You can sum up how preseason expectations for the 2023 MLB season played out in one word: wrong.
The New York Yankees were a popular pick to return to prominence in the AL East. The Chicago White Sox were consensus favorites in the AL Central and the defending champion Houston Astros were seen as unbeatable in the AL West. Wrong, wrong and right by the skin of their teeth.
In the National League, the free-spending New York Mets were a popular choice to supplant the Atlanta Braves in the East. Very wrong. The St. Louis Cardinals were consensus favorites in the Central and the San Diego Padres were widely expected to take out the Los Angeles Dodgers in the West. Last-place level wrong and wrong.
Why were so many experts so wrong so frequently about the 2023 MLB season?
There are, I believe, three reasons. All three played a part in 2023.
The first is precedent. Simply put, experts tend to lean too heavily on past performance as a predictor of future performance. In their mind, if an MLB team won last season, that’s a good indicator they’re likely to win this season.
The problem is that precedent is historically a poor predictor of future success. For the past decade, on average, at least one-third of the teams that qualified for postseason play failed to return to the postseason in the following season.
As it happens, 2023 turned out to be an especially poor year for precedent. Of the dozen teams that played in the 2022 postseason, half failed to make it back into the 2023 bracket. Those unlucky six were the Yankees, Padres, Guardians, Mariners, Mets and Cardinals.
Their places were taken by the Twins, Rangers, Orioles, Brewers, Marlins and Diamondbacks, only a couple of whom were even occasional preseason choices of the game’s brain trust.
The second reason is rules changes. At least a few teams (Arizona being the most notable) took aggressive advantage of the stolen base changes particularly. That appeared to fuel their rise.
In 2023, there were more than 1,000 additional stolen base attempts compared to a season ago, with nearly 1,000 more successes (987 more if you want to be precise). The Diamondbacks were Exhibit A.
In 2022, Arizona stole 104 bases in 133 tries, a 78 percent success rate. This year, capitalizing on the larger bases and pickoff attempt limitations, Diamondbacks runners racked up 166 successes on 192 attempts, an 86 percent success rate.
But the real impact lay in those 62 extra bases, which mathematically should have resulted in about 18 additional runs or about two additional victories. Note: Arizona qualified for postseason play by a margin of one game.
The third reason why prognosticators got predictions so wrong is that they tend to fall in love with money. The most popular preseason picks — the Mets, Padres and Yankees — were also the freest spending teams, including Steve Cohen going on a historic splurge.
One of the easiest things to do in the prognostication business is to confuse spending for progress. If the Mets spend mammoth amounts of money signing players, it is generally assumed that the players will perform up to their pay. That is not necessarily so.
In fact, money was an amazingly irrelevant consideration in 2023. If you run a correlation study of the relationship between a team’s Opening Day payroll and the number of games it eventually won, the correlation works out to an almost invisible 0.13. That’s on a scale where 1.00 equals a perfect correlation and 0.00 equals no correlation whatsoever.
I’ve been running correlation studies on payroll versus performance since discussing the question in detail in “The Book On The Book,” which came out two decades ago. I’ve never encountered as weak a correlation between payroll and performance as was the case in 2023.
Prefer Competitive Balance Tax money to opening day payroll? Fine. That correlation works out to 0.12 … even a bit lower, although not meaningfully so.
It is a lesson prognosticators (and some team executives) never seem to learn. The easiest thing in the world to do is spend money. Any drunken sailor can do it. The tricky part is spending it wisely.
All you have to do is look at the standings to drive that lesson home. The three top spending teams (the Mets, Yankees and Padres) all failed to reach postseason. Meanwhile, two of the three and five of the 11 smallest-spending (the Brewers, D-Backs, Marlins, Rays and Orioles) made it.
Of those five, the Brewers, Rays and Orioles got some preseason consideration, although none were favorites. The D-Backs and Marlins were given no chance. Wrong.
And that pretty much sums up 2023.