How You Felt About the 2018 Season

It’s time to do this all again. A few days ago, I ran an annual polling project, asking how you felt about the season that was, on a team-by-team basis. It might seem like a silly question, or it might seem like the results would be obvious, but tradition is tradition, and I always get a kick out of the data analysis. This is the data-analysis post. I suppose I’m under no obligation to share the results with the voting public, and I could just keep all the numbers to myself, but then I don’t know what the point of any of this would be. I already struggle enough to understand what the point of any of this is. Don’t need to make the problem worse.

To refresh your memories, that polling project included 30 polls, with one for each club. Here is an example of what the polls looked like:

And here’s an example of how the results looked, in percentage form:

It’s all very “soft,” if you will. The words themselves might mean different things to different people. It doesn’t obviously lend itself to easy data. But every year, I just want to know how fans felt about the seasons, overall, from start to finish. Some fans might love every season, regardless of success on the field. Other fans might be more critical. As I say every time, there are no right or wrong answers. That is, except for, well-

Some amount of trolling is unavoidable. I’ve always been instructed not to mess with sample data. But I refuse to believe that more than 9% of Red Sox fans just had a very bad experience. Similarly, I refuse to believe that about 10% of Orioles fans just had a very good experience. I’m not saying it’s impossible, but I am saying it’s extremely unlikely, so I’ve taken the liberty to delete obvious trolling entries. Maybe, by doing that, I’ll never get this article published in a peer-reviewed academic journal. I’ll live with what I’ve done. I do something like this every November, and I always want to fight against fake data. Very heroic of me, I know.

To kick off the analysis, let’s take a look at the voter distribution. You’re seeing the percentage of total votes that were submitted for each individual baseball team.

Every year, there’s a little bit of variation, but there are also distinct patterns. Of course teams like the Red Sox, Yankees, Cubs, and Dodgers have a larger FanGraphs footprint than teams like the Rangers, Marlins, Royals, and Diamondbacks. Fans of some teams have just about never shown up here in large numbers, because they might just not exist in large numbers. There’s also the reality that playoff teams will be somewhat over-represented, and non-playoff teams will be somewhat under-represented, because fans of non-playoff teams have had longer to check out. Fans of playoff teams have presumably been looking at FanGraphs more often of late. The effect might be smaller by now with the offseason very much underway, but it does exist.

I’ll note that, last time I did this, the Giants had the second-greatest participation. The Astros were fourth. Both those teams slipped this time around. I have no idea how to interpret the effect of the original post having been published in the middle of Election Day.

On to the more fun stuff. Let’s take a look at the average fan-experience ratings. As usual, I’ve assigned a number to each response in each poll, ranging from 1 to 5. A vote for a very bad experience would get a 1. A vote for a very good experience would get a 5. Therefore, 1 and 5, of course, are the limits. Last year’s overall average team rating was 3.07, and this year’s mark is 2.99. But last year’s overall median team rating was 2.67, while this year’s mark is 2.95. Perhaps a little bit more enjoyment of 2018.

The order is close to what you might think. I think I say it every time, but for as much as emotions and feelings are complicated, these polls always reveal that baseball fans are simple. You know what fans like, more than anything else? Watching a competitive baseball team. Even better if it’s a very competitive baseball team. The team with the best average rating is the team that won the most games and then won the World Series. The team with the worst average rating is the team that had one of the worst regular seasons in modern history. Playoff teams are more toward the left; non-playoff teams are more toward the right.

These ratings are a function of two things, primarily. One, they’re a function of team success, obviously. But two, they’re also a function of team success relative to preseason expectations. My simple math looked at actual winning percentage, and also the difference between actual winning percentage and preseason projected winning percentage. The correlations with the fan-experience ratings came out almost equally strong, just as they did last year. Granted, the winning-percentage difference somewhat folds in raw winning percentage as a variable, but it’s clear that, as elsewhere, satisfaction leans pretty heavily on the gap between results and expectations. You know, happiness. This isn’t an unknown phenomenon.

Expectations help to explain why the Brewers are so high. Ditto the A’s, Braves, and Rays, even though the A’s played just one playoff game, and the Rays played zero. I think the expectations are why the Astros, Yankees, Dodgers, and Indians are a little further to the right. The Cubs, too, of course. The Cubs had an overall good season, and they did make it to the playoffs, but their fan-experience rating here is between the Phillies and the Pirates. Cubs fans were looking for a lot more than they got. The trajectory of their season was disappointing.

Last year, for last place, there was a virtual tie between the Mets and the Giants. No tie this time. It’s the Orioles. How wouldn’t it be the Orioles? Remember, the Orioles entered the season thinking they had a chance to be competitive. Then the actual season happened and they lost more than 70% of their games. They also traded away the best player they’d developed in ages. Good times in Baltimore.

I’m not finished talking about the Orioles. For this next plot, you’re seeing each team’s actual rating against its “expected” rating, based on the variables mentioned above. The relationship is a tight one, but that doesn’t mean there aren’t teams above and below the line of best fit.

Which team finished above the line the most? That is, which team’s fans enjoyed the season more than you’d expect just based on record and expectations? It’s…the Orioles, with an actual rating of 1.25, and an expected rating of 0.39. Remember that the actual lower limit for any rating is 1. The Orioles should’ve been close to zero, if that were at all possible. Orioles fans enjoyed the season more than you’d think they would’ve, or, alternately, this polling format just isn’t equipped to capture the extent of the depths the Orioles plumbed.

The Dodgers are next. Even though they didn’t finish with an amazing record, and even though their final record underachieved their preseason projection, they did ultimately finish in first place, and they made it back to the World Series. Fans like it when their team reaches the World Series, even if it leads to a loss. The Brewers are in third. Brewers fans, by and large, had a great time. Even though they didn’t come completely out of nowhere, they weren’t expected to win the NL Central, and they weren’t expected to get to the seventh game of the NLCS. Not too many disappointed Brewers fans out there.

Flipping things around, then, by a pretty healthy margin, the biggest team-rating underachiever is the Mariners. The Mariners finished with a pretty good record, and the Mariners overachieved. Their expected rating was 3.81. Their actual rating was 2.91, putting them between the Cardinals and the Angels. I don’t think this is a tough one to figure out — despite all the Mariners’ success, their success was almost entirely in the first half, and then the second half was a nightmare, which saw the Mariners collapse and the A’s streak right by. The Mariners surrendered what had been a pretty huge wild-card lead. Bad season. Difficult offseason.

After the Mariners, we find the Marlins. I never know what to do with the Marlins. And then there are the Twins. Twins fans never saw their team get going. Instead, they followed along with a lost season by Byron Buxton. I guess Willians Astudillo wasn’t enough to salvage the year. We all have our different likes and dislikes.

As the last plot, here is how every team’s rating changed from 2017:

A surge for the Braves, and a surge for the A’s. A smaller surge for the Red Sox, and a similar surge for the Rays. The Red Sox won the World Series, after a 2017 season that had let a lot of people down. The others are stories of young teams arriving ahead of time. Even though the Rays didn’t make the playoffs, they did set themselves up well for the future, and then it was also just a fascinating regular season from an analytical perspective, with the team mixing and matching and introducing the opener. You remember how people thought about the Rays back in March. For them to win 90 games was almost inconceivable, according to the popular consensus.

And then no one dropped quite like the Twins. A year ago, only one team gained more than the Twins. It’s been a wild four years, emotionally speaking. In 2015, when I first ran this project, the Twins’ average rating was eighth-best in baseball. In 2016, second-worst. In 2017, fourth-best. In 2018, sixth-worst. The Twins can’t figure out what they’re supposed to be. There’s been some somewhat similar volatility with the Diamondbacks. Nationals fans, obviously, didn’t think much of what they just saw for six months. That was no way for the Bryce Harper era to (presumably) come to a close.

The final thing I’ll point out is that votes were the most concentrated for the Red Sox. That makes plenty of sense. Their season was almost flawless. But votes were the most spread out for the Yankees. As good as the Yankees were, the Red Sox were better, and there was a distinct sense that the team was underachieving. It’s why there’s been so much criticism of manager Aaron Boone. Votes were also spread out for the Dodgers, perhaps because fans are growing increasingly tired of doing well without doing the best. The team with the third-most spread was the Tigers for some reason, and then in terms of percentages, the team with the lowest “high vote” was the Padres, with 33% of people saying they had a pretty bad experience. Another 33% said they had a decent experience. Rebuilds can feel somewhat positive, but never across the board, never for everyone. I will write this sentence, and only this sentence, about Eric Hosmer.

So we’ve done it again. Nothing more to be said up here. Thank you all for your participation. I love you.

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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.

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