Go to your local bookstore, pull a baseball preview magazine off the rack, and turn to the section on the NL West. Unless you just happened to pull Street and Smith’s off the rack, chances are the Rockies are picked to finish last in the NL West, or, at best, fourth, ahead of only the Diamondbacks. Of course, this would make some sense. After all, the Rockies went 67-95 last season, the second-worst record in MLB and made no big offseason acquisitions. Never mind, though, that the team was better in the second half and used so many rookies last season that they’re much more likely to get better than worse.
Meanwhile, you’re probably looking at the Dodgers, coming off a disastrous 71-91 season and a fourth-place finish in the NL West, picked to win the division or, at worst, finish second. The Giants are likely picked first or second as well, though there were mitigating circumstances in their 2005 collapse (which may happen again.) What’s going on here?
Simple: The NL West has a pecking order, and sports prognosticators rarely make preseason predictions that go against the pecking order.
The "pecking order" phenomenon is present in virtually every division in pro sports, conference in college sports, even down to high school sports. Heck, for all I know your local Little League has a pecking order. Case in point: My high school’s basketball team, a year after a 31-4 season, was picked by a local sportswriter twelfth in Memphis’s "Dandy Dozen" ranking of the best high school teams, on the grounds that they had no star players. That team went on to finish seventeenth… in the nation, going 35-2, winning 31 in a row, and making it all the way to the state semifinals. The next season, they were picked low again, on the grounds that the "star players" off that team had graduated, only to go 31-4 and make it to state again. Why? Well, those teams weren’t high on the pecking order of local high school sports (though that eventually changed.)
Essentially, pecking orders exist because sportswriters are lazy and don’t want to pay much attention to developments that might affect the way things shake out in a given division, league, or whatever. Nobody really could say that they had called for the Diamondbacks to collapse in 2004, not three years after they had won a World Series, not with a team that had been generally competitive for several years, and not with Randy Johnson on the Diamondbacks’ roster. But it happened. Of course, most prognosticators would rather be in the herd who can say that they "didn’t see that one coming" than go out on a limb and end up getting burned (i.e., Street and Smith’s picking the Rockies to finish third, should the Rockies finish dead last.)
Follow the rules of the pecking order, and you can at least make predictions that will resemble every other sportswriter’s picks (though not necessarily the actual results.)
1. Not all pecking orders are created equal. Some pecking orders are very strong; the AL East’s is so strong that for several years in a row the final standings were the same every year (Yankees, Red Sox, Blue Jays, Orioles, Devil Rays.) Others are strong, but with some flexibility; the Big 12 South in football falls into this category, with Texas and Oklahoma, then Texas A&M, then Texas Tech and Oklahoma State, then Baylor. You can pick Texas or Oklahoma first, but not Texas A&M; you can pick Texas Tech fourth or fifth, but not third; you cannot pick Baylor anything but last. Some leagues, such as the NFL, have weak pecking orders. The NFL may be an exception to the pecking order rules, what with salary caps creating a relatively even playing field, but there are still some rules. You’d be hard-pressed to find somebody willing to pick against the Patriots in the AFC East — or somebody willing to pick the Saints anything other than last in the NFC South.
2. Pecking orders can change over time, but it usually takes a while for sportswriters to notice. In other words, if you’re first or second in the pecking order, but go through three straight fourth-place seasons, you’re likely to move down in the pecking order. One bad season, though, only means that prognosticators will predict a "bounce-back year" the next time around. Similarly, if you’re at the bottom of the pecking order and finish second, prognosticators will say that it was a fluke. Nobody really picked the Royals to do much in 2004 after they admittedly overachieved in ’03 (and they turned out to be right, thus cementing the Royals’ place in the AL Central pecking order.) Sportswriters are more likely to pay attention in the case of a weak pecking order, however. After winning the World Series, the White Sox are picked by most to win the AL Central or, at worst, finish second.
3. Personnel changes matter some, but not a lot. The Blue Jays had a very good offseason, yet you’ll find few people picking them higher than third in the AL East. The Yankees are loaded, though, so picking them first is probably against most rational logic. The Red Sox, however, have quite a few holes, yet are picked second by most people, other than the few willing to go out on a limb and pick the Blue Jays ahead of them. The reason is the strong AL East pecking order, which means that the Blue Jays’ offseason additions won’t make enough of a difference to push them ahead of the Red Sox in anybody’s predictions for the season. Personnel changes make a bigger difference in the case of a weak pecking order, but still, most people do pay attention to the pecking order. Radical personnel changes, on the other hand, are noticed; the Marlins’ offseason fire sale has given most sportswriters with a brain a good reason to pick them to finish last.
4. Veteran players are better to have than younger players; don’t go with a team with a lot of youth. The exception to this rule is a team with a lot of overhyped young players, such as the Brewers, but for the most part prognosticators like to rely on teams with a lot of "proven" veteran talent (which is supposed to be reliable) over teams with young, talented players (who are regarded as hit-or-miss.)
5. Coors Field kills pitchers, so the Rockies will never be any good. Just kidding, but most sportswriters DO think this.
So how does all this apply to the NL West? Well, the division DOES have a pretty strong pecking order: The Dodgers are a large-market team, and the Giants have Barry Bonds, so those two teams are clearly at the top of the pecking order. (Once Barry Bonds retires, gets busted for steroids, whatever, the Giants will probably move down the pecking order, as they haven’t won the World Series in fifty years.) The Padres and Diamondbacks are the middle tier of the NL West pecking order; many people still think the Diamondbacks are good because they won the World Series a few years ago and were generally good for several years, while the Padres have been decent recently but have never won the World Series.
That leaves the Rockies at the bottom, who have one playoff appearance in their thirteen years of existence and have won 135 games in the past two years combined. They never were very high in the pecking order to begin with, and their recent hard times have given sportswriters another excuse to pick them last. They didn’t make any major offseason acquisitions, even though not making any probably made them better than adding a bunch of high-priced veterans would. They rely too much on young players, and they play in Coors Field, which sportswriters seem to believe is death. This means that, according to the logic of the pecking order, the Rockies are no better than a fourth-place team, and are a last-place team in most sportswriters’ minds.
But predictions don’t matter, anyway. What matters is the games. And those are only a week away.