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)