You probably saw Theo Epstein's quote after Fortune named him the world's greatest leader: "The whole thing is patently ridiculous. It's baseball -- a pastime involving a lot of chance. If Zobrist's ball is three inches farther off the line, I'm on the hot seat for a failed five-year plan."
Bless him for recognizing this. We have just begun a baseball season, singular -- one season, one set of outcomes, from which we'll draw one set of conclusions about the people who made it happen. But far more than one outcome is possible. How many? Well, that's where this gets interesting.
Every year, Baseball Prospectus runs thousands of simulations of the upcoming season in order to generate its playoff odds. Each simulation plays out all 2,430 games, matching the teams in each contest against each other based on how strong their rosters are. Some years the Chicago Cubs win the NL Central with 95 victories. Sometimes they finish second with 95. Sometimes they win it with 85.
BP shared 5,000 individual simulations with us. There are extremely predictable seasons, like Simulation No. 16, in which the 10 playoff teams are the Indians, Red Sox, Mariners, Rangers, Rays, Cubs, Nationals, Dodgers, Giants and Mets. Pretty unsurprising. Then there are most of the rest, all of which are equally possible, all but one of which fail to happen not because they were wrong but because we insist on living in one timeline, playing only one 2017 season.
These are our favorite seasons that could actually come true.
Simulation No. 3,155: The Padres win 87
In the aggregate view, the Padres have no chance this year. The PECOTA projections that power these simulations say they're the worst team in baseball, with a .450 expected winning percentage. Even worse, they share a division with PECOTA's best team in baseball, the Dodgers.
But in Sim No. 3,155, the aggregate is irrelevant, and the Padres beat the Dodgers -- with one-quarter the payroll -- by not one, not two, but 16 games. They obliterate the Dodgers. July rolls around, and the Dodgers are trading Adrian Gonzalez back home to the Padres for prospects. Dodgers manager Dave Roberts gets fired and joins the Padres as a special assistant. The Chargers announce that, on second thought, they'll stay in San Diego. Everything Los Angeles ever had to make San Diego jealous is now forgotten.
In fact, the Padres spend so much time backpedaling and taunting the Dodgers that they don't even notice until after the final game of the No. 3,155 season that they're a game behind the Giants, six games behind the Rockies, and in third place! They must beat Madison Bumgarner in a wild-card game to make it to a full playoff series. Famous last words.
Simulation No. 4,102: The Angels win 46
Now, there's a certain charm to this Sim existing. For one thing, 46 wins is five fewer than any other team in any other simulation, which makes this season a freak show that even the other freaks are afraid to buy tickets to. It isn't as though PECOTA despises the Angels, either -- their expected winning percentage in the aggregate is better than six other teams, and their second-worst simulation has them winning a whopping eight games more, 54. But this is the fun of staring at thousands of simulations: You start diving toward something you can barely even conceive of, like the Angels losing 108 games, and then you just keep going, until sunlight can't reach you but life somehow perseveres.
(Last year, BP ran one million simulations. In one, the Twins won 39 games. In another, they won 106.)
But, OK, a little charm but overall this is the saddest and scariest simulation there is, and if it happens none of us will be able to get out of bed for months. Because, of course, Mike Trout is on this team. In Sim 4,102, he's either playing like an MVP on a team that finishes 61 games out of first place -- he's Einstein in a patent office -- or he's somehow become terrible, the actual reason the Angels are this bad. As it is, I already wake up at least twice a year after having nightmares about Grady Sizemore, then lie alone in the dark pondering the possibility that everything I have and am could disappear in a single offseason. Could we all handle it if Mike Trout got bad? Could we handle it if he got bad in 2017, at age 25, after the greatest five-year start to a career in history, and with no advance notice? Could baseball survive such implied nihilism? Would you want it to?
Simulation No. 679: The Dodgers win 93
Actually, let's start with Simulation No. 1, in which the Dodgers win 93 games. Good season! The Dodgers have gone 92, 94, 92, 91 in the past four years, and won four NL West crowns. That's gotten them into the playoffs, where they've had the best starting pitcher of the generation going for them. PECOTA's overall projection for the Dodgers is 92.1 wins, so 93 reflects a slight overperformance, a slight improvement over the past four years, a good return on a $240 million payroll. Their comfortable margin in the NL West -- eight games ahead of the Giants -- allows them to coast to the finish, line up Kershaw for Game 1 of the National League Division Series, rest Adrian Gonzalez and Yasmani Grandal, limit the workloads of Rich Hill and Kenta Maeda, and set everything up for a deep October run. Calm, rational take for Sim No. 1: The Dodgers continue to build a team that can win at least 90 games in its sleep, using the game's biggest payroll not to build a one-year juggernaut but a potential decade of division crowns. After a fifth straight NLDS bid, it's hard to argue with the approach.
Now skip to the simulation in the subhead, Sim No. 679, where the Dodgers also win 93 games. In this Sim, in which nothing the Dodgers do changes, they finish behind the 95-win Giants, and behind the 94-win Rockies and the 94-win Diamondbacks. They finish in fourth, and they miss the playoffs. Hot, frothing take for Sim No. 679: Burn it down! They've spent $1.3 billion in five years and made as many World Series appearances as the Long Island Ducks, and now they can't even win a wild card. This is what happens when a rich team gets complacent. This is what happens when small-market executives try to run a big-market team. How could they not pay what it took to get Zack Greinke after 2015, to get Brian Dozier after 2016, to get Ryan Braun at the 2017 trade deadline?
This one could be really fun. No other team in any other simulation won as many as 90 games while finishing fourth.
Simulation No. 1,426: The Blue Jays win 77, the Astros win 86
And no American League team wins fewer or more. The standings in Sim 1,426:
Imagine mid-September of this season: All 15 teams within nine games of each other, no team further than seven games out of a wild-card spot, all five AL Central teams within five games of each other. In the final week, something like 12 teams would be within reach of at least a wild-card spot, and those same 12 teams would all be one bad week from missing the postseason entirely. We would all marvel at the extraordinary parity in the game. But only because we didn't know that Simulation No. 459 -- in which the 108-win Astros win their division by 27 games, the 105-win Indians win theirs by 20, and only five AL teams finish over .500 -- also existed, and was exactly as likely to happen as No. 1,426 was.
This one would be really fun.
Sims No. 1,111 and No. 4,137: The Cubs win 65
Each is fantastic in its own way. In No. 1,111, the NL Central goes to the Cardinals, who finish under .500. The mighty Cubs dynasty ends against a division that can't produce one winning team. And in No. 4,137, the Cubs finish 20 games behind the Reds, who win the division.
If this happens, Theo Epstein will not be named next year's world's greatest leader. As he probably shouldn't. There's some benefit to holding leaders accountable for terrible results, even if those results are due to countless factors outside of their control. But there's no difference between the roster in Universe 4,137, where the Cubs win 65, and Universes 136, 3,001 and 4,653, where the Cubs win 109. In both cases, Epstein and Jed Hoyer put together a roster that should be far, far better than the Reds. The Cubs project to be better than the Reds at seven of nine positions (excepting only center field and first base, where the Reds have a perennial MVP contender) and in all five slots in the rotation. They can still win fewer games. That's just how baseball works.
But that's why they play the game, right? Yes and no. They don't play the game to figure out who is best. They play to find out who won. It's a subtle, but crucial difference. They play the game because it's not fun to win the game on paper, and it's not fun to watch a team win the game on paper. Simulations can tell you who won it on paper, but we all know the fun really started Sunday, when absolutely nobody is allowed to tell the Reds they can't win more games than the Cubs. Realistically, they probably won't, but mathematically, they just might.
Thanks to Rob McQuown for research assistance