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March 20, 2007

Lies, Damned Lies

PECOTA Projected Standings, AL and NL East

by Nate Silver

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This is traditionally the time of year at which I reveal the PECOTA-projected divisional standings, but given that the cat has jumped out of the bag and leaped onto our depth charts homepage, we're going to do things a little bit differently this time around. Rather than telling you where PECOTA is right, we're going to tell you where it's wrong.

That's right - I'm going to bet against my own forecasting system.

For each of the thirty clubs, I'm going to identify one player for whom I think the PECOTA forecast looks low ("Take the Over") based on statistical, injury or scouting information that isn't picked up by the system, or where that doesn't work, just based on general gut-feel. We'll do the same thing for a projection that looks too optimistic ("Take the Under"). Finally, I'll present an adjusted overall W-L forecast based on these sorts of factors, as well as 'meta' variables like the strength of a team's management, its depth, and its disposition toward or against making trades ("The Verdict").

One exception to this rule: I'm also going to point out one PECOTA projection that might be out of line with the expectations of other forecasters, but where I think the system is getting it right ("Sticking to My Guns").

We'll break this mini-series down into three parts, canvassing the country from East to West. Today we start somewhere in the Atlantic Ocean.

AL EAST

Depth Chart based PECOTA projections:

                       W         L         RS     RA     AVG     OBP    SLG
Boston Red Sox         93        69        892    762    .280   .361   .464
New York Yankees       93        69        897    771    .280   .362   .454
Toronto Blue Jays      80        82        813    831    .271   .342   .449
Tampa Bay Devil Rays   78        84        806    834    .275   .338   .446
Baltimore Orioles      74        88        754    823    .274   .333   .423

New York Yankees (93-69)

Take the Over: I'd expect Philip Hughes to pitch more than the 55 big league innings that the depth charts have projected for him. It's been a long while since the Yankees had a prospect of this magnitude, but there's a certain manifest destiny that comes into play in New York, as though it's Hughes' god-given duty to ascend to the throne of being the Next Great Yankee. They'll be looking for excuses to promote him, and they'll be pleased with the results once they do.

Take the Under: This is a fairly conservative set of projections, but I don't see Carl Pavano, with his off-field troubles and mediocre spring training performance, being as good as a 4.59 ERA. This could become moot, of course, if Hughes is promoted sooner rather than later.

Sticking to My Guns: The projection for Alex Rodriguez, which features a .288/.385/.531 performance that's an excellent match for his 2006 numbers, looks spot-on. Rodriguez' 2006 performance was not some gross aberration, but was well in line with his 25th percentile projection; it was only his quasi-career year in 2005 that made it look worse by comparison. There are all the usual signs that A-Rod is aging: his speed has declined from plus to average, his strikeout rate has gone up a tick, and his defense has gotten a bunch worse. In other words, all of this is normal, and it's normal for players to experience a gentle decline once they enter their 30s.

The Verdict: You have to give the Yankees a little bit of extra credit for in-season pickups, particularly with the low-hanging fruit they're employing at first base. That and Phil Hughes is enough to get them a +3, for a 96-66 record.

Boston Red Sox (93-69)

Take the Over: I'm having trouble finding a good fit here, but the David Ortiz projection looks conservative by 3-5 home runs. Then again, we'd probably have said the same things about Mo Vaughn six or seven years ago. The thing about these big slugger guys is that when the end comes, it tends to come sooner than you'd expect it. I'm not saying that's likely with Ortiz--the overwhelming probability is that it isn't. But there's that residual 3-5% chance that something goes way wrong, and that shows up when you're using a weighted mean approach to projections.

Take the Under: I might have gone with Coco Crisp, but Marc Normandin's detailed work convinced me otherwise. Dustin Pedroia? Pass. Curt Schilling? He might be reading this. So I'm going to go with Jason Varitek, who looks like he might be getting a boost from the non-catchers on his comparables list.

Sticking to My Guns: I've written about Daisuke Matsuzaka before, but I don't see any reason to think that a 3.83 ERA forecast should be considered a slight for a rookie starter pitching in Fenway Park. Go much lower than that, and we're probably calling him the second-best pitcher in the American League. That seems like an aggressive assumption based on the scouting evidence so far.

The Verdict: Over the past several seasons, a lot of teams have had uncanny success in finding a closer out of nowhere, be it Jonathan Papelbon and the Red Sox last season or J.J. Putz and the Mariners or Bobby Jenks and the White Sox. I have a sneaking suspicion that this streak of luck is going to come to an end in Boston this year, particularly as a number of candidates being considered for the closer's role are soft-tossers that don't have much in the way of upside. I think the bullpen will be a mess in the first part of the year, and will probably have gotten resolved by June or July, but will cost the Red Sox -1 win in the process. 92-70.

Toronto Blue Jays (80-82)

Take the Over: It's more of a hunch than anything else, but A.J. Burnett can bring it, and I think he's going benefit from having another year to work with Brad Arnsberg. It wouldn't surprise me if he has a better year than Roy Halladay.

Take the Under: Gregg Zaun's numbers tailed off a bunch after the All-Star break, and you have to wonder about the effects of fatigue for a guy that's used to being a backup and is likely to have his playing time increased at the age of 36.

Sticking to My Guns: Royce Clayton's going to suck? Okay, that one was too easy.

The Verdict: As bad as the back end of the Blue Jays' rotation was a year ago, they do have perhaps 7-8 choices to fill in the bottom three slots in their rotation. Few of these choices have much upside to speak of, but even so, it's unlikely that someone like Gustavo Chacin is going to accumulate 25 starts with an ERA of 5.60, as the depth charts anticipate. We'll give the Jays a +2 to account for their pitching depth - or maybe we should call that pitching breadth - and project a 82-80 finish.

Tampa Bay Devil Rays (78-84)

Take the Over: It's easy to forget that Carl Crawford is just 25. PECOTA has come around on him a little bit after once mischaracterizing him as a tools goof, but I see Crawford producing closer to his 75th percentile projection of .327/.369/.511.

Take the Under: The Dioner Navarro projection is a little bizarre.

Sticking to My Guns: Delmon Young's projection -- .297/.334/.473 - is eerily similar to his older brother's career batting line (.289/.346/.476). I'm not saying that Delmon won't be better than Dmitri eventually, but for the time being, his contact-hitting ability is ahead of his power, and this projection looks solid.

The Verdict: What kind of odds could you get on the Devil Rays finishing with more wins than the White Sox? I don't think this projection is unduly optimistic in the abstract - the Devil Rays are going to put a pretty good offense on the field. But it's tough to know how to evaluate the impact of potential trades. There's a good chance that Rocco Baldelli gets moved, either now or later in the season, and my guess is that the Devil Rays will have some trouble acquiring ready-now pitching talent for him, which is what they need to make a run at .500. Between that and a runs allowed projection (834) that looks a touch optimistic, we're going with -3 wins for a 75-87 record.

Baltimore Orioles (74-88)

Take the Over: PECOTA doesn't take into account second-half splits, but if it did Nick Markakis' projection would be closer to the .311/.364/.532 that he posted after the All-Star Break. There is an especial reason to give credence to the in-season splits here, in that Markakis was promoted before he was ready, and had to make adjustments on the fly.

Take the Under: Given that Melvin Mora's mid-career breakout was a bit suspect to begin with, I tend to read a lot into the decline he experienced last season. I'd expect something closer to his .274/.342/.391 performance from 2006 than PECOTA's .278/.346/.434.

Sticking to My Guns: Daniel Cabrera was another guy who got quite a bit better in the second half, when he reduced his walk rate from 7.8 per nine innings (!) to a comparatively tolerable 4.5. PECOTA is already forecasting a breakout of sorts so I'm not going to reach above and beyond it, but it wouldn't surprise me if Cabrera meets or exceeds his 4.33 ERA projection.

The Verdict: There's more upside than downside on the pitching staff, but Markakis excluded, the opposite is true of the offense, where Markakis and Corey Patterson are the only projected regulars on the right side of 30. Plus, it's a tough division. We'll call the Orioles EVEN on their 74-88 forecast.

NL EAST

Depth Chart based PECOTA projections:

                        W      L       RS      RA      AVG     OBP      SLG
Philadelphia Phillies   87     75      838     780    .270    .340      .459
New York Mets           85     77      791     748    .266    .335      .438
Atlanta Braves          82     80      826     813    .273    .339      .456
Florida Marlins         78     84      752     777    .262    .331      .432
Washington Nationals    66     96      680     834    .254    .325      .403

Philadelphia Phillies (87-75)

Take the Over: Nobody looks especially low. I have a hunch that Freddy Garcia will pitch with a bit of a chip on his shoulder and that might get his strikeout rate up a hair, but that isn't a scientific opinion.

Take the Under: Wes Helms. Helms has been a part-time player since 2003, and that's allowed him to get a disproportionate number of at-bats against left-handed pitching. Moved to a full-time role, he's probably losing 25-50 points of OPS off his .287/.355/.477 projection.

Sticking to My Guns: Shane Victorino displayed a bit more power in the minor leagues than he exhibited in his first big league campaign, and that's usually a skill that tends to stick. I'm buying into the 40-50 point jump in slugging average that PECOTA is projecting.

The Verdict: PECOTA always seems to err high on the Phillies, but unless I can come up with some systematic rationale for why it's doing that now that Larry Bowa is no longer a factor, it's not something I'm going to give a lot of credence to. I am assigning them a -1 for Helms, however, which gets them to 86-76.

New York Mets (85-77)

Take the Over: Moises Alou has done enough to defy conventional aging patterns that PECOTA seems to be going a bit overboard in knocking his slugging average down by 50-70 points. Maybe Alou knows something that the rest of us don't.

Take the Under: We aren't quite sure how old Orlando Hernandez is, but when was the last time you heard about a baseball player having "arthritis in his neck"? I think he might get to make 24 starts and he might get down to a 4.26 ERA, but I doubt he does both.

Sticking to My Guns: PECOTA is right to show a little bit of restraint on Jose Reyes (.290/.335/.445). Fantastic ballplayer, but he's relatively small and doesn't devote that many of his plate appearances to trying to loft the ball. I'd expect the home run output to be closer to the 14 home runs that PECOTA projects than the 19 that he hit last season.

The Verdict: The Mets didn't spend as much money as they might have this winter, which gives them some pretty powerful either-or options as the season wears on. Either Oliver Perez has a breakout in the backend of the rotation or Pedro Martinez comes back sooner than expected or they trade for someone. Either Shawn Green fends off his decline for one more season or Lastings Milledge does better the second time around the league or they make a move. These are fairly powerful dynamics, and it nets them +3 wins for an 88-74 record.

Atlanta Braves (82-80)

Take the Over: We expect the Braves' defensive infield to be pretty bad, and that's harming Chuck James's projection, but since James is one of the more extreme flyball pitchers around, he might not be hurt as much as the rest of the staff. I'd expect him to keep his ERA below 4.50.

Take the Under: PECOTA may be giving a bit too much weight to Kelly Johnson's fine performance in very limited action last year. Putting him at second base is an interesting gambit for the Braves, but I'd expect him to finish closer to his .266/.348/.440 25th percentile projection than his .291/.374/.495 weighted mean.

Sticking to My Guns: Chipper Jones' .292/.392/.532 projection represents a fairly big decline from his performance in 2005 and 2006, but those years were tainted by limited sample sizes and he's going into his age-35 season. I expect All-Star caliber performance, but I think PECOTA is right that he won't provide superstar-caliber performance.

The Verdict: There are actually quite a few projections that look on the optimistic side - Johnson, Jeff Francouer, the entirety of the left field platoon, and perhaps Tim Hudson. Still, any team with John Schuerholz at the helm deserves the benefit of the doubt. We'll call it a +1. 83-79.

Florida Marlins (78-84)

Take the Over: Dontrelle Willis might be one of those guys who is smart enough to make adjustments and squeeze something extra out of his peripherals, and his strikeout rate was better in the second half after he recovered from his World Baseball Classic funk. Somewhere between his 75th (15-9, 3.48 ERA) and 60th percentiles (13-10, 3.87 ERA) looks about right.

Take the Under: I know that Anibal Sanchez has looked good this spring after early reports of arm trouble, but I still worry about a guy whose workload jumped by more than 60 innings last season and whose strikeout rates came in a little lower than expected.

Sticking to My Guns: I was going to try and write something up on Jeremy Hermida's extreme passivity at the plate for one of the pieces I was working on for the Sports Illustrated baseball preview. But after poking around the cool new pitch-by-pitch data at Baseball Reference, I'm not sure that criticism holds. For example, 30% of Hermida's strikes were of the caught-looking variety, which was barely more than the league average of 27%, and he was only a touch more passive than the rest of the league when ahead in the count. Thus I'm going to stick with PECOTA's contention that there's nothing wrong with his approach, and that he's due for a better rebound as he gets luckier and healthier.

The Verdict: What's interesting about the Marlins is that they aren't likely to stand pat; a team in this position usually winds up being either a buyer or a seller. I'm guessing the fact that Josh Johnson will miss the first part of the season and that there are three teams projected ahead of them in the division will push them toward the seller camp when they evaluate their position in mid-season. Thus, I'm taking a -2 off this forecast for 76-86. Variance is high with this club.

Washington Nationals (66-96)

Take the Over: There's not a lot that jumps off the page here, but I suspect that Tim Redding will get a little bit more help than PECOTA is giving him credit for from pitching in a park that will mitigate his gopherball issues. He'll still be bad, just not 5.24 ERA bad.

Take the Under: Projecting even 350 plate appearances for Nick Johnson, as we have him in our depth charts, seems woefully optimistic given his indefinite timetable and uncertain track record.

Sticking to My Guns: Most of the individual projections look reasonable. I suppose that Jon Rauch kind of snuck up on people last year, but a 3.42 ERA is very supportable given his ballpark and his peripherals.

The Verdict: We're deducting two wins for the real possibility that Nick Johnson doesn't play at all this season, and four for the fact that the Nats rotation will be in a more constant state of flux than Menudo. There are going to be some ugly 40 IP, 2-7, 7.23 ERA performances mixed in here before all is said and done. -6 wins and a 60-102 record.

Nate Silver is an author of Baseball Prospectus. 
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Premium Article Lies, Damned Lies: PEC... (03/23)
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