Grading My Pre-Season Predictions by Ben Clemens September 28, 2021 Before the season started, I made a series of bold-ish predictions about what would happen in baseball this year. I focused on things that were unlikely but possible, unexpected playoff teams or players that you’ve heard of but didn’t expect to be great. You can find those eight predictions here and here. Today, I’m grading myself on these predictions. The season is still going, but we’re close to the end, and reading about pre-season speculation will soon take a deserved back seat to actual playoff baseball. I’m assigning each of the predictions a grade of a win, a push, or a loss. Fair warning: I’m grading myself on a curve. Coming close on a high-percentage prediction is clearly a loss. Getting something half right when it was a 40-to-1 shot? I’ll claim half credit whether I deserve it or not. That’s simply how this goes — doing your own grading comes with advantages. Let’s get to the predictions. Wins Kolten Wong Will Out-wRC+ Keston Hiura The verdict: Hard to imagine a clearer win. Two years removed from a sterling rookie season, Hiura looked completely lost and hasn’t played in the majors since July. That’s not to say that he’s washed — he acquitted himself well enough in Triple-A, and the Brewers haven’t solved their first base situation, which means he’ll surely get another bite at the apple next year. Meanwhile, Wong has excelled. His 111 wRC+ is the best mark of his career. He achieved it by trading patience for power — he’s walking less and striking out more, but making more authoritative contact when he connects. That’s not to say he’s suddenly a slugging machine — he has only 14 home runs. It’s also not to say he stopped getting on base — his .340 OBP is well above league average. He simply made a tradeoff that made him incrementally better, and kept his excellent defense while doing so. In the final tally, Wong certainly posted a higher wRC+ than Hiura — by a whopping 58 points. What more is there to say? The worst case came true for Hiura, Wong surprised to the upside, and that’s that. The lesson: Low-contact hitters need to compensate with a standout skill. Hiura needs to achieve premium results on contact given how often he gives away strikes. He did just fine when he put the ball in play, but “just fine” won’t do when you strike out 40% of the time. Be willing to believe in power hitters — but be skeptical if they need a lot of things to go right, or need to maintain elite power numbers just to be an average hitter. Pushes Carson Kelly Will Be an All-Star The verdict: Wait — no more wins? It was not a banner year for hitting predictions, to say the least. I do feel like I had the right idea on a few of these, but I’m absolutely certain that none of the other seven predictions will come true, so the best they can do is push. Kelly looked like he might lock this one up for me early on, ending May with a 153 wRC+. He slumped a bit in June, but was still hitting .260/.385/.460 on June 19, a 122 wRC+ line that was borderline All-Star caliber. Sadly, June 19 was a rough day for Kelly. A Walker Buehler fastball fractured his right wrist, a devastating injury for a hitter but also for a catcher. He didn’t return until July 30, and he’s been awful since coming back; his power has completely vanished, which isn’t great for a slow hitter who puts the ball in the air. His barrel rate has been cut roughly in half, and his hard-hit rate has dropped too. Hopefully, an offseason to rest and rehab will restore some of the form he displayed early this year. He’s capable of it, at least for stretches, and that’s still a valuable skillset for a catcher. But pair his injury with Buster Posey’s resurgence, Omar Narváez combining offense and defense, and the continued excellence of J.T. Realmuto and Will Smith, and the path to All-Star nominations looks quite difficult. The lesson: Injuries are the worst. Kelly put together a solid third of a season — but that’s not enough. You have to be durable, good, and lucky to make an All-Star team. Kelly managed one of three, and even though he beat his ZiPS projections despite less playing time and a power-sapping injury, beating the projections isn’t the same as a win. Juan Soto Will Have a 200 wRC+ The verdict: I wrote about Soto yesterday, and reading about his complete offensive game is always a joy, so if you haven’t seen it, I highly suggest it. I thought that an increase in batted ball quality could push him to the rarely-seen heights of a 200 wRC+, though given that no one has done it in a full season since Barry Bonds, it was hardly a lock that he’d make it. Given that he leads all batters in WAR and is second in wRC+ (first in xwOBA, if you’re into that kind of thing), I feel good saying that I got the general idea right. Soto is proving that he’s a generational talent, and anyone who walks 22% of the time while striking out 13.6% of the time and hitting the snot out of the ball has an outside shot at a spectacular season. I’d make this same prediction again if I could do it over. The lesson: Maybe just predict that Soto will be the best hitter in baseball, rather than put up a batting line that no one has achieved since Bonds. The only thing I fault myself for on this one was setting my target too high; directionally, I feel okay counting this as a win. That said, I’ll settle for a push based on the rules of the game. Andrew Vaughn Will Win Rookie of the Year The verdict: Vaughn got a huge chunk of playing time this year in the aftermath of Eloy Jiménez’s injury, but he didn’t make the most of it. After never having played a day above High-A, he looked somewhat overmatched at the start of the season. July and August were good months — but a brutal slump has dropped his wRC+ below 100, and he’s also missed time due to injury this month. It’s fair to say that this one didn’t work out, but I’m not so unhappy with the call. Vaughn was in a unique position to get more playing time than expected. His potential range of outcomes was quite high. Heck, I made that prediction before Vaughn even made the Opening Day roster. Getting 400 plate appearances out of him, and a solid month where he made me feel like he might be doing it, makes this one feel like a push. The lesson: Betting on playing time is a way to give yourself an edge, but it doesn’t guarantee success. The White Sox had a roster that made Vaughn’s opportunity greater than you’d expect for a player with fewer than 250 professional plate appearances, but he didn’t run with it. I’d do it again, and I think Vaughn will be a plus hitter next year, but this wasn’t his breakout season. Losses Yu Darvish Will Win the Cy Young The verdict: Nope. Darvish started the season strong, but was never in pole position to win an award; Jacob deGrom’s historic start put everyone else in the rear-view mirror. When deGrom was felled by injury, Darvish was already on the downswing. After a strong first three months — 2.44 ERA, 3.06 FIP, and 11 K/9 — he’s been downright unplayable in the second half. In between a handful of IL stints, he’s posted a 6.78 ERA and 5.15 FIP. The underlying numbers suggest there’s still plenty to like, as his strikeouts have stayed high and walks low. But 2.44 home runs per nine innings is going to torpedo your season, no matter how the rest of your game goes. It’s hard to know whether the decline was due to injuries, inconsistency, or even the foreign substance crackdown, though there’s not much evidence that Darvish suffered a debilitating decline in spin. He simply got bad and hurt at the worst possible time for San Diego. The lesson: Pitching is hard! My heart wasn’t in this prediction; I simply wanted a pitching prediction and looked for a suitably long shot. A better lesson is probably to go with your heart: I was wildly bullish on Corbin Burnes before the season, viewing him as one of the handful of pitchers with a shot to dethrone deGrom. Rather than pick someone with a better median outcome, I should have gone for the gusto and picked something special for Burnes. Kansas City Will Finish Ahead of Cleveland The verdict: Not quite! Cleveland has indeed disappointed, going 77-79 to date, which puts them squarely outside the playoff race. You know who has been worse? The Royals, who are 71-85 and even more out of the race. They had a rough first half — 33-47 on July 1 — and never pulled out of it. The six wins that separate the teams are almost exactly on top of our preseason projections — though public prediction markets had them with an eight win gap. If the season were longer, I might have a shot at this. Cleveland has been shedding assets as the season wears on, trading away César Hernández — still their third-best hitter by WAR despite leaving the team in July — and a smorgasbord of other bit players. They’ve dealt with injuries, too; Shane Bieber made his first start since June last Friday. None of their pitchers have surpassed 24 starts, and Zach Plesac, who hit that 24 number, has been decidedly mediocre. The road ahead looks tough for the new-look Guardians. Kansas City had a bigger problem, though; their offseason acquisitions were more problem than solution. Carlos Santana turned into a pumpkin. Mike Minor has an ERA over 5.00. Andrew Benintendi has been blazingly hot in September — ..347/.377/.561 — and still has only an average line on the year. Their young pitching, meanwhile, didn’t pick up the slack; Brady Singer was the best of the bunch, and he put up 2 WAR in 127 innings, held back by rarely going deep into a game. The lesson: Don’t get too excited about bad teams. The Royals were the spice that made this prediction interesting; they’ve been so bad recently, with Cleveland making the playoffs more often than not, that the juxtaposition felt fun. But they’re still bad, and counting on Santana and Benintendi to somehow change that seems silly in retrospect. Oakland Will Finish Below .500 The verdict: The A’s have already clinched a winning season, and we project them to finish with 87.5 wins. That’s bang on where prediction markets had their preseason win total. They got there differently than you’d expect — a hot start had their playoff odds at 77% on June 18, with a 44-27 record that topped the AL. They’ve gone 41-44 since to slide out of playoff position. The path doesn’t really matter that much. Whether the A’s got here in fits and starts or with great consistency, they got here. Injuries and suspensions hurt them, but deadline trades helped them reload. In aggregate, they are who everyone thought they were, a high-80s-win team with some superstars and some holes. That’s not enough to make the playoffs, but it’s definitely better than the sub-.500 fate I predicted for them. The lesson: Don’t get too cute reading into the 2020 season. I was worried about Matt Chapman’s availability and Matt Olson’s rough 2020. The first concern was valid, though Chapman has reached 600 PA; we were projecting him for 650, and there’s more downside than upside risk from there. But Olson? He had a brief blip last year, then put up his best season this year. The bullpen was quite bad, as I feared, and the starters couldn’t quite pick up the slack, but I was simply wrong about the offense. The Rays Will Miss the Playoffs The verdict: Whoops! I was worried about the lack of pitching depth after an offseason where two of the team’s top two pitchers departed. Tyler Glasnow is now out for the season, which added to the problem. The Rays simply didn’t care. Their starters were bad this year. So far, they’ve produced an uninspiring line — a 4.17 ERA, 4.00 FIP, and a bottom-four amount of innings pitched. Their bullpen simply picked up all the slack. Their relievers cover a ton of innings. They have the second-best K-BB% mark in the majors. Thirty-seven different relievers have appeared for them, the second-highest mark in the majors. The only team that used more relievers is the Orioles, and their bullpen was abysmal — but the Rays’ squad was incredible. They leveraged their depth and ability to identify and deploy pitching in a way that I simply didn’t predict. The offense has been great too, of course. I’m less surprised by that development, though I didn’t expect Mike Zunino to be at the forefront of the attack. For the most part, though, I simply missed on the team’s ability to create a top-10 pitching staff out of a group that I thought was, at best, average. The lesson: Don’t doubt the Rays. I was generally down on the class of teams I’d best describe as economizers — the Guardians, A’s, and Rays. I still think that general view was fine. In the aftermath of the pandemic-shortened 2020 season, all three teams leaned hard into austerity, and the other two suffered for it this year. The Rays were just better — better at identifying players, better at making the most of scarce resources, and better able to adapt to the rash of pitching injuries that threatened to derail their season. I’m pretty down on my predictions this year. I think I had the right idea on several, but I didn’t do enough refining to hone in on which ideas were backed by credible evidence and which were more guesswork. I’m sure I’ll try it again next year — the offseason is a great time for predicting — but I hope my process is more rigorous, and that I stop trying to outsmart the Rays. Also, I hope I put Burnes in there somewhere.