get to that, I’ll note that we’re only looking at losing teams from here on out. I didn’t tally scored for any team that finished 2015 with a record of .500 or better.
Wait…why didn’t I do that?
Because I’m interested in finding surprise teams, and I don’t think a team that goes from .500 to the playoffs is really surprising. If a team beats their opponents for a full 162-game season, that’s a good team. Even if it’s a draw, 81-81, that’s a pretty good team. No one is shocked when an 81-win team strides into the playoffs. Or if they are shocked, they keep quiet about it.
I’d like, in the future, to look at all teams, but it’d take a bit more time, and I don’t have all that much faith in the system. So we’re just looking at the losers this year. Sorry, Baltimore (81-81) and Cleveland (81-80) fans.
Let’s get to the tallies. American League first.
Pos. Ind.
Red Sox
White Sox
The most likely team to surprise us in the AL, according to our tweaked system, are the Oakland A’s. I wouldn’t have expected this: I sort of think of the A’s as unintentionally rebuilding, as a non-rebuilding rebuilding team. But they have a few positives: the A’s were a young team last year….young pitcher and young bats. They under-performed their Pythagorean W-L record, and they were good enough to make the playoffs in 2014.
The Red Sox finished second. They are such an obvious team to ‘surprise’ us that the word doesn’t seem accurate. The Sox identified their three offseason goals as 1) acquire a starter, 2) acquire a reliever, and 3) get an outfield bat who could hit lefties. They went out and landed David Price, Craig Kimbrel, and Chris Young-the-Younger. That’s setting a goal and meeting it. Carson Smith is a nice addition, too.
Objectively, the Red Sox are the most obvious team to see a sizeable jump in performance. First, they have a ton of young stars, they acquired two of the most talented pitchers in baseball to shore up the rotation and bullpen, and they have plenty of depth to fill in when injuries happen. They won 78 games last year, but they played like contenders in August and September, posting a winning percentage of .550 over those last two months.
And the division seems ripe for the taking. The Jays were great last year, but they don’t have Price, and their bats are another year older. The Yankees and Rays are interesting teams, but they have question marks. The Orioles committed a lot of deferred money to Chris Davis, and have been on a good run lately, but they don’t stand out as a juggernaut. It’s an even division….it’s strong, but there’s no front-runner.
The Rays and Mariners could take a step forward, but the metric isn’t too optimistic about their chances. I think the White Sox have had two absolutely terrific off-seasons, and I wouldn’t be surprised if they made a run at the Central. Just need the Royals to play to the projections…
The Tigers are old. Time’s a-running out.
Onto the NL:
Pos. Ind.
It’s a coin-toss between the Marlins and the D’Backs.
Which makes sense: if one of the losing teams in the NL makes a run this year, it’ll be the D’Backs or the Marlins. The Brewers, Braves, Phillies, and Padres are all in one stage or rebuilding or another. The Reds aren’t quite sure what they’re doing, but getting rid of Frazier is a sign that they’re not trying to challenge the Bucs, Cards, and Cubs in the Central. The Rockies seem like a franchise adrift: I have no idea what they’re doing, and I’m not convinced they do, either. Time to start cloning Todd Helton.
Which leads me to my last point: none of the losing teams look particularly likely to rebound this year.
We have nine indicators for ‘surprise teams’….nine indicators, plus the one that adds the number of indicators ticked.
Last year, the Mets ‘scored’ on seven of the nine indicators. The Cubs had six. Three AL teams scored on five indictors: the Rangers, Astros, and Rays. There is significant correlation between the raw number of indicators a team ticks, and that team’s chances of surprising us.
Going into 2016, none of the teams are really showing strength across indicators: the best teams are scoring points in four indicators. That’s a far cry from last year’s Mets, who had seven positive indicators going into the year.
So that’s how I’ll wrap this up. If you want to guess at surprise teams, you should think about Oakland, Boston in the AL, Miami and Arizona in the NL. Those are the places we can expect a surprise.
But a surprise might not be coming this year….this might be one of those seasons where success holds instead of shifts. This might be one of those years where the surprise of the year is that there are no surprises coming.
Next year we’ll try out a different system. Unless, of course, we don’t.
Dave Fleming is a writer living in Wellington, New Zealand. He welcomes comments, questions, and suggestions here and at dfleming1986@yahoo.com.


COMMENTS (9 Comments, most recent shown first)

Dramastically - Dave Fleming 2016. Copyrighted.
10:27 AM Mar 8th
I would check the variance between projected runs scored and runs actually scored and projected runs allowed and runs actually allowed from the previous season. Sometimes you just have a bad year, those bad years show up in "missing" runs scored or allowed. Sometimes you go the other way.
10:13 AM Mar 4th
Dave: You forgot to post the Las Vegas odds for each of these teams making it to the World Series. Now I have to go look them up myself.
8:43 AM Mar 4th
Shoot....meant to use the word 'dramastically.'
9:08 PM Mar 3rd
Apologies for the pedantic nature of this, but in the first paragraph you use "dramatically" and "drastically" when the construct of the paragraph clearly indicates you wanted to use the same word twice there.

2:37 PM Mar 3rd
HeyDave, very interesting. I was impressed with your call on the Mets last year.

A few thoughts:

1. Injuries. The Rays were second in baseball in lost man hours, so I'd give yourself a break there.

2. I wonder if grading youth on a curve is more appropriate than figuring where they are on a career arc? I think about the Mets...probably old on the batter's side, with Granderson and Wright, and only D'Arnaud and Conforto on the young side. But are the 29-30 guys like Yo-C and Duda in their prime, although they skew the team older?

3. Do you think this adequately accounts for off season additions? It seems like the counting of last years records and 2014 records and farm system would be overwhelmed by wholesale free agent additions. It would affect batter's age, but in a deceiving way, as a free agent is probably in the late/middle of his peak.​
9:02 AM Mar 3rd
Great article. But shouldn't the quality of players gained or lost through free agency be an important factor?

And I would think that AAA team record, and even farm-system rating, would have relatively low correlation to parent team success in the following year. A better measure might be the count of minor league players, 1) ranked among the top 50 prospects, and 2) who ended the prior year in AA or AAA would be more predictive of the current year performance than the overall rating of one AAA team or the minor league system overall.
7:00 AM Mar 3rd
I know that you have a pretty darn good record on this. There would seem to be a pretty darn good chance you'll do well again.

Just one thing, maybe more 'semantic' than anything else:
Would Boston really be a "surprise"?

A rise for them is so widely expected -- my impression is that they're the most-widely-predicted A.L. East division winner -- that I don't think we could consider it a surprise. Yes, a "surprise" in terms of your criteria, but not a surprise really.​
12:19 AM Mar 3rd
Just wondering if you think your method would work on predicting which of last year's playoff teams is most likely to be below .500 this year. Seems like every year, some playoff team implodes. I'd think it unlikely your method would work too well, because the big reason for mega-drops is injuries, which seem pretty hard to predict.
5:36 PM Mar 2nd
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