Monday, November 19, 2012

Crystal-Ball Report Card: 2012 Season

We're entering a lull in prediction season, but that doesn't mean we're done talking about predictions. It's easy for people to make forecasts, but disappointingly few follow up on them to see how they shook out—and, even then, it's usually only the people who hit the nail on the head looking to gloat. In the name of accountability, I wanted to look back on the predictions I've made over the past year—and hopefully learn something about more accurate forecasting in the future as a result.

Specifically, I want to take a look at my predictions for the 2012 MLB season, broken down by division: AL East, AL Central, AL West, NL East, NL Central, and NL West. More recently, I also made picks about how I thought the November elections would go, but (a) I've hashed through those pretty well on Twitter and (b) I don't think an article in which I gloat about hitting the nail on the head would be very interesting. My MLB predictions, on the other hand, were much more of a mixed bag.

Back in March and April, I calculated the specific win-loss records that I thought each team would end the season with. Let's start by looking at how I did with the raw numbers:

Next we'll dive into some of the specific claims I made.

Prediction: Both the Orioles and Athletics would stink up the joint on their ways to respective last-place finishes.
What Really Happened: In my defense, I said that the Orioles were "hardly an atrocious team and have the potential to play some watchable ball this year"; I called the Athletics "the division's most interesting—and most unpredictable—team." But no one could have predicted all those Ws. The A's and O's stunned the baseball world by threatening all season to win their respective divisions—two of the strongest in baseball. My error was in overestimating the strength of some of the other teams in those brackets. I was convinced that the Rangers and Angels would both be powerhouses; instead, the $55 million A's stole the division crown from both of them. I was particularly wrong about the Angels, whose shaky starting pitching caused them to win 11 fewer games than I thought they would.

Prediction: The Red Sox would not be a playoff team, but they would win 88 games.
What Really Happened: The Red Sox lost 90 games for the first time since 1965. This was a team that completely imploded under the leadership—if you can call it that—of Bobby Valentine. More relevantly, Boston's pitching just fell apart. I was skeptical about the team because I saw that it had "only two sure-thing starters (Jon Lester and Josh Beckett)" plus a handful of pitchers with promise. It turns out that none of that promise was fulfilled (Daniel Bard, in particular, was a mess) and their sure things forgot how to make outs. At the very least, my observation that, "when they bled, they could not clot" proved accurate, as the franchise hemorrhaged losses and fans all year long.

Prediction: The Tigers would win the AL Central, but more by default than domination; the team would actually be kind of mediocre, with only 89 wins.
What Really Happened: Exactly that... sort of. The Tigers limped to the division crown with 88 wins thanks to the same liabilities that I predicted: a ghastly defense and a middling offense. I correctly called Alex Avila's and Jhonny Peralta's falls back down to earth, though I also wrongly called out Austin Jackson for being an underachiever. But then, of course, the whole team made me feel a little silly when it dominated its way to the World Series.

Prediction: The White Sox would finish second in the AL Central. Jake Peavy, Chris Sale, Gavin Floyd, and John Danks would form a dominating starting rotation; Adam Dunn would bounce back to become a middle-of-the-order threat.
What Really Happened: The White Sox did even better than I expected (I still had them finishing slightly below .500), getting bounceback seasons out of not only Adam Dunn, but also Alex Ríos, whom I had given up on. Gavin Floyd wasn't reliable, and John Danks was lost to injury, but the rest of the pitching staff stepped up to fall just short of the fewest runs allowed in the division. I was particularly prophetic on the seasons of prospect Sale and injury question mark Peavy.

Prediction: Of the top four teams in the NL East, "each team is capable of dominating to the tune of 100 wins (yes, even the Nationals), and each team could collapse like a house of cards to below .500 (yes, even the Phillies). The one certainty—and, in my opinion, the safest bet in all of baseball this year—is that a certain team from New York will sink comfortably to the bottom."
What Really Happened: What was certain was wrong, and what seemed fanciful became reality. The Mets finished fourth in the NL East, guaranteeing my premature retirement from sports gambling; I foresaw Johan Santana's inconsistency and Jason Bay's suckitude but failed to account for David Wright's resurgence and the force of nature that is RA Dickey. Meanwhile, the Nats came close to those 100 wins and the Phillies finished at exactly .500. This fascinating division deserves some more broken-down analysis, though...

Prediction: Reports of the Phillies' demise would be greatly exaggerated. While the loss of Roy Oswalt would take a few wins off their 2011 total, they would still be a dominating pitching team and the class of the National League.
What Really Happened: Uh, oops. Many others saw this coming, but I guess I missed the warning signs. Roy Halladay lost time due to injury, and even when he pitched, he was mediocre (4.49 ERA); meanwhile, Cliff Lee forgot how to win (only six of them over a full year). As a result, they had only the division's third-best pitching. I was slightly redeemed when it turned out that the Philadelphia offense, which everyone else saw as ripe for a collapse, only weakened incrementally—consistent with what happens when a team gets one year older. Still, my claim that Philly would have "the best offense in the division" due to others' weakness was way off base (they had the third-best).

Prediction: The Nats would be the breakout team of 2012, pitching their way to a playoff berth. The additions of Edwin Jackson, Gio González, and Stephen Strasburg (back from injury) would add anywhere from nine to 18 wins to their total of 80 from 2011, and they would possibly lead the majors in ERA.
What Really Happened: It was 18 wins, not nine, and they had the second-best ERA in the majors, but I nailed everything else. The Nats as contenders was one of the preseason predictions I argued most forcefully for, and I didn't see a way (beyond injury) that their fearsome foursome of starters wouldn't improve the Nats' fortunes dramatically. What I didn't see was that their offense would mature as well; they had the division's best. Maybe I should have, though—I specifically predicted that Adam LaRoche's 25-home-run power would return (he hit 33).

Prediction: Brandon Beachy and Mike Minor—not the injury-prone Tim Hudson and Tommy Hanson—would lead the Braves to a Wild Card berth.
What Really Happened: Beachy was dominant but was lost to Tommy John surgery in June. Minor ended up struggling to a 4.12 ERA, and Hanson was actually healthy all year—though he also provided lukewarm results. It was pitchers who came out of seemingly nowhere to give the Braves their boost: Paul Maholm, acquired in a trade from the Cubs, and Kris Medlen, whose 1.57 ERA in 138 innings remains the seminal stat of the 2012 Braves season. But hey, at least I got the Wild Card berth right.

Prediction: The Marlins would finish in fourth place with only 85 wins, the victims of overrated offseason signings.
What Really Happened: The Marlins did a lot worse, losing 16 more games than I thought. But, in my defense, the tone of my Marlins preseason rundown was hardly positive. I saw the José Reyes signing as akin to adding an average shortstop, the Heath Bell signing as basically pointless (most relievers are), and the Mark Buehrle signing as useful, but only to replace the likely-to-be-injured Josh Johnson (for a net gain of zero). Reyes ended up avoiding the DL and being a quality regular, but he couldn't make up for the absence (in spirit and then in reality) of Hanley Ramírez's potent bat from the middle of the lineup. Where I was most wrong was in saying that, while they would not make the playoffs because they had so much ground to make up, "this is an improved team, no question"; turns out there was a question, as they lost three more games than in 2011.

Prediction: The Brewers would win the NL Central. Aramis Ramírez would replace Prince Fielder's pop in the lineup, and their 2011-division-winning pitching staff would continue to be quietly solid.
What Really Happened: I truly believe the Brewers would have won the division again in 2012 if their pitching staff—specifically, their bullpen—hadn't been so very loudly awful. The Brewers actually scored 55 more runs in 2012 than they did with Fielder in 2011; Ramírez filled in very nicely, turning in an even better season than his excellent 2011. Their starters also had a 3.99 ERA, again jibing with my prognostication. Their bullpen, however, was the league's worst, with a 4.66 ERA, 33 losses, and 29 blown saves! With bullpen performance being one of the most fickle things about baseball from year to year, if Milwaukee could play the season over, I think they'd have a different result. Look, too, for them to improve almost automatically in 2013.

Prediction: The Reds were overhyped and would finish third with 86 wins; 90 would be their ceiling due to a mediocre starting staff.
What Really Happened: The Reds made me look like an idiot; Cincinnati was this close from finishing with the top record in baseball. What did me in was the rock-solidness of the Reds rotation; their main five started 161 of the team's 162 games. Bronson Arroyo and Homer Bailey both spun phenomenal seasons, especially considering the ballpark they call home, and Mat Latos was much more of an impact player than I had foreseen. I never would have dreamed that together they would give up the fewest runs in the National League.

Prediction: This would be the year the Pirates seriously challenge for a winning season, but ultimately they would fall short, with 76 wins.
What Really Happened: The work of the devil, apparently. The Pirates stormed off to a great start, realizing more potential than even I thought they had in them. But, famously, the Bucs stopped there, plummeting to a 79-win finish. While I couldn't have predicted the wild ride, my final guess was pretty well on target. My February argument about the strength of the Pittsburgh rotation also proved prescient as the reason for Pirates fans' early-summer hope. It turns out they only had the NL Central's third-best pitching, however, not second-best as I had envisioned.

Prediction: The Astros, Cubs, and Twins would be among the worst teams in baseball, winning 55, 62, and 67 games respectively.
What Really Happened: The Astros, Cubs, and Twins were among the worst teams in baseball, winning 55, 61, and 66 games respectively. Sometimes, the worst teams are the easiest to predict, though I did put my neck out a bit when I said only four Twins would hit double-digit home runs (Joe Mauer, Justin Morneau, Josh Willingham, and Danny Valencia). I was wrong about Valencia and failed to include Trevor Plouffe (whose sudden power surge must qualify as the surprise of the 2012 AL Central) and Ryan Doumit (who barely made it himself, hitting 10 homers), but the basic idea held true: Target Field saps power.

Prediction: "I don't see how [the Diamondbacks' excellent 2011] couldn't be [for real], though, for it was built on an extremely solid foundation... it would be more surprising if [Ian Kennedy and Daniel Hudson] regressed this year, considering the promise that was held for them when they were minor leaguers." The Diamondbacks would once again win the NL West, though with only 88 wins in this weak division.
What Really Happened: The Diamondbacks did return the NL West's second-best offense and second-best pitching. That should have been good for second, if not first, place, and indeed it did produce a Pythagorean record of 86–76. But reality intervened, and the DBacks finished third with 81 wins—not an altogether terrible prediction, but clearly a miss. To blame were Daniel Hudson's Tommy John surgery, Justin Upton's average output, and Ian Kennedy's blah 4.02 ERA.

Prediction: The Rockies would be MLB's biggest surprise in 2012. The rotation would put it all together for at least 85 wins. "If things break right, Colorado could run away with the division title."
What Really Happened: Things, ah, did not break right. The Rockies lost 98 games and were my worst overestimation of the offseason. Specifically, that starting staff I was so optimistic about was so bad that the team switched to a four-man rotation, limiting starters to 75 pitches each. It was a failed experiment, and Colorado starters finished with a 5.81 ERA. Drew Pomeranz did not dominate over a full season as I boldly predicted, and my diamonds in the rough Jeremy Guthrie and Jamie Moyer lasted a collective five months in the rotation. Finally, Jhoulys Chacín and Juan Nicasio both failed to come back from injuries, leaving the pitching cupboard bare. The best laid plans of mice and men...

Prediction: The Dodgers would fight to stay out of the cellar, lacking any kind of supporting cast for Matt Kemp and Clayton Kershaw. They would finish with 74 wins.
What Really Happened: The Dodgers loaded up on cash and bought (literally) a whole team, including Hanley Ramírez, Shane Victorino, Adrian González, and Joe Blanton. I was actually right about James Loney and Dee Gordon crashing and burning this year, but I didn't expect all-stars to take over their positions. Personally, I don't think anyone can be held to their preseason Dodgers prediction, since the team that ended 2012 in Chavez Ravine simply bore no resemblance to the one that started it. A solid rotation was also something I underestimated, however, as the Dodgers played the role of Cincinnati with four consistent starters with ERAs under 3.73.

Prediction: The Giants "appear to have hit a ceiling with their two-way low-score strategy." Without a reliable offense, they would limp to 84 wins and third place. Melky Cabrera would return to being an out machine, though Aubrey Huff would manage to resurrect his career (yet again). Ryan Vogelsong would discover mediocrity, and Barry Zito would continue his.
What Really Happened: The 2012 World Series champions, that's what happened. Virtually all my predictions turned out the exact opposite: Zito found new life, Vogelsong seems to have achieved a new normal, Cabrera was unreal (as was, it turns out, his newfound muscle), and Huff turned in fewer than 100 at-bats. Meanwhile, Buster Posey led a truly shockingly good offense of the kind San Francisco has lacked since Barry Bonds. I could've told you in the spring that, with that kind of offense, the Giants would be World Series favorites. But I couldn't and I didn't—and that's why you can't predict baseball.

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