We have reached the point in the winter where prospect lists and projections are accumulating. As January turns to February, it’s a nice diversion. Baseball is around the corner.
But do these lists and projections mean anything?
This year, PECOTA projects the Royals to win 72 games. Yikes. That’s like Year Two of The Process bad. This projection is causing so much gnashing of the teeth. On the surface, this projection seems incredibly unfair. Last year, PECOTA pegged the Royals at 79 wins and a second place tie with Cleveland. The Royals won 89, outperforming that projection by 10 wins. And they did that minor thing where they won the AL Pennant. I can just feel the indignation among certain corners of Royals Universe building. “PECOTA sucks! They are always wrong about the Royals! I hate them!!!”
That’s the natural reaction to that type of projection. It’s a macro view that elicits a macro reaction. Myself, I see that projection and ask, “Why?” Looking into this year’s PECOTA, the system really doesn’t like the Royals rotation. Like actively loathes it. Serial killers and email spammers get more love. Edinson Volquez? A 4.73 ERA and -0.7 WARP. Jeremy Guthrie? Not much better with a 4.66 ERA and the same WARP as Volquez. I don’t even know if I want to pass along the numbers for Yordano Ventura. (OK, a 4.16 ERA and 0.5 WARP.) Fold in the underwhelming numbers for Danny Duffy and Jason Vargas and the Royals starting five projects to have a -0.3 WARP. Damn. Those numbers are pretty grim.
Is that likely? Hell, no. Last year, eight pitchers in the majors finished with a negative WARP value. PECOTA projects the Royals to have three starters post a negative WARP. I don’t have team numbers broken down, but I’d guess that for an entire rotation to collectively have a negative WARP, it would be a historically terrible rotation.
Believe it or not, PECOTA saves some of its distaste for the Royals offense. It projects a .257 TAv and 641 runs scored. Both marks are dead last in the American League. This computer clearly didn’t get the memo that everyone is supposed to be better. But hang on to your pitchforks… Last year the Royals finished with a .254 TAv. So PECOTA does think the Royals offense will be marginally better? Yet they’ll still be awful? The nerve. What I find interesting is that last year the Royals plated 651 runs. I can do the simple math – that’s 10 runs fewer than they are projected to score this year. However, while their projected run total for 2015 is last in the AL, their real run total in 2014 ranked them ninth out of the 15 teams. So clearly, PECOTA thinks the run scoring environment is going to change for a number of teams. After seeing the shrinking offensive trends of the last several seasons… I’m skeptical.
The system thinks Mike Moustakas will be better than Kendrys Morales, but both would be worse than Josh Willingham, had he not retired. It calls for regression from Lorenzo Cain, but thinks Omar Infante will bounce back offensively. Billy Butler will not be missed.
In a nutshell, PECOTA doesn’t really like any Royal player outside of Alex Gordon. Does this make PECOTA a bad projection system? I don’t think so. It makes it like all the other systems. Imperfect.
You know how everything went right for the Royals last October? Flip that around and that’s how PECOTA is looking at 2015 for the Royals. Everything would have to go wrong. But those are the kinds of projections that happen when you have guys with short track records (like Ventura and Duffy), or players who dabble in mediocrity (Hosmer and Vargas), or out-of-nowhere breakouts (Cain), or are just plain bad (Moustakas). Basically, the computer sees a lot about the Royals that raises red flags and causes a great deal of skepticism. Nothing personal, you know.
Steamer (found on Fangraphs) is more bullish on the Royals chances, but still has them at just 81 wins. They like the starting rotation more than PECOTA – I don’t think anyone can like anything less than PECOTA likes the Royals starting rotation – but Steamer thinks Moustakas is capable of a 2.7 fWAR season. OK.
All in good fun. Until you realize these silly projection systems don’t give a damn the Royals won the AL Pennant last year. What? October doesn’t count? Nooooooo.
It’s a computer. As some bloggers at The Star will point out, they play the games on the field. I’m aware of the differences, thanks. That doesn’t mean I can’t be entertained by the various projection systems.
What does annoy me is those who take the projections as some kind of mantra. Extremism in all forms is unappetizing. I cite Steamer and PECOTA on this site from time to time in order to give a big picture of a player going forward. I use these projections as a talking point. A conversation piece. When Steamer says Lorenzo Cain is going to hit .267/.315/.377 which would be a huge drop in offensive production, I acknowledge that the system thinks that Cain is going to regress and then I move along. I’m not going to say with certainty that Cain will post a 2.7 fWAR (his Steamer projection) because there are 162 games to play. When someone says the Nationals are only two wins better with Max Scherzer based on his Steamer projection, that may be accurate, but that’s no fun. What’s fun is saying, “The Nationals rotation is going to dominate!” According to PECOTA, they are the anti-Royals.
Now that baseball has leveled the playing field and mediocrity is rewarded with a pair of Wild Cards, you just have to hover around .500 for as long as you can before you make your move. So the good news is PECOTA also projects the Tigers to win the division with 82 wins. Sweet. Instead of looking at the whole numbers, maybe this is a notice that the entire AL Central just isn’t a strong division. Steamer agrees, giving the Tigers 85 wins. The really good news is the White Sox and all those fancy moves last month still aren’t enough to push them to the postseason. Take that, South Siders!
I love the projections. They are something fun to parse when the wind is blowing from the north and it’s dark at dinnertime. It’s fun to try to crack the code… Which system is too optimistic? Which one favors rookies the most? Is it possible to identify a sleeper team?
I just try to keep everything in perspective. Opening Day is about two months away. And we’re eight months away from finding out about the accuracy of these projections.