My friend John is one of the smartest people I know. He has degrees from two elite schools and has held high-ranking positions in both the public and private sector. Yet, when we get together to talk about baseball, he counts on his fingers.
His team is good this year because on the index finger, we have this guy, whose always in the MVP discussion; on the middle finger there’s a guy who’s great; on the ring finger, there’s this player who’s really coming on strong, and on the pinky there’s this kid who gets overlooked in the all the prospect roundups. The fact that he runs out of fingers is proof that his team is en route to a title.
John’s a native New Englander, and since his Red Sox have won two of the last four World Series, he’s been pretty happy with his fingers. They function quite well as a projection system for him. The problem with the John system is that you could do the same thing for at least two-thirds of the teams in the major leagues every season. Twenty-five players make up a major league roster and it’s rare to find a game that doesn’t involve half of them.
I have my own projection system. Unlike John’s method, it doesn’t work well unless you’re sitting in front of a computer, which is what I assume most people reading this are doing. It requires a visit to www.baseball-reference.com or a comparable geek playground site. While it’s not as portable as John’s trusty fingers, it doesn’t require the algebraic gymnastics of the projection systems as places like www.baseballprospectus.com or www.hardballtimes.com.
Instead my method is to look at a team’s run differential from the previous year, then look at the age of the players likely to start. That’s the bulk of the work. Just for extenuating circumstances, I’ll see if some key contributor was injured last season and expected back or if some key contributor from last season is injured this season.
Yeah, it’s that basic. Run differential usually tells you a lot more about a team than won-loss record. For instance, Arizona won their division last year but were outscored by nearly 20 runs (by contrast Boston outscored their foes by 210 runs, which is characteristic of a championship team). The D-Backs a very young team (only two members of their starting lineup are in their 30s), so they should improve but that may mean only an incremental gain on their 90 wins from last season.
Player age is crucial; most players peak between the ages of 27 and 31. Players younger than that figure to improve and older players figure to decline.
Although the system tends toward pessimism, players past their prime tend to stick around longer these days, it rids me of simple biases. Although I’m no Mets fan, I tended to write off the Phillies as team that lucked into a Division title last season when the New Yorkers folded. Instead, the system showed a team with a fine young core of talent and some sturdy vets to surround them. Conversely, I felt that the Los Angeles Angels of Anaheim (and yes it bothers me that I’m getting used to calling them that) would be a powerhouse team for years to come, but the system says that their offense may be a little long in the tooth, and with the injuries on their pitching staff, they could be in a for slight decline.
So what does the system say league wide? It sees slight declines for the Red Sox and Yankees due to the likelihood that their young prospects won’t come up to speed fast enough to offset the age-related decline among several key players. The declines won’t be enough to bring Toronto into the race, however, unless they get an unexpected breakout or two. The system likes the idea of Tampa Bay being one of the most improved teams in the league, but the system doesn’t know that everyone said the same thing about the D-Rays last season.