Optimism bias in the off-season OR “This is the Orioles’ year”

A quick pointer to an outstanding article that you Sabermetrically inclined folk might be interested in.  Over at the Wages of Wins blog, we find a post on how GM’s are far too optimistic when signing free agents.  (A polite hat tip to Phil Birnbaum, who has an excellent take on his blog.)  The authors use this year’s Baltimore Orioles as their starting point and how the Orioles splashed out a lot of cash for relievers Jamie Walker, Danys Baez, and Chad Bradford, in the free agent market on the assumption that this would solve their woes.  Despite these three, the Orioles are in familiar territory, fourth place in the AL East, 9 games under .500.  Last year, the Orioles were 72-90, and they’re on that pace again.  Although last year the Orioles were just a game off their Pythagorean projection, while this year, they’re 5 below what might be expected.
The authors of the original article at Wages of Wins argue that the Orioles front office suffered from a major bout of optimism bias in their signings.  Relievers are notoriously unpredictable, and the three relievers in question have had their ups and downs, but the authors suggest that baseball GMs in general only look at the ups, while minimizing the downs when picking which free agents to sign.  (Ever hear the phrase “He’s got a lot of upside”?)  Part of it is surely PR for the fans so that they’ll have a reason to buy tickets.  The team can’t very well go out and say, “Yeah, so we signed Smith, but it’s likely that he’ll have an awful year given his last two seasons…”  That’s depressing.  Instead, we hear, “Think of what he did in 2003 and 2004.  We think he’s still got some of that and over the past few years he’s been (unlucky, on a bad team, injured, not used properly, secretly dating Paris Hilton).”
Plenty of fans in the off-season greet the latest free-agent signing with cries of “This is our year!” and “This is the guy who will finally put us over the top.”  Or in the case of the Royals with Gil Meche, out from the bottom.  Watch any team-specific baseball board after a big (or medium sized!) free agent signing.  You’ll see 20 guys convinced that the questionable player they just signed will revert to being the world-beater he once was rather than the Average Joe he has been recently.  But it also looks like GMs fall prey to this bias too and over-spend on what they wish and hope will happen rather than what is likely to happen.
However, with respect to the Orioles, Phil B. thinks that something else is going on and I agree with him.  Take a look at the Orioles’ rosters for 2006 and 2007.  From their offensive starters of last year, seven of nine return with Jeff Conine in LF becoming Jay Payon, while Javy Lopez gives way at DH to Aubrey Huff.  Looking just at OPS+, Lopez and Conine were 87 and 88, respectively, while Payton and Huff have put up an 87 and an 83.  Not a perfect replacement, but in general, the Orioles’ offense is still much the same from last year.  The starters last year were Erik Bedard (back), Daniel Cabrera (back), Kris Benson (currently Steve Trachsel… a bit of a loss from Benson), Adam Loewen (back), and Jeremy Guthrie (an improvement over Rodrigo Lopez), so we’ll call the rotation break-even from last year.  The closer is still Chris Ray. 
So, all that really changed is the passage of a year and the bullpen.  Baez, Walker, and Bradford (along with lefty John Parrish) have replaced Todd Williams, LaTroy Hawkins, Chris Britton, and Sendy Rleal as the four primary relievers.  A comparison of the combined season lines for the four gentlemen from 2006 vs. the combined projections for the 2007 crew:
2006 corps: 217.2 IP, 243 H, 26 HR, 74 BB, 1.456 WHIP, 111 SO, 103 ER, 4.26 ERA
2007 corps: 248.2 IP, 246 H, 18 HR, 114 BB, 1.448 WHIP, 176 SO, 130 ER, 4.71 ERA
So, the new group of relievers issues more walks (but fewer hits), strikes more batters out, has a higher ERA, but eats up more innings.  Baez has done most of the damage and now he’s on the DL, but if you look at Bradford and Walker’s stats, they’re pretty much on pace to meet their career 162-game averages.  So on two out of three purchases, Baltimore got what was advertised (and as Meatloaf reminds us, two out of three ain’t bad). 
But what exactly did the Orioles front office and their fans think would happen with the three new relievers in the fold?  I say they fell prey to an even bigger version of optimism bias.  Not only did they expect the three new relievers to pitch beautifully, but they expected that this would solve all of their problems, and that a 162-0 season was just around the corner.  While they were at it, Baez would negotiate an end to all wars, Walker would end homelessness, and Bradford would cure cancer.  That was rather silly of them.  A reliever’s biggest job is to protect leads, and even the best relievers are only a little bit better than the spare parts.  The new guys probably have had an effect of a couple wins.  Given that Baltimore needed 9 more wins just to get to .500 this year, how exactly was this supposed to be the move that finally pushed them over the Yankees and Red Sox?
If you close your eyes and hope, you can make yourself believe that anything will happen.  (I live in Wrigleyville.  ‘Nuff said.)  People fool themselves into believing that this year will be different and this one guy will somehow have an effect well beyond what one guy can have.  Sure, there are times when a single signing or trade energizes a team and everyone thinks about those.  But Orioles fans are coming face-to-face with one of the many many many more times when a team makes a big move to bring in some new blood, and it doesn’t turn them into a champion, just a slightly better version of last year’s team.  Those are the ones that people usually think of.  Remember, all 30 teams made some sort of move over this off-season.  29 of them will not win the World Series this year.


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