Predicting division races a tall task

By Dave Fultz

It’s that time of year again, folks! That’s right — it’s time for the annual crapshoot that is trying to predict all of the outcomes in the upcoming baseball season.

Despite many attempts by sabermetricians – researchers who study baseball statistics – to come up with a way to predict player and team performance, no perfect system exists.

One of the most accurate prediction tools over the past few seasons has been the PECOTA projection, of Baseball Prospectus.

PECOTA was created in 2002 by Nate Silver, a BP writer.

Primarily used to predict individual player performance, the system can also be used to predict team performance in terms of what really matters, wins and losses.

Despite being perhaps the most accurate of projection models available, the system still isn’t perfect.

From 2003 to 2007, PECOTA’s average error – between predicted team wins and the actual performance – was very impressive, down to just 4.31 wins on average in 2007.

All that said, I don’t have the power of PECOTA at my disposal, nor would I be intelligent enough to use it, so I’ll be making my predictions the old-fashioned way.

I’ve put down subjective baseball analysis as much as the next guy, but there really is no better way to do predictions than to shoot from the hip.

So here goes nothin’.

AL EAST: RED SOX

This is the easiest division for me to pick this year because the perennial front runners in the division – the Red Sox and the Yankees – haven’t changed much in the offseason.

This opening day, the Sox will trot out 22 of the 25 players that won them a ring in 2007. No World Series winner has returned more players in more than two decades.

Sure, they added more youth to the rotation with Jon Lester and Clay Buchholz taking over full-time jobs in ’08, but they have the deepest organization from top to bottom in all of baseball.

If any problems arise, the Fenway faithful should rest easy as General Manager Theo Epstein has the money, savvy and smarts to right the ship.

The rest (in order): Yankees, Blue Jays, Rays, Orioles.

AL CENTRAL: TIGERS

The Tigers won 88 games last season and still finished well behind the young and very impressive Cleveland Indians, in what turned out to be one of the toughest divisions in all of baseball.

This year should be no different in terms of difficulty, but I see Detroit coming out on top after adding one of the game’s best hitters in Miguel Cabrera and a solid lefty in Dontrelle Willis during the offseason.

I’ve got Cleveland taking the wildcard in the AL and ousting the Yankees from the playoffs. The Indians’ rotation and young bats will get this team past the 90 win mark again in 2008.

The rest: White Sox, Twins, Royals.

AL WEST: ANGELS

The Angels will take this division again this year. After winning 94 games last season, they added Torii Hunter and Jon Garland while not losing much. It also doesn’t hurt their chances that the others in the division didn’t do much either.

The rest: Mariners, Rangers, A’s.

NL EAST: METS

This division will be another tough battle all season, but you can’t bet against the Mets to take the crown this year. After coming so close last year and adding the best pitcher in baseball over the winter, they’ll be able to outlast the Phillies this year.

I’ve got Philly taking the wild card in the NL on the strength of their young hitters. Jimmy Rollins, Chase Utley and Ryan Howard in the same order is just plain scary.

The rest: Braves, Marlins, Nationals.

NL CENTRAL: CUBS

The Cubs return a pitching staff that was one of the best in the NL last season – 2nd in runs allowed, 2nd in ERA and 1st in strikeouts – and added help to a lineup that struggled mightily in ’07.

Japanese import Kosuke Fukudome and top catching prospect Geovany Soto should add more production, and the rumored addition of Orioles’ All-Star second baseman Brian Roberts would put this team over the top.

The Brewers should make it a tough race all season. With young talent to burn, Milwaukee is a team that could challenge for the wildcard.

The rest: Reds, Astros, Cardinals, Pirates.

NL WEST: PADRES

This was probably the toughest for me to choose, so honestly I just put the top three – the Padres, Rockies and Diamondbacks – in a hat and pulled the Padres out.

All three had great seasons in ’07 and have made tweaks that could keep them great in 2008.

The Padres have an outstanding rotation anchored by Jake Peavy and could win 90-plus games to take the division in a walk, but it’ll be a fight all year.

The rest: Diamondbacks, Rockies, Dodgers, Giants.

POSTSEASON

As hard as it is to predict the regular season, the playoffs are even tougher. While my early season favorites are the Red Sox and Tigers for obvious reasons, I’m thinking of something a little more historic.

Wouldn’t it be nice to see the Indians win their first title in more than 50 years? What about the Padres winning their first World Series ever? Or maybe even the Cubs could end their 100-year slump and make this fan a very happy guy?

All right, that last one was crazy talk. But in the playoffs, anything can happen.

Dave Fultz is a junior in Communications. He can be reached at [email protected]