February 16, 2017
PECOTA and the Twins, Sitting in a Tree
Every year around this time Baseball Prospectus releases the full slate of PECOTA projections for players and teams. And every year around this time those projections upset a handful of fan bases that feel disrespected or overlooked by the numbers that were crunched. Some fan bases are briefly annoyed and then brush it off, while others—and especially those like the Orioles and Royals who’ve been through this same dance with PECOTA several times before—take serious offense. Such is the life of a system designed to predict (or at least project) the future.
But here’s the thing: No one ever gets angry about PECOTA projections being too optimistic.
This season PECOTA projects three teams to improve by double-digit wins:
Houston shouldn’t really surprise anyone, because the Astros successfully pulled off a full-scale rebuild and are now stacked with young talent. PECOTA projecting a young 84-win team to take the next step is pretty straightforward whether or not you agree that it’s likely. Tampa Bay going from 68-94 in 2016 to 84-78 in 2017 would certainly qualify as a surprise, but the Rays won 80 games in 2015, won at least 84 games every season from 2008-2013, and have generally been viewed favorably by PECOTA over the years. The big head-scratcher is obviously Minnesota.
Last season PECOTA projected the Twins to have the second-worst record in the league, which upset fans who thought an 83-79 record in 2016 meant that five consecutive 90-loss years were sufficiently in the rearview mirror. Instead, the Twins were the worst team in baseball at 59-103, pulling off the rare double-whammy of a fan base getting angry at PECOTA only to spend six months watching their team dramatically underperform the projection. It was a special kind of lousy.
The biggest move of the Twins’ offseason was overhauling the front office, but in terms of actual on-field pickups it’s been remarkably quiet. Their largest splash was banking on Jason Castro’s pitch-framing excellence with a modest three-year, $24.5 million contract. Their second-largest splash was spending $2 million on 36-year-old journeyman reliever Matt Belisle. If anything the offseason is defined by a move the Twins didn’t make, holding onto slugging second baseman Brian Dozier after months of rumored trade talks with the Dodgers.
So why does PECOTA see a 59-103 team winning 80 games despite an uneventful offseason and little history of rose-colored projections? It’s not due to monster individual performances. In fact, PECOTA projects Dozier to come back down to earth after his 42-homer breakout in 2016 and no Twins are projected to have more than 2.9 WARP. Their predicted improvement is driven mostly by significantly improved defense and the natural progression of a young roster. In other words, PECOTA thinks the Twins are simply starting to come together as a good team.
PECOTA envisions the Twins’ lineup reaching roughly the same destination as last season (733 projected runs in 2017 vs. 722 actual runs in 2016), but traveling a different path. Dozier carried the offense in the second half and finished at .268/.340/.546 with 42 homers, but he’s projected to return to his pre-2016 production with 25 homers, 2.2 WARP, and a .752 OPS that matches his .747 OPS from 2013-2015. There’s good reason to be skeptical about Dozier sustaining his breakout—it’s the same reason the Dodgers balked at trading more for him than they eventually gave up for Logan Forsythe—but PECOTA thinks Minnesota’s offense will be just fine either way.
If anything, Twins fans should be encouraged by the fact that PECOTA sees the offense scoring 733 runs with Dozier as merely a solid contributor. Instead of one bat doing all the heavy lifting, the projections show a unit full of average-or-better hitters for their respective positions. And if Dozier wants to blast another 40 homers, then that’s great too. Here’s how the projected True Average for each member of the Twins’ likely Opening Day lineup compares to the MLB average at their position last season:
All nine of Minnesota’s expected Opening Day starters are projected to be within five percent of the league-average production for their position. Four of them are slightly above average, four of them are slightly below average, and one of them (Dozier) is exactly average. Add it all up—with a little bench work from the likes of Robbie Grossman and Eduardo Escobar—and the Twins are projected to rank ninth in the league with 733 runs. Last season they ranked ninth in the league with 722 runs.
Of course, hitting wasn’t the Twins’ problem last year. Minnesota allowed 889 runs, which was 128 more than the second-worst AL team. That’s incredibly awful. There was a larger gap in runs allowed between the league-worst Twins and second-worst Angels (128) than there was between the second-worst Angels and AL-best Blue Jays (95). That was nothing new for the Twins, who ranked dead last in runs allowed among AL teams from 2011-2016 by a total of 310 runs. And yet PECOTA projects the Twins to allow just 747 runs this season, which would be 142 fewer than 2016 and—just like the offense—rank ninth in the league. How can a pitching staff go from 889 runs to 747 runs when the biggest addition was Matt Belisle?
Defense. In three years as the Twins’ starting catcher Kurt Suzuki was 35.4 framing runs below average. During those same three seasons, Castro was 39.5 framing runs above average as the Astros’ starting catcher. Based on those numbers, the upgrade behind the plate from Suzuki to Castro alone should equate to 20-25 fewer runs allowed by Twins pitchers. There’s no getting around how awful Minnesota’s pitching has been, but going from one of MLB’s worst framers to one of MLB’s best framers will make everyone look significantly better.
Beyond that, the young outfield trio of Buxton, Rosario, and Kepler projects to be 22 runs above average defensively and Buxton in particular is likely to be among the best defenders in the AL. Things aren’t as pretty in the infield, but PECOTA gives Sano and Polanco surprisingly decent marks on the left side and sees the infield as a whole being average-ish with Dozier and Mauer included. Add it all up and the Twins’ defense projects to be 23 runs above average after being 37 runs below average last season, for an improvement of 60 runs.
That still leaves another 82 runs to shave from last year’s total, but regression—or in this case progression—to the mean takes care of most of that. There's a lot of improvement to be found in going from historically inept to merely run-of-the-mill bad. Only two Twins pitchers, Trevor May and Taylor Rogers, are projected to have an ERA below 3.90, but like the lineup PECOTA sees the staff being filled with average-ish performances. And like with Dozier and the lineup, PECOTA has the pitching being decent despite last year’s standout, Ervin Santana, seeing his ERA rise from 3.38 to 4.26.
Santana, Kyle Gibson, Phil Hughes, Tyler Duffey, and Jose Berrios each have a projected ERA below 4.50, with Berrios offering some breakout potential. Among the seven pitchers projected to start at least five games for the Twins only Hector Santiago has a sub-replacement level ERA at 5.05. Retaining him for $8 million via arbitration strikes me as the new regime’s biggest misstep so far. May also looms as a potential impact starter, but it’s unclear if the Twins will give him that chance again after moving him to the bullpen in mid-2015. PECOTA projects May for a 3.16 ERA in a relief-only role and without him the bullpen looks extremely shaky.
Three-time All-Star closer Glen Perkins spent his offseason rehabbing from extensive shoulder surgery and writing the foreword to the Baseball Prospectus Annual, so he’s a big question mark. With a healthy and reasonably effective Perkins being set up by May and Brandon Kintzler the Twins’ bullpen might be within shouting distance of decent, but if Perkins isn’t his old self and May is in the rotation the high-leverage duties fall to some combination of Kintzler, Belisle, Ryan Pressly, and J.T. Chargois. Some useful arms, sure, but they’d be working middle relief in a strong pen.
In general, a deeper look at PECOTA projecting the Twins to have an 80-82 record makes the whole thing seem slightly more plausible than my initial gut reaction, but three things stand out as difficult to buy into:
Now, in fairness there are some areas—like Dozier’s hitting—where the Twins might feel pretty confident about their chances of getting more value than PECOTA projects. And certainly if several players from the young Buxton/Sano/Kepler/Berrios/Polanco/Rosario group take massive steps forward they could blow the 50th percentile PECOTA projections out of the water. Because the Twins are relying on so much untested youth their error bars are much larger, good and bad.
PECOTA projecting a 21-win improvement for the Twins is surprising and a deeper examination leaves plenty of room to quibble with individual numbers, but the big-picture point that the Twins are close to being a respectable team built around young, homegrown talent feels pretty sturdy. I’d bet on something closer to 75 wins, which would still be tied with the Rays for the biggest rise in projected record and will safely top any Las Vegas over/under betting lines.