Start the Carousel, Throw Out the Projections: This Particular Week in Baseball
We spend months waiting for spring training, then another six weeks remembering how lame it is. It's time for the real thing, and to be wrong about stuff.
Photo by Charles LeClaire-USA TODAY Sports
During the months when it's all you can do to avoid tracking what used to be snow and is now a gray mung-ish goo all over the floor, spring training sounds like Valhalla. It's a mystical place where eight layers of underwear aren't required, the beer flows like the Ganges, and baseball (or something like it) is played all day long. It is, in that way if not many others, the best part of the season.
We get so excited for its arrival, every year, that we forget just how fucking boring it actually is to watch men prepare to prepare to play games that don't matter, featuring players who will never see the majors. You will hear it clearly, though, if you try to explain a spring training trip to your significant other. Yes, love, I'm going to Arizona for a week to watch grown men in expensive tights get ready for practice games. It's going to cost like a thousand dollars. Yeah, I'll do the dishes. It's that.
The most redeeming part of spring training is that it doesn't matter. Your team can win, which is nice, or lose, which is less so; in either case you can take solace in whatever you want and dismiss everything else that doesn't fit your desired narrative. We can get excited when the Mets outfield hits and ignore that their bullpen looks like an unwrapped Twinkie smushed against one of the barriers in a 7-Eleven parking lot. We can thrill to the exploits of Mookie Betts and ignore that the back of the Red Sox rotation spent the spring giving up home runs at a rate that would be unsustainable even if you and I replaced them.
Undoubtedly the strangest aspect of spring training is that the players are trying, but the teams aren't. Square that circle. When it's the fourth inning and your beer count exceeds the number of recognizable players in the game, that's either a good time or the worst fucking time. Maybe both.
The thing I keep coming back to, though, is that spring training is like skiing. There's a huge amount of crap necessary to pull it off, it's incredibly expensive, it's often painful, and the best part comes when it ends. For skiing, that means putting all that shit in the closet and forgetting about it. For spring training, the end is even better. It means real baseball—Opening Day—is here.
And that brings me to this column. It's my hope that this column will be a way to enjoy both the big themes and the minutia of the baseball season, week by week. We will explore the best teams, revel in the worst, dissect the topics of the day, look at big moments from the week gone by and anticipate those that face us in the week to come, and, mostly, enjoy some baseball. I will never mention skiing again.
The 2016 season offers us a relatively strange starting point, in that the defending World Series champions, the Kansas City Royals, are, in paradoxically typical Royals-esque fashion, not projected to be very good. At all: none of the big projections expect even a .500 record. FanGraphs has the Royals winning 77 games and tying with the Twins for last place in the AL Central. Baseball Prospectus has them winning 75 and finishing behind the Twins. This is the team that has won the past two AL pennants!
And yet, it's not too difficult to understand why such projections exist. Take a sip of milk and we'll look at the issues. The Royals rotation features Ian Kennedy, Edinson Volquez, Chris Young, and Kris Medlen, and the ace isn't the one guy I left out (Yordano Ventura). And now you've spit your milk all over your screen. I'm sorry. Here's a paper towel.
Then we get into the extreme performance of Kansas City's bullpen, perhaps the part of a baseball team that is most subject to the whims of the baseball gods, and then we get into the statistical weeds with second- and third-order winning percentages. Put it like this: the way the projection systems see it, A) the Royals benefited from a lot of unsustainable outcomes in 2014 and 2015, and B) the strongest parts of the team are the most difficult for projection systems to measure. So it's fair to question them. The Royals, too. And yet here they are, defending champs. Which is all to say that the projections could be right, but another season of this and we'll be pushing up against a tide of data that says the Royals are projection-proof.
Top Five at the Moment
Quick Comment: This is everyone's pick to win the World Series and that has never been a recipe for disaster before.
Less Quick Comment: Injuries can derail any team, but the Cubs are set up to win now, Plexiglas Principle or not. Other than a team-wide garbage-eating contest, a plague of locusts, or a horrific merry-go-round accident, name one other thing that could stop this team. OK, maybe second base isn't that strong, and they are depending on some very young players, but no team has All-Stars at every position, and anyway there's always the trade deadline, an easily available mid-season bottle of antacid for what ails ya.
Quick Comment: The Indians never win, but they aren't the Browns, and that alone is worth its weight in suicide prevention.
Less Quick Comment: The Indians look poised to contend this season for best team in the AL so what is their first act before the season starts? Send good young pitcher Trevor Bauer to the bullpen while keeping Josh Tomlin in the rotation. Could that work? Uh, sure. Could starting your own tinfoil hat Martian-communication company work? Sure could! The makeup of the opening day roster is always a big deal but we tend to ignore how fluidly things go from there. I imagine this will be one of those things. The word "fluidly" is not a Matt Harvey joke.
New York Mets
Quick Comment: The 2015 Mets were a comet passing close to the earth. It was beautiful and monumentally illuminating and we'll never see its like again.
Less Quick Comment: We tend to focus on the way the Mets ended the 2015 season, but the way the Mets started the 2015 season happened, too, and yuck. The Mets were 52-50 at one point, and their lineup can still kind of look like that of a team with that record. More Cespedes and Conforto should help offset some regression from Curtis Granderson and the starting rotation, though, so there's reason to think this team could again be the best in the NL.
Quick Comment: Jonathan Papelbon is still around, and that's maybe a bit odd, but Matt Williams is gone, so baby steps.
Less Quick Comment: I fully expect Stephen Strasburg to team up with Max Scherzer to make the best 1-1 combination in baseball this season. You can nitpick the Nationals roster, but 400-plus innings of 2.00 run baseball is not only a great starting point; it's also pretty difficult to mess up. A note to the Nationals: don't take that as a personal challenge.
Boston Red Sox
Quick Comment: In one universe this team wins the World Series, and in another they finish last, the manager gets fired, and they blow it all up at the deadline. Yet more proof I don't have any idea which universe I live in.
Less Quick Comment: At the moment, the Red Sox starting left fielder is Brock Holt, a career backup infielder, and their starting third baseman is Travis Shaw, a career minor leaguer and mostly failed prospect. Shaw hit magnificently and likely unsustainably well over the second half of last season, but good gosh this has all the potential of an Aaron Sorkin pilot about the inner workings of the post office.
Bottom Three at the Moment
Let's blame the Astros. Last season they won 86 games and the AL West title. That came a season after they lost 95 games, which in turn came a season after they lost 111. The Astros' quick turnaround is often credited to their tanking, which means that they put a lousy team on the field on purpose in order to get the best draft picks and the biggest draft budget (these two are connected in baseball). We can ignore that this only sort of worked, as 2015 Cy Young winner Dallas Keuchel put up a 5.15 ERA over 31 starts for the 2013 Houston team that lost 111 games. It's tough to say that has much to do with the team's draft strategy. This is like crediting the Yankees spending on the international market for their success when Nathan Eovaldi wins 22 games and the 2017 AL Cy Young award.
Other teams are hoping to win a lousy division by turning a bad player into the best player and they seem to see the connection between losing and high draft position that I'm missing. So we'll be chronicling their descent into success as the season goes on.
Quick Comment: The Rockies haven't been eliminated from post-season play. It's one of the good days!
Less Quick Comment: There is probably a secret to playing baseball a mile above sea level, but the Rockies sure haven't figured it out yet. Thin air does awful stuff to pitchers and the recovery of the human body. There's probably a way around this, and rather than spend millions on free agents, the Rockies might do well to devote their resources to studying this, their central problem. My opinion: more than platoon splits, power hitters, sinker ballers, or any other subset, the Rockies really need to focus on acquiring good baseball players. Just my take.
Quick Comment: So, the rotation might not be horrible. [Drinks.]
Less Quick Comment: The Phillies haven't played a game but already they're looking at a franchise shortstop in J.P. Crawford, a good starting pitcher in Aaron Nola, a plus center fielder in Nick Williams, and a very good farm system overall. Sure, they'll be awful this year, but that plus replacing a first base coach/acting GM with a real GM bodes well for the future. The present, though...
Quick Comment: The new Braves stadium will have a zip line which the 2016 team will try out to get from spring training to last place.
Less Quick Comment: No team is embarking on the total teardown like the Braves. They've even got rid of good young players like Shelby Miller, Andrelton Simmons, Alex Wood, and, if you go back a bit further, Jason Heyward. This is all with the idea that you can't build up unless you first burn to the ground. This probably means Freddie Freeman isn't long for Atlanta and Nick Markakis should watch out.