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Tuesday, June 14, 2005

I Had No Reason To Be Over-Optimistic
This post is the second part of a two-part series.

In my previous post, I had discussed how the baseball season was going and how good and how bad my skills as a prognosticator have looked. I went through five teams that failed to live up to my expectations then, and now I'll go through five teams that have in very degrees substantially outperformed my expectations.

Of the six teams atop the divisional standards, there are three I predicted would be exactly where they are: the Cardinals, the Padres (I'm proudest of that one), and the Angels. And then there are the Orioles, White Sox, and Nationals, none of whom I had thought of as serious playoff contenders going in. I did not expect the Arizona Diamondbacks to be within a country mile of a pennant race, and yet they are very much in the thick of things. And while the Pittsburgh Pirates aren't really playoff contenders, they are far from the disaster I had prognosticated for them.

I'll start with the team that has by far left the most egg on the Answer Guy's face and work down from there.

Chicago White Sox (+12)
Where They Are: 42-20
Where I Thought They'd Be: 30-32
Going into the season, I thought to myself that [Manager] Ozzie Guillen and [GM] Kenny Williams are both dolts, they've traded away power for speed (which is almost never a good idea), and they built their rotation around two aging Cuban Yankees castoffs. Aaron Rowand was arguably their weakest hitting outfielder going into 2004, and entered 2005 as their strongest. That, and an injured Frank Thomas seemed to add up to a weak offense and a sub-.500 record. The White Sox have been sort of the anti-Yankees; they have been underperforming predictions for a few years now, even by the low standards of the AL Central. Many observers such as myself lost our patience and picked this year to throw our hands up and say "Well, maybe they just weren't that good."
Fast forward to this year, and they're 42-20. Their pitching has been nothing short of incredible, more than enough to overcome an offense that doesn't quite measure up to the great offenses of the AL. The bullpen, a festering sore for much of last season, has performed well despite Shingo Takatsu's implosion. They've gotten on base just enough to make their speed work for them. They've even done all of this while playing 8 more games away from the South Side than at home.
However, there are some signs that they have been as least as lucky as they have been good; the White Sox are 19-8 in games decided by one run, meaning that nearly half their wins have been by a single run. Truly great teams will blow their opponents out of the game more often than that. Their runs scored to runs allowed (291 vs. 231) suggest a winning percentage much closer to .600 than to the .677 they now own - not that a .600 winning percentage is chopped liver.
I expect them to fall off a bit not least because several players are well above their career norms. However, you'd have to acknowledge that they'd have to really screw things up to miss the post-season now. The Twins are good enough to make a run at them, but the rest of the AL Central is not a threat, and the various wild card contenders face a tall order catching up to them. Between the White Sox and Twins, the much-maligned AL Central may produce its first-ever Wild Card team in 2005. In case you're wondering, no, I still don't think Williams or Guillen are unrecognized geniuses.

Washington Nationals (+9)
Where They Are: 37-26
Where I Thought They'd Be: 28-35
I predicted a 4-way tussle for the NL East, and atop the standings in mid-June is... the team I was pretty confident were going be in last place.
But...These are the Expos, right? The terminally bad, supremely dysfunctional Expos? Wasn't this franchise systematically purged of most of their better players by trades or free agency? Sure, they weren't as poor anymore, but they spent that money on Cristian Guzman and an aging, non-Colorado version of Vinny Castilla. No one in this offense except for Nick Johnson and Brad Wilkerson gets on base much. Not much power in this lineup either. Guzman has hit at a level that was weak for an replacement-level NL shortstop even 20 years ago. They've had multiple injuries on both sides of the ball, with Termel Sledge and Jose Vidro logging significant DL time. But thanks to phenomenal pitching performances from both starters and relievers - they just keep winning and threaten to cut into the Redskins' stranglehold on the Post sports pages. John Patterson, Livan Hernandez, and Esteban Loaiza have been outstanding.
However, there are warning signs. As with the ChiSox above, the owe a lot of their success to close wins - they have a 16-7 record in 1-run games (compared with 21-19 in other games.) Another sign that they been luckier than they've been good; they have allowed nearly as many runs (255) as they have scored (260.) I picked them to finish last and I continue to stand by that prediction, even if I expect them to win substantially more than 71 games now, if for no other reason then they'd need to collapse quickly to fail to exceed 71 wins.
After all, these are still the Expos.

Arizona Diamondbacks (+8)
Where They Are: 33-31
Where I Thought They'd Be: 25-39
The D'Backs, three years removed from their World Series title, lost 108 games last season. They then traded their most famous and best player in franchise history, Randy Johnson. Most of their players were either old and declining, marginal, or both. Their most notable signing was the injury-prone Troy Glaus. This should not - even in the NL West - add up to a contender...but thusfar it has. Brandon Webb has led the way and Javier Vazquez, yet another refugee from the Bronx, is putting things together nicely. One massive sign of danger ahead is they are being outscored by a substantial margin (343 to 291) despite the winning record, a sign that they are very lucky indeed. Their recent slump has dropped them to third and suggest that the other shoe is starting to drop.

Pittsburgh Pirates (+5)
Where They Are: 30-31
Where I Thought They'd Be: 25-36
This one isn't as obvious as the others, mostly because while they are doing better than I thought, it's not well enough to put them in the ranks of serious playoff contenders. They've gotten much better pitching than I had expected. With a little luck, they just might break a string of 12 consecutive losing seasons, tied for the longest in the majors. (And they are in need of some luck; only Kansas City has a significantly worse record in 1-run games than the Bucs' 6-13, and the Pirates have outscored their opponents by a 266-256 margin.) Darryle Ward has revived his career, Rob Mackowiak has been outstanding, and Jason Bay has been even better than he was in last year's Rookie of the Year camapign. But the pitching has been even better, with a 3.88 staff ERA - good for 3rd in the NL. Oliver Perez is down, but Mark Redman and Kip Wells have made up for that. They look much better than I had predicted, and while they're not going to give the Cardinals or Cubs many sleepless nights when the days start to grow shorter this year, they have something to build on for the future.

Baltimore Orioles (+4)
Where They Are: 36-26
Where I Thought They'd Be: 32-30
Both teams at opposite ends of the Baltimore-Washington Parkway have franchises in first place. A difference of four games is not a huge deal, but it does stick out given what else is happening in the AL East. I did think things were looking up for them, picking them to end a streak of 7 losing seasons, but that may not have been enough. Instead of struggling to keep pace with the Red Sox and Yankees, thanks in part, to the struggles of both teams, the O's find themselves atop the AL East in June for the first time since before many people had heard of Monica Lewinsky.
They've got some bonafide performers; Miguel Tejada is having another MVP-caliber season, Melvin Mora has more or less proven he's no fluke, Brian Roberts prior to getting injured looked the second coming of Joe Morgan - and they're not even overly dependent on some of their older, declining hitters.
Unlike the Nationals, the Orioles look like solid contenders; they've been great on the road, aren't benefitting from the luck of 1-run wins (despite a good bullpen) and have a ratio of runs scored to runs allowed (325 vs. 285) that would suggest a record similar to the one they have. They have some good hitters and a fine bullpen (though they had both last year and it still added up to a losing record.) Some of their players are playing over their heads a bit, and between that and the numerous injuries, I'd expect the Red Sox at least to overtake them sometime during the next two months. But this pleasant surprise of a season should keep attendance at Camden Yards brisk and may be part of what keeps the Yankees out of the playoffs. The Red Sox have a smaller margin for error as well.

Elsewhere around the league: The Twins have actually outperformed my projections, which is small comfort to them since they are 5.5 games out of first place since they've under-overachieved compared to the White Sox. Texas has thusfar resisted the pull of the Plexiglas Principle (teams that show a big improvement from one year to the next tend to regress the following year.) The Phillies have been hot lately and are beating my projections for them, though that hasn't put them in first place yet, but it has them in the thick of a 5-way NL East fray.


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