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March 30, 2013 / Nat Anacostia

Managing expectations

This winter has been a heady time to be a Nationals fan. Harper at the Nationals Baseball blog is monitoring pre-season predictions, which currently show 12 of 12 for picking the Nats to win the NL East, and six of 11 picking them to win the World Series. Other analysts talk about the Nats winning 105 games and making history.

I get it. The Nationals won 98 games last season (the most in baseball), have a young team, and have a couple of young stars with phenomenal upside—Stephen Strasburg could become the best pitcher in baseball, and Bryce Harper could become the next Mickey Mantle.

But… (you knew that was coming, didn’t you?) there are lots of reasons to think the Nationals won’t win the World Series, and might not even make the post-season. What can go wrong with pre-season predictions? Lots of things.

1) Injuries happen. The Nats made it through several injuries last season, but we were unusual in not having any of our starting rotation go down due to injury. The predictions of DC dominance are based to a large extent on our starting rotation, especially the big three of Strasburg, Gio Gonzalez, and Jordan Zimmermann. If any of those three were to go down for a couple of months and were replaced by Ross Ohlendorf or Yunesky Maya, the Nats wouldn’t look nearly so dominant.

2) Abilities change. Every year, some young players emerge as stars, and some established stars fall off a cliff. Our players are mostly young enough that we’re hoping for more pluses than minuses, but you can never tell. Only a couple of years ago, Tim Lincecum, Francisco Liriano, and Johan Santana were star pitchers.

3) Even if abilities didn’t change, our ability to evaluate a player’s true talent is limited. Is Ian Desmond now an excellent shortstop who just managed to turn a corner last year? Or is he still the guy who strikes out too much and makes too many errors who just had a lucky season? We really can’t know without another couple of season’s data. Which is one reason that we have a plethora of forecasting seasons that sometimes produce disparate results.

4) Even if we knew a team’s ability with certainty, luck plays a bigger role than most fans realize. Let’s say that the Nationals true talent level were known with certainty to be 93 wins. Random chance affects all aspects of the game—batting, on-base, and slugging averages, runs scored or given up conditional on those averages, and games won conditional on the runs scored and given up. A 93-win true talent team is very likely to win 85 or 100, and certainly could win 78 simply due to random chance.

So, while I agree with the consensus that the Nats have the best true talent in the NL East (though this analytical series at Fangraphs suggests that the Braves may be just as good),  I think their odds of winning the NL East, taking account of all these sources of uncertainty, is probably about 50 to 60 percent. Then, if they win the division, the post-season is enough of a crap-shoot that the best assumption is that all division champions have close to a one-in-eight chance (and wildcards a one-in-16 chance), just as if it were completely random. So, it’s really quite unlikely that the Nationals actually will win the Series this season.

On the other hand, I’d like to end this post with a bright note. Even if the odds are stacked against the Nats winning it all this season, they have the advantage that they’re a team that’s built to be good for the next three or four seasons. They actually sort of remind me of the first team I ever rooted for—the 1962 to ’66 Dodgers. Like the Nats, they were a young team with top-notch pitching (Koufax, Drysdale, Podres) and young talent (Tommy and Willie Davis and Frank Howard in the outfield), along with a few excellent veterans. Like the 2012 Nats, the 1962 Dodgers lost a heart-breaker to end their first big season—a three-game playoff against the Giants when the season ended in a tie. They came back to appear in Series in 1963, ’65, and ’66, winning the first two of these. One thing that’s often forgotten, however, is that in the middle of that period, in 1964, they fell off a cliff with a 80-82 record, tied for sixth in the 10-team league. It’s all the stuff I was talking about above—Tommy Davis (25 years old, and had won the batting championship in the previous two seasons and led the league in RBIs in 1962) suffered a serious, career-altering injury, Willie Davis, Frank Howard, and Maury Wills all struggled at the plate, their pitchers other than Koufax and Drysdale pitched poorly. They came back to win it all again the next season, but the point is that bad stuff can happen. Like the 1960s Dodgers, the talent is there for a multi-season dynasty, but problems will need to be addressed and we can’t assume that everything will come easily or automatically.

Enough talking. Let’s see some baseball!

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