October 16, 2007

2007 Predictions: How did the experts do?

March 30 this year fell on a Friday. Major League Baseball’s exhibition schedule was wrapping up. Most teams had already come north from Arizona and from Florida. The Angels were playing the Dodgers in their city series; Oakland played at San Francisco. Here in Philadelphia, the Boston Red Sox were in town for two games in what the Phillies called the “On Deck Series”.

The first game of the regular season was scheduled for Sunday night, April 1. The New York Mets played in St Louis against the then World Champion Cardinals. The Mets were a favorite to win the National League this year and the Cardinals were hoping to carry their 2006-post season success into the 2007 season.

With the regular season beginning on Sunday night and then on Monday, April 2, sports writers around the country had to have filed their 2007 predictions to be published by that Friday.

I find preseason predictions to be curious exercises. When a season starts, I think we have a good idea of who has the pieces to have a winning, if not a championship season. We can separate the wheat from the chaff. Yet there are a multiplicity of variables which appear through a season’s long course that make pinpoint predictions so precarious.

This has been my thought process so back at the end of March, I noted the predictions of 24 baseball writers. I took the predictions of 18 writers on ESPN.com, 5 on CBSsportsline.com, and Murray Chass at the New York Times. Local writers trend to pick the local club. ESPN and SportsLine are more national in their orientation, and these are two sites to which I often look for my baseball news.

The pool of ESPN.com writers (in alphabetical order) were Jim Caple, Jerry Crasnick, Peter Gammons, Pedro Gomez, Eric Karabell, Bob Klapisch, Tim Kurkjian, Keith Law, Sean McAdam, Amy Nelson, Rob Neyer, Buster Olney, Steve Phillips, Phil Rogers, Enrique Rojas, Alan Schwartz, Jayson Stark, and John Shea.

Writers from CBS’ SportsLine.com included David Gonos, Eric Mack, Charlie McCarthy, Scott Miller, and Adriane Rosen.

Who did this panel of 19 professionals pick to win the divisions?

The consensus was that that Mets would win the NL East (14 out of 24); St Louis would win the NL Central (11 out of 24); the Los Angels Dodgers would win the NL West (19 out of 24); the New York Yankees would win the AL East (14 out of 24); the Detroit Tigers would win the AL Central (19 out of 24); the Los Angeles Angels would win the AL West (15 out of 24).

The panel picked one out of six actual winners, the Los Angeles Angels.

How did the writers back in March pick the winners for 2007?

I hate to say it but it looks like they picked the 2006 winners to repeat. In 2006, The Mets won the NL East, the Cardinals won the NL Central (and World Series), the Dodgers tied for the NL West crown; and the Yankees won the AL East; the Tigers won the AL Wild Card and made it to the World Series. Only the Angels were an original pick. They finished four behind Oakland last year.

The writers picked the winners like we are all warned in business school not to pick stocks based upon historical performance. It does matter how teams did last year but so much changes during an off-season.

The Phillies did win the NL East and received 7 of 24 votes; the Chicago Cubs did win the NL Central and had 4 of 24 votes; the Arizona Diamondbacks won the NL West and in March had 4 of 24 votes; the Boston Red Sox did win the AL East and were picked by 10 of 24 writers; and Cleveland won the AL Central and were picked to win by only one writer, ESPN’s Rob Neyer.

The best that any one writer in my survey did was pick four of the six division winners. Three of the 24 writers did this, ESPN’s Neyer, Buster Olney, and John Shea. Five of the 24 picked zero of the six; one of these five was ESPN’s Steve Phillips. The other was a writer whose prose I admire and enjoy, Murray Chass at the Times. He picked all of last year’s winners to repeat except for the Tigers who he said would win the AL Central.

As a reader of this entry, the question that I would be asking me is which teams I picked back in March to still be standing come October. I did not pick any.

I am not fond of specific picks for winners. Sports seasons are long affairs. There are primary variables which lead to winning seasons including the presence of All-Stars on a team, team-chemistry, and good managers. Ok, these are variables which we can all see and which general managers can affect, payrolls and scouting departments being equal.

But there are intangibles which are unseen. It was no surprise that the Yankees’ Johnny Damon would eventually break down as a player but it happened this year. It could have happened next year or last year. Pat Burrell had a brilliant second-half for Philadelphia which was not unreasonable given his health and skills but not exactly predictable. Chris B. Young emerged as a star for the Diamondbacks; one could have seen his skills but that he would blossom precisely this year was only a reasonable guess.

Then there are injuries. The Phillies lost All-Star second-baseman Chase Utley for a month mid-summer. One cannot predict such things. The Cardinals were struck by the early-season death of pitcher Josh Hancock which certainly contributed to a few of their losses in the days after the tragedy.

These are normal elements of a season for which a team cannot entirely plan and yet which the inability to address can mean the difference between a respectable second-place finish and a trip to the playoffs.

Before the season, I like to read discussions of a team’s strengths and weaknesses. I want to know what has to go right for the team to win and what variables will cripple a squad. There are stories for which we need the entire season to play out. This is the very drama of the season.

Andy Pettitte, Mike Mussina, and Roger Clemens won a combined 32 games for the Yankees this year. This is not terrible but from this trio, the Yankees were counting on more. Even three more would have placed them ahead of the Red Sox at the top of the division.

It is easy to sit at my computer and critique these 24 writers and by extension, the entire business of predicting winners. It is especially easy (and fun) when I have not made myself vulnerable to the same deconstruction.

I do want us to be conscious of how we perceive a season from when it begins, being aware that like the stock-market, we have a strong tendency to judge the future on the past, and overlook the potential for so many unforeseen storylines to emerge.


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