Sure, the offseason is still technically happening, but as of last week, spring training is underway. And traditionally, that means one thing: It’s time to hope. It’s time for fans of the best teams to hope for a championship. And it’s time for fans of the worst teams to hope for a surprise — a Cinderella run toward relevance. The regular season itself slams shut doors of possibility. Right now, all doors remain open.
Hope is different everywhere. And in part, hope is informed and moderated by preseason projections. Teams and fans aren’t going into spring training blind. Once rosters get more or less set, different analytical services use prior data to project what’s likely to happen. Here are the current projected 2018 standings at FanGraphs. There will be shifts between now and Opening Day, but they probably won’t be dramatic. Right there, you can get an informed idea of which teams look solid and which teams look weak.
From the fan perspective, maybe mathematical projections rob us of the fun of the unknowable. It’s clear the White Sox are rebuilding, but the projections make it clear how far they still have to go. Without the math, it might be easier to dream. But allow me to let you in on a little secret: Projections aren’t destiny. Projections don’t work against hope. They just make clearer what’s being hoped for.
I’m going to talk about three teams I think could be major surprises — that is, major surprises in a good way, relative to the projections. Before I get there, I’d like to provide some prior examples. I have a sheet of preseason team projections stretching all the way back to 2005. Over 13 years, several teams, of course, have been projected to be below average, or worse. Many of those teams were below average. But some were very successful. Among my favorites:
• The 2005 White Sox were projected to win 79 games. They won 99 games — and the World Series.
• The 2015 Royals were projected to win 79 games. They won 95 games and the World Series.
• The 2012 Orioles were projected to win 70 games. They won 93 games and lost in the American League Division Series.
• And the 2017 Diamondbacks were projected to win 77 games. They won 93 games and lost in the National League Division Series.
Those aren’t the only overachievers. They’re just, shall we say, inspiring ones. Who might overachieve this year, among the current below-average ballclubs?