What Team Projections Miss: The Underachievers

Teams that fall short of expectations quietly offer fresh perspective on how baseball is always evolving.

This time last week, I was highlighting the teams that beat their projected win totals on a regular basis and detailing the types of players who broke out or team dynamics they built that underscored their success. We learned about the Twins and the success of pulling the ball for last year’s Bomba Squad, what opportunity for castoffs meant for the Brewers, and how the DBacks were able to pounce at the trade deadline because their rotation played up early and through the year. This week, our focus is on the teams at the other end of the spectrum; the ones that have underwhelmed more often than not and could consider floating around .500 a grand success. Stinkers don’t grab many headlines or show up in the highlight reels but disappointment is part of the game, no matter how much we may passively tune it out. Below are the only teams in baseball who have underperformed their expected win totals by at least 10 games when considering both the last five years and the last three years.

Worst Teams at Meeting Expected Win Projections

It’s important to remember that the projections tend to be pretty good at putting together team records, being within three games on average in each of the last five years. When a team is surprisingly bad, there are so many more questions to ask than if they were surprisingly good. Were they “rebuilding”? Did their prospects fail to develop? Did they get injured? Was their roster mismanaged enough for an owner to cry poor? Did the front office lack a clear vision? Was it just not their window? These teams all offer varying answers, but we’re going to focus on four who have lost more steadily than the others.

Detroit Tigers

It’s impossible to look at how the Tigers have performed in the last five years and not consider them to have been Dave Dombrowski’d. The departed GM has a distinct pursuit of championships when leading teams: Buy veterans, sell prospects, and hope the bullpen doesn’t fall apart. While the strategy can yield short-term wins (and did lead World Series titles with the Marlins and Red Sox), its long-term effects are a baseball version of slash-and-burn agriculture. At some point, you run out of land to work with.

And yet, Dombrowski did set up the team with trades of David Price and Yoenis Cespedes in 2015 that yielded Matt Boyd, Daniel Norris, and Michael Fulmer. Since then, the team has accumulated a bottom-ten team wOBA (.312) while having a bottom-three bullpen. The likes of franchise icons Ian Kinsler and Miguel Cabrera lingered long enough to become shells of themselves. Other pieces were held to the brink of free agency, minimizing returns. While their pitchers have performed admirably, accruing the 13th-highest fWAR in baseball, they simply haven’t had the support to help the team out of the basement. The issues in Detroit appear to have been people-based, and that’s something projections can never account for. People can always make something worse than it is. Just consider frozen yogurt.

Los Angeles Angels

The Angels are regularly chided for wasting the prime of Mike Trout. They have exactly two years of more than 85 wins since Trout’s first full season; they’ve only made the playoffs once since then and were swept unceremoniously. The team hasn’t won more than 80 games in any of the last five years, years in which Trout has been at least 70% better than the average player. David Freese cracks their top-10 for hitters by fWAR in that same time frame, despite only playing in 121 games for the club and being known as more of a brisk playoff zephyr than any high-level cog on a given roster. Owner Arte Moreno pulled out of a deal with the Dodgers this winter that would’ve landed the team some sorely needed aid by way of Ross Stripling and Joc Pederson because he got tired of waiting for a Mookie Betts trade to be finalized. The whole thing was a terribly odd move for a guy who’s mandated his front office to rebuild and compete at the same time.

None of that sounds or looks good. It’s not all that defines the Angels in the last three-to-five years, though. A trio of starters also adds depth to the story. Garrett Richards and Matt Shoemaker flashed as talented pieces who could have led a sturdy rotation by generating more strikeouts and fewer walks than average. Health has always been an issue, though, and between the two of them, they only have one complete season as a starter (Richards in 2015). The Tyler Skaggs story is even more tragic. While the Angels have demonstrated their fair share of shortcomings, they’ve had just as much misfortune. Health and playing time are things projection systems don’t even try to touch.

Cincinnati Reds

The Reds have been quiet losers in a division that has boasted competitive Cardinals, Cubs, and Brewers clubs since 2015. For most of that time, Cincinnati had become an afterthought. Sure, they’ve had Joey Votto, but the club ranks 19th in wOBA in the last five years, with a .314 mark. Their starters are 26th in the same time frame and the bullpen has only been better than the Springfield Tire Fire Marlins. Jose Peraza, Scooter Gennett, and Zack Cozart all flashed big talent but never quite culminated in a start that could help buoy the team. None of Brandon Finnegan, John Lamb, or Cody Reed has been able to help the club since being acquired for Johnny Cueto. Aroldis Chapman was dealt in this time frame for another four players who by and large haven’t helped, either.

“By and large” is the key phrase there, though. Caleb Cotham came over in the Chapman deal. He made 23 relief appearances for the club in 2016 and retired the following March. He’s trained at Driveline, worked in player development at the Bledsoe Agency, and was hired by the Reds last year to be an assistant pitching coach. He, Derek Johnson, and Kyle Boddy on the coaching staff represent a changing tide in Cincinnati: one focused on top-tier communication and methodology. It’s already helped the Reds make enormous gains on the mound. A looser wallet from ownership has allowed the front office to add legitimate bats in Nick Castellanos, Mike Moustakas, and Shogo Akiyama. While the team’s leadership has been content to sit discreetly in the background, and fall short of expectations as a result, a new and modern approach could see them surging past what’s projected.

San Diego Padres

The Padres have done something that few teams can claim in the last 10 years: they’ve put together a top-10 bullpen for the entire decade. It hasn’t mattered much, though, because their starters have always lagged behind, both in velocity and results. Velocity has never mattered so much in baseball as it does now. It’s a trait that you have to have to even sit at the table with the big boys, and every tick more you have than someone else is a difference maker. Without it, San Diego has chafed its way to the third-worst starting pitching in baseball in the last five years.

Compounding on top of the club’s poor starting pitching has been its league-worst offensive output. Since 2015, the club has only mustered a .298 wOBA. Wil Myers and Manny Margot were acquired in trades by the middle of the 2015 season and were supposed to be bellwether prospects who led the team to greener pastures. Myers has been inconsistent and injured, and this offseason he and his salary became a reported hiccup in a Mookie Betts deal that would’ve drastically altered the outlook of the team. At 29, it’s beginning to be difficult to see the upside he offers. Meanwhile, Margot never put up better than part-time player production despite having a full-time role since 2017. He was traded to the Rays this offseason for another lock-down bullpen piece in Emilio Pagan.

Like the Reds, it’s easy to see how fast San Diego could be a seriously good team despite its recent history. They boast one of the deepest farm systems in baseball. They have gobs of starting pitchers with pitchability to complement top prospects like MacKenzie Gore and Luis Patino. Fernando Tatis, Jr. announced himself as a top talent in this golden age of shortstops last year. The club showed a willingness to spend when signing Manny Machado ahead of the 2019 season. Brighter days lay ahead.

Closing Thoughts

Between these four clubs, we can see how easily projections can miss on health and poor front office approach. It may seem reasonable to cough up a lot of the underwhelming performance to crummy luck in trades, but over time that shows itself as an issue of talent evaluation. This group also shows us that being bad doesn’t mean being bad forever and that a change in approach can stem the tide and offer hope in the matter of a single season. They offer everything we love about baseball, including the parts we forget.

Featured image by Justin Paradis (@freshmeatcomm on Twitter)

Tim Jackson

Tim Jackson is a writer and educator who loves pitching duels. Find him in the PL Discord, editing, managing, and podcasting with @BREAKINGPodPL here or writing at Baseball Prospectus.

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