Spitballing: Home runs and whiffs from my preseason predictions

I’m really smart, but I’m also really not.

sports, column, baseball

“Spitballing” is a column by Nathan Ackerman about Major League Baseball.

The great Yogi Berra once said that baseball is 90% mental, and the other half is physical. I once said that baseball writing is 90% accountability, and the other half is ego.

I actually never said that, nor do I believe it to be true. I do believe, however, that there exists a time and a place for each of those pillars. As teams are currently taking a step back and evaluating their own performances thus far with the trade deadline approaching, it is both the time and the place for me to do the same.

Earlier this spring, I made my entire MLB standings predictions for the 2021 season, complete with win-loss records and corresponding playoff seeds. (I’m almost certain you have, but if you haven’t read it, for reasons unfathomable to mankind, feel free to briefly skim.) Some of those picks are looking quite good, and others are looking like I spent my entire childhood as a theatre geek rather than a baseball fan. (No shade to theatre geeks.)

Such is how it goes, though. Here are some of my glorious and not-so-glorious predictions from when the 2021 season was but a figment of our imaginations — from my biggest home runs, to impressive-but-unspectacular doubles, to my worst whiffs and everything in between.

Double: The Seattle Mariners being decent

This was perhaps my boldest prediction from the spring, and it wasn’t just to appease my editor who is, unfortunately for her, a lifelong Mariners fan.

My Mariners pick earns merely a double and not a full home run because, while their 85-win pace is only three below my prediction, I also had them winning the American League West — an outcome that remains possible but seems unlikely, given the Houston Astros’ loaded lineup and the Oakland Athletics’ surprisingly good pitching staff.

Consider my preseason assessment a slight to those teams, each of whom I had finishing below the .500 mark. I’m also responsible for contributing to the annual overhype of the Los Angeles Angels, which they inevitably ruin every year. I did say Shohei Ohtani was poised for a huge season from both a hitting and a pitching perspective, but everyone saw that coming, so I won’t take a victory lap for it.

I will, however, take such a lap for boldly claiming the Mariners won’t be a joke. They may fall off, sure, but people have been saying that since May, so … maybe not?

Whiff: The Boston Red Sox being bad

To be fair, no one really saw them being this good. Some people (actually, myself included), recognized that Boston could hit. However, their 4.08 team ERA entering Friday, which ranks at a solid seventh-best in the American League, has been enough to carry their offense that ranks second in the AL in runs — and that, I didn’t foresee.

The Red Sox’s lead in the vaunted AL East is fragile. The Tampa Bay Rays sit just one game behind, the New York Yankees are eight back but heating up and the Toronto Blue Jays are 8.5 games out yet seem particularly open to aggressive deadline acquisitions — especially with the potential for three playoff teams to come out of that division.

Still, Chris Sale’s imminent return makes Boston even scarier going forward, and they look like a team with a very real chance to break into the postseason — something I didn’t even consider, as my 75-87 prediction would indicate.

I did have the Baltimore Orioles winning only 55 games, but as of now, that pick is about two games overzealous. Poor Orioles.

Home run: The Chicago White Sox overcoming injuries and coasting in the AL Central

The White Sox were one of the most enticing teams in baseball heading into the season, and they’ve played up to that mantra. Losing Eloy Jiménez was a blow that I acknowledged would hurt, yet I still had them winning 94 games — and, even after also losing Luis Robert for a few months and counting, they’re still on track to win 98.

The White Sox’s lead is currently at nine games; I predicted it to end at 10, and I’m sticking with that forecast. The Minnesota Twins’ struggling was predictable (I don’t know why anyone had them winning the Central), though I didn’t think they’d be quite as bad as they’ve been. Meanwhile, Cleveland’s offensive shortcomings aren’t surprising in the slightest, and I basically had the Tigers and Royals flipped: one (Kansas City) is bad, the other (Detroit) is below average but better than folks thought preseason.

A few slight misses around the edges, but all in all, I nailed the AL Central, thanks.

Triple: The New York Mets being underwhelming

It’s become an annual rite of passage of sorts to assume that the Mets will just finally put it all together and become some behemoth that should make every other team in the National League quiver. The smart folks have held out, requiring that the Mets — whose team name is literally a verb in baseball spheres that means “to blow up and fail epically” — prove it before they buy in.

I am smart folks. The Mets’ roster coming into the season was good on paper, so they could only be so bad, but the injury woes (especially pitching) are always present with them and, bottom line: They’re still the Mets.

They’ve had their “Mets” moments this year, admittedly fewer than anticipated. Still, their offense has been mediocre at absolute best, their pitchers have been dropping like flies (Jacob deGrom included) and their 87-win pace is just one more than I predicted.

The reason this prediction earns just a triple? The Mets are in first place. The NL East, which was supposed to be the best division in baseball, has floundered, with only one team above .500. Put it this way: If the Mets were in any other division, they’d be anywhere from four to 9.5 games out. As it stands, they’re at the top. It’s partially because of them, but mostly because of the others.

Whiff: The San Francisco Giants being bad

I can’t even be mad at myself for this one. No one — and I mean quite literally no one — saw this coming. The Giants have the best record in baseball. Their pitching (which I said they didn’t have) has compiled a 3.26 team ERA, second best in the NL. They lead the Senior Circuit in home runs, slugging percentage and OPS.

And their roster, quite honestly, stinks. Hence why I guessed they’d win a mere 73 games, a whopping 30 (!) behind their 103-win pace.

Actually, the Giants have kind of gotten screwed this year. The Los Angeles Dodgers and San Diego Padres are heavyweights — especially the former — giving San Francisco a mere three-game lead in the West.

They could regress. I’ve been saying this all year, like the Mariners haters, and I still believe it’ll happen. But at this point, they could play .500 ball the rest of the way and still finish with 94 wins. That figures to be more than enough for one of two Wild Card spots, each of which will likely come out of the West.

Groundout: The NL Central in general

I’ll give this division a simple groundout, because while I had no particularly impressive predictions out of the Central, none were utter catastrophes. The Chicago Cubs were generally looking good until an 11-game losing streak derailed their season, the St. Louis Cardinals have underperformed to the tune of about a .500 record, the Cincinnati Reds have been solid but top-heavy and the Milwaukee Brewers have used an excellent starting staff to build a 6.5-game division lead.

If anything is especially surprising, it’s that — but even I said in March that the Brewers boast a “potentially good starting staff.” It ended up a massive understatement, but you get the point. As it turns out, when the top three starters in your rotation have ERAs of 2.04 (Brandon Woodruff), 2.16 (Corbin Burnes) and 2.39 (Freddy Peralta), your team will be alright. Who’da thunk?

I had the Cardinals winning the division, the Cubs in second, the Brewers in third and the Reds in fourth. The Cardinals are actually third, the Cubs fourth, Brewers first and Reds second. So, I guess I lose, but it’s not like anyone thought this division wouldn’t stink. It hasn’t stunk, but it hasn’t been good either. That said, I seemed to have botched the order, so I’ll chalk this one up in the loss column.

My key caveat in March was that those predictions would all look like trash by the middle of May. Some, it didn’t take quite so long; others, a bit longer; others have yet to implode. So I’ll leave with another caveat this time around: Even these prediction assessments may look like garbage by the end of the season.

Why, you might ask? Because baseball.