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Projecting the 1998 Season
By Tom Tippett
This article tells you about some things we learned while running a very detailed computer simulation of the 1998 baseball season. Because we're going to show you the projected final standings and make some very specific comments on the fortunes of every team, it might seem as if we're claiming to be able to predict the future with certainty. But we're not foolish or arrogant enough to think that we (or anyone) can do that.
Like a good weather forecast, these simulations describe the most likely outcome but leave room for uncertainty. Improved computer models and powerful supercomputers have enabled our weather pros to become very good at predicting local weather a few days out. And they've been able to provide useful long range forecasts such as "El Nino will lead to a warmer, wetter winter in many parts of the country." But even the best meteorologists stop well short of telling you what the weather will be like two weeks from tomorrow, or exactly how much more rain El Nino will bring, because the environment is a very complex system.
Even if baseball is inherently less complex than the environmental system (and I'm not sure it is), human decisions add a layer of uncertainty that weather forecasters don't have to worry about. Players make individual decisions about workout programs, new pitches, swing adjustments, contracts, whether to sit out or play through injuries, and so on. Managers, general managers, and owners have the power to alter the competitive balance at any moment with their tactical, personnel, and financial decisions.
So we can't tell you who will make the playoffs. We can't give you powerful insights that guarantee victory in your fantasy baseball league. Or recommend sure bets that you could place in Vegas next week. The future is uncertain, and no forecasting methodology can change that, no matter how much computing power is applied to the problem.
But a good computer model, together with valid input data and enough computing power, can put meaningful bounds on the range of likely outcomes. That's why weather forecasts are useful and why we believe these 1998 projections have some validity. Having done this simulation, we can say with some confidence that, while the Pirates might contend again this year, it's about as likely as a major snowstorm in late April. Or that the Reds should be considered the favorites in a very tight NL Central race now that the Cardinals have lost Andy Benes to Arizona and the Astros rotation will be missing two starters early in the season. Or that the Red Sox aren't likely to challenge the Yankees (even if Jeff Frye was available all year), but they should be in the wildcard race.
Of course, anyone who follows baseball can make predictions like this, and many writers do just that every spring. The best of them have the experience and mental acuity to translate everything they know -- past performance, off-season player movement, current injuries, prospect reports -- into a useful forecast.
Our approach is to take all of this information and put it into a very systematic process that can weigh all of these factors in an objective fashion. Here's how we went about it:
Here are the projected final standings, based on an average of the five seasons we played, with the number of division titles and wild-card spots for each team (.5 given for ties):
AL East W L Pct GBL #div #wc New York 92 70 .568 - 5 Boston 85 77 .525 7 1 Baltimore 84 78 .519 8 2 Toronto 79 83 .488 13 Tampa Bay 69 93 .426 23 AL Central W L Pct GBL #div #wc Cleveland 91 71 .562 - 4 1 Kansas City 76 86 .469 15 1 Chicago 75 87 .463 16 Detroit 73 89 .451 18 Minnesota 71 91 .438 20 AL West W L Pct GBL #div #wc Seattle 99 63 .611 - 5 Texas 83 79 .512 16 1 Anaheim 83 79 .512 16 Oakland 72 90 .444 27 NL East W L Pct GBL #div #wc Atlanta 104 58 .642 - 5 New York 84 78 .519 20 1.5 Florida 76 86 .469 28 Philadelphia 69 93 .426 35 Montreal 68 94 .420 36 NL Central W L Pct GBL #div #wc Cincinnati 88 74 .543 - 2.5 1.0 St. Louis 85 77 .525 3 2.0 Houston 84 78 .519 4 .5 Chicago 82 80 .506 6 Milwaukee 81 81 .500 7 .5 Pittsburgh 65 97 .401 23 NL West W L Pct GBL #div #wc Los Angeles 93 69 .574 - 2.5 .5 San Francisco 89 73 .549 4 1.5 .5 San Diego 83 79 .512 10 1.0 Colorado 77 85 .475 16 1.0 Arizona 70 92 .432 23
Of the 30 teams, 17 qualified for the playoffs in at least one of the seasons. Among those 17 teams, the Mariners, Yankees, Braves, Indians are clearly the best bets. (I'll bet you didn't need a computer simulation to tell you that.) The Dodgers appear to the be the strongest entrant from a tough NL West division. The others are solid but beatable teams that should be in contention and could grab a division title if things go their way.
New York Yankees. Despite winning the division all five times, this club might be even better than these results suggest. We have Irabu projected to go 6-12 based on his 1997 performance in New York (awful) and in the minors (better). But he's been very good in his last two spring outings, and could add a few wins all by himself if he posts an ERA below the league average.
Boston Red Sox. There's room for improvement if they make a move for a 2B to replace the injured Jeff Frye. These results are with Mike Benjamin as the everyday 2B (it wouldn't be much different with Gallego), and while his defense is good, it hardly makes up for his bat. With a very weak-hitting outfield (Damon Buford, Darren Bragg, Darren Lewis), this team will struggle to score runs. But the pitching looks strong, with Pedro Martinez (19-10, 2.97), a bunch of .500 starters, and a fairly deep bullpen.
Baltimore Orioles. One of the surprises. We expected them to finish comfortably ahead of the Red Sox and challenge the Yankees for the division lead. But they look more like an even match for the Sox, and I think age is the culprit. Our projections include a downward adjustment for older players, and though the adjustment is not large, it affects just about every key player on this team.
Toronto Blue Jays. Could be better than projected. It's very unlikely that Clemens and Myers will repeat their amazing 1997 performances, but comeback seasons from Guzman and Hansen could compensate. But this team finished last in the AL in scoring in 1997 and will be without Delgado and Santiago for a couple of months. The off-season acquisitions of Canseco, Stanley, and Fletcher will help, but not enough to put them at a championship level unless several of the young hitters step forward this year.
Tampa Bay Devil Rays. Not bad for an expansion team. They figure to be last in scoring, and somewhat vulnerable to left-handed pitching, but their pitching should be better than Oakland's and about as good/bad as Chicago's.
Cleveland Indians. Should win the division comfortably. The offense is strong (in the top four with Seattle, New York and Oakland), and the pitching should be in the top tier as well. A few weeks ago, this looked like the best team in the AL, but the loss of Ben McDonald and the injury to Chad Ogea have narrowed the margin. It could be a race if Gooden, Colon, and Karsay are ineffective and begin to wear out a strong and deep bullpen.
Kansas City Royals. Likely to be near the bottom in scoring, and that's enough to drag down a pretty good pitching staff. The ceiling for this team appears to be about .500.
Chicago White Sox. Can be expected to score a few more runs this year, but the loss of Alex Fernandez and Wilson Alvarez has really hurt the pitching staff. They have some promising young arms, but it looks as if they're still a year or two away from putting this staff back together.
Detroit Tigers. It's not unusual for teams that make great strides one year to slip back a little the next. The Tigers are likely to have trouble scoring enough runs to have a reasonable shot at .500 or better.
Minnesota Twins. How can you trade a star like Chuck Knoblauch for minor-leaguers without losing ground in the standings? Well, you can't. Even though Todd Walker is likely to be a pleasant surprise at 2B, and Eric Milton should be an asset to the pitching staff, they haven't come close to replacing Knoblauch's overall game. Perhaps the trade will start pay dividends in a couple of years.
Seattle Mariners. The best offense in the league. The best left-handed starters (Johnson 21-5 and 2.78, Fassero 15-7 and 3.82, Moyer 14-7 and 3.69). Enough to overcome a weak bullpen and produce the best record in the AL. Griffey averaged 48 HR and 136 RBI in our five seasons, but never threatened Maris's record.
Texas Rangers. Fifth in scoring, led by Juan Gonzalez (who averaged .300, 45 HR, 133 RBI). Decent pitching, but nothing special unless a bunch of guys improve over their recent seasons. This is one of five teams that should be in the thick of the wild-card race, but they don't seem likely to challenge Seattle unless some things go wrong for the Mariners.
Anaheim Angels. Peter Gammons points out that this could be the best starting rotation in the AL. And that's true. It could be, if Finley is healthy, Dickson and Watson improve with experience, and Hill and McDowell return to their peak levels. On the other hand, if these guys pitch more or less the way they have the past three years, it's only an average rotation. The bullpen is solid, and they should be in the top half in scoring, so the upside potential is there.
Oakland Athletics. Pity the poor A's fans as they look high and low for anyone who can pitch. This team was last in ERA in 1997 and should repeat, without much competition, even from the expansion Devil Rays. The rotation is "anchored" by 40-year-old Tom Candiotti. They'll score enough runs to win and lose a bunch of 8-6 games, but they'll lose more than they win.
Atlanta Braves. It doesn't take a computer simulation to tell you that the Braves have the best pitching in baseball. The question is whether they'll score enough runs to be dominant or merely very good. And it looks as if they will. Although Galarraga won't come close to his Coors-aided numbers in Turner Field (we're expecting .256 with 26 HR and 100 RBI), he'll contribute enough offense, along with Chipper and Javy and Ryan and Andruw, to put the Braves near the league lead in runs.
New York Mets. Not a serious threat to the Braves, but should be able to make a legitimate run at the wildcard. The pitching staff has few stars, but it's very deep, and there's talk that the club might have some surplus pitching to trade before the season starts. In this era, that's a powerful tool for improving a club.
Florida Marlins. The only question was how far they would fall before rebounding with the vast amount of young talent that has been developed in their system or acquired in the off-season deals. Surprisingly, this team should score a reasonable number of runs, near the league average, if Sheffield and Bonilla are at full strength and don't miss too much playing time. Their pitching is very young and unproven, and looks to finish near the bottom of the league. But it doesn't look like they'll be the worst team in baseball by any means.
Philadelphia Phillies. Last year, they were awful during the first half -- bad enough to be compared to the '62 Mets -- then posted the best record in the NL during the last two months. Which team will show up in 1998? A mediocre one, by the looks of things. We're projecting them for last in the league in runs, a middle-of-the-pack pitching staff, and 69 wins, one more than last year. Incidentally, our projections were done before Dykstra left the club, but we had already picked Glanville as the everyday CF anyway.
Montreal Expos. They continue to trade good players and reload, year after year, consistently exceeding expectations without ever really challenging the Braves (except for 1994, when they might have had the best team in baseball). This might be the year when it catches up to them. The projected results suggest an anemic offense and a mid-level team ERA, adding up to their worst record in years. If this team approaches .500, it will be further proof that Felipe Alou is a brilliant manager.
Cincinnati Reds. Definitely the biggest surprise. Going in, we knew the NL Central would be very competitive, but the Reds just didn't enter our minds as a favorite. They were last in the league in scoring in 1997 and in the bottom half in team ERA. But their 1998 projections put them second to the Rockies in runs, which means they may have the best offense in the league if you adjust for the Coors factor. Where will the offense come from? Jon Nunnally, for one. He has 33 HR and 98 RBI in 623 career atbats, and he could match those totals this year alone. Willie Greene hit 26 HR last year and projects to 31 this year. Add a full season from a healthy Reggie Sanders and 85% of a healthy season from Barry Larkin, and you've got a potent scoring machine. Larkin is key, of course. If he can't come back from neck surgery within a few weeks, or fails to performs near his established level, it would be a big blow.
St. Louis Cardinals. Two years ago, they won the division largely because they stayed remarkably healthy. Last spring, LaRussa publicly guaranteed that they would win it again, but the injury bug caught up to them and they faded to fourth. They look like serious contenders this year, winning the division in two of five season simulations, despite losing Andy Benes on a highly-publicized contract-signing technicality. By the way, McGwire averaged 56 HR and broke Maris' record in two seasons in which he stayed healthy enough to play 160+ games. But it's unlikely that LaRussa would risk playing him everyday given his injury history, and I think this overstates the odds of McGwire breaking the record.
Houston Astros. When we ran our first 1998 projections a few weeks ago, the Astros looked like the odds-on favorites to win the division. Since then, however, we've learned that Chris Holt and Ramon Garcia won't be ready to start the season. So we adjusted the manager profiles to give some early-season starts to John Halama and Sean Bergman, and that was enough to drop this team into the middle of the NL Central pack. Still contenders, but just one of several, instead of the favorite.
Chicago Cubs. They look to score and allow a few more runs than average, which is no big surprise for a team playing in one of the best hitters' parks in the league. As a .500 team, they figure to be in the wildcard race and to have a slim chance to steal the division crown if a few things go right.
Milwaukee Brewers. They have an outside shot because the division is so balanced, but they're most likely to finish in the bottom half. In 1997, they scored 681 runs, which would have placed them third last if they'd been in the NL. And that was with the DH. We figure they'll score more this year, but should remain in the bottom third of the league, and that's not good enough to make them a serious contender.
Pittsburgh Pirates. They over-achieved last year, in large part because their five-man rotation was healthy enough to make 157 of 162 possible starts, and that's not likely to happen again. The lack of depth in this pitching staff is likely to show up this year, and they project to be near the bottom in the league in team ERA. They have a few good young players, but they're not great players, and there aren't enough of them to create an offense that can put them over the top.
Los Angeles Dodgers. This team is very, very deep. They have the second best starting rotation in the league, behind Atlanta. A solid bullpen. And some good young players (Konerko in particular) who may not play much because there are established players at every position except SS and CF. But it's a tough division, and they'll have to live up to their potential to hold off the others.
San Francisco Giants. With the departures of Wilson Alvarez and Roberto Hernandez, they have only one player (42-year-old Danny Darwin) left from last year's big trade that sent six prospects to the White Sox. Well, they may have mortgaged the future, but they have enough left to contend for at least a wildcard right now. The offense figures to be average, the pitching to improve over last year, thanks in part to the addition of Robb Nen and Steve Reed to the bullpen.
San Diego Padres. They had the worst pitching in the league last year. Yes, the Rockies had a higher team ERA, but the Padres weren't playing in Coors. So they picked up Kevin Brown to be the staff ace. Is it enough? Perhaps enough to win a wildcard, but not to win the division. This team projects to be perfectly average -- scoring and allowing runs right at the league average, and finishing near .500.
Colorado Rockies. Coors makes their offense look much better, and their pitching look much worse, than it really is. Yes, they're projected to lead the league in both runs scored and runs allowed, just as they have the past three years. But what does it really mean? Coors increased scoring by 33% last year. That translates into 120 runs per season created by the park. Subtract those runs from the hitters, and they still would have led the league in scoring. Take them away from the pitchers, and they would have risen from 14th to 11th in team ERA. In 1998, they look about the same -- a genuinely good attack combining with a subpar staff to produce a wildcard contender.
Arizona DiamondBacks. Like their counterparts, the Devil Rays, the DiamondBacks won't embarrass themselves this year. The high-profile signings of Matt Williams and Jay Bell, along with a strong rookie season from Karim Garcia, should enable this club to outhit three or four others. The pickups of Andy Benes, Willie Blair, and Jeff Suppan should give them enough pitching to avoid the cellar in team ERA. But they'll be near the bottom in both categories and should be no threat in the wildcard or divisional races.
What if Andy Benes had been allowed to sign with the Cardinals? Well, we played out the season two more times, with Benes in St. Louis. The Cards won the division going away the first time, and finished third, three games out, the second time.
What if Jeff Frye was healthy? It helped a little, but in the two seasons we ran with Frye as the starting 2B and leadoff hitter, the Sox missed the playoffs both times.
What if . . . well, I'm sure you can come up with lots of questions of your own. The point is that we (and our customers) can update rosters, adjust the projected stats for individual players, and change the manager profiles in order to answer other questions. And this is a big part of the fun of using these projections. We can't tell you how the season will really come out, but we can provide a laboratory for playing out a variety of scenarios to see what is most likely to happen given different assumptions about performance levels, injuries, and managerial decisions.
The real world will soon begin to diverge from these forecasts. Some things will change when the clubs make their final spring training cuts. They will change again the first time a key starting pitcher comes up with a sore shoulder, a cleanup hitter breaks his wrist and is gone for three months, or a team gives up on a highly-touted prospect that happens to start the season in a slump. And they'll change again when the GMs start wheeling and dealing at the trading deadline.
Even though it's fun and interesting to develop forecasts like this, I'm glad we can't predict the future with certainty. If we could, it would take all the fun out of getting up each morning and reading the boxscores and team notes before even thinking of taking a shower or scrambling some eggs for breakfast. There will be new stories every day for the next seven months, some inspiring, some tragic, almost always interesting.
I can't wait to find out how the real 1998 season unfolds.
Copyright © 1998. Diamond Mind, Inc. All rights reserved.