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March 27, 2007

Lies, Damned Lies

PECOTA Projected Standings, AL and NL Central

by Nate Silver

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This miniseries breaks down into three parts, canvassing the country from East to West. 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").

As I wrote last time out when I covered the AL and NL East, I'm going to bet against my own forecasting system.

AL CENTRAL

Depth Chart Based PECOTA Projections (updated 3/23):

                     W    L     RS    RA    AVG    OBP   SLG
Cleveland Indians   90   72    858   763   .270   .347  .455
Minnesota Twins     90   72    835   741   .285   .349  .428
Detroit Tigers      85   77    789   744   .275   .335  .442
Chicago White Sox   72   90    773   866   .268   .331  .440
Kansas City Royals  67   95    770   913   .272   .336  .430

Cleveland Indians (90-72)

Take the Over: C.C. Sabathia already gets a pretty decent projection (14-8, 3.76 ERA) but I'm convinced that he'll wind up closer to the 3.22 ERA that he posted in 2006. Sabathia got by when he was just a thrower, but now that he's transformed himself into a pitcher, the raw stuff is going to help him to sustain his breakout.

Take the Under: The hit charts that Marc Normandin posted in his player profile of Jhonny Peralta worry me; Peralta was hitting a lot of 250-foot lame ducks. I think there's something wrong with his bat, and while he should beat last year's performance, I don't know if he'll get as much back as PECOTA's .273/.344/.448 projection suggests.

Sticking to My Guns: Want to see a worrying trend? Here are Jeremy Sowers' strikeout rates (per nine innings) at each of the four levels he's pitched through:

Kinston        A+      9.5
Akron          AA      7.7
Buffalo        AAA     5.1
Cleveland      MLB     3.6

Sowers does have good command, and he's a slight groundball pitcher, though he's not in Chien-Ming Wang's class in that department. Still, he was very fortunate to post a 3.57 ERA in the big leagues last year on the basis of his peripherals, the stuff isn't there, and the arrow is pointed in the wrong direction. PECOTA's pessimism (4.74 ERA) seems warranted.

The Verdict: The Indians have played worse than their Pythagorean record in each of their four seasons under Eric Wedge, including a staggering -11 last season. Some of that is because their bullpen hasn't been stable, but Wedge tends toward passivity in the dugout, and the results have not been good. Subtract one win for 89-73.

Minnesota Twins (90-72)

Take the Over: None of the Twins' projections look overly pessimistic, but I suspect Matt Garza will beat his 4.67 ERA if the Twins deign to employ him.

Take the Under: On the other hand, none of the Twins' projections look overly optimistic. Projecting Jason Bartlett for seven homers seems like a stretch, but that's not where his value lies.

Sticking to My Guns: PECOTA is expecting a slight decline from Justin Morneau, almost all of which is because it projects his batting average to fall from .321 to .293. Considering that Morneau is very slow for his age, I think it's reasonable to conclude that he'll lose some ground from his .335 BABIP.

The Verdict: How does a team that scouts and develops players so well, one that boasts two of the five best players in baseball, risk undermining its advantage by employing stiffs like Rondell White, Nick Punto, Ramon Ortiz, and Sidney Ponson? Ordinarily, we'd give the Twins a couple of bonus wins because there are several places where they can make some cheap upgrades, but Terry Ryan's overwhelming inclination in recent years is to play the hand he's been dealt. In fact, the Twins are reportedly on the verge of making matters worse by starting Garza off in Triple-A. We'll call this -2, for a 88-74 record.

Detroit Tigers (85-77)

Take the Over: I made the case for Gary Sheffield in my Hope and Faith piece on the Tigers. I wouldn't be surprised if he plays to his PECOTA, and I wouldn't be surprised if he substantially exceeds it. But I would be surprised if he does much worse than his PECOTA, which would basically mean that he's done as a productive ballplayer. To that extent, I think his PECOTA represents more like a 25th percentile forecast than a weighted mean.

Take the Under: Kenny Rogers has a good ERA this spring (2.05), but he's also struck out just five batters in 22 innings. If MLB's prospective crackdown on greaseballs has any teeth, this one could get ugly in a hurry.

Sticking to My Guns: Curtis Granderson is given a 20 percent chance of a breakout, but I wouldn't go higher than that before seeing an improved plate approach out of him.

The Verdict: I buy that PECOTA is underprojecting Sheffield, and the Tigers have an easy upgrade at first base when they choose to dump Sean Casey in favor of Chris Shelton or Marcus Thames. Rogers is a concern, however, as is Justin Verlander, who was saying as recently as a week ago that he wasn't ready for the season. The positives outweigh the negatives, so add a +3, putting them at 88-74.

Chicago White Sox (72-90)

Take the Over: There are obviously a lot of candidates here, but I've liked the John Danks trade from the get-go, and I trust the White Sox' scouting instincts enough to expect him to improve upon PECOTA's 5.53 ERA.

Take the Under: I'm not sure I see the breakout coming for Juan Uribe. This is a player who has had a lot of problems off the field, and one who was out of shape for much of last season.

Sticking to My Guns: The fantasy version of the PECOTAs are projecting 505 PA and 28 HR for Jim Thome, which is already a slight fudge over his weighted mean numbers (435 PA, 25 HR). It would be a mistake to discount the attrition risk further than that, given his age, poor stretch run, and very recent injury history.

The Verdict: There are four or five assumptions that are responsible for PECOTA's controversial 72-90 projection. Let's examine each of those.

  • 1. There is no star in the starting rotation. Mark Buehrle has a ton of mileage on his arm, and wasn't a guy who could afford to lose any stuff. Jose Contreras is old, and stunk in the second half. Jon Garland doesn't miss bats. Javier Vazquez is good, but his home run rates prevent him from being a star. Prognosis: reasonable.
  • 2. The back end of the White Sox pitching staff is a mess. I'm pleased that the White Sox have decided to go with Danks, and I'm optimistic about what they're going to get out of him. Injury risk is a problem here--I don't think that Gavin Floyd has any business in a major league uniform, and I don't know what to expect out of Charlie Haeger. But if the top four stay healthy and Danks holds down his spot, I expect passable results. Similarly, the back of the bullpen should be better than projected given Don Cooper's history. Prognosis: possibly unreasonable.
  • 3. The White Sox are going to lose a ton of value from the LF and CF positions. Scott Podsednik's weaknesses are well-established, and leave the White Sox in a 3-4 win hole at his position. I suppose that Darin Erstad could be healthy again, but what are the White Sox expecting--a return to his 2005 numbers? He hit a forgettable .273/.325/.371 that season. The best-case scenario is that Erstad is about average; the worst-case scenario is that he's the worst regular in the league. Prognosis: reasonable.
  • 4. Jim Thome, Paul Konerko, and Jermaine Dye will decline. Dye is a fine athlete, but career seasons at 32 are usually just that. Paul Konerko has stayed remarkably healthy, but he's an old player's skills guy with bad knees. We've already discussed Thome. Prognosis: reasonable.
  • 5. The White Sox will stick with their current roster. This is an implicit assumption of all the depth chart-based projections, since we don't try and account for potential trades. Nevertheless, Williams is an active trader, and the White Sox should have a bit of payroll left to spend. If they hang in the race through July, I expect some reshuffling. Prognosis: probably unreasonable.

I'm comfortable giving the White Sox +5 wins, for a 77-85 record. I'm not comfortable with more than that. This is a brutally tough division that doesn't permit much margin for error, and other projection systems are nearly as down on the White Sox as PECOTA. There are a finite number of wins to go around, and somebody has to draw the short stick. The White Sox look like they're going to be that team. And have we mentioned that Bobby Jenks might not be healthy?

Kansas City Royals (67-95)

Take the Over: Zack Greinke is an obvious choice, given his excellent spring and backstory issues.

Take the Under: Mark Teahen's longer-term track record, which involved little power in the minor leagues, leaves me skeptical about his ability to sustain his offensive breakout.

Sticking to My Guns: There is no rational reason to expect Gil Meche to be much good.

The Verdict: A mentally healthy Greinke could be a three or four win upgrade. Still, the Royals have a few veteran pieces that are likely to get traded away, and as with the Nationals, the starting rotation is in such disorder that any problems are likely to snowball. We'll go with a gentle -1 for a 66-96 record.

NL CENTRAL

Depth Chart Based PECOTA Projections (updated 3/23):

                      W    L     RS    RA    AVG    OBP    SLG
Chicago Cubs         85   77    829   791   .275   .337   .460
Milwaukee Brewers    85   77    788   748   .266   .335   .445
St. Louis Cardinals  81   81    731   734   .260   .331   .417
Houston Astros       80   82    769   781   .260   .334   .435
Pittsburgh Pirates   76   86    752   805   .270   .331   .434
Cincinnati Reds      71   91    726   827   .259   .329   .417

Chicago Cubs (85-77)

Take the Over: Carlos Zambrano's PERAs have been 3.80, 3.90, and 4.03 over his past three seasons; that's why PECOTA expects this year's actual ERA to be 3.85. Still, he's a sufficiently unique pitcher that I think we need to give some credit for intelligent situational pitching. In particular, Zambrano seems to have the ability to be selectively wild; he's given up a paltry .305 OBP to leadoff hitters over the course of his career.

Take the Under: Surprisingly tough to find one. I like Matt Murton, but suspect that PECOTA slightly overrates his power.

Sticking to My Guns: Alfonso Soriano's breakout was very robust last year, featuring improvements in walk rate, flyball rate, and defense. I'll vouch for PECOTA's 42 HR projection with the cushion of Wrigley Field.

The Verdict: It's easy to be skeptical when a team has had so much go wrong for it, but the projections for Zambrano and Derrek Lee look low, and it remains to be seen how much of the Cubs' "bad luck" was in fact the result of employing a bad manager. Add two wins for 87-75; 90-win territory is not out of the question if the Cubs trade some of their excess outfield talent for bullpen help.

Milwaukee Brewers (85-77)

Take the Over: Provided that neither player kills Ned Yost first, the Brewers should gain score bonus points by using Geoff Jenkins and Kevin Mench in a strict platoon in left field.

Take the Under: Several candidates, but the differences between Corey Hart's major league and minor league production has been pretty striking. I see plenty of scenarios where he matches PECOTA's .288/.353/.517 projection, but that looks closer to a 75th percentile outcome than a weighted mean.

Sticking to My Guns: Ben Sheets' 3.29 ERA projection is higher than where most other forecasting systems have him, but lower than where most laymen have him. Sounds just about right to me.

The Verdict: Just a fairly optimistic set of projections all around. Subtract two wins for 83-77.

St. Louis Cardinals (81-81)

Take the Over: I tried to explain away Albert Pujols' temperate projection in yesterday's chat, but didn't manage to convince myself.

Take the Under: I like Anthony Reyes, but I don't know that the stuff is there to produce a 3.81 ERA.

Sticking to My Guns: It's hard to maintain a .311 BABIP when you make a lot of weak contact, have only average speed, and are about to turn 33. Sorry, David Eckstein, but you're due for a decline to your 2003/2004 performance levels.

The Verdict: I got engaged in a protracted debate about the Cardinals last week. I remain convinced that the Cardinals' lack of depth is a real problem, particularly when they've already had to play through several injuries in spring training. Still, Jim Edmonds looks ready to return to action, and Walt Jocketty has a fairly good track record in terms of adding veteran spare parts at the trade deadline. We'll take the easy way out and call the Cardinals EVEN, for an 81-81 record.

Houston Astros (80-82)

Take the Over: Morgan Ensberg, if healthy.

Take the Under: Chris Burke's projection is getting some extra mileage out of a flukish 2004 in New Orleans.

Sticking to My Guns: Even with all his troubles in 2006, Brad Lidge's PERA was 3.68, and it was as high as that only because of an uncharacteristically high .335 BABIP. A rebound to a 3.17 ERA looks reasonable.

The Verdict: A ho-hum set of projections for a ho-hum team. But Clemens might come back, so +1 puts the 'Stros at 81-81.

Pittsburgh Pirates (76-86)

Take the Over: Ian Snell is a trendy pick for this spot, and PECOTA plays along by forecasting a 60-point drop from a 4.74 to a 4.17 ERA. But I like him even more after discovering that he struck out more than a batter an inning in the season's second half.

Take the Under: He's not a regular, but the depth charts project Nate McLouth to get more than 400 plate appearances. PECOTA way overvalued McLouth last year, perhaps because it mistook opportunistic baserunning for raw athletic talent. It seems to be doing the same this time around.

Sticking to My Guns: Freddy Sanchez' 2006 breakout had all the telltale signs of a batting average fluke. Almost all of his hits went for singles and doubles, he didn't change his plate approach, and he was no spring chicken at age 28. Sanchez is a good ballplayer and a smart guy, but challenging for another batting title is unlikely.

The Verdict: There's a little bit of legitimate upside here if the starting rotation can string a couple of breakout seasons together, but the Pirates' are extremely lacking in depth, Sanchez is banged up, and they're likely to be sellers at the trade deadline. Take away two wins for 74-88.

Cincinnati Reds (71-91)

Take the Over: My world was shaken yesterday when I learned that Todd Coffey can hit 98 on the radar gun. That leads me to put more credence in his strikeout rate breakout in 2006. If he can consolidate that with the good command that he's displayed before, he could provide the Reds with a much-needed solution in the bullpen.

Take the Under: Adam Dunn has been getting a lot of positive buzz this spring, but PECOTA has missed high on him often enough, and there are enough questions about his work ethic, that I don't quite feel comfortable with his monster .267/.390/.574 projection.

Sticking to My Guns: Chris Denorfia's stat lines are tough to read because he's been shuffled back and forth between levels, but the skill set is genuinely pretty good. He'll reward the Reds for any playing time that they find for him by matching his .296/.365/.459 projection.

The Verdict: PECOTA already accounts for several potential breakouts--Dunn, Denorfia, Edwin Encarnacion--and still only gets the Reds to 71 wins. On the other hand, the Reds stand to save themselves a lot of headaches simply by shifting Ken Griffey Jr. out of center field, so I'll go with +1, and a final record of 72-90.

Nate Silver is an author of Baseball Prospectus. 
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