Sunday, April 05, 2009

Baseball Previews

The headline of this post is not a typo. There is no force on earth except money that could get me to write another baseball season preview article, or indeed, a season preview of any sport. Making predictions for one game or series is pointless and futile. Doing so for six months worth of athletic activity is the sort of hubris that leads to a very bad final 15 minutes for the protagonists of many classic Greek dramas.

But I will teach my loyal readers how to READ baseball (and other sports) previews. In fact, I'll teach you how to write your own.

The first rule of predictions and previews is, don't put in too much effort. It's a matter of return on investment. Your chances of being humiliatingly wrong or, worse, boring and conventionally correct remain the same whether you employ diligent study of 30 major league rosters and abstruse mathematical formulas for forecasting or a brief stroll through the Web site. This is because of rule 2.

2. What happened last time is very, very often what's going to happen this time. This is especially true of individual baseball players. Albert Pujols, barring injury, is not going to hit .240 this season. Daisuke Matsuzaka will not compile a 5-12 record. Teams, being comprised of individuals, tend to follow this trend. The Washington Nationals stunk last year and will do so again. The Red Sox were contenders, and will be so again. So the forecasters should look at last year's standings and plug in 90 percent of the teams in the same position they finished in 2008.

3. Players move around. The changes baseball previews DO predict for the new season are invariably based on the imagined effects of free agent acquisitions. Forecasters ignore the very real holes in the lineup and starting rotation of the New York Mets because the Mets have acquired relievers Francisco Rodriguez and J. J. Putz. This gives the preview a reason to choose the Mets to finish ahead of the Phillies in the NL East. Got to have reasons. Fortunately, reasons need not be good ones.

4. Mediocre teams are the hardest to analyze. Therefore, don't. The "best" teams in American League Central and National League West are as full of negatives as they are of positives. Just guess. If you like/hate Manny Ramirez your sentiments are as good a means of predicting what will happen to the Dodgers as any other. Blindfolded dart-throwing is sufficient for the AL Central, because that's what many games played in the division will resemble.

5. Allow for home team windage. A brief survey of the Boston and New York papers shows that most forecasters in Boston like the Sox to win the AL East, while most in New York pick the Yanks. (My old pal Tony Massarotti picked the Rays, a fine example of sticking to rule 2 of this guide). Despite what you might think, this is not sleazy homerism for marketing purposes. The reporters are suffering from spring training syndrome a/k/a optimism osmosis.

Baseball teams are more psychologically isolated in spring training than at any other time, which is saying something. They are also legendarily optimistic about the upcoming season. This is a mental survival mechanism. Since most teams don't contend, if an individual isn't feeling good about himself in March, August is going to be a grimmer experience than postmodernist fiction.

Baseball reporters cover spring training. They are surrounded by and absorb the atmosphere of good cheer. It lingers. And come April, when preview time rolls around, sober, cynical scribes of longstanding wind up ignoring possible problems for the teams they cover, such as C. C. Sabathia weighing more than a nose tackle by Memorial Day, or Jason Varitek's very real chance of obtaining no hits with men on base in 2009. I guarantee that SOMEONE in the Kansas City Star's baseball preview has told readers the Royals could be the Rays of this summer. I suspect the employees of the gambling industry firms who set the season-win over-under totals out in Vegas are not permitted to watch March baseball, read about it, or watch ESPN until Opening Day.

6. The hardest part. Baseball previews are written because fans like to read them. Nothing cheers up a fan like thinking a sportswriter is wrong, and being able to say so in a loud voice. In order to provide fair value, the previewer must have some opinion that is designed to make his conventional wisdom stick out from everybody else's conventional wisdom. Some contrarianism is essential.

Alas, baseball writing is as subject to groupthink as any other human endeavor. So it was with a sinking feeling of sympathetic dread that I read my former professional peers this morning. The overwhelming consensus favorite choice of previewers as the eventual 2009 World Champions is the Chicago Cubs.

Gang, you all forgot Rule 2!!!!


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