- Dan Szymborski, ESPN Insider
It's that time of the season again, when everybody who analyzes baseball for a living makes final predictions, right before baseball teams do their best to rip the projections into tiny little shreds.
One of the frustrating things about being a writer with an especially nerdy secondary skill set is that going into a season, I know just how terribly off some of the team projections will be. If we knew, with perfect foresight, the exact probability of each team winning each of the 2,430 games on the schedule, on average, we'd still miss on our win projections by seven games nearly a third of the time. Math can be cruel sometimes.
It's important to note that these are mean projections, so the spread will be smaller than it will be on average. Because, after all, 30 teams aren't all going to play at exactly the level they have a 50/50 chance of meeting in any given season.
This year, ESPN's Forecaster panel picked the win totals for all 30 teams, not just the division and playoff winners. While I voted there, I did mine before the final ZiPS projections, and my opinion frequently differs from what ZiPS comes up with. Below, I'll tackle some of the teams that sparked the most disagreement between ZiPS and the panel. Also, for the panel, using the same Monte Carlo simulation, I put in the panel estimated win totals instead of ZiPS, to get estimated playoff probabilities derived from the panel projections.
You can see a full table with all of the ZiPS and Forecaster standings projections at the bottom of this piece.
Projections think Forecaster is underrating these teams
ZiPS and the panel agree that the Cardinals are the favorite to win the division, but ZiPS is more optimistic (if you're a Pirates fan) about the size of the gap between Pittsburgh and St. Louis.
St. Louis remains the team with the least downside, according to ZiPS, but Pittsburgh's upside remains intriguing, even if the Bucs weren't really as good last year as their 94-win record. If A.J. Burnett had stayed with the Pirates, that would have helped (he's better than Edinson Volquez). Also, the Pirates are waiting to bring outfielder Gregory Polanco up to the majors to preserve his major league service time; with his defensive abilities, ZiPS thinks he'd be a strong Rookie of the Year contender in a full season. Still, ZiPS sees a serious contender with no gaping hole that can't be filled.
In the NL West, ZiPS is more sold on the Diamondbacks than the Forecaster panel is. ZiPS was a fan of Didi Gregorius before last season -- I was not, ZiPS beat me there -- and is a fan of Chris Owings this year. Overall, ZiPS loves the team's depth, and with the Monte Carlo simulation varying playing time for the starters (linear algebra is involved, don't ask), that depth gives Arizona a boost in the computer's eyes.
The loss of Patrick Corbin is, of course, significant, but the Diamondbacks are better-equipped to deal with his loss than most teams would be after losing their best pitcher from the previous season. Arizona may even be able to deal with the sadly inevitable Brandon McCarthy injury, but that shouldn't keep the Snakes from adding a pitcher if they get the right deal for one of their extra shortstops.
For most of the offseason, ZiPS has had the Nationals and Braves running neck-and-neck, and while the Braves have been hit by some injuries this spring, rumors of Atlanta's demise may be too early. The pitching situation looks bleak given the Tommy John surgeries of Kris Medlen and Brandon Beachy, but bringing in Ervin Santana at a hefty price did minimize some of the damage, and the Braves' options at the back end aren't really that bad.
Dan Szymborski looks at his ZiPS standings projections to see which teams our Forecaster experts are overrating and underrating.