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February 12, 2013

Skewed Left

PECOTA's Projected Bests and Worsts

by Zachary Levine

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If your holiday was anything like most of mine, you’ll want a couple of Tylenol and some Gatorade this morning because you’re feeling the effects of PECOTA Day. Now that we’ve slept it off, it’s time to take a look at some of the highlights of the data as they project the 2013 season.

Team win totals can be found here if you want to use the projection system to forecast the playoff races eight months before the Division Series. But individual performances are easier to assess because they’re not compounding (or more accurately, just adding together) error with the projections.

The most important thing to remember is that PECOTA is forecasting a measure of central tendency with error on both sides. Error sounds terrible both in life—the theory was wrong—and in baseball—the theory ended up sailing over the bag and hitting a fan in the first row. In reality, it’s just the natural randomness of the game. (You still can’t predict baseball, Suzyn.)

It’s why one fully expects the home run leader in the American League to finish with more than 36 even though nobody was projected for more. And somebody’s going to win more than 18 games even though nobody in all of baseball was projected to do so. And more than three players are going to hit over .300, and so on. Somebody’s error is going to be in that direction, you just can’t predict whose.

So keep that in mind as you peruse PECOTA’s picks for the best of each league and who’s due for a rebound in 2013.

AL MVP: Albert Pujols
Want proof that PECOTA has a little long-term memory? Check out who tops the list by wins above replacement player for the American League and all of Major League Baseball. El Hombre is back, or at PECOTA expects him to be back, with his track record leading to the projection for a seven-win player.

Pujols had made a (National League) career out of top-10 finishes, landing there in every one of his seasons with the Cardinals. His introduction to Anaheim was humbling, though, with just three votes, a sixth, a ninth, and a 10th, finishing a distant 17th to Miguel Cabrera and the deserving choice teammate Mike Trout. (Cabrera and Trout, by the way, project to finish second and third.)

The most intriguing part of the Pujols projection is what it says will happen to his walk rate, which has sharply declined from 16.4 percent in 2009 to 14.7 percent in 2010 to 9.4 percent in 2011 to 7.8 percent in 2012. PECOTA forecasts a nice rebound in that figure, a rise to 11.7 percent, as part of the reason for Pujols’ general recovery in year two of his 10-year deal.

NL MVP: Joey Votto
This should absolutely not be a surprise. Votto’s performance, translated to a full season when he’s been injured, has been staggering, and this isn’t value that’s built on volatile statistics like defense and ratios. While he’s somewhat forgotten in the historical record of 2012 because of the injury that held him to 475 plate appearances, his on-base percentage of .474 would have led the league by 66 points. He led the National League in walks in 111 games and has now led the league in OBP each of the last three seasons, including his MVP year of 2010.

Like Pujols, he’s probably going to be a division winner, which won’t hurt in the real vote among real writers.

AL Cy Young: Justin Verlander
PECOTA uses past comparisons (in part) to estimate future performance, which suggests that history has been kind to those with Verlander’s track record of successful innings logged. Verlander has led the league in innings pitched in three of the last four years, plus playoff runs. A projected fourth time in five years would be a boon for the Tigers, a team whose most visible weakness is in the bullpen.

PECOTA and its playing time inputs like Verlander to remain impressive and durable, and PECOTA sure looks like one source that would sign off on an extension.

NL Cy Young: Clayton Kershaw
In general the system loves what the Dodgers have done with their rotation in the last six months. Kershaw is Kershaw, and he grabs this from Stephen Strasburg mostly on more certainty about durability (projected innings count is 207 2/3 to Strasburg’s 174). But PECOTA is also expecting big things from Zack Greinke and most notably from Josh Beckett, whose contract could be a much easier swallow than widely anticipated.

Beckett is projected for 2.1 walks and 8.3 strikeouts per nine innings. Combine those two numbers with the environment at Dodger Stadium, and you’re going to see a very good year. A 3.17 ERA and 2.8 WARP is the projection, which isn’t the worst thing ever to be stuck with for another two years and $31.5 million…

Who were we talking about again? Oh yeah, Kershaw. That guy’s awesome.

Rookies of the Year: Hiroyuki Nakajima and Adam Eaton
The projected Rookie of the Year favorites are a position player-heavy group, with names like Arizona’s Tyler Skaggs and his former teammate Trevor Bauer of the Indians among the likelier starting pitcher candidates.

While Nakajima has the best projected numbers among AL rookies, he will have to overcome a lot to win it over Wil Myers. First of all, he’s in his age-30 season, which could inspire some bias against him as an unconventional rookie. Also, he has Jed Lowrie threatening to take playing time from him as the Athletics have a pile of movable infielders. And lastly, he’s a shortstop, so much of his value is tied up in position, which doesn’t always get noticed by voters. It’s good news for A’s fans, though, that they seem to have two viable options at the position, and Lowrie should be a good utility man If He Stays Healthy ™.

Eaton is barely a rookie with 103 plate appearances—the rookie status cuts off at 130. He hit .259/.382/.412 in those 103 chances last year and projects to .277/.352/.388 in 2013. His place in the world improved with the Justin Upton trade, and as long as Cody Ross doesn’t take too many of the starts in center field, Eaton should have a shot to be the top rookie.

Bounceback candidates
Beckett was already mentioned, but his old teammate Jon Lester is a good bet to recover his old form. His decline, more of a one-year blip than a trend at this point, has been based on his drop in strikeout rate—a league-best 9.7 K/9 in 2010 followed by 8.5 and 7.3. PECOTA sees that 8.5 again and along with it, a return to where Boston’s top starter should be.

Tim Lincecum, who had the deathly combination of a career-worst walk rate and a BABIP spike to 20 points over his previous career figure, should be much of the way back as well with a San Francisco-aided 3.04 ERA.

PECOTA hates
Since the computer is incapable of emotion except for hating your favorite team’s player:

Position players (a sampling with <1 WARP)
Logan Morrison (0.9)—Defensive value brings this down for the first base convert.

Travis Hafner (0.8)—Don’t get too excited about a free agency steal, Yankees fans. He’s projected for a .417 slugging percentage even in that lefty-friendly ballpark and has no other value.

Jeff Keppinger (0.6)—The White Sox may not have upgraded that much at third base after all.

Jurickson Profar (0.6)—This figure is for 248 plate appearances, and while comps are tough for players with no MLB experience, PECOTA is not predicting an immediate breakout.

A.J. Pierzynski (0.5)—One year wasn’t enough to go crazy on projections.

Jeff Francoeur (0.4)—This is just piling on because it’s an improvement. Wil Myers is projected to be a 1.9 win player.

Pitchers (a sampling with negative WARP)
Joe Blanton (-0.1)—Two years and $15 million is a lot of money for replacement level, and the back end of the Angels rotation is frightening on an otherwise very good team. For the same money, the Diamondbacks are expecting roughly a full point better in ERA (3.62 vs. 4.54) and FRA (3.93 vs. 4.94) from Brandon McCarthy.

Aaron Harang (-0.1)—The 114 innings with a projected 4.56 ERA at pitcher-friendly Dodger Stadium are not something the Dodgers need given their glut of pitching. He’s just not the easiest to move.

Jordan Lyles (-0.2)—He’ll get plenty of chances on a bad Astros team, and he should, since his comps at age 22 include both Zack Greinke and Hayden Penn. That’s a spectrum.

Bruce Rondon (-0.2)—Jim Leyland is lighting one as we speak thinking about this projection, which comes with a 5.02 ERA and 5.2 walks per nine.

Kevin Correia (-0.5)—The official worst signing of the winter per the Effectively Wild podcast looks no better in the projections, and the second year of that deal with Minnesota probably won’t either.

Zachary Levine is an author of Baseball Prospectus. 
Click here to see Zachary's other articles. You can contact Zachary by clicking here

Related Content:  Awards,  PECOTA,  Projections

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