The delayed Opening Day is a week away, and with rosters rounding into shape around MLB, the major projection models are also beginning to settle into their final preseason form. The age-old fanbase cry of “wait till next year” is about to become the reality of the 162-game grind that spans the chill of waning Spring, the dog days of Summer, and finally, the race to the finish line as the leaves turn again in late September. And then about half the teams make the playoffs in the absurdity of expanded playoffs. But seriously, optimism does spring eternal, sometimes warranted, sometimes not. So before the first pitch on April 7th, let’s take a look at some of the projections for the upcoming season.
For fans of the Seattle Mariners, 2021 was an unexpected surprise. The shortened COVID season had been an unwelcome speed bump to the development of the Mariners’ young talent, and it was thought by many that the much-touted rebuild may have been delayed yet again. And yet, 2021 saw the Mariners inexplicitly win 90 games for the first time in eighteen years. So naturally, expectations for 2022 are high among the fanbase.
It is important, however, to temper those expectations, given how the 2021 Mariners got to 90 wins. First of all, last year’s team scored 51 fewer runs than it allowed. The expected Pythagorean record for a team scoring 51 fewer runs than its opponents is 76-86. In other words, the 2021 Seattle Mariners “should” have won 14 fewer games than they actually did. Famously manager Scott Servais dismissed the Mariners’ woeful run differential towards the end of August last year and suggested that the team had a “90 FUN differential.” And fun they were. Take their 33-19 record in one-run games and the 10 walk-off wins, and the team was never dull. The thing is, the 2022 Seattle Mariners could actually be better in terms of true talent and not win as many games as last year. Sadly, if that is the case, the fanbase might interpret the season as another failed season. But, on to the projections.
Fangraphs is unique among the projection systems, and indeed among most of the statistical baseball sites, in that many of their projections/advanced statistics are aggregated from several sources. For instance, the defensive rating for a player is based on DRS (defensive runs saved), UZR (ultimate zone rating), and UZR 150, which is normalized to 150 games and a few other public-facing defensive metrics. The projection system is similar as it aggregates several projections such as ZIPS, Steamer, and Depth Charts. As the season unfolds, Fangraphs, like other projection systems, folds in-season results with the preseason projections, weighting the two, and updating projections on the fly. Barring a radical departure from the preseason projections, in-season results won’t begin to outweigh the projections until early July.
Last season the Mariners were one of Fangraphs biggest whiffs. Projected to go 78-84, the Mariners outperformed their projection, their Pythagorean win/loss, and their Base Runs (Pythagorean adjusted for in-game situation) win/loss expectations by posting a 90-72 record. Once again, Fangraphs is the most bearish on the Mariners of the projection systems heading into the 2022 season. As with last year, Fangraphs projects the Mariners to be a sub .500 ball club and to finish with an 80-82 record.
Keep in mind that while an 80-win season would represent a regression in actual wins from last year of 10, it would be a 2-game improvement over last year’s projections, a 4-game improvement over last season’s Pythagorean record, and a 6-game improvement over last season’s BaseRuns record. Needless to say, Mariners fans would not consider 80-82 as an “improvement” over last season by any estimation.
Created while at Baseball Prospectus by Nate Silver, author of The Signal and the Noise; Why Many Predictions Fail – but Some Don’t, and founder of the website 538, PECOTA whimsically stands for Player Empirical Competition and Optimization Test Algorithm in order to fit (not so?) neatly with the last name of journeyman major leaguer Bill Pecota. It is the Granddaddy of the projection systems. Although it has been reprogrammed several times since Silver left Baseball Prospectus, it remains one of the most sited preseason projections in the business.
While the full projections require a paid subscription for fans to view, there are plenty of secondary sites that let the cats of the bag. Last season PECOTA was even more pessimistic about the Mariners’ chances than FanGraphs, predicting the raw young team would manage only 70 victories. As has been noted several times, 70 wins even underperforms the Mariners’ Pythagorean and BaseRuns expectations for last season, not even considering the actual win total.
Perhaps embarrassed by missing the Mariners’ win total by so much (as though an algorithm could be embarrassed), PECOTA projects the 2022 Seattle Mariners to win 83.2 games. Since they obviously can’t win 0.2 games, let’s just say 83-79 is the pick, 7 fewer wins than last season but +13 over last season’s projection. Again, an improved team with possibly fewer wins.
If you’re a hardcore stat geek l like me, then your go-to baseball websites probably include FanGraphs and Baseball Prospectus, along with Baseball Reference, which tends to focus more on probability of making the playoffs over actual win totals. But if your eyes glazed over when you first encountered “Pythagorean” win totals, then a simple source like the national news organization USA Today may be more your speed. And if you’re a Mariners fan, no matter what the flavor of stathead, you should favor good old USA Today.
So, we have FanGraphs projecting the Mariners to go 80-82. PECOTA is slightly more optimistic at 83-79. But USA Today is by far the most bullish on the M’s chances for wins, at least, by prognosticating an 85-77 record. But don’t get too excited. Even with the expanded playoffs, USA Today has the Tampa Rays (91-71), the New York Yankees (88-74), and the Boston Red Sox (87-75) ahead of the Mariners for the two wild card spots.
If you live in the Seattle television market and you watch sports (one can only assume you do if you’re reading this), then you most certainly have been inundated by the barrage of sports betting commercials, most prominently from Emerald Queen Casino and Snoqualmie Casino. Yes, sports betting is legal in Washington. The catch? Twofold. First, only casinos run by Native American tribes can offer sports betting. Secondly, while corporate giants like Draft Kings, FanDuel, or MGM can partner with local casinos, bets must be placed on the premises. We are still far away from betting in-game, on your phone, on the comfort of your couch, but baby steps.
But one of the markets that makes sense if you don’t want to make routine trips to the casino near you is to bet futures – over/under win totals for the entire MLB season. Place a bet by April 7th and then sit back and watch baseball until early October. The current o/u for the Mariners, provided by Draft Kings, aligns precisely with PECOTA with the half win to ensure a winner: 83.5 wins for the Seattle Mariners. And while you’re there at the casino anyway, FanDuel is offering +4000 for the Mariners to win the World Series. That’s 40-1 odds for the uninitiated. Put down $10 bucks and maybe win $4,000.
What Does it All Mean?
It might be best to think of projections as the most likely outcome for the season. Picture a bell curve. Models like FanGraphs and PECOTA run literally thousands of simulations for the season. The outcomes then fall within a range, say 95 wins is the upper end, and 70 wins are the lower end of outcomes for the Mariners (purely hypothetical). But most of the time, the win totals fall between 79 and 86 (also purely hypothetical). The published projections represent the median of the most likely outcomes. Occasionally, like last season, one of the more unlikely outcomes actually happens, and you get a fun 90-72 season. Most seasons, given the play on the field, the Mariners “should” have won 78ish games, but the one season that was actually played resulted in 90 wins.
So, as we look forward to the 2022 season, fans “should” expect the Mariners to win somewhere between 80 and 85 games. But the beauty of sports is that you actually have to play the games Here’s to Opening Day.