Do You See Something the Projections Don’t?

Last night I was out getting a drink with our own Matthew Kory. His favorite team is the Red Sox. My favorite team is the Mariners. The bar we went to was showing the Mariners game, and while the Mariners were actually winning, that did nothing to stem the tide of jokes at our own expense. They’re two very different teams in two very similar situations — they came in with a lot of hype and promise, some people labeling them World Series contenders, and to this point they’ve more or less sucked. I don’t know which team has been the bigger disappointment. There’s still time yet, but while that means things could get better, that means, also, things could get worse.

The conversation turned to looking ahead. It was just last week I wrote about the meaning of the standings through a couple months, relative to the meaning of the projections. The numbers suggested that the Sox and Mariners would be pretty good. They continue to suggest that, and, my brain knows it should believe that. But it can be difficult to fully accept, when you’re watching a team playing different from the expectations. It feels like a bad team is just a bad team. It feels like a good team has something special going on. There are feelings you’re supposed to feel, and feelings you actually feel. Actual feelings, you could say, are greatly prone to recency bias.

The conversation has led to this post. It’s another post with an assortment of polls, asking for your participation. The idea: do you see something, in the teams you follow, the projections don’t? Do you see reason to doubt the projected records? The polls will ask about five teams: the Red Sox, Mariners, Royals, Cardinals, and Nationals.

We all like to think we can spot things. We all like to think we can identify characteristics that formulas would miss. And it’s true, we can do those things. It’s more a matter of how often, and of how often there are false positives or whatever you want to call them. Just because you see something doesn’t mean it’s significant. Just because you see something doesn’t mean it’ll sustain. Seeing the future is complicated. It’s because understanding the present is complicated, and the present is presently happening.

Below, we have five teams you could say are under- or over-achieving. One way you could look at this would be to compare actual record against projected record. But I’m going a different way, using a particular FanGraphs feature. You, probably, know the Playoff Odds page, and there you can see projected rest-of-season record based on Steamer, ZiPS, and the depth charts. Nothing weird there — we refer to those numbers pretty often. But there’s a tab up there, that takes you to a similar-looking page titled “Season to Date Stats Mode.” On that page, you get what you could consider to be team projections, but instead of ZiPS and Steamer, they’re based on what the players have actually done in 2015. This makes for a fun comparison. This is the core of the post. On the regular Playoff Odds page, for example, the Red Sox are pretty good. Using season-to-date stats mode, the Red Sox are pretty bad. My question to you: which do you believe?

The five teams being polled are the five teams with the biggest differences between projected winning percentage and season-to-date stats mode projected winning percentage. The Red Sox, Mariners, and Nationals have under-achieved, while the Royals and Cardinals have over-achieved. For the sake of responding to the polls, consider how you feel now, and don’t assume future trades. In the Cardinals’ case, don’t assume future discipline. I just want to see where you guys come down. Thank you in advance for helping out.

Red Sox

Steamer/ZiPS projected win%: .534

Season-to-date mode projected win%: .403

Difference: .131

Quick summary: They were supposed to have good position players and good depth to make up for a mediocre pitching staff. The pitching staff has held up its end of the arrangement.

Mariners

Steamer/ZiPS projected win%: .533

Season-to-date mode projected win%: .432

Difference: .101

Quick summary: A year ago, the Mariners had a 93 wRC+, and then they added Nelson Cruz, who’s overall been solid. As a result of that upgrade, this year the Mariners have a 93 wRC+, but with a worse defense.

Royals

Steamer/ZiPS projected win%: .487

Season-to-date mode projected win%: .574

Difference: .087

Quick summary: It’s funny what happens to an offense when Mike Moustakas, Eric Hosmer, and Kendrys Morales decide collectively to not be bad. You don’t necessarily have to replace James Shields with pitching.

Cardinals

Steamer/ZiPS projected win%: .534

Season-to-date mode projected win%: .615

Difference: .081

Quick summary: Adversity doesn’t matter to these people. They’ve had a top-five rotation without Adam Wainwright, the bullpen has a sub-2 ERA, and the offense has been good enough with Jason Heyward hitting like Yadier Molina and Yadier Molina hitting like Ben Revere.

Nationals

Steamer/ZiPS projected win%: .574

Season-to-date mode projected win%: .498

Difference: .076

Quick summary: The unsinkable team has sunk to second place, and by some measures there’s been no worse starting pitcher in baseball than Stephen Strasburg. Injuries have been a problem, but even the players expected to be on the roster have largely under-performed, as shown by the numbers above. All this, somehow, despite Bryce Harper and Max Scherzer.





Jeff made Lookout Landing a thing, but he does not still write there about the Mariners. He does write here, sometimes about the Mariners, but usually not.

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JTT
Guest
JTT

The red sox have been bad and seemingly everybody, except for the projection systems used here, knew they had a very high probability of being bad.

me
Guest
me

If you honestly thought the Red Sox had a high probability to be this bad, please explain to me why, because I can’t figure out why you would believe that other than wishful thinking.

Damaso
Member
Damaso

I thought they had a high probability of being mediocre. In fact, I still think they have a decent probability of ending mediocre.

But the contending projections for the red sox never passed my smell test, at least. There were a few very suspicious things that didn’t add up for me.

1. This roster of players was projected to be worth near 25% more WAR this year than the same group of players was worth last year. That always seemed extremely unlikely as a 50th percentile projection. This almost never happens.

2. They were projected for this mass improvement despite having one of the oldest rosters in the league, which moved it from extremely unlikely to unbelievably unlikely, for me.

3. They were projected to have an elite offense despite having zero projected elite hitters. That is an extremely weird projection.

4. They were projected to have elite depth even though their starting lineup included 2 raw 22yr olds and 2 part time 34yr old vets.

5. They were projected for elite defense despite having 3 OF with virtually zero professional experience in the outfield, which is obviously crazy, and half the infield was mediocre at best.

6. Despite not having one guy on the roster who was a fulltime starting OF in 2014, they were still projected to have one of the best two way outfields in baseball. That was always ridiculous.

I don’t have much problems with projections in general, but we know they are very fallible, and this projection had far too many warning signs imo.

And it was a bit annoying that people hid behind the projections for the red sox, but had no problem dismissing the very similar projections for the yankees. this always stuck in my craw – everyone was ignoring the yankee projectiins but then getting mad when anyone questioned the red sox projections.

In the end, I suspect the projections need to take better account of the error bars on individual projections – I suspect that a team of very old and very young guys like the sox has much larger error bars around their projections than other teams do.

Erik
Guest
Erik

I think we should all be wary of positive defensive projections for defenders making big shifts on the the defensive spectrum.

me
Guest
me

This is a fair assessment. I see nothing wrong with taking the under on projections and calling for the Red Sox to be a mediocre team. The projections at the beginning of the season were only calling for the Red Sox to finish slightly over .500 anyways, and now they project to finish slightly under .500. Nothing strange there. I just think if you believed the Red Sox would play at this pace and finish the season with a .400 winning percentage you were being a little disingenuous.

Ryan
Member
Ryan

“everybody knew they had a very high probability of being bad.” You are a liar.

Ryan
Guest
Ryan

Underperformance is always a possibility but I don’t think anybody thought that they would be this apocalyptically bad

Cool Lester Smooth
Guest
Cool Lester Smooth

Yeah, even those of us who expected this performance from the rotation though that Sandoval and the Mookster would at least produce a 105 wRC+, and that Ortiz and Hanley would rake.

Bort
Guest
Bort

Their rotation was a bunch of very mediocre pitchers, except for Rick Porcello, who needs a good defense behind him. To support Porcello, they signed several terrible defenders and then moved the worst one to a position he’d never played before.

Mookie Betts had good projections and a short history of MLB success – just like Brad Miller and Wil Myers did prior to 2014.

This is all stuff that was known before the season.

me
Guest
me

Ramirez can’t play defense, but Sandoval was by all accounts nothing less than an average defender before coming to the Red Sox. I’m not sure who else could constitute the “several terrible defenders.”

Deelron
Member
Deelron

No offense intended, “but Sandoval was by all accounts nothing less than an average defender before coming to the Red Sox” comes across as a glass is half full type perspective, there are many, many accounts that Sandoval was nothing more then an average defender who would (typically) get worse with age (although obviously this year he’s been even worse then most would have projected).

me
Guest
me

Fine, but I still wouldn’t have qualified him as terrible and I wouldn’t qualify one player as several.

Cy Fleming
Guest
Cy Fleming

If you knew they “had a high probability of being bad” then hopefully you made a fortune by betting heavily against them each game up to this point as your odds have been extremely favorable. If not, it’s safe to assume that either you didn’t really think they’d be this bad or you hate money.