In honor of the 2016 Major League Baseball season, which starts Sunday, FiveThirtyEight is assembling some of our favorite baseball writers to chat about the year to come. Today, we’ll have a go at the American League Central with Deadspin editor-in-chief Tim Marchman and our own baseball columnist Rob Arthur. The transcript below has been edited.
Kansas City Royals
neil (Neil Paine, senior sportswriter): First things first with the AL Central, we have to talk about the Kansas City Royals. They’re the reigning World Series champs and two-time defending AL pennant winners. However, the statistical projection systems are down on them once again this season.
PECOTA: 75 wins, last place
FanGraphs: 77 wins, last place
What do we make of KC going into this season? Should we, as sabermetric-minded individuals in 2016, really cast aside all our knowledge in favor of Royals Magic? Or are the numbers missing everything about this team, like they seem to have been the past few years?
rob: I don’t think we should throw the projections out entirely, but I also think we should leaven them with our intuition and the Royals’ projection-defying history. Dave Cameron of FanGraphs had a piece recently about how teams that outperform their expected runs in a given three-year stretch tend to do slightly better than average in the following year as well.
Along the same lines, I don’t think the Royals projections are quite right, but I also don’t think they’ll be one of the best teams in the league again this year, if only due to regression to the mean.
marchman: The Royals make me scratch my head. On a really basic level, I don’t see that many players on the team who seriously overperformed or did anything unsustainable last year, while they had just awful performance from a couple of spots.
So although, on the one hand, you had something like Chris Young rising from the dead to pitch effectively, you also had a 95-win team whose main second baseman hit .220/.234/.318. More or less, you’d think those sorts of things would cancel out, and that the team wouldn’t project into last place.
neil: So what’s going on?
marchman: It seems like the main thing projections are claiming is that their run prevention is going to get a lot worse. Part of that’s probably the systems saying reasonable things like, “Well, Wade Davis is probably going to give up at least a couple more runs this year,” and part of that is probably the inherent wonkiness of defensive metrics.
It’s a little hand-wavy, but my general sense is that part of this is because a couple of the team’s real strengths, like health and defense, fall into analytical blind spots, and part of it is that they’re probably prone for a bit of a fall. I’d bet the over on a .500 season, but they feel like a team that could semi-randomly have an exceptionally good or awful season.
neil: Yeah, it does seem like some of it stems from the fact that they layered on top of each other a few things that sabermetricians usually dismiss as “luck”: They scored more runs and allowed fewer than you’d expect from their event-level stats (singles, doubles allowed, etc), and then on top of that also won more than their actual runs scored/allowed would say. It was like two different levels of what could be called luck, but that may also be part of how the team is composed.
rob: And even if it isn’t luck, it’s hard to believe that the things they are excelling at (situational performance, defense, health) are worth 15-20 wins, which is what it would take for the Royals to go from PECOTA’s forecast to a probable division winner.
neil: Right, strip all of that away and BaseRuns had them at 84 wins last year. So do the other 5-10 lost wins presumably come from their free-agent departures and, like you guys said, just regression to the mean from places like their bullpen?
(Seems like at that point, it’s incumbent on the stats to justify that kind of decline rather than the onus being on KC to explain themselves again.)
marchman: This is a pretty lukewarm take, but I don’t know how much real conflict there is here!
I’m looking at FanGraphs’ projections for ease of use, and they (totally reasonably) say KC’s rotation looks pretty unimpressive. Given the Royals’ recent track record, though, I’m inclined to give the team the benefit of the doubt if they think, say, Ian Kennedy will perform above and beyond a reasonable statistical projection — with the help of the Kansas City defense, park, and medical and coaching staffs.
rob: Reliever performance is so hard to predict, and the bullpen has been a significant part of KC’s production. I can’t believe they will continue to be as good in relief as they have been the past couple of seasons, if only because of injuries. Indeed, we already have some indication that Wade Davis may be injured (granted, spring training velocities can be misleading):
marchman: What I see is the Royals gambling that they really can pick players who will, for various reasons, do better than you’d objectively think they would. And I can think of teams for whom that’s been reasonably consistently true — the Cardinals, for example, or the Earl Weaver Orioles, or (near and dear to Royals GM Dayton Moore’s heart) the Bobby Cox Braves.
neil: Great point, and in an MLB increasingly saturated with analytics, that could be one way of finding an edge (if you can, in fact, do that with reasonable consistency).
marchman: Where they are on the continuum between “freak outlier the last couple of years” and “team that has some valuable secret figured out” is a bit of an open question, but it’s one of the things that makes them pretty interesting this year — how they do will go some way toward placing them on that continuum.
neil: OK, so it sounds like we’re all in agreement that the Royals are probably better than the projections say they’ll be. At the other end of the spectrum are the Indians, the darlings of the statistical projections. They were a team whose leading indicators were much better than their actual record last season, so are we buying this as the year Cleveland makes a run at the Central again?
rob: I am. Like you said, the Indians were sneaky-good last year. They were sort of the opposite of the Royals: Despite some excellent individual performances, they finished with a mediocre record. They were hurt, not helped, by cluster luck, i.e. the tendency to space out their hitting and pitching outcomes.
I think it’s likely that they will bounce back towards average cluster luck and be one of the better teams in the AL this year. As for whether that’s enough to win the Central or make it into the playoffs — well, a large part of that is going to depend on the other teams in the league, and what kind of cluster luck they run into this year.
marchman: I’m slightly biased here by something it’s totally unfair to even raise, which is that at various points since the end of their ’90s golden age, the Indians have looked like they should just be an absolute terror, and it never quite seems to come together for them.
rob: They have the opposite of Royals Devil Magic: some sort of curse preventing them from doing well.
neil: I wrote a few years ago that God doesn’t hate Cleveland. But, to be honest, pretty much everything that’s happened since has provided evidence that, in fact, He does.
marchman: That aside, I’m not sure I’m buying the Indians yet. On the plus side, they have a hell of a top three in the rotation, and their lineup doesn’t have any really serious holes, which is nice. On the downside, their bullpen has fewer power guys than you’d really like, and while I can see their lineup being anywhere from “just fine” to “actually pretty good,” I’m not sure I see anyone doing anything special.
That’s a limiting factor, because you can easily imagine, say, Corey Kluber going full Arrieta on the league. Whereas it’s hard to see any position player just putting in a dominating year that would make up for things going wrong, the way they invariably do. (That may be ungenerous!)
rob: I could see Michael Brantley coming back into 2014 MVP-type form, although that’s unlikely — PECOTA says about 90th percentile unlikely. But yeah, I agree that the lineup is probably going to limit them.
neil: I wonder how much this also says about the reliability of fielding metrics — aside from a few positions, a lot of their projected value among non-pitchers (which ranks 11th in baseball per FanGraphs) is tied up in defense, not batting. Perhaps we’re justified in our misgivings about their position players for that very reason.
rob: I do have some concern there. But we can’t have it both ways. If we believe that the Royals are harnessing extraordinary fielding to outperform their projections, we have to apply the same logic to the Indians, right?
marchman: This is definitely true, and it goes to the weight of having won a couple of pennants and a title in the last couple of years.
The Indians have hardly been bad lately — 81, 85 and 92 wins over the last three years — and with a few breaks here and there, they might well be the ones lording their success as justification for why you should cut them some slack.
rob: I’ll also say — to argue with myself a little bit here — that the strength of the Indians’ pitching staff (strikeouts) negates their own defensive advantage to some extent. Their pitchers don’t allow that many balls in play, so their great defense has less to do. You can contrast that with the Royals’ unspectacular rotation, which takes full advantage of having awesome fielders behind them.
marchman: Truer in the rotation than the pen! Going by this set of projections, the starters actually project to have more K/9 than the relievers. Without having checked a lot of teams, I have to think that’s pretty unusual
rob: Wow, yeah, that’s a crazy stat. Good point.
neil: All right, let’s zoom back out to the bigger picture of the AL Central. Beneath the defending champs (KC) and the statistical favorites (Cleveland), the rest of the division — the Tigers, White Sox and Twins — seems bunched pretty closely together. Who’s best among that group, and what has to happen for them to confound everyone and win this division?
rob: Honestly, I don’t know how to pull that trio apart. PECOTA has them separated by all of five wins; FanGraphs has it even closer, at three. Before, I might have given a slight edge to the White Sox, but with their clubhouse in an uproar and their best pitcher openly outraged about something that seems fairly inconsequential (the Drake LaRoche incident), I’m not so sure.
neil: Drake LaRoche himself was projected for 2 WAR, I’m told.
rob: That’s true; supposedly he was a leader on the team. (Maybe he was secretly the pitching coach or something?)
I think how these three teams finish will mostly come down to luck, combined with who’s riding a winning streak at the trade deadline and is therefore willing to upgrade their roster.
neil: Well, some of them did seem to be trending in different directions last year: The Twins had a great start to the season, and in some ways were the Royals-lite in terms of beating their statistical expectations. And the Tigers went the opposite way, selling at the trade deadline and signaling some form of a rebuild.
rob: But then again, the Tigers (and White Sox) went out and upgraded their roster in the offseason, and the Twins did not. They are three very unpredictable front offices who seem to change long-term strategies year-to-year (and even within a year).
neil: Regarding Detroit, is it fair to say the Tigers’ window around that familiar Miguel Cabrera-Justin Verlander core is closing — and by signing Jordan Zimmermann, it’s been pried open a little while longer — or did it pretty much close last year?
marchman: The depths of the Central are incredibly interesting to me in part because the Tigers are the inverse of what we were just talking about as regards Cleveland. No matter how tattered and thin the team looks in various ways, it’s entirely conceivable that Miguel Cabrera and Justin Verlander assert themselves as still-relevant superstars and make up for any number of problems elsewhere.
And it’s hardly a two-man show; Zimmermann and Justin Upton in particular would be featured players on a lot of teams.
rob: For my Baseball Prospectus annual essay on Detroit, I looked a bit at teams like the Tigers — poor on-field showings, bad farm systems, lots of dead money on the books — and by and large, they don’t do so well the following year.
But I found a big difference between rich teams and poor teams: The rich teams come back to competitiveness a lot quicker. And that’s what we’ve seen with the Zimmermann and Upton signings. It’s not enough to make the Tigers sure-fire division winners again, but it will, like you said, keep the window open a little longer.
I wonder how much longer Mike Ilitch and the Tigers front office can sustain that window, though. If they are middle of the pack this year with a shot at playoff relevance, will they buy more short-term help at the cost of potential long-term problems? It’s hard to imagine that they won’t suffer a long down period at some point, if they continue on this path.
neil: But from both of you, it sounds like they may not have quite reached that point yet.
marchman: The Tigers feel like they’re at a real inflection point where what happens over their first 40 games matters a lot more than you’d ideally want it to. If they play well right out of the gate, and the stars look in form, and the role players seem fine and everything is good, they should probably throw absolutely everything they have at going for it this year.
rob: I think they can manage for another couple of years. Like Tim said, their strategy will be heavily dependent on the first quarter/half of a season.
marchman: If they just stumble, well, that’ll be unfortunate, and they won’t be in the best place, because it’s not like you can trade Cabrera’s contract for interesting prospects.
One thing that’s good for them, and for every team in this division, is that there’s a narrow spread between the best and worst teams. I don’t think there’s any season-ending finish in the standings that would truly surprise me; some teams are better on paper and some worse, but it’s more or less a lot of teams clustered around .500 that could have any number of results without getting more than a standard deviation away from what they seem likely to do.
Chicago White Sox
neil: Except for the White Sox, who clearly won’t emerge from that group without the LaRoches.
marchman: Well, as a White Sox fan who’s here to offer biased analysis, I’d like to think that Chris Sale will go out and pitch 350 innings of furious, brilliant baseball to avenge his friend Drake, exiled team leader.
More realistically — wonderful fake scandal aside — Adam LaRoche going away, and taking his inability to hit and his $13 million salary with him, is a great and wonderful thing (for the White Sox and their fans) because it takes a dead spot out of the order and gives the team some room to pick up a pitcher, or a bat or whatever they need if they’re good enough to make use of it.
neil: Do we think that bit of addition by subtraction — plus adding Todd Frazier — is going to be enough for Chicago to make the playoffs for the first time in eight seasons? Not counting L’Affaire LaRoche, it was a bit of a quiet offseason for them after a 76-win season.
rob: I think it’s unlikely but possible. FanGraphs gives them a 25.6 percent chance and that seems to me about right.
They don’t have a terribly high ceiling, partially because their farm system isn’t good (no reinforcements on the way). I could see them lucking into a Wild Card spot or (less likely) somehow edging into the division, but I don’t think they are going to be a great team no matter what.
marchman: That sounds right to me. I think they’re basically like the Indians, with a lower overall level of talent but more real stars. That probably nets out to them not doing anything especially impressive, but you can certainly squint at their rotation and the better part of their lineup and figure them for good things.
They’re an exceptionally good example of the immense power of team defense, actually. If you just look at the top-line projections for the lineup, the rotation and the pen, you’ll say, “Hey, they look pretty OK!” The fact that they simply don’t have players with range or hands really adds up, though.
neil: Yeah, as a team they were dead last in FanGraphs’ defensive runs above average last season.
rob: The AL Central is all about defense, apparently.
neil: Rob, you mentioned a low ceiling for Chicago — does the opposite apply to Minnesota with rising stars like Byron Buxton and Miguel Sano? Maybe they could be the team to emerge from this division’s cluster around .500.
rob: Yes, I think it does. In recent years we’ve seen young players as a group outperform their projections, with a number of youngsters emerging as major stars in the league. I won’t be surprised if that happens with Buxton and Sano, which would change the Twins’ fortunes dramatically.
neil: Not to mention Byung-Ho Park, the power-hitting Korean DH/first baseman that Steamer projects for a .231 isolated power.
marchman: More importantly — bat-flip champion:
But yeah, one thing about the Twins is that for the last few years they have had one of the most highly touted systems in baseball. And that system now has players in the majors who could do anything. The Twins’ rotation scares me some, but the main and most interesting thing about them is (I think) that they could pull off a passable poor-man’s 2015 Cubs act this year.
They’re kind of a fitting and emblematic AL Central team for this year, in that they’ll probably be .500-ish (give or take), but there isn’t any outcome that would be utterly surprising, and a lot of them could be really fun.
neil: There’s some research showing that a team’s spending is four times as important as prospect ranking when predicting its wins over the next five seasons, but the Twins are actually in the lower portion of what could be considered “mid-payroll,” and that research was conducted before young players started to become so darned valuable.
So the Twins might have positioned themselves in a good spot — pairing some money with a lot of young talent, in an era where young talent is more crucial than it’s been in a long time. But judging from the competition in the rest of this division, the fruits of that might not show up for a few seasons.
marchman: The Central is really fun in that you can make a reasonable argument for pretty much any outcome, and every fan can ride for their team, without it being a matter of useless flailing.
neil: Spoken like a true White Sox fan.
marchman: Damn it.
marchman: It’s a weird division to chat about, in that it honestly just doesn’t lend itself to Bold Takes, but still cool to yak about it. Probably the Royals win 120 and we all just go, “Well, I dunno.”
neil: God help us. The Royals will eventually reach the anti-singularity — 1800s baseball tactics, and 162-0.
marchman: What I want to find out is that their secret method that they use to defy math is cheating. “We’ve been using drones to do defensive positioning … illegal under FAA rules, but useful; worth eight wins per year.”
neil: Now that would be a story.
Ben Lindbergh joins the Hot Takedown podcast to preview the 2016 MLB season.