The impulse to predict has two sides to it, one arguably inimical and the other thoroughly benign. The dark side of prediction is foreclosing on the event itself by outrunning it—trying to have something to say about it that elevates the speaker above the participants. Because we are otherwise dwarfed by those with baseball talents, we preempt them by reducing their exploits to a story we can tell without them.
So a fair bit of the baseball appreciations we read in March are all about the ability of the author to reduce 2,430 games and thousands of at-bats to a plot that satisfies certain emotional and analytical assessments. They are not so much about the games to come as about lodging an I-told-you-so with the earliest postmark.
The sweeter side of predicting is the plain old inability to refrain from doing so. Because the preseason is the last time of pure hope, we can collect our evidence to argue for the basis of a long whoop of joy to come in October. With a little care about scouring up some of the nutty precedents that do dot our game, we can make a convincing case.
The desire to do so is not only to hunt hard for all the good omens, but to imagine. This is both a powerful, creative act and quite a rewarding one—what if . . . what if! And finally there is the happiness of looking, dispassionately or otherwise, at all 30 teams, savoring their prospects.
The folks who try hardest to predict with accuracy are still stuck using some pretty feeble facts. We have this year’s lineups, last year’s stats, and vivid ideas about the rookies. With fantasy baseball beckoning us all toward the assembly of an idealized roster, it’s no wonder that the Tigers look like a lock in the AL Central, and the Phillies’ pitching rotation appears impregnable. Don’t get me started about the Yankees. Look long enough at the lineups and you will quickly be reduced to an almost surreal certainty about where the pennants will be flown.
But these case-closed reviews of rosters are the product of last year’s stats. Highly informative, but not in the least predictive. Will the Royals’ Eric Hosmer build on a .293/.334/.465 debut, with 19 homers over 128 games? I watched him raptly last season and you can sign me up for the fan club. He’s composed, possessed of a solid stroke, and he’s playing for a team that hasn’t felt pressure—playoff or otherwise—since 1995.
From what I saw, he’s more likely to have his first (of many) years over .300 than a sophomore slump. It’s a good story, the facts at hand back it up, and any look at the guy shows you he’s loose enough to enjoy the game and focused enough to park quite a few balls past the left-field fence. But there is a but, and it could be injury, a mechanical flaw that surfaces under the heat of expectations, or the wild wear and tear that is a long season in a team sport. The default position? It’s impossible to know.
If Hosmer is hard to peg, how about Bryce Harper? We don’t even know when, or if, he’ll crack the lineup, but he is one of the most mouth-watering rookies walking in from the mists of the minors. There is a plausible scenario in which he’s called up in June, galvanizes the team, whacks the cover off the ball, successfully completes the career-prolonging transition from catcher to outfield, and has the Nationals doing their first actual damage in the NL East.
There is also an equally likely story in which Harper darts in and out of focus for a few September games, and melts under the X-Ray eyes of big league pitchers. But then again, which story is more interesting to believe?
You can play this game all night, and it really amounts to putting the spinner on every player whose fate fascinates you. It only gets interesting when you rub your chin especially hard and find it impossible to accept that, say, Albert Pujols is going to descend to some ugly, new plateau with an Angels’ A on his hat. It’s just so unreasonable! Possible, yes, but King Albert’s trajectory just doesn’t seem to admit of mediocrity. Not age, not a switch to AL pitching, not a brand new team and manager can displace Pujols from each season’s best-of lists. That is how it seems, now.
And it may be how it will be, but predicting is not knowing. The pleasure of prophesying is the immersion in both possibility and sheer admiration for the players themselves. What I use to project happy outcomes for Hosmer and Pujols is the wonderful memories I already have. Imagining the future is, ultimately, relishing your memory.
That’s what it means to make predictions for yourself, but the predictions worth reading need to educate and provoke. You can develop them from mathematical models, with a solid pedigree, as Bruce Bukiet of the New Jersey Institute of Technology does. (The two biggest surprises for 2012: he projects Boston to hang 4 games back of the Yankees and no one else to make a peep in the AL East; he shows Arizona claiming the NL West, but Philly, St Louis, Detroit, and Texas all repeating. The model has its reasons, which reason knows not of.)
You can toss them off, breathlessly punching out best case/worst case storylines, as ESPN’s on-air pundits or fast-paced websites do. It’s quite arresting to watch them wrestle stats and player personalities into submission. This tends to result in bouncing ‘round the room pairs like this one from Baseball America on the Mariners:
Best-Case Scenario: C Jesus Montero and 1B Justin Smoak show why Seattle traded Michael Pineda and Cliff Lee to get them, and they team with 2B Dustin Ackley to form the heart of a productive lineup.
Worst-Case Scenario: The offense remains a laughingstock and finishes last in the league in scoring for a fourth straight year.
In the end, I really can’t wrap my mind around either eventuality, though only the worst case has a real ring of truth. This is proof that the best-worst axis is not always a winning skewer for barbequing up the truth.
You can confine yourself to predicting player performance for the fantasy baseball world, which incidentally allows readers to link the data to the actual teams that employ the players. But the meat of the matter is intelligently combining statistics, performance factors like park effects, and mathematical or mental insights about the arc of a player’s career. Among those sharing their ideas without a fee, Matthew Berry, billed as The Talented Mr Roto, has a look at fantasy drafting on ESPN.com.
Finally, you can just mouth off, as I intend to do, and scores of others will in blogs and Bleacher Report and Sports Illustrated. On April 1st, I will try to convince you of the wisdom of my picks. Tonight, I am enjoying the process of extrapolating from what I learned watching baseball unfold in 2011. Maybe I’ll see the future; the only thing I’m sure of is that I’ll be looking through the lens of the past.