by Alex Langer
The 2017 Major League Baseball season officially opened on Sunday, April 2. Today (April 4), most MLB teams will be playing their second game of the season. In 162 days, give or take off-days and rain delays, ten teams will make the playoffs. In 163 days, eight teams will face off in playoff series to determine who will follow up one of the two most historic World Series victories in history with a championship of their own. Many of you reading this rightly have hope for this season. The top tier of teams in most divisions is clear, but the addition of the Wild Card in 1995 and the second Wild Card in 2012 means that twenty or more teams, in my estimation, have a solid chance at making the postseason.
This is the Tattered Pennant’s baseball un-preview. In this article I will give you a few pointers for what to look for when you ask the question “is my team actually good, or is this a mirage?” What I will not be doing is making any concrete predictions for the season. Any attempts I’d make will inevitably look foolishly optimistic, especially when I pick Mariners to win all the awards.
Baseball is a fairly predictable game compared to, say, football, and statistics such as the Pythagorean theorem (invented by Bill James to predict records based on runs scored and prevented) are fairly accurate. This theorem basically predicts a team’s potential regular season record based on how many runs a team scored and how many runs they allowed.,. Though it does not take into account the most underrated baseball skill of all, bunching runs together, it is generally accurate. Baseball teams that outperform their run differential do so by being unusually good at making sure their runs come close together. If they only score four runs in two games, the team that scores four runs in the first and none in the second is more likely to win one game than a team that scores two in each.
Last year, the World Series-winning Chicago Cubs were four games worse than their expected record, while the runners-up, Cleveland, were three games better. These ratings systems, along with systems based on WAR (wins above replacement) are a solid first place to look in a month or so, to see if your team is doing okay. If they are playing mediocre baseball, yet their Pythagorean record (PR) is good, they have probably suffered some bad luck which could improve down the stretch. In other words, they might fall back to the mean. If they are outplaying their prediction, they’re probably getting really lucky, and should revert to the mean sooner rather than later.
Every year, however, there are teams that stare statisticians right in the face and laugh. Last year, the Texas Rangers managed to win the AL West over both the Seattle Mariners and the Houston Astros, even though the Rangers had a lower PR than their division rivals. Last year, the Mariners won 86 games, with a PR of 87; the Astros won 84 games, with a PR of 83; But the Rangers won 95 games, despite a PR of just 82. The Rangers, in other words, outplayed their expectations by 13 games. They did this primarily by having an impressive .789 winning percentage in one-run games. In baseball, winning one-run games is primarily a matter of timing and luck, which is why teams almost always have about a .500 record in these games. Through August, the Rangers had played in 38 one-run games. Had they won half, they would have gone 19-19 in them. Instead, they went 30-8. That’s the difference between winning the division and missing the playoffs.
So, what does this mean for you? In baseball, it is easy to get distracted by small sample sizes. In three or four days, there will be multiple online and newspaper articles and breathless TV segments discussing the marginal pitcher that has suddenly become the Cy Young favorite (Hi James Paxton!) or if this veteran who has been on the decline for years has managed to reverse time (most likely he has not), or this this club that no one expected to be good is the real deal (probably not). In June, your team’s best player will go through a four or five-game slump, and it will all feel over. Your team will have five and six-game winning streaks, and five and six-game losing streaks. That’s baseball. The game is designed to grind teams down. It is a 162-game marathon, a marathon that sands down inconsistencies and luck, bad spells and good spells, grinding away until only talent and consistent production remain.
If you want to know how good your team or your player is, wait a month for small sample sizes to disappear, for batters to get close to one hundred at bats (about thirty games), and then see what sort of season they are having. Wait for the variances of the early season to disappear, then go to baseball-reference.com and check out how your team’s record matches with the expectations. When the record and prediction don’t match, you can do two things: you can accept that these predictions are usually accurate within 3-5 games, and watch the rest of the season in serenity. Or you can rage against the nerds and statisticians and will your team to be like the Texas Rangers, and thumb their nose at the predictions. It is completely up to you.
 Here I am referring to the 2016 Chicago Cubs, along with the 2004 Red Sox.
 WAR measures how much better than the average, or “replacement-level” player, any given player is, in terms of wins contributed. An All-Star season is generally 3 wins above replacement. An MVP season is between 5 and 7.
 As a side note, this is why being a Mariners fan sucks. Last year, had the Rangers outplayed their prediction by 4 games, which would have been the most of any top team other than Baltimore, the Mariners would have won the division.
 For an in-depth look at this, check out this article on their record: https://fivethirtyeight.com/features/the-texas-rangers-are-making-unsustainable-history-in-one-run-games/