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March 26, 2003

PECOTA Preview

The National League

by Nate Silver

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The nerdiest part of our preseason blitzkrieg, this is the second of two articles describing the final standings in each league as compiled based on our PECOTA forecasts. The methodology for compiling these, as well as the American League forecasts, were included in the first piece that ran last week.

NL East


Team          W     L      BA     OBP     SLG     RS     ERA     RA
-------------------------------------------------------------------
Phillies     94    68    .259    .343    .429    825    3.81    672
Braves       85    77    .256    .332    .412    763    4.07    717
Mets         82    80    .250    .319    .391    691    3.86    680
Expos        82    80    .261    .330    .411    760    4.31    756
Marlins      79    83    .257    .322    .395    710    4.15    731

Philadelphia Phillies

The Phillies won 80 games last year, and while projecting 94 wins for them might come as something of a surprise, it's pretty easy to see how we get from there to here. These are the PECOTA wins above replacement projections for Philly's three major off-season acquisitions, as well as Marlon Byrd (.265/.331/.446), who will have the monumental task of filling Doug Glanville's shoes.


Jim Thome        +6.8
Kevin Millwood   +4.2
David Bell       +2.1
Marlon Byrd      +2.1
Subtotal        +14.2
Baseline           80
New Projection     94

OK, it isn't quite that simple--while Jim Thome, Kevin Millwood and Byrd are substituting for players who were the very definition of replacement level talent, David Bell is filling in for two-thirds of a year of Scott Rolen, which is a clear loss. Nevertheless, none of Philadelphia's core players from a year ago look like serious risks for a big decline in performance, and some--like Jimmy Rollins (.275/.337/.417) and Brandon Duckworth (170 IP, 4.23 ERA)--stand a good chance to get a lot better.

Add the new talent in on top of the old and they're the strongest team in the league on paper. To a beat writer, of course, "strongest team on paper" is a pejorative turn of phrase, indicating an amorphous lack of chemistry or a cosmic pre-destiny toward failure. The Phillies had a rough spring training, after all, between Larry Bowa picking a fight with Rollins, and Vicente Padilla (190, 3.58) and Duckworth nursing injuries. Fortunately, with the Braves moving in reverse, the Phils have a margin of error that even Bill Conlin would fit comfortably in. The division is theirs to lose.

Atlanta Braves

Some of the Braves' shortcomings have been chronicled extensively. Vinny Castilla (.220/.256/.332) is an indefensible answer at third base, and the Kevin Millwood trade was inexplicable. The Braves need a new solution at catcher, but Johnny Estrada (.245/.292/.367) isn't the answer. Each of these are problems that the Braves have brought unto themselves, and management deserves its share of the blame.

Nevertheless, there's a pretty good argument that this year would have been the beginning of the end even without the questionable decisions of the previous two winters. Greg Maddux (170, 3.49) is a particular cause for concern; while his projection looks horribly pessimistic, there's a confluence of trends in his pitching lines that suggest that, at best, he shouldn't be grouped with Johnson and Schilling. Tom Glavine is gone, though PECOTA thinks he wouldn't have been nearly as good even if he had stayed in Atlanta. Although they were newcomers to the dynasty, the same can be said for Damian Moss and Chris Hammond.

Put it all together, and PECOTA expects the Braves' team ERA to jump by nearly a full run, from 3.11 to 4.07. In fact, for the first time in more than a decade, the Braves' competitive strength could be in their offense. PECOTA insists that Andruw Jones (.273/.363/.518) is a breakout candidate, even if he's moved from the Willie Mays body type to a Ruben Sierra vintage. Robert Fick (.260/.340/.440) should provide some help at first base. It's a good enough offense to carry them to a wild card, but probably not a division title.

New York Mets

The Mets are the first of eight teams--exactly half the league--projected to finish with somewhere between 78 and 83 wins. Things aren't likely to play out so equivocally in the real world, but the projected parity speaks to the fact that all but one team in the National League--take a bow, Mrs. Selig-Prieb--has at least some kind of reasonable long-term strategy in place. The American League, by contrast, has at least three, and probably four unless you want to give Dave Dombrowski a heck of a lot of transfer credit for his work elsewhere. Looking at the big picture, one wonders whether the presence of dominant teams like the Yankees, Athletics and Mariners (v 2001) has increased the incentive for the bottom dweller AL clubs to free-ride. As anybody who has played a few seasons of Scoresheet can tell you, competitive balance or its opposite can often be a self-perpetuating process.

But I digress. Of the eight teams that I mentioned, the Mets are the most likely to actually finish within a couple of games of the .500 mark. Their downside is limited by what should be a pretty solid pitching staff--PECOTA doesn't give Tom Glavine (180, 3.91) enough credit--while their upside is limited by an offense that is strangely lacking in players between the ages of 25 and 29. Old hitters are almost never good breakout candidates, and while it would be impressive for Jose Reyes (.246/.302/.359) to come up in June and hold his own in the bigs, that won't necessarily be a boon to the Mets' pennant hopes in the current cycle. The diplomatic snafu that cost them Norihiro Nakamura, whom PECOTA compared to a Japanese version of Ron Cey, is perhaps one of the few bits of Gotham gossip that was actually underreported.

Montreal Expos

Yes, it's hard to resist the urge to tack on the extra wins that would be had if Bartolo Colon were starting instead of Livan Hernandez (180, 4.67), or if Omar Minaya had at least found a third baseman or a center fielder for him, but what's done is done, and the Expos stand a good chance to be competitive nevertheless. Vladimir Guerrero (.327/.400/.605), Jose Vidro (.309/.367/.488) and Brad Wilkerson (.265/.376/.463) are as good a trio in the middle of the lineup as there is, pitchers like Javy Vazquez (200, 3.54) and Tony Armas (170, 4.06) have some serious upside, and the Expos can expect better seasons out of Orlando Cabrera (.268/.323/.389) and even Fernando Tatis (.240/.330/.414).

The bullpen and the bench are relative weaknesses, and that could conspire to hurt the Expos in close contests and put their actual record a couple of wins below their Pythagenport. But the Expos should at least be competitive enough that Vlad stays with them for the full season.

Florida Marlins

There's no great mystery as to what the key to the Marlins' season is. Their projection includes 180 innings for A.J. Burnett (3.62 ERA), and 150 for each of Josh Beckett (3.79) and Brad Penny (3.92). Increase those numbers, and the Marlins' wild card chances will increase proportionately.

I'm not as down on the Juan Pierre-Luis Castillo lineup construction problem as some. When I ran the Marlins' lineup through a simulator, with Pierre and Castillo starting things off in that order, the team finished with an average of 723 runs a season, slightly better than the 710 predicted by the MLV method, which doesn't account for lineup effects. When your lineup includes three players (I-Rod, Derrek Lee, and Mike Lowell) who are likely to account for the vast bulk of the damage, it may not be a bad idea to consolidate your strengths by having a couple of guys who will be on first and second a lot hitting in front of them. Of course, if the Marlins had another hitter or two--like, say, Kevin Millar--this would all be a moot point.

NL Central


Team          W     L      BA     OBP     SLG     RS     ERA     RA
-------------------------------------------------------------------
Astros       89    73    .262    .342    .433    830    4.18    731
Cardinals    86    76    .262    .337    .417    789    4.13    725
Cubs         83    79    .245    .319    .401    698    3.85    675
Reds         79    83    .248    .323    .417    734    4.33    762
Pirates      78    84    .256    .327    .404    734    4.38    769
Brewers      68    94    .243    .308    .379    639    4.51    791

Houston Astros

Jeff Kent (.310/.383/.565) is a savior on a motorbike--or is it a pick-up truck?--and will ensure that the Astros have one of the three best offenses in the league. While PECOTA is relatively bearish on Jeff Bagwell (.278/.398/.515) and Craig Biggio (.256/.331/.382), they're secondary parts in a lineup that includes Kent and Lance Berkman (.303/.420/.586). The Astros could also help themselves to add to last year's runs scored total by giving as much playing time as possible to Morgan Ensberg (.259/.359/.454) and Jason Lane (.264/.333/.475).

If there's a disaster scenario, it almost has to involve an injury to one of the two elite pitchers in the rotation or in the bullpen. The loss of Roy Oswalt (200, 3.27), whom PECOTA doesn't consider a significant attrition risk but Will Carroll does, would be a particularly tough pill to swallow. It's easy to be skeptical of a team that has seen arms like Scott Elarton and Carlos Hernandez come up lame, and the Astros don't have the organizational depth to sustain an outbreak of injuries to the pitching staff. But then again, who does?

St. Louis Cardinals

No, not these guys. The Cardinals, in fact, have a rather similar prognosis to the Astros. With a lot of value tied up in just a few players, injuries are a prime concern, especially since in some cases (J.D. Drew) they're dealing with problems in the present tense.

Don't get me wrong; any offense with Albert Pujols (.312/.390/.571) and Scott Rolen (.280/.371/.516) is going to be good, and the Cards' runs scored total projects to be about where it was last year, even with conservative playing time forecasts for Drew (.278/.381/.493 in 450 PA) and Jim Edmonds (.276/.398/.512 in 525 PA).

But the Cards will need to score more runs than they did a year ago to keep the division crown because the pitching isn't likely to be as good. The back end of the rotation is the principal area of concern. In spite of rotating through starters like Terry Labonte does tires, the Cardinals received a series of solid performances last year that aren't likely to be repeated for a variety of reasons, from Jason Simontacchi's (120, 4.83) poor peripherals, to Andy Benes' retirement, to the mutually self-destructive contract negotiations with Chuck Finley. It's easy to be an optimist because of the fantastic infield defense and Dave Duncan, but it would take a miracle to coax a sub-4.00 ERA out of someone like Joey Hamilton (110, 4.55) or Dustin Hermanson (70, 4.78).

Chicago Cubs

They're here because of their pitching. The Cubs' hurlers led the league in strikeouts last year, and that's as big a positive as there is going forward. To be slightly less obtuse about it, PECOTA thinks that Kerry Wood (200, 3.20) is a breakout candidate, that Matt Clement (190, 3.68) is for real, and that Mark Prior (150, 3.06) will be as good as expected if his arm holds up. The bullpen was a disaster last year after being fantastic in 2001, and projects to be somewhat above average this time around. After seeing first-hand their horrible record in one-run games, I'm one of the few analysts who believes that the Cubs made good use of resources in picking up Mike Remlinger (60, 2.76).

There's also scattershot optimism about the offense, but unless Dusty Baker can work career years out of two or three veterans to be named later, it doesn't project to be a whole lot better than last year's version. Of the three young players in the Cubs' immediate plans, PECOTA likes Hee Choi (.249/.344/.444) the best--but Fred McGriff put up solid numbers last year that Choi will need to beat his projection to match. Corey Patterson (.252/.300/.405) should be better, but his plate discipline has such a long way to go that it's not clear whether he'll hit enough for a would-be pennant contender. Bobby Hill (.252/.339/.376) is often anointed as a future leadoff hitter, but both his walk rate and his strikeout rate are a far cry removed from the Chuck Knoblauch model, and at age 25, he has less time to improve than you'd think. The Cubs have simultaneously made commitments to a variety of prospects and veterans that make good enough sense in and of themselves, but don't add up to a very formidable lineup when strung together.

Cincinnati Reds

If the Mets have the least variance associated with what looks like a .500 forecast, then the Reds almost certainly have the most. Can Ken Griffey (.249/.347/.426 in 325 PA) have a healthy season? Can Danny Graves (120, 3.71) hold up in the rotation for a full year? PECOTA has hedged its bets on both. Will Adam Dunn (.261/.399/.513) retake the HOF career path he was on in the first half of last year, or will he regress to the strikeout-prone, overly-hesitant hitter he was in the second? Can Barry Larkin (.256/.330/.361) post solid numbers again if his playing time is monitored carefully, as Davey Concepcion did at age 39, or should the Felipe Lopez (.257/.327/.420) era begin now? Is moving Aaron Boone (.269/.336/.456) to second going to cause more trouble than it's worth?

It's doubtless disappointing to coat a preseason projection with more questions than answers, but that's exactly what's appropriate in the Reds' case, and it's very easy to envision them finishing anywhere from first to fifth.

Pittsburgh Pirates

It's easy to subconsciously lump together the Pirates and the Brewers, and take the 16 games that separated the two teams last year for some sort of fluke, but the Pirates might just have their best team together since the Andy Van Slyke years. It's amazing that an offense with Brian Giles (.305/.440/.567) scored just 641 runs last year, and the Pirates project to beat that total this year, both because of additions like Reggie Sanders (.256/.330/.471) and because of addition by subtraction by giving fewer plate appearances to people like Adrian Brown and Kevin Young (.235/.307/.388). Aramis Ramirez (.266/.310/.443) almost has to be better too, even if PECOTA doesn't like his weight and his walk rate.

Things could get interesting if Kris Benson (150, 4.21) can pitch like a #1 starter. PECOTA doesn't know a pitcher's medical history except so far as it is manifested in his statistics, and it's certainly possible that there will be unusual patterns in a pitcher's development that won't be foreseen if he's compared mostly with healthy pitchers. Take a look at this one, for example:


ERA+        Kerry Wood     Kris Benson
Year n-1           128             119
               Surgery         Surgery
Year n+1            89              92
Year n+2           126             ???

Wood and Benson are different types of pitchers, but the favorable pattern--a big year two years after Tommy John surgery--is there.

Milwaukee Brewers

I suppose that some people would look at an improvement from 56 wins to 68 as progress, but the Brewers are a standard plexiglass principle that should improve based on better luck alone, without having done much to improve the talent base. The pitching staff is ahead of the offense in terms of upside potential, as Glendon Rusch (190, 3.97) and Ruben Quevedo (130, 5.00) could post better numbers. The bullpen isn't bad. But make no mistake: the Brewers are both the worst team in the league, and the most boring.

NL West


Team          W     L      BA     OBP     SLG     RS     ERA     RA
-------------------------------------------------------------------
Diamondbacks 86    76    .257    .324    .388    699    3.70    649
Giants       84    78    .251    .335    .408    754    4.05    716
Dodgers      82    80    .250    .312    .390    674    3.80    669
Rockies      82    80    .278    .348    .471    935    5.37    930
Padres       72    90    .246    .318    .377    656    4.35    764

Arizona Diamondbacks

I've mentioned in a couple of places that the Diamondbacks are likely to see a substantial decline in their run output this year, so let's dissect that claim in terms of the marginal lineup value numbers. The bulk of the difference can be explained based on the following three players:

  • Junior Spivey regresses from .212 MLVr to .006--and costs them about 30 runs.

  • Steve Finley declines from .199 MLVr to .016, and sees a drop-off in his playing time which is filled by less talented players, costing them another 30 runs.

  • Lyle Overbay (-.023 MLVr) replaces roughly 450 plate appearances of Erubiel Durazo and Greg Colbrunn, at a cost of about 35 runs.

If any of the three players are likely to buck the trend, it's Finley, whose conditioning is better than that of most players 10 years his junior. Everything that we know about forecasting offensive performance suggests that Spivey had a career year; hitters simply don't get that much better all at once at age 27. Durazo and Colbrunn might not quite have matched their 2002 performances even if they were still in the desert, but Overbay and Mark Grace (.262/.358/.376) almost certainly won't.

Now, a lot of teams have two or three situations like these, but the other half of the problem is that the Diamondbacks don't have anyone who is likely to push them in the other direction, which is what happens when you build a team with veterans and gut the farm system through trades. The lone exception is Scott Hairston (.263/.336/.439), who could help the team out right now, but was shipped off to minor league camp very early in spring training. In any event, the pitching is going to need to be great--which, of course, it very well could be, especially if Byung Kim can maintain his performance over more than the 120 innings we're conservatively projecting for him.

San Francisco Giants

I liked the acquisitions of Ray Durham (.273/.365/.416) and Edgardo Alfonzo (.280/.370/.431) as much as anyone, but it would be easy to understate just how insanely great Jeff Kent had been for the past three years. The net effect of that swap, a potential implosion at the catcher position, and a very minor downtick in performance from Barry Bonds (.331/.536/.759), is the loss of about 30 runs off the Giants' runs total of a year ago. There is no better time than now to move J.T. Snow (.236/.339/.358) into a role that he's better suited for, such as babysitting or pitching cargo pants for Old Navy.

But it's the starting pitching that projects to have the Giants sweating in their ringer tees. Kirk Rueter (170, 4.53) and Damian Moss (150, 4.61) both had ERAs that were well better than their peripherals last year, and Ryan Jensen (140, 4.68) is, at best, a stopgap option. Fortunately, the Giants have a fine trio of pitching prospects at the ready; Kurt Ainsworth (120, 4.03) will start the year in the rotation, and by midyear, Jesse Foppert (90, 3.99) and Jerome Williams (100, 4.04) might be not so much a luxury as a necessity.

Los Angeles Dodgers

All three of the top teams in the NL West are projected to lose at least 10 games off their win total from a year ago. That might be the best news for the Dodgers, since they have the least star talent of the group and might be better equipped to win a trench war for 90 wins than an arms race for 100, especially with Jim Tracy in command.

PECOTA, unfortunately, doesn't take kindly to feel-good performances like last year's from Dave Roberts (.257/.330/.339) and Alex Cora (.254/.321/.353) that aren't likely to be sustained for another season. It also doesn't care much for Joey Thurston (.259/.311/.363), whose solid minor league numbers have been driven by high batting averages in favorable parks. Shawn Green (.282/.380/.542) is great, and Fred McGriff (.253/.345/.457) will help, but Tracy will need to work with smoke, mirrors and platooning to manage 700 runs out of the offense, which is about what the Dodgers would need to have a shot.

I've mentioned already that PECOTA isn't quite as smart as it could be in forecasting players who have had injury problems, which makes an evaluation of the Dodger pitching staff more problematic. Kevin Brown (100, 3.54) maintained a pretty good strikeout rate in his half-season last year, but his command was off, and his GB:FB ratio slipped to 1.53 from a career average of 2.72, which suggests that a full comeback might be especially difficult for a pitcher with his unusual repertoire. Andy Ashby (150, 4.32) doesn't look like he'll be quite as good as last year, and we haven't even run a projection for Darren Dreifort. The Dodgers don't have a whole lot of pitching help ready in the upper minors, so they'll need to cross their fingers and hope for the best.

Colorado Rockies

Say what you will about Dan O'Dowd, but he has identified his club's weaknesses as well as any general manager this off-season. Let's break the numbers down based on the principal winter acquisitions:


        2002 (MLVr)        2003 (MLVr)    Difference
C   Bennett (-.128)     Johnson (.111)      +20 runs
CF   Pierre (-.098)      Wilson (.267)      +55 runs
SS    Uribe (-.201)  Hernandez (-.001)      +30 runs
                                       -------------
                                           +105 runs

That's more than 100 runs right there, before accounting for the fact that the projections for Preston Wilson (.299/.372/.568) and Jose Hernandez (.259/.325/.447) might be too conservative if they are indeed the sorts of hitters who stand to adapt well to Coors. The gain could be greater still because Juan Pierre and Juan Uribe spent much of the year hitting in the top two slots in the batting order, which made the Rockies' offense inefficient as well as bad.

The pitching, on the other hand, doesn't project to be any better, continuing the trend of an effective bullpen and a highly ineffective starting rotation. But put it all together, and that's pretty close to the Blake Street Bombers model that brought the Rockies their lone playoff appearance in 1995.

San Diego Padres

The mood has been glum in Peoria with the injuries to Phil Nevin and Trevor Hoffman, but the Padres probably weren't poised for a wild card run even if they were at full health. For one thing, the team isn't built very well for its park; it's hard to sustain long rallies in a pitcher's park, but except for Ryan Klesko (.285/.389/.503), the Padres don't hit for enough power to execute the opposite strategy.

Nor is it clear that they play good enough defense. The Padres finished last in the league in defensive efficiency last season, and bringing in aging players like Mark Loretta (.251/.316/.316) and Rondell White (.253/.307/.409) isn't going to help things any. It might have been a fluke, but there's no better way to undermine the confidence of a young pitching staff than with a lousy defense. This is a year to figure out who is going to join Sean Burroughs (.278/.350/.391), Mark Kotsay (.288/.360/.435) and Jake Peavy (150, 4.15) as part of the team's long-term core, and build up for the move to PETCO in 2004.

Nate Silver is an author of Baseball Prospectus. 
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