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June 18, 2013
The Most Surprising Team Performances So Far
We’re approaching the halfway point of the season, though we’re still over a month away from the nominal start of the second half. And that means we’re also approaching the point at which we stop thinking about how we thought the season would play out (except for our probably accidentally accurate predictions, which we treasure forever). According to Colin Wyers, in-season team records become more reliable than pre-season projections around Game 103. Most of us don’t have a particular point of the season at which we entirely abandon pre-season projections—nor should we—but every day we trust what we’ve seen so far a little more and what we expected to see a little less. And eventually, we look back and wonder why we didn’t see certain things coming.
PECOTA has had plenty of successes. The projected team TAvs for the Rangers and Brewers, for example, have been correct to the point, and the projected team ERAs for the Mets and Diamondbacks have been less than 0.02 points off. But while PECOTA deserves a pat on its back for its accurate predictions, there’s much more to say about the surprises. This article is about the lineups and pitching staffs that have defied our expectations so far.
In the tables below, “Original Projected TAv” is what PECOTA forecasted with the depth charts as they were on the evening of March 29th—in other words, the real preseason projection. “Playing Time-Adjusted Projected TAv” is what PECOTA would have projected before Opening Day if our playing time projections had been perfect—it’s a combination of preseason TAv projections and the actual distribution of playing time to date. “Observed TAv” is the team-level production we’ve seen so far, and the “Difference” column is the gap between the playing time-adjusted projection and the observed production. So what this will tell us is which teams have under- or overperformed their projections the most, independent of whether our preseason projections had their playing time apportioned correctly.
First we’ll go over the five teams whose offensive performances to date look least like their preseason projections, and then we’ll switch to the pitching side. (Stats are through Sunday’s games, and cutoffs for the “closest calls” and “biggest misses” are 100 plate appearances for hitters and 30 innings pitched for pitchers.)
PECOTA took some flak this February for predicting that the White Sox, who won 85 games last year, would slip to 77 this season. But if anything, it’s looking like the system was overly optimistic, as Chicago’s lineup has dragged them down into the AL Central cellar.
The Sox have the AL’s worst team TAv by over 10 points. They don’t walk—no team has drawn free passes less frequently—they don’t make much contact, and they don’t hit for power despite a home run friendly ballpark, all of which makes their offense a perfect storm of suck.
Alex Rios has been a bright spot, exceeding his projection by 28 points and making himself into one of the team’s few attractive trade commodities, but unless you want to read too much into 70 or so BABIP-aided, powerless plate appearances by Gordon Beckham, that’s where the good news ends.
Six players with at least 100 plate appearances—Keppinger, Paul Konerko, Tyler Flowers, Dayan Viciedo, Alexei Ramirez, and Adam Dunn—have fallen short of their projections by as much as or more than Rios has exceeded his. Keppinger, whom I wrote about when he finally drew his first walk, was an obvious regression candidate, but there was no way to predict that he’d struggle to this extent.
It’s not shocking that Dunn and Konerko have gone downhill, given their age and the way their second halves of last season went, but in light of Chicago's old roster—only the Yankees and Dodgers have older collections of position players—and thin farm system, the struggles of Flowers and Viciedo, two of the team’s youngest regulars, are especially demoralizing. Viciedo has grown even more aggressive, and Flowers hasn’t quite shown the patience or power that would make his lack of contact palatable.
Bryce Harper, when healthy, has exceeded PECOTA’s conservative forecast, and both Ian Desmond and Anthony Rendon have been better than expected. But the bench has been bad—when I saw Toledo play Syracuse this past Saturday, Moore was starting in left, which tells you how he hit for Washington—Adam LaRoche has predictably declined after a career year, and Danny Espinosa has been hampered by injuries.
But a TAv this low—the second-worst in the NL behind Miami’s—probably doesn’t reflect this team’s true talent. Nats fans can take some solace in PECOTA’s solid preseason projection, since it might point to a return to form for players like Jayson Werth and Denard Span.
Ironically, PECOTA reserved its most accurate Nationals position player projection for Ryan Zimmerman, who thinks that nerds shouldn’t do things like project position players.
PECOTA predicted that the Marlins would struggle, but not to this extent. The absence of Stanton has had something to do with that—check the difference between the original projected TAv and the playing time-adjusted version. But even after accounting for actual playing time, PECOTA still comes out looking almost 20 points too optimistic. Polanco, Greg Dobbs, and Juan Pierre look like they have nothing left, Justin Ruggiano’s 2012 magic has worn off, and a low BABIP has made defense-first shortstop Adeiny Hechevarria look even more inept than expected at the plate.
The silver lining is the performance of 2013 call-up Marcell Ozuna, who took over in right when Stanton went down and has shifted to center since the regular right fielder’s return. He’s slumped severely over the past couple weeks, but his power would be an asset in center if he could counter his opponents’ adjustments with some of his own.
I predicted that the Royals would finish second in the Central this season, and they are in second so far. But I can’t boast about their improvement, since it hasn’t happened the way I expected it would. The team’s young position players seemed primed for a collective breakout, but we’re still waiting for signs of offensive life from a team that’s all contact—Kansas City leads the majors in contact rate—and no patience or power. Instead, it’s been the Royals’ pitching that has driven their success (more on that below).
Salvador Perez has topped his projection, and Alex Gordon, Lorenzo Cain, and Billy Butler have more or less matched theirs, but Eric Hosmer, Alcides Escobar, and Mike Moustakas have all taken significant steps back. Hosmer and Moustakas especially seemed like candidates for big seasons, but they’ve continued to be disappointments (though Hosmer, at least, has hit a bit better lately).
Chris Young and Josh Reddick are the only real underperformers on Oakland’s roster. Coco Crisp is having a career year, taking more walks, making more contact, and showing increased power to pair with his newfound selectivity. Josh Donaldson’s second-half success last season went largely unnoticed, but he’s sustained it in 2013, chasing fewer pitches outside the strike zone and establishing impressive power. Brandon Moss has struggled against southpaws but hit well enough against righties to stay in the lineup, if not to repeat his 2012 home run barrage.
Jed Lowrie has remained healthy and hit like we knew he could if he ever avoided the DL, and Yoenis Cespedes hasn’t had a severe sophomore slump. There aren’t a lot of brand-name batters here, but that hasn’t hurt the overall production.
And now for the pitchers, using ERA instead of TAv.
Kansas City Royals
The Royals went to great lengths to shore up their rotation over the winter, but the pitching overhaul has worked even better than they could have hoped. After slumping in May, Kansas City has started June 12-4, but the club’s lineup has plated only four runs per game over that stretch. Their pitching staff, though, has allowed an average of just over two runs, which is a recipe for a successful 16 games.
With the exception of Wade Davis, all of the Royals’ starters have been league average or better, and they’ve had success in converting previously so-so or struggling starters like Bruce Chen and Luke Hochevar to relief roles. Ervin Santana’s big bounceback probably isn’t entirely real, as his low BABIP has helped him avoid surrendering too many runs on the homers he continues to allow. Then again, he’s lowered his walk rate and gotten more grounders, he’s had a low BABIP historically, and he has a strong defense behind him, so he’s not all fluke, either.
It’s hard to totally untangle a team’s defensive performance from the quality of its pitching staff, but the Royals’ Defensive Efficiency has improved from last in the AL in 2012 to fifth-best in the league in 2013. Kansas City has both pitching and defense to thank for a return to .500.
Reliever Tony Watson is the only Pirates pitcher over 30 innings who hasn’t beaten his projection. As a staff, the Pirates have struck out about half a batter per inning more than they did last season. Jason Grilli and Mark Melancon have been dominant at the back of the bullpen, a mechanical fix has helped Francisco Liriano get more movement on his pitches while cutting down on his walks, and Wandy Rodriguez and A.J. Burnett have been on their best behavior.
There is some cause for concern here, though. The Pirates have outplayed their Pythagorean record by four wins, and their .271 staff BABIP/.728 Defensive Efficiency are the best in baseball. Russell Martin’s skills behind the plate could be leading to less hard contact (and more K’s), and Starling Marte’s presence in left has helped Pittsburgh’s outfield gobble up fly balls, but the likes of Jeff Locke (2.19 ERA, 3.82 FIP) won’t look this good for long.
When one arm gets injured, the Cardinals just call up another. Chris Carpenter and Jaime Garcia are out for the rest of the season, but St. Louis hasn’t lacked for quality innings. Adam Wainwright has pitched like the favorite for the Cy Young Award, Shelby Miller has been brilliant throwing his four-seamer 70 percent of the time, and Michael Wacha has been adequate throwing his almost as often.
In the pen, Trevor Rosenthal has been every bit as dominant as he looked at the end of last season. And Edward Mujica, who entered the season with two career saves, has yet to blow one in 20 attempts, largely because he’s walked one batter in 31 innings (none since his second game of the season). The Cardinals’ depth is incredible.
Tim Hudson hasn’t been bad, but he’s been the worst of Atlanta’s strong starting five—and only five, since the Braves haven’t had to use a sixth starter this season. I thought PECOTA was a bit too bullish on Medlen, but in fact the system seems to have had him pegged almost perfectly. Julio Teheran has made considerable progress, Mike Minor has been brilliant, and Paul Maholm has given the Braves more of what they got out of him in the second half of last season.
The bullpen has suffered some serious losses, but the (BABIP-aided) emergence of Varvaro, whom the Braves picked up off of waivers as they did the injured Eric O’Flaherty, has helped the Braves make up for the missing innings.
Among the pitchers who’ve played for Colorado this season, only two—Rafael Betancourt and Rex Brothers—earned projected ERAs in the 3.00s, but the Rockies have had several arms pitch their way into that range. The biggest surprise is Tyler Chatwood, who’s remained a groundball machine but harnessed his control. Actually, this is probably the biggest surprise: the Rockies have allowed only 0.71 home runs per nine innings, the fewest of any team but the Cardinals and Tigers.
Unlike the Pirates, another surprisingly successful team, the Rockies have actually underperformed their Pythag by a few wins.
Thanks to Rob McQuown and Colin Wyers for research assistance.