When the initial PECOTA Projected standings came out in Mid-February, the White Sox were projected to win 82 games and lose 80 games. The White Sox then made their biggest (!) free agent acquisition of the winter and brought in Austin Jackson after training camp had already begun in March. Jackson’s acquisition was not without merit as it added depth and a non-zero WARP projection (shout out to Avisail Garcia) to the White Sox outfield and moved the needle very slightly for the overall win-loss projection: it now pegged the White Sox for 83 wins. The White Sox were not supposed to be a great team, but they were not supposed to be an awful team either, just mired in mediocrity.
Fast forward six months and the White Sox just finished the season with 78 wins and 84 losses. This was not a great team nor was it an awful team, and that is exactly what the projections were expecting. This is incredibly troubling on its own as there is often little merit to being average instead of being very good or very bad, but it is even more concerning when you combine that with Rick Hahn’s declaration on Monday that “We underachieved. We absolutely underachieved.” Unfortunately for Hahn, looking at this from a purely mathematical standpoint, his statement is actually false.
Projection systems like PECOTA are best used to evaluate the range of possible outcomes, not just the single, most likely outcome. These projections usually come with a standard deviation of roughly five wins and when viewed through that lens, the White Sox actual performance of 78 wins is right at one standard deviation away from the mean outcome. This means the difference in actual versus expected wins is not statistically significant. This reinforces the idea that the White Sox performance during the year was reasonable and not underachievement.
Maybe Hahn was hoping to appeal to an already disillusioned fan base. However when his words have no merit behind them, and when a few days earlier the front office had gone out of its way to criticize the fan reaction to the news that the organization was interested in retaining embattled manager Robin Ventura, it comes across as empty lip service and a desperate plea to retain whatever fan interest remains after eight consecutive years without the playoffs and four consecutive seasons without reaching 80 wins. There is already a giant disconnect between the front office and the fans and statements like this only make it worse.
Perhaps an even more troubling scenario would be returning to the world where Hahn and the rest of the front office actually believed this team should have been in contention for the playoffs and thus, by extension, underperformed expectations. Just using the available PECOTA projections and performing a one-tailed T test on the White Sox projected win total, using the assumptions of a normal distribution, the standard deviation is five wins, and the expected win total was 83 wins, reveals the odds of the White Sox exceeding 88 wins, the de facto postseason barrier*, was roughly 16 percent. This makes it very clear that the White Sox were a fringe contender at best and having realistic hopes for extended playoff success was extremely misguided. The implication here is that the White Sox brass is either audacious enough to declare a 16 percent chance at the playoffs an actual plan or the team’s internal analytics** are not producing accurate results (reminder: eight years without playoffs, four without a winning team). Either option would be troubling.
I do understand that pre-season projection systems do have their pitfalls and they do not take into account any mid-season acquisitions, but this thought should not be an excuse for the White Sox front office either. The White Sox played 105 of their 162 games before this year’s non-waiver trade deadline. Based on what the team knew, or should have known, when they started the season, the most likely outcome is a scenario where the White Sox have 53*** wins and 52 losses. At that pace, the White Sox would need a 35-22 finish to end the season in the playoff picture which is essentially the transformation of an 81 win team into a 99-100 win team overnight.
That rarely ever happens and it requires a ton of other things to happen that are beyond the White Sox’ control. They’d need to find willing sellers that have assets that match the White Sox’ own needs and the White Sox would need to have enough expendable prospects (which was likely not the case as the White Sox’ best asset the last few years has been money to spend and welp!) to complete the transaction. All of this adds up to the conclusion if the White Sox thought buying at the deadline was the best plan for contention, the plan again appears to be the culmination of a lot of low probability events which really isn’t much of a plan at all.
In the end, this White Sox team was exactly what everyone, with the apparent exception of the front office, expected the team to be. Not bad enough for everyone to lose interest in May, not good enough for everyone to remain interested past mid-July. Until the White Sox front office re-evaluates everything they think they know, buy or sell, I see little reason to be optimistic about a perpetually rudderless ship with three blind mice at the helm.
*Through five years of the two Wild Card system, 16 of 20 teams had 88 wins or more (12 teams had more), and the lowest win total was 86.
**One would also hope that any billion dollar organization would have better analytics than systems that are essentially publicly available.
***In actuality the White Sox had 51 wins and 54 losses which, again, was a high probability outcome based on everything that the White Sox knew heading into the season.