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Thoughts on the Orioles and projection systems

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Don't like projection systems? Ignore 'em! Don't like what people are saying about the Orioles? Who cares? Just tune in to the game and watch the Birds kick some butt.

Patrick McDermott

There has been a lot of talk on Camden Chat lately about projection systems, and how despite the fact that the Orioles have been winning baseball games for three years now, many projection systems have predicted that the Orioles would continue to fail. Much of this discussion has come as a result of the BaseRuns system being used over at FanGraphs, and Dave Cameron's subsequent comments about the Orioles and that system in both his FanGraphs chat yesterday and an article he wrote today titled, "The Orioles and Accepting Random Variation."

The short version of this is that the Orioles have been good for three years running, which to many people indicates that the Orioles are actually a good baseball team. There must be something that the Orioles are doing that the projection system fails to calculate. The opposing point of view, and the one being expressed by Cameron, is that it's random. It's an outlier, it's luck, it's whatever you want to call it. And as a result the Orioles just aren't as good as their record expresses.

I don't know (or care, really) what numbers the BaseRuns system uses to make its projections or to say what the true win-level of teams is. I leave that up to the smarter people. But I understand what it's trying to do, and that is use certain numbers and statistics to accurately reflect the current talent of the team once you take out all of the randomness. As of today, that system says that the Orioles are at a true talent level of 63-56, which is one game worse than their evaluation of the Tampa Bay Rays and tied with the Blue Jays.

Orioles fans have been dealing with a lack of respect for our team for a long, long time. I think most of you would agree that for many years it was warranted. No matter what way you sliced it, the Orioles were terrible. On that Orioles fans, sportswriters, and sabermetricians could agree. When people did write about the Orioles, it was to say how bad they were. We as Orioles fans understood that, but that didn't mean we enjoyed reading it.

Then came 2012, and the Orioles were winning games again. Nobody believed the Orioles would stick. They had a huge one-run win record, they outperformed their run differential, they were playing at a higher level than then talent of their team would indicate. After winning 85 games last year, the Orioles are laying waste to the competition in 2014 and have all but locked up the A.L. East with six weeks left to play. The traditional media has finally come around on the Orioles, but you still have these pesky numbers saying that the Orioles really aren't that good. It's very frustrating to many Orioles fans that there is still this segment of the baseball population who won't come around on their team. Won't respect their team.

To those fans, I'm going to give you a little advice, and then I'm going to back it up with my beliefs on the value of these projection systems and how I prefer to use them.

My advice is this: forget about it. Enjoy the ride. The Orioles are playing amazing baseball right now. They haven't lost two games in a row since June. They are exciting and fun and they make me want to go to the ballpark every single night. Don't let anything get in the way of you enjoying that. If you can't stand to see what people like Dave Cameron are saying about the Orioles, don't read his chats. We have waited a long time for this, and no matter what anyone says, the Orioles are in first place with a huge lead. Unless something crazy and terrible happens, they are going to the playoffs for the second time in three years. That is awesome.

As far as actual projection systems go, they do have their merit. As has been mentioned in the comments here, every baseball team probably has some system that they use to try and determine if their players are playing above their heads or below their true talent levels. I'm sure the Orioles do it, and if they don't then they should. Dan Duquette and Buck Showalter need to know the likelihood that their players will continue at their current level so that they can continue to put together the best team that they can.

As a fan of a baseball team, or someone who writes about baseball, paying attention to projections for current players can help you keep informed to an extent so that you can make your own decisions about how you feel about the team, what you want them to do, what players you want them to sign/trade/release, etc. For me, I like to look at player projections like ZiPS in that way, and I think that it helps me be a better and more informed writer. But not all fans care about projections at all, and that's fine too. If you don't care, ignore them. Enjoy baseball however you enjoy baseball.

Where the projections guys lose me, personally, is when they start assigning win totals. Pre-season I don't pay much attention, but I don't mind them. For people who enjoy that kind of thing, talking about how many wins a team will get is a way to get excited about the upcoming season. Heck, Mark and I give our own predictions every year in the pre-season podcast (we're always wrong). But once the wins are in the books, the process of determining how many wins should be in the books is totally lost on me. I couldn't possibly care less about how many wins some math formula says my team should have. But some people do, and even though I don't understand it, I'm not going to judge how someone else is a baseball fan (unless they're a Red Sox fan, in which case I'm totally judging them).

Some people think that meat cooked on anything other than a charcoal grill is inferior. Does that keep me from enjoying my delicious steak that I prepared on a gas grill? Absolutely not. The same goes for how other people choose to enjoy baseball.