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February 17, 2016

The Lineup Card

Our Favorite PECOTA Projections

by Baseball Prospectus

1. Bryce Harper and A.J. Pollock
Projecting player performance is hard. It’s even harder to generate accurate projections for players who performed significantly better last year than they did before that. A good projection system will account for a player’s newly established level of play while remembering that the given player is the same one who performed at a lower level in the seasons prior to the breakout.

The two most obvious examples of players who established new levels of production with their 2015 performance are Bryce Harper and A.J. Pollock. Harper led MLB in WARP in 2015 at 11.2, besting his previous career high of 5.2 set in 2012, his rookie season. Until 2015, Harper’s WARP had been steadily declining due to a series of injuries, some nagging ones that limited his numbers and some serious enough to land him on the DL. Finally healthy in 2015, Harper put up a monster season.

For 2016, though, PECOTA pegs Harper at 5.1 WARP, less than half of his 2015 total. Even his 90th percentile projection for 2016 is 7.4 WARP, a significant drop from his actual value in 2015. The 5.1 WARP projected for Harper in 2016 place him 10th among hitters. The highest projection among hitters for 2016 belongs to Mike Trout, of course, at 7.3 WARP. Trout’s 10.0 WARP in 2015 was well behind Harper’s 11.2, but Trout’s consistently outstanding production and durability since 2012 make him a significantly better bet for 2016 according to PECOTA.

A.J. Pollock put up a 5.4 WARP season in 2015, good for 20th among all MLB hitters. His 2016 PECOTA projection is 2.3 WARP, which is 96th among hitters. Yes, his 2015 season was tremendous, but 2013 (1.3 WARP) and 2014 (2.2 WARP) happened, and those years matter, too.

For what it’s worth, despite the significant decreases in WARP projected for Harper and Pollock in 2016, PECOTA sets the odds that each player will improve at 57 percent for Harper and 50 percent for Pollock. PECOTA understands that while regression to the mean is a powerful force, it’s not the only thing in play here. —Scooter Hotz

2. Yasmani Grandal
When thinking of National League MVP candidates, a few names leap to mind: Buster Posey, Paul Goldschmidt, Giancarlo Stanton, Joey Votto, Bryce Harper. Those players have five of the NL's six top projected WARPs for 2016 according to PECOTA. But between Goldschmidt and Stanton, at no. 3, squats Yasmani Grandal.

His projected TAv of .279 is hardly exceptional. It puts him alongside Michael Brantley, Kyle Seager, and Christian Yelich, and well behind Matt Kemp, for whom he was traded a year ago. (Regrets? The Padres have a few.)

The separator for Grandal is his defense. Thanks to elite pitch-framing skills, he is projected to have the highest FRAA in all of baseball. Even if he doesn't hit .250 (PECOTA thinks he won't), his on-base, slugging, and glovework abilities will conspire to form a better player than many realize.

Of course, catching is hard. Grandal doesn't have the best track record in terms of health, and even if he misses no time, he'll likely be playing hurt at some point during the long season. That is the risk with him and all who don the so-called tools of ignorance.

Still, Grandal provides serious value both at and behind the plate. Even if he fails to become the MVP threat that PECOTA envisions, he at least gives the Dodgers a good, young, cost-controlled player to build around up the middle. More importantly, he helped them move Kemp's arthritic hips (which struggle to move on their own these days) and crippling contract, for which the team and its fans will long be grateful. —Geoff Young

3. Mike Trout
To the surprise of no one, PECOTA’s highest projected WARP and TAv both go to Mike Trout. It pegs the four-time earner and one-time winner of the AL MVP for 7.3 WARP and a .332 TAv, and beyond it being remarkable that a system could esteem a player so highly, I find it interesting how obviously and irrefutably those numbers sell him short. I mean these numbers sell Trout way, way short. That .332 TAv would be 20 points worse than his career mark, which is right about where he’s sat for the last two seasons. In my view, Trout has proved himself a total anomaly, an outlier whose greatness no statistical forecast can capture. PECOTA doesn’t really disagree, either. Twenty-three players have at least 2,500 plate appearances over the last four years. Of them, 22 have a Similarity Index between 76 and 87, for the purposes of PECOTA 2016. (Similarity Index is about what you’d expect; it measures comparability on a (theoretically) 0-100 scale.) Trout, who has the most plate appearances in the bunch, has a Similarity Index of 63. PECOTA tried desperately to sketch out the expected production of the best player it has ever encountered, but if you look at the comps, you can see the system throwing up its hands. Trout’s top five comparables are Giancarlo Stanton, Yasiel Puig, Justin Upton, Frank Thomas, and Miguel Cabrera. Thomas had 941 plate appearances through his age-23 season. Puig had 1,072. Stanton and Upton were closer in terms of playing time (quantity), but laughably behind in terms of production (quality). Cabrera was by far the most accomplished of this group of comps through age 23, which is to say that he was roughly half the player Trout is. In fact, a decade later, Cabrera has built a Hall of Fame career around an all-bat profile—but has only one season with a TAv as high as any of the four Trout has posted in his full seasons. PECOTA underestimates Trout, because Trout has completed a practical transcendence of baseball. Maybe he’ll only decline from here, but even if he does, he’s probably very, very likely to beat his PECOTA projections for the next year or two. —Matthew Trueblood

4. David Ortiz
Big Papi has appeared in 19 major-league seasons and in 17 of those campaigns he has stolen either one base or none. That’s pretty remarkable consistency and it’s logical considering he runs like he’s been mainlining NyQuil. Unlike like most projections, where there is a vast range of outcomes, PECOTA’s choice for Ortiz’s stolen base total was literally binary: zero or one. If the slugger had been projected for two steals heading into his age-40 season, it would have been absurd given that’s a total he’s only broken twice in his career.

Logically speaking, we know that this projection was based on advanced calculations, but it’s more fun to imagine a guy (or gal) sitting at a desk shrugging their shoulders and flipping a coin to make the call. That's much more romantic than an algorithm spitting out 0.54751 which was then rounded up to one. For what it’s worth, Ortiz seems less likely than not to swipe a bag during his final rodeo. He’s only attempted one steal in the last two years and was thrown out both casually, and by a virtually unfathomable margin, by Roberto Perez at third base. Then again, he set his career-high with four stolen bases as recently as 2013. The big man is full of surprises.

Whatever Ortiz does on the bases this year, PECOTA can have confidence in this projection; they’ll either be 100 percent correct or off by just one. —Nick Ashbourne

5. Rougned Odor
PECOTA projects Odor for 3.2 WARP in 2016, only a 0.1-win improvement from his 2015 campaign, when he floundered to start the year and spent several weeks in Triple-A. Now, PECOTA only works with what there is to put in it, and Odor’s had so little actual exposure to the league that it can only work with, well, what he did in 2015. It’s not hard to imagine Odor being able to beat that projection by some, if not quite a bit, as one of the Rangers’ potential foundation points for a competitive 2016. Odor shouldn’t have the same slip in production to start the year as he had last season. He displayed steady improvement over 2015, and even though he tired toward the end of the season, he never displayed the level of incompetence that characterized the beginning of his season. An additional year of experience and conditioning, as well as the natural improvement that happens with age (until, most agree, age 27), should protect him against that. —Kate Morrison

6. Corey Seager vs. Kyle Seager
When Kyle Seager was asked at a recent Mariners FanFest event who was better, him or his younger brother, Kyle’s response was quick: "I'm sorry he's better; I'm trying, I promise." But in Corey’s first full year in the majors, PECOTA projects Kyle to be more valuable. If PECOTA is to be believed, Kyle will get on base a little more, but hit for less power. He’ll be hit by pitch a touch more often, presumably because Jered Weaver is still in the Angels’ starting rotation. He’ll hit a few more home runs, but have a worse time on the base paths. The Brothers Seager profile very similarly offensively, with Kyle’s .279 TAv narrowly edging Corey’s .272. PECOTA doesn't project goodness of face, which will surely be a relief for all and sundry gathered at the Seager family Thanksgiving. So main difference comes on the defensive side, with PECOTA giving a nod to Kyle’s strong campaigns at the hot corner, while giving the rookie room to grow. All in, it sees Kyle as worth 4.3 WARP to Corey’s 3.0.

Enthusiasts will finally begin to settle the question of which brother is better, not as a matter of theory but of practice. Corey’s upside is seen as substantially greater; now he’ll get down to the business of proving it. Will this be the last time Corey is projected as less valuable going into a new year? Will he live up to our lofty expectations? Will Justin suddenly realize he’s left-handed? Did you know there is a third Seager? If Corey fulfills his prospect hype, which lies somewhere between a taller Harry Potter and baseball’s Kwisatz Haderach, we’ll likely put this conversation in our rear view, content to appreciate Kyle’s steady goodness while we marvel at Corey’s heady highs. But for now, big brother holds the edge, if only narrowly. —Meg Rowley

7. Jean Segura
“It’s not as simple as numbers on a spreadsheet,” goes the refrain, and while we huddle around the computer screen for the release of the latest PECOTA numbers, we know this on some level. PECOTA doesn’t predict the performance of automatons, but of men, who are subject to forces often unknown or incomprehensible to us and unmodelable by science.

Few, if any, more so than Jean Segura, who tragically lost his son in mid-2014 and, though he hit better after returning from bereavement leave than he had before, struggled throughout 2015, posting a .217 tAV and 1.8 WARP. Considering that he’s leaving behind Milwaukee, where he’d struggled the past two years, and heading from the moribund Brewers to sunny Arizona and a Diamondbacks team on the way up, this would be a convenient narrative turning point for Segura, which is, of course, PECOTA doesn’t know.

Nevertheless, PECOTA’s on board with a Segura rebound—his 50th-percentile projection is a .242 tAV and 3.3 WARP, with his 10th-percentile projection (.215 tAV, 1.5 WARP) looking more like he did in 2015.

Certainly being able to play shortstop competently—which means he’ll be valuable even if he doesn’t hit even a little—serves as a hedge against a bad offensive season, but it’s interesting that the computer’s almost rooting for a heartwarming rebound season too. —Michael Baumann

8. James McCann
It’s easy to point at the advent of advanced catcher defense metrics as a good thing—the new framing metrics and mixed-model approach to catcher value allows us to better understand how receivers change the game, and how they should be valued. Then again, if you’re a player like James McCann, I’ll bet part of you just wants Harry, Jonathan, and company to just buzz the hell off.

After putting up two successful minor-league seasons in 2013 and 2014, McCann ousted Alex Avila as the Tigers’ regular backstop, and BP’s WARP metrics were decidedly unimpressed, positing him as 1.7 wins below a replacement player. PECOTA imagines more of the same in 2016, giving him the lowest projected WARP (-1.4) of all players expected to receive substantive big-league playing time next season.

Despite a sterling defensive reputation while coming up through the minors and a good-but-not-elite command of the running game, Detroit’s no. 1 catcher was among the worst in baseball last year at pitch framing, costing his team nearly 17 runs worth of value. Given that this is his only substantive data point at the big-league level, PECOTA projects more of the same in 2016, enough for him to drag down his value by a number of runs that even Antonio Alfonseca can’t count on two hands.

If only McCann were a decent hitter, perhaps this framing ineptitude would sting a little less–but he isn’t. Despite good athleticism and a little power, he only walked 16 times in 425 plate appearances, which put him on base (.297 OBP) just slightly more often than any of the following Ramirezes in 2015: Aramis, Alexei, Hanley, or Jose. (All of them were terrible.) So, for those of you at home filling out a checklist, PECOTA sees that he’s a bad hitter (.239 TAv), bad defender (-16 FRAA), and it threw in bad baserunning (-3.4 BRR) just to round things out.

Of course, PECOTA is putting a load of weight on a 2015 season that wasn’t so hot–it stands to reason that McCann could potentially bump up his framing numbers to something a bit closer to his minor league numbers: below-average, but not cringe-inducing. Given how the Tigers have an aging roster in the midst of a competitive battle for the AL Central, I bet they’ll be hoping that McCann’s poor play won’t be a below-replacement anchor on their squad for a second consecutive season. With PECOTA giving McCann similar Breakout/Improve/Collapse/Attrition percentages to A.J. Pierzynski and comping him to guys like Tony Cruz and Jeff Mathis, I’d skimp on the hope and put that energy towards finding a mid-season replacement. —Bryan Grosnick

9. Jon Lester
In December of 2015, the Cubs made their biggest splash in moving from a rebuilding team to becoming a serious contender. That came in the form of signing left-handed starting pitcher Jon Lester to a seven-year, $155 million contract. But something interesting happened as the Cubs rolled towards 97 wins and a trip to the NLCS—Lester performed in the shadow of an even-better pitcher. That would be Jake Arrieta, who went on to win the National League Cy Young award on the back of an historic season.

Lester had a good season, even if it paled in comparison to Arrieta, posting a 3.34 ERA, 3.89 DRA, and 2.8 WARP in 205 innings. But PECOTA has an interesting projection about the pair of pitchers going into 2016, with Arrieta posting a 4.4 WARP (third highest among starting pitchers) and Lester coming in right behind him at 4.3 WARP (fifth highest). That would give the Cubs the best one-two punch in all of baseball right now. Even more shocking? The Cubs entire projected five-man rotation sit in the top-40 in WARP at their position. With the offensive talent the Cubs have, PECOTA’s projection on the Cubs starting rotation—specifically Lester and Arrieta being top-five starters—justifies the talk about the Cubs possibly being the best team in all of baseball. —Ryan Davis

10. Billy Hamilton
PECOTA says Billy Hamilton will be the most prolific baserunner in the game… and it’s not even close. The 25-year-old’s 8.4 baserunning runs (BRR) are the highest of the 951 hitters to receive a PECOTA projection. The magnitude of that lofty projection is amplified by the fact only trio of hitters (Jarrod Dyson (6.5), Ben Revere (5.7) and Elvis Andrus (4.3) to be exact) are forecasted to produce even half as many runs on the basepaths in 2016. To put those numbers in context, here is a look at the dozen most prolific baserunning runs (BRR) single seasons over the last decade.

Year

Player

BRR

OPPS

2009

Michael Bourn

12.1

316

2011

Ian Kinsler

11.6

239

2012

Michael Bourn

11.3

284

2007

Juan Pierre

11.3

284

2015

Billy Hamilton

10.9

157

2006

Hanley Ramirez

10.8

278

2008

Ichiro Suzuki

10.6

331

2008

Shane Victorino

10.6

208

2010

Michael Bourn

10.4

277

2008

Fred Lewis

10.2

204

2011

Juan Pierre

10.0

252

2012

Ben Revere

9.6

210

The key column to examine in this case is total baserunning opportunities (OPPS). Bourn, who appears on this exclusive list for his efforts in three separate campaigns, was all about quantity during his prime. He accrued 33.8 BRR in those three years, but it took a whopping 877 OPPS to get it done. A dynamic speedster, no doubt, but his baserunning prowess was a byproduct of being consistently good over a large sample. Last year, Hamilton did more (10.9 BRR) with fewer opportunities (157) than anyone in the past 10 years.

PECOTA isn’t optimistic about Hamilton at the plate, projecting a .229 TAv along with a paltry .285 OBP this season. With major-league front offices placing less emphasis on stolen bases and speed on the basepaths, Hamilton is an albatross in today’s game, and without question one of the most polarizing position players we’ve ever seen. However, on a per-chance basis, based on his current trajectory, there is no disputing Hamilton’s status as the most-skilled baserunner of his generation entering the physical prime of his career. If that’s not one of the most compelling storylines to watch in 2016, I’m not sure what is. —George Bissell

11. Xander Bogaerts' lofty player comps
At first glance, Bogaerts’ projected 2016 stat line isn’t very impressive when viewed against the expectations that we have laid upon him. PECOTA thinks he’ll hit .282/.333/.414 with 13 homers and six steals, play slightly below average defense and finish at 2.5 WARP, which is an entire win less than he was worth in his 2015 campaign. While such a finish would be somewhat disappointing for Bogaerts, it wouldn’t be altogether stunning—he benefited from a .372 BABIP last year, and PECOTA has that stabilizing at around .334 for the upcoming season. Plus, while most think there’s extra power hiding in Bogaerts’ bat, he needs to prove that he can marry his new offensive approach with the natural loft he showed as a prospect.

Despite PECOTA’s underwhelming 2016 projection, Red Sox fans can take solace in two areas in which PECOTA clearly thinks quite fondly of Bogaerts; his breakout/improve percentages and his list of comparables. PECOTA gives Bogaerts a 10 percent chance to break out, or outperform his 2015 TAv by at least 20 percent, and a 55 percent improve score in a system in which 50 percent predicts a repeat of last season’s numbers. That might not look like much but both marks are pretty high compared to other players’ marks, and especially compared to other shortstops’ percentages.

Finally, we get to Xander’s comparables: Troy Tulowitzki, Hanley Ramirez and Starlin Castro. Yes, two of the best shortstops of their generation and a soon-to-be 26-year-old who’s already posted three seasons providing 3.5 WARP or better. All in all, PECOTA doesn’t think Bogaerts will have a monster year in 2016, but it does think he’s capable of doing so and it clearly likes his long-term upside. It’s an encouraging projection for Bogaerts overall, even if those who just do a direct WARP comparison may come away with a bitter taste in their mouths.


It’s also important to note that PECOTA doesn’t take the beauty of Xander’s eyes into its calculations, so we can probably add another four or five wins to his total. —Ben Carsley

12. Jenrry Mejia
I'm picking Jenrry Mejia despite how bad he's about to make PECOTA look. After failing a doping test for the third time, Mejia becomes the first player to get a lifetime suspension under MLB's anti-doping rules. And therefore his projection will be 100 percent off. His actuals—barring some miraculous appeal—are going to be a big, fat ZERO.

What happened here? Did he think he could get away with it this time? Did he get a bad Whizzinator? Did his buddy inadvertently store his Boldenone next to Mejia's stash of Gatorade? Wouldn't that not be cool since Mejia was already on strike two? And more interesting (to me, anyway), is there anything in Mejia's personality that might've shed light on something like this popping up?

Either way, it's a lost season for Mejia and it's a bummer for the Mets. PECOTA had Mejia pegged as a pretty valuable reliever (with closer experience to boot)—he was one of only five players with a WHIP under 1.20, an ERA under 4, a walk ratio under 3.0 per 9 innings, and a K rate higher than 8.0 per nine.

That’s not a world-beater, but it’s definitely a nice piece to have on a contending team like the Mets. We know a lot about what Mejia's baseball talents are, but not enough about his personality. But you bet the Mets are going to be more careful with players after they flunk their very first test. For all the other players under the Mets umbrella, it's likely that strike one is going to be one strike too far. —Carlos Portocarrero

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