July 7, 2009
In case you hadn't noticed, it's been a roller-coaster season for Alex Rodriguez. Steroid revelations, hip surgery, a .219 batting average on balls in play, an inflated walk rate, a recent eight-game, five-homer tear-he's done plenty to confound expectations, both good and bad. Yet the ever-controversial 33-year-old slugger's .313 Equivalent Average through the first 81 games is just two points off his PECOTA weighted mean projection of .311.*
Rodriguez's is hardly the only on-the-nose projection our system has had halfway into the season. Of the 227 players with at least 200 plate appearances through Sunday (the schedule's official midpoint), 97 are within 15 points of their PECOTA weighted mean Equivalent Averages. The variations are normally distributed, with 154 players within 29 points-or one standard deviation-of their projections, and 213 within two standard deviations. Here's a non-random selection of players within 15 points either way:
Player Team PA Actual Projected Diff. Justin Upton D'backs 325 .302 .287 .015 Matt Kemp Dodgers 336 .302 .290 .012 Robinson Cano Yankees 347 .271 .264 .007 Jacoby Ellsbury Red Sox 338 .275 .270 .005 Jason Bay Red Sox 348 .299 .295 .004 David Wright Mets 353 .325 .323 .002 Hanley Ramirez Marlins 336 .326 .324 .002 Alex Rodriguez Yankees 221 .313 .311 .002 Mark Teixeira Yankees 356 .309 .308 .001 Miguel Cabrera Tigers 330 .306 .308 -.002 Ken Griffey Jr. Mariners 250 .265 .272 -.007 Emilio Bonifacio Marlins 347 .223 .233 -.010 Dustin Pedroia Red Sox 365 .270 .284 -.014
This list is simply a baker's dozen of players (mostly from the East Coast) who have been surrounded by lofty and in some cases unreasonable expectations. We've got three of the game's six highest-paid hitters (Rodriguez, Teixeira, and Cabrera), the reigning AL MVP (Pedroia), the whipping boy of Queens (Wright), a prodigal son returned (Griffey), a 21-year-old phenom (Upton), arguably the game's best all-around player (Ramirez), a horrible idea for a leadoff man (Bonifacio), and a few others who frequent conversations in the Northeast corridor. Despite the varying shapes of performance hidden by EqA, they're all about as productive as PECOTA-if not the chattering classes-expected.
Turning to the extremes, here are the players exceeding their projections by the widest margin:
Player Team PA Actual Projected Diff. Jason Bartlett Rays 248 .334 .243 .091 Ben Zobrist Rays 270 .331 .259 .072 Joe Mauer Twins 256 .370 .298 .072 Joey Votto Reds 205 .355 .298 .057 Ichiro Suzuki Mariners 342 .312 .258 .054 Adrian Gonzalez Padres 349 .346 .295 .051 Raul Ibaņez Phillies 280 .336 .286 .050 Prince Fielder Brewers 362 .355 .305 .050 Adam Lind Blue Jays 354 .319 .270 .049 Pablo Sandoval Giants 307 .318 .269 .049 Kendry Morales Angels 308 .287 .240 .047 Gary Sheffield Mets 218 .318 .271 .047
By and large, that's a youngish group, with an average age (weighted by PA) of 28.5. Sandoval, at 22 the baby of the group, is in his first full season, as is the 25-year-old Lind. The latter is one of eight here between the prime ages of 25 and 29, while Ichiro (35), Ibaņez (37), and Sheffield (40) are the only over-30s. Ichiro and Sheffield are the only two here for whom this year's performance wouldn't be a career high (and by a wide margin, at that), and both are particularly confounding age expectations. PECOTA really ought to know better regarding the former; year after year it takes Suzuki's high BABIPs as a fluke, but this year's .383 mark would be his fourth season out of nine above .370. As for Sheff, he's defiantly rebounded from last year's 43-point shortfall (the second-largest among those with 400 PA) and a springtime release by the Tigers to become arguably the second-best player in the decimated Mets' lineup. His EqA is a ringer for his .315 career mark.
Seven players from this hot-hitting dozen were named to their respective leagues' All-Star teams on Sunday, with Ibaņez, Mauer, and Ichiro voted into the starting lineups, and Bartlett, Fielder, Gonzalez, and Zobrist named as reserves. The two first basemen are proven commodities, good players having great years, while the two Rays infielders are less defensible selections given their short track records; their 2009 performances look fairly fluky. Ibaņez had parlayed a more favorable ballpark, an easier league, and some good luck on fly balls to put together a career-year start before suffering a groin strain three weeks ago; along with Mauer, Votto, and Bartlett, he's helped at least somewhat by the smaller sample size created by his DL stint. Morales, dismissed in this space in February as sub-replacement fodder, has turned out to be a relative asset; perhaps the difficulty of translating Cuban stats and the extremes of Salt Lake City have confounded PECOTA.
To the underperformers:
Player Team PA Actual Projected Diff. Brian Giles Padres 253 .196 .290 -.094 Jimmy Rollins Phillies 347 .216 .288 -.072 Bill Hall Brewers 203 .204 .270 -.066 Garrett Atkins Rockies 255 .222 .286 -.064 Kelly Johnson Braves 263 .229 .290 -.061 Elijah Dukes Nationals 211 .242 .302 -.060 Dioner Navarro Rays 252 .199 .256 -.057 Alfonso Soriano Cubs 348 .241 .294 -.053 David Ortiz Red Sox 311 .248 .297 -.049 Kevin Kouzmanoff Padres 317 .234 .282 -.048 Chris Young D'backs 270 .229 .277 -.048 Magglio Ordoņez Tigers 283 .245 .291 -.046 Rick Ankiel Cardinals 227 .234 .280 -.046 Eric Byrnes D'backs 210 .214 .260 -.046
As you'd expect, this group is older than the previous one, though at 29.8 years, not by much. Six of these 14 players are over 30, headed by the looking-quite-cooked Ordoņez (35) and Giles (38). The rest are between 25 and 29, with those younger than that likely to have been sent down to the minors. Johnson and Kouzmanoff counter Gonzalez when it comes to the age-27 phenomenon.
These players were expected to be solid contributors, with Navarro and Byrnes the only ones projected for EqAs below .270. It's unclear whether injuries are a factor; several of these players may be at less than 100 percent, but only Ankiel, Byrnes, Dukes, and Giles have served DL stints this year, mostly following poor performances rather than preceding them. It's possible that Byrnes, Dukes, Navarro, Ordoņez, Ortiz, and Soriano-all denizens of the DL last year-may be dealing with extensions of older woes, though Ortiz has notably come around of late. Elsewhere, we've got slumps galore, including the the pull-happy Rollins, the righty-shy Hall, and the sub-Mendozoid Young.
Note that while luck on balls in play contributes to over- or underperformance, it doesn't explain the entirety of these lists. Overachievers Votto, Mauer, Bartlett, Suzuki, and Sandoval accompany the on-target Wright, Kemp, Ramirez, and Upton in the BABIP top 20. Underachievers Giles, Byrnes, Rollins, Navarro, Johnson, Atkins, and Young join Griffey, Rodriguez, and the overachieving Gonzalez in the bottom 20.
In any event, as the sample sizes increase, bank on these extreme performances to regress, and the projections to gain in their accuracy. Last year's standard deviation among players with 400 PA was just 22 points of EqA, with every player within 51 points of his weighted mean projection, and a majority (111 out of 213) within 15 points. It may be a bit much to call PECOTA "deadly accurate," but as hitter projections go, it ain't too shabby.
A version of this story originally appeared on ESPN Insider .