It's that time of year: The projection systems for the 2023 MLB season have been released and baseball analysts are divulging their secret-sauce prophecies, so let's dig into the five teams that are most likely to take a step forward and possibly emerge as playoff surprises in 2023.
And, yes, no matter how loaded the top teams look now, there will be a surprise team or two in the postseason come October. When making predictions, I tend to default too easily to the previous year's standings even though the logical side of my brain that has studied these things understands that won't happen. This is called the Law of Competitive Balance or the Plexiglass Principle: Teams that improve one season tend to decline the next -- and vice versa.
It's really just a fancy way of describing regression to the mean, which applies to players as well. Aaron Judge probably won't hit 62 home runs again. Jarred Kelenic will likely hit better than .141. The Dodgers won't win 111 games. The Nationals -- well, the Nationals might lose 107 again. Projection systems follow this model. As a result, while they will be more accurate in the total than someone just eyeballing things and making guesses, they are also, by nature, more conservative than the actual results we might see.
The latest PECOTA projection at Baseball Prospectus, for example, sees the Yankees as the best team at 96.9 wins. In 2022, five teams beat that win total, including four with at least 101 wins -- and three beat that figure in 2021 and six in 2019, so barring a drastic change in competitive balance across the league, we'll likely see at least a couple of 100-win teams in 2023.
At the same time, every season we usually get at least one losing team from the previous season that makes the playoffs. There were three in 2022: the Mets went from 77 wins to 101; the Guardians went from 80 to 92; and the Padres went from 79 to 89 (and that doesn't include the Orioles, who went from 52 wins to 83, one of the biggest single-season improvements in MLB history). The Mets and Padres weren't necessarily big surprises since New York spent a lot of money in free agency and San Diego had been a strong team in 2020 (although it improved despite losing Fernando Tatis Jr. for the entire season). There were four such playoff teams in 2021, one in 2019 (we'll skip 2020), two in 2018 and three in 2017. The last season without a losing team from the year before making the playoffs was 2016.
OK, let's pick five sub-.500 teams that might break out in 2023 ...
5. Minnesota Twins
2022 record: 78-84
2023 PECOTA projection: 87-75
The Twins feel like an easy choice for several reasons: 1) They weren't that far under .500 in 2022; 2) They play in a soft division and while the number of division games drops from 76 to 52 with the new schedule, if the Guardians take a step back the AL Central is wide open; 3) They've been good in the not-so-recent past, winning 101 games in 2019 and going 36-24 in 2020, so this isn't some organization that has been wandering cluelessly in the wilderness; 4) They re-signed Carlos Correa.
That said, maybe the Twins aren't such an obvious choice. They were also under .500 in 2021 and applying the Plexiglass Principle, they improved five games in 2022, so that would suggest a decline in 2023. While Correa fell into their laps after the Giants and Mets backed out after checking his medical records, Correa was on the Twins in 2022, so he isn't a flashy new addition. Their other big moves were acquiring starter Pablo Lopez, but they gave up an equally good player in Luis Arraez to get him, and signing Joey Gallo, who has hit .160 over his past 184 games.