Jim & Bob's Palatial Baseball Blog

Thursday, January 24, 2008

The Unbearable Faultiness of Memory

In the midst of an article about Cub GM Jim Hendry's off-season moves, the Tribune's Fred Mitchell dropped this nugget of joy in out of the blue, and appropos of nothing that came before or after it:

The Cubs were favored to win their division last season, yet they had to scramble to overtake the upstart Milwaukee Brewers to make the postseason.

They were? I don't remember that. I remember a lot of smack about how they spent "$300 million" during the winter and still sucked.

But, as I always say, never rely on your memory. Let's fire up the Way-Back Machine and see who the favorites to win the NL Central last year were.

First up is the Wall Street Journal, if only because they still have a link up. The WSJ asked ten writers for their picks to win the divisions and wild cards.

Of those ten guys, three went for the Cardinals, three went for the Reds. Only two went for the Cubs -- Joe Sheehan of Baseball Prospectus (who said he had "no faith" in three of his picks, then names the AL Central, AL West, and NL Central specifically as divisions too close to call -- hardly a ringing endorsement of the Cubs) and Dave Studeman of the Hardball Times (who makes a joke about how he'll "look like a genius for picking the Cubs" -- again, hardly a ringing endorsement).

Brandon Stroud of The Dugout picks the Cubs to win the wild card, and go on to the World Series. But that's not the same as being favored to win the division, is it?

Sports Illustrated and The Sporting News picked the Cubs to finish second.

Athlon Sports' Baseball Annual pegged the Cubs fourth.

ESPN's Dan Patrick predicted the Brewers would win the Central.

Four out of thirteen writers at Baseball Prospectus listed the Cubs as their faves to take the flag. The opinions on the NL Central were so split that was enough to make my heroes concensus favorites (by a small margin) to win the crown.

Baseball Weekly's season preview listed the Cubs third.

And what of Mitchell's own publication? How did they view the Cubs' chances in 2007?

Unfortunately, the Trib's Opening Day special section only lists their "experts" top picks, not the complete divisional standings from each. Here's the run-down:

Mike Downey -- Milwaukee
Mark Gonzales -- Saint Louis
Big Mouth Morrissey -- Saint Louis
Dr. Phil -- Milwaukee
Sully -- Milwaukee
Dave van Dyck -- Chicago

From my brief survey of 2007 guesswork yields a grand total of seven examples of the Cubs being the favorites. Out of a possible thirty-four. Actually, it's six, because I'm counting BP's Joe Sheehan twice.

So fewer then twenty percent of the crystal-ball gazers pick the Cubs to take the NL Central. It doesn't matter. Nine months later, Fred Mitchell waves his magic wand and turns that into a ringing endorsement of Sweet Lou's squad -- and jiminy jillikers, how could they have almost pissed away the division to the Brewers like that?

This is how scripts get started. In Mitchell's mind, he probably does feel he Cubs were a solid favorite to win the division (although I can't be sure, since I'm not a mind reader). After all, they spent all that money!

So he types his script, cleverly slips it into his column about Hendry, and it passes into the record. Unknowing readers will plunk down their seventy-five cents for the paper, nod sagely to themselves, and say, "Why yes -- the Cubs were favored to win the division last year. Everybody knows it."

Technically, I guess, some people favored the Cubs. So Mitchell is technically correct (which is the best kind of correct). But if you believe that he intended to say that only some people (rather than the vast majority) of prognosticators favored the Cubs, then you probably believe a "simple" plus-minus system is a good analytical tool.

Human memory is extraordinarily faulty, especially on matters dear to our hearts. Mitchell wants us to believe his claim, but the real-time record of those predictions shows that the Cubs were, at best, a prohibitive favorite. Just another example of the difference between knowledge and bullshit.

Of course, this is by no means a comprehensive survey of 2007 pre-season predictions. But I'd be willing to bet that I spent more time looking things up than Mitchell did.

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