Monday, July 18, 2016

How Many Fans Does Each MLB Team Have?: The 2016 Baseball Census

At 2.7 rWAR, Brandon Belt was not the most deserving National League Final Vote candidate. Michael Saunders was even last in rWAR among the five American League candidates. Yet Belt and Saunders were the ones elected to the All-Star Game last week—not because of their immense value, but because of their immense fan bases.

No one can possibly know exactly how many fans there are of the San Francisco Giants or the Toronto Blue Jays. The best we have are rankings of MLB teams by popularity, and even those disagree sometimes. To solve that problem, a few years ago, I developed a method of quantifying how many fans each MLB team has—a baseball census, if you will. This allows us to answer the question of not only which team has the largest fan base, but how large it is.

Whenever they poll a state, our friends over at Public Policy Polling (PPP) ask about more than just politics: barbecue, giant meteors, and, yes, baseball. Using PPP's state-by-state breakdowns of baseball fandom and multiplying by the actual Census Bureau's latest population estimates for each state, we get the U.S. population of each fan base:

Team Fans Team Fans
New York Yankees 23,789,450 Kansas City Royals 4,824,354
Atlanta Braves 20,307,037 Baltimore Orioles 4,602,667
Boston Red Sox 20,106,387 Colorado Rockies 4,530,586
Chicago Cubs 18,425,056 Minnesota Twins 4,517,874
San Francisco Giants 11,095,094 Cleveland Indians 4,331,531
Texas Rangers 10,275,941 Pittsburgh Pirates 4,169,171
St. Louis Cardinals 8,730,179 Arizona Diamondbacks 4,056,240
Los Angeles Dodgers 8,137,226 Milwaukee Brewers 3,970,562
Detroit Tigers 7,589,747 Oakland Athletics 3,738,013
New York Mets 7,237,208 San Diego Padres 3,329,816
Houston Astros 6,646,472 Chicago White Sox 3,035,525
Los Angeles Angels 6,437,770 Washington Nationals 2,804,064
Seattle Mariners 5,931,089 Tampa Bay Rays 2,765,617
Philadelphia Phillies 5,806,971 Miami Marlins 2,525,967
Cincinnati Reds 5,102,696 Toronto Blue Jays* 211,264

*Blue Jays fans are drastically undercounted because PPP does not poll in Canada.

Since last year, PPP has asked about baseball in three additional states, including big ones like New York and Maryland, giving this year's numbers their best accuracy yet. As a result, the New York Yankees have seized the title of America's favorite team, with an estimated 23,789,450 fans. Also moving up in my rankings, for the same reason, are the Mets (now at 7,237,208 fans) and Orioles (4,602,667). The Royals, meanwhile, have gained about a million fans since last year—pretty much all due to bandwagoning fans in updated polls from Missouri and Iowa. The Braves, Red Sox, and Cubs join the Yankees in baseball's Big Four; no other team comes within seven million fans of them.

Of course, the data are still incomplete. Our census/PPP's polls now cover 38 states, or 87.5% of the U.S. population—but that means 12 states (plus the District of Columbia) and one-eighth of Americans aren't accounted for. Here's a map of which states are still missing:

The Red Sox look like they could still be underrepresented; three New England states are missing. The Braves will also undoubtedly gain when Alabama and Tennessee are eventually added. But Yankees fans in New Jersey and Cubs fans in Indiana are also undercounted. While the raw numbers of my top four teams should be a little higher, we can be fairly confident that the increases will be proportional.

In the name of full disclosure, other factors may be throwing off the numbers as well. PPP's baseball questions are worded in an opt-in manner, so the 78% of Americans who tell them they have a favorite baseball team is much higher than the 42% of Americans who are baseball fans. Therefore, this may inflate fandom across the board. However, the nature of polling also limits PPP to asking about just eight or so teams per state. Not asking every state about teams that could conceivably have national fanbases, like the Dodgers or Tigers, could be undercounting them as well. The bottom line: with the data at our disposal, the above numbers are the most accurate enumerations we have.

So we think we know who MLB's most popular teams are. But what's the least popular team in baseball? Although the Blue Jays have only about 211,264 American fans, they clearly enjoy more popularity than that in Canada. Instead, it appears that MLB's two least popular teams both reside in Florida, a state that has always polled better for out-of-state teams like the Yankees and Braves than for the Marlins and Rays. Here in 2016, the Marlins appear to have the "advantage" in the race to the bottom, a switch from last year, when PPP's 2015 poll of Florida indicated that the state had slightly more Marlins fans than Rays fans. And unlike for the Nationals (DC is missing) and White Sox (Indiana), there is no state missing from our dataset that seems likely to give those two fanbases a boost. Like between the four at the top, it's a close race for last, but there can be no question it's between those two teams.

Sunday, June 26, 2016

When Will the Vice-Presidential Picks Be Announced?

If you take a leisurely stroll around the internet these days, it's impossible not to trip over some veepstakes speculation—even some going so far as to predict whom Hillary Clinton and Donald Trump will pick. But there's an equally important question that largely goes unaddressed—when will they be picked?

It can be useful to know when to expect these major announcements. Reporters need to mobilize at a moment's notice to cover the unveiling; rival campaigns need to react quickly with a well-placed counterattack and get started on opposition research. As for the rest of us? We just need to know when we should be monitoring Twitter and tracking airplanes.

As usual, if you want to predict future behavior, look at past behavior. To that end, I've compiled data on the announcement dates of all vice-presidential reveals since 1972. Here they are:

Historically, VP announcements have always happened between July 6 and August 29. Democrats' median announcement date is July 13; Republicans' is August 11. But that's a flawed way to look at it. The announcement dates have varied so wildly because the main event of the summer—each party's convention—is held at a different time each year. We learn a lot more by looking at announcement dates relative to the convention's timing.

Historically, the vice-presidential candidate (not to mention, going even farther back in time, the presidential candidate) has been chosen and announced at the convention itself. This was true in 1972, 1976, 1980, and for Republicans in 1988. Recently, though—starting with an innovation by Walter Mondale in 1984, when he picked Geraldine Ferraro four days before the convention in an historic stunt—parties have decided to spread out their big news events and announce the bottom of the ticket in advance. This trend makes it unlikely that we'll have to wait until either convention to know who the running mates will be—despite Trump's public flirtation with a primetime convention-week reveal.

However, the winner of the veepstakes is still frequently announced just before the convention. The vice-presidential pick was unveiled the week before the convention in 1984 by Democrats, in 1988 by Democrats (six days before the DNC started), in 1992 by Democrats (four days before), in 1996 by Republicans (three days before the RNC), in 2000 by Democrats (seven days before), in 2000 by Republicans (seven days before), in 2008 by Democrats (two days before), and in 2008 by Republicans (three days before). The median BC (Before Convention) announcement date is four days before for Democrats and three days before for Republicans. One week before each convention would thus seem like a pretty likely time to expect an announcement.

But is there a new trend developing in veep selection timing? Twice now, and both in recent history, the running mates have been announced well before the convention: in 2004 by Democrats (20 days before the DNC started) and in 2012 by Republicans (16 days before the RNC started). Of course, this is a small sample size; we probably can't know whether these are just exceptions or the next logical step in the progression of moving the VP selection farther and farther away from the conventions. But we can make a couple observations.

First, no running mate has ever been tapped more than three weeks before the start of a convention. That means it would be unprecedented for the Republican vice-presidential nominee to be announced this year before June 28 or the Democratic nominee to be announced before July 5. So I'd say you can safely stay off the grid until then without fear of missing anything.

Second (and, again, small-sample-size caveats apply), both of those campaigns ended up losing in November. In 2012, Mitt Romney's early selection of Paul Ryan was widely seen as an attempt to change the narrative of his campaign at a time when Romney wasn't exactly having his best week. This could suggest that Trump, whom everyone agrees is losing so far in 2016, could try the same tactic: seize control of the news cycle away from his poor fundraising and controversial statements by announcing his vice-presidential candidate early.

If I were a betting man, I might view this as the most likely of all the possible outcomes. If precedent pretty much mandates that Trump is not going to wait until the convention, it makes strategic sense for him to announce sooner rather than later. I'll make my prediction that Trump will announce his VP as soon as this coming week: on Friday, July 1, heading into the holiday weekend, so people can chew it over along with their hot dogs. (Since 2008, VPs have all been announced heading into a weekend, although over the long term, there is no discernible preference in the data for any specific day of the week.)

As for Clinton, the safe call would be that she will make her pick the week before the convention—except this year, the RNC and DNC occur on consecutive weeks, so that would be directly in the middle of the RNC. While it might be tempting to steal some of Trump's thunder, the Clinton campaign would never announce during the RNC for fear that her pick, and the message he or she sends, would be drowned out in the news cycle. So when can she fit the announcement in?

Again, history holds the answer. Only twice since 1972 were the conventions on consecutive weeks: in 2008 and in 2012. In 2012, Democrats (whose convention was later) had no vice-presidential candidate to announce; everyone knew Joe Biden would be renominated. But in 2008, the Republican convention was second, but John McCain announced Sarah Palin the week before (and therefore the same week as the DNC) anyway—he just waited until Friday, when the DNC was over. This is a politically shrewd move; immediately after your opponent's convention is over, swoop in and steal their media cycle, hopefully putting a swift end to any residual coverage and honeymoon period they were enjoying.

This year, the RNC ends on Thursday, July 21, and the DNC doesn't begin until Monday, July 25. I think there's a strong chance Clinton will pull a McCain and reveal her running mate the Friday in between: July 22. Now the only question remains—who will it be?

Tuesday, May 24, 2016

Trump's Lack of Havoc Downballot

Now that Donald Trump is, like we all predicted, the presumptive Republican nominee for president, we can close the book on his impact on the Republican primary. But while he did a great number of remarkable things over the first half of this campaign, wreaking havoc in downballot races wasn't one of them.

This year's primaries saw unprecedented levels of interest: Trump attracted an enthusiastic following who faithfully rushed to the polls for him, while those whom Trump terrified were equally determined to participate and snuff out his campaign. As a result, turnout has increased to near-record levels—nearly doubling up 2012 levels in some states. With so many new voters participating in Republican primaries, the potential was there for a major departure from past results that so often favored uneventful establishment victories. But in the handful of states where the Republican Party held its presidential and congressional/downballot primaries on the same day, there's little evidence that the anti-establishment wave that obviously took hold at the top of the ticket trickled down into other races.

The first question I had was whether all these new presidential-primary voters would even bother voting in downballot races. After all, so many of them seemed laser-focused on the presidency—either getting Trump elected to it or stopping him from ever getting close. But while turnout in downballot primaries certainly was lower than in the presidential primaries, it wasn't that different from the same such gap that always exists.

Between the Iowa caucus on February 1 and Trump's clinching of the nomination on May 3, nine states held downballot primaries concurrently with presidential ones. I looked at downballot Republican primaries that were contested in both 2012 and 2016 and compared turnout between the two years. The increase in Republican downballot turnout from 2012 to 2016 was typically just a little less than the increase in Republican presidential turnout. For instance, in Alabama, 139.5% of the number of 2012 Republican presidential voters showed up to vote for president on the GOP side in 2016, while an average of 132.9% of the number of 2012 voters in various Republican downballot primaries showed up to vote in those same Republican primaries again in 2016. Looking at the data another way, an average 75.6% of Republican presidential voters dropped down to vote in the selected downballot races in Alabama in 2016; an average 78.9% did so in 2012, a modest drop of 3.3 percentage points. In summary, yes, a few of the "new" 2016 Republican primary voters skipped downballot races—but most of them didn't.

What's more, there wasn't a lot of consistency from downballot race to downballot race. The table below goes beyond the aforementioned averages and gives you each race's turnout changes; this makes it abundantly clear that the presidential turnout was only a secondary influence on downballot turnout. It turns out that these races stand on their own merits; when they're competitive, turnout goes up.

For example, turnout in TX-15 shot up in 2016 (202.0% of 2012 levels) to the point where more people actually voted in the Republican primary for Congress than in the Republican presidential race in the district (+34.6% more, to be precise); this is because the district is an open-seat race in 2016. Likewise, in IL-11, a competitive GOP primary for a Democratic-held swing district caused turnout to almost double (194.0%) that of 2012, when incumbent Judy Biggert was the unquestioned nominee. This was such a significantly bigger increase than the presidential race that voters in IL-11 were probably motivated primarily by the race for Congress, not the Oval Office!

On the other side of the coin, Republican primary turnout in Indiana's US Senate race rose more modestly (+48.6%) from 2012 levels than did the presidential race (+74.4%), but this is more about reversion to the mean; the 2012 Senate primary in Indiana between Richard Lugar and Richard Mourdock attracted huge interest—even more than the presidential race that year (104.1% of the number of presidential voters cast a ballot for Senate). This year's contest, while an open seat, was more muted.

Here are the numbers for every race:

There are even exceptions in non-obvious places. For instance, 2016 turnout in all five contested GOP primaries for constitutional office in North Carolina surpassed 2012 levels by more than presidential turnout did. And, despite a snoozer of a Republican primary in which Senator Rob Portman faced only token opposition, this year's US Senate primary in Ohio saw more interest relative to the presidential race than in 2012. At times, the turnout differences can seem almost random. With such random variation, we can be pretty sure that there wasn't an unusual degree of downballot dropoff in this year's primaries—and we know unambiguously that voter participation in downballot primaries was higher than in 2012. With only one exception, turnout increased over 2012 levels by at least 18% in every race with enough data to analyze. (The exception is the Republican primary for MD-08, which has a simple explanation: the Democratic primary for Chris Van Hollen's old seat was extraordinarily competitive in 2016 and dominated the airwaves for weeks before the election, so unsurprisingly a lot of voters developed stronger opinions about that party's primary and pulled Democratic ballots instead.)

So Trumpites (and anti-Trumpites—whoever this new army of voters includes) are participating in lower-level elections. Are they having any effect? To find out, I took another look at the same elections analyzed above, except this time at the actual results. In those races with an incumbent running for re-election and/or a clear establishment-versus-insurgent tone, I found that the establishment candidate did better in 2016 than 2012 14 times and did worse 17 times. Overall, there is a very frail argument to be made that establishment candidates did fare worse this year, but their average drop—just 1.6 percentage points—is statistically negligible.

The numbers broken down by individual elections show yet again that the difference is dependent on what race you look at—which suggests that it's not the presidential campaign, but rather intrinsic specificities about each election, that drives results. Some incumbents faced very close calls this year, such as Kevin Brady's bare 53.4% majority in TX-08 or Bill Shuster's 1,227-vote win in PA-09 (not included in the chart because Shuster had no 2012 challenger). But the lack of competitive races surrounding them suggest that the culprit was those candidates' weaknesses rather than a pervasive anti-establishment wave. And some of the biggest swings from 2012 can be attributed to unique circumstances; for instance, TX-19 became an open seat this year, which is always going to lead to a more competitive primary.

Overall, even if their performance dipped a little from 2012, incumbent/establishment types still averaged a healthy 64.5% of the vote in the 31 elections—more than enough for a comfortable victory. So even if the influx of new voters made a difference at the margin, they rarely affected the final outcomes. For example, potentially potent challenges fizzled in both Alabama, where Senator Richard Shelby won 64.9%, and North Carolina, where Senator Richard Burr beat libertarian hero Greg Brannon 61.4% to 25.2%. In fact, no statewide or congressional Republican incumbent has yet lost their primary bid. Most have simply gone unopposed. The bottom line is that, for whatever reason, primary challenges just haven't gained an unusual amount of traction this year.

The one election you could point to where anti-establishment anger prevailed was in OH-08: John Boehner's old seat. In a highly symbolic triumph, businessman Warren Davidson won the primary here with the support of Boehner's old nemeses like the Club for Growth. But the ironic thing for our exercise is that Ohio is the one state where GOP establishment forces prevailed in the presidential primary! John Kasich won the state with 46.8% of the vote, so almost a full majority of the electorate was inclined toward his brand of moderate, reasonable Republicanism. By contrast, in states where Trump won (including Alabama, Mississippi, Illinois, North Carolina, and Indiana), the GOP establishment downballot escaped relatively unscathed.

But, interestingly, the state worst for the establishment overall was Texas, which was carried by Ted Cruz at the presidential level. Cruz isn't Trump—we don't think of him as infusing millions of new voters into the primary process—but he is certainly anti-establishment, having risen to power as a Tea Party hero. And we tend to think of his supporters as savvy, grassroots-oriented conservatives—the kind who organize at local conventions to gain every last delegate edge. Perhaps those supporters are also more likely than Trump's (who are, stereotypically at least, mainly just obsessed with him as an individual figure) to study downballot races and vote for Tea Party candidates there as well. It's an intriguing theory, but unfortunately it is impossible to prove.

In the end, the preponderance of evidence suggests that, while some of 2016's new Republican primary voters are undervoting in downballot races, most are participating. And while perhaps slightly more citizens are voting against establishment candidates, most are still toeing the party line. Overall, other than the greater turnout and interest in this year's elections across the board, downballot Republican primaries appear to be business as usual in this supposed "year of the outsider."

I have a few theories as to why. First, it may suggest that the myth of the type of voter Trump is turning out is overblown. The Donald has claimed to be turning out millions of disaffected people who haven't voted in decades as part of his effort to give a voice to whole swaths of America that have been left behind. But a POLITICO investigation found that Trump's voters aren't that new; rather, they're regular general-election voters who are just participating in primaries for the first time. That suggests a much milder shakeup than Trump himself would predict; after all, incumbents still get re-elected every November at rates around 90%.

Second, even if being part of Trump's new-voter army means you're anti-establishment, it does not necessarily mean you're especially conservative. Much has been made of the fact that Trump and his followers are not actually as far right as, say, Ted Cruz; instead, they are more likely to self-identify as moderate, and many were former Democrats. On the other hand, most downballot insurgent candidates remain conservative Tea Party types—not necessarily Trump-esque populists. Maybe Trump voters aren't shaking up those downballot races because they consider Tea Partiers a different breed. (This goes back to our theory of why insurgent candidates did better in states won by Tea Partier Cruz.) It could be that Donald Trumps just haven't shown up on the congressional level yet. But if this year is an indication, maybe that's what we should look out for in 2018—a new wave of populist primary challengers. If so, maybe that big anti-incumbent wave could still materialize after all.

Thursday, May 19, 2016

How Far is Baseball from Your State Capital?

I was bored last night and started a little game on Twitter: which MLB teams were closest and farthest from a state capital? Enough people nerded out with me over this that I figured I'd turn it into a blog post. Below are the distances from each MLB team to the nearest state capital, measured as the crow flies from each team's home ballpark to the closest state capitol building using this tool.

Following the trend of state capitals tending not to be states' biggest cities, only four MLB teams are based in state capitals: the Boston Red Sox, the Atlanta Braves, the Colorado Rockies, and the Arizona Diamondbacks. (The Toronto Blue Jays are also based in a provincial capital, while the Washington Nationals are obviously based in the nation's capital.) Of these, the Braves are based the closest to the seat of power, which is less than a mile up Hank Aaron Dr. (which becomes Capitol Ave. in Atlanta). When the Braves move to Cobb County, the Nats will, appropriately, be closest to a capitol building—the U.S. Capitol. If you just want to count state capitals, Coors Field will be closest.

The farthest MLB team from any state capital is the Marlins: 406 miles from Tallahassee. If you are just wondering about the farthest team from its own state government, though, the Padres take the cake—Petco is 472 miles from Sacramento.

Wednesday, April 13, 2016

Every Presidential First Pitch Ever

When President Obama was interviewed by ESPN during the Cuba exhibition game, he admitted that the most stressful thing he has ever done as president was throw out the ceremonial first pitch at a baseball game. Maybe that explains why he's on pace to do it the fewest times ever by a two-term president.

It has now been over six years since a president threw out the first pitch—the longest drought ever. Given that Opening Day is by far the most common occasion for a presidential first pitch, we can now safely say—barring a surprise appearance at the All-Star Game or World Series this year—that Obama will have tossed out the first ball just twice in his eight years in office. That's the fewest times since Jimmy Carter's one, and it pales in comparison with, say, George H.W. Bush's seven—in just one term, and despite the fact that there was no team in Washington at the time! It's strong evidence for the open secret that Obama, though he enjoys his sports, simply isn't much of a baseball fan.

The presidential first pitch is, in many ways, the epitome of this blog: the ultimate and purest form of politics and baseball intersecting. While there are lots of partial sources online for researching presidential first pitches, none was completely accurate or comprehensive. Therefore, I set about to compile all the information I could find on the topic and independently cross-checked and confirmed all the reported first pitches. The result is this definitive list of times the president has kicked off a major-league baseball game, including their dates, locations, and circumstances.

The president throwing out the first pitch on Opening Day was an annual tradition for decades at Griffith Stadium, home of the Washington Senators before their relocation. It started in 1910 with William Howard Taft and continued almost every year thereafter, pausing most notably during World War I and World War II. Nevertheless, Franklin D. Roosevelt is the president who has thrown out the most first pitches, at 11.

After the Senators left DC for good, presidential first pitches obviously became rarer, as they had to coincide with presidential trips. Richard Nixon and Gerald Ford made efforts to go to the All-Star Game and throw out the first ball. Ronald Reagan, the first President Bush, and Bill Clinton made the trip up I-95 to Baltimore a few times on Opening Day. George W. Bush accomplished the impressive feat of throwing out the first pitch in six different ballparks, including his famous strike at Yankee Stadium after 9/11.

The team that has seen the most presidential first pitches was obviously the original Washington Senators; the current Minnesota Twins franchise has witnessed it 44 times. The Yankees, the Senators' constant rival over the decades, are in second place, with 18. The Rays, Astros, Mets, Marlins, Padres, and Rockies have yet to be treated to one.

Republicans have been much friendlier to the national pastime, throwing 47 of the 83 first pitches. Democrats are stuck at only 36 in large part because the last three Democratic presidents, dating back 40 years, have only tossed the first ball six times. Despite Major League Baseball's return to Washington in 2005 in the form of the Washington Nationals, the old tradition of the president throwing out the first pitch every Opening Day has not been revived. If you ask me, it's long past time for us to resume the tradition.

Wednesday, March 30, 2016

Predicting the 2016 Season—National League

Compared to the American League, the National League is more of a throwback to the turn of the century (this century): if you're good, you're really good; if you're bad, you're really bad; and ne'er the twain shall meet. The lack of parity makes predicting the league standings relatively easy, but it wouldn't be baseball if there weren't a few surprises thrown in. So, as I do every year, below I predict each team's order of finish and final record, as well as a few "fearless predictions" for each team—at least half of which never come true. To the line!

NL East

1. New York Mets (94–68, 2nd playoff seed)
  • Yoenis Céspedes will become a Carlos Beltrán-esque disappointment to New Yorkers: impugned for his salary despite decent (110 OPS+) production. Thankfully (?), he will opt out after the season and enter a weak free-agent class.
  • Just as Zack Wheeler returns, Noah Syndergaard will feel the dreaded forearm tightness. He'll become baseball's latest loss to Tommy John surgery and give the Mets an unusual distinction: all five of their top rotation members (when healthy) will have undergone the procedure.

2. Washington Nationals (92–70, 1st Wild Card)
  • After a May incident where Dusty Baker forgets the handedness of one of his relievers, everyone will begin to wonder if the Nats' new manager is too old to handle the job.
  • The injury bug isn't done with Bryce Harper yet. Although he'll be every bit as excellent as he was in 2015 when he's on the field, balky body parts will cause him to miss a full third of the season.
  • Trea Turner will grab ahold of the shortstop job so surely that Stephen Drew won't even collect 100 plate appearances.
  • Lack of starting-pitching depth behind the mediocre Joe Ross and Tanner Roark will end up as the Nationals' undoing.

3. Miami Marlins (76–86)
  • Under the tutelage of hitting coach Barry Bonds, Marcell Ozuna will take his game to the next level, setting career highs in all three slash categories.
  • Ichiro Suzuki will rap his 3,000th hit during the Marlins' August trip to Cincinnati—in front of the only crowd in baseball that won't consider him the new all-time hit king.

4. Philadelphia Phillies (65–97)
  • As measured by PITCHf/x runs above average, Jerad Eickhoff will have one of the top five most effective sliders in the game.
  • Mark Appel will finally be able to relax away from the Astros organization, and he'll tear through the minors and secure a bullpen role in Philadelphia by September.
  • Befitting his name, Adam Morgan will pitch five games against the Nats in Washington, DC.

5. Atlanta Braves (60–102)
  • Not only will Ender Inciarte be more valuable than the man he was traded for, Shelby Miller, but he'll also be the best Brave, topping even Freddie Freeman in WAR.
  • Hector Olivera will show a knack for getting on base, but pre-season predictions that he'll be in the running for Rookie of the Year will be way off. He'll have trouble staying healthy and on the field.
  • Julio Teheran will continue to struggle his way to a 4.00 ERA, but Matt Wisler should step into the void, improving his strikeout rate to 7.5 K/9 and his ERA to 3.50.
  • Neither Tyler Flowers nor AJ Pierzynski will be worth a whit on offense, but at least Flowers can frame. He'll get more playing time as a result.

NL Central

1. Chicago Cubs (96–66, 1st playoff seed)
  • Three Cubs will be among the NL's top 10 position players by WAR: Jason Heyward, Kris Bryant, and Anthony Rizzo, in that order.
  • Ben Zobrist will be the weakest link in the Chicago order, as injuries continue to sap his defensive value. But it will just be a chance for Javier Báez to show off his prodigious power in the bigs.
  • Despite starting the year without a clear position, Jorge Soler will still wind up with 500 plate appearances and 25 home runs.
  • Kyle Schwarber will not feel comfortable defensively either at catcher or in the outfield. In a shocking midseason blockbuster, the Cubs will trade him to an AL club for a lights-out starting pitcher—Sonny Gray or Chris Sale, perhaps?

2. Saint Louis Cardinals (90–72, 2nd Wild Card)
  • A two-year streak of terrible luck with runners in scoring position (.254 average in 2014, .242 in 2015) will snap, and the Cardinals will score 50 more runs despite a nearly identical team OPS (.716).
  • Despite remarkably high BABIPs in 2015, Randal Grichuk and Stephen Piscotty will be able to sustain them thanks to a great hard-hit percentage and speed, respectively.
  • While it looks like there isn't a weak spot in that rotation, one will emerge as Mike Leake hands in a pedestrian 100 ERA+ season. Jaime García will land on the DL again.

3. Pittsburgh Pirates (86–76)

4. Milwaukee Brewers (71–91)
  • Remember the name Domingo Santana. The Brewers right fielder could put up a vintage Adam Dunn season: a .230 average but a .340 OBP, 180 strikeouts but 30 home runs.
  • Milwaukee will be the only team in baseball whose starters pitch zero complete games in 2016.

5. Cincinnati Reds (64–98)
  • Jay Bruce, one of the Reds' few high-performing players, will be shipped out by June. Devin Mesoraco will put together a nice rebound year behind the plate—and then get traded as well.
  • Billy Hamilton will never learn to get on base, squandering the talent of his wheels. A career-low 35 stolen bases are in the cards.
  • Anthony DeSclafani will use a 5.0 K/BB ratio to shave a full run off his ERA; we'll see him in San Diego at the All-Star Game.
  • Brandon Phillips will have an OBP below .300 and his glove will begin to attrite. His 2016 WAR will be exactly 0.0.

NL West

1. San Francisco Giants (91–71, 3rd playoff seed)
  • It's an even year, and you know what that means: the Giants are going to the World Series. They'll win their fourth championship this decade in controversial fashion—playing all seven games against the Rays at home after Tropicana Field is damaged by a freak hurricane.
  • Jeff Samardzija will be a bust, amassing just 0.5 WAR in the first year of his five-year, $90 million contract.
  • Johnny Cueto, however, is fully healthy and will even outpitch Madison Bumgarner.
  • Bruce Bochy is your 2016 NL Manager of the Year.

2. Los Angeles Dodgers (88–74)
  • In the outfield, Andre Ethier will scuffle, but Yasiel Puig will rediscover his 2013–2014 form. If the Dodgers just sit back and let Joc Pederson do his thing, they won't regret it.
  • The Dodgers will lead baseball in days on the disabled list. The injury bug will be particularly devastating to their starting rotation, as only Clayton Kershaw hits the 200-inning mark.
  • The victim of diminishing velocity, Scott Kazmir will wash out of the major leagues just as suddenly and mysteriously as he did in 2010.
  • Two Dodgers will bring home hardware in November: Corey Seager for Rookie of the Year and, of course, Kershaw for Cy Young.

3. Arizona Diamondbacks (80–82)
  • The DBacks' two major offseason trades will both prove to be counterproductive. In addition to the Miller-Inciarte debacle, Jean Segura's presence will rob the team of its best remaining defender in Nick Ahmed in exchange for an equally limp bat.
  • Shelby Miller won't appreciate the move to homer-happy Chase Field. Patrick Corbin and maybe even Robbie Ray will allow fewer runs.
  • Zack Greinke's ERA will rise by 1.50—the biggest increase of anyone in baseball—but will still rank in MLB's top ten.
  • Arizona will give back every last one of its league-leading 63 Defensive Runs Saved from 2015, finishing as a neutral fielding team. When the team allows exactly the same 713 runs it did in 2015, GM Dave Stewart will admit, "We forgot that defense matters in run prevention, too."
  • After two second-place finishes, it's finally Paul Goldschmidt's turn to win an NL MVP Award, completing the NL West's sweep of the postseason awards.

4. San Diego Padres (73–89)
  • PETCO Park was surprisingly offense-friendly in 2015; don't expect that to carry forward, depressing the Padres' offense but rejuvenating their pitchers.
  • James Shields will keep the ball in the park and pound the strike zone more. The results will be a return to form: a 3.30 ERA, a 1.20 WHIP, and 2.0 walks per nine innings.

5. Colorado Rockies (72–90)
  • By Coors Field standards, the Rockies' bullpen won't be bad. Jason Motte, Chad Qualls, and Jake McGee will all pitch well above average—probably leading to some fruitful trades in July.
  • Poor Jon Gray will be dominant on the road—posting a 2.80 ERA—but will be unable to solve Coors, stumbling to a 5.20 home ERA.
  • José Reyes won't play a single game for the Rox after he is convicted of domestic assault.

Monday, March 28, 2016

Predicting the 2016 Season—American League

Every year, the baseball cognoscenti make predictions about what will happen the coming year. Every year, they're horribly wrong. With that said, here are my totally correct, unimpeachable picks for what will go down in 2016 in the American League. Take them seriously if you must... Or, as I have learned to do, just have fun and recognize them for what they are: an excuse to talk about baseball again after a long, long winter.

As I do every year, I'll predict each team's order of finish and final record, and I'll include a few "fearless predictions" for each team—at least half of which never come true. Enjoy!

AL East

1. Toronto Blue Jays (90–72, 2nd playoff seed)
  • The Blue Jays' fate will be determined by how hard their rotation falls back down to earth. Marco Estrada simply will be slaughtered. Returning to 9.0 hits per nine innings will put dozens more runners on base for the 30 home runs he allows to this division's potent offenses. JA Happ, meanwhile, will turn in his third season of an exactly 90 ERA+ in Toronto.
  • Young hurlers Roberto Osuna and Aaron Sánchez will suffer from role mismatches. Sánchez is a better fit for the bullpen, which means the experiment of trying him as a starter will fail. In a role reversal with Drew Storen, Osuna will pout as a setup man after Storen is named closer, leading to a sophomore slump that will cause the Jays to consider a move to the rotation.

2. Tampa Bay Rays (87–75, 1st Wild Card)
  • The Rays easily have the most upside in this division. Watch out for breakout seasons from Steven Souza and Steve Pearce. In a mirror image of the Dodgers last season, Drew Smyly will vie with teammate Chris Archer to be Cy Young runner-up.
  • The pitching staff will only get stronger in the second half, as Alex Cobb returns from Tommy John surgery and top prospect Blake Snell makes a play for Rookie of the Year by striking out over 10 batters per nine innings.
  • Kevin Cash will win Manager of the Year in a close race against Terry Francona.
  • Tampa will follow the trail blazed by the 2014 Royals and advance from a nailbiter Wild Card game into the World Series.

3. New York Yankees (83–79)
  • The Yankees' most valuable position player? Would you believe Chase Headley? He'll rediscover his footing defensively and improve to league-average hitting with 20-home-run power.
  • This year's version of Greg Bird will be Aaron Judge, who will replace a totally hapless Carlos Beltrán in right field and sock 10+ home runs in 200 plate appearances.

3. Boston Red Sox (83–79)
  • Rick Porcello will be a very sad sinkerballer. His ERA will be half a run higher than his FIP, thanks to Boston's league-worst defensive infield.
  • Led by Craig Kimbrel and Carson Smith, the Red Sox bullpen will strike out a quarter of the batters it faces, second in the league only to the hated Yankees.
  • Mookie Betts will contend for MVP, but Xander Bogaerts will remain stuck on single-digit home runs.

5. Baltimore Orioles (80–82)
  • Yovani Gallardo and Kevin Gausman will swap 2015 ERAs—with Gausman finishing 2016 as the Orioles' ace with a 3.42 ERA and Gallardo regressing to 4.25. The now spectacle-less Gausman will credit his offseason LASIK surgery for the improvement.
  • As a team, the O's will hit 250 home runs—the most since the 2010 Blue Jays.
  • Korean import Hyun Soo Kim will lead even this loaded lineup in OBP.
  • Another subpar season on the field will lead to the dismissal of manager Buck Showalter.

AL Central

1. Cleveland Indians (86–76, 3rd playoff seed)
  • Good infield defense—including surprising glovework at both corners by Juan Uribe and Mike Napoli—will result in ERAs below 3.00 for both Corey Kluber and Carlos Carrasco.
  • Cleveland will break its MLB-longest streak without a no-hitter with THREE no-nos in 2016: one each by Kluber, Carrasco, and Danny Salazar.
  • Cody Allen will pace the majors in saves.
  • Francisco Lindor, last year's should-have-been Rookie of the Year, will be as good as he was last year, but his numbers will look totally different. He won't be anything special with the bat, dropping 100 points of OPS, but his incredible D will lead to a Gold Glove.

2. Kansas City Royals (85–77)
  • Yordano Ventura will be the Royals' only above-average starting pitcher. That won't matter during the regular season thanks to another excellent year from the majors' most-used bullpen…
  • …But it will matter when the Royals find themselves in a tiebreaker game against the Rangers for the second Wild Card. Ian Kennedy will be no match for Cole Hamels.
  • The Royals will have a better record when Raúl Mondesí Jr. starts at shortstop than when Alcides Escobar does.

3. Chicago White Sox (82–80)
  • Chris Sale's 3.41 ERA from 2015 will prove to be a career high when all is said and done; he's not merely above average, he's one of the best pitchers in baseball. He'll return to a sub-2.50 figure and finally win a richly deserved Cy Young Award.
  • Carlos Rodon will notch 200 strikeouts, and Mat Latos will be worth 2.0 WAR despite missing a few months, as usual, with injuries.
  • The offense will rocket from the league's worst to above-average, thanks in large part to a bounceback from Melky Cabrera.
  • José Quintana and Adam Eaton will both have WARs over 4.0 but remain criminally underrated.

4. Detroit Tigers (75–87)

4. Minnesota Twins (75–87)
  • The Twins and Tigers will finish with identical records and run differentials—boasting the best offenses in the division but the worst pitching staffs.
  • However, unlike the ageing Tigers, Minnesota will be must-see TV. Three Twins will finish in the top five for AL Rookie of the Year: José Berrios, Byung Ho Park, and eventual winner Byron Buxton.
  • Park and Miguel Sanó will combine for 60 home runs.
  • #FreeOswaldoArcia will be the hashtag activism cause of the summer, as the outfielder hits .300/.350/.500 but can't get more than two starts a week over the far inferior Eddie Rosario.

AL West

1. Houston Astros (91–71, 1st playoff seed)
  • Playing the role of Miguel Cabrera/Josh Donaldson—i.e., the player who steals the MVP Award from Mike Trout—in 2016 will be Carlos Correa. Voters won't be able to resist voting for a shortstop who flirts with the 40-homer plateau.
  • Doug Fister, sadly, will show he has nothing left in the tank, forcing the Astros to trade from their stash of prospects for rotation reinforcement at midseason.
  • The Astros will assiduously try to keep Ken Giles out of the closer's role to keep his price from skyrocketing in arbitration, but that will actually be to their benefit—he'll work in the team's highest-leverage situations and lead the AL in leverage index.

2. Texas Rangers (85–77, 2nd Wild Card)
  • Yu Darvish will win Comeback Player of the Year as he pitches 150 innings of 3.30-ERA ball.
  • Even though Ian Desmond usually starts the year on shaky defensive footing, he'll look so lost in left field in the early going that the Rangers will bench him. He'll enter career purgatory, bouncing around on the free-agent market as a utility man for the rest of the decade.
  • Talent defeats age in Texas, at least for one more year: Prince Fielder and Shin-Soo Choo will turn in carbon copies of their superb 2015 seasons.

3. Seattle Mariners (80–82)
  • Joaquín Benoit will end up with more saves than Steve Cishek.
  • M's fans will finally see the Robinson Canó they thought they were getting, as he stretches last year's second-half slash line of .331/.387/.540 over a full season.

4. Oakland Athletics (77–85)
  • Sonny Gray's 2015 luck will reverse itself; a .340 BABIP will lead him to a forgettable 3.95 ERA season.
  • Rich Hill will pick up right where he left off—with four dominant starts to begin the year. Then he will lose his feel for pitching and finish with a 4.00 ERA.
  • Despite his poor defensive reputation, Marcus Semien will be one of Oakland's best players next year, including as a net positive on defense (going by metrics more advanced than errors).

5. Los Angeles Angels (73–89)
  • The left-field combo of Daniel Nava against righties and Craig Gentry against lefties will be among the most successful platoons in history. Together they'll hit .320/.380/.420 and amass 4.0 WAR.
  • Andrew Heaney will establish himself as a bona fide ace in the middle of a rotation in tatters. CJ Wilson will be injured all year and untradeable, while Jered Weaver will shockingly decide to retire midseason when it becomes apparent he can't throw above 80 miles per hour.
  • The total collapse of Albert Pujols is nigh.
  • Despite the presence of Mike Trout, the Angels will have the lowest OBP in the American League.