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February 11, 2011

Baseball ProGUESTus

On the Ordinary Index, and Unlocking PECOTA's Pizzazz

by Jeff Sullivan

Believe it or not, most of our writers didn't enter the world sporting an @baseballprospectus.com address; with a few exceptions, they started out somewhere else. In an effort to up your reading pleasure while tipping our caps to some of the most illuminating work being done elsewhere on the internet, we'll be yielding the stage once a week to the best and brightest baseball writers, researchers and thinkers from outside of the BP umbrella. If you'd like to nominate a guest contributor (including yourself), please drop us a line.

Without further ado, let's kick off the series by extending a warm BP welcome to Jeff Sullivan. Jeff Sullivan has been writing about the Mariners since 2003, and has been running Lookout Landing since 2005. Additionally, he briefly ran Beyond The Box Score and serves as an editor at SBNation/MLB. He can be found in Oregon bars.

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I’ve been granted the honor of going first in the brand-new ProGUESTus series, which is one of those things I probably find a lot cooler than any of you do. I don’t know why I was asked to lead off, since I was a pitcher in high school who wasn’t allowed to hit, but that’s more a problem with the manager, not me. That’s a baseball joke. All right, good start.

To much fanfare, Colin Wyers released the 2011 PECOTA projections earlier this week. PECOTA is probably the most well-publicized, well-known, and complex projection system on the planet, and so the date of its release is always one of the most exciting days in the early part of the year. When there isn’t any baseball, the best substitute is thinking about and analyzing the baseball to come, and PECOTA grants us that opportunity.

As soon as I heard the projections were available, I downloaded the spreadsheet and, like most other people with access to it, scrambled to find out what PECOTA thinks of Rajai Davis. (Not much.) This is where a lot of the fun with PECOTA lies. Once you get the numbers, you want to see what the system thinks about certain players. A common activity is to group the projections for players on your favorite team, figure out projected playing time, and then turn that into a projected record. That’s what we all care about, right? How many wins and losses our teams are going to end up with?

And that’s great. That’s PECOTA’s strength, and that’s PECOTA’s purpose. But the thing about PECOTA that I don’t think gets enough attention is the inclusion of player comparisons. As many of you know, the whole PECOTA system is built upon these comparisons, and for reader convenience, they’re included as part of the output. Scroll to the right of the 2011 spreadsheet and you’ll find a “Comparables” column. There you’ll see a selection of the players throughout baseball history to which the current player is being compared.

There’s fun to be had here. Jose Guillen as Julio Franco? Jason Bergmann as Shaun Marcum? Twenty-two different pitchers as Antonio Bastardo? The comps add some color and make the final product more entertaining. And they’re not without their analytical value, either. The strength of a given player’s comps, one figures, ought in theory to be directly related to the strength of a given player’s projection, and said strength, or confidence, or whatever you want to call it is shown here in parentheses after the comparable names.

So I’m here now to make an effort to get people to pay more attention to this part of PECOTA. That number in parentheses—Baseball Prospectus calls it “Similarity Index,” and it’s defined in the site glossary. The higher the number, the easier it is to find similar players with similar performances. The lower the number, the harder it is to find similar players with similar performances.

That’s good and sensible, but let’s go ahead and call it the "Ordinary Index" instead. Changing the name doesn’t change the meaning; it just makes it more descriptive. It follows, then, that the higher the number, the more ordinary the player, and the lower the number, the more extraordinary the player.

Who are the most ordinary and extraordinary players in baseball? Before, this would’ve been a difficult—if not impossible—question to answer. There are so many things to consider. But now we have an Ordinary Index. It’s right there in the name. All of a sudden, coming up with an answer to the question couldn’t be easier, and the results are shown below. I hope we can all learn a thing or two from this exercise.

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Most Ordinary Hitter, Minors: John Murphy (Ordinary Index: 88)

The Yankees’ second-round pick in the 2009 draft, Murphy is a right-handed catcher who last year posted a .703 OPS with A-ball Charleston. Ordinary from birth, his parents gave him the most common first name in the United States. Additionally, Baseball-Reference lists his middle name as “R.”, a sign that, while his parents understood the necessity of providing a middle name, they in no way intended to suggest that their son was in any way unique, so they opted for an all-encompassing initial.

Most Ordinary Hitter, Majors: Danny Worth (OI: 87)

Worth is a righty middle infielder who crawled his way up the ladder despite mediocre numbers and broke into the bigs with the Tigers last season. He’s fond of vanilla ice cream, the color blue, Jeff Dunham, hanging out with his friends, Bud Light commercials, and fast food french fries that are salty but not too salty.

Most Ordinary Pitcher, Minors: Mason Tobin (OI: 93)

Tobin has been drafted three times—once by the Braves in 2005, again by the Braves in 2006, and once by the Angels in 2007. The righty pitcher missed most of 2009 and all of 2010 after undergoing Tommy John surgery on his elbow. As a bullied teenager in middle school, all Tobin wanted was to be like everyone else. In time, he got his wish.

Most Ordinary Pitcher, Majors: Cesar Jimenez, Yhency Brazoban (Tie! OI: 91)

Former big league relievers Cesar Jimenez and Yhency Brazoban are so ordinary that they can’t even get a rank to themselves on a list. Jimenez is a lefty with an injury history and a high-80s fastball, and Brazoban is a righty with an injury history and a low-90s fastball. Oooh.

Most Extraordinary Hitter, Minors: Brandon Belt (OI: 57)

The Giants’ fifth-round draft choice in 2009, Belt broke into the professional ranks last season and, between A-ball San Jose, Double-A Richmond, and Triple-A Fresno, batted .352 with a 1.075 OPS. PECOTA had so much trouble finding comparable players that his third listed comp on the spreadsheet is someone named “Curt Blefary,” whom I’m pretty sure didn’t exist.

Most Extraordinary Hitter, Majors: Ichiro Suzuki (OI: 43)

The perennial bane of any and every projection system, Ichiro has continued to excel despite repeated statistical assertions that he would be Matty Alou. Ichiro is so historically unusual that he once consulted his dog before signing a contract extension.

Most Extraordinary Pitcher, Minors: Tyler Matzek (OI: 47)

Matzek was selected 11th overall by the Rockies in 2009 and handed a large signing bonus. Fresh out of high school, the lefty reported to A-ball Asheville and struck out a batter per inning while allowing a ton of walks. PECOTA projects a six percent chance of improvement and a one percent chance of collapse, meaning that PECOTA projects a 93 percent chance that Matzek either stays the same or gets a little bit worse. Thus, Matzek is evidently so extraordinary that PECOTA seems to think he ages at twice the normal rate.

Most Extraordinary Pitcher, Majors: Winston Abreu (OI: 32)

Abreu narrowly beat out Craig Kimbrel and Jamie Moyer for the honor. He hasn’t thrown a pitch in the majors since July 2009, but what makes him extraordinary is that, over his last three years as a reliever in Triple-A, he’s struck out 241 batters in 158.2 innings. The other thing that makes him extraordinary is that he’s a 6-foot-2, approximately-20-pound Dominican with half the name of a British prime minister.

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PECOTA, more than anything else, is a projection system, and like all the other projection systems, it’s popular for its statistical forecasts. But unlike all the other projection systems, PECOTA’s got more to it than a triple slash line. PECOTA’s an animal, and while you could simply remove the meat from its bones, doing so leaves so many other bits for which you could find a handy use.

Look at the player comps section. Savor the comps, and consider the Similarity Index (whatever you choose to call it). They’re included in part for your enjoyment. Enjoy them.


Related Content:  PECOTA,  The Who,  The Call-up

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