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January 19, 2015

Pebble Hunting

The Hitters Who Changed PECOTA's Mind

by Sam Miller

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Last year, around this time, I wrote an article here about the players who had most changed PECOTA’s mind in the previous year. The premise of said piece was that it takes extraordinary circumstances for PECOTA to acknowledge that the player had changed. Players don’t usually change much, at least in a year. People don’t usually change much. Last year, around this time, I wrote that article, and right now I’m writing that article, because I don’t usually change much.

We expect to release PECOTA early next week, so here is a sneak preview of what you’ll see—consider the numbers provisional until we officially send you the spreadsheet. What follow are the players whose 2015 projections are most unlike their 2014 projections, for good and for bad. Lots of players had unexpectedly good (or bad) seasons without their projections changing all that much; they’re expected to regress toward their previously established levels. But a few had unexpectedly good (or bad) seasons and are expected to just keep on doing it. They changed PECOTA’s mind. Here's who they are and here's what they did.

Player 2014 WARP projection 2015 WARP projection Difference
Jose Abreu 1.5 4.6 3.1
Mookie Betts 1.2 4.2 3
Steven Souza 0.5 3.2 2.7
Steve Pearce 0.2 2.9 2.7
Gregory Polanco 0.3 2.9 2.6
Wilmer Flores 0.1 2.6 2.5
Joc Pederson 0.2 2.5 2.3
Marcus Semien 0.3 2.5 2.2
Jorge Soler -0.1 2.1 2.2
Nick Franklin 0.2 2.4 2.2

I like to watch a so-so television show called Elementary, which is a Sherlock Holmes reboot in which Holmes and his pals solve mysteries. There are about nine characters in each show: Holmes, Watson, Cop Friend, Other Cop Friend, one of a handful of other recurring acquaintances (his brother Mycroft, some consultant, or Holmes’ new protege), the victim, and three people you meet for the first time during the episode. You know you’ve got your criminal among those nine, so your odds of guessing correctly are 11 percent--or 12.5 percent if you exclude the victim. But of course, you also know the killer isn’t going to be Holmes, Watson, Cop friend, other cop friend, or recurring acquaintance. You’ve been observing those five for a long time; you’ve got lots of data. People don’t change, and Watson isn’t going to suddenly decide three seasons in that she’s going to murder somebody and steal their rare butterfly-egg collection.

Which is to say, Jose Abreu. He showed up last year in the middle of season three, and we had to decide with very little information whether he was a killer or a maguffin. The BP Staff liked him to finish fourth in the AL Rookie of the Year voting; he finished fourth in MVP voting, instead. Easy enough to change our minds on that.

Abreu’s top PECOTA comps last year, and this year:

Pretty good.

Betts, man. Before the year began, he wasn’t on our top 101. His orgmate, Xander Bogaerts, was no. 2 on the top 101. Just one year later, in the Red Sox 25 and under rankings, we wrote that “it would be easy to call it a coin-flip” between the two. And we chose Betts.

I’ve written before about the best players of the prospect-rankings era to never make a Top 100: Mariano Rivera on the pitching side, Johan Santana or Tim Hudson among starters; Jim Edmonds, Jeff Kent or Robinson Cano among position players. Betts is awfully unlikely to match Cano, but his ascent from A-Ball to the majors was so fast, and his rise from bubble prospect to untouchable came so suddenly, that he managed to burn through his prospect eligibility without ever appearing on a BP Top 101. And he could match Cano. Won’t, almost certainly, but could. Cano’s projected WARP didn’t clear 4.2 until he was 24, two years older than Betts is this year.

If the category on Family Feud was “PECOTA’s Unrequited Love Interests,” the survey would quite likely say “old-for-their-league minor-league sluggers.” It’s certainly too soon to say Souza is only that, and PECOTA isn’t alone on seeing value where scouts generally haven't: As Dave Cameron noted when the Rays acquired Souza, he is a projections darling, so maybe PECOTA was just slow to catch up--especially considering that last year was his third in a row slugging at least .550 in the minors with a good batting average. Anyway, .350/.432/.590 in non-PCL Triple-A will do some things to a computer’s brain, even if it’s hard for us to believe Souza will outhit Victor Martinez, Bryce Harper and Josh Donaldson as PECOTA projects.

At the back of the BP Annual, in the PECOTA leaderboards, there’s a list of the players PECOTA expects to drop off the most from last year. Pearce is on that list, because PECOTA doesn’t believe Pearce is nearly so good as he was last year. He’s also on this list, because it believes he's much better than it thought last year. For 2014 we projected him to get 100 plate appearances with a .270 True Average and 0 percent chance of a breakout. Instead he got 383 plate appearances with a .344 True Average and enough breakout to count as two or three. His player comps:

Flores is a playing time guy: We’ve planned for him to play twice as many games this year, including time at shortstop where, if FRAA’s optimism is rewarded, he’ll be worth much more than he would have been in a 2B/3B split. His projected slash line doesn’t at first glance look all that different

  • 2014: .243/.274/.376
  • 2015: .256/.289/.411

but it’s enough to bump him from below average (.243 TAv) to above (.263). Credit for that good cheer goes to his Las Vegas production more than anything he did at the majors: His .251/.286/.378 line with the Mets last year would be on academic probation for cheating off PECOTA’s paper.

Same with Semien, actually. When he got promoted to Chicago he had a 14 percent walk rate, 16 percent strikeout rate, and a .245 isolated power in Triple-A, and none of those numbers was way off his career minor-league rates. In the half-season he spent at U.S. Cellular: 8 percent, 27 percent, .140. PECOTA doesn’t hold that against him, bumping his TAv projection from .261 to .274, but most of the gain here is in anticipated playing time, which is guided by our depth charts.

Soler’s projected slash lines:

  • 2013: .239/.285/.384, .242
  • 2014: .259/.318/.465, .287

It’s actually surprising to me that Soler’s projection improves by only 45 points of TAv. He had a very short resume before last year, so was ripe for reassessment. He hit .340/.432/.700 in a half season as an age-appropriate prospect, then .292/.330/.573 as a young rookie. And yet most of that slash line is courtesy a 20 point bump in projected BABIP, from a we-hate-you .276 forecast to a you’re-okay-buddy-but-just-okay .296. Whatever; 45 points of True Average is a lot of points of True Average! Soler, incidentally, improved on our top 101 prospects from no. 45 last year to the high teens. Pederson, who is also on the list above, improved about the same—he was no. 50 last year and is one spot ahead of Soler now. And in an article that's a sneak peak at PECOTA projections, you just got a sneak peak at our Top 101.

Lastly, there’s Nick Franklin, who had a disaster of the season: He was squeezed off the infield when his team signed the best player in the world at Franklin’s position, then he was terrible in a few tries in Seattle, got almost no playing time, had a so-so Triple-A line, and finally was traded by the organization that drafted and developed him. But he followed it up with one hell of an offseason, as the Rays traded two guys ahead of him on the depth chart.

If the list was a few spots longer, it would say Josh Harrison, George Springer and Kevin Kiermaier.

Here are the guys who didn’t suck a year ago but, by PECOTA’s reckoning, sort of do now:

Player 2014 WARP projection 2015 WARP projection Difference
Shane Victorino 4.1 1 -3.1
Pedro Alvarez 2.4 0.1 -2.3
Grady Sizemore 0.2 -1.7 -1.9
Chris Young 2.6 0.9 -1.7
Mike Olt 1.8 0.2 -1.6
Welington Castillo 1.6 0.1 -1.5
Ryan Sweeney 1.8 0.3 -1.5
Cameron Maybin 1.9 0.4 -1.5
John Jaso 2 0.5 -1.5
Andre Ethier 2.4 0.9 -1.5

Jaso’s inclusion might surprise you, but he’s the exception among this group: It’s just a projected playing time thing, not a change in expected performance.

Victorino was on last year’s list—in the gainers section. We were shocked at the time:

Victorino has been around so long and been so steady, that it seems impossible to have a new opinion of him. Indeed, PECOTA’s projected TAv for him is exactly the same as it was a year ago (though his final month bumped his projected hit-by-pitches by three this year). But last year, based on his history as a center fielder, he projected to be a poor defensive outfielder. After a spectacular defensive season in right, he projects this year to have baseball’s second-highest FRAA, behind Andrelton Simmons.

Well, no. Very much no. He sheds 15 defensive runs and a bunch of playing time, and PECOTA lands more or less right where it started with Victorino. What about the rest of last year’s movers? Was PECOTA too exuberant? Too conservative? Actually, pretty sound. The risers from last year, updated with what they actually did last year:

Player 2013 WARP projection 2014 WARP projection 2014 Actual
Yasiel Puig -0.3 3.3 5.8
Jean Segura 0.8 4.2 3.8
Matt Carpenter 2.3 5.3 3.8
Josh Donaldson 1.1 3.5 6.7
Manny Machado 1.1 3.5 2.4
Anthony Rendon 0.4 2.7 5.5
Evan Gattis 0.4 2.5 2.6
Kolten Wong 0.2 2.2 0.6
Khris Davis 0.7 2.6 2.8
Shane Victorino 2.1 4 -0.1

And the fallers:

Player 2013 projection 2014 projection 2014 Actual
Hiro Nakajima 2.1 -0.4 N/A
B.J. Upton 3.1 0.7 0.7
Albert Pujols 6.9 4.7 2.9
Paul Konerko 2.6 0.7 -1.1
Jesus Montero 1.9 0 0
Jimmy Rollins 2.9 1.1 4.3
Lance Berkman 2.8 1 N/A
Matt Kemp 4.5 2.9 3.8
Kevin Youkilis 2.9 1.3 N/A
Justin Morneau 1.8 0.3 3

Three clear misses, all of them veterans: PECOTA gave up on Rollins too soon, bought Victorino too eagerly, and—well, I guess gave up on Morneau too soon, but Morneau’s season is straight out of the “well, somebody’s going to win the lottery” unpredictable predictability. Overall, of the 17 players on those lists who played last year, only six produced a WARP closer to their “before” projection than PECOTA’s reassessment. Maybe that strikes you as a low bar to clear, but you've got to clear the low ones.

And, updating the Players Who Changed PECOTA’s Mind Over The Past Three Years leaderboard:

Player 2012 projected WARP 2015 projected WARP
Mike Trout 0.6 7.4
George Springer -0.9 3.6
Andrelton Simmons 0.6 4.8
Bryce Harper -0.2 3.9
Jean Segura 0.4 4.2
Joc Pederson -1.1 2.5
Nolan Arenado -0.7 2.9
Paul Goldschmidt 1.4 4.9
Anthony Rizzo 0.4 3.9
Manny Machado 0.4 3.9
Billy Hamilton -0.3 3.2
Kyle Seager 0.6 4.1
Josh Donaldson 1.1 4.4
Christrian Yelich -0.3 3
Oswaldo Arcia -0.4 2.7

And the decliners:

Player 2012 projected WARP 2015 projected WARP
Albert Pujols 8.4 4.1
Alex Rodriguez 4.3 0.8
Cameron Maybin 3.6 0.4
Grady Sizemore 1.3 -1.7
Dan Uggla 3.2 0.4
Jesus Montero 2.8 0.1
Danny Espinosa 2.8 0.3
Carlos Pena 2.6 0.1
Yunel Escobar 4 1.6
B.J. Upton 3.2 0.9
Mark Teixeira 4 1.8
Clint Barmes 2.5 0.3
Rickie Weeks 3.1 0.9
Jason Kubel 2 -0.1
Brendan Ryan 2.2 0.3

In their defense: Expectations for most of us are down from three years ago.

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

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