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February 4, 2014

Overthinking It

Parsing the PECOTAs

by Ben Lindbergh

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The PECOTA projections are here, which means that many of you will spend the day exploring the weighted-means spreadsheet and the Depth Charts in search of surprises and confirmations that it’s okay to crush on the players whose performance you’ve been awaiting all winter. That’s exactly what we do when PECOTA’s keepers deliver the first file to the staff; we just have a head start.

We’ll be offering plenty of PECOTA-related content between now and Opening Day, but today, a quick tour is in order. Here’s a look at a few of the most fascinating projections I’ve seen so far, followed by a look at the players projected to improve or decline most dramatically relative to 2013, the closest comparables for recently retired players, and a summary of the weakest projected positions on 2014 contenders.

These are a few of my favorite projections:

Billy Hamilton, Reds
The most common PECOTA complaint among fans who aren’t familiar with the way projections work is that the totals are too conservative. The best player is projected to be worth 6.8 WARP, the highest forecasted home run total is 36, and so on. We’re reasonably certain that the field will top those marks, but we wouldn’t project any particular player to do it; the one who does often has a little luck on his side, or some other factor that helps him outperform his true talent. And so the projected league leaders for the upcoming year almost always have lower rates and totals than the leaders in the previous season.

Billy Hamilton’s projection doesn’t play by those rules, which is why it makes me so happy. Hamilton is projected for 10.8 BRR. Last season’s projected leader (Coco Crisp) had a 7.0 in the spreadsheet, and last season’s actual leader (Matt Carpenter) finished with 8.4. It’s the same, obviously with steals: Hamilton projects to have 73 stolen bases, 21 more than last year’s leader. And PECOTA thinks he can do that despite a .299 OBP, which means he’ll A-B-G: Always Be Going.

PECOTA also likes Hamilton in the field, projecting him for 14 FRAA and a total of 2.9 WARP (Shin-Soo Choo’s projected WARP: 3.3). Since 1950, there have been only 24 player-seasons with a WARP of at least 2.9 and a TAv under .240. We’ve seen only two since 2000: Willy Taveras in 2006 and Jason Kendall in 2008 (Taveras’ season is a much closer match). Hamilton is on the verge of being one of the best things about baseball.

Joey Gallo, Rangers
Joey Gallo’s player comment in Baseball Prospectus 2014 says he “has as much raw power as anyone in professional baseball.” PECOTA agrees, making Giancarlo Stanton his top comp. If you add an AB/HR column to the spreadsheet and sort it in ascending order, you’ll see Gallo at the top, slated for a dinger every 14.1 at-bats…and a strikeout every 2.6 plate appearance.

Extended over 650 plate appearances, Gallo’s .208/.276/.459 line would translate to 42 home runs (to go with only 60 singles) and 255 strikeouts, 32 more than Mark Reynolds’ all-time single-season record. PECOTA was paying attention when Jason Parks said “the swing-and-miss is 80-grade.”

Obviously, we don’t expect the 20-year-old Gallo, who hasn’t played above A-ball, to make the majors in 2014; his ETA on the Rangers Top 10 list is late 2015, and that’s if he doesn’t implode spectacularly. It’s quite possible that Gallo will be a bust because of the whiffing, which is why he’s only no. 95 on the Top 101 despite his Stanton-esque power tool. But man, I wish his spreadsheet season were real.

In the meantime, have some homers:

Do we have any power prospect lovers in the audience? Oh, you’re also raising your hands. Another note for you, then: Javier Baez and Miguel Sano also appear very close to the top of the AB/HR column.

Mike O’Neill, Cardinals
Here’s one for the powerless prospect fans. Last summer, I spoke to Mike O’Neill and wrote an article about him called “The Plate Discipline-Only Prospect.” I probably exaggerated the “prospect” part. O’Neill, who turns 26 next week, is a 5’9” (listed) left fielder with an incredible eye and next to no power. He’s slapped, scrapped, and walked his way to Triple-A, where he posted a .402 on-base percentage and a .321 slugging percentage in 32 games at the end of last season.

PECOTA projects O’Neill at .270/.373/.340. That’s a 1.10 on-base:slugging ratio. Only six players since the last strike have had an OBP:SLG ratio of 1.10 or higher and an OBP of at least .370 in a minimum of 500 plate appearances:

Year

Name

POS

Team

PA

OBP

SLG

1995

Walt Weiss

SS

Rockies

537

.403

.321

1996

Rickey Henderson

LF

Padres

602

.410

.344

1996

Otis Nixon

CF

Blue Jays

575

.377

.327

1998

Tom Goodwin

CF

Rangers

518

.391

.344

2007

Reggie Willits

LF

Angels

580

.387

.346

2009

Luis Castillo

2B

Mets

608

.378

.338

All of those players had something else going for them: Goodwin and Nixon were speedsters who played center; Henderson you’ve heard of; Castillo was a middle infielder who hit .300 with 20 steals; Weiss was a shortstop (whose complete power outage came with a team that collectively slugged .471). Willits, who was as old in 2007 as O’Neill will be this season, is the closest comp on this list (though J.B. Shuck is the closet on the spreadsheet), but even he had 27 steals. Over 500 plate appearances, O’Neill’s projection calls for four.

Willits was worth 2.4 WARP in ’07, but he made more plate appearances that year than he did the rest of his career. It seems unlikely that O’Neill will ever see as much action as Willits did, but we’ll always have his PECOTA.

Nolan Fontana, a 22-year-old shortstop in the Astros’ system makes O’Neill look like a slugger: PECOTA’s projection for him is .198/.342/.278.

Andrelton Simmons, Braves
PECOTA doesn’t expect Simmons to add to the power he showed in 2013, or have a higher TAv. It doesn’t think he’s an above-average baserunner. Our depth charts currently have him penciled in for fewer plate appearances than he had last year. And still he’s projected for 4.3 WARP. That’s the power of a really great glove. Simmons is projected for 22 FRAA. When you’re that good on defense, you only have to be adequate at the plate to be an impact player. If Simmons exceeds his offensive projection significantly (which isn’t that hard to imagine), he’ll be one of the best players in baseball.

Yuniesky Betancourt
If you sort the spreadsheet in ascending order of WARP, you have to scroll through a bunch of minor leaguers projected for the minimum 250 plate appearances before you get to an actual player. That player is Yuniesky Betancourt, who checks in at -0.5 WARP (in 332 plate appearances) with a .238/.268/.370 line. There’s a neatness to this: Betancourt was the worst-projected potential major leaguer, and now he’s not a major leaguer. Enjoy Orix, Yuni. If you find that you miss the majors, there'll still be someone who's surprisingly willing to pay you to play.

Mariano Rivera
PECOTA projects a 2.68 ERA with 39 saves, 8.1 strikeouts per nine, and 1.7 walks per nine for the Rivera age-44 season we’ll never know. “Rivera intends to dedicate himself to philanthropy and his churches since retiring from baseball,” Wikipedia says. How can he be so selfish?

This is unrelated, but life-affirming: Japhet Amador’s top comp is Walter Young. That makes me more confident in the comparables than anything else could. Another fun Astros fact: if we prorate all of Houston’s position players to 600 plate appearances, George Springer projects to have their highest WARP.

Comps for players who’ve left the league
On Monday’s podcast, Sam Miller and I discussed why we’d miss Yuni: his departure left the sabermetric community without a consensus player punchline. Might his comparables offer a substitute?

Probably not. Betancourt appears among the top three comps for only two active players, neither of whom seems perfectly positioned to take over his crown: Alcides Escobar and Freddy Galvis. Here are the active players most comparable to some notable recent retirees:

The most like Michael Young: Jhonny Peralta

The most like Ryan Theriot: Maicer Izturis, Jemile Weeks

The most like Lance Berkman: Prince Fielder, Joey Votto, Albert Pujols

The most like Todd Helton: Billy Butler, Prince Fielder, Albert Pujols, Joey Votto

The most like Roy Halladay: Cliff Lee

The most like Andy Pettitte: Ryan Dempster, Bartolo Colon, A.J. Burnett, Hiroki Kuroda, R.A. Dickey

The most like Chris Carpenter: ​Cliff Lee, CC Sabathia, Tim Hudson

The most like Derek Lowe: Tim Hudson, Hiroki Kuroda, R.A. Dickey

The most like Mariano Rivera:

Risers and Fallers
As one would expect, most of PECOTA’s top WARP improvers are players projected to gain gobs of playing time, which makes comparisons based on rate stats more interesting. The following tables list the hitters and pitchers whose performance is projected to improve or decline the most as measured by TAv and ERA, respectively (minimum 500 PA or 150 IP in both seasons). To download a version of the 2014 PECOTA spreadsheet that includes extra tabs you can use to compare players’ 2014 projections to their 2013 stats (and adjust the playing time minimums as you see fit), click here.

TAv Improvers

Name

Team

2013 TAv

2014 TAv (Proj.)

DIFF

Starlin Castro

Cubs

.230

.264

.034

Alcides Escobar

Royals

.203

.235

.032

Darwin Barney

Cubs

.204

.235

.031

Prince Fielder

Rangers

.289

.314

.025

Josh Hamilton

Angels

.264

.287

.023

Anthony Rizzo

Cubs

.267

.288

.021

Jose Altuve

Astros

.238

.259

.021

Nick Markakis

Orioles

.250

.269

.019

Mike Moustakas

Royals

.232

.251

.019

David Freese

Angels

.258

.276

.018

Angels, Cubs, and Royals fans have a lot to like about this list.

TAv Decliners

Name

Team

2013 TAv

2014 TAv (Proj.)

DIFF

Chris Davis

Orioles

.348

.285

-.063

Brandon Moss

Athletics

.320

.275

-.045

Carlos Gomez

Brewers

.298

.254

-.044

Jayson Werth

Nationals

.333

.290

-.043

Freddie Freeman

Braves

.332

.295

-.037

Josh Donaldson

Athletics

.320

.287

-.033

Shin-Soo Choo

Rangers

.328

.297

-.031

Andrew McCutchen

Pirates

.339

.308

-.030

Daniel Nava

Red Sox

.302

.272

-.029

Michael Cuddyer

Rockies

.310

.281

-.025

Chris Johnson

Braves

.290

.265

-.025

I’m a believer in Davis, so this decline seems somewhat harsh, but even he’s not projected to be bad. Other than Gomez (another player I like), all of the decliners here are still projected to be well above average. They’re just in line for regression from some pretty steep peaks.

ERA Improvers

Name

Team

2013 ERA

2014 ERA (Proj.)

DIFF

Ian Kennedy

Padres

4.91

3.60

-1.31

CC Sabathia

Yankees

4.78

3.51

-1.27

Dan Haren

Dodgers

4.67

3.47

-1.20

Tim Lincecum

Giants

4.37

3.41

-0.96

Matt Cain

Giants

4.00

3.11

-0.89

Edwin Jackson

Cubs

4.98

4.15

-0.83

Yovani Gallardo

Brewers

4.18

3.62

-0.56

Justin Verlander

Tigers

3.46

2.94

-0.52

A.J. Griffin

Athletics

3.83

3.31

-0.52

Joe Saunders

FA

5.26

4.83

-0.43

PECOTA is still carrying a torch for Lincecum, which is where it and I differ. Otherwise, I’m on board. PECOTA approves of Josh Byrnes’ trade for Kennedy and foresees a bounceback season from Sabathia and more of the 2013 second-half Haren, as well as some regression in A.J. Griffin’s home run rate.

ERA Inflaters

Name

Team

2013 ERA

2014 ERA (Proj.)

DIFF

Anibal Sanchez

Tigers

2.57

3.79

1.22

Shelby Miller

Cardinals

3.06

4.19

1.13

Julio Teheran

Braves

3.20

4.28

1.08

Hisashi Iwakuma

Mariners

2.66

3.74

1.08

Bartolo Colon

Mets

2.65

3.67

1.02

John Lackey

Red Sox

3.52

4.46

0.94

Ervin Santana

FA

3.24

4.17

0.93

Jorge De La Rosa

Rockies

3.49

4.40

0.91

Jeff Locke

Pirates

3.52

4.42

0.90

Kyle Lohse

Brewers

3.35

4.25

0.90

Miller was hit harder than his ERA (or even his FIP) indicated last season, which may have had something to do with his postseason disappearance. I’m not surprised to see him here. PECOTA thinks buyers should beware of Santana, and that Locke’s second half of last season was a harbinger of more mediocrity to come.

Projected (near) replacement-level positions
Finally, the most glaring positional weak points PECOTA sees on 2014 contending teams (defining “contending team” loosely):

Tigers, 3B: 0.0 WARP (Nick Castellanos, Steve Lombardozzi, Don Kelly)
PECOTA is not a big believer in Nick Castellanos in 2014, projecting him to be slightly below average at the plate (.265/.307/.396; .251 TAv) and 10 runs below average in the field.

Blue Jays, 2B: 0.2 WARP (Ryan Goins, Brent Morel, Maicer Izturis)
The Blue Jays aren’t the favorites for Stephen Drew’s services, but he’d be a big upgrade for them if they could convince him to stand on the other side of the second-base bag.

Brewers, 1B: 0.2 WARP Mark Reynolds, Juan Francisco, Lyle Overbay)
Replacement level would be about a win and a half better than Brewers first basemen (read: Betancourt and Alex Gonzalez) were last season.

Braves, 3B: 0.4 WARP (Chris Johnson, Tyler Pastornicky)
We saw above that PECOTA expects Johnson to be one of the biggest decliners on offense; take away 25 points of TAv, and the system sees a bad glove and no baserunning ability.

Rangers, 2B: 0.4 WARP (Jurickson Profar, Adam Rosales, Rougned Odor)
PECOTA is pessimistic about Profar’s defense at second. I’d take the over here.

Royals, SS: 0.5 WARP (Alcides Escobar, Pedro Ciriaco)
Escobar is projected to be one of the biggest gainers on offense, and he still can’t escape this list. That’s how bad his hitting was last season.

Diamondbacks, CF: 0.5 WARP (A.J. Pollack, Tony Campana, Cody Ross, Gerardo Parra)
PECOTA thinks Kevin Towers may not have helped his team much in the short term when he traded Adam Eaton in the Mark Trumbo trade. White Sox center fielders, led by Eaton, are projected to total 2.7 WARP.

Diamondbacks, SS: 0.7 WARP (Didi Gregorius, Chris Owings, Cliff Pennington)
PECOTA says Gregorius won’t field and Owings won’t hit. I have my doubts about both projections.

Phillies, RF: 0.6 WARP (Marlon Byrd, John Mayberry)
PECOTA doesn’t buy Byrd’s late-career renaissance.

Yankees, 2B and 3B: 0.7 WARP (Brian Roberts, Kelly Johnson; Scott Sizemore, Eduardo Nunez, Kelly Johnson)
PECOTA also projects a total of 1.0 WARP from Yankees shortstops, eight-tenths of it by Brendan Ryan.

Thanks to Andrew Koo for research assistance.

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

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