Predicting the Los Angeles Dodgers' Regular Season Record
The Los Angeles Dodgers are expected to be one of Major League Baseball’s winningest teams this season, at least if you believe the early prognostications. Baseball analyst Jason Stark from ESPN.com's 'MLB's 5 Most and Least Improved Teams" to Vegas odds specialist Steve Mikkelson predict that the Dodgers will have one of the highest regular season win totals in the game.
Accurately projecting regular season wins is an inexact science at best. The dozens of predictions you are sure to read between now and March 31 are even less reliable (read this article from FanGraphs which explains the difference between projections and predictions in great detail).
Given all the variables that affect the outcome of a 162-game season, I won't be flying out to Vegas in the coming weeks to lay money on this. But that won’t stop me from risking my journalistic integrity by boldly predicting a rosy outcome for the Dodgers during the regular season.
My prediction is largely based on the regular season results of similarly-constructed teams from the past five seasons. That leads to the obvious question of which teams over that time span were built like the Dodgers?
So just how giddy should Los Angeles fans be with Opening Day soon approaching? Let's see what the recent data tells us.
Teams with Top 5 Payrolls in Major League Baseball
Los Angeles enters the 2013 season with the highest payroll in MLB, so looking at other teams with top-five payrolls since 2008 was a good place to start. However, recent data proves that payroll rank is not a very reliable predictor of regular season success.
Only seven of MLB’s 30 franchises have finished in the top five in payroll over the past five years, and the results have been mixed.
Although 18 of those 25 teams (five per season) have finished with winning records, the average number of wins for all 25 teams is a shade over 87 games. Only nine teams managed to win 90 or more games in a season, so there is truth to the idea that, in baseball you cannot buy victories, let alone championships.
So why does a bloated payroll not guarantee regular season success in a league with no salary cap?
Baseball, unlike basketball, is not a sport where one or two superstars can take over a game and single-handedly lead a team to victory. Baseball is a highly specialized game where multiple players have to do their jobs well in order for the team to win.
It is nearly impossible to win a game without at least nine players contributing to the outcome. If even one of those players has a particularly bad night, it can lead to certain defeat.
With a 25-man roster, every team has holes at certain positions and/or imperfect superstars. The Dodgers and their $213 million payroll are no different.
Some of L.A.’s most expensive players—specifically Matt Kemp, Andre Ethier, Hanley Ramirez, Carl Crawford and Josh Beckett—enter this season with serious questions about their performance.
Among teams with exorbitant payrolls, having a handful of high-risk, high-reward players is not a problem unique to the Dodgers. The New York Yankees are losing superstars at an alarming rate this year, crippling their ability to field a quality ball club.
When trying to make an accurate prediction regarding the Dodgers’ win total, it would be foolish not to consider the odds of at least one or two of their best players not living up to preseason expectations. That is a potential problem that money just cannot solve.
Top 5 in the National League in Team ERA, Runs Scored and Fielding Percentage
So if having one of the highest-paid teams in MLB doesn’t guarantee a successful campaign, what does? It helps to have a team that can pitch, hit and field the ball exceptionally well.
To determine this, I looked at every National League team in the last five years that finished in the top five in at least two of these three statistical categories: Team ERA, Total Runs and Fielding Percentage. Of the 19 teams that qualified, all but one—the 2012 Dodgers, who finished 13th in runs scored—also finished in the top 10 in the third category.
Eighteen of the 19 teams finished with winning records (the 2012 Arizona Diamondbacks finished 81-81), with an average record of 91.8 wins per season.
Los Angeles was not only one of five teams that met the on-field requirements listed in 2012, but it has done so in three of the last four seasons (every year except 2010). This suggests that even before the massive influx of high-priced talent, the Dodgers were well positioned to play winning baseball in 2013.
Predicted 2013 Wins Total
As I mentioned before, there is a ton of uncertainty surrounding this team.
Several Dodgers are working their way back from major surgery or other significant injuries. It is also too early to tell how well the newest players will perform in their first full seasons playing in Los Angeles, especially with the enormous pressure the team will face to win immediately.
I certainly do not expect all of the Dodgers to perform exceptionally well, but it is also reasonable to assume that this team will not be nearly as unfortunate with injuries as it was in 2012.
When also considering the recent performance of similar teams and the strength of the National League West, I think a 93-69 record is a fair expectation for the Dodgers. That should be enough to win the division and put Los Angeles in position to return to the World Series for the first time since 1988.