Revisiting the Champs and the Projections

Yesterday, I ran an exercise on this site that required some audience participation. The premise was simple enough: the Royals, for the third consecutive year, haven’t looked like an elite team based on the third-party projection systems we host here on the site. The Royals, of course, have been an elite team, despite what the projections say, so there’s been some understandable hesitation in taking those projections at face value.

I simply asked everyone to take a look at each individual player projection, and either take the over, the under, or push. The idea is that, through crowdsourcing, we might be able to spot the individual places where the community thinks the projections are missing on guys, and then manually adjust the team projection from there.

And now for the seemingly ever-necessary reminder: The projections are not meant to be taken as gospel. They’re to be used as a guide. Anyone who reasonably understands what we do here on FanGraphs should get that, by now. We — we being the authors of FanGraphs — have no say in the projections. Just because the numbers say one thing doesn’t mean that every author has to agree. I can’t change the fact that the projections say what they do. I’m just here to report, and analyze, and think, and discuss.

The numbers are calling the current Royals roster a 78-win roster. That seems sort of silly. I think you’d be hard-pressed to find too many folks who’d think that sounds right. I’d certainly take the over, at least. Let’s see what the crowdsourcing results say. You should be able to click this image to view a larger version:

RoyalsResults

Each poll had somewhere around 800 votes, and for the most part, people think the projections look about right, on an individual basis. The biggest discrepancy between the projections and public perception is Lorenzo Cain, where the projections say he’s closer to a 3.5 WAR player, and the crowd thinks he’s probably closer to a 5 WAR player, like he’s been the last couple years. I side with the crowd there. The other big discrepancy is Wade Davis, where folks think the projection is at least a win shy. I’ll take the crowd’s side there, too — I tend to agree with the growing belief that public WAR models might be missing out on some of the value provided by dominant, high-leverage relievers.

Besides Cain and Davis, the differences between the projection and the perception were small — less than a win in each case. You guys might take the slight over on players like Eric Hosmer, Jarrod Dyson, Paulo Orlando or Kendrys Morales, but you’d also take the slight under on the projections of Salvador Perez, Yordano Ventura and Kris Medlen. This is all about what I was expecting. Add everything up, and the crowd takes the over on the projections, by about four wins. I’d wager that you do this exercise for any team and the crowd would end up taking the over by at least a little bit, because projections err on the side of caution and people have grand ideas in January. But either way, the results here have the crowd taking the over by four wins on the Royals projections, and that figure seems reasonable.

So that puts the Royals at 82 wins. A .500 team. Starting with the projections, and then adding in the opinions of a room of 800 baseball fans, including plenty of Kansas Citians, we’ve arrived at the Royals looking like a .500 team, on paper. My gut tells me that Royals fans would still scoff at that sentiment, and maybe even take offense, for whatever the reason is that people choose to spend their energy getting angry at computers.

The most common complaint you hear from the anti-stat crowd is that stats are missing out on the value of clubhouse chemistry. And while I don’t think that’s entirely true — better chemistry would lead to better numbers, and the numbers are what fuel the projections — I totally see the argument, and I think it’s got merit. I’m a firm believer in the value of chemistry, though I prefer to think of it as confidence, though I suppose could be bred from chemistry. Whatever. Semantics. Confidence is vitally important to success in any walk of life, and sports are no exception. Anyone who watched the Royals last year knows damn well they aren’t lacking in confidence. On the contrary, I’m not sure how much any team could be — it’s tough to make it as a professional athlete without confidence — but with the Royals, there’s no questioning the chemistry or confidence. It was palpable. I’m willing to give them a free win or two not captured in the projections for chemistry or confidence or whatever you want to call it. I’m probably willing to give them another win or two due to whatever value we may be missing in the value of having an elite bullpen, but part of that was already captured in the crowd taking the over on Wade Davis’ projection.

So now we’re at four wins over the projections, based on the crowd taking the over on Cain and Davis and a couple other guys, and maybe another three wins or so based on the human element or chemistry or bullpen leverage or whatever you think it is that makes the Royals projection-proof. That’s seven wins over our initial 78-win projection, and an 85-win team is probably starting to get near the area that would please Royals fans.

But here’s the other thing. I just want to publish an image made by Jeff Sullivan around this time last year. He looked at teams that had beaten their preseason projections by more than 10 wins, as the Royals did last year, and then looked at what happened to those teams the following year. The result looked like this:

projectedactualwins_yearx_yearx1

There just isn’t any historical precedent of teams being able to routinely beat their projections. That the Royals have done it in consecutive years may seem convincing in the present, but two years of a single team versus all of recorded history is a relatively small data point. And Jeff’s post reminded me that we just had these same conversations about the Orioles for a few years, with folks convinced they were just special, until they stopped being special. Same with the late 2000’s Twins, and the mid-2000’s Angels, and plenty more.

I can’t put my next thought into words any better than Jeff already did, so I’ll just quote him here, with one slight change:

This isn’t me being stubborn; this is me just not finding enough precedent. It’s difficult to believe the Orioles Royals have just figured something amazing out. It’s not impossible, but they might well be the first.

I want to make it clear that I don’t hate the Royals. I don’t hate any team — that would be a real weird thing for a full-time baseball writer to do. Quite the opposite, in fact; I’ve probably enjoyed my time watching the Royals these last couple years more than any other team. And to be quite honest, I hope they keep it up and smash the projections again. It’s healthy to find reasons to challenge common beliefs. I honestly don’t think there’s a right or wrong side here — you shouldn’t trust anyone who claims predicting the future to be an exact science.

You were all willing to give the Royals an additional four wins based on some potentially low projections, and I’m willing to give them a couple more on intangibles. It’s easy enough to find justifiable reasons for the Royals to be beat their projections, but then again, they aren’t the only team with confidence and a good bullpen and some bearish projections here and there. As reasonable as it is to find justifications for why the Royals might again beat their projections, one might argue it’s just as reasonable to look at the historical precedent that says they won’t. None of this would be any fun if they didn’t actually play the games.





August used to cover the Indians for MLB and ohio.com, but now he's here and thinks writing these in the third person is weird. So you can reach me on Twitter @AugustFG_ or e-mail at august.fagerstrom@fangraphs.com.

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Greg
7 years ago

I’m sure someone somewhere has argued that the Royals have just figured something out (via clubhouse chemistry/undervalued talent, etc.) but the arguments I’ve seen are more along the lines of the projections just do a poor job of evaluating the Royals.

In other words, the Royals have been one of the ten best teams in baseball each of the last three years by most measures (WAR, for one example), and the projections see a sub .500 team that continues to outperform its skill level in the regular season in ways that cannot be expected to continue.

One thing to add is that the projection systems haven’t necessarily missed low on every Royals player over the last three years (they missed high on Infante/Rios/Guthrie/Duffy in 2015) but they’ve missed on pretty much everybody. I attribute this to a non-traditional developmental path taken by a bunch of players on the Royals roster that makes them difficult to project for systems that still remember replacement level seasons in the not distant past by key contributors.

Missing consistently on the Royals defense and bullpen is a bit more egregious and probably should have been corrected by this point. The team’s runs against projection is somewhere between .2 to .4 runs per game too pessimistic every year, despite being close to the mark on the value of the teams starting pitching. That’s a staggering margin to miss by year after year.

kdl
7 years ago
Reply to  Greg

The Royals are ONE DATA POINT.

You can’t trash the system because it gets one bullpen wrong. If you want to make the case it gets all bullpens wrong, make that case. We’ll run the numbers for everyone and see where the Royals end up.
You can’t trash the system because it gets Royals non-traditional players wrong. If you want to make the case that it gets all non-traditional players wrong, make that case. We’ll run the numbers for everyone and see where the Royals end up.

But the problem in both of these instances is… Royals homers aren’t making that case. They’re just whining that the Royals aren’t declared projection champs. They want the output to say Royals are the best.

I am not saying the projections are perfect. Merely that you need to do better than saying “BUT THEY GOT THE ROYALS WRONG!!” if you want to show there is a flaw in the system.

Greg
7 years ago
Reply to  kdl

Have the Orioles not outperformed their projections four straight years?

I realize they missed the playoffs last year so this comments section is populated by Royals partisans and not Baltimore fans, but the 2015 Orioles weren’t a win for projections, I don’t believe.

Futhermore, I thought the Orioles argument wasn’t so much a defense of projections, but rather that the 2012 Orioles did not discover the secret of winning one run games at a historic rate. As far as one run games go, the Royals win them at roughly their normal win percentage (where they really drive Pythagoras crazy is in two run contests), so this isn’t really like the Baltimore situation at all…except that the systems just don’t handle the defense and bullpen heavy teams very well.

Travis
7 years ago
Reply to  Greg

To say the projections, “missed”, is to misunderstand how projections are really a range of outcome. The single line you’re comparing to is actually a range of projections with likelihoods.

Let’s say each of the last 2 years, these “projections” had the actual Royals outcomes as the 10% likelihood. As long as ~10% of the outcomes were around that outcome (for them), the “model” is still accurate.

It is possible the Royals are systemically mis-projected, but looking at the outcome of one team cannot prove it.