By Will Pharo
Every year, when a new sports season begins, everyone makes their predictions. However, these predictions are rarely looked at again. Well here at M-SABR, we like accountability. Back in late May, some idiot said the Cubs would be just fine and that the Nationals should trade Max Scherzer.
Here are the teams we were the most wrong about in 2019. If you want to follow along for yourselves, I’ve linked the original season preview article to each team’s name.
This one is the least fun. We thought the Tigers would be just regular bad, but they turned out to be historically bad. Jeimer Candelario was projected to produce the highest WAR for Detroit this year and instead he had a 72 wRC+ and 0.3 fWAR. Michael Fulmer was supposed to be the closest thing this staff had to an ace, and he missed the entire season recovering from Tommy John Surgery. Matthew Boyd had a great first half, but fell off hard as his xFIP rose from 3.38 to 4.57 and his K/BB rate was slashed by more than half. The TIgers offense produced a historically bad -2.6 WAR as a team, with just 2 players surpassing 1.0 WAR. The Tigers pitching was the “strength” of the team, finishing 14th in team ERA ahead of the Orioles and barely behind the Royals. Shane Greene was awesome for a half and represented Detroit at the All-Star-Game, but what good does an elite reliever serve if you almost never have a lead to protect in the first place? Parity is fleeing from baseball, and the Tigers’ tank was supposed to progress slightly in 2019. Instead, things only got worse.
The Atlanta Braves and their fans felt a bit disrespected this offseason when the Phillies received all the headlines, and the Nationals and Mets made improvements to their teams in the offseason. The PECOTA projections even said the Braves would finish in 4th in the NL East, despite being a young team that won 90 games and added a former AL MVP in Josh Donaldson. While the division had 4 competitive teams, it was clear that the Braves were the best team all season long. Mike Soroka and Max Fried, who were not projected to finish in the top 5 for Braves starters in fWAR, were excellent posting 4.0 and 3.0 fWAR respectively. Ronald Acuna Jr. flirted with a 40-40 season and went from very promising rookie to current superstar, with plenty of room to grow. Josh Donaldson bounced back from a rough 2018 on his one year “prove-it” contract, producing 4.9 fWAR and 132 wRC+, playing in 155 games, and likely earning himself a multi-year deal. The Braves won 97 games, 14 more than our predicted total of 83, and look to dominate this division in the future led by their dynamic young offense.
Remember last paragraph when PECOTA was wrong? Well PECOTA had a very hot take at the time saying the Cubs would win just 79 games. Naturally, M-SABR thought that was absurd. Our prediction slotted the Cubs in at 97 wins and another division title. As it turns out, PECOTA was ahead of the curve, as the Cubs won just 84 games, missing the playoffs for the first (and only) time in the Joe Maddon era. The Cubs were wildly inconsistent and this graph of postseason odds during the year was fascinating. Below are the graph and some marquee dates for the Cubs and their playoff odds on that date.
March 19th: 64.2%
April 11th: 39.2%
May 14th: 85.1%
The Cubs acted like a normal team here, and their odds hovered from 70-85% for 3 months.
September 11th: 49.9%
September 16th: 76.7%
September 22nd: 2.6%
That 11-day stretch is just absurd. Part of it is the fact that FanGraphs’ playoff odds overreact sometimes, but more importantly, the Cubs were wildly inconsistent this season. At times, they looked like their old selves, dominating the competition with their superior talent. Other times, they looked like a team that couldn’t get out of its own way. Kris Bryant, Javier Baez, and Anthony Rizzo were predictably their top three position players by fWAR but none of them had career years at all, as none of them accumulated 5.0 fWAR, with Bryant finishing worse than his projection of 5.5. Nicholas Castellanos and Wilson Contrearas were excellent offensively, but neither of them played enough, whether that was due to health or spending the first half of the season on the Tigers. Ben Zobrist could not produce due to lack of health as well in 2019, a concern for a 38-year-old looking for a new contract. The starting pitching was quite healthy and productive. All five of their starters started at least 27 games, and four of them started at least 30; all five starters in Hendricks, Lester, Quintana, Darvish, and Hamels all exceeded their preseason WAR projections. The Cubs were 5th in the National League in runs scored and 3rd in team ERA, meaning that they should have been better based on the performance of their individual players. The Cubs were ultimately less than the sum of their individual parts; they had a +97 run differential which leads to a Pythagorean record of 90 wins, much better than their rival and postseason participant Milwaukee Brewers. Joe Maddon is gone; this season was unacceptable by Theo Epstein’s standards, but where the team goes from here remains to be seen.