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March 29, 2006

Lies, Damned Lies

PECOTA Breaks Hearts

by Nate Silver

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I've done a lot of local radio over the past week or two, which means that I've broken a lot of hearts. No, Kansas City, not even the Good Witch of the North can bring Carlos Beltran back to the prairies, and no, Baltimore, not even Leo Mazzone can give Eric Dubose a decent cutter, and no, San Antonio, the Marlins aren't coming, and neither is the Easter Bunny.

PECOTA is a heartbreaker too--especially when it gets around to the annual exercise of projecting the season's final standings. Oh, PECOTA can be wrong, and sometimes it comes slithering back in the middle of the night for forgiveness, just after you've given up hope and deleted its cellphone number. But some of you, particularly those of you in American League cities, are going to have some lingering doubts to contend with: the abruptly-canceled date, the pitching staff that isn't going to gel, the unreturned text message, the favorite shortstop who is projected to flop.

The method that we're using for this sadistic exercise has been pretty well established. We take the raw output from the individual PECOTA projections, put them into depth charts, translate those depth charts into wins and losses, and adjust those wins and losses for each team's schedule. This schedule adjustment is particularly important this year because of the emerging disparity between the leagues--the average AL club is now several wins stronger than the average NL club. Let me highlight just a couple of other wrinkles new to the system this year:

  • The projected standings now account for reliever leverage. That is, the performance of higher-leverage relievers is weighted more heavily in a team's W-L projection than that of mopup guys, to the benefit of teams with good, stable frontline bullpen talent.
  • The PECOTAs have also become more sophisticated about accounting for positional defense. We look at the projected defensive performance of the actual players in a team's depth chart and "transfer" this to the team's pitchers as warranted. So the Blue Jays' pitchers project to be a little bit worse now that they don't have Orlando Hudson in their infield, and so forth.
  • Finally, I've added a new series of columns this year. "BatDelta" and "PitDelta" represent the "true" strength of the team's offense and defense, respectively, relative to its league, and adjusted for its ballpark and strength of schedule. Positive ratings are favorable in both categories. The Red Sox have a +82 BatDelta, meaning that we expect them to score 82 more runs this season than an average team would given their ballpark and their schedule, and a +28 PitDelta, meaning that we expect them to allow 28 fewer runs than an average pitching staff.
AL East      W    L    RS    RA    BatDelta   PitDelta
Yankees     94   68   910   777      +117        +2
Red Sox     93   69   913   783       +82       +28
Blue Jays   79   83   788   809       -36       +23
Orioles     77   85   777   817       -11       -21
Devil Rays  69   93   744   869       -24       -81
Look familiar?

The Yankees and Red Sox are in a virtual dead heat, separated by only a fraction of a win. This wasn't so until about a week ago, but the acquisitions of Wily Mo Pena and Hee Seop Choi have substantially improved the Red Sox' offensive options in a way that could be very helpful come September.

If I had to put money down, it would be on the Red Sox. Although these projections can account for depth to some extent, they can't really account for the flexibility that the depth provides. For example, if Mark Loretta proves that Kevin Towers had some reason for selling him so cheaply, the Red Sox will have Dustin Pedroia ready to go. If there are a couple of injuries on the pitching staff--and with a group that includes Curt Schilling, David Wells, and Josh Beckett, this is a near certainty--the Sox can select from the best of Jon Papelbon, Jon Lester, and Lenny Dinardo. (This is one reason why this exercise usually tends to underrate a team like the Braves, who produce major league-ready players from their farm system like the Taiwanese produce semiconductor chips).

The Yankees, of course, have the sort of flexibility that $300 million in annual operating revenue tends to provide. They may well need to use it. This would be a good year for King George to operate in Donald Trump mode: the Yankees shouldn't waste too many at bats on Bernie Williams or too many innings on Shawn Chacon before pulling the plug.

PECOTA is not at all excited about the Blue Jays, and neither am I. It isn't as though the system is dissing the star talent on the roster. Roy Halladay, B.J. Ryan, A.J. Burnett, Troy Glaus and Vernon Wells all get very nice-looking projections. But the other twenty guys on the roster are decidedly second division material, a relic of the sort of sanitized sabermetrics that the Jays practiced until a year or so ago, that let guys rise to the apex of their mediocrity.

AL Central    W      L     RS    RA    BatDelta   PitDelta
Indians      88     74    825   757      +39        +16
Twins        84     78    757   727      -42        +62
Tigers       83     79    800   776      +18         -3
White Sox    82     80    785   772      -48        +52
Royals       61    101    695   901      -67       -110
I have to level with you guys: I've become something of a White Sox fan. I like Ozzie Guillen. I like the aggressive approach that Kenny Williams took this winter. I like that they're one of the more professional, courteous, and open-minded organizations in all of baseball. I think this projection is a little bit low. But I think it's misguided to consider the White Sox a prohibitive favorite in the American League, or even in the AL Central.

Last year's White Sox featured a decidedly below-average offense, and a decidedly above-average group of starting pitchers. The same should be true this season, even with a relatively generous heaping of playing time for Jim Thome. What thrust the White Sox up from winning 80 or 85 games to 99 was some clutchness in close games, and two other things: a fantastic bullpen and a fantastic defense. PECOTA expects both of those things to regress to about average this time around.

First, the bullpen. The White Sox, who are exactly the sort of team that's going to need to make frequent use of a closer, don't really have an adequate one in place. Bobby Jenks has had a disastrous spring, and it's not usually advisable to pay a lot of attention to spring training storylines, they may be more meaningful for a player who has such a checkered personal and performance history. Neal Cotts is Jenks' heir apparent, but his peripherals lagged well behind his ERA last year, and he'd likely struggle in a closer's role in which he got the platoon advantage less often: last year, Cotts allowed 20 walks against 25 strikeouts versus right-handed batters. Dustin Hermanson's back has been bothering him to the point that he's contemplating retirement. Cliff Politte might not be closer material anyway, and is reputed to have an aversion to high-leverage situations. I actually think that Brandon McCarthy could become the closer at some point this season, to the point that I've been touting him as a major rotisserie league sleeper while doing the media rounds. But it may take Guillen some time to find him, and this league isn't offering any sort of margin for error.

Projecting defense is a murky area to say the least, since we're barely even able to quantify it. But, the White Sox lost their best defender in Aaron Rowand, and last year's performance was buoyed by guys like Paul Konerko and Joe Crede who had freakishly good years in the field. There also has to be some concern about the groin problems that Scott Podsednik is having this spring; those of us in Chicago got to see just how much difference there was between the first-half, injury-free Pods and the gimpy version that went 7-for-15 on steal attempts after August 1st.

The Indians should be very good, but they're giving up an awful lot with the bottom for slots in their batting order. Tribe management was slow to pull the trigger when Casey Blake and Aaron Boone were struggling last season. Both players rebounded in the second half, but I don't think either of those players, or Ben Broussard, can be placed on more than about a six week leash, with alternatives like Andy Marte and Ryan Garko and Jason Dubois waiting in tow.

The Tigers are generating some buzz, and Jim Leyland looks to be on board, appointing Curtis Granderson and Justin Verlander to starting roles with relatively little bloodshedding. The Tigers, actually, are somewhat reminiscent of last year's White Sox--an offense that has no superstar, but also no real dead weight, and a pitching staff with a couple of breakout candidates that should be supported by a very good defense. Could Joel Zumaya be this year's Jenks?

The Twins are the most imbalanced team in baseball; the gap between their batting and pitching Delta scores is a league-high 104 runs. Although Johan Santana is the sort of player who could win the division by himself--I think he's going to have a season for the ages--it would be a shame if their frugalness in upgrading the corner spots is what prevents the Twins from leveraging a pretty good core into a pennant run.

AL West     W     L    RS    RA   BatDelta   PitDelta
A's        93    69   823   705     +25        +78
Angels     81    81   723   732     -59        +51
Rangers    80    82   874   877     +48        -45
Mariners   77    85   761   806     -13        -25
It shouldn't be considered a surprise that the A's rank where they do. Oakland did exactly what it needed to do this winter with the acquisitions of Milton Bradley and Frank Thomas, and the pitching staff projects to be the best in baseball. Vegas has the A's installed as slight favorites to take the division. But the margin of victory that PECOTA is projecting is rather stunning.

This has mostly to do with the Angels' offense. No disrespect meant to Tim Salmon, who spawned his way onto my BP-Kings roster, but when you're seriously talking about making Tim Salmon your everyday designated hitter, your offense has some Issues. In all seriousness, take away Vladimir Guerrero, and the Angels might be outhit by their PCL affiliate. Of course, this projection could underrate the Angels, but only if they get the message and let players like Howie Kendrick, Kendry Morales and Dallas McPherson work their way into significant roles this season.

NL East      W     L     RS     RA   BatDelta   PitDelta
Mets        88    74    771    702      +58       +11
Phillies    86    76    790    743      +35        +9
Braves      85    77    791    745      +52       -11
Marlins     71    91    660    751      -58       -28
Nationals   70    92    636    742      -58       -47
The Mets have probably bought their way to a division title. I don't mean for that to come across as jaded: this is a franchise that identified exactly what its most pressing needs were, that stood to gain a great deal from fulfilling these needs, and went ahead and closed the loop. That is exactly what big market revenues are supposed to allow you to do, and the Mets did it, while teams like the Cubs flunked the exam.

That said, this division is going to be an arms race until late in the season. The Edgar Renteria for Andy Marte swap is the sort of move that could make or break John Schuerholz' reputation, and while I can't personally see it turning out well for him, I've been wrong on that score in the past. But the more immediate issue is that the Braves appear to have done a shoddy job of compiling a bullpen. Based on the version of the depth charts that I'm working from, the Braves' relievers project to combine for a brutal 4.99 ERA. That ought to be an easy problem to correct, especially with Schuerholz at the helm, but this team may cause a lot of heartache in the first half of the season.

The Phillies should also be frisky--PECOTA has finally calmed down about them, so this is probably their year. But one of the more botched moves of the off-season was Pat Gillick's failure to do better than Arthur Rhodes while cleaning up the outfield mess by shipping out Jason Michaels. Replace Ryan Franklin with a league average pitcher, and the Phillies are the unambiguous division favorites.

The East also features an interesting race to the bottom. This a hunch, but I look at the Alfonso Soriano fiasco, the injury to Brian Lawrence, the demotion of Ryan Church, and the still-unresolved ownership situation, and the Nationals have the look of a team that could run completely off the rails and lose 100 or 105 games.

NL Central    W      L    RS      RA    BatDelta   PitDelta
Cardinals    86     76   748     703      +9        +31
Cubs         85     77   725     690     -21        +60
Brewers      84     78   742     713      +2        +26
Astros       81     81   717     716     -17        +18
Pirates      79     83   731     755      -7        -11
Reds         78     84   746     778      +9        -34
While I'm skeptical about the win totals that PECOTA has associated with the White Sox and Angels, I believe this number to be right for the Cardinals. The Opening Day lineup will feature four starters--Yadier Molina, David Eckstein, So Taguchi, and Junior Spivey, that simply don't qualify as adequate regulars for a first-division club. Nor do the Cardinals have anything in the way of farm system depth. It's going to require some mid-season capital expenditures to get this team in shape for the post-season, and given that the parity in the National League is likely to produce a seller's market, Walt Jocketty's Midwestern conservatism could get in the way of another pennant.

As I've already alluded, I don't think much of the Cubs' complacent approach this winter, which shows a real lack of understanding of the dynamics inherent in the talent market. But even with a pitching staff that has about as many red lines through it as my NCAA tournament bracket, the Cubs almost can't help but be better this year. The Cubs had 86-win talent last season (a year in which they also had significant injury problems), the superstars are there in Derrek Lee and Carlos Zambrano, and there's some addition by subtraction in getting rid of Corey Patterson and his .254 OBP. I'm having a little bit of trouble envisioning where that breakout season is going to come from that gets them much above 86 wins, as I share PECOTA's lukewarmness toward Matt Murton and Ronny Cedeno. A sort of last hurrah by Greg Maddux? Scott Williamson, fully recovered from surgery, being lights out in the second half and displacing Ryan Dempster? Just perhaps, and the Cubs have thrived on low expectations in the recent past.

The Brewers have become such a pet sleeper club that I don't feel much compulsion to write about them. But it's easy to see why we've developed a crush on them, between getting a full year of Ben Sheets, and a middle infield tandem that has just a tiny, tiny bit of Trammell-Whitaker potential. It's not going to take much, since the Brewers Pythagoreaned at 84-78 last year without any players that dramatically overachieved. Derrick Turnbow? Okay, got us there.

In foraging for a surprise contender among the other three teams in the Central, the theory says that we ought to go with the Reds, since they have the best offense, and the volatility associated with pitching could work in their favor this time around. In practice, I have so little confidence in this organization's ability to identify pitching talent I can't fathom it, though at least Marge Schott isn't around to see Bronson Arroyo's dye job and demote him to Chattanooga. Nor do I see enough breakout potential in a Pittsburgh Pirate, now that we're already giving them credit for Ryan Doumit. So the hopes of making this a four-team race are probably going to depend on the Astros and that bastardo magnífico, Roger Clemens.

NL West      W     L    RS     RA   BatDelta   PitDelta
Dodgers     87    75   748    694     +19        +27
Giants      80    82   738    742      +5        -12
Padres      78    84   698    724      -8        -23
D'Backs     77    85   762    798     -15        -23
Rockies     74    88   806    880     -36        -28
The Dodgers borrow storylines from both the Mets and the Cubs. They've spent money wisely in places--well, in one place--and they can't help but be less unlucky, assuming that they're out from whatever strange hex that Alex Cora or Kazuhisa Ishii put them under last season. I think this projection places too much faith in a full-fledged Eric Gagne comeback. On the other hand, the Dodgers are loaded in the upper minors, which should give them some trading chips even if they don't get some callups from guys like Chad Billingsley this season.

Besides, there's not much else to pick from. The Giants projection assumes 506 plate appearances and 68 points of VORP from Barry Bonds; I think those thresholds are within reach, but I don't see Bonds much exceeding them. The Padres are old, don't have a probable 20-HR hitter on the roster, and after Jake Peavy, there are some real reaches on the pitching staff. The Diamondbacks are intriguing. Brandon Webb is my Cy Young pick now that he has Orlando Hudson working behind him, and if they can manage to integrate Stephen Drew and Chris Young into the lineup sooner rather than later, while flipping Luis Gonzalez for a starter to clear space for Carlos Quentin, they could be a dangerous team come July or so.

Of course, those are the kind of if-then-ands that gave George Boole his name. But if we can't engage in a little Booleanism this time of year, what else do we have to look forward to?

Nate Silver is an author of Baseball Prospectus. 
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