Print and Go Back ESPN.com: Baseball [Print without images]

Saturday, March 23, 2013
There's always this year

By Dave Cameron
ESPN The Magazine

This story appears in ESPN The Magazine's April 1 MLB Preview. Subscribe today!

GOOGLE THE PHRASE "There's always next year" and the top result is the Wikipedia entry for The Cubs Fan's Guide to Happiness, a manual for surviving the unrelenting misery of rooting for Chicago's longest-suffering team. Irony has apparently been factored into Google's algorithms.

There's always next year. It's the baseball lie that keeps on giving. Ever since the Cincinnati Red Stockings ran the table in 1869 (57 wins, zero losses, five world-class mustaches), there have been winning franchises, losing franchises and little hope of the latter becoming the former. Baseball arrived broken the moment it was born. We all know that of the 108 World Series played, the Yankees have won 27 -- a ring for each inaugural speech since William Howard Taft's. In fact, all told, eight franchises have amassed 75 titles, leaving just 33 for the remaining 22 teams to split. For the have-nots, next year almost never comes -- and when it comes, it rarely comes again.

And yet ... If you've paid attention the past few years, you've noticed something surprising: actual surprises. The Red Sox squandering a nine-game lead in September 2011 and the Braves blowing 8 1/2 games in the last 23 days of that month. The collapse of the 2012 Rangers. The shocking runs of the 2012 Orioles and A's. Everything about the Nationals.

How could this be? Was it not a decade earlier that competitive balance had fallen and could not get up? Had commissioner Bud Selig not declared at a November 2000 Senate hearing on MLB's economic issues: "At the start of spring training, there no longer exists hope and faith for the fans of more than half our 30 clubs"? And was it not two seasons later that Billy Beane managed to steer his low-revenue A's to regular-season success, an outcome so surprising it inspired Michael Lewis to write a book? We all remember the first mashed-up word of the title -- Moneyball. But the part after the colon was equally telling: The Art of Winning an Unfair Game. You couldn't write a baseball tome at the turn of the century without citing inherent unfairness on the cover.

Justin Upton
At 25, Justin Upton has survived killer seasons, punch-and-judy seasons, and a trade this winter.

Is it possible that without anyone noticing it, one of sports' biggest crises had been resolved? That's what Dan Szymborski, creator of ZiPS Projections and one of the pioneers of predictive sports modeling, was wondering this offseason. And so he set about crunching the numbers, beginning with broad strokes, studying seasonal records to determine a "coefficient of determination of prior success," or how well the win-loss rate of every team in history could be predicted by its record the previous season. What he found was telling: During baseball's dead ball era, you could explain 37 percent of a team's record by its previous one. That number rose to 53 percent in the '50s. But since 2000, it has dropped back to 31 percent, evidence for Szymborski that baseball is far less predictable than it was 50 years ago.

Then Szymborski turned the telescope around, focusing on individual games. Based on how each team had finished each season, he predicted the winning percentage for every team in every season against every team it had played -- 12,917 season series since 1901. He compared that with the actual results of season series to determine what percentage of wins and losses in a season were in essence upsets. The results (see chart below) showed that those percentages have gradually doubled. "The unexpected," Szymborski says, "is becoming more expected."

There's something in economics called a feedback loop, a chain of reinforcing events, each one magnifying the effects of the last. Loops that heighten negative trends -- think hyperinflation or the Kardashians -- are called vicious cycles. Ones that multiply positive effects are called virtuous cycles. And in the pantheon of virtuous cycles, the trend toward "anything can happen" in baseball is a classic.

Here's how you build one: Start with a massive expansion of the talent pool by eliminating racial barriers to entry. Expand your league to almost twice its size while increasing postseason berths from two to 10. Create a dynasty-defying free agency system. Establish revenue-sharing and a luxury tax, squeezing payrolls toward the mean. Institute testing for PEDs, lessening the ability of high-revenue teams to buy inflated late-career production. Shepherd in analytics that allow poorer teams to level the market for player value. And then, when it begins to take hold, witness the astonishing shift of the mindset of your players, fans, managers, GMs and owners.

As one American League GM told me in March: "As we sit here today in the middle of spring training, you can count on one hand the clubs without a puncher's chance of reaching the likely win threshold to at least compete for the second wild card." Just as despair and disillusionment are self-fulfilling prophecies, when everyone acts like they have a chance to win, everyone does have a chance to win. And GMs who think they can win do different things -- like fielding competitive rosters throughout September, as opposed to using the month as a camp for their minor league system. Which increases the odds that front-running teams will lose more games that month. Which, in turn, increases the chances of late-season collapses and justifies small-market teams signing their stars to long-term contracts. Like Seattle making Felix Hernandez the highest-paid pitcher in history. The Reds locking up Joey Votto. The Brewers signing Ryan Braun. The Rockies nailing down Troy Tulowitzki. The Twins tying the knot with Joe Mauer.

One might even call it ... a virtuous cycle. As Selig noted to The Mag in March, nine teams have won the Series in the past 12 years, and 26 have made the playoffs in the past 10. "When I look at the teams across baseball," Selig says, "we have no idea who is going to win this year." One can, indeed, make a case that 25 of the 30 teams have a reasonable shot at the playoffs. (The tear-down Astros, Marlins and Twins would require divine intervention to do so; the Cubs and Rockies would need just a minor miracle instead of a biblical one.) Even the offseason is a bizarro version of its former self, with the Indians and Pirates signing away Nick Swisher and Russell Martin, respectively, from the Yankees, exacting revenge for the years of pillaging they'd been subjected to.

It's all combined to produce seasons that make a mockery of, well, predictions. In 2011 The New York Times reviewed the preseason picks of 108 experts. Not one had tabbed the Cards as champs. Last year none of 133 pundits picked the A's or Orioles to make the playoffs; only one picked the Giants to win it all. In other words, we all now stink at guessing what will happen. Which is an ironic note for an MLB Preview Issue ... but a very good thing for baseball.


The rise in upsets over 100 years

NEED PROOF that we're deep into the era of unpredictability? Behold the rise in the percentage of games with "unexpected" outcomes, calculated by comparing the actual results of every season series to what final win-loss percentages that season would suggest. Dan Szymborski, who did the math, explains the trend as chaos theory: Every big disruption has undermined the game's static, anti-players-rights, big-cities-rule past. "When the world's always changing," he says, "it's harder to establish a continued advantage over others." Perpetual bottom-dwellers, take heart!

MLB Graphs
1913-1962

MLB Graphs
1963-2012

Follow The Mag on Twitter (@ESPNmag) and like us on Facebook.