Tuesday, December 2, 2008

Minnesota Twins: Consistently Beating Expectations

With the old baseball preview guides catalogued and entered into the database, I've been playing with the data to see what trends I could discover.

The first thing I did was compare each team's predicted finish in a given year with their actual finish. However, with 26 to 30 teams and 31 different issues' worth of predictions, that quickly became too cumbersome to compare easily. So I tried something else: I calculated each teams average finish over the years that I have issues (i.e., if I didn't have an issue for that year, then I didn't include it in the "average finish" calculation) and compared that to the average predicted finish. I knew that most of the year-to-year variance - finishing 4th one year instead of 3rd, then finishing 1st instead of 2nd, etc - would cancel itself out in the average, but I was hoping that there would be one or two teams that jumped out as being exceptionally gifted at overperforming (or underperforming) those expectations.

In running this comparison, it was very clear that the Minnesota Twins were the only real team who have done this.

While teams like the Orioles or the Cubs have had ups and downs over the last 30 or so years, they have been predicted pretty accurately by these magazines, with only a small discrepancy between the average predicted finish and the average actual finish. For the Twins, the average predicted finish - across 30 issues and 21 years, including most of the '80s, all of the later '90s, and nearly all of the 2000s - is 4.27, or worse than 4th place. However, the average actual finish for the Twins in the same year (weighted the same as the magazines) is 3.17, or slightly worse than 3rd place. The Twins, therefore, have outperformed the critics' predictions by more than a full division spot. That may not seem like much, but it is actually quite substantial. For the remaining 30 franchises (counting Montreal and Washington separately for these purposes), the predictions were all within half of a division spot (between 0.55 and -0.44 to be exact) and most of those within a third of a division spot.

Looking at the data, there are a few years of big performances that might skew the data: in 1984, the Twins finished in 2nd place, but were predicted by Street & Smith to finish 6th (of 7); in 1987, the Sporting News predicted them to finish in 5th place, but they instead went on to take the division and win the World Series; in 1991, the Sporting News predicted them to finish dead last (that's 7th place, mind you), but instead they went on, again, to take the division and the World Series. If we remove those three seasons, the average predicted finish is 4.07 and the average actual finish is 3.37, meaning that the Twins still outperformed their expectations by three-quarters of a division spot, still far-and-away the leader in that category. Clearly, the Twins are consistently performing beyond expectations, and in more than just those magical World Series runs.

Is there a good explanation? I feel confident that it's not just a product of small market bias. Plenty of big city teams - the Yankees, the Mets, the Cubs - had some lousy years in the seasons covered by this study, and they were all treated appropriately. So what is it?

If I had to venture a guess - and that's all I can do at the moment, since I don't know the Twins well enough - I would chalk it up to a quality organization making steady, positive decisions. With only two managers since 1986, a few star players here and there, some good young talent, and shrewd drafting and trading, you always have to respect the Twins. This year is a great example. At the beginning of the season, the Twins were already written off by most "analysts", with the division conceded to the Indians or Tigers. But those clubs faltered and the Twins kept playing steady ball, even without Johan Santana, until they forced that one-game playoff. I can imagine that 2008 probably wasn't too different from 1984 or 1988 or 2001, using their strengths as a well-built club to take advantage of others slipping.

It's a good trait to have, and can go a long way towards cultivating a good, enthusiastic fan base. If the world shifted and you were forced to root for a new team, I think you could do a lot worse than choosing the Twins.

(I have another post about the Dodgers steady, unnoticed period of consistently good teams coming, but it's late enough as it is... it'll have to wait)

4 comments:

Nick N. said...

Interesting post.

I think this trend is a combination of several things. It's tough to overlook the small-market bias; the Twins enter almost every season with relatively low expecations and they have generally lacked big star power over the past few decades. Not only does this help them exceed expectations consistently, but the bigger thing -- which I think you're overlooking -- is that it helps them avoid finishing well below expectations. Most teams around the league have had periods over the past few decades where they've been pretty highly regarded at the national level, and most of those teams have had years where they've fallen well below expectations. The Twins have had those seasons where they've been picked to finish 6th and finished 1st, but probably not many where they were picked to finish 1st and finished 6th. The constantly low expectations have helped buoy their rate.

The Twins have also been fortunate enough to play in some pretty bad divisions, with this year serving as a good example of that.

I don't mean to belittle the way the organization is run. I think, for the most part, the Twins' front office has done a good job of remaining competitive on a relatively modest budget, and rebuilding when need be. But this organization has made a lot of really poor decisions. Take a look at nearly all of their free agent signings over the past decade (Ramon Ortiz, Sidney Ponson, Tony Batista, Mike Lamb, Rondell White, Adam Everett, I can go on...). Take a look at how many first-round draft picks have busted since the late '90s (Matt Moses, Adam Johnson, B.J. Garbe, Ryan Mills...). Take a look at how shocking their inability to produce power hitters has been (zero 30-homer seasons between 1987 and 2006).

In general, the Twins have been a well-run club. But I think the trend you find has more to do with extraneous circumstances than some magic surrounding the team or some transcendent organizational philosophy.

lar said...

That's a great point, Nick. I should have taken that into consideration to begin with. When one is constantly given low expectations, then there's not much room to go but up. Among the magazines that I have, the only teams with a worst average predicted finish than the Twins are the Rays, the Pirates, and the Nationals. That's not really good company to be in as far as season-to-season expectations go.

In fact, the teams with the biggest positive differentials are all on the "low expectations" end of the spectrum (except for the Phillies, who have beaten their average prediction by 0.34 division spots despite being predicted to finish at a relatively high 2.84).

But even though it's only logical for a team with low expectations to more easily perform above them, the fact is that the Twins are still the only team in that group to do so, and to do so splendidly. And while you provide some great examples of failed moves by the organization, it seems to me that there has to be a lot going right with the organization - otherwise, they'd be in the same spot as the Pirates and Royals. And we can all be thankful that they're not in that predicament.

Paul said...

Hey Lar: The question this begs, though, is why are the Twins so consistently underrated? Why are the expectations for the Twins consistently so low? I don't know the answer to that.

lar said...

Paul,

that's a good question. The best reason I can think of is pretty simple, and I think Nick touched on it above: being in a small market with few big stars, it's easy to overlook the Twins or to look at their success from "last season" and dismiss it as a fluke.

I don't know if that's the right answer or just the "easy" answer, but it seems reasonable. Without any big stars to guarantee a strong season - and I mean no A-Rods or Bagwells or Pujols' etc - and with a small market, low payroll kind of team, it's easy to say that the team has "run it's course" and will fall back down. Maybe it's more complicated than that, but that's what comes to mind.