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March 3, 2009

You Could Look It Up

Matt Wieters

by Steven Goldman

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Matt Wieters
2009 Weighted Mean PECOTA Forecast
 PA  R  2B 3B HR RBI BB  SO SB CS EqBRR  AVG/ OBP/ SLG MLVr  EqA VORP WARP
649 105 33  2 31 102 77 102  4  2  -1.0 .311/.395/.544 .281 .319 59.6  7.9

PECOTA is an essentially conservative program. Its player-performance projections are neither wildly optimistic nor pessimistic, but built purely from the data, and from its own understanding of the way that player careers progress based on literally thousands of antecedents. Thus, when it proposes that Orioles catching prospect Matt Wieters, a rookie-to-be who has never played above Double-A, could hit .311/.395/.544 in the majors this year, we took notice-this was the first time that PECOTA had looked at a prospect and predicted an MVP-caliber, Hall of Fame-level season right off the bat.

By way of comparison, consider the two players who were the 2008 Rookie of the Year Award-winners in their respective leagues, both of whom PECOTA quite liked from the get-go. Tampa Bay Rays third baseman Evan Longoria received a weighted mean projection of .266/.339/.459. This was no surprise; by acclamation, Longoria was one of the most talented young players in the game. However, PECOTA can only go by what it sees in the player's profile, both in terms of performance and vital statistics, so though it was quite high on Longoria compared to most other prospects, it did not overstate its estimation. In fact, PECOTA proved to be a little too reserved in this instance, as Longoria hit .272/.343/.531-the projection model nailed the batting average and on-base components of Longoria's rookie year, but missed low on his power.

Over in the senior circuit, Cubs catcher Geovany Soto was projected to hit .273/.352/.470, another enthusiastic projection, but still a bit short of historic as far as introductions go. As with Longoria, PECOTA anticipated a bit less power than Soto displayed in major league action, but was quite close on the other two legs of the production tripod, as Soto hit .285 while posting a .364 on-base percentage. Soto had had an explosive year in the minor leagues in 2007, one almost as impressive in its own way as Wieters' breakout campaign, but it was one that because of Soto's age, the context of the league and performance levels involved, and other factors did not receive the same rave review from the system.

These same factors are the key to Wieters' stunning PECOTA projection. PECOTA does not take a prospect's minor league stats as is, but translates them first, adjusting for the park and league context. It also considers the player's age, position, and body type before making its projection. The key for Wieters is just how well he makes out, despite the discounts on his performance wrought by these various translations. It is the rare young player who towers above his league to the degree that Wieters did last season, and then goes further by making the difficult jump to Double-A, not only maintaining production, but actually accelerating it. It is the rare 22-year-old who bats .345/.448/.576 in High-A ball, let alone .365/.460/.625 at Double-A. No matter how aggressively one reduces Wieters' numbers through translation, you simply can't make all of that go away.

Any young player looking to receive a Wieters-style PECOTA and become an instant fantasy (and real-world) darling, should follow a simple formula. First, dominate your league. Second, be the appropriate age for your league; PECOTA is properly skeptical of four-year college players who beat up on high school pitchers as 24-year-old players in short-season rookie ball. Third, do not rely too much on your ballpark to help you. Oh, and if it's not too much trouble, fourth, do your best to show no weaknesses in any phase of your game. Just like Wieters did last year.

This is largely what Soto and Longoria did, just not to the same degree. In 2007, Longoria had hit .299/.402/.570 in the minors, including .307/.403/.528 at Double-A. These numbers are stunning, but not quite of the same quality as Wieters'. Soto had hit .353/.424/.652 at Triple-A Iowa in 2007, but that was in his age-24 season, so he was a critical two years older than Wieters, and so had (and has) less room for growth than did his younger catching counterpart.

Of course, as we've often said in our annual book, PECOTA is not destiny. Much stands between a young player and the achievement of his projection, whether that projection is as boldly put as Wieters' is, or merely average. Injury is a particular risk for a young catcher, as an errant foul tip can mangle a finger, or a contact play at the plate can mangle an entire body. What makes Wieters' projection all the more impressive is that PECOTA is aware of the toll that catching can take on a backstop's offensive skills, and yet it still sees such impressive short-term results for the Orioles tyro.

Perhaps, then, it is wrong to say that PECOTA lacks optimism, that it doesn't rave. In its own way, Wieters' projection is its way of saying, "Hey, I think I spot a very rare talent here; you might want to pay attention." Then again, PECOTA is merely a computer program, and this interpretation is, appropriately, an act of translation.

Steven Goldman is an author of Baseball Prospectus. 
Click here to see Steven's other articles. You can contact Steven by clicking here

Related Content:  PECOTA,  Matt Wieters

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