Which Team Will Surprise in 2022?

March 30, 2022
 
Let's start with the inevitable caveat: southern California teams are not eligible for consideration.
 
The Angels were a losing team last season; with Mike Trout and Anthony Rendon returning, with Noah Syndergaard joining the rotation, and with Shohei Ohtani poised to again warp our minds with as staff ace/slugger of the Angels, they should be better in 2022. They might not be any better, of course, but it won’t be a surprise if they improve on last season.
 
The San Diego Padres - further south on the coastline – are also not in consideration. They had a losing record by year’s end, but on August 10th their record stood at 67-49, good enough for third in the surprisingly competitive NL West, and also the fourth-best record in the league. They collapsed afterwards, but you cannot count a team that managed to hang with the 107-win Giants and the 106-win Dodgers through the heat of the summer race a surprise team if they have a better finish in 2022.
 
And the Mets, on the opposite coast, do not count as candidate to surprise us. After another season that felt, at moments, like something out of a Samuel Beckett play, the Mets acquired Max Scherzer, Starling Marte, and Mark Canha, all excellent and competent players who make the Mets co-favorites in the NL East.  
 
So that’s three losing teams that will likely be better – unsurprisingly better – in 2022. Let’s skip them.
 
 
*            *            *
 
So who is left?
 
I have been running this thought exercise for a while now, but with COVID shortening the 2020 season, I skipped making a prognostication about a surprise team for 2020.
 
Last year I picked three teams to improve: Boston, Toronto, and Kansas City. Two did improve: Boston bounced their crimson sox back into contention, and the Blue Jays could’ve lapped the division if they hadn’t spent the first two months as nomads. Kansas City didn’t improve, and I missed the Giants. Oh well.
 
With a full slate of games for 2020, I’m back with a surprise pick for the coming year.
 
Here are the twelve candidate teams:
 
American League
National League
Baltimore Orioles
Miami Marlins
Cleveland Guardians
Washington Nationals
Detroit Tigers
Chicago Cubs
Kansas City Royals
Pittsburg Pirates
Minnesota Twins
Colorado Rockies
Texas Rangers
Arizona Diamondbacks
 
Who do you like? Make your pick and your case in the comments section below, and we’ll check back at the end of the year.
 
 
*            *            *
 
This was an easier choice than it’s been in the past. One of the criteria I consider…the first criteria I looked at this year and the criteria I’m most interested in…was how a team does in August and September/October.
 
Why?
 
Well…it’s self-evident, isn’t it? If you’re a losing team, but you had a good August or a good September, that very strongly suggests that you’ve solved some things. If you’re a losing team and you start winning games as the rosters expand and your younger players come up and your veterans get shipped off to contenders: that feels like a very good omen.
 
The Giants surprised everyone last year: no one in the world expected them to win 107 games. No one expected them to beat the Dodgers. No one expected them to beat the Padres. They beat both.
 
But if you look at their record during the COVID-shortened 2020 season, you can actually see it coming.
 
On August 17th, the Giants lost to the Angels, pushing their record down to 8-16. That’s bad: they were the second-worst team in the National League at that moment, ahead of only Pittsburg.
 
After that date, the Giants were the third-best team in the league.
 
They went 21-15, trailing only San Diego and the Dodgers. They turned good down the stretch, except no one noticed it, really. They were still under .500 for the year, and they didn’t make the expanded playoffs, and the whole year was odd and disorienting, so no one knew what to make of anything. And no one was paying any attention to the Giants, because San Diego was hitting grand slams and the Dodgers were the Dodgers and there just wasn’t any room for the casual fan to say, "Hey, the Giants have been pretty good, too."
 
But it was there, if you knew where to look. The Giants stumbled around for three weeks in 2020 and then they played winning baseball. The stumble was too long and the season too short for that truth to reveal itself, but they were a good team in 2020, and they proved it in 2021.
 
To find a surprise team for this year, the first thing I look for is which losers did well down the stretch in 2021.
 
The Angels, Mets, and Padres – all already disqualified – were terrible down the stretch. The Angels went 11-18 in the last month, while the Mets were 21-37 from August to October. The Padres were worse than both: 11-15 in August, 7-21 in September/October.
 
The Arizona Diamondbacks were terrible: 19-38 over the last two months of the season. The Nationals were ever worse. The Pirates were bad all year, and they didn’t want to make autumn an exception. The Cubs have a nice park, but their ursine team didn’t show any signs of life down the stretch. The Cleveland team played like a bunch of art deco sculptures stuck on a bridge.
 
The Marlins were 11-17 and 12-17. The Rangers were about the same. Baltimore was Baltimore: at least they have Cedric Mullins to enjoy.
 
That left us with four teams: the Colorado Rockies, and the bulk of the AL Central (Kansas City, Detroit, and Minnesota). And while I love Denver, the stadium, and the state of Colorado, I’m not picking the Rockies.
 
 
*            *            *
 
The surprise team for 2022 will be the Detroit Tigers.
 
The Tigers record in August and September compares decently with the records of the other four squads:
 
Team
August W-L
Sept-Oct W-L
Rockies
14-13
14-15
Tigers
12-14
15-14
Royals
14-14
15-16
Twins
14-13
15-15
 
It is relevant, of course, that four of these teams play in the AL Central. By the late months of last year, the White Sox were running away from the division, and the other teams were left to play out the string. The Guardians were worse than their division rivals listed here (29-32), but not that much worse. It was a mediocre division, and some part of the success of the Tigers and Royals and Twins is credited to that broader ineptitude.
 
It is my opinion – not yet verified by any rigid analysis – that the August W-L record is more telling than the September W-L record. Teams are still trying in August, but they often shift to ‘figuring out next year’ in September. In August, there’s still time. In September, you’re fighting the clock.
 
The Cubs (13-16) and Pirates (13-17) were decent in September…not far from the teams listed in the table above. But both squads were awful in August: 7-20 for the Cubbies, 8-20 for the Pirates. Texas was 13-17 in September, but just 10-18 in August. Baltimore was 11-20 in September, which is terrible, but they were 4-24 in August.
 
What’s interesting is that this doesn’t seem to hold for the good teams. The Padres were OK in August (11-17), but they absolutely quit in September (7-21). The Angels did the same thing (14-15 in August, 11-18 in September). The teams that expect to be in the fight are still fighting in August, but they’ll give up the ghost in September.
 
All of that is a supposition, and you can dismiss it or adopt it as you like. I’ve meant to actually look into creating a database that would let me look into some of these theories, but the scraps of paper I had started the work on have vanished, and I haven’t gotten back to it.
 
Getting back to the Tigers.
 
The second thing I looked at was the quality of each team’s Double-A and Triple-A squads. If the major league team wasn’t winning, how did the minor league squad do?
 
Team
AAA Win%
AA Win%
Rockies
.446
.331
Tigers
.569
.538
Royals
.566
.538
Twins
.515
.575
 
The Rockies weren’t winnings in the minors, either, struggling to a .446 in Triple-A and a brutal .331 winning percentage in Double-A.
 
One thing I did discover - from that pile of vanished notes – is that it is very rare for a team to rise up suddenly on the backs of prospects. We sort of think that a team with a handful of prospects will have those prospects emerge like cicadas from the minor league mud, but that seldom happens. The Cubs championship team was one moment where it did happen, but usually it takes a few years in the majors for a team’s young prospects to contribute to a winning team.
 
Another thing I look at is the age of the squad, hitters and pitchers. Hitters first, from BB-Reference:
 
Team
Hitter Age
Rockies
28.1
Tigers
28.1
Royals
29.3
Twins
28.3
 
The Tigers, Rockies, and Twins all had young bats, though they weren’t really young. The Twins were about where the MLB average was.
 
There was a greater separation with the pitchers:
 
Team
Pitcher Age
MLB Rank
Rockies
28.3
10th
Tigers
27.3
3rd
Royals
27.7
6th
Twins
29.8
27th
 
The Twins used a lot of old pitchers last year, while Detroit and the Royals let the youngsters throw.
 
The Tigers had younger hitters and pitchers than both the Royals and Twins: this means that they are trialing the people who have their best years ahead of them, instead of wasting on the likes of J.A. Happ.
 
And it has the potential to pay off. Let’s talk about that for a minute. Young pitching.
 
Casey Mize was a top-rated prosect for the Tigers: the teams was very careful about letting him pitch, but they gave him 150 innings in the major leagues, and he did very well. He wasn’t elite, but he made 30 starts, kept is ERA down (114 ERA+), and made strides. They did the same for Tarik Skubal: 29 starts, a league-average ERA, and more strikeouts than innings pitched. Skubal and Mize are the same age, both 25 this year. The Tigers gave them terrific foundations for breakout seasons.
 
This is a part of classical baseball knowledge that sabermetrics tends to miss. I am not faulting statistical analysis for that: it is not the fault of FanGraphs that they haven’t invented a metric for ‘effective platform building for young pitchers.’ You can’t really quantify something like that.
 
But it’s massively, massively important. The Tigers have two twenty-five-year-old starting pitchers who they want to throw 180 to 200 innings someday. Last year, each pitcher made 30 starts, and the managed their innings carefully, and the manger gave them enough rope to figure things out. The organization had a plan for Casey Mize, and they informed him what the plan was (Mize was shut down for a little while mid-season to give him the chance to rest), and they followed that plan. That’s confidence-building. That reflects a great deal of organizational competency, too.
 
I think, fifty years ago, that would have been a big part of the story: the Tigers have young pitchers, and in an ni-between season they gave them a chance to take a step forward, and now they’re ready to go. These days it’s more: "Mize is projected to be 3.0 WAR and Skubal is projected at 1.8." That’s a useful distillation for porjections, but there is a lot that’s happening underneath that tends to get missed.
 
I guess what I’m saying is that we’re losing the ‘stories’ of these teams., and the stories of the players. If Casey Mize emerges as a elite starter this year, we’ll all happily project him as a star next year, but we’ll lose the ways that the Tigers facilitated that success. And if he’s just competent – if he doesn’t breakthrough as an elite starter – we’ll just forget about it. That feels like a loss to me.
 
Anyway, rant over.
 
I said that it is rare for a team to rise on the sudden bubbling up of prospects, but the Tigers have impact prospects who look ready for the major leagues. The first is Spencer Torkelson, a famously talented college hitter who was the first overall pick in the 2020 draft. The second is Riley Greene, a gifted all-round outfielder who torched minor league pitching last year. The Tigers are looking like they’ll start them in the majors this year: they have the chance to be impact players.
 
And while I deliberately skip paying any attention to offseason moves, the Tigers acquired two players who have the potential to move the needle. Nikko Goodrum – great name – had a .214/.292/.359 line as the team’s shortstop last year: he will be replaced by Javier Baez, a mercurial player who has moments when he’s one of the elite players in the game. And they acquired Eduardo Rodriguez, a rotational anchor with experience winning baseball games. I like the moves.
 
And the division is soft. The White Sox are a great team – I was very critical about Tony LaRussa coming on as manager, and I was very wrong in that opinion – but the White Sox are the only strong team, and that’s what you want if you’re looking for a surprise squad. It is a steep climb for the Orioles to get past the Rays, Red Sox, Blue Jays, and Yankees….it is considerably less steep if you’re competing against the fire sale Guardians, the Royals, and the Twins.
 
 
And it might not happen this year, of course. But I think the future is bright for the Detroit franchise: I think they’re going to have a run of first-place seasons very soon.
 
 
David Fleming is a writer living in southwestern Virginia. He welcomes comments, questions, and suggestions here and at dfleming1986@yahoo.com. 
 
 

COMMENTS (7 Comments, most recent shown first)

Marc Schneider
Would Detroit actually be a surprise? I think most people believe they are on the right track. To me, it wouldn't be a huge surprise for them to at least make a run for the playoffs.
12:45 PM Apr 4th
 
Jaytaft
The Orioles should be 10 to 15 wins better than their 110-loss season last year. The new dimensions of Camden Yards should greatly benefit their team, and they'll be calling up quite a few excellent prospects. They've already got some decent players in their lineup - Mancini, Mullins, Mountcastle, Hays, Santander - and they'll be calling up some big bats. And also calling up some starting pitchers to join Means.
7:05 PM Apr 3rd
 
Brian
Tigers fan - hope you are right. Concerns:

1. Last year was a huge improvement over the year before. It's hard to do that 2 years in a row.

2. Some indicators would suggest that there will be some regression in the pitching.

3. If Green and Torkelsen are up, that's great. But then the farm system is weak and won't supply any additional help. They have nothing to offer in a midseason trade.

4. Cabrera is just a bad player at this point. But his status makes him an everyday player - at least until an acceptable time period after his 3000th hit has past.

On the plus side, their offseason moves were all good. AJ Hinch is great and the pitching coach, Chris Fetter, was very highly regarded before he was hired and did an outstanding job his first year. Riley Greene, if he didn't break his foot today, has a great chance to be the Rookie of the Year. And Torkelsen will supply power and hopefully a decent OBP.

Fingers crossed.

7:22 PM Apr 1st
 
Jack
Thanks, Dave, I always enjoy this exercise.

Agree that Detroit is the most likely surprise team. I think Minnesota also could make a playoff run.
3:08 PM Mar 30th
 
evanecurb
Great minds think alike. I was wrong about the Tigers' success beginning in June last year; it actually began in May. Here they are, month by month:

April 8-19
May 14-13
June 14-13
July 14-12
August 12-14
Sept/Oct 15-14

Their nadir, at 9-24, occurred May 7th. From that point forward, they were 68-61, which is an 85 win pace. They don't actually have to improve on that pace to make the playoffs in 2022.
11:38 AM Mar 30th
 
formersd
Daves, when I looked at your 12 alternatives I came up with the same team before reading the rest of the article. After May 7th last season when they were 9-24, the Tigers finished 68-61, which is pretty remarkable improvement. They sure looked like a team that was able to recognize their talent quickly which speaks well for AJ Hinch and the front office.
11:34 AM Mar 30th
 
evanecurb
Hi Dave,

Thanks for doing this every year. It's fun. I am making my pick this year before looking at yours, just to see if we pick the same one. I'm picking Detroit. They were winning from June 1 on at a pace that would have put them in the playoffs if they had started at that pace. Their players are all young except for Miggy and they'll battle the White Sox for that division, ultimately winning about 85 games and a wild card berth.
11:30 AM Mar 30th
 
 
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