The Most- and Least-Improved Teams for 2014

Here’s the thing about projections: we always want them to get better, but we never want them to be perfect. Not that perfect is anywhere within our grasp, but in the hypothetical reality where we knew for sure what was going to happen, sports would be ruined. We don’t want to know the future — we just want to think we do, so we can talk about and analyze things that haven’t fully played out. With that in mind, hey look, we have complete combined 2014 data for Steamer and ZiPS!

We have combined 2014 season projections, and we have author-generated team-by-team depth charts. So what we have is an idea of the projected upcoming standings, an intelligent declaration of how things will go that we know will look kind of silly in six months. Reality always deviates from the projections, but that doesn’t mean the projections are valueless, and I thought it could be worth looking at which teams appear the most and least improved from last season.

The simplest approach: a raw comparison of 2013 team WAR to projected 2014 team WAR. Now, that might not seem right to you. Projections are based around estimated true talent. Last season’s raw WAR doesn’t capture true talent — it captures true talent +/- a whole lot of luck. But the way people always think about this is, the most recent record was the “real” record. Which teams stand to post the most- and least-improved records? Just because last year’s Astros were worse than they should’ve been doesn’t mean they didn’t happen. Ask anybody. They happened.

I’ll spoil something right away — of course, a phenomenon you’re going to notice is regression to the mean. Last year’s worst teams ought to do better. Last year’s best teams ought to do worse. The standings can sometimes exaggerate the real spread of talent, and over a bigger sample, you expect teams to play closer to average. The lists you’re going to see aren’t just in order of 2013 record, but there’s a definite correlation.

Now then, the whole process was simple. For each team, I added up 2013 WAR. Then I went to this page to track down the projected 2014 WAR. Ervin Santana is still out there as a meaningful free agent, but not a lot about this is going to change on account of someone signing Ervin Santana. I did have to make one adjustment, because right now the projected 2014 WARs add up to something well over 1,000. Once that was adjusted down, it became a matter of simple sorting and subtraction.

We’ll begin with the ten most-improved teams:

  • Astros, +18 WAR
  • Phillies, +12
  • Mariners, +11
  • Marlins, +8
  • Yankees, +8
  • Blue Jays, +8
  • Padres, +8
  • White Sox, +6
  • Twins, +5
  • Brewers, +4

One interesting thing about the Astros: they project to be way, way better this year than last. Another interesting thing about the Astros: they still project for the second-lowest WAR in baseball, between the Twins and the Marlins. That’s a better team, an improved team, but it’s still a bad team with a handful of shinier pieces. While neither Dexter Fowler nor Scott Feldman is a widely-recognized superstar, they’re hints of adequacy on a roster with a greater degree of adequacy and depth. Improvements tend to be swiftest at the start, and last season was a disaster.

I’ll note that, between 2003-2004, the Tigers went from about 2 WAR to about 33. There were different players, but not as many as you might expect. Ivan Rodriguez didn’t hurt the cause. The Astros didn’t pick up an Ivan Rodriguez, but it’s not like they’re feeling a real sense of urgency.

The Phillies, in a sense, are a positive regression case. They also added A.J. Burnett, Roberto Hernandez, Miguel Gonzalez, and Marlon Byrd, so while they also don’t project very well, they should be in the hunt a little longer. It pains me to say that the Phillies should be better for no longer having Roy Halladay. It pains me less to say they should be better for no longer having Delmon Young.

It’s not surprising to see the Mariners, because they made the biggest splash of all by signing Robinson Cano. Nearby, you also see Cano’s former team, which elected to replace him with Jacoby Ellsbury, Brian McCann, and Masahiro Tanaka. So, the Mariners benefited by adding a star. The Yankees lost one star and added three, which is a different approach. In between, there are the Marlins, who if nothing else should get twice the year from Giancarlo Stanton.

The Blue Jays should be able to look ahead to better health and fewer black holes. As much as theirs has been an offseason of inactivity, they should get better just by staying the same. The Padres, meanwhile, have put together a fairly interesting rotation, and a rotation that includes none of Edinson Volquez, Clayton Richard, and Jason Marquis. While San Diego might be the worst team in the NL West at the moment, they’re also a more or less average team in a division that’s light on great but heavy on depth.

Now to turn things around and look at the other end of the spreadsheet:

  • Red Sox, -16 WAR
  • Tigers, -14
  • Rays, -8
  • Braves, -8
  • Athletics, -8
  • Reds, -7
  • Rangers, -7
  • Royals, -6
  • Orioles, -6
  • Pirates, -5

A lot of people have asked how the Red Sox are going to survive the losses of Ellsbury, Jarrod Saltalamacchia, and Stephen Drew. Similarly, people have observed that the Tigers have downgraded by losing guys like Doug Fister, Jhonny Peralta, and Prince Fielder. Absolutely, it looks like both teams will step back. But one has to understand just how good these teams were a year ago. The Red Sox had the highest team WAR in baseball. The Tigers came in second. The Rays were in third, a full ten WAR behind Detroit. These teams could afford to lose some ground, and even still they look like the favorites to win each of their respective divisions. The Red Sox will be in a battle, but they have plenty of organizational depth. The Tigers have less depth, but also should have less of a struggle to reach the Division Series.

All of these are at least fairly good teams. They were all good teams in 2013. The Rays are projected to regress a little bit in a lot of different places. The Braves have spent the offseason signing players they already had, and they’re also projected for an accumulation of little regressions. Same story for the A’s, although Josh Donaldson is projected for more than a little regression. Last year, he was worth almost eight wins. This year he’s pegged for a little over four. It’s worth noting the A’s lost Bartolo Colon and don’t have the same rotation depth. They have all kinds of depth in the field.

The Reds simply haven’t done anything, and they’ve lost Shin-soo Choo. Projections expect less from the stars that remain. The Rangers have some pitching-staff issues to work out given the injured Derek Holland and the absent Joe Nathan. The Royals and Orioles have made some offseason additions, but the Royals remain a good deal behind the Tigers and the projections just aren’t quite buying the breakouts of Chris Davis and Manny Machado. Finally, we’ve talked about the Pirates regressing for months, and they could really end up missing A.J. Burnett. There are interesting pieces to possibly lift them up within the system, but the Pirates haven’t moved forward since finally getting back to October and a repeat performance doesn’t seem to be so obviously in the cards.

All the other teams — they’re within two of last year’s total WAR. Funny how that one worked out. At present, the Giants, Cardinals, and Angels are projected to be the exact same. The divisions around them have changed, but they haven’t, so much. At least until we observe the unpredictable. Then we’ll be like, welp, so much for everything we talked about before.

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Jeff made Lookout Landing a thing, but he does not still write there about the Mariners. He does write here, sometimes about the Mariners, but usually not.