April 3, 2004
Lies, Damned Lies
PECOTA Preview, 2004
So there you have it. I don't have a good excuse; I have lots of them. It's been an odd offseason, an odd six months. But, in spite of the fact that it's still about 40 degrees here in Chicago (we're at that awkward point in the spring that I like to call the Coat-Sweater Nexus), there are some indications that baseball season is upon us, like Cubs fans being hopeful, and Nick Johnson being on the DL. Hell, I hear that they've even played a couple of games already. So let's waste no more time. Let's talk PECOTA.
If you've taken some time to explore the depth charts that are part of our new Fantasy product, you may have noticed the team-by-team projections for run scored, runs allowed, and W-L record. There's a lot of hard work that went into generating these numbers. Runs scored is projected through what I believe to be very accurate lineup simulator program, combining the individual hitter PECOTAs and accounting for playing time at each position and in each batting order slot. Runs allowed are estimated in a similar fashion, and a W-L record is generated by combining these two figures by using the Pythagenport formula. These are good projections. I pretty much limit my gambling activities to poker and an NCAA Tournament pool or two (Go Yellow Jackets!), but if you happen to be in Vegas or something, you could make some good money by betting on these.
One thing the original version of the projections didn't account for is strength of schedule. That never used to be much of a concern in baseball, but given both the unbalanced divisional schedule, and unbalanced interleague matchups, it can make a palpable bit of difference, especially in the case of a team like the Blue Jays that will play nearly a quarter of its schedule against the AL East Nuclear Superpowers.
With that in mind, let's run through the divisions and evaluate each team in these departments:
Starting off on the India-Pakistan frontier and moving westward:
AL East RawW% SOS AdjW% AdjW AdjL AdjRS AdjRA New York .660 .504 .657 106.4 55.6 976 707 Boston .660 .507 .654 106.0 56.0 948 690 Toronto .525 .522 .502 81.4 80.6 873 862 Baltimore .519 .524 .495 80.2 81.8 817 826 Tampa Bay .377 .540 .340 55.0 107.0 676 943This case has been made elsewhere, but it's possible that, heading into the season, we've never seen two stronger teams in the same division than the Yankees and the Red Sox, at least not since the leagues split in 1969. Projecting any team to win more than 105 games is surely folly given all the nasty things that can happen during a baseball season, but these clubs are strong, very strong. The Red Sox have some of the depth that they've lacked in previous years and are tremendous on both sides of the ball. The Yankees chain enough good hitters together that they're going to benefit from some of the non-linearities that a truly great offense can generate (in layman's terms: they can mash; 1,000 runs is within reach). It is likely that these projections are underestimating the negative impact that the Yanks' poor defense could play--a defensive adjustment is built into the pitcher PECOTAs, but is done in a very conservative manner. Still, it would take a coincidence of several cataclysmic happenings for either team to miss the playoffs, and both clubs have the money to hedge against even that.
Much as we'd love to wishcast the Blue Jays into a 92-win season or something, the team faces a brutal schedule and their pitching is not good. While Roy Halladay's projection is probably low, a bullpen assembled on the cheap could come back to harm them, and the back-end of their rotation should keep them involved in a lot of games, but not necessarily winning them. Baltimore is improved, but not nearly enough so; they could beat that projection if young arms like Matt Riley develop ahead of schedule, but even then, they're battling for third place. Tampa Bay faces the toughest schedule in the league by our reckoning. Rays fans are going to have a long season ahead of them, but can take solace in the fact that the Trop is one of the two most beautiful major league parks in Florida.
AL Central RawW% SOS AdjW% AdjW AdjL AdjRS AdjRA Minnesota .506 .489 .517 83.8 78.2 826 797 Chicago .488 .500 .488 79.1 82.9 841 851 Kan. City .481 .495 .486 78.8 83.2 887 902 Cleveland .451 .498 .452 73.3 88.7 730 800 Detroit .401 .508 .394 63.8 98.2 741 908Can we take none of the above?
One of the more underplayed stories of the offseason, even out here o'er the thawing tundra, is the paltry effort that the White Sox made to gain an edge in a division that could have been theirs for the taking. The team had a notable increase in box office revenues last season, but slashed payroll nevertheless, and haven't inspired confidence by doing things like trading for Timo Perez (depriving Jeremy Reed of playing time), anointing Billy Koch the closer, and signing the Japanese Jerry DiPoto. The Royals outperformed their Pythagorean projection by a fair bit last year and can expect some regression to the mean from players like Angel Berroa. Still, they have a better front office than either of the other two 'favorites,' and could take the division if Carlos Beltran and a couple of the young arms have that breakout year. Could the fate of the division rest with Zack Grienke come September? The Twins look like the safest choice provided that a brutal bullpen doesn't undermine them.
The division is so bad that the Tigers have some sort of mathematically negligible chance to take the division crown. To Dave Dombrowski's credit, his offense has been repaired to the point that it's about league average after considering park effects; getting the pitching staff to a similar point will be a task for next winter. We like what the folks in Cleveland are doing, but the team has reached a stalling point wherein they have a set of good, cheap peripheral players but not the core of stars to build around. There was a spoof that came out around the time of the Winter Meetings that the Indians had signed Vladimir Guerrero; much as the usually-reliable Joe Ptak was silly for putting the forgery out, an acquisition like that might have made a good bit of sense.
AL West RawW% SOS AdjW% AdjW AdjL AdjRS AdjRA Oakland .568 .507 .561 90.9 71.1 809 705 Seattle .525 .513 .512 82.9 79.1 803 781 Anaheim .519 .512 .506 82.0 80.0 762 746 Texas .481 .518 .464 75.1 86.9 835 897PECOTA doesn't think that this one is going to be all that close: Oakland is the best team in the division by a fair margin. Even anticipating some decline in performance from the Big Three, the team was built around having a number of cheap and interchangeable (but effective) parts in spots like the back half of the pitching staff, and PECOTA expects big things from the likes of Bobby Crosby, Miguel Tejada's replacement. There's a lot of optimism in Anaheim, but for all the improvement that the big offseason signings should provide for, the team is relatively old and could suffer from Garrett Anderson falling back to earth and Darin Erstad getting in 150 games or so at first base. Seattle is even older and has done enough stupid things this off-season to make Derek Zumsteg cry in his beer; signing a big hitter at one of the corner spots would have been exactly the right move, but Raul Ibanez? Texas will not be as bad as advertised if Mark Teixeira has the breakout that PECOTA is anticipating, but unless Tex can pitch, they won't be any good.
NL East RawW% SOS AdjW% AdjW AdjL AdjRS AdjRA Philly .580 .491 .589 95.5 66.5 835 687 Atlanta .500 .500 .500 81.1 80.9 747 743 Florida .488 .493 .494 80.1 81.9 697 697 Montreal .488 .502 .486 78.7 83.3 863 882 New York .469 .506 .463 75.0 87.0 708 763How big does a cushion have to be to be Larry Bowa-proof? The Phils might get a lot of the little things wrong but between a rebound campaign from Pat Burrell, a breakout from Jimmy Rollins, and the significant contribution made by the team's deep, well-balanced pitching staff, they should get most of the big things right. The Florida projection looks a bit low considering that PECOTA took a very conservative stance on both Josh Beckett and Miguel Cabrera; nevertheless the World Champs managed a pedestrian Pythagenport record of 87-75 last year and have lost ground this winter. Forget I-Rod; was there a worse decision this winter than saving a couple of million bucks by replacing Mark Redman with Darren Oliver?
In fact, there really isn't that much difference between any of the bottom four clubs. Atlanta has simply lost too much offensive talent to have a realistic shot; having homeboy J.D. Drew healthy for 150 games would help. PECOTA expects nice things from both Mike Cameron and Kazuo Matsui, and if the Mets can get their fifth starter mess sorted out, the .500 mark is within reach, but that's about it. We've got some crazy park effect applied in Montreal: the Olympic Stadium-Hiram Bithorn combo played something like Coors Field last year, some of which was surely a statistical anomaly; in the future we're going to have to consider forecasting park effects in the same way that we forecast hitter and pitcher stats. In actuality the Expos look to be about league average on both sides of the ball, staying just close enough to the fringes of contention that people like Jonah Keri will grow really frustrated dreaming of what could have been if Vlad were still around.
NL Central RawW% SOS AdjW% AdjW AdjL AdjRS AdjRA Houston .568 .489 .578 93.7 68.3 808 680 Chicago .562 .492 .569 92.2 69.8 735 627 St. Louis .543 .494 .549 89.0 73.0 769 681 Cincinnati .469 .498 .471 76.4 85.6 760 804 Milwaukee .420 .505 .414 67.1 94.9 691 827 Pittsburgh .420 .506 .414 67.1 94.9 656 785In reality, pennant races rarely come down to a single player as often as people like us claim that they do. But Mark Prior might be an exception. Though adding folks like Derrek Lee and Aramis Ramirez should help, and though Corey Patterson's healthy stride is a positive sign this spring, the rest of the Cub offense is either aging or was never very good to begin with, and the team is probably going have to allow 650 runs or fewer in order to reach the playoffs. And every day that Prior or one of the other big starters spends on the DL is a day that makes that less likely to happen. The Astros get much less play in the media, but there really isn't too much bad that you can say about them. OK, the bullpen won't be quite as good as last year's, Brad Ausmus is a weak link on offense, and we still miss the Rainbow Unis, but otherwise the team is rock-solid. As for the Cardinals, it's easy to scoff at the presence of folks like Ray Lankford and Tony Womack and dismiss them as serious contenders, but that neglects both the team's tremendous star power and the additional depth they've added to their pitching staff over the winter; this should be a three-team race.
Cincinnati, Pittsburgh and Milwaukee are forecasted to play 162 games, give or take. Oh, and Wily Mo Pena is going to have a big year.
NL West RawW% SOS AdjW% AdjW AdjL AdjRS AdjRA San Diego .519 .494 .525 85.0 77.0 743 701 San Fran .506 .495 .511 82.7 79.3 756 736 Arizona .494 .492 .502 81.3 80.7 763 753 Los Angls .463 .504 .459 74.4 87.6 659 715 Colorado .451 .500 .450 73.0 89.0 780 856Yes, yes, I know that we've jumped on the Padres bandwagon before. Just about everything that might have gone wrong did go wrong in San Diego last season. But this is a solid club; Brian Giles is a legitimate superstar who should age well, and the pitching is sound--look for Jake Peavy to beat his projection and the oddly-underrated David Wells to match his.
You can give the Pads some extra credit for the ballpark buzz effect if you like, but more to the point, all of the other division contenders have some sort of tragic flaw. San Francisco's offense is ghastly bad behind Barry Bonds; the team outperformed its Pythagenport by seven games last year, and has relied on a long series of improbable contributions from its veteran spare parts that are unlikely to be sustainable. The Dodger offense would be bad even if it had Barry Bonds, and unless Edwin Jackson makes some kind of Fernando-like debut, the pitching staff is unlikely to repeat its uncanny performance of a year ago. Arizona is projected as a .500 club, but given the team's age, one with more downside than upside. That PECOTA anticipates that the Rockies will score but 780 runs in spite of Todd Helton and Coors Field is all you need to know.
All of that points to a big October celebration in sanddune and sunset, or whatever the hell colors the Padres claim to wear.