March 1, 2016
Life at the Margins
Things Are Looking Upside
This is not the picture of a man who had one good season (2012, in which he won the Cy Young award with the Mets) and has sucked thereafter, as some narratives would have it. Rather, this is the picture of a man who, during the 2009-10 offseason, worked out how to sustain 2.5 WARP-level performance well into his 40s, almost-accidentally had one season far better than that in 2012, and thus set himself up to disappoint observers when he turned out to be exactly what he looked like before that miracle year: a perfectly adequate knuckleballer, but not an ace.
And this is, more to the point, the picture of a man who seems designed specifically to confuse PECOTA, which explains, in part, his odd projection. Granted, Dickey will be 41 years old this year. Most pitchers aren’t very good in their age-41 season, and PECOTA knows that. But most pitchers don’t throw a knuckleball 80 percent of the time, as Dickey does, and most pitchers haven’t put up 8.2 WARP throwing that knuckleball over the past three seasons, which is exactly what Dickey has done since he left New York.
All of which is to say that I’d be very surprised if Dickey produced just 0.4 WARP worth of value in 2016, barring injury. And that got me thinking about upside in the rest of the Toronto rotation, and whether there might be reason to be bullish, relative to PECOTA’s projections, about those pitchers, as well. I’m not the only one thinking along these lines: Jays Journal ran a piece in December calling the Jays rotation the “league leaders in upside.”
I can sort of see the case. Marcus Stroman is a 24-year-old with a glorious sinker and two other plus pitches to boot. J.A. Happ appears to have graduated from the Ray Searage school of pitching with a newfound ability to work off of his fastball. Drew Hutchinson and Marco Estrada, too, have moments you can dream on. And yet, even considering all that, PECOTA projects the whole group for just 5.0 WARP in 2016, which feels... rather unsatisfying. Surely it’s incumbent upon analysts to account and give credit for the breakout potential in Toronto’s starting five, which—at least to the naked eye—seems to be rather more than the usual amount.
So let’s try to give Toronto as much credit as we can, and take a look at PECOTA’s 90th-percentile projections for the Queen City starting five. Here’s how the Jays’ rotation might perform next year, if everything goes exceptionally well for everyone involved (also included: 10th percentile projections, just for fun):
Hey, 14.6 WARP! That’s suddenly a very good rotation; more productive, in fact, than all but eight entire MLB pitching staffs—never mind rotations—were in 2015. So, yes, there’s unrealized upside in the Toronto rotation. And if you look at Stroman’s profile and want to make the case that he’s going to put up a lot more than 1.9 WARP in 2016, go ahead. There’s about a 50 percent chance that you’ll be right. If, like me, you look at Dickey’s projection and are near-certain that he’ll produce more than 0.4 WARP next year, by all means carry on preaching that gospel.
But is that upside in any way notable or impressive? Is it weird?
Fact is, most pitching staffs start looking very, very good if you project them at their 90th-percentile marks, and most pitching staffs, unfortunately for Toronto boosters, start from a higher base than the five men the Blue Jays will be running out to the mound in 2016. Take, for example, the rest of the AL East next year, sorted by their staffs’ combined 90th-percentile projections:
Suddenly, that 14.6 projected WARP for Toronto (at the 90th percentile) starts looking much less fancy, and that -5.0 WARP (at the 10th percentile) starts looking downright terrible. But, again, maybe we’re not giving Toronto enough credit here.
Up to this point, we’ve talked about how good we expect each rotation to be if everything breaks right for them (which is a concept we can express quantitatively with a 90th-percentile projection), but not about how good we expect each rotation could be if everything breaks right for them relative to how good we expect they’ll be if everything just goes sort of okay—a concept we can represent with a 90th-percentile projection, divided by an overall projection. And perhaps that second number is more what our minds naturally jump to when we think of upside, and thus is why PECOTA’s 5.0 WARP projection for the Blue Jays feels sort of off.
Put in other words: if you expect a ten-cent lollipop to suck, and it turns out to be decent instead, you’re usually more surprised than you would be if you expect a chocolate cake at a fancy restaurant to be very good, and it’s excellent instead. The cake was better all along, and indeed beat your expectations just like the lollipop did, but it also surprised you less, because your expectations for its baseline performance were higher in the first place. In the end, the chocolate cake beat your expectations by a lower margin.
In a vain attempt to run far away from this metaphor as fast as I can, here’s the AL East’s 90th-percentile rotation projections, divided by their overall PECOTA projections, and sorted by the result.
And here, we have something. Granted, this exercise will tilt toward the lower-denominator teams, but remember our awesome and totally relatable chocolate cake metaphor? Point is, this is why we feel a little unsettled when we look at Toronto’s 5.0 WARP PECOTA projection: Their upside performance, if they realize it, is a full 192 percent higher than their “normal” projection, which is a larger gap than that projected for every other team in the AL East. If the Red Sox’s starters, for example, pitch as well as they possibly can, they’ll only be 95 percent better than we expected them to be in the first place, and we’ll be correspondingly less surprised at their performance at the end of the year. Hence, we feel less unsettled looking at Boston’s 50th-percentile projections right now than we do looking at Toronto’s.
So, yeah, the degree of upside in the Blue Jays’ rotation is indeed, a little weird. Case closed?
Not yet. There’s one more thing to talk about. Although Toronto’s performance on this metric I just made up is the highest in its division, it isn’t the highest in the major leagues. Here, for your viewing pleasure, are the teams ranked two through five:
There, at five, are the Blue Jays. The A’s, Braves, and Royals—all teams, I hope you’ll note, with rotations generally projected to be poor—take spots four through two. And that leads us to this:
There in red, white and grey, plying their craft under a Trout’s watchful eye, are the actual league leaders in upside: the Los Angeles Angels.