Episode 19: April 7, 2011
Spring is the time for guessing which players will have that long-awaited breakout season, which teams will surprise everyone and win a pennant, which ones will completely fall apart, and anything else that might happen in a baseball season. But calling them “predictions” doesn’t make them any better than “guesses,” even when the experts are talking.
Please note: this is not an exact transcription of the episode.
Hey, it’s Spring 2011! I’m back, Game of Chance is back, and everyone’s busy assessing the offseason and making a lot of predictions and pretending they know what’s going to happen in 2011, so I figured I’d join right in.
I’m Alex Reisner and this is Game of Chance...
I’m actually not going to make a lot of predictions here because baseball, after all, is a game of chance, and it’s kind of silly to make predictions. Silly? Did I really just call predictions silly? I mean, everyone does it. Most of what you’ve probably been reading and hearing about in baseball for the past few weeks has been predictions, right? Well, yeah, I’m going to be so bold as to call most of it silly. And here’s why:
There’s a mathematical tool called Spearman’s rho which you can use to figure out the similarity between two ordered lists, like, for example, two sets of standings. So, we can write down our predictions now and at the end of the season we can put the final standings and our pre-season predictions into the formula and get a single number that tells us how well we did. [If we predicted the final standings perfectly our score will be 1. If we got every team wrong we’d get a -1. Zero means we were close on every team, or we were right on some and way off on others.]
Now, if you find someone who’s smart but who doesn’t know the first thing about baseball...I’m sure you know someone like this...if you ask them to make some pre-season predictions, what would they do? Or you can think about it this way: what would you do if someone handed you last year’s cricket standings and asked you to make predictions for this year? Assuming you don’t have time to do any research, the smartest thing to do is probably just be to choose the same standings as last year. If you don’t know anything about the league it’s probably impossible to do any better than that.
Now, what if we take the person who knows nothing about baseball and a baseball expert, and have them both make preseason predictions, and at the end of the season pick a winner by using the Spearman’s rho formula. Who do you think would win? I know it sounds ridiculous, but this is not a trick question.
I consider the writers at Baseball Prospectus to be among the best-informed and smartest analysts out there, so I calculated Spearman’s rho for their preseason predictions for last two years and discovered that their predictions were actually worse, in both years, than than the naive prediction (of just using last year’s final standings). I did the same calculations going back to 2005 and over the past six years Baseball Prospectus has only done significantly better than the naive prediction twice.
Now, this is not a knock at Baseball Prospectus. I still consider them the best. The point is that I’ve seen this study done with writers at ESPN and it comes out the same way, and I suspect that nobody, no matter how expert they are, can beat the naive prediction with any kind of consistency.
But baseball predictions are fun and somewhat irresistable because we feel like we know what’s going to happen. Just like we feel that a batter or team is on a hot streak. It’s hard to resist making predictions and thinking that the game is understandable in these terms. I guess it’s probably sort of how gamblers think. And baseball is not quite as much about luck as roulette or blackjack, but almost. That’s why the experts can’t predict the outcome any better than a novice.
So anyway, here I go with some craaazzzy predictions. First, let’s do a quick overview of the offseason moves.
I think the best player signing this offseason was probably Adrian Gonzalez by the Red Sox. That’s probably not going to surprise anyone. I’d say the best organizational moves were made by the Mets, who basically brought in entirely new management. I don’t know how the old crew lasted so long, and it’s going to take a couple of years to clean up their mess, but I do believe the Mets are finally moving in a positive and sustainable direction with some very smart people in the front office.
I think the most exciting offseason was the Orioles. Check out the lineup Buck Showalter has to work with: Brian Roberts (who is way underrated), Nick Markakis, Derrek Lee, Vlad Guerrero, Adam Jones, Luke Scott, Mark Reynolds, Matt Wieters, and J.J. Hardy. Some of these guys are gambles, but they’re good gambles and if even some of them pay off the Orioles will have suddenly become a very exciting team.
Now who were the worst offseason signings? I’d have to say the worst is, without a doubt, Jayson Werth. Here’s the thing: everyone thinks of Werth as being one of the premier outfielders in the game, but I’m going to name 10 other right-fielders: Ichiro, Shin-Soo Choo, Nick Markakis, Justin Upton, Jason Heyward, Nelson Cruz, Andre Ethier, Mike Stanton, Hunter Pence, and Jay Bruce. Werth very comparable to most of those guys, and he’s certainly not as good as Ichiro, Choo, Markakis or Upton, and he’s older than all of them except Ichiro, and yet he has the biggest contract, which goes until he’s 39 years old. That is a desperation move that makes you wonder: is Omar Minaya consulting for the Nationals?
The most confusing and disappointing offseason was probably the Cardinals. Now I’m not talking about Adam Wainwright’s elbow injury which is a huge blow, but... This is a team that for several years now has had an offense consisting of two or three real hitters. One of them happens to be the best player in baseball, but it’s not enough. No matter how good Albert Pujols is he’s just one dude. He only accounts for 10% of the Cardinals’ at-bats. Now you don’t need a lineup full of stars, but as Pujols gets older this parade of so-called organizational players gets frustrating. In December the Cardinals signed Lance Berkman to play right field. Berkman is not an organizational player by any stretch, but if you watched Berkman play last year... I remember him falling over on routine plays more than once... Basically: he had trouble handling first base for the Yankees and now he’s going to play the outfield? At 35 years old the Big Puma’s bat is also, sadly, not what it used to be. They also signed Nick Punto, who I love, and who is a really exciting shortstop to watch, but the guy just can’t hit, and that’s really not what the Cardinals need.
A few days ago, Christina Kahrl over at Baseball Prospectus, who by the way is a lot smarter than me, said that these Cardinals organizational players like Allen Craig and Jon Jay are not only better than we think, but that Tony LaRussa has a demonstrated ability to work with guys like them, and she refers to Scott Brosius with the Athletics in the mid-90s, and she says that the Cardinals should still be considered the NL Central favorites. Now she’s the one who gets paid to write about this stuff, but I don’t see how the Cardinals, who are basically the same team as last year minus Adam Wainwright, are much better than a .500 club. The Reds look like a better team, and so do the Brewers, and I expect the Cubs to bounce back especially if Garza pitches well and Zambrano doesn’t set fire to the clubhouse. The NL Central should be a good race between at least two of those four teams. Of course the Pirates will continue to be awful and the Astros...well, their big pickup this offseason was Bill Hall.
I’ll make some other wild guesses here:
the Orioles and the Indians will be the most improved teams, and the Padres and Rays will be...whatever the opposite of most improved is...most screwed I guess
the Rangers will continue to be the most exciting team but watch for the Angels and the Athletics to give them some real competition in the AL West
in the NL West the Padres, as I said, are going to be really bad, and the Giants are not going to look like the defending champions, which will make way for the Dodgers to win the division
Joey Votto will continue playing like an MVP candidate, Carlos Gonzalez will not, but his teammate Troy Tulowitzki will win the NL MVP award
John Axford will lead the National League in saves
Daric Barton will win the American League batting title
Anyway, this is all insanity. It’s like sitting at a slot machine saying “OK, I’m going to get all cherries...this time!” Getting it right is usually more about luck than brains. Of course, it’s endlessly entertaining and so I’ll be back, hopefully, next week to talk some more about baseball. Until then, I’m Alex Reisner and you’ve been listening to Game of Chance. Check out gameofchance.alexreisner.com to leave comments on anything I said today, or make your predictions for the 2011 season. Or you can give me a call at 32323 00 233.
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