Major League Baseball holds its All-Star Game tonight, an event that usually distracts Americans from their partisan bickering. Not this year. MLB Commissioner Rob Manfred's rash decision to move the game from Atlanta to Denver officially put organized baseball on the side of Democrats in their ongoing dispute with Republicans over voting procedures. Republican baseball fans aren't too happy about it -- and why should they be?
But even those who considered Manfred's move cowardly and ill-conceived doubt it will have a lasting impact on the sport one way or the other. I'm not so sure that's right: I'm worried about the long-term health of the game. But what do I know? For that matter, what do the experts know? The answer is "not much." But that's a good thing. The sport's unpredictability is one of the reasons we watch baseball.
Sportswriters, like political journalists, like to be first with the story. It's built into reporters' DNA. The problem is that this desire encourages a tendency to be predictive -- to call events before they've happened. The result in election coverage speaks for itself. Remember "President Kerry"? He was the candidate whom analysts and exit polls anointed in 2004. In 2016, it wasn't just Wisconsin pollsters who confidently foresaw the first woman U.S. president; it was, once again, the analysts.
You'd think that baseball experts would see this kind of track record and be more careful. Unless you're a gambler, less is at stake in making predictions, correct? Not really. With major league owners giving out $245 million contracts to pitchers with histories of arm troubles, those in the employ of teams have a lot of pressure to correctly predict the future. So do outside analysts fighting for audiences and media market share while trying to make a name for themselves. But it's not easy to do. As Washington Post baseball writer Chelsea Janes recently pointed out, the San Francisco Giants are baseball's biggest surprise at the All-Star break. But the wise guys never saw it coming, even with all their "advanced metrics."
"Those projections are based on long-honed formulas, on the kind of math that is becoming more and more prevalent in front offices -- on data, not guesses," Janes wrote. "And the math said the Giants didn't have much of a chance. Baseball Prospectus's PECOTA projections had them finishing behind the Arizona Diamondbacks with a 0 percent chance of making the playoffs. FanGraphs had them finishing 12 games under .500 and two dozen games behind the Padres and Dodgers. FiveThirtyEight projected them to finish 14 games under .500 with a 1 percent chance of winning the division."
So where are the Giants now? They are leading baseball's toughest division and boast the best record in all of baseball. The other team that has defied predictions is the Boston Red Sox, who are leading the American League East. Although Boston was supposedly rebuilding this year, some Red Sox officials claimed the team would be "sneaky good" -- meaning competitive for a while, and not terrible. But the Bosox opened the season by losing three straight to the lowly Baltimore Orioles. That was a sufficient sample size for one Boston sportswriter to pronounce the season "a disaster."
"Three games into the season, it is time to reassess," he wrote. "The Red Sox aren't sneaky anything. They are plainly, straightforwardly, forthrightly horrible. … It's astounding how much has gone wrong."
I have no idea what will unfold for those two teams in the second half of the season. Perhaps they will run away with their divisions. They certainly look good enough. Or maybe gravity will bring them back to Earth, and the prognosticators can say, "I told you so." Accurate predictions, like the game of baseball itself, are hard. But the hard is what makes it great.
Carl M. Cannon is the Washington bureau chief for RealClearPolitics. Reach him on Twitter @CarlCannon.