Saturday, December 6, 2014

2014 Predictions in Review: A Swing and a Miss

It's tough to make predictions, especially about the future. I made my fair share of them in 2014, and now that the year is drawing to a close, it's a good time to revisit them.

Everyone thinks they know exactly how the baseball season is going to go down every spring—and then everyone is proven totally and completely wrong every fall. (Exhibit A: the Giants-Royals World Series.) I've long since resigned myself to the fact that my preseason picks will never come true, and 2014 was no exception. At this point, it's simply entertaining to go back every winter and see what I expected the MLB season to have in store. Back in 2012 and 2013, this little exercise turned up a few gems, both good and bad. Now let's turn some 20/20 hindsight to my 2014 American League and the National League predictions.

Prediction: The AL playoff teams would be the Rays, Red Sox, Yankees, Tigers, and Rangers. The NL playoff teams would be the Nationals, Braves, Cardinals, Reds, and Dodgers.
What Really Happened: I got four of the 10, including just one in the AL but all three division champs in the NL. As a general rule, my NL projections were better than my AL ones. I picked 60% of the AL East to make the playoffs, so of course its one representative, Baltimore, wasn't among them. I actually correctly picked the order of finish in the AL Central (Tigers, Royals, Indians, White Sox, Twins), but almost totally inverted the AL East and AL West. Here's how my predicted win totals for each team matched up with reality:

Prediction: Miguel Cabrera would hit more than 44 home runs en route to a third straight MVP, with competition from a 30/30 season by Shin-Soo Choo. In the NL, Clayton Kershaw would cruise to a Cy Young Award, while Bryce Harper and Ryan Braun would compete for MVP.
What Really Happened: Cabrera's physical ailments finally caught up to him, as he hit "only" 25 home runs, ceding the MVP to a deserving Mike Trout. Harper, Choo, and Braun dealt with power-sapping injuries all year long; while they all managed above-average OPSes, Harper hit just 13 homers, Choo also had only 13 (and stole three bases), and Braun slugged just 19. Meanwhile, Kershaw won not only the Cy Young (which, come on, was a gimme), but also the MVP.

Prediction: Despite moving Cabrera off third base, the Tigers defense would not improve from 2013; in fact, it would get worse at catcher, first base, and right field. Nevertheless, Brad Ausmus would win Manager of the Year.
What Really Happened: Ausmus showed real growing pains in his first year as a manager, especially with his nonsensical bullpen management. The Detroit defense improved at catcher and first base but took a nosedive at third and right field. Overall, the team that totaled –66 Defensive Runs Saved in 2013 ended up at –64 DRS in 2014.

Prediction: José Abreu would be an instant hit and slug 30 home runs, but it would be Xander Bogaerts who would carry home the AL Rookie of the Year award with a .342 OBP, 30 home runs, and 98 RBI.
What Really Happened: Abreu actually mashed 36, validating my faith and then some. But his .317/.383/.581 line led him to walk away with Rookie of the Year after Bogaerts' tough first season, at a .297 OBP, just 12 home runs, and 46 RBI. He didn't even get a vote.

Prediction: Miami's Marcell Ozuna and Christian Yelich, no longer eligible for Rookie of the Year but still mere youngsters, would out-WAR the NL Rookie of the Year winner in a weak class.
What Really Happened: Ozuna broke out with a .338 wOBA and 3.7 fWAR. Yelich did even better, with a .362 OBP, 21 steals, and a 4.3 fWAR. At 23 and 22 years old, they were both younger and better than Rookie of the Year winner Jacob deGrom of the Mets (age: 26; fWAR: 3.0).

Prediction: The Marlins would have a surprisingly awesome rotation, with ERA champion José Fernández, Henderson Álvarez, Jacob Turner, and Andrew Heaney—although Nathan Eovaldi would blow out his arm.
What Really Happened: Fernández was the one who blew out his arm, although his 1.74 ERA in his seven healthy starts would indeed have led the NL. Álvarez had a breakout season, posting a 2.65 ERA and earning Cy Young consideration, but Turner and his 5.97 ERA were deported to Chicago while Heaney was only given seven games in which to post his 5.83 ERA. Meanwhile, Eovaldi led Miami with 33 games started and 199.2 innings pitched.

Prediction: The Dodgers would "be in the mix with the Nats and Reds for best rotation in the league," and Dan Haren would "thrive at Dodger Stadium." LA's outfield might be another story, with André Ethier and Carl Crawford playing more games than Yasiel Puig and Matt Kemp.
What Really Happened: Haren had a 3.32 ERA at home and a 4.75 ERA on the road. The Dodgers' rotation did indeed have the second-best ERA in MLB—sandwiched between the Nats at number one and the Reds at number three. Finally, in the games-played sweepstakes, I basically reversed the truth: Kemp played the most at 150, then Puig at 148, Ethier at 130, and Crawford at 105.

Prediction: The Phillies would drop to last place in the NL East—behind even the hapless Marlins!—thanks to a bottom-five offense and the worst defense in baseball.
What Really Happened: Philadelphia didn't lose the 102 games I predicted, but they hit bottom in pretty much every other respect. The Phils' .295 team wOBA was third-worst in MLB, and while they didn't have the worst defense in all of baseball, their –39 team DRS was the lowest figure in the Senior Circuit.

Prediction: Grady Sizemore would reinjure himself in April, ending his season and possibly his career.
What Really Happened: One prediction I'm glad I got wrong. Sizemore got 381 plate appearances, his most since 2009. Although he was a below-average player, he already has a guaranteed contract for 2015.

Prediction: The number of starts Miguel González makes will match his ERA: six.
What Really Happened: So close! González made six appearances—no starts at all—and ended with a 6.75 ERA.

Prediction: Lots of people would sleep on the Angels, especially their potent offense. Albert Pujols and Josh Hamilton would combine for 10 wins above replacement, and Kole Calhoun would prove more valuable than the traded-away Mark Trumbo, with his sub-.300 OBP.
What Really Happened: Pujols and Hamilton weren't quite that good, but Pujols did register a 3.9 rWAR, and Hamilton was worth 1.5 rWAR in half a season's worth of games. As for Trumbo, he was miserable for the Diamondbacks, with a .293 OBP, a mere 14 home runs, and a –1.1 rWAR. Calhoun was worth a full 5.2 wins more, at 4.1 rWAR. All these things helped the Angels to a far better record (98–64) than even I pegged them for.

Prediction: The 2014 season would be a breakout for Marco Estrada, who would pair his typical 4.0 K/BB ratio with a lowered home-run rate to become one of the NL's elite pitchers.
What Really Happened: Home runs had always been a problem for Estrada, but they spiraled out of control in 2014. He gave up a stunning 1.73 HR/9, although some of that was bad luck, with a 13.2% HR/FB ratio. His K/BB ratio also fell to 2.89, his lowest since 2010, and he lost his job in the starting rotation. Meanwhile, the two Brewers starters whom I was lukewarm on, Yovani Gallardo and Wily Peralta, posted ERAs around 3.50.

Prediction: The Cubs' offense would be stagnant—until September, when a set of callups would lead to their best hitting month. Darwin Barney's great glovework would be worth more than any batsman's offense, even top OPS-er Junior Lake (.755).
What Really Happened: Anthony Rizzo happened. Other than his monster .286/.386/.527 year (with 32 home runs), only Chris Coghlan and Luis Valbuena produced more offensive runs above average than Barney's defensive runs above average (7.8, including his time with the Dodgers). Junior Lake's .597 OPS was second-lowest among Cubs with enough at-bats to qualify. And September was actually Chicago's worst offensive month, although many of the "callups" (like Javier Báez) had made it there by August, which was their scoringest month.

Prediction: The Astros would take a step forward this year—with George Springer hitting 10 homers and stealing 10 bases in limited time—despite the majors' worst starters' ERA.
What Really Happened: Houston improved by 12 games more than I thought it would. Springer was indeed excellent; although he stole half the bases I expected, he hit double the dingers. The main difference was that 11 teams had a worse starters' ERA than the Astros' 3.82, including the Tigers and Red Sox.

Prediction: Derek Jeter would have an injury-marred and subpar final season, as the Yankee infield's best player would end up to be Brendan Ryan. Jacoby Ellsbury, Mark Teixeira, and Brian Roberts would all spend long stretches on the DL.
What Really Happened: Jeter was healthy all year long, but his .617 OPS was his worst ever, apart from his injury-shortened 2013. Ellsbury, too, stayed healthy, but Teixeira and Roberts were more battered than a Yankee Stadium fried dough. New York's most valuable infielders turned out to be two guys who only played half a season each in the city (Chase Headley and Martín Prado), so although I was wrong on Ryan (–0.7 rWAR), I got the gist of how badly things would go.

Prediction: Brandon McCarthy would return to his prior effectiveness, and Chris Owings would play well enough to drive Didi Gregorius out of Arizona in a trade.
What Really Happened: It took the Yankees to make both sides of this prediction come true. McCarthy had a 2.89 ERA for New York after the Diamondbacks traded him and his 5.01 ERA at midseason. And just a few days ago, my Gregorian prophecy also came true, as Didi was shipped to the Bronx to be Jeter's replacement.

Prediction: "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," while the Ubaldo Jiménez signing would pay off thanks to his dangerous new slider. Rookies Jonathan Schoop and Henry Urrutia would play key roles, but Kevin Gausman would fall flat.
What Really Happened: At .422, the Orioles did indeed have the second-highest slugging percentage in the league, but they were only fifth from the bottom in OBP at .311. However, Jiménez proved the free-agent class's biggest bust—and according to FanGraphs data, his slider was among his weakest pitches. Instead, Gausman stepped up to be a reliable starter with a 3.57 ERA in 20 starts. Schoop was an out machine with his .244 OBP, and Urrutia didn't play a single game all year.

Prediction: The Padres would have an excellent rotation thanks to a healthy Josh Johnson, a return to form by Ian Kennedy, and a full season of Tyson Ross, who would register a strikeout per inning. However, Jedd Gyorko, Carlos Quentin, and Chase Headley would all take big steps backward.
What Really Happened: Johnson missed the whole season due to needing a second Tommy John surgery, but Kennedy did return to form in a big way. His strikeout rate of 9.3 was a career high, and he lowered his walk rate from his aberrant 2013, resulting in a 3.63 ERA. Ross started 31 games and pitched 195.2 innings—with 195 strikeouts. And it was kind of predictable in PETCO Park, but Gyorko (.210 average) and Quentin (.177 average) dropped off badly, while Headley was traded at midseason while hitting .229.

Prediction: A halving of Jayson Werth's WAR would epitomize the general blahness of the Nationals offense. However, DC's top four starting pitchers would all get Cy Young votes, while Drew Storen would finally step out from Rafael Soriano's shadow.
What Really Happened: Per FanGraphs, Werth's WAR actually improved from his phenomenal 2013—up to 4.8 from 4.6. But that pitching staff really was as special as advertised: Jordan Zimmermann, Stephen Strasburg, and Doug Fister all got well-deserved awards consideration (and heck, Tanner Roark probably deserved a throwaway vote too). And, by pretty much any available metric, Storen (1.12 ERA, 4.18 K/BB, 2.6 rWAR) did indeed outpitch Soriano (3.19 ERA, 3.11 K/BB, 0.8 rWAR), even though Soriano was still better than he appeared.

Prediction: Cleveland would be held back from contention with down years from Carlos Santana and Jason Kipnis, while Santana would contribute to a porous left side of the infield defensively. The AL's worst bullpen would turn the team's barely winning Pythagorean record into a sub-.500 one in real life.
What Really Happened: Indeed, Santana's average dropped to .235, although he remained a steady source of power and walks. Kipnis looked lost at the plate, turning in a .240/.310/.330 line. The Indians also clocked in at –19 DRS at third base and –5 DRS at shortstop. The bullpen, however, was a revelation—at 3.12, it sported the AL's fourth-best ERA, and the team did even better than its 83–79 Pythagorean record.

Prediction: "If the Indians don't have the league's worst bullpen, the Mariners will," and Seattle would boast the majors' worst record in either one-run or extra-inning games.
What Really Happened: The Mariners had the AL's best bullpen. At a 2.60 ERA, they were a full 0.31 runs better than the runner-up. This was a big part of why Seattle was the team I underestimated the most going into 2014. They won 18 more games than I expected. Bizarrely, though, they still struggled in one-run games, to the tune of an 18–27 record.

Prediction: The Braves would stumble out of the gate but have a hot September to just barely snag a Wild Card berth. Following this pattern would be Mike Minor and Julio Teheran, who would improve as the summer wore on.
What Really Happened: The Braves instead epically collapsed—or would have, if they had had a lead to protect going into August. The team's best month was April (17–8), and they just looked like they didn't care anymore by their 7–18 September. Minor had a 3.07 ERA entering June 10 but had a 5.51 after that point. Teheran was great all year long, but he was at his best in April (1.47 ERA) and May (2.21).

Prediction: The Rockies' key players would again succumb to injury. Jorge De La Rosa, Brett Anderson, and Jhoulys Chacín would combine for 300 innings. The one Rockie whom everyone agreed wouldn't last long, closer LaTroy Hawkins, actually would not get replaced by Rex Brothers like everyone was assuming.
What Really Happened: Sure enough, Hawkins saved 23 games, and Brothers could save nothing with his 5.59 ERA. Troy Tulowitzki and Carlos González played a full season—between them (161 games total). The three pitchers combined for 291 innings, most of which were De La Rosa's.

Prediction: Phil Hughes would take to his new home in Minnesota, posting a career year with a 3.99 ERA that would make him the Twins' best starter.
What Really Happened: Phil Hughes took to his new home in Minnesota, posting a career year with a 3.52 ERA that made him the Twins' best starter. The part that I would've found unbelievable in March is the fact that Hughes set a new major-league record for best strikeout-to-walk ratio of all time.

Prediction: With a full season of Tony Cingrani, the Reds would set a franchise record for strikeouts for the third consecutive year. However, only Jay Bruce and Joey Votto would be above-average hitters for them. A silver lining would be Billy Hamilton's leading the league in steals—by double digits.
What Really Happened: With a full season of Cingrani (who only started 11 mediocre games), the Reds would have broken that strikeout record. As it was, their 1,290 strikeouts were just six shy of the franchise record, set in 2013. The offense was even worse than I envisioned; Votto may have been above-average (127 OPS+), but he only had 272 plate appearances. Bruce had a terrible year with an 84 OPS+, and Hamilton finished second in the majors with 56 steals. (Maybe if he hadn't been caught 23 times...) Instead, Todd Frazier (123 OPS+) and Devin Mesoraco (149 OPS+) carried the Cincinnati offense (such as it was).

Prediction: Prince Fielder (40 home runs) and Geovany Soto (.280/.370/.490) would be the Rangers' MVPs, with the latter leading the club to a division title after his return from the DL.
What Really Happened: The virtual opposite. Fielder and Soto were among the biggest victims of Texas's injury bug in 2014. Fielder hit just three home runs, and Soto slashed .237/.237/.368 before getting shipped out in a trade to Oakland. In a way, though, they were among the most important players... to the team's last-place finish.

Prediction: The Royals offense would surprise, with four of Alex Gordon, Eric Hosmer, Mike Moustakas, Salvador Pérez, and Billy Butler hitting 20 home runs. Kansas City would suffer for its overreliance on the poor performances of Jeremy Guthrie and Jason Vargas, who would combine for more starts than the superior young trio of Danny Duffy, Yordano Ventura, and Kyle Zimmer.
What Really Happened: Yes, Guthrie and Vargas combined for 62 starts and a 3.93 ERA, while Duffy and Ventura combined for 55 starts (Zimmer was injured) and a 2.90 ERA. No, the Royals offense did not roar to life—in fact, none of the five reached the 20-homer plateau. The Royals nevertheless finished with three more wins than I predicted—and they came within two runs of winning the World Series. As a friend of mine predicted, it was just the Royals' year.

Prediction: The St. Louis Cardinals would be 2014 world champions, thanks to a much-improved defense and the postseason heroics of Shelby Miller, who would start three World Series games and win series MVP honors.
What Really Happened: The Redbirds did improve their defense by a remarkable +103 DRS from 2013 to 2014, but Miller only got them as far as the NLCS (and in fact Miller's poor Game 4 start played a role in St. Louis's loss in that series).

Prediction: Sergio Romo would cough up the Giants' closer's role, and Pablo Sandoval would have an outstanding season in an effort to break the bank in free agency. Madison Bumgarner would throw a no-hitter.
What Really Happened: Romo did indeed start the year with uncharacteristic awfulness, and Santiago Casilla took over as closer. Sandoval had an above-average year, although it continued his pattern of slightly declining every year since 2011. (And, of course, he did break the bank.) Bumgarner did not throw his no-hitter, instead settling for 21 innings of one-run ball spread out over three games of the World Series, which he singlehandedly won for San Francisco.

Prediction: This would be the year that Ben Revere finally hit his first career home run.
What Really Happened: He hit two. I was even there for the second one. There's video proof and everything.

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