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.
The system likes Cleveland to retain its crown in the AL Central. The logic is that Detroit's gains from the acquisition of young slugger Miguel Cabrera will be offset by numerous age-related declines to several players on the roster. The system likes my White Sox to bounce back into the win column but not enough to be a factor in the race. It also sees Kansas City making a giant step forward but like Tampa Bay they have a long way to go.
The system sees Anaheim winning the AL West, but by a much smaller margin that most folks anticipate. Their potential decline could open the door for Seattle but the Mariners also figure to decline some from last season's 88 wins. Oakland is rebuilding, so Texas (the system's pick as a surprise team) has a small chance to claim its first division crown in almost a decade.
The National League Eastern Division is a toss up between the Mets and Phillies and it will come down to team health and which GM makes better in season deals. The System likes the changes in Nationals lineup but I wonder how much the move from RFK Stadium, a strong pitcher's park, will affect their run prevention.
According to the system, the Cubs are going to repeat as Central Division champions with ease (as a native Chicagoan, I was surprised by this and tripled checked the numbers). They have no players on the downside of the careers and quite a few emerging stars. Milwaukee and Cincinnati will vie for second, but won't get close enough to make the Cubs see ghosts.
Beware, we may be on the verge of a Joe Torre love-fest in the media, since my indicators say that the Dodgers are the team to beat in a very close National League West. The D-Backs, Rockies, and Padres all figure to be formidable, but the Dodgers collection young talent and solid pitching should push them ahead of their rivals.
So what happens next? I don't know; the system doesn't work the playoffs. Winning as many games as possible over the course of a six month-162 game season is one thing, but beating the same team three or four times in a week is a different skill set. It usually requires rock solid starting pitching, a stingy bullpen and players who can hit for power. Check back in six months when the field has narrowed to eight teams and we'll see how they stack up then.
Martin Johnson is a regular contributor to The Root.