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March 21, 2005

Lies, Damned Lies

PECOTA Projects the American League

by Nate Silver

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Pushing the "calculate" button in Excel and running the PECOTA standings projections is one of my favorite moments of the year. There's an obvious reason--it represents the culmination of literally months of hard work. But there's also the not-so-obvious reason: after suffering through months of idle speculation and Buster Olney columns, I get to see, for the first time, where the conventional wisdom about the direction that teams are headed might be wrong. And, without wanting to spoil things too much, I think it's safe to say that the conventional wisdom is further off the mark this year than it has been in the recent past.

Let's go very quickly through the ground rules. These standings are based on compiling the PECOTA projections for each team's rosters as listed in the most recent iteration of the team depth charts that are available on our fantasy page. The depth charts attempt to account for playing time over the course of the entire season, rather than just on Opening Day, which should provide an appropriate reward to teams with superior depth. The individual projections are transformed into team runs scored and runs allowed totals by means of a version of the Marginal Lineup Value formula, and the runs scored and runs allowed totals are transformed into wins and losses by means of Pythagenport. A final adjustment is made based on strength of schedule. That's about it. Let's get moving.

AL East


             W   L   PCT   RS   RA
Red Sox     99  63  .610  946  754
Yankees     95  67  .588  877  730
Orioles     78  84  .484  817  844
Blue Jays   73  89  .448  775  863
Devil Rays  68  94  .422  734  864
The Red Sox might have exorcised the Curse, but the Yankees' run of consecutive division championships remains unbroken at seven. The conventional wisdom seems to be that the New Yorkers will extend that streak to eight; according to a couple of the online sports markets, the Yankees are nearly 3:1 favorites to take the division.

Why is the conventional wisdom wrong? For starters, the Yankees were one very lucky ballclub last year, exceeding their Pythagenport projection by nearly 12 wins. That's a huge discrepancy; a difference of that magnitude occurs only once every several years. The Yankees do have an excellent closer in Mariano Rivera, who might be worth an extra clutch win or two above Pythagenport. He isn't worth twelve.

It's also likely that the conventional wisdom is giving too much credit to Carl Pavano. PECOTA anticipates a 4.64 ERA from Pavano this season, which sounds about right for a pitcher with a below-average strikeout rate who is moving to a DH league and a club that won't do him any favors with its defense. Sure, Pavano might have been the second best pitcher available on the market this winter--but given the relatively slim pickings, that's a bit like saying that Lebanon is the second friendliest terrorist nation in the Middle East.

Finally, there are the lingering issues concerning age and defense. The Yankee hitters averaged 32.2 years last year, giving them the oldest starting lineup in baseball. In particular, folks like Gary Sheffield and Jorge Posada are likely to see some erosion in their performance. What's more, the projections above make only a muted, back-of-the-envelope adjustment for team defense. We can do a little bit better by examining the PECOTA defensive projections for individual players: here are the projected FRAA numbers for the Yankee regulars, and primary defensive backups:


C Posada       -2
C Flaherty     -5
1B Martinez    +2
2B Womack      -7
2B Sanchez     +1
3B Rodriguez   +9
SS Jeter       -4
LF Matsui      -6
CF Williams   -12
CF Glanville   -1
RF Sheffield   -4
Net           -29
We've excluded Jason Giambi and Ruben Sierra, who will see most of their time at DH, but certainly won't be assets when playing the field. Even without them, that's a projected loss of around 29 runs allowed, or about three wins. Defenders of Jeter's defense should note that he isn't the core of the problem--his projection of 4 runs below average is no worse than, say, Edgar Renteria's--but the Yankees' awful defensive outfield will cost the team nearly 25 runs all on its own.

PECOTA does expect huge things from Randy Johnson, and an MVP-type season from Alex Rodriguez. In fact, the system expects the Yankees to be a better team this year, but they could be a better team and win several fewer games.

As for the Red Sox, there's no good reason to expect a post-championship hangover. The team had turnover this winter at three positions--shortstop, and two starting pitching slots. Here is a comparison of what the Red Sox got from those positions last year, and what PECOTA expects them to get this time around:


Out--2004 VORP Actuals
Nomar Garciaparra 15.6
Orlando Cabrera   14.7
Pokey Reese       -7.3
Pedro Martinez    51.2
Derek Lowe       -11.5
TOTAL             62.7

In--2005 VORP Projections
Edgar Renteria    46.0
Matt Clement      42.1
David Wells       18.4
TOTAL            106.5
Losing Pedro Martinez hurts, but he didn't have his best season last year, and PECOTA expects Matt Clement to adjust very well to his new surroundings. Shortstop is likely to be stronger on the whole. PECOTA thinks that David Wells might hit the wall this year--figuratively, not literally--but he's replacing Derek Lowe, who, postseason heroics aside, was one of the worst pitchers in baseball last year. All told, PECOTA expects a net gain of around 44 points of VORP at these positions, or a little bit more than four wins. Add that to the Red Sox 96-66 Pythagenport record from last year, and we get very close to the 99-win figure projected above. The rest of the lineup should be relatively stable; PECOTA expects declines from Jason Varitek, David Ortiz, and Curt Schilling, but only modest ones, while the Red Sox are likely to get more production from right field, with Trot Nixon healthy and replacing a lot of wasted Gabe Kapler at bats. Boston enters the season as the best team in baseball, and the favorites to repeat their World Series championship.

I haven't left much space to write about the rest of the division, but there isn't much to say. Whatever gains Baltimore might garner from Sammy Sosa are likely to be mitigated by a return to earth from Melvin Mora, and the starting pitching, which was looking promising twelve months ago, is something of a mess. Toronto might beat that projection if they can get a breakout year from someone like Alexis Rios, or a return to vintage status by Roy Halladay, but even so, they'll be chasing .500, rather than playoff contention. The Devil Rays are finally developing some useful position player talent (much of which, apparently, will be killing time in Durham), but the average projected ERA of the starting pitchers is 5.21, and there are too many Travis Lees in the everyday lineup.

AL Central


             W   L   PCT   RS   RA
Twins       86  76  .533  827  772
Indians     85  77  .525  832  791
White Sox   80  82  .497  821  826
Tigers      76  86  .467  788  843
Royals      69  93  .427  765  889
Since they're cute and cuddly and small market, nobody talks about the Twins' hegemony over the farm belt, but by at least one measure, they've been the second most dominant team in baseball over the past three seasons. Six teams have accumulated a net positive games ahead/games behind number since 2002, or exactly one in each division:

   Games Ahead         2002   2003   2004   TOTAL
NL East     Braves    +19.0  +10.0  +10.0  +39.0
AL Central  Twins     +13.5   +4.0   +9.0  +26.5
NL Central  Cardinals +13.0   -3.0  +13.0  +23.0
AL East     Yankees   +10.5   +6.0   +3.0  +19.5
NL West     Giants     -2.5  +15.5   -2.0  +11.0
AL West     A's        +4.0   +3.0   -1.0   +6.0
Yes, folks, the Twins should be broken up, if not altogether contracted. Much of this, of course, is the results of the sorry competition in the AL Central, which in recent years has put the "less" in hapless. As for the Twins, they are not without their problems. The bullpen provided the Twins with a ton of value a year ago, but PECOTA is skeptical that folks like Joe Nathan and Juan Rincon can repeat their performances. The outfield is aging and becoming increasingly fragile, and the middle infield is almost certainly going to be among the worst in baseball. That said, Johan Santana and Justin Morneau ought to be enough, provided that the team can stay reasonably healthy. The Twins also have one of the softer schedules in baseball--it never hurts to have the Brewers as your designated interleague grudge match.

It isn't going to be a cakewalk, though, and the Indians in particular are going to provide some healthy competition. Cleveland very quietly scored 858 runs in a pitchers' park last season, and while that involved a few probably unrepeatable performances from folks like Travis Hafner, the offensive core is reasonably young and should at least hold its own. Where the Indians are likely to see some gains is in the pitching staff. Kevin Millwood was one of the relatively better buys of the winter--can anybody explain the difference between Millwood and someone like Kris Benson?--and folks like Cliff Lee and Jason Davis ought to be at least a little bit better, if only because it's hard to imagine them being much worse. That last statement might not sound particularly convincing, but it's worth remembering that pitching performances are flukier than offensive ones--a team coming off a season in which they had an above-average offensive performance and a below-average defensive one is a better bet for a breakout than the other way around.

The Tigers might also seem like viable breakout candidates. The club had a respectable 79-83 Pythagenport record last season, added Magglio Ordonez--for purposes of this exercise, it's of no consequence that they overpaid twofold for him--and can expect some improved performances from young players like Jeremy Bonderman. The problem is that the measured success that the Tigers had last season was brought about in large part by a series of career seasons. PECOTA expects a decline of at least 50 points of OPS for four of the nine regulars in the starting lineup:


   Player           2004 Actual    2005 Projection
C  Ivan Rodriguez .334/.383/.510    .292/.346/.464
2B Omar Infante   .264/.317/.449    .259/.316/.391
3B Brandon Inge   .287/.340/.453    .246/.311/.399
SS Carlos Guillen .318/.379/.542    .285/.356/.452
Rodriguez is a fantastic talent, but he's a 33-year-old catcher who had his best season in years, with a batting average driven performance that involved a huge drop-off in the second half. That's pretty much a perfect recipe for a decline, and PECOTA thinks there's only about a 10 percent chance that Rodriguez will match the 63.1 VORP that he put up a year ago. Inge and Guillen are mid-career players who had performances radically out of line with their past histories. Infante is only 23, and the one player who might have the system fooled, as his PECOTA features a schizophrenic comparables list involving everyone from Luis Rivas to Ryne Sandberg. The Tigers aren't a soft spot any longer, and that's a fantastic development given their recent history, but there are too many steps backward here for them to be a serious playoff contender.

The AL Farm & Cornmeal division has had four 100-loss teams in the past three seasons, the Royals playing the part last year. While the Royals aren't going to excite anyone, there's enough talent here--everyone from Zack Greinke to Calvin Pickering--that the team doesn't seem likely to flirt with the century mark again. It's worth remembering that, just as about everything that might have gone right with the Royals did go right in 2003, the very opposite was true last year.

That leaves the White Sox, who will not be the worst team in the division. The question remains, however, whether it's better to have a 100-loss season here and there, or to be doomed forever to mediocrity, like the Dominique Wilkins-era Atlanta Hawks. It's fitting that the White Sox are projected to finish almost exactly at par, because their moves this winter give every appearance of having been influenced by some bizarre, gravitational pull exerted by the .500 mark:

Perhaps Kenny Williams has some form of Munchausen's Syndrome by Proxy, and needs to ruin the team in order to save it? Perhaps it's something in the White Sox' ill-conceived lease with the Illinois Sports Facilities Authority, which doesn't require the White Sox to pay rent until the 1.5 millionth customer has passed through the U.S. Cellular turnstiles? In any event, this was looking like the year in which the Sox might finally have done poorly enough to trigger some necessary, long-overdue front office changes, but the flurry of constructive late-winter signings ought to be just enough to pull them back into their self-built purgatory.

AL West


             W   L   PCT   RS   RA
A's         88  74  .544  834  760
Angels      83  79  .515  787  763
Rangers     79  83  .490  868  885
Mariners    77  85  .477  754  791
For those of you who haven't had a chance to pick up this year's annual, there is some griping in the A's chapter about how PECOTA isn't particularly kind to Oakland players, as it tends not to like players who draw a lot of walks without hitting for much power, a characteristic common to A's regulars like Jason Kendall, Scott Hatteberg, and Mark Kotsay. Nor is PECOTA especially fond of the A's rebuilt pitching staff; it doesn't like Rich Harden's walk rate, or Dan Meyer's groundball-flyball numbers, or Keiichi Yabu's Japanese translations.

But PECOTA does like the A's--in fact, it's picking them to finish first in their division when a lot of pundits have them in the basement. For one thing, there are some A's, ranging from Eric Chavez to Bobby Crosby to Nick Swisher, who get plenty nice projections. More than that, however, PECOTA appreciates the organization's depth. If Meyer struggles in the big league rotation, the A's have a number of attractive options like Juan Cruz, Kiko Calero and Justin Duchscherer to fall back on. Simiarly, if Swisher stutters, then someone like Bobby Kielty will be plenty adequate in the everyday lineup. One of the more valid criticisms of the sabermetric, budget-conscious approach to team building is that it tends to leave you with a lot of decent regulars and reserves, but few genuine stars. But the A's have enough frontline talent, like Chavez and Octavio Dotel and even the overlooked Erubiel Durazo, that the concern is misplaced here. They're the favorites to win the division, and would have come out with an even better projected record if not for their difficult schedule.

I don't quite understand the hype over the Angels. There are a several obvious soft spots in the lineup, like Ben Molina and Darin Erstad and Orlando Cabrera, who according to PECOTAs WARP projections, will be just the ninth-best shortstop among the 14 projected American League starters this year:


2005 AL Starting Shortstops--Projected WARP
Tejada, BAL    8.7
Jeter, NYA     7.1
Guillen, DET   6.7
Crosby, OAK    6.3
Renteria, BOS  6.3
Uribe, CHA     5.3
Lugo, TBA      4.7
Young, TEX     4.7
Cabrera, LAA   4.4
Peralta, CLE   4.0
Berroa, KCA    3.8
Bartlett, MIN  3.5
Adams, TOR     2.8
Reese, SEA     1.5
These figures are not adjusted for playing time--if they were, folks like Jhonny Peralta and Jason Bartlett might pull ahead of Cabrera. They are adjusted for defense--it's just that Cabrera hasn't been a premium defensive player for a long time.

PECOTA likes Dallas McPherson a whole bunch, and is relatively sympathetic to Steve Finley, but they're replacing positions that the Angels have generally gotten good production from in the past. Kelvim Escobar is a good breakout candidate, and Bartolo Colon should almost certainly better last year's numbers, but I don't see how you can get that excited about a pitching staff that will involve Paul Byrd taking his turn every fifth day. Yes, Vladimir Guerrero is very good, but it seems to me that the burden of proof lies with the folks that are making more optimistic projections than the one we have here.

The first spring training game that I caught on TV this year involved the Texas Rangers, and featured an interview with pitching coach Orel Hershiser, who was positively beaming in discussing how well his arms were coming along. It struck me as sad: this is the about the only time of the year that Hershiser, a notably honest guy, can say some good things about his pitching staff while keeping a straight face. Whatever curse is preventing the Rangers from developing a talented pitching staff doesn't appear likely to be resolved this year, and the season is going to feature a lot of Mark Teixeira home runs undermined by a lot of this:


                     IP    H  R  ER BB SO
Rodriguez (L, 8-14)  4.1   7  6  5  4  3
Astacio              1.2   2  2  2  2  2
Francisco            0.2   1  2  2  2  0
Mahay                0     1  1  1  0  0
Almanzar             1.1   3  0  0  1  1
Brocail              1     1  1  1  0  0
One of the projections that generated a lot of controversy in-house is Adrian Beltre's. PECOTA, it seems, looks at a guy who has been mediocre his whole career and then suddenly vaults to superstar status in the span of six months as likely to wind up somewhere in between: Beltre is projected at .279/.337/.486 after accounting for the offensive-dampening effects of Safeco Field. That seems eminently sensible to me: Beltre's breakout year was not accompanied by any change in his plate approach (Beltre saw an average of 3.80 pitches per plate appearance in 2003--and 3.74 in 2004), and while 25 is not too old to see some slow-and-steady growth, it's usually not an age at which a guy just picks up and learns to hit. Certainly, it's possible to tell a story about Beltre's conditioning, or his financial incentives, or his appendicitis, or the miracles worked by Tim Wallach, but the Occam's Razor explanation is that luck had a lot to do with it.

Of course, Beltre isn't the only player on the Mariners' roster. Richie Sexson falls into the Magglio Ordonez category of players that should help, even if it's at too high a price, and the preexisting core of talent is far better than last year's 63-99 record indicates. PECOTA doesn't do justice to Ichiro Suzuki, and if the young pitchers can put together productive years, then the Mariners have more upside than a team like the Rangers, and perhaps even enough to fight for a playoff spot.

Awards

We'll conclude with a bonus section this year, outlining the preeminent candidates for the major awards.


AL MVP
Player            BA    R  HR  RBI   OBP   SLG  VORP  WARP
Rodriguez, NYA* .289  125  41  108  .383  .551  69.2  11.7
Chavez, OAK*    .283   98  34  108  .381  .526  50.9   9.2
Tejada, BAL     .292   96  29  106  .349  .495  53.0   9.1
Guerrero, ANA   .318  104  32  106  .390  .559  65.0   9.0
Ramirez, BOS*   .309  116  38  118  .412  .574  63.1   8.9
Jeter, NYA*     .294  117  19   74  .361  .451  56.3   8.6
Soriano, TEX    .301  107  35  107  .348  .538  52.3   7.9
Sheffield, NYA* .292   99  29   95  .392  .518  52.3   7.4
Hafner, CLE     .287  105  33  106  .392  .524  59.8   7.1
Ortiz, BOS*     .287  101  35  117  .375  .553  50.9   6.1
* Plays for projected playoff team.
I've listed all players with projected VORPs of 50 or higher. These projections will appear slightly different in some areas than those that you will see on the PECOTA cards or elsewhere, as they are adjusted for our most current estimates of playing time.

Keep in mind that the actual winner of the AL MVP is likely to have better statistics than the lines listed above. That's because the numbers indicated in the table are taken from weighted mean projections, whereas the MVP is generally someone who is already a very good player, and then outperforms his projection on top of that. Nevertheless, it's interesting that A-Rod emerges so far ahead of the pack, especially in the WARP department, where his excellent defense at third base is taken into account. If things finished up exactly as PECOTA projected them, I'd expect a close race between Rodriguez, Chavez, and Manny Ramirez. The Twins don't have any representation here; there's a world in which Joe Mauer stays healthy, gets some clutch hits in September, and emerges as a darkhorse candidate.


AL Cy Young

Pitcher         W-L   IP    ERA  BB   K   VORP  WARP
Santana, MIN*   17-8  210  3.11  59  240  69.0   8.8
Johnson, NYA*   18-7  205  3.14  46  221  61.8   8.3
Schilling, BOS* 17-8  205  3.70  39  183  55.1   7.3
We could list other names--Zack Greinke has a very promising projection--but the pitching ranks are more stratified than they've ever been and these three guys are at the head of the pack. Whichever one stays healthiest and gets the best run support is likely to come away with the trophy, but PECOTA gives Santana the edge.

AL Rookie of the Year

Player            BA    R  HR  RBI   OBP   SLG  VORP  WARP
Reed, SEA       .286   71  12  64   .353  .423  36.9   7.4
Iguchi, CHA     .277   80  11  61   .344  .408  31.7   7.0
McPherson, ANA  .272   77  24  87   .351  .496  34.5   5.9
Swisher, OAK*   .244   74  19  71   .351  .423  21.5   4.8

Pitcher         W-L   IP    ERA  BB   K   VORP  WARP
Meyer, OAK*    10-8  155   4.49  54  123  25.9   4.1
Blanton, OAK*  10-9  155   4.60  46  108  23.0   3.8
Kazmir, TBA     7-8  125   4.51  68  108  19.8   3.1
There's no Albert Pujols in here, but it looks to be a relatively competitive rookie field. Jeremy Reed is liable to be underrated since Safeco will depress his numbers, and a good chunk of his value will come from his defense. McPherson has the best counting stats of the bunch and would probably emerge with the hardware if everyone finished up exactly like this. PECOTA isn't particularly fond of any of the pitchers, but if Felix Hernandez is up in the big leagues by the first week in May, look out.

Nate Silver is an author of Baseball Prospectus. 
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