Tim Marchman
Tuesday March 31st, 2009

Like anyone else who writes about baseball, I like to think I know what I'm most accurate about, which makes it a good thing for my self-esteem that I don't spend much time going over old predictions. A quick review shows that over the last two years I've called just six of 16 playoff teams correctly. There are likely circus animals who did better.

If I were a lone fraud that would be bad for me, but rival writers aren't much more impressive. The problem is that these calls are usually made on intuition, a polite word for rank bias. Two years ago I thought that Milwaukee would win its division, and last year that Arizona would do the same, not because I was delusional but because I'm prejudiced in favor of teams with a lot of young players coming into their primes. With a preference for players who have been there before, I might have picked St. Louis and Colorado, clubs that were coming off pennants. I'd still have been wrong.

The antidote to bias is a system. Which kind of a system it is probably matters less than the fact that it deals with a lot of information and that it's objective. Over the last two years, while I was making calls at a 38 percent accuracy rate, Las Vegas ran at 56 percent while working off of money flows, essentially as good as the 59 percent that Baseball Prospectus' PECOTA program hit. Smart bookmaking, like sound math, can fail in various ways: Las Vegas tends to underrate unproven teams, while statistical systems can't account for an especially good or bad manager. But neither fails so comprehensively as someone working off suspicion and assumption.

That said, when I wrote down my predictions for the coming season and then checked them against the odds from an online bookmaker, they were in near perfect accord -- strange given that only one team, the Chicago Cubs, seems to have a true lock on its division this year. I may be getting wiser, or the system's wiring may be burnt. Either way, perhaps the state of the majors this season isn't quite so unsettled as it first appears.

In the American League East we're in for a fantastic race. Tampa Bay, Boston and New York are the three best clubs in the game, and at least one of them is going to finish out of the money. Along with the punters I think it's going to be Tampa Bay, less because of any failing on their part than because of the competition. Boston has both absurd depth and stars such as Josh Beckett who are capable of playing at a level that Tampa Bay's best haven't quite reached yet; New York's roster is gristly and jury rigged, but not so much so that they won't make best use of the $440 million (!) they spent this winter. However the standings line up, this could be the best race of the six-division era.

Two years ago the American League Central seemed near becoming a glamour division in its own right. It didn't and won't, which is fine; glamour doesn't suit its cities. Cleveland is the favorite, which is a mild shame. Who wants to pick such a relentlessly unimpressive team? This lot had to play .640 ball over its final 50 games last year just to finish at 81-81, despite Cliff Lee's unnervingly great pitching and an MVP-class campaign by Grady Sizemore. Even so, it's the best team in the division. Detroit has good odds of giving its town a well-earned diversion with a title run, though it's hard to be too enthusiastic about a team that boasts Edwin Jackson as its nominal No. 2 starter.

The AL West harbors a mystery: Sharp people keep claiming to like Oakland. Admittedly the club is bringing back the mighty Jack Cust, who last year joined Mickey Mantle and Babe Ruth as one of the few players ever to lead the league in both walks and strikeouts. Still, whatever Cust's significant merits, if Oakland were to win the division it would be the first team I can recall doing so without a starting rotation. Meanwhile the over/under line loves Los Angeles, picking the Angels as one of just two 90-win teams outside the East, and dislikes Oakland. The Angels may not actually be one of the five best teams in baseball, or the best team in their own city, but they have terrific frontline pitching, lots of good hitters and a vaunted, if mostly illusory, technical offense. There's no reason to pick against them.

Once we cross into the National League East, we reach the one area where I part ways with the book. I should first tell you a trade secret, which is that any baseball writer who claims not to have a favorite team is lying, albeit possibly to himself as well as you. This largely has to do with the cult of professionalism; for obscure reasons sportswriters are afraid that the public will think them incapable of being fair and neutral if they admit to rooting interests. The point here is that I grew up in New York City going to games at Shea Stadium, and as such what Las Vegas, PECOTA, common sense and my own eyes tell me is utterly irrelevant. Philadelphia is going to win the division by a game on the last day of the season. I'm certain of it, that's my pick and I'm sticking to it.

While New York fans are dying, North Side fans will be vaunting, because Chicago has no real competition in the Central. This team probably peaked last year; Derrek Lee, Alfonso Soriano and Aramis Ramirez are all at an age when you expect a bat to slow, and the innings are starting to show on Carlos Zambrano's arm. Still, no other team has close to as much talent, even granting that so long as St. Louis has Albert Pujols it will probably be able to win 85 games a year with a bizarre mix of fourth outfielders, No. 6 starting pitchers and minor league veterans that no one has ever heard of.

Finally we end in the National League West, which has enjoyed some terrific races over the last few years and probably isn't in for one this year. Because St. Louis, Atlanta and Milwaukee are so gravely flawed, and because the Curse of Madoff makes it metaphysically impossible for New York to make the playoffs, the process of elimination leaves us with two playoff spots for the West. As it turns, there also happen to be only two good teams in the West, a conclusion with which our online bookmaker concurs. Like the linemakers, I think Arizona is the better of them. Its top two of Brandon Webb and Dan Haren is brutal, the lineup is full of players just coming into their prime and Justin Upton is a freak prodigy, the kind of player capable of winning an MVP award at 21. Los Angeles, with its brilliant young pitchers and various outfield freak shows, is probably behind, but only by a little.

There, then, you have one set of season predictions: In the American League, Boston, Cleveland and Los Angeles as the division winners with New York as the wild card; in the National League, Philadelphia, Chicago and Arizona as the division winners with Los Angeles as the wild card. In the World Series: Red Sox over Cubs (that was last year's pick as well so I figure it's bound to happen eventually). Measured against an excellent quantitative model, these picks are still corrupted by irrational bias. I stand by them, but I wouldn't recommend betting on them.

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