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March 29, 2005

Lies, Damned Lies

PECOTA Projects the NL

by Nate Silver

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You should all know how this works by now, so let's jump right in.

NL East


            W    L    PCT    RS    RA
Phillies   90   72   .554   833   744
Braves     82   80   .506   758   749
Marlins    81   81   .502   724   720
Mets       81   81   .497   736   741
Nationals  74   88   .459   685   749
One of the systemic flaws in offseason coverage is that activity tends to be mistaken for progress; a lot of people seem to think that the Angels had a really good offseason, when it looks to me as though they've added two big, problematic contracts. The Phillies, conversely, made just one significant this move this winter, signing Jon Lieber for a reasonable amount, and the consensus is that they've lost ground. What that opinion fails to recognize is that this is a better team than their record of a year ago suggests.

                  RS       RA
2003 Actual      791      697
2004 Actual      840      781
2005 Projection  833      744
The Phillies will hold steady in their offensive output while their run prevention ends up about halfway between where it finished in 2003 and 2004. Are either of those assumptions unreasonable? Phillies hitters didn't have any particularly fluky years a year ago, and they have a reasonable expectation for getting more production out of center field and perhaps left field. Meanwhile, all five of last year's primary starting pitchers significantly underperformed their PECOTA projections. While it's easy to come up with "there's something in the water" explanations (and if that something was Larry Bowa, he's been dumped in the Delaware), more often than not that's going to involve a significant element of bad luck. The pitching is deeper this year--the team has seven viable starters, counting Ryan Madson--and folks like Brett Myers ought to be at least a little bit better. We're not expecting any miracles; shaving 30 or 40 runs off the runs allowed total seems like a pretty reasonable guess.

What's harder to explain is why the Braves and the Marlins don't come out a little bit better. Let's reverse the process a little bit and say all the bad things that we can about these clubs. First, the Braves:

  • They lost J.D. Drew, and have some inadequate-looking solutions in the corner outfield spots.
  • They also lost Jaret Wright, who wouldn't have repeated his performance, but who contributed a lot of value last year. Wright's performance last year would represent a pretty reasonable expectation for Tim Hudson.
  • Moving John Smoltz to the rotation is a high-risk move.
  • Danny Kolb is a good bet to implode, and the bullpen is weak behind him.
  • The team is fairly old; Adam LaRoche is the only projected positional regular under the age of 27.
  • The team benefited from some positive luck last season, exceeding the W-L total projected by their peripheral statistics by six games.

Counterweighting that is the genius of John Schuerholz and Leo Mazzone, the wild card of Andy Marte, and my long, sad history of prematurely projecting the Braves' demise. I think they'll beat this projection, but I don't think they're the favorites to win the division. You can only get away with things like having Brian Jordan in your Opening Day lineup for so long.

Now on to the Marlins:

  • The team won just 83 games last season, while benefiting from some fluky performances like those of Armando Benitez and Carl Pavano.
  • The bench is very poor.
  • The pitching depth is similarly poor after the top four starters and Guillermo Mota.
  • PECOTA thinks Juan Pierre and Luis Castillo will have trouble maintaining their OBPs.
  • Several key players, like Josh Beckett and A.J. Burnett, are injury-prone.
  • The Marlins won't have as much financial flexibility as the other NL East contenders down the stretch.
  • Jeff Conine.

This is probably a harder case to make than the previous one. Several of the individual Marlin PECOTA projections look low to me, like those for Pierre and Miguel Cabrera (.291/.356/.519), something that I don't see with the Braves. Still, I think we're talking about a couple of wins' worth of underestimation, rather than the Marlins being some sort of silver-speared juggernaut.

I don't feel the same need to defend the Mets' projection, since it's clear that expectations for the team drop off radically once you cross the Hudson River, but I'll confess to being disappointed that the team didn't come out a little bit better. I like the approach that Omar Minaya took this winter, and both Carlos Beltran and Pedro Martinez are projected to have excellent seasons. The problem is that the Mets are a good Playstation club: If you're living in a world where the grass is always fluorescent green and the regulars like Cliff Floyd and Mike Cameron and Jose Reyes and Mike Piazza always have healthy, productive seasons, then the Mets are big playoff contenders. In real life, the odds are against that. Needless to say, missing out on Delgado and settling for Doug Mientkiewicz also hurts a lot, and reminds me of the time that my friend Geoff was too spineless to sneak into Madonna: Truth or Dare, prompting an afternoon with Doc Holliday instead.

As for the Nationals, I'll be looking forward to seeing them come through Wrigley in July, but purely for the novelty effect: this is almost certainly the most boring club in baseball, and its having a GM who is rumored to be trading for Neifi Perez doesn't exactly inspire confidence.

NL Central


            W    L    PCT    RS    RA
Cardinals  92   70   .569   818   708
Cubs       89   73   .550   773   696
Astros     80   82   .494   724   734
Reds       76   86   .472   789   836
Brewers    73   89   .453   707   781
Pirates    72   90   .444   700   788
The version of the projections that I'm working from has Mark Prior pitching 170 innings and Kerry Wood pitching 155 innings. Those are guesstimates at best; the Cubs run one of the tightest PR ships in baseball. It's entirely possible that they are in fact downplaying the seriousness of the injuries, just as it's also entirely possible that the media is overplaying the seriousness of the injuries in response to the organization's relative silence on the matter.

Perhaps the better question is: just how much difference does it make? Let's look at a variety of different scenarios and see the corresponding impact on the team's projected runs allowed and won-loss record:


           Prior IP   Wood IP    RA    W-L   GB
Best Case    200        200     689   90-72   2
Base Case    170        155     696   89-73   3
Bad Case     110        100     707   88-74   4
Worst Case    0          0      732   85-77   8
The difference between Prior and Wood pitching, say, 200 innings apiece and 100 innings apiece is not nearly as great as you might be led to think. In either case, the Cubs would rate a couple of games behind the Cardinals, but well within striking distance and in prime position to pick up the wild card. Even if we were to take Prior and Wood out of the mix entirely, PECOTA expects that they'd remain a competitive club, finishing at 85-77 and having a strong chance at a playoff spot in the parity-laden National League.

There are two reasons for this. First of all, PECOTA is already building some injury risk into the performance and playing-time forecasts. Prior's ERA is projected at 3.32, and Wood's at 3.58, which are good marks but would be better if the pitchers hadn't been injured last year, thereby depressing their peripheral stats. More importantly, the Cubs have very good organizational pitching depth. Glendon Rusch and Ryan Dempster can pick up some additional innings without hurting the team too much, PECOTA thinks that Sergio Mitre has sleeper potential, and prospects like Angel Guzman and Bobby Brownlie are pretty close to being ready. A rotation of, say, Zambrano/Maddux/Rusch/Mitre/Guzman would be far from the worst in the league.

The Cubs would have a wider margin for error, of course, if they had picked up a better replacement for Sammy Sosa. On the other hand, there are a couple of trends that work in their favor:

  • The Cubs scored 20 fewer runs last season than was projected by their peripheral offensive statistics. While some of that has to do with inefficient batting order construction--the team is likely to sacrifice something if Corey Patterson leads off--it's mostly just bad luck.
  • The lack of a big follow-up to the Sosa trade leaves some extra money in the bank. Hendry has made perceptive trade deadline acquisitions for two years running, and he'll almost certainly be looking to do the same this time around, whether it's in the form of a left fielder, a closer, or a replacement for an injured starting pitcher.

We're living in an era of raised expectations for Cubs fans. The Cubs are going to be competitive even if Prior and Wood continue to struggle with injuries. Unfortunately, a lot of people are going to be unhappy with anything less than ninetysomething wins and a division title.

The Cardinals, as it happens, are not in an entirely dissimilar position from the Cubs. Mark Mulder and Matt Morris have injury concerns of their own, and while they are not as prolific as Wood and Prior, St. Louis doesn't have the pitching depth that the Cubs have, especially with Rick Ankiel's retirement from pitching. We're also projecting the offense to drop about 37 runs, mostly as a result of losing Edgar Renteria's contributions at the shortstop position. Finally, it's worth remembering the Cards outperformed their Pythagenport projection by five games last season. If it weren't for the soft bottom in the Central, it could very easily be the case that the team winning the division will do so with fewer than 90 wins.

The Astros are going to be a poor team this year. They're two starting pitchers short of a rotation, and virtually every regular in the starting lineup comes with a significant age, injury or performance disclaimer. Frankly, I think 80 wins is on the optimistic side; the team's defense is not going to be good, and there are more spots with downside risk than upside risk. The Reds might have been competitive if the pitching problem had been addressed more effectively, but when your projected opening day starter (Paul Wilson) is forecast to have 5.01 ERA, you have a lot of ground to make up. It's hard to construct an argument for the Pirates; PECOTA expects regression from folks like Oliver Perez and Craig Wilson.

I will confess to having a funny feeling about the Brewers: there's a world in which J.J. Hardy and Rickie Weeks make a lot of progress, the bottom end of the rotation sorts itself out, and the team hangs around the fringes of the wild-card race before hitting the wall at some point in August. I'd feel better about them still if they didn't have Brady Clark projected as their starting center fielder. Just for kicks, if Doug Melvin were somehow able to pick off Mike Cameron from the Mets and we inserted him into Clark's spot in the lineup, then PECOTA expects that they'd pick up about 25 additional runs at the plate and another 10 or so in the field, which might be just enough to make them interesting.

NL West


            W    L    PCT    RS    RA
Giants     85   77   .526   766   725
Padres     84   78   .518   733   706
Dodgers    83   79   .513   752   732
D'backs    75   87   .463   746   806
Rockies    73   89   .451   864   952
In contrast to the Cubs' situation, the Giants' pennant hopes are nearly entirely dependent on the health of Barry Bonds' knees. The scenario above assumes that he'll receive about two-thirds of a season's worth of playing, or about 460 PAs, accounting for both his starting the year on the shelf and sporadic rest and relapses throughout the year. Here's how things might look if we made some different assumptions:

          Bonds PT   Bonds PA   RS    W-L    GB
Best Case   85%        611     785   87-73   +3
Base Case   65%        464     766   85-77   +1
Bad Case    45%        319     751   83-79   -1
Worst Case   0%         0      732   78-84   -7
None of this should come as a surprise: Bonds has been worth between 11 and 15 wins above a replacement-level hitter over the course of the past four seasons, and while Michael Tucker and Todd Linden are somewhat better than waiver-wire players, they're a hell of a lot closer to replacement level than they are to Barry Bonds.

While it's clear that the Giants are Bonds or Bust, it's less clear who their replacements would be at the top of the NL West heap. The Padres' offensive core is nearly as old as the Giants', and the eternally grouchy PECOTA regards Jake Peavy's big campaign in 2004 as a career year, rather than a preview of coming attractions. The Dodgers, though a hair behind the Padres here, appear to have a little bit more upside, as well as a little bit more flexibility as the positional and pitching backups are better. They've also got probably the best manager in the game, and a general manager who at the very least is unafraid of fine-tuning his roster in the heat of a pennant race. That said, they're going to need to make up a lot of ground between having exceeded last year's Pythagenport projection by four games, and losing Adrian Beltre and his 11.5 WARP.

Indeed, the division might seem ripe for a dark horse, but neither the Diamondbacks or Rockies look to up to the task. Arizona will be improved, but from a 111-loss benchmark, and a number of their PECOTAs seem on the optimistic side, especially those of Troy Glaus (.281/.391/.579) and Brandon Webb (3.98). Even if the Rockies get a miracle season from Jeff Francis, there is no second fiddle to Todd Helton, and the roster is comprised of organizational filler, rather than the sorts of young players who could emerge with breakout seasons. Top to bottom, this is the worst division in baseball.

Awards

NL MVP


Player           BA     R   HR   RBI    OBP    SLG   VORP   WARP
Pujols, SLN*   .334   126   43   124   .419   .633   91.3   12.1
Edmonds, SLN*  .287   102   41   122   .395   .592   71.4   10.7
Rolen, SLN*    .293   104   32   113   .386   .545   58.9   10.4
Bonds, SFN*    .339    89   28    93   .532   .687   86.0   10.3
Helton, COL    .331   124   33   108   .437   .584   59.2   9.9
Beltran, NYN   .280   102   29    93   .377   .508   57.1   9.4
Abreu, PHI*    .301   114   28    99   .414   .527   60.8   9.2
Glaus, ARI     .281   102   40   112   .391   .579   59.5   8.5
Durham, SFN*   .272   110   18    68   .362   .439   50.8   8.5
Dunn, CIN      .270   112   42   122   .395   .562   51.1   7.8
Giles, SDN     .282    93   23    89   .392   .486   50.8   7.8
Thome. PHI*    .274   110   44   124   .395   .582   57.2   7.0
* Plays for projected playoff team.
This is everyone with a projected VORP of 50.0 or higher, a threshold that perhaps unfairly excludes Miguel Cabrera, Andruw Jones, and Nomar Garciaparra.

It's safe to say that Barry Bonds is not a particularly good choice for MVP this year. He's already got the steroid cloud working against him, as well as the Willie Mays problem (repeat winners don't make for good headlines, unless they're Roger Clemens), so losing a big chunk of his playing time could all but doom his chances. Bonds might have to hit .400 this year to be an odds-on favorite to repeat.

That said, it would be misguided to preemptively blame the media for fumbling this one. PECOTA reckons that Bonds will only be the fourth-best position player in the league this year, behind the three big Cardinals boppers. Albert Pujols is not only the leading MVP candidate, he's a legitimate Triple Crown threat. PECOTA projects Pujols to have the second best batting average in the league, behind Bonds--but we're guessing that Bonds doesn't get quite enough plate appearances to qualify for the batting crown. It also projects Pujols just one home run of off Jim Thome's lead, and tied with Thome atop the RBI standings. Hell, it expects him to lead the league in runs scored too, producing a potential LeBron James-caliber quadruple double.

The second-best candidate here might be Thome, even though his poor defense hurts his WARP ranking. If I'm right that the media are underrating the Phillies this spring, there could very easily be some overcompensation this fall, and Thome makes for a better representative than Bobby Abreu since he has a higher profile and will have some nice home run and RBI totals. There will also be a lot of momentum behind Carlos Beltran if the Mets manage to reach the playoffs, but we don't expect that to happen.

NL Cy Young


                 W-L    IP    ERA   BB     K   VORP  WARP
Schmidt, SFN*   17-9   215   2.98   67   214   57.4   8.1
Sheets, MIL     16-11  220   3.22   43   220   56.1   8.3
Martinez, NYN   16-8   200   2.93   56   211   54.8   7.8
Zambrano, CHN*  15-10  205   3.51   83   176   44.1   6.8
Oswalt, HOU     13-12  210   3.73   56   171   43.5   6.8
Prior, CHN*     13-8   170   3.32   54   183   43.0   6.3
Clemens, HOU    13-11  200   3.79   66   182   38.3   6.2
These are PECOTA's favorite candidates; guys like Mark Mulder, Tim Hudson, John Smoltz and Josh Beckett are also going to be in the running. What we've got here is something of a disconnect between the best starting pitchers and the teams that are going to put a lot of runs on the board, which could lend a significant advantage to any pitcher that managed to reach 20 wins. Jason Schmidt is my pick; he's probably the least recognized really great player in baseball.

NL Rookie of the Year


Player           BA     R   HR   RBI    OBP    SLG   VORP   WARP
Barmes, COL    .272    95   16   98    .315   .424   11.1   5.4
Atkins, COL    .287    80   16   81    .354   .461   15.7   5.0
Burke, HOU     .270    28    3   29    .344   .396   14.9   3.4
Dubois, CHN    .252    32   12   34    .344   .487   14.3   3.0
Hardy, MIL     .268    23    7   27    .328   .437   11.9   2.5
Marte, ATL     .263    24    9   26    .348   .479   10.3   2.1

Pitcher         W-L    IP    ERA   BB     K   VORP  WARP
Francis, COL    9-9   150   5.04   53   127   23.9   4.2
Floyd, PHI      7-7   120   4.84   57    87    8.9   2.2
This is an ugly list. Talent-wise, the best player who we're projecting to get a full dose of playing time is Francis, who has the misfortune of being a Colorado pitcher, though Jason Jennings sets a positive precedent in that department. If Francis balks, or the voters balk on him, that would open the door for one of his teammates on the offensive side; it's hard to imagine a less inspiring ROY selection than Clint Barmes, but these numbers would likely be enough to get the voters' attention. Hardy and, especially, Marte will be viable candidates if they get the playing time; I could also see a surprise winner like the Pirates' Zach Duke.

Nate Silver is an author of Baseball Prospectus. 
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