It was an admittedly foolhardy endeavor: Projecting the 2016 Major League Baseball season based on results of 2,430 games involving 30 teams, all while aiming to match wits with established projection systems and the cold, profit-driven machine of Las Vegas.
So, just how did USA TODAY Sports fare in its battle of Man vs. The Machines?
The short answer? Win totals are hard.
The longer answer: A dash of the human element can be healthy – but don’t let it intoxicate you.
Now that the regular season has concluded, we can measure our efforts against external ones. First, a little background on the systems:
PECOTA: A proprietary formula developed by Baseball Prospectus which this year simulated the 2016 season 1 million times to produce the likeliest outcomes for every team.
ZiPS: Developed by Dan Szymborski originally for Baseball Think Factory and now housed at ESPN, it’s a projection system designed to foretell the performance of individual players – even deep in the minors. Results are aggregated to produce win totals for major league teams.
Las Vegas: Where the house always wins. It should be noted that domestic and offshore sports books often must skew their totals based on anticipated bettor habits, and not purely what they might believe happens.
USA TODAY Sports: Powered largely by Mayorga Coffee and pepperjack quesadillas, it aimed to integrate traditional and advanced statistics with a dollop of human bias and instinct in an effort to Take Down Big Data (and also melt away the darkest, grimmest days of winter).
So, who was the big winner in this shootout?
In short, ZiPS.
There’s plenty of ways to determine the “best” collection of win totals – individual preferences may vary – but ZiPS scored highest by almost any measure. It had a very slight time advantage, as these projections were taken just before the regular season started, allowing for slight adjustments for injuries (such as Arizona’s A.J. Pollock) and acquisitions (Baltimore’s Yovani Gallardo and Pedro Alvarez). The others were gleaned in early February.
Let’s break it down:
Closest to the Win
Las Vegas: 171
USA TODAY Sports: 214
Summary: ZiPS scores a narrow but convincing conquest over The House in Vegas, and in the process nailed the win totals of the Brewers (73) and Rockies (75).
We finished up the track, a bit red-faced but also with points of pride, correctly pegging the Braves (67) and Mets (87). And we demonstrated the upside of putting a couple extra fingers on the scale by aggressively projecting the Cubs for 101 wins; they did us two better and finished at 103, far beyond the 89- to 94-win range our competitors offered.
It was on the other side of Chicago where we ran into trouble.
Perhaps in an effort to uncover a “surprise” team and in a nod to the admittedly volatile AL Central, we went all-in on the White Sox. We envisioned Carlos Rodon emerging as that third great starter to complement Chris Sale and Jose Quintana, who finished in the top 7 in Fielding Independent Pitching the year before.
We saw natural bounce-back candidates in Melky Cabrera, an infusion of power and esprit de corps from Todd Frazier, and significant across-the-board upgrades in trotting out merely capable players such as Brett Lawrie and Jimmy Rollins.
We saw an unlikely but tangible destination: 90 wins, a total that for a few weeks boosted the typically low self esteem of South Side baseball fans.
And when the White Sox won 13 of their first 19, and 23 of their first 33, we briefly felt our oats a bit, too.
It all went to hell at the end of May: Seven consecutive losses, including an epic bullpen meltdown at Kansas City that turned three wins into setbacks. It turned into a 2-12 stretch that included an 0-9 mark against the Indians, Royals and Tigers.
Goodbye, 90 wins, Goodbye, AL Central and adios, Robin Ventura.
The lesson: Stick to the chalk.
Our greatest failing, however, was not in the Sox confidence but rather the dumping on teams believed to be “tanking.” Much of our Cub confidence was inspired by their feasting on the Brewers and Reds. The Phillies and Braves seemed easy marks as well, and just how would the Rockies win games against that ace-heavy top half of the NL West?
In this case, the meek rose up; no National League team lost 100 games, and ZiPS killed us on the Reds and Brewers, missing their win totals by 1 combined, while we erred by a combined 16 wins. Looks like ZiPS saw Jonathan Villar coming, and we were too affected by the offseason noise of tanking.
That’s not to say the computers – and their safety net of thousands or millions of projections - always have it. The biggest – and oddest – miss came from PECOTA, which in February envisioned 91 wins and an AL East title for the Tampa Bay Rays. The Rays won 78 games.
Baseball Prospectus will be glad to know, however, that it didn’t miss biggest on the Royals – who famously vexed them in winning consecutive AL pennants. Vegas, perhaps in a nod to public perception, overvalued Kansas City by six wins (87 to 81). PECOTA undervalued them at 76 wins, while USA TODAY Sports (84) and ZiPS (83) were in the neighborhood.
ZiPS, Vegas: 15 each
USA TODAY Sports: 13
Summary: Nailing divisional finishes can be more difficult than your standard Price is Right match game: Miss one, and you automatically have two out of place.
With that in mind, major kudos to ZiPS and Vegas for correctly placing half the major leagues in its proper place.
Of note: All four projections nailed the (relatively easy) order in the NL Central: Cubs, Cardinals, Pirates, Brewers, Reds.
The Marlins might have been the most predictable team in baseball history: Third place across the board, and all between 76 and 81 wins (they won 79).
And nobody saw the best team in the American League coming: Vegas projected an 86-win tie between the Astros and Rangers in the AL West. Everyone else had the Astros winning the West, with PECOTA envisioning 80 wins for a Rangers team that won 95.
USA TODAY Sports, ZiPS: 3
(note: Projections awarded half a point if they picked a wild card team to win a division, and vice versa)
Summary: Perhaps the toughest preseason question – Dodgers or Giants in the NL West? – was answered correctly by PECOTA and ZiPS, which both overvalued the 86-win Giants by just one. Only USA TODAY Sports had the Nationals over the Mets in the NL East, while it was ZiPS alone in projecting the Cardinals missing the playoffs for the first time since 2010.
So that’s it. We emerge bloodied but unbowed, willing to accept that personal and recency bias can, in fact, send one’s ship aground.
That said, in the dead of next winter, shortly after the Super Bowl confetti has been swept up, we’ll be fueled up and ready to roll again, determined to break serve against the servers.