There are thousands upon thousands of ways the 2017 baseball season could end. The most likely scenario looks very similar to last year, with the Cubs beating either the Indians or Red Sox in the World Series after taking down the Dodgers in the NLCS.
And yet, even that — the outcome most of us would put money on if forced to — is pretty unlikely. Such is the nature of preseason projections and predictions. There is so much that can go wrong between now and the time when the outcome(s) of those predictions will be known that even the things we feel most confident right now about probably won’t actually occur.
Even still, preseason prognostications still bring with them a certain sense of optimism. The advent of spring training means that every team begins the season 0-0, and all, at least theoretically, have a shot at this being “the year.”
There are degrees to that optimism, however. While every team begins the season hoping that it’ll be the one left holding the trophy in a little over eight months, there is still a stark difference between realistic and unrealistic expectations. The Cubs can realistically expect to be that one team left standing. In fact, this season will likely be a disappointment if they are not.
And then there are teams like the Padres, who, if they believed such a thing, would inspire breathless columns about the need to temper their expectations. No team enters 2017 further away from baseball’s pinnacle than San Diego, and it’s not just because its stadium is under water. (The symbolism is a little heavy-handed, Mother Nature.)
I don’t just mean that in a “quick, name five Padres starters, and you can’t say Wil Myers” kind of way. There’s a good reason they’re such an anonymous group: both FanGraphs and Baseball Prospectus project them to be the worst team in the major leagues this season.
Padres’ 2017 projections
As far as worst teams in baseball go, 68 and 70 wins is actually a lot. You usually need to lose five or seven more, at least, than that to actually finish with the worst record. But projections are conservative at both the high and low ends; if they’re really the worst team in baseball like these two systems say they will be, you’re probably looking at something closer to 60 wins.
And while that is, again, the most likely scenario, it is certainly not the only one that could occur. As we stated in our very first sentence, there are many, many alternate universes in which the Padres don’t just fail to be the worst team in baseball, but are in fact one of the best. There is, hypothetically, a 2017 season in which the Padres win the World Series. It’s the least likely possibility, but it exists nonetheless.
That particular outcome would defy all logic and expectation, of course. Even in baseball, where if the game were a novel randomness would be one of its central themes, it’s almost impossible to imagine that happening.
The fact that they provide you with the most likely scenarios is one of the cooler things about projections systems, however. It gives us something to root for when we think a particular player isn’t actually as good as PECOTA says he should be. It gives Orioles fans something to scream and yell about every February. In this short window before the season actually starts, nobody can prove you wrong when you say, “Here. This is where the nerds just got it wrong this season.”
Baseball Prospectus give us even a little more insight than that, however. The PECOTA projections they make public every year are, as we just talked about, their 50th percentile projections. That means there is a wide swath of possibilities where those projections are wildly incorrect, on bot the low and high end. If you’re a BP subscriber and go to anyone’s player page, you’ll see all of those scenarios right there, from 10th percentile projections to 90th percentile, and everywhere in between.
Today, I’d like to talk about the latter, specifically as it relates to the probably awful Padres. We talked about the possibility of San Diego wildly exceeding their 2017 expectations, so what would that look like? How good would the Padres be if everyone currently projected to get significant playing time for the team hit their 90th percentile projection? With some simple math, we can find out.
First, let’s take a look at the Padres starting position players:
Padres starting position players 90th percentile projections
It’s surprising that Myers has only the third-best projection here considering he was pretty clearly the team’s best player last season. These are the 90th percentile projections, however, which is the very definition of a breakout season, so of course we’d be getting a few things we don’t expect.
Either way, this is obviously a fantastic starting lineup. Seven of the eight guys would be at least solidly above-average regulars, and Sardinas would certainly be passable at short. This group would definitely rival teams like the Cubs, Dodgers, Red Sox and Astros as the best starting eight in the majors.
But what would the bench look like?
Padres’ bench hitters/AAA call-ups 90th percentile projections
Now, this is obviously too many plate appearances, but we’ll get around to normalizing that later on. This is just to give you an idea of what’s possible.
Regardless, this would be a monstrously effective bench. Spangenburg and Dickerson, in particular, would be two of the most productive non-starters in the league, and their versatility would allow the Padres to seamlessly plug in one of them for virtually any starter in event of an injury.
Back here in reality, however, the thing that makes the Padres look to be the worst team in baseball right now is not their hitting, although that’s not great either. Rather, it’s their pitching — and specifically their starting pitching — that looks like it could be historically inept.
So here are the 90th percentile projections for every pitcher on the roster projected to get at least one start in 2017:
Padres starters 90th percentile projections
Again, this is the 90th percentile. In real life, this is a bad rotation. But even here in the best case scenario, there still aren’t any stars in the group. While that’s still not great, the depth of this staff would be nice.
To finish things out, let’s take a look at the bullpen:
Padres bullpen 90th percentile projections
No absolute superstars emerge from this group either, but it still would be a very good bullpen. Maurer, Buchter and Hand would be a great way to help the Padres close out games.
So now we get to the fun part, adding all of that up and comparing these alternative universe Padres to their competitors. The first thing we need to do is normalize these plate apperances for hitters and innings for pitchers. Add up all of those above tables, and San Diego would currently be projected for 6707 plate appearances and 1827 innings pitched, both of which are far too many.
Last season the average for a team in those two categories was 6153 plate appearances and 1443 innings, so we’ll normalize our numbers down to those two figures. Do the quick math and here is where we end up with our raw totals for both hitters and pitchers:
Padres normalized position player 90th percentile totals
Padres normalized pitcher 90th percentile totals
It’s not hard to recognize that that would be a pretty good team. But just how good would they be? Let’s simplify things a bit and use the run differential from those two tables to determine where the Padres would fit in in PECOTA’s current projected standings:
2017 projections w/ 90th percentile Padres
|Boston Red Sox||90||72||749||665||84||0.272||0.335||0.431||11.2|
|Tampa Bay Rays||84||78||723||692||31||0.245||0.310||0.407||15.0|
|New York Yankees||82||80||739||731||8||0.253||0.321||0.416||13.7|
|Toronto Blue Jays||81||81||768||767||1||0.257||0.332||0.432||12.0|
|Chicago White Sox||76||86||699||752||-53||0.256||0.309||0.404||-28.7|
|Kansas City Royals||71||91||680||780||-100||0.257||0.311||0.398||-3.3|
|Los Angeles Angels||78||84||718||749||-31||0.252||0.318||0.403||2.6|
|New York Mets||88||74||714||647||67||0.242||0.309||0.405||-3.1|
|St. Louis Cardinals||76||86||705||759||-54||0.253||0.317||0.411||-32.1|
|Los Angeles Dodgers||98||64||760||597||163||0.252||0.322||0.422||29.0|
|San Francisco Giants||86||76||702||652||50||0.258||0.321||0.399||21.1|
|San Diego Padres||??||??||780||591||189||0.284||0.345||0.461||29.0|
Put all those numbers together, and the 90th percentile Padres are the best team in baseball in all likelihood. For reference’s sake, the 2016 Cubs had a run differential of 252, so this isn’t necessarily an all-time great hypothetical team, but San Diego would obviously be okay with entering October as the clear-cut favorite.
Plus, these figures don’t even include baserunning, which is the one thing they’re actually elite at back here in reality. Their 90th-percentile baserunning totals would probably add a few more wins on top of what we’ve already projected above.
What’s surprising about this exercise is the lack of stars. There are a handful of very good players in this scenario, but no Padres would be likely to take home any of the major awards, with the possible exception of the Rookie of the Year for Manny Margot. Rather they would be awesome by having essentially no weaknesses. Every player on the roster would be a contributor.
So there you go. There does exist a scenario in which the San Diego Padres are the team to beat, and one of the best teams we’ve seen this decade. All it would take is every single player on their roster playing at or near their absolute full potential. Easy enough, right?
. . .
Joe Clarkin is a featured writer for Beyond the Box Score. You can follow him on Twitter at @Joe_Clarkin.