Thursday, February 5, 2015

Error Bars

With football season officially over, which makes the space from now until Spring Training starts a blank void of regular season NBA walk-throughs and NHL non-events. For baseball fans, the Hot Stove is stowed away for the summer so we're left with...Projection Season.

PECOTA dropped last week and your Toronto Blue Jays ZiPS projections should show up on Fangraphs this week. Steamer's been here all along, putting the Jays in the 84 win range. Numerical projections are easy to hate and hard to love, mostly because of the indelicate way in which they're handled. Either taken as gospel or thrown aside without a second thought, the output of these complex systems does offer information worth considering - with context and an eye on the bigger picture.

The vagaries of the projections aren't important. That one algorithm likes the team, as currently constructed, more than another isn't the important information imparted upon us. If adding the WARs was all it took to win baseball games, nobody would bother to watch.

There are, however, important lessons to learn from the ledger lines and aging curves set before us. Not as prediction of what might happen over 162 games but as an indication of talent on hand and how that talent spreads out.

Adding talent is always a good thing, but there are no absolutes. Add Clayton Kershaw to the Braves and little changes. They're still bad, they're just bad with a much better chance to win one out of every five games. If, by magic, the Phillies accomplished this winter what they'll instead end up doing a dozen years from now and acquired Mike Trout, so what? The 2015 Phillies remain a putrid mess.

Adding one extremely great player to an otherwise unremarkable bunch doesn't change the outlook for the season because that one player is an anomaly. It's baseball; everybody has to take their turn. A 24-foot ladder at the bottom of 50-foot hole still leaves you deep underground.

What do these hypothetical scenarios have to do with the Toronto Blue Jays? The Jays brought in at least one extremely good player (maybe two) and acquired some other pieces that alternate between "very good" and "potentially useful", the sum of which is a team that is not vastly improved over the last two years but a team that feels...different. Not more talented but talented in a safer way. The floor is higher and the foundation seems sturdier.

Do the assorted projections reflect this? The Blue Jays slot comfortably among baseball's upper-middle class before a pitch is thrown in anger. There is certainty in some of the numbers, but where the systems lack certainty is most interesting.

Projections are about information. Some have long memories, others care not for what happened in the distant past. The information also suggests the core of the team is unlikely to fall of a cliff, productive-wise. When there isn't enough information, they fill in with aging curves and the like. But even with known commodities and proven veterans at every turn, there is still great potential for more.

There exist players with large error bars, those who might push the ceiling higher than the 50th percentile believes. Players like Dan Norris and Aaron Sanchez; works in progress with significant development under their belts but with minor league numbers that scare away Steamer and PECOTA. There is Dalton Pompey, without much professional experience and even less exposure against high-level professionals.

And then there is Marcus Stroman. The projectionists actually love him, handing out "marks" that place him among the best in the game. And that's before we factor in his newest toy becoming a full time thing.

There is no accounting for the kind of dynamic changes that make all the difference. Subtle adjustments that unlock previously undiscovered production. It's easy to bet against second half surges - easy and boring. Just because PECOTA and ZiPS fill in the blanks in a dour grey doesn't mean there isn't vivid brightness inside this group of unproven upstarts.

The rising floor mixed with the chance for vaulted ceilings breathes helium into the hype balloon. It doesn't feel as though there are the same quixotic talents on hand, those just as likely to crater as soar. Players like Russell Martin and Josh Donaldson join the Joses and Edwin Encarnacion as a nice-looking net and a semblance of stability in unstable times. It isn't realistic to coat the field in line-to-line superstars but sometimes an overarching philosophy of "competence over everything" works okay, too.

None of this is to suggest the 2015 Blue Jays are foolproof. There exist many valid questions about the 25-man roster in its current form. It's just a matter of considering both the input and the output of these systems. All projection systems agree that the Jays are in the mix, one of the best teams in their division and probably the American League, too. Sometimes volatility works in your favor and regression goes up as well as down. If you can manage the best of both worlds? That's when something special tends to happen.


  1. "Adding talent is always a good thing, but there are no absolutes. Add Clayton Kershaw to the Braves and little changes. They're still bad, they're just bad with a much better chance to win one out of every five games."

    This is something that is not mentioned as much as it should be.


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