Spring Training Scenarios

For any baseball fan, February and March are a time of excitement about the upcoming season and for hope, which is often irrational but a central part of being a baseball fan, to be revived. Fans can hope that a winter pickup will carry their team to a championship in 2012 as, for example, fans of the Los Angeles Angels of Anaheim feel about Albert Pujols. Others can hope that a top prospect will make a big impact at the major league lineup. I suspect that many Washington Nationals fans harbor hope that Bryce Harper will be in the lineup and hitting home runs before the season is too old. Fans of other teams can hope than an aging veteran can still contribute as he did as a younger man. Phillies fans may feel that way about many of their hitters. Still other fans hope that the injury which may devastated their team in the previous year will no longer hamper their injured star in the new year. Giants fans looking at a full recovery from Buster Posey this year fit into this category.

Closely related to these hopes are the what if scenarios that fans of most teams are putting together for 2012. A key component to these scenarios is for fans to highlight all the things that went wrong in 2011 and suggest that if those things go right their team will win a pennant in 2012. These what if scenarios are essential for fans, but most are wrong and do not come to fruition. The reason for this is that too frequently the good luck from the previous season is overlooked. Giants fans, for example, believe, perhaps rightly, that Posey’s injury cost the Giants a playoff spot. While this may be true, it is wrong to extrapolate from that assertion that the Giants suffered from bad fortune in 2011. The team got unexpectedly great years from Pablo Sandoval and Ryan Vogelsong that in terms of impact on the team probably ameliorated much of the loss from the Posey injury.

If Posey comes, all the Giants who had career years in 2011 including Sandoval, Vogelsong and new acquisition Melky Cabrera have similar seasons in 2012, and if the other pitchers do what they have done the last two years, the Giants probably will win the division. Of course, similar scenarios can be created for every team in the NL west. Additionally, assuming the bad luck will not repeat itself, but the good luck will, as scenarios of this kind do, is not serious analysis. The more likely scenario is that most players will regress to the mean, so the chances of Vogelsong, Sandoval and Cabrera all repeating their 2011 season is quite small.

For one team every year, all the scenarios break the right way and they win the World Series, but it is extremely difficult to predict with any certainty who this team will be; and there is no rigorous methodology for doing this. Loyal fans will spin out these scenarios every year and be right every now and then. Teams cannot win based on scenarios and what ifs. The challenge for them is to reduce the uncertainty so they can focus on needed areas of improvement while confident that their strengths will remain in place.

This approach means that consistency is of tremendous value, but consistency is extremely difficult to predict. Many players have several good years in a row and then lose enough of their skills to decline very quickly. Roberto Alomar is one of the most obvious examples of this. Others can have an off-year after reaching an expected level of play, and then return to that level of play the following year. David Ortiz’s 2009 season fits this description. The most consistent player in recent years for the Giants has been Matt Cain. Almost all Giants fans assume that Cain is good for another 200-225 innings with an ERA between 2.70 and 3.70 but it is possible that Cain could have an off-year, thus badly damaging the Giants’ chances.

In baseball, as in most things, eliminating risk is impossible, but managing and minimizing risk should not be. The ability to stay healthy and be consistent are, at least to some extent, real skills that teams should, and often do, look for. The teams that can best determine the most effective ways to manage this risk and the algorithms for predicting consistency will have a big advantage as they think through how to build winning teams.