You either love predictions or you hate them. Kind of like the movie “Titanic.”
The 2016 season pretty much went as expected. The Chicago Cubs were the consensus best team heading into the season, and even though they hadn’t won a title since 1908, they were a popular pick to win the World Series. And get this: They won the World Series!
None of the division winners were a surprise, either. Oh sure, maybe it was a coin flip choosing between the Washington Nationals and New York Mets, or the Boston Red Sox and Toronto Blue Jays, or the Los Angeles Dodgers and San Francisco Giants, but still, the Mets, Blue Jays and Giants all made the playoffs.
In short, there were no major surprises at the team level.
As spring training winds down, this season has a similar sort of feel to it. It would be easy to pick the same six division winners as last year and not feel like you’re just being lazy. The Cubs should be great again. The teams that were bad in 2016 mostly look like they’ll be bad again.
I was wondering then: Is it getting easier to predict the standings, especially with more teams at the bottom — especially in the National League — in obvious rebuilding phases?
To study this, I found the preseason over/under win totals for the past 10 seasons from various betting sites and compared those to the final win totals for each team for that season, then added up all the differences.
So, 2016 did end up with the smallest difference between predicted and actual wins during this span, with an average miss of 5.9 wins per team, well below the 8.6 average of 2012, the most unpredictable year in the study. Of course, 2015 was one of the most unpredictable seasons as well, at least by this method, so we can’t assume there is a trend developing based just on 2016.
Another way to examine this is to see how many teams have back-to-back winning seasons or back-to-back losing seasons. We can break down the 30 teams into four categories each year: winning season followed by winning season; losing season followed by losing season; winning-losing seasons and losing-winning seasons. Also included is the number of teams each year to make the playoffs after having a losing record the previous year. (For the purposes of this chart, 81 wins is counted as a winning season.)
We had 24 teams remain in their same column from 2015 — the most of any year in the study. Only the Red Sox went from a losing team to the playoffs, and that was hardly a surprise. Again, however, the previous season we had the Mets jump from 79 wins to 90; the Cubs from 73 to 97; the Texas Rangers from 67 to 88; and the Houston Astros from 70 to 86. All four made the playoffs and all four had winning records again in 2016 (the Astros were the only one to miss the playoffs). In retrospect, they all look like teams that transitioned into stable success, but they all exceeded their over/unders in 2015 by at least nine wins, so they weren’t consensus playoff picks. They were, generally speaking, surprises.
We had no such teams in 2016. The three teams that went from losers to winners — the fewest of any year in the study — were the Red Sox, Detroit Tigers and Seattle Mariners. The Tigers and Mariners had both been over .500 in 2014, so they’ve just been in a yo-yo effect the past few seasons.
What’s interesting is that you’d think the two-wild-card system would create more “go for it” mentalities, and thus more unpredictability in the results, but the general trend is fewer teams oscillating from winners to losers or vice versa.
Some of this is simply that front offices are so much better at evaluating their talent than a decade ago. If you know you’re likely to miss the playoffs, you’re going to strategize accordingly and play it more conservatively. Or, as what happened in the National League last season, you had several teams embarking on a rebuild all at the same time (or continuing rebuilds). That made it easy for the winning teams from 2015 to win again in 2016.
Is there a surprise team in store for 2017?
It may be worth noting that the most unpredictable team over the past decade — at least in comparison to its over/under number — is the Arizona Diamondbacks. They’ve missed their over/under by a total of 118.5 wins — almost 12 wins per year on average. Last year, their over/under was 84.5; they won just 69. In 2011, their over/under was 72.5; they won 94. Maybe they accomplish this year what many thought they were going to accomplish last year.
It’s also worth noting that of 31 ESPN baseball personnel to make predictions in 2016, only one of them — ESPN Insider contributor Tony Blengino — picked the Cleveland Indians to represent the American League in the World Series.
So even the most predictable of seasons can have some unpredictability to it.