Predictions on baseball’s winners? It is to laugh

“Silly Season” has arrived. It’s that interlude – not brief enough – between the final throes of spring training and the very beginning of the regular season when people who write, talk, or think about baseball for a living feel compelled to predict how said season will end.

Sports predictions have always been a happy prerogative of fans. Indulging in pipe dreams rife with idle and aimless speculation goes with their territory, even for the president of the United States who risks making a fool himself every March. For them, it’s all perfectly harmless. But as a journalistic exercise, predictions are simply stupid.

“Tell them what you know happened, not what you think might happen!” That was the one of the sturdiest of the basic axioms of the business when I got into it more than a half century ago, and if you didn’t get that message, you didn’t last long. But I’ve bemoaned that point before in this space, so I won’t take you down that tired road again, other than to note that it’s not the only fundamental change one has witnessed in this dodge since the pristine summer of ‘62.   

Anyway, as a wonderful illustration of the point, herewith are the results of the pre-season projections concocted last season by almighty Sports Illustrated in their annual baseball issue, under the heading “How they (will) finish.” As evidence of any sort of true discernment, let alone prophetic skill, on the part of SI’s learned baseball scribes they would appear to have been faintly disastrous.

In the American League, SI picked Boston, Cleveland, and Seattle to win their respective divisions. All three not only failed but also struggled all season, with the Red Sox finishing last, the Mariners next to last, and only the Indians managing a winning record, thanks to a closing rush that inched them one game over .500.  But it was on arguably the AL’s best story and grandest revival – that of the young and saucy Astros coming within a couple of bad hops of making it to the final round – that they most dramatically flopped. They predicted Houston would finish dead last.

In the National League, they did better, tabbing St. Louis and Los Angeles to win the Central and West, respectively. But they completely botched the East, where they were totally in love with Washington and ranked Miami (ugh!) second, both of whom imploded, while suggesting no clue of the looming emergence of the Mets, who, of course, made it to the World Series.

They also whiffed mightily on the Cubs’ sparkling revival, predicting them to be no more than also-rans whereas they would surge to 97 wins and come within a whisker of the WS.    
So, on the two biggest break-outs last season, those of the Astros and Cubs, SI popped out, weakly. But it gets worse. They picked the Yankees to finish fourth, 10 games under .500; they finished second, 10 games over. They picked Texas to finish fourth in the AL West, 9 under .500; they finished first, 7 over. They picked the Twins to finish fifth; they finished second. They picked the Tigers to finish second; they finished fifth. They were near equally as wrong on the Orioles, White Sox, Angels, Giants, and Padres.

But their biggest blunder came on the biggest enchilada, the ultimate champs, who were, of course, the Kansas City Royals who capped a wonderful 95-67 season with a sizzling post-season performance culminating with a dramatic bust of the Mets balloon in the Series, bringing everything up to date in Kansas City.

And so what did SI predict the Royals would do last season? They projected them to be a dismal fourth in the AL Central with a record of 78-84, 14 games behind Cleveland. Hey, they were only 17 games off.

What the deuce were they thinking, you have to ask? The best answer probably is, “Maybe too much!” Everyone strives to be too clever by half in this stuff, to make the most outrageously smart call when what’s most obvious is always a better bet. In the end, they outwit themselves every bloody time. But the larger point is that predicting anything is pure ragtime as well as bad journalism, especially in baseball, which is the least predictable of all the games, all of which SI’s performance brilliantly illustrates. They have lots of company.

If picking on Sports Illustrated seems unfair, one targets that corporate behemoth because it’s about as near the king of the sports media hill as it gets and has been strutting with the lordly manner of the near infallible for about six decades now. Moreover, they’ve long been the most dubious practitioner of this thin business. It must sell a lot of magazines. Have been anxious for a long time to call them on it. Seems no one ever does.

So here we go again in 2016y, with “herd journalism” again in vogue. There seems, as usual, wide agreement on what the season’s dominant themes will be. Hotter prospects include:

The Red Sox. Ah, yes! For the third time in three years your pets are the trendy pick of the baseball media’s smart set. Even after the last two foolish dives into such unabashed puppy love, it’s hard to find a baseball savant, at least this side of the Canadian border, who’s not picking them again. The temptation is to ask, “Do they never learn”? But as usual, it’s not as if a plausible case can’t be made if you try hard enough. Far more to the point; the AL East ain’t what it used to be.

The Dave Dombrowski honeymoon, still wild-eyed entering the ninth month of his Boston marriage, testifies to the level of belief here. But much of the look of it remains thin in the eyes of non-Nationals. Easy comes the argument that Masters Price and Kimbrel instantly upgrade the pitching. But only if what they add isn’t negated by the further declines of Messrs. Buchholz, Porcello, and Uehara, especially if Eduardo Rodriguez and Carson Smith don’t get healthier faster. It’s widely assumed that superkids Betts, Bogaerts, Swihart, et al., can only get better. But I’m from Boston. I never assume anything.
Meanwhile, Brothers Ortiz and Pedroia are a year older, while Pablo Sandoval is a year fatter and Hanley Ramirez a year more inscrutable.

2. The Yankees:  Their scenario seems never to change; always billed as old and verging on meltdown. So it seems again, although it’s less the case than it has long been. Scariest prospect may be that A-Rod, no longer the penitent, may be getting his mo-jo back. He’s talking more and making less sense. We may not be ready for A-Rod the senior statesman.  Still, you hope they stay healthy and remain irritating. It ain’t the same without them. Like the Red Sox, they’ve only won once the last decade. On the other hand, they’ve not finished three times in last place.  

The Cubs: The nation’s darlings once again. There have been false alarms in the late sixties, mid-eighties, and earlier this millennium. But this time, it looks real with Joe Maddon aboard as a peerless manager not likely to muck it up and Theo Epstein seemingly back in the groove he dug so brilliantly in Boston back when he was a stripling in this dodge.

Everyone agrees the Cubs are loaded. But are they being rushed? Might that worry Theo, who has much at stake. If he adds the 1908 redemption to his “Curse of Bambino” laurels he well knows his ticket to Cooperstown will have been punched, no matter what he achieves over the next 30 or so years. His Cubs may be brawny, but doubts lurk in every nook and cranny of his pitching staff.

Terrific questions abound. Are the Nationals baseball’s House of Frauds? Are the Astros the team of tomorrow? Now that they’ve met the Wizard, are the Royals about to crash land back home? Can the Dodgers choke on a $300 million payroll? Is it now or never for the Pirates? So much to chew on between now and November.

But who’s gonna win? says you. I haven’t a clue. Ask Sports Illustrated.