We all know the story of the Kansas City Royals and projections the last couple seasons. Before 2014 Kansas City was projected to finish 79-83 by Baseball Prospectus, in a tie for second in the American League Central with the Cleveland Indians. The Royals did ten games better, finishing 89-73, earning a Wild Card berth and ending up one game short of winning the World Series. In 2015, the Royals were projected to finish(once again by Baseball Prospectus) even worse, 72-90, the second worst projected total in the American League. The Royals would easily eclipse this projection, finishing 95-67, winning the American League Central, claiming home field advantage throughout the playoffs and eventually winning the World Series. So with pitchers and catchers reporting to Spring Training in less than two weeks, once again the Royals are once again projected to finish 79-83, this time by Fangraphs. Last year, Royals fans were in an uproar over this, feeling like the team was being overlooked and not given the respect they earned after the 2014 World Series. Even into the summer, when Kansas City steamrolled past the 72 win mark, fans would make snide remarks and mock BP, questioning the website and the way they came to their results. But the real problem isn’t Baseball Prospectus or Fangraphs; no, the real problem is that fans(and analysts alike) put too much stock in projections and predictions.
Let’s start with the PECOTA projections. I actually had no issue with the Royals being projected so low, as it made sense to me. Most of their projections are taken off of a players’ past performance and the Royals had a number of players who accumulated poor seasons in 2014. A lot of people just remember the playoffs, when Mike Moustakas and Eric Hosmer looked like beasts and the Royals looked like an unbeatable locomotive. The truth was that Moustakas had an awful 2014, Hosmer’s wasn’t great and they weren’t alone. A good chunk of the Royals lineup did not fare well, so of course the projections would be lower. Even offseason acquisition Kendrys Morales was coming off of a lackluster campaign, one in which he put up worse numbers than the man he was replacing, Billy Butler. PECOTA puts a lot of stock in past performance, so this made sense. Sam Miller of BP wrote a great article about how they came to these results, in which Miller even admits that they need to work on improving the weight of a good bullpen and excellent defense can have on a team winning. The final paragraph speaks volumes about the projections and why they aren’t perfect:
While PECOTA aspires to be perfect, what it really does is this: It projects players, individually; it converts those performances into expected runs, based on how baseball usually works; then it converts those runs into expected wins, based on how baseball usually works. At each step along the way, it gets harder to be perfect, and the Royals demonstrate that challenge well. Some players did better than we expected; some offered incomplete data on which to project them; some were added to the roster at midseason; some found the right fit. None of us is arrogant enough to think that projection systems are magic; baseball is impossible to predict with the sort of precision that avoids situations like 2015 Royals. We all know we can’t outrun the bear.
To sum this up, the projections are based off of projected numbers put up by each player on the team. If you calculate the players who will get injured or the players who will be acquired within the season, these numbers are bound to be off. In fact, as much as I use BP quite frequently during the season(the yearly projection book is normally right beside my desk), I also know that the projections are just that, not a definite. Just look at last year’s projections: only three teams were expected to win over 90 games. Yep, three total for both leagues. Instead, seven teams finished with over 90 wins while three alone were in the National League Central. So it becomes very obvious that BP’s projections are a starting point, not a literal interpretation of how the season will actually unfold.
Predictions are different than projections in that predictions are purely one person’s opinion. Projections you can actually go back and check the numbers and see how you ended up with the finished results. It’s like when you would show your math homework; if your answer is ‘C’, all you have to do is go back and look at ‘A’ and ‘B’ to figure out how you got to your final answer. Predictions are literally just guesses. Granted, these predictions hold more weight when it is a respected baseball analyst, but at the end of the day they are still guesses. I respect the hell out of guys like Ken Rosenthal and Jayson Stark, and both of them are around the game every day and are about as knowledgeable as they come in the game. But…their predictions are still just guesses. So why are fans, most notably Royals fans, getting upset that someone essentially has a different opinion than they do?
This is where I laugh at the fan who gets visibly angry that analyst ‘x’ predicted that the Royals won’t get to the playoffs or that they won’t compete at the level they did the year before. To me, all predictions are guesses and more than anything are done for fun. Most analysts(yes, the Rosenthal’s, Stark’s and Gammon’s of the world) would even tell you their guesses are normally way off. So if we all acknowledge the fact that predictions shouldn’t be taken super serious, why do some fans get all worked up about it? The only logical answer is that they want an analyst(or you or me) to agree with them. There seems to be some underlying issue with people who view something like preseason predictions as the expected result and the end all be all of final answers. They are not. If anything, these last couple seasons have proved that with the way the Royals have gone out there and over-exceeded results. I couldn’t tell you if Kansas City used such “guesses” as bulletin board fodder or not, but I’m sure they were aware and promptly did what every other team did: go out and play the games.
At the end of the day, that is what it all comes down to; actually playing the games. You see, we can estimate what someone like Alex Gordon will do, and we might even be closely accurate, but the players have to go out there and actually play on the field. I am proud to say I absolutely love stats and I freely will admit to being a ‘stat nerd’, but I also realize that these are humans that go out there and play baseball. I say let all the ‘experts’ predict and project that the Royals won’t do this, or won’t do that. Let them say that they don’t hit enough home runs or make too much contact. Because if we have learned anything these last two years, it’s that this Royals team determines their own fate. The unpredictable is almost the norm for this team and that can’t be predicted. So remember that when more projections and predictions pop up soon; the numbers unfortunately can’t measure a player’s heart or will. It can’t predict a five run 8th inning or a mad dash to home with two outs. It can’t measure a team that has an out of this world defense and a cyborg for their closer. Love the numbers, but realize that anything is possible if you put your mind to it.