Friday, April 4, 2014

Don't Blame Rick Weiland. Blame a Hyberbole Culture Run Amok

This week, Democratic candidate for US Senate Rick Weiland earned widespread ridicule when he made the following statement about the McCutcheon v. FEC campaign-finance case:
"Today's decision of the United States Supreme Court to strike down any real limit on the purchase of our democracy by big money may be the worst decision made by any Supreme Court since the Dred Scott case reaffirmed slavery in 1857."
Taken at face value, this is of course a laughable claim. Decisions such as Plessy v. Ferguson and Korematsu v. US are appalling pretty much without any partisan debate. But Weiland doesn't deserve all the flak he's getting, either. The reason for this is simple: this statement clearly was not intended to be taken at face value.

Instead, Weiland—who has based his entire campaign on being the anti-big-money candidate—was trying to make a point, and he knew how to get a megaphone with which to announce it: exaggerate. Sure enough, it worked, as a candidate to whom pundits were giving virtually no media attention—nor any chance of winning—suddenly had his name plastered across the internet. In a world which Weiland had discovered was not going to pay any attention to a nonserious message candidate in a prairie state, he realized that he would have to be outlandish to cut through.

Weiland's not the only one who's realized this. Democratic Congressman Alan Grayson called Citizens United "the worst Supreme Court decision since the Dred Scott case" in 2010. Now-Senator Ed Markey once said, "The Dred Scott decision had to be repealed; we have to repeal Citizens United." And at least one conservative columnist wrote that 2012's "Obamacare decision represented the greatest single judicial limitation on American liberty since Dred Scott v. Sandford."

It's an unfortunate byproduct of our extremely noisy era that people feel they must resort to extreme hyperbole to get fairly standard points across. There's a language cold war going on—one that has already ruined the word "literally"—whereby everyone competes to out-emphasize each other. Words and phrases that used to be saved for special occasions are now seen as feeble thanks to overuse—and thanks to being overtaken by even more extreme words and phrases. "X is the worst Supreme Court decision since Dred Scott" has simply evolved into the fashionable way to say, "I think X Supreme Court decision was pretty bad."

It's unfortunate. But it's the reality we've created for ourselves, so we shouldn't be surprised. And, ironically, that probably means we should stop remarking upon it every time someone says a decision is the worst since Dred Scott. But, grimly, that will just mean soldiers in this cold war will have to move on to the next, even more outrageous statement to express their dissatisfaction with the high court.

Weiland isn't stupid. I sincerely doubt he believes McCutcheon is the worst Supreme Court decision since 1857. (For one thing, it's hard to believe he doesn't find Citizens United even worse.) But he believed it "may be" (his exact words in the statement, by the way), and he believed everyone should know it was really, really bad. In today's world, that calls for rhetoric dialed up to 11—and I think Weiland knew exactly what he was doing when he borrowed this well-worn, attenton-getting figure of speech. The worst Weiland is really guilty of here is resorting to cliché.

Monday, March 31, 2014

Predicting the 2014 Season—American League

What one thing is absolutely certain in the AL this year? That no one knows what's going to happen. By my reckoning, only four of the Junior Circuit's 15 teams do not expect to contend this year. Many would call it a fool's errand to try to pick the five that will make the postseason this year—myself included. But that doesn't stop me from having some fun with it every spring.

Here are my projected finishes and win-loss records for American League teams. (My NL projections can be found here.) For each team, I make a few "fearless predictions" (read: statements that have a 50/50 chance of being completely false in six months) that attempt to justify my rankings. At the end of the season, I'll revisit these assertions to see how I did. (Hint: this is all just an exercise in fun.)

To the line!

AL East


1. Tampa Bay Rays (93–69, 2nd playoff seed)
  • The American League's best rotation will be a buzzsaw come October. Full seasons out of Alex Cobb and Chris Archer, at ERAs even better than their 2013s, will help lift the Rays to the AL pennant.
  • To everyone's surprise—including, quite possibly, the Rays'—James Loney will not regress. His 2012 was the aberration, as long as you don't expect him to hit home runs like every other first baseman.
  • Jeremy Hellickson is neither as bad as he was last year nor as good as he was every year before that. His career 4.39 FIP sounds about right for an ERA projection for 2014.

2. Boston Red Sox (92–70, 1st Wild Card)
  • Every year, defending champions falter because World Series championships usually happen when lots of guys have career years all at once. Though this will happen to the Red Sox, that 100–62 Pythagorean record from last year can withstand a substantial hit and keep them in the playoffs.
  • I hope I'm wrong, but I predict Grady Sizemore will reinjure himself in April. He'll be out for the rest of the season.
  • Exhibit A for regression in 2014: Shane Victorino. Jackie Bradley Jr. and AJ Pierzynski will also fail to make up for the losses of Jacoby Ellsbury and Jarrod Saltalamacchia, respectively—nor will they even crack an above-average OPS.
  • John Lackey will spend half the season on the DL, giving Chris Capuano—once again—the chance to show people what his excellent strikeout-to-walk ratio can do.
  • Rookie of the Year Xander Bogaerts will hit for a .342 OBP, 30 home runs, and 98 RBI—eerily matching the last Red Sox shortstop to win Rookie of the Year.

3. New York Yankees (88–74, 2nd Wild Card)
  • Following a pattern set by Yu Darvish and Daisuke Matsuzaka, newcomer Masahiro Tanaka will register a 4.30 ERA this year—before lowering it at least a full run for his next few seasons.
  • The Derek Jeter farewell tour will be a painful and impotent one for the future Hall of Famer. However, Kelly Johnson will impress filling in for Alex Rodríguez.
  • The Yankees will lead the American League in DL trips in 2014. DL all-stars will include Mark Teixeira, Jacoby Ellsbury, and Brian Roberts.
  • Michael Pineda will win AL Comeback Player of the Year. He'll have a 110 ERA+ and be in the top 10 in the AL for strikeouts. A slighter, yet equally important, comeback will be staged by CC Sabathia.
  • New York's most valuable infielder? Brendan Ryan.

4. Baltimore Orioles (84–78)
  • Ubaldo Jiménez is for real. His slider will be the key to his second-act career resurgence.
  • As a team, the O's will slug at the second-highest rate in the AL—but get on base at the second-lowest rate.
  • Baltimore has some talented rookies who will play key roles, including Jonathan Schoop and Henry Urrutia. But they'd prefer to see that talent out of Kevin Gausman, who like Brian Matusz will be a permanent victim of Oriole mishandling.
  • Although he'll retain tremendous value thanks to his defense, Manny Machado will have an unlucky year at the plate. A low BABIP will expose his poor isolated on-base ability, leading to many a disappointed fantasy owner.

5. Toronto Blue Jays (79–83)
  • The Blue Jays were clearly overrated going into last season—but that probably means a largely similar team is underrated going into this season.
  • Dioner Navarro will do the impossible: make Jays fans pine for JP Arencibia.
  • Toronto will finally wise up and stop leaking defensive runs by playing Edwin Encarnación in the field. Freed from this burden, he will threaten to win the Triple Crown.
  • When José Reyes plays, Toronto will have a winning record. An anemic bench will kill them when he doesn't—which, unfortunately for them, will be often.
  • Relying on Dustin McGowan and Drew Hutchison will prove most unwise. At least RA Dickey will regain his old form.

AL Central


1. Detroit Tigers (94–68, 1st playoff seed)
  • Especially without José Iglesias, the Tigers defense will be no better this year than last. The hole at third base has been patched up, but first base, right field, and catcher will all be worse than a season ago. And just like in 2006, the Tigers' undoing in the playoffs will be poor defense from their pitchers—actually the team's leakiest position in 2013.
  • Miguel Cabrera will feel no ill effects from his lack of "protection" in the lineup with Prince Fielder gone. The Tigers may hit fewer home runs than in 2013, but Cabrera will hit more.
  • Nick Castellanos and Drew Smyly will both take the steps forward that this team needs to succeed.
  • Brad Ausmus will win Manager of the Year, and it's safest to say Cabrera will keep winning MVPs until he doesn't anymore.

2. Kansas City Royals (86–76)

3. Cleveland Indians (78–84)
  • The Indians will find it hard to contend once their best player becomes a liability. Carlos Santana will struggle with his transition to third, and it'll show up in his numbers at the plate. Meanwhile, Cleveland pitchers will not appreciate the gaping hole on the left side of the infield—caused by Santana's poor defense as well as Asdrúbal Cabrera's.
  • David Murphy is in for a big rebound. Last year's .227 BABIP will return to his career .302 average, and he will turn in a .340 wOBA.
  • Jason Kipnis is in for a big fall to earth. Look for him to return to his pedestrian 2012 stats.
  • The loss of Ubaldo Jiménez to free agency will hurt, but the real drag on the team ERA will be the Cleveland bullpen. It will be the AL's worst. Although the Indians will score more runs than their opponents, they'll finish below .500 thanks to an abysmal record in one-run games.

4. Chicago White Sox (75–87)
  • José Abreu will immediately become the new face of the franchise and bring a new tone to South Side baseball. That may not win ballgames, but Abreu's 30 home runs certainly will. Although he'll start his American career with a low average (.235), an MVP award is in his future.
  • For a team with the worst farm system in the game, a surprising number of youngsters will be significant positive contributors, including Adam Eaton, Avisail García, Erik Johnson, and Matt Davidson.
  • The White Sox defense will be much improved, plugging huge holes at first base and center field with above-average glovework by Abreu and Eaton. The result will be lowered ERAs across the board.

5. Minnesota Twins (64–98)
  • Phil Hughes has been a league-average pitcher in even years and a terrible one in odd years. Expect the move to Minnesota to help him have his best even year ever: a 3.99 ERA. Unfortunately for the Twins, that will make him their best starter.
  • Of the Twins reunions in 2014, Jason Kubel will be at least 80% of his former self; Jason Bartlett will be lucky to be 20%.
  • I'm not so sure Josmil Pinto is the answer at catcher. His power will struggle to translate to Target Field.

AL West


1. Texas Rangers (90–72, 3rd playoff seed)
  • Sure, all the injuries will hurt—but no worse than last year. (This is the team that gave 17 starts each to Nick Tepesch and Justin Grimm in 2013.) Texas will start off with a poor April... Then have a passable May once Matt Harrison returns... Then have a good June when Colby Lewis joins the team and pitches as though he never left.
  • Of all people, Geovany Soto will be the Rangers' catalyst. When he returns from injury in June, that's when Texas will find its rhythm. Soto will slash .280/.370/.490 and be among the league leaders in catcher ERA. Evan Grant will give him an MVP vote.
  • Shin-Soo Choo will contend for the MVP award with a 30-30 season. Prince Fielder will hit 40 home runs in his only good season as a Ranger. And adjusting for the time he'll lose to injury, Jurickson Profar will out-WAR Ian Kinsler.

2. Oakland Athletics (87–75)
  • A team from Oakland isn't going to lead the AL West in runs scored every year, like they did in 2013. Josh Reddick will settle for 22 home runs (the average of his past two seasons), and Coco Crisp and Brandon Moss will also hit fewer.
  • Injuries to starting pitchers, like Jarrod Parker, will thrust young pitchers (e.g., Jesse Chávez, who has just two career starts) into leading roles they won't be able to handle. A mediocre Pythagorean record will result, but Bob Melvin's tinkering and, especially, a lights-out bullpen will help them overachieve it.
  • Billy Beane will wish he'd signed Bartolo Colón (two years, $20 million) instead of Scott Kazmir (two years, $22 million).

3. Los Angeles Angels (81–81)
  • Say what you want about the Angels' allocation of resources; they still have Mike Trout, Albert Pujols, and Josh Hamilton in a lineup together. Pujols and Hamilton will both look much closer to what we're used to seeing out of them. Together, expect them to be worth 10 wins above replacement.
  • Kole Calhoun will be worth more to the Angels than the man he's replacing, Mark Trumbo, will to the Diamondbacks.
  • CJ Wilson will supplant Jered Weaver as LA's de facto ace, and when LA is still in the playoff picture at the trading deadline, they will add a third quality starter (Jeff Samardzija?). No one else will stick around for more than 20 starts.

4. Seattle Mariners (69–93)
  • New manager Lloyd McClendon will fail to keep the meddling front office out of affairs on the field, and his inconsistent managing will lead the M's to the majors' worst record in either one-run or extra-inning games.
  • A perfect example: continued struggles by Dustin Ackley and Michael Saunders will lead to lots of Logan Morrison and Corey Hart in the outfield, and that will lead to the worst defensive outfield in the majors.
  • None of the promising young trio of Taijuan Walker, James Paxton, and Erasmo Ramírez will show anything special this year, exposing Seattle's soft underbelly: pitching depth.
  • If the Indians don't have the league's worst bullpen, the Mariners will.

5. Houston Astros (58–104)
  • The top third of the Astros' lineup will actually be—gasp—good. That, and the fact that they will not lose 15 games in a row to end the season, should be enough for a marginal improvement on their 2013 record.
  • If you're looking for an under-the-radar Rookie of the Year candidate, you could do a lot worse than George Springer, who will be this year's king of the "on-pace-for" game. He'll be a 10/10 guy in 200 plate appearances.
  • Phenom Jarred Cosart will post an ERA much closer to his 2013 xFIP (4.68) than his 2013 ERA (1.95). Houston will finish last in the majors in starters' ERA. (Sorry, Scott Feldman.)

Friday, March 21, 2014

Predicting the 2014 Season—National League

Here at Baseballot we appreciate the futility of trying to predict baseball. However, we also appreciate the sweet, sweet satisfaction of nailing that one quirky postseason pick months in advance and being able to brag about it to all your friends with proof that you made the pick before anyone else did. That—and the fact that, let's be honest, people love predictions no matter how baseless they can be—is why I always write an MLB preview post (or two) this time of year.

With National League action beginning late, late tonight in Australia, here are the projected finishes and win-loss records of its 15 teams. For each team, I make a few "fearless predictions" (read: statements that have a 50/50 chance of being completely false in six months) that attempt to justify my rankings. At the end of the season, I'll revisit these assertions to see how I did. (Hint: this is all just an exercise in fun.)

To the line!

NL East


1. Washington Nationals (89–73, 3rd playoff seed)
  • The Nats' offense will remain decidedly "meh." Bryce Harper will be healthy enough to contend for MVP, but Jayson Werth will be half the man—and half the value above replacement—he was in 2013.
  • All four of Washington's top starting pitchers will get NL Cy Young Award votes.
  • Drew Storen will actually outpitch Rafael Soriano.
  • Ross Detwiler will be pressed into service in the rotation for a few months in midseason, and his WAR in just three starts will exceed his season's WAR in relief.

2. Atlanta Braves (85–77, 2nd Wild Card)
  • Atlanta's pitching will take a huge hit. Mike Minor and Julio Teheran will scuffle to start the year as opponents figure them out, but they'll recover to end 2014 respectably. Accordingly, the Braves will pull a 2013 Nationals: appear to drop out of contention early, then turn it on in the late fall.
  • The Braves will pray that Gavin Floyd's uninspiring summer isn't what Kris Medlen will look like when he returns from Tommy John surgery in 2015. Meanwhile, in replacing Brandon Beachy, Freddy García will match Beachy's five starts and 4.50 ERA from 2013 exactly.
  • BJ Upton will stabilize at a new normal—.240/.310/.370—and the Braves will take it because it will still be a massive improvement.
  • Dan Uggla will finish with a higher OBP than Evan Gattis, but the latter will still get more playing time and media praise.
  • All those strikeouts will get a lot of blame for the Braves missing the playoffs, but maybe the blame should go to manager Fredi González.

3. New York Mets (78–84)

4. Miami Marlins (74–88)

5. Philadelphia Phillies (60–102)
  • This is the year it all collapses in Philadelphia. When Cole Hamels struggles all season long with nagging injuries, it will hit everyone around baseball: Imagine how bad this team could be if it didn't have two of the best pitchers in the game.
  • The Phillies' lone offseason splash, Marlon Byrd will return to being below average. Everyone else in the lineup will atrophy as the natural aging process takes its toll. The result will be a bottom-five NL offense.
  • However, Ben Revere will finally hit his first career home run.
  • The number of starts Miguel Alfredo González makes will match his ERA: six.
  • Phinally, Philly will possess the worst defense in the majors with a collective defensive-runs-saved figure worse than –100.

NL Central


1. Saint Louis Cardinals (95–67, 1st playoff seed)
  • The Cardinals' .330 average with runners in scoring position will drop, explaining why they won't outscore the NL's runner-up by 77 runs this year. They should still finish first in that category, however, thanks to 30 homers by Matt Adams.
  • Kolten Wong will fall into a platoon with Mark Ellis—not because he will struggle, but because every indication will be Ellis still deserves a starting job.
  • An underappreciated advantage St. Louis will derive from their offseason roster moves: a much better defense. Peter Bourjos and Matt Carpenter (in place of David Freese at third base) will lead the way.
  • Shelby Miller will start Games 1, 4, and 7 of the World Series as the championship trophy returns to St. Louis.

2. Cincinnati Reds (89–73, 1st Wild Card)
  • This one's easy: Billy Hamilton will lead the NL in stolen bases by double digits—but he won't break the record for most steals by a guy named Billy Hamilton until 2015.
  • The offense will be a problem at times, with only two men—Joey Votto and Jay Bruce—producing above-average OPSes.
  • With a full season of Tony Cingrani, the Reds will set a franchise record for most pitcher strikeouts for the third year in a row.

3. Milwaukee Brewers (83–79)
  • The Brewers offense will roar into the NL elite. With a full season, Ryan Braun will probably deserve to win NL MVP again (but obviously won't even get a whiff of consideration). Khris Davis will hit 35 home runs, and Scooter Gennett will be one of the league's most valuable second basemen. They will overcome slight regressions from Carlos Gómez and Aramis Ramírez.
  • Marco Estrada, Marco Estrada, Marco Estrada. The best pitcher you've never heard of will get his home-run rate down to join his 4.00 K/BB ratio, and the result will be an All-Star berth.
  • I am not a big believer in either Yovani Gallardo or Wily Peralta, but if just one of them succeeds, the Brewers will be looking at a Wild Card berth.

4. Pittsburgh Pirates (80–82)
  • Gerrit Cole will be phenomenal—20 wins isn't out of reach—but every other Pirates starter will be below average. This will include Francisco Liriano, who will pull a full Jonathan Sánchez; Wandy Rodríguez, who will have plenty of post-injury rust to work through; and Jeff Locke, whose mediocre fielding-independent stats will catch up to him.
  • The continued excellence of the Pirates outfield will keep Gregory Polanco in the minors for most of 2014—where he will post record numbers for the Indianapolis Indians.

5. Chicago Cubs (68–94)
  • Among the Cubs' dubious achievements this year: Darwin Barney's defensive WAR will be greater than any position player's offensive WAR. Junior Lake's .755 OPS will lead the team.
  • Reversion to the mean: Edwin Jackson will improve, and Travis Wood will deteriorate, to identical 3.90 ERAs.
  • Starlin Castro may end the season as a Cub, but he won't end the calendar year that way.
  • The Cubs scoringest month will be September, thanks to a cast totally different from Opening Day's: Javier Báez, Jorge Soler, Mike Olt, and Kris Bryant.

NL West


1. Los Angeles Dodgers (90–72, 2nd playoff seed)
  • Here's a curveball: in the Dodgers' famously crowded outfield, Andre Ethier will play the most games, followed by Carl Crawford, then Yasiel Puig, then Matt Kemp.
  • LA will be in the mix with the Nats and Reds for best rotation in the league. Dan Haren—owner of the fifth-best career K/BB ratio of all time—will thrive at Dodger Stadium, while Clayton Kershaw (yawn) will win another Cy Young Award.
  • Alexander Guerrero: another Gordon Beckham?
  • Brian Wilson will struggle for at least a few months before the Dodgers trust him with close games. Turns out 13.2 2013 innings wasn't a big enough sample size after all!

2. Arizona Diamondbacks (84–78)
  • Despite Kevin Towers's best efforts, the D-backs will be better in 2014. Their three and four hitters—Paul Goldschmidt and Mark Trumbo—will combine for 70 home runs. Trumbo will continue to hurt the team with an OBP below .300, but hey—he'll be an improvement over Jason Kubel.
  • Brandon McCarthy will return to his prior effectiveness. Arizona won't have a clear ace, but all five regular starters will finish with ERAs below 4.00.
  • 2013 Pacific Coast League MVP Chris Owings will play Didi Gregorius into a utility role—possibly for the rest of his career—unless he's packaged in a trade out of Phoenix.

3. San Francisco Giants (82–80)
  • The Giants will be made or broken by how well their starting pitching returns to form. I see Matt Cain returning to ace territory and Tim Hudson bringing his usual reliability. Unfortunately, I think Ryan Vogelsong is done as an effective major leaguer, and Tim Lincecum's 4.30 ERAs are the new normal.
  • Madison Bumgarner will throw a no-hitter.
  • Heath Hembree will seize the closing job away from a struggling Sergio Romo before the All-Star break.
  • Pablo Sandoval will respond to the pressures of his walk year, but Brandon Belt will continue to be this team's best hitter. He'll be the game's least heralded superstar.

4. San Diego Padres (81–81)
  • By far the Padres' biggest boost will be in the rotation. Josh Johnson will pitch to last year's xFIP—3.58—in homer-unhappy PETCO. Look for Ian Kennedy's walk rate to return to career norms, enabling him too to have a bounce-back year. The biggest difference may be a full season of starts by Tyson Ross, however; he will strike out a batter an inning.
  • A mediocre offense will still limit the team. Is Jedd Gyorko really as good as he was in 2013? Can Carlos Quentin really ever be counted on to play a full season? Is Chase Headley really a 31-homer guy? I'm answering no to all of the above.

5. Colorado Rockies (74–88)
  • It'll be the same old script in Denver: the Rockies will have more talent than most teams, but injuries—and the inherent unfairness of playing in Coors Field—will keep them far short of realizing their potential. Expect Troy Tulowitzki and Carlos González to miss significant time again.
  • Likewise, when they pitch, Jorge De La Rosa, Brett Anderson, and Jhoulys Chacín will be brilliant. Rockies fans will wonder what could have been if they could all three have pitched full seasons. As it is, they'll pitch just 300 innings between them.
  • To a man, everyone thinks LaTroy Hawkins as a closer is a charade and that the Rox will switch presently to Rex Brothers. I'm not so sure. Look for Hawkins to remain the closer in name, while Brothers gets the true high-leverage situations in the seventh and eighth. Colorado will want to keep his arbitration price down.

Monday, March 17, 2014

2013 MLB Predictions: The Good, the Bad, and the Ugly

If baseball is oxygen (and we all know it is), we can breathe again. As I type this, there are 320 hours left until Opening Day (Down Under edition), when the unpredictable weighted random number generator that is the 2014 season will commence. I, like so many others, will be taking a stab at predicting this summer's outcomes on the diamond, but first I think it's instructive to be reminded how much those predictions are really worth.

Last March, I issued a set of "fearless predictions" for each team; here they are for the American League, and here they are for the National League. With the benefit of hindsight, here are a few of my most delicious predictions from that simpler time.

Prediction: The Tigers would go 93–69 and join the 92–70 Blue Jays in the playoffs. Meanwhile, the Indians would stink up the cellar to the tune of 70 wins and 92 losses.
What Really Happened: The Tigers went exactly 93–69... But the Blue Jays stumbled their way to last place. As for the Indians, they won as many games as I said they'd lose. Cleveland was my biggest miss; the 22-win difference thankfully didn't compare to my terrible predictions for Baltimore and Oakland in 2012. I missed another seven teams by more than 10 wins, but on the bright side I got 15 teams—including the Tigers—within five wins. The full report card:


Prediction: "Clay Buchholz will see his ERA drop by a full run...Koji Uehara will end the season as closer; Mike Napoli will make Boston wish they had locked him up long-term...[and] John Lackey will pitch 150 innings"—but none of it would help the Red Sox get any better than .500.
What Really Happened: All of that came true, and it led to the first World Series clinch at Fenway Park since 1918, which, in retrospect, seems obvious. Buchholz lowered his ERA by not just a run, but 2.82 runs (!), while Lackey pitched 189.1 innings.

Prediction: The "wildly inconsistent" Max Scherzer and "mid-rotation guy" Aníbal Sánchez would only lead the Tigers to register the majors' eighth-best starters' ERA.
What Really Happened: Sánchez led the American League with a 2.57 ERA, and Scherzer won the Cy Young Award for his consistently excellent season (ERAs by month of 4.02, 3.00, 2.38, 2.70, 2.50, 2.90). Detroit finished fourth—but barely missed second—in starter ERA.

Prediction: Amid another subpar season from Starlin Castro, talk would begin about trading him. The Cubs would only be worsted by the Marlins for offensive futility.
What Really Happened: Castro (.245/.284/.347) had the worst season of his career, and immediately after the season sources indicated the Cubs were shopping him. The Cubs scored a paltry 602 runs, which would've been lowest in the NL were it not for the presence of the Marlins (513 runs).

Prediction: Raúl Ibañez and Nate McLouth would have miserable years and retire during the current offseason.
What Really Happened: McLouth registered a 2.5 fWAR and signed a two-year, $10.75 million contract with the Nationals—the first multiyear deal of his career. Ibañez hit 29 home runs, tying Ted Williams's record for most ever by a 41-year-old.

Prediction: The Rays offense would get better without BJ Upton. James Loney would have a big year, and Wil Myers would hit 20 home runs.
What Really Happened: Myers didn't make it to 20 home runs, but he would have with 515 at-bats. Loney, meanwhile, did roar back with a slash line of .299/.348/.430 along with stellar defense. As for the Rays, they raised their OPS from .711 in 2012 to .737 in 2013.

Prediction: The Pirates would break their streak of 20 consecutive losing seasons, but only barely. Francisco Liriano would do everything in his power to sink that goal, however, with another spectacularly bad year.
What Really Happened: Liriano won Comeback Player of the Year honors, and the Pirates broke their streak as early as September 3. They went on to make the NLDS.

Prediction: Shelby Miller would start 2013 as the Cardinals' fifth starter, barely winning the job in spring training; he would end it as the co-ace with Adam Wainwright. Joe Kelly would shine as an injury replacement for Jaime García.
What Really Happened: Miller won that spring battle and never looked back; his 3.06 ERA almost bested Wainwright's 2.94, which was tops among the Cardinals' full-time starters. Kelly's 2.69 was the lowest among part-time starters.

Prediction: Mike Trout, Josh Hamilton, and Albert Pujols would be three of the most five valuable players in MLB. Meanwhile, Tommy Hanson, Jason Vargas, and Joe Blanton would be three of the worst starters in MLB, all with ERAs over 4.00.
What Really Happened: Just call me Jerry Dipoto, because I way overestimated Hamilton and Pujols. While Trout ranked first in MLB with 160 Total Runs (per the Fielding Bible), Hamilton registered at barely half that (85). Pujols (53) didn't even crack the top 300, as he didn't play after July 26. At least I was right—often dramatically so—about the suckage of the Angels rotation.

Prediction: The Braves would exactly match their 700-run output from 2012; down a Michael Bourn, Dan Uggla would step up to replace that production. BJ Upton would be a huge flop.
What Really Happened: I was close—the Braves scored 688. That was even higher than Upton's OPS, though (.557). Uggla, however, was dead weight too, hitting .179/.309/.362.

Prediction: Leading the Giants back to the division crown, Tim Lincecum, Matt Cain, Madison Bumgarner, and Ryan Vogelsong would all sport ERAs below 3.30.
What Really Happened: Bumgarner lived up to the promise and then some (2.77 ERA), but Lincecum, Cain, and Vogelsong were all actively bad. The Giants lost 86 games.

Prediction: Matt Harvey and Zack Wheeler would stabilize the Mets' rotation, striking out more than a batter an inning and finishing with ERAs below 3.75.
What Really Happened: Harvey exceeded even my expectations with a 2.27 ERA. He gave up just 0.4 home runs per nine, 1.6 walks per nine, and, yes, 9.6 strikeouts per nine. Wheeler missed the high strikeout prediction (84 K in 100 innings), but he did have just a 3.42 ERA.

Prediction: St. Louis would score the most runs in the National League and also rank in the top five for defense. Five position players would feature WARs above 4.0.
What Really Happened: St. Louis did lead the NL in scoring, by a huge margin, but the Fielding Bible pegged them as the second-worst defensive team in the NL; they saved –39 runs. Three position players had fWARs over 4.0—Matt Carpenter, Yadier Molina, and Matt Holliday—which, you know, still isn't bad.

Prediction: Three Padres—Carlos Quentin, Chase Headley, and Yonder Alonso—would hit 15 bombs.
What Really Happened: Only two did. Their names were Jedd Gyorko and Will Venable, who both hit over 20. Quentin, Headley, and Alonso combined for just 32.

Prediction: The Royals would click on all cylinders. Eric Hosmer, Mike Moustakas, and Salvador Pérez would combine for 80 home runs, and Wade Davis would be dominating in the starting rotation. The Royals' bullpen would be the best in the American League.
What Really Happened: The trio of sluggers barely hit half my prediction—42 home runs—while batters hit .307/.374/.447 off Davis. The bullpen was as good as advertised, though—better not only than every American League bullpen in 2013, but every American League bullpen since 1990.

Prediction: The Dodgers' rotation wouldn't be everything it was cracked up to be. Zack Greinke would manage only a 3.50 ERA, and Hyun-Jin Ryu would struggle with conditioning. At least Chad Billingsley would be reliable.
What Really Happened: Billingsley had a 3.00 ERA—in two starts. Greinke, meanwhile, twirled a 2.63 ERA, and Ryu neatly started 30 games with a 3.00 ERA.

Prediction: Brett Anderson would challenge for the AL Cy Young Award, leading the Athletics to a better ERA—but worse ERA+—than the Rangers.
What Really Happened: Due to their drastically different ballparks, the Rangers did register a 114 team ERA+ with a 3.63 team ERA, and the Athletics had just a 105 ERA+ with a 3.56 team ERA. Anderson, though, struggled through injury to a 6.04 ERA. He's now a Colorado Rockie.

Prediction: The Nationals would underperform their 2012 offensive output of 731 runs thanks to regressions by Jayson Werth, Adam LaRoche (who would hit just 20 home runs), and Ian Desmond.
What Really Happened: The Nats indeed scored only 656 runs; part of the problem was indeed LaRoche hitting exactly 20 home runs (along with .237). However, Desmond established himself as one of the NL's best shortstops, and Werth hit for an unlikely .931 OPS.

Prediction: Only Joey Votto, Shin-Soo Choo, Brandon Phillips, and Jay Bruce would have above-average OPSes for the Reds. The team would also contend with injury; their top five pitchers would not again combine for 161 starts.
What Really Happened: Only Votto, Choo, and Bruce had an OPS+ over 100; Phillips was even worse than he was in 2012. And I was right about the 161 starts—that would have been impossible. The Reds' top five guys started "only" 145 of their 162 games.

Prediction: Ryan Howard would return to form whereas Roy Halladay would not. Ben Revere would hit his first major-league home run—finally!—while Domonic Brown would hit a lot more than that, finally breaking out the talent everyone knew was there.
What Really Happened: Howard's 11 home runs were the lowest since his first big-league season in 2004. Revere, meanwhile, is still homerless—he had only 336 chances in 2013 thanks to injury, though. Brown must have been motivated by my faith, since he put up huge numbers (27 home runs and 83 RBI) in a career-high 496 at-bats. And I've never been sadder to be right about Halladay, whose last season in the majors was an embarrassing one (6.82 ERA).

Prediction: Reversion to the mean by Ángel Pagán, Marco Scutaro, Buster Posey, and Pablo Sandoval would leave the Giants with the NL West's fourth-best offense.
What Really Happened: Their 629 runs scored was indeed the division's second-worst total. However, Scutaro had a 112 OPS+, Pagán a 116 OPS+, Sandoval a 119 OPS+, and Posey a wicked 138 OPS+.

Prediction: There was no way Scott Kazmir would last the full season in the Indians' rotation, despite the return to hittability by Ubaldo Jiménez and Justin Masterson. However, the Cleveland offense would compensate somewhat, finishing in the AL's top four for OBP.
What Really Happened: Defying the odds, Kazmir stuck in the rotation all year for the first time since 2010. Jiménez and Masterson pitched well enough to not only get the Indians to the Wild Card (my biggest win-loss miss), but also earn themselves a lucrative multiyear contract (Jiménez; four years, $50 million) or get engaged in serious extension talks (Masterson). As for OBP, I missed again—but by only one! The Indians finished fifth in the AL.

Prediction: Mariano Rivera would win Comeback Player of the Year.
What Really Happened: Was there ever really any doubt?

Sunday, March 2, 2014

Always a Bridesmaid, Never an Oscar

When Roger Deakins and Thomas Newman attend the 86th Academy Awards tonight, you'll excuse them for feeling a little déjà vu.

Both have been here before—many times—and come home empty-handed. Deakins, who shot Prisoners this year, now has 11 Oscar nominations but has never taken home a trophy. Newman, the composer for Saving Mr. Banks, is on his 12th nomination without a win. And they're just the most extreme examples of this year's nominees waiting to hear their names called for the first time: Lone Survivor sound designer Wylie Stateman is on his seventh nomination; five others, including Gravity cinematographer Emmanuel Lubezki (who in my opinion is already due an Oscar for some of the finest cinematography ever in Children of Men), are staring an oh-for-six in the face.

In addition to being really unfortunate for the nominees, this is also relevant information in the neverending quest to predict the Oscars. Many pundits look at longtime losers and give them higher odds of winning, thinking they are "due." The law of averages may be a fallacy, the logic goes, but Oscar voters nevertheless feel sympathy for these perennial bridesmaids, throwing them an Oscar as a kind of lifetime achievement award.

If this is the case, though, how have we ended up with people on their 11th and 12th winless nominations? The "due" argument didn't ring true to me, so I decided to canvass past Oscar results to see if it held any water. It turns out not only that nominees are no more likely to win coming off a losing streak, but also that their chances actually decrease the more the Academy rejects them.

It's a strange paradox. Receiving nomination after nomination suggests that you're an Academy favorite; if anything, that should lead to a better-than-average win rate. But for this exclusive club—people with at least five Oscar nominations in competitive categories—it doesn't always work out that way. The table below shows how many people with at least a certain number of Oscar nominations—let's call the number n—were still winless when they received that nth nomination. The table also compares this to what we would statistically expect, if Oscar winners were chosen completely at random (given that most categories have five nominees per year, "random" is defined as everyone has a 20% chance of winning—and an 80% chance of losing).


For five-, six-, and seven-time nominees, fewer go winless than we'd expect, thanks to high win rates among less veteran nominees. But as the table shows, and as the graph below brings into sharp visual focus, the actual winless percentage quickly overcomes the theoretical winless percentage as we look at Hollywood's most-nominated elite.


Here, then, is the paradox: after a certain point, continuing to get all that recognition in the form of nominations—yet continuing to lose on Oscar night—actually starts to suggest that the Academy is pointedly not voting for you. Your chances start to shrivel up as early as the 0-for-5 "milestone"; people entering their fifth or higher nomination without a win have historically won that nomination just 13.8% of the time. As you'll see in the table below, that's inflated because nominees have still found success at levels like their sixth and eighth nomination. Someone doesn't truly hit rock bottom until they achieve 10 nominations and zero wins; people on their 10th or higher nomination who haven't won an Oscar by then have only triumphed 6.9% of the time (six out of 87 tries).


The win rate jumps around a lot because of small sample size, but on the whole it's not pretty—certainly below the randomized 20% benchmark in most cases. The sixth- and especially eighth-nomination win rates are interesting anomalies, suggesting there is a last-gasp window for perennial Oscar losers to prevail before being cursed to double-digit oh-fers. The average win rate on the sixth nomination feels like it is early enough to still fall into the random variance of non-veteran nominees—in other words, it's conceivable that someone could make it to five winless nominations not by being repulsed by voters, but rather just through random chance...and then their turn comes in Round Six. This is the escape hatch through which Lubezki is expected to drop when he wins his first Oscar tonight—and it's why his four other fellow 0-for-5ers have a fighting chance tonight where Deakins and Newman (more on them in a second) do not.

Meanwhile, the high eighth-nomination win rate is driven by an excellent 50% (four out of eight) win rate among actors and directors on their eighth nod without a win—without which this percentage would fall to a below-average 18.9% (seven out of 37). On this, I am open to the theory that Academy voters do throw sympathy votes to famous nominees who are overdue for an award. Acting and directing Oscar nominees are household names, even outside of Hollywood; others, such as sound designers and cinematographers, are decidedly not, even inside Hollywood. Justly or unjustly, it is possible that Oscar voters just don't notice when technical crewmembers go winless, but the omission is far more glaring when it's an auteur or superstar. Eight nominations may simply be the breaking point for this kind of glare. The jury is still out for sure, however, because four in eight is far too small a sample to draw meaningful conclusions from.

There is also some suggestion in the data that, for extremely unlucky nominees (those on their 18th or 19th nomination, or worse, without a win), voters finally do wake up and throw them sympathy Oscars. (Perhaps it just takes 10 or so extra nominations before the media gives the same kind of attention to winless mortals as winless celebrities.) People on the 19th nomination or higher without a win have a 33.3% success rate—two out of six, in absolute terms. However, because of the small sample size at these high altitudes, we cannot be sure if this holds any statistical significance.

Still, overall, people who we would see as "due" for an Academy Award actually fare very poorly. Again, it's particularly evident from the table how the win rate really craters around 10 winless nominations. Returning to the original point of this post, it's bad news for Roger Deakins and Thomas Newman, who fall exactly within the dead zone. People in Deakins's position have historically won just 7.1% of the time, and those in Newman's have in fact never gone home happy. Suffice it to say, you should not be picking either of them in your Oscar pool on the basis that the Academy considers them due. And, appropriately, both of them are considered extreme longshots by pundits to prevail tonight.

Clearly, serial losing is not a coincidence; it suggests there's something about you the Academy doesn't want to vote for. Yet it remains a familiar refrain among Oscar prognosticators that a nominee will win because he or she is due. Occasionally, being due even boosts a nominee's odds of winning in the eyes of the public. But it is just not a valid argument for saying someone will win.

In baseball, if you have an .000 batting average, the smart money for your next at-bat isn't on you getting a hit; more likely, you're just a really terrible hitter. It's no different when it comes to the Oscars. Once you hit 10 nominations and no wins, it's valid to start telling yourself, "They don't like me. They really don't like me!"

Thursday, February 27, 2014

Race Ratings for the 86th Academy Awards

Although they don't get a lot of attention in Washington, DC, the Oscars are still an election. I'm attracted to them for a lot of the same reasons I am politics, but I admit they can be inaccessible for the uninitiated. First and foremost, it just isn't any fun to follow elections where you don't know what's going on. In politics, this is a problem fixed by people who handicap elections for us and provide the proper context: the Cook Political Reports of the world. If only someone would do that for the Oscars.

Well, luckily, I've been following this year's Oscars race as closely as if they were a Colorado recall election. Below are my own Cook-esque "ratings" of each of the 24 Oscar races—complete with "leans," "likelies," and "tossups." Now, note that these represent not my personal picks (which in some cases differ), but rather my view on where the conventional wisdom lies for each category. My hope is that, when you tune into the Oscars on Sunday night, these ratings serve as a viewers' guide to how well the night is staying on script.

Best Picture: Leans 12 Years a Slave
On a night that should otherwise feature few surprises, this may very well be the most competitive Best Picture race in years. 12 Years a Slave is seen as favored, but quite a few pundits (myself included) are picking Gravity, and American Hustle was also seen early on as a potential dark horse.

Best Director: Solid Alfonso Cuarón
Cuarón faces no realistic competition. His Gravity was so technically heavy, and reliant on his vision, that no one in Hollywood doesn't think he deserves this.

Best Actor: Solid Matthew McConaughey
The star of Dallas Buyers Club has swept the precursor prizes, although at least one pundit is picking Leonardo DiCaprio in Wolf of Wall Street. But there's no reason to think McConaughey has slipped up or done anything to cough this up.

Best Actress: Solid Cate Blanchett
Not even the controversy surrounding Woody Allen can screw this up for Blanchett.

Best Supporting Actor: Solid Jared Leto
Leto's performance as a transgender AIDS patient in Dallas Buyers Club is the stuff Oscar loves. If Michael Fassbender hadn't refused to campaign for his role in 12 Years a Slave, we might have had a race, but he did and we don't.

Best Supporting Actress: Likely Lupita Nyong'o
The one acting category that's even remotely competitive. This looked safe for Nyong'o for a long time, but Jennifer Lawrence has picked up steam in some observers' eyes, and momentum is important in Academy races.

Best Adapted Screenplay: Solid 12 Years a Slave
An easy win for the Best Picture favorite in a race where it doesn't have to face its two biggest rivals, neither of which qualified in this category.

Best Original Screenplay: Tossup
This is a good old-fashioned horse race between American Hustle and Her—the former the Best Picture juggernaut, the latter the quirky low-budget film this category loves.

Best Animated Feature: Solid Frozen
Or Frozen solid. Ha. Ha. Ha.

Best Foreign Language Film: Likely The Great Beauty

Best Documentary Feature: Leans 20 Feet from Stardom

Best Cinematography: Solid Gravity

Best Costume Design: Leans The Great Gatsby

Best Film Editing: Leans Gravity

Best Makeup and Hairstyling: Solid Dallas Buyers Club

Best Production Design: Likely The Great Gatsby

Best Original Score: Solid Gravity

Best Original Song: Likely "Let It Go"

Best Sound Editing: Solid Gravity

Best Sound Mixing: Solid Gravity

Best Visual Effects: Solid Gravity

Best Documentary Short: Solid The Lady in Number 6: Music Saved My Life

Best Live-Action Short: Leans The Voorman Problem

Best Animated Short: Solid Get a Horse!