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Sorry, Mike Trout: The AL West Belongs To The Astros

In honor of the 2017 Major League Baseball season, which starts April 2, FiveThirtyEight is assembling some of our favorite baseball writers to chat about what’s ahead. Today, we focus on the American League West with ESPN.com MLB editor Christina Kahrl and FiveThirtyEight baseball columnist Rob Arthur. The transcript below has been edited.

EXPECTED NUMBER OF WINS
RANK TEAM PECOTA FANGRAPHS DAVENPORT WESTGATE AVERAGE
1 Houston Astros 93 91 94 92 92.4
2 Seattle Mariners 85 83 88 86 85.4
3 Texas Rangers 84 83 81 85 83.1
4 Los Angeles Angels 78 83 81 81 80.6
5 Oakland Athletics 76 79 79 75 77.1
How forecasters view the AL West

Based on projected wins or over/under win totals. Data gathered on March 21, 2017.

Sources: Baseball Prospectus, Fangraphs, Clay Davenport, Las Vegas Review-Journal

neil (Neil Paine, FiveThirtyEight senior sportswriter): I think the AL West is a really fascinating division because the team that is probably the best in it right now (Houston) finished third last year, the third-best team (Texas) finished first, and those two teams are sandwiched around one (Seattle) that has had the hardest playoff luck possible in recent years. And we haven’t even mentioned a team (the Los Angeles Angels) that contains the potential G.O.A.T.

Anyway, the projections say the Astros should be the favorites, so let’s start with them. In a weird way, was 2016 an example of the Plexiglas Principle for them? Their actual record only dropped by 2 wins from 2015, but they were down 10 Pythagorean wins in 2016 after a 22-win Pythagorean improvement the year before. Does that portend an improvement this year?

ckahrl: Sadly, you don’t get to carry over any accrued, unmet expectations for wins. Hence the wisdom of shaking up that lineup as much as they did by adding Carlos Beltran, Josh Reddick and Brian McCann.

rob: It was less the Plexiglas Principle — which is really just regression to the mean — and more the case of a legitimately good team snakebit by poor sequencing and Pythagorean luck.

That poor luck does not in and of itself guarantee an improvement, but the talent on the team does. Most of the best players from last year are back, and they made a few additions, which together makes them, on paper, the best team in the division.

ckahrl: That said, I still have questions about them …

I’m reminded of an old saying that I think belongs to Bill James, that a team with five viable first-base options may not have a first baseman. Plus, can George Springer play a whole lot of center field over a full season? And as interesting as pitcher Lance McCullers should be, and as much as I like what they’re doing with pitcher Chris Devenski, is that a staff we should be entirely sold on? I see how the pieces work individually; I wonder about the aggregate.

neil: Yeah, the biggest thing for them might be whether a rotation that was way down from its 2015 form — most notably Dallas Keuchel, but also Collin McHugh and Mike Fiers — can reclaim what went right two years ago.

ckahrl: A lot of analysts are banking that Keuchel comes back a good ways, but I also accept the suggestion that this team needed to add a better starter than, say, Charlie Morton. But I guess that’s what the trade deadline will be for.

neil: In that department, it also helps that they have the third-best farm system in the game. So they have the assets to conceivably go out and make something happen on the trade market if need be.

rob: I’m a believer in the Astros’ rotation. I think last year was a bit of an aberration. FIP (fielding independent pitching) has its problems in terms of describing their performance, but it still has validity as a predictive metric. And from that standpoint, we should expect some bounce-backs from Keuchel and McHugh, at least. The 16.4 percent home runs-per-flyball rate that Keuchel managed last year wasn’t entirely his fault, even if he allowed some hard contact.

ckahrl: That hard contact seems like a consistent concern, though, no? That isn’t stuff you can fix with defense.

rob: That’s true, but contact management is a skill that fluctuates a lot. That goes as much for Good Keuchel — the one who allowed maybe the softest contact in the league in 2015 — as it does for Bad Keuchel. He may end up as a mediocre contact-manager, but that would still be a decided improvement.

neil: It also bears mentioning that on the offensive side, Houston had the youngest lineup in baseball in 2016 — though they gave some of that up when they revamped things, like Christina mentioned. But this does seem like a very balanced, complete team now, assuming that the pitchers rebound.

Bottom line — is it crazy to think the Astros are on the verge of a great season?

rob: No. But I think the more likely outcome is a good season.

ckahrl: If Keuchel and McHugh come back as far as they might, if the bullpen gels, if Springer is fully healthy for a season and can handle center, if Yuli Gurriel pans out in the most exciting ways, sure, they could live up to the mid-’90s win total that some of the projectors have them down for.

So it isn’t exactly magical thinking. But how many teams get everything they want and hope for?

rob: The 2016 Cubs say hi. ;)

ckahrl: Hah, yes.

neil: OK, so if you’re both a little more bearish on the ’Stros than the projections above, are you bullish on the Mariners or — gasp — the Rangers?

ckahrl: Speaking of the Plexiglas Principle, it is certainly fashionable to bash the Rangers.

rob: I’m the Designated Rangers Basher around here, so I have to say that they seem like an OK team. But they aren’t as good as their record from last year, and they didn’t make massive improvements. In contrast, the Mariners were good last year and ended up being crushed under the wheels of the Rangers One-Run Magic Machine.

Of course, as Christina can tell you, I was wrong about the Rangers last year, while she somehow saw their impressive season coming. So you should probably listen to her.

ckahrl: And sure enough, I’m not that down on them. A full year of catcher Jonathan Lucroy and starter Yu Darvish? Those are good things. It’s easy to knock Mike Napoli, but will he be worse than the .699 OPS (on-base plus slugging) the Rangers got from their first basemen last year? (No.) And don’t we expect growth from Nomar Mazara? (We should.)

It’s when you get into that rotation’s depth — or the complete lack of any — that things get scary.

neil: Yep, when Dillon Gee is the back-of-the-rotation reinforcement …

rob: Agreed about the lack of depth, especially in view of the Rangers’ consistent injury problems. Last year, I remember a lot of people saying that they couldn’t repeat their injury woes from the year(s) before. But they ended up with the fourth-most DL days in 2016, according to Jeff Zimmerman’s DL database. The strongest predictor of future injuries is past injuries, and I expect that their depth will be tested once again.

neil: And all of this compounds on itself if their true talent was closer to that 82-win Pythagorean team last year than the 95 wins they had in the standings. Your margin for error on injuries and offseason pickups goes down to nothing really quickly.

ckahrl: Agreed. To give them their due, though, manager Jeff Banister handles his bullpens well, which helps milk the margins. But even so, the Rangers need to throw good money after bad — and maybe a prospect or two — to add a starting pitcher and take themselves seriously this season.

neil: Meanwhile — and you touched on this Rob (plus wrote about it last year) — the Mariners can’t catch a break, it seems. Do they break that trend this season?

rob: The Mariners are still squarely in that terrible zone of playoff probabilities that has so haunted them for the past 20 years. If the projections hold true, they’ll be right around 50 percent to make the playoffs, with their success contingent on things like how other teams perform and the vagaries of Pythagorean records. I’d like to say, “Yes, this is their year,” but I’ve seen enough Mariners bad luck to hedge a bit.

ckahrl: Talk about a fun team taking some fun risks, though. I like the depth in the rotation and in their outfield. I like a team willing to take a chance on first baseman Dan Vogelbach. I like seeing a team valuing strong complementary pieces, like utilityman Danny Valencia.

neil: And starting pitcher James Paxton is the real deal. He led all qualified AL pitchers in FIP last year.

They were, though, the second-oldest team in MLB last year. Also, I wonder if Felix Hernandez is running out of steam just as the rest of the roster is finally gaining it.

ckahrl: Yes, and they didn’t get a lot younger by adding thirtysomethings like Jarrod Dyson, Valencia and Carlos Ruiz. There aren’t a lot of tomorrows in their mix. And the bullpen is … well, it’s going to be interesting if the organization doesn’t have another call-up like Edwin Diaz to help contribute.

rob: To make matters worse, Hisashi Iwakuma has looked cooked in spring training this year, not that such performances count for much.

ckahrl: What if Yovani Gallardo is also ready to be beaten like a drum and King Felix is done? Things get ugly early. At which point, GM Jerry Dipoto can break the team up for parts with his usual manic energy.

neil: I guess Mariners fans have stuck with them through the playoff drought this long — what’s another rebuilding cycle? But that’s probably overly pessimistic. There’s a universe where they win this division, or at least a wild card.

rob: The wild card seems like slim consolation, given the length of their playoff drought.

ckahrl: As an A’s fan, I can agree that the wild card is not much to get excited about.

neil: We’ll get to the A’s really soon! But first we should talk the Angels.

ckahrl: Leave the fork, we can stick it in the A’s later.

neil: So … the Angels are just going to keep on wasting Mike Trout’s talent forever, aren’t they?

rob: Yep. The gap in projected wins above replacement between Trout and the next best player on the team is about 5 wins. And Trout has consistently overperformed all predictions, so it may end up closer to 7. He’s ridiculous, the rest of the team is terrible, and personally I see them as closer to PECOTA’s 78-win projection than a .500 outfit.

ckahrl: They’re an interesting team because they did a nice job filling huge holes by getting Danny Espinosa and Cameron Maybin for very little. Even if Garrett Richards is all the way back, I just don’t see how that staff keeps them in enough games to get them much further than .500. But at least there are potential slugfests to enjoy now.

rob: I struggle to get excited about Espinosa or Maybin. I know they’ve both had good performances at times, but Steamer puts them down as below-average players this year. Or exactly the type of player who ends up playing alongside Mike Trout in a disappointing campaign.

ckahrl: Improvement is relative. The kitchen linoleum might be the ceiling for those two, but it’s better than what the Angels have gotten from those lineup slots.

neil: Still, it does seem like shuffling deck chairs around on the Titanic. (Ben Revere? Really?) They also have the second-worst farm system in the majors, so help is not on the way.

ckahrl: The thing about Trout is … he’s still only 25 years old and signed through 2020. Is it a wasted year? Probably, even if they eke out a whopping 80 or 82 wins. Is that enough of a moral victory to help them with their payroll hangover from the Pujols/Hamilton/Wilson splurge that worked out less than well? Maybe, because I wonder if the Angels aren’t positioning themselves to be players in the stronger free-agent markets of the next couple winters.

neil: Amazingly, Pujols’ contract ends after Trout’s does!

rob: I do think there is reason to get excited about the long-term future of the Angels. They’ve developed their analytics department in a smart way and made some good hires. Simply hiring people isn’t enough, of course, but in a few years, I can see that paying dividends. Of course, they’ve got the Mike Scioscia problem — his inability to take direction from a GM ended the tenure of the last smart one they had.

ckahrl: Well, I wouldn’t sell Angels GM Billy Eppler short. Help isn’t coming soon, but having Trout helps mask what might effectively be a necessary bottom-up rebuild for the organization in the meantime.

neil: In the short term, it’s difficult to envision the Angels escaping that 80-ish win purgatory they’ve been trapped in for most of the Trout Era.

ckahrl: Have to agree that’s the Angels’ lot, although I’m intrigued by what will happen when Eppler has a shot at spending some money. But with more than $70 million committed per year to Trout, Pujols and Andrelton Simmons in 2018 and beyond, he won’t have as much to spend as he’d like.

neil: Finally, we’ve got Christina’s A’s bringing up the rear of the projections — with an OK win total (by their standards)? They made some additions over the offseason that might bring them toward respectability, but are they moving out of a rebuild? What are they doing exactly?

ckahrl: Speaking of shuffling deck chairs …

It’s brutal, simply brutal, but it’s also a return to the low-stakes, low-upsides bets like when they were going after David DeJesus.

rob: I’m really not clear about Oakland’s long-term plan. I feel like the A’s have gone from Moneyball-era prophets of the analytics era to an erratic front office pursuing a series of disconnected moves without an obvious scheme for the next three to five years.

ckahrl: The farm system has a few interesting position players, and starter Sean Manaea is going to be fun to watch, but it’s rough sledding in the meantime. Rajai Davis as a 36-year-old everyday center fielder will be a catastrophe for these young pitchers.

neil: Just the thing for jump-starting that Sonny Gray renaissance! (If he ever can stay healthy enough to pitch.)

rob: Or pitch effectively — he struggled last year in part because of some injuries.

neil: Crazy how quickly he went from being one of their lone bright spots to being a non-factor.

rob: On that point, the Athletics had the second-most DL days last year, behind only the Dodgers (who seemed to have purposefully built their rotation out of glass). They are likely to have problems again this year, so if their projection is off, I expect it to be overly optimistic.

neil: Does Billy Beane get any residual benefit of the doubt at this point? Any hope for the next few seasons? Or is it just a matter of ownership and biding time for a new park?

ckahrl: At this point, you can’t give them any residual benefit of the doubt. Results do matter, and with the coming sunset of their revenue sharing, they aren’t going to be anyone else’s charity case. I like Marcus Semien and Khris Davis, and I’d like to pretend I have faith Yonder Alonso’s nice spring means something. But I think 100 losses is way more likely than 78 wins.

rob: Beane was brilliant for a long time (see Benjamin Morris’s article), but there’s a strong Red Queen dynamic in baseball analytics these days: You have to run as fast as you can just to stay in the same place. Although the A’s had a strong analytics advantage early on, they haven’t kept up with the pace of growth of analytics in the league. I don’t think they are terribly behind the state of the art in baseball now, but they are falling further and further toward the back of the pack.

So I’m inclined not to give him any benefit of the doubt. Staffing is an incomplete proxy for analytics expertise, so maybe he has — or will generate — other advantages to make up for the small front office. But as Christina said, at the end of the day, it’s all about results, and they’ve had some pretty poor results recently.

Neil Paine is a senior sportswriter for FiveThirtyEight.

Christina Kahrl is an MLB staff writer for ESPN.

Rob Arthur is FiveThirtyEight’s baseball columnist and also writes about crime.

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