Tuesday, April 1, 2014

Yankees 2014 Preview: Is It 2009 Again? I Think Not (April 1, 2014)

Ah, spring training!  The spin?  The Yanks are enraptured with Tanaka’s poise and polish, CC’s transformation, and the much-ballyhooed collective 2.80 ERA of their top eight starting pitcher candidates.  Jeter and Tex are back, free from injuries, McCann has taken charge, and Beltran is an RBI machine.  And Ellsbury’s calf woes will be gone by Opening Day.  Ah, shades of 2009!  A retooled Yankee team, and hopes springs eternal for Championship #28.

All perhaps true enough, but if you are going to view spring training stats as credible, you have to take equal note of the collective .231 batting average of the nine starting hitters, all of whom are either new or returning from serious injuries (with the solitary exception of Brett Gardner).  Not exactly proving the case for optimism.

Better to ignore most of spring training and take a look at what the facts indicate...or at least what my model indicates.

THE MODEL

For those of you new to this, back in 1992 I developed a regression model to predict Yankee wins, based on such statistics on “OPS” (On Base Plus Slugging Percentage) that are all the rage now but were only known to a few stat freaks that were ahead of their time.  Trouble is, as visionary as the model was, it’s, um, not that terrific.

For the past three years I have put the model up against what I thought was a reasonable test.  I asked a bunch of my baseball friends to forecast wins for all 30 major league teams off the top of their heads, pitted against my regression model, in a competition I called “Man Versus Machine.”  They have made a collective 54 guesses in that time, and have been off by an average of 7.5 wins per team.  The Machine’s record?  Off 6.9 wins per team, or 8% better.  That is to say, the Machine, for all its fancy statistics, is not much better than a good “guess-timate” by a baseball fan.

And I’m not sure I can make the model much better.  Over the 22 years doing the Yanks, my average miss has been 6.4 wins.  In the last 13 years it’s been better, at 5.7.  But that’s simply not good enough to push some big chips to the middle of the table in Vegas.  Not yet.

Year
Prediction
Actual
+/-
2013
90
85
-5
 2012
102
95
-7
2011
95
97
2
2010
103
95
-8
2009
95
103
8
2008
99
89
-10
2007
102
94
-8
2006
101
97
-4
2005
102
95
-7
2004
108
101
-7
2003
103
101
-2
2002
101
103
2
2001
91
95
4
2000
98
87
-11
1999
109
98
-11
1998
104
115
11
1997
97
96
-1
1996
98
92
-6
1995
101
89
-12
1994
95
100
5
1993
92
88
-4
1992
81
76
-5

2013 YANKEES (in review)

I predicted the Yanks would win 90 games last year and they won 85.  That sounds pretty good, considering the injuries that decimated the squad, which are the bane of any such prediction method.

But truth be told, the Yanks actually achieved an OPS of .693 and an ERA of 3.94, and that should have translated to only 74 wins.  In other words, if I had known IN ADVANCE – perfect information -- that the Yankees were going to have a .693/3.94, I would have predicted they would win 74 games.  No other team was off by 11 games.  When I put in their actual final stats, the 29 teams were only off by only 3 wins on average.  The Yankees were a true outlier. 

Why?  Well, the basic fact is that the Yankees tended to win games by small margins (and thus have relatively poor stats when they won relative to other teams) and lose by larger margins (and thus have even worse stats than a losing team might).  Some theories on this?  Excellent bullpen work (which they had) probably resulted in winning more close games than other teams.  And perhaps other factors, such as great managing, clutch hitting and just plain luck came into play.  For whatever reason, they certainly played above their level, and ended up being in the hunt until virtually the end of the season.

Going into the season, I had thought Teixeira, Jeter and Granderson would be out for only a month, and A. Rod to be back by midseason.  I could not know that Cervelli would go down quickly, as would ARod’s replacement, Kevin Youkilis.  And that Tex, Jeter and Granderson would all be hurt again.  The Yankee starting lineup (using Youkilis at third) ended up with only 45% of the total team plate appearances; the American League average for starters was about 70%.

And…the substitutes were simply terrible.  The third basemen, collectively, including ARod and Yuke (and David Adams, Chris Nelson, et al), had an OPS of .633, with 52 RBI.  The shortstops (do I hear Reid Brignac?  Luis Cruz?) were even worse, .598 with 46 RBI.  But even more amazing was the performance of the DH’s, who exist only to hit.  They had a combined OPS of .583 – even worse than the shortstops!  Ben Francisco was the DH on Opening Day, an omen if there ever was one.

My highlight was the pitching.  I forecast the Yanks would have a 3.86 ERA and they came in at 3.94.  But the hitting (.683 versus .757) more than did me in.

But I actually did better than I deserved in being off only 5 wins.

2014 YANKEES

The Yanks will have a good year this year:

Wins
OPS
ERA
89
0.747
3.85

What, only 89 wins?  For a team that won 85 with a bunch of no-names in the lineup?  After signing all those great players and getting several more back from injuries? 

Yes, only 89.

Remember, the 85 wins last year was a fluke.  They should have won only 74.  And whatever explained that aberration – great relief pitching (goodbye, Mariano!), great managing, clutch hitting, luck…what are the odds of all that happening again?

Last year I asked the question, is 2013 going to be 1965 all over again, the year the aging Yanks fell apart and finished sixth?  Turns out my answer – “no” – was basically right.  It was a tough year, but they found a way to prevent an utter collapse.

This year I ask the question, is 2014 going to be 2009 all over again, when the Yanks “retooled” after missing the playoffs for the first time since 1993 (’94 was a strike year), signing Teixiera, Sabathia, Burnett and trading for Swisher?  And my answer is, again, ‘No.”

The 2009 team was an incredible hitting juggernaut: the lowest OPS among the starting 9 hitters was Johnny Damon’s .854.  Not one Yankee starter this year achieved that level in 2013, and only one, Carlos Beltran did it even once in the past three year.  This is simply not the same team.  A better team than 2012, for sure, but not a great hitting team at all.

I’m calling Beltran at .830; Tex, McCann, Ellsbury and Soriano all at .800; Gardner at .770; with Jeter (.725), Kelly Johnson (.715) and Brian Roberts (.700) filling out the infield.

The starting pitching could be a real plus.  I have CC coming back to a 4.00 ERA, Pineda in at 4.00 also, and Tanaka, Kuroda and Nova all at 3.50.  The bullpen is a bit suspect, particularly until Robertson establishes himself as the closer and an 8th inning guy emerges.

Everyone assumes that the key to that 2009 team was the four new guys, and they sure played a huge role.  But what people forget is that each of Posada, Cano, Jeter and Matsui had relative off-years in 2008 and rebounded resoundingly in 2009.  When 40% of your offense improves its OPS by .120 points, that translates to 10 more wins.  The Yanks improved by 14 wins that year and the team ERA did not change.  So give a few wins to Tex and Swisher as offensive upgrades, but most of the improvement related to returns to form by those four guys.


2008
2009

OPS
OPS
Posada
0.775
0.885
Cano
0.715
0.871
Jeter
0.771
0.871
Matsui
0.795
0.876

0.757
0.875

The 2014 Yanks will need more of the same.  Tex, Jeter and CC are three huge question marks, and this team will go only as far as the comebacks of those three take them, even if McCann, Ellsbury, Beltran and Tanaka deliver as advertised.

One other thing about the 2014 Yankees…there is no big left-handed bat off the bench.  Every Yankee  era has featured such a stick, from Johnny Mize to Johnny Blanchard to Jim Spencer to Daryl Strawberry to David Justice to Raul Ibanez (except for the Ruth/Gehrig years and 2009 team, neither of which needed one).  This team needs one and does not have one.

So…the Yanks will win 89, which will put them in the thick of the AL East title as well as the wild card.  There is no dominant AL East team this year, but all of them are good (though the Jays are not up with the rest.)  Here are my individual player predictions, which sum, via the wonder of weighted averages, up to the total team.

Pos
HITTERS
OPS
P.A.

 PITCHERS
ERA
IP
C
 McCann
0.800
550

 Sabathia
4.00
200
1B
 Teixeira
0.800
650

 Tanaka
3.50
200
2B
 Roberts
0.700
450

 Nova
3.50
180
3B
 K. Johnson
0.710
500

 Kuroda
3.50
180
SS
 Jeter
0.725
600

 Pineda
4.00
120
OF
 Ellsbury
0.800
650

 Other
4.50
140
OF
 Gardner
0.770
625

 Robertson
2.20
60
DH
 Soriano
0.800
600

 Phelps
4.50
70
OF
 Beltran
0.830
650

 Warren
3.50
60
C
 Cervelli
0.750
250

 Kelley
4.20
60
IF
 Ryan
0.550
100

 Claiborne
4.50
60
OF
 Suzuki
0.640
200

 Thornton
3.50
50
IF
 Solarte
0.700
100

 Other
3.75
70
IF
 Anna
0.730
100

 TOTAL
3.78
1450

 Other
0.700
200

 Sub/Injury Adjustment
0.07

P
 Pitchers
0.200
25

 TOTAL
3.85


 TOTAL
0.759
6250





 Sub/Injury Adjustment
-0.012






 TOTAL
0.747





  
MORE ON THE MODEL (for those who care)

As I said, the model has two variables, one for hitting, one for pitching.  The hitting variable is OPS, possibly the one true, best measure of overall batting prowess.  The pitching variable is more straightforward: ERA.  Basically, I come up with a prediction for each team’s overall OPS and ERA and plug those numbers into the regression equation I developed (using many years of historical data) and voila, a forecast for Team Wins.

The difficult part is to actually come up with the forecast for OPS and ERA for each team.  Here it gets a bit “granular”:  I make a prediction for OPS (or ERA) for each player on the team roster, and then also predict their number of plate appearances (or innings pitched).  Then I multiply the OPS (or ERA) by that player’s percentage of the team’s total plate appearances (or innings pitched), and then add up all the players to get to the total team.  Ah, the wonders of weighted averages!

So Brett Gardner had an OPS of .759 in 2013.  It is reasonable to conclude he will do about the same this year.  And I expect him to have about 625 plate appearances this year, which is exactly 10.0% of the Yankees 6,250 expected team plate appearances.  I multiply the .759 times 10.0% to get .076, and then do the same thing for the other Yankees hitter, and add them all up to get the team OPS.  That process typically yields a team OPS number between .630 (say, for Miami) and .780 (say, for the Tigers).  A brute force method, for sure.

And I do the same thing to predict team ERA….CC could have a modest rebound and achieve a 4.00  ERA in 200 innings, and I do the same math for pitchers.  I end up with a Team OPS and a Team ERA which I plug into my equation and out pops Team Predicted Wins.


This year I made a refinement, to try to improve the impact of injuries and replacements.  This involved adjusting all plate appearance so that starters achieved roughly 70% of the plate appearances in the American League and 60% in the National League, and similar adjustments for starting pitchers and opening day relievers.  Hopefully this will help!

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