Note: Official PECOTA projections will be released next week. This here's a taste.
1. Josh Donaldson and Brett Lawrie will produce the same WARP
When Josh Donaldson was traded, it was a surprise. It was a surprise for a number of reasons, not the least of which being how incredibly good Donaldson has been over the last two seasons. Compared to Brett Lawrie, Donaldson's replacement acquired for him in trade, Donaldson has been worth about 13 wins over the past two seasons, about 10 more than Lawrie has produced. The public perception has been that Donaldson was dealt for a lesser player and prospects. Many if not most think Donaldson is a good bet to out-produce Lawrie again in 2015 (and I don't exempt myself from that group). Throw in that Donaldson is moving from Oakland to the notorious launching pad in Toronto (even though their park factors were similar in 2014), and you'd think the odds would shift even further towards Donaldson and away from Lawrie. This may be so, but PECOTA ain't buying it. PECOTA projects Lawrie and Donaldson for 4.2 WARP each in 2015. That would be a surprise. That would be a step down for Donaldson and a big step up for Lawrie who hasn't produced at that level since 2012.
If PECOTA is right and both players have seasons of identical value Billy Beane will be hailed as a genius for trading Donaldson for a younger player of equal value and receiving prospects as well. And that might be true. But there are some numbers in PECOTA's projections that might keep those type of thoughts to the more statistically inclined. This is because Lawrie and Donaldson go about achieving their value in different ways. PECOTA likes Donaldson's defense in 2015, but it loves Lawrie's enough to make up for a sizable difference in projected offense. PECOTA projects Lawrie for a .736 OPS and Donaldson for an .816 OPS. If that happens, it's likely Donaldson will be seen as the better player, even if their WARP numbers end up the same.
It's not too difficult to make a case that the A's will end up with more value than the Blue Jays after the Donaldson-for-Lawrie deal plays out, but if PECOTA is correct, we might not have to wait as long for an answer as most think. —Matthew Kory
2. Julio Urias will perforn better than (insert name-brand pitcher)
At 0.6 major-league WARP in 71 projected innings, 18-year-old Dodgers lefty Julio Urias projects higher than bigger names like 2014 American League Cy Young Award winner Corey Kluber in addition to breakout performer Dallas Keuchel and new Brave Shelby Miller. Consider it on a rate basis, and he’s projected higher than Tyson Ross and Bartolo Colon as well.
Nobody’s thrown a pitch in his 18-year-old season since Mike Morgan and Tim Conroy both threw a few innings for the 1978 Athetics. Nobody’s thrown any significant number since David Clyde in 1973, and he didn’t do so hot. Larry Dierker was the last to throw 100 innings in 1965, and before that it was Bob Feller in 1937. So there’s not a lot of history to be projecting on here when it comes to pitchers that young. And there’s no expectation of his being a major leaguer, but the computer thinks he’s ready. —Zachary Levine
3. Jake Peavy is the Poor Man's James Shields
James Shields made his major-league debut in 2006. By then, Jake Peavy was in his fifth year in the bigs. But if you look at their birth dates, you might be surprised to learn that Peavy is only about seven months older than Shields.
At this stage of their careers, Shields is a workhorse and Peavy a pitcher whose manager had better have a quick hook in the middle innings. Shields has logged at least 227 innings in four straight years. Peavy last worked that many in, well, never. PECOTA isn't silly enough to project Peavy to defy that load—in fact, it has him pegged for only 159 2/3 innings in 2015. But given Shields' history, you'd think he'd be the rare sort of pitcher with the résumé to coax PECOTA out of its injury-cautious shell. You'd be wrong: It has Shields down for 193 1/3 frames, which would be his lowest output in a full big-league season, and it has both Peavy and Shields making 28 starts. Only Felix Hernandez and Adam Wainwright get PECOTA's nod to eclipse the 225-inning plateau.
But more interesting is the fact that PECOTA likes Peavy about as much on a per-inning basis. By fielding-independent measures, they come out about equal, with Peavy eking out small advantages in BABIP and HR rate. It expects Peavy to produce a lower ERA, albeit in an easier league and fewer innings. By total value, Peavy (at 1.7 WARP) is right on Shields' tail.
The Giants, always inclined to retain pieces of the previous year's championship puzzle, re-upped with Peavy for $24 million over two years. Earlier this offseason, Shields was found to be demanding about $100 million more than that. He won't get that type of outlay, but it's still reasonable to believe that the ex-Royal will more than triple—and maybe almost quadruple—the still-Giant's guaranteed earnings.
Should that investment prove foolhardy, whichever GM signs Shields won't be able to say PECOTA didn't warn him. —Daniel Rathman
4. Billy Hamilton will steal 70 bases
Last year, PECOTA projected Billy Hamilton to steal 71 bases and be caught 15 times. (Technically, that was PECOTA’s 50th percentile projection for Hamilton. At 90th percentile, it had him stealing 90, and at 10th it had him stealing 51.) That was disappointing, and, to be honest, sort of highlighted the way that projections can be fun in a lot of ways but completely unfun in their tendency to be conservative. Hamilton had stolen 155 bags in 2012, and in his brief summer stint in the majors in 2013 had stolen 13 bases in 13 games; he’d been on first base something like 15 times, total, in accumulating those 13 steals. A projection system that gave a damn about hot takes and SEO and stuff like that would have said 100, easily. Easily.
Instead, 71, which was extreme and kind of boring and somewhere I said I didn’t buy it. And the season played out and Hamilton was kind of extreme and kind of boring. He attempted 79 stolen bases, almost what PECOTA projected; he was successful only 56 times, not enough to lead the league and not nearly enough to justify articles like this one, or this one, or this one. It was a reminder that being conservative is no flaw when you’re trying to predict the future; the future is often conservative, and we do ourselves a disservice when we only envision the wackadoodle versions of it. This year PECOTA has Hamilton down for 70, and this year I’m not complaining. If he gets 70, I’ll just enjoy it. —Sam Miller
5. Another neck-and-neck Cy Young race between Felix Hernandez and Corey Kluber? Not quite
The Cy Young race between Corey Kluber and Felix Hernandez was one of the more compelling award finishes in recent memory. Two of the American League’s finest hurlers pitched at the top of their games all summer long, dominating opponents on the scoreboard while excelling in the three true outcomes categories. Voters ultimately favored Kluber by the narrowest of margins, but the battle spawned the best of baseball’s award season: a competitive race, thoughtful reflections, and well-reasoned discourse. As soon as I got access to the new PECOTA’s, I quickly glanced through the pitchers, figuring that these two would again be neck and neck near the top of the system's leaderboards.
Not exactly. Hernandez is right where we all expect, projected to finish third in WARP among all pitchers, well behind Clayton Kershaw but considerably ahead of nearly everybody else. Kluber, however, isn’t anywhere in the top 10. Or top 20. Or top 50. Or top 200. To find Kluber’s name, you have to scroll past Daniel Hudson, below Ben Lively, and even beyond someone named Preston Guilmet. All told, there are 159 names above Kluber who, like potential rotationmates Gavin Floyd and Zach McAllister, is projected to accrue less than a full win in 2015. Barring arm surgery in early May, I feel pretty comfortable taking the over on that one.
Kluber, of course, presents a challenge for all forecasting systems. Projections have a difficult time evaluating breakouts, particularly for someone like Kluber who arguably broke out twice. PECOTA expects significant regression in strikeout rate and workload, which makes plenty of sense, but in groundball percentage and home run rate as well, which is a little tougher to see. Kluber also pitches in front of Cleveland’s porous defense, which has a cascade effect on the rest of his line, affecting expected hits allowed, BABIP, WHIP, innings, and so on.
Strangely though, PECOTA doesn’t think it’s out of the question for Kluber to improve upon last season’s performance. If we lump him in with the top 30 pitchers in projected WARP, the system thinks he’s one of the more likely players among that group to break out and the least prone to collapse. And remember, that’s based off recent performance, not the system’s pessimistic 2015 projection.
What looks like hedging is really just PECOTA throwing its algorithmic hands up. Twenty-six-year-old rookies with a history of control problems don’t suddenly turn into Cy Young winners very often, and the system is having a hard time reconciling Kluber’s sensational 2014 season with the rest of his profile. Whether you want to see this projection as a triumph of the human element or a warning that pitchers who find magic at 28 may lose it at 29 is up to you. Regardless, this is undoubtedly one of the most controversial projections of the season, one that adds another layer of intrigue to Kluber’s defense of the AL Cy Young award. —Brendan Gawlowski
6. Michael Pineda will match Madison Bumgarner's value
It's easy to see people overrating Madison Bumgarner for 2015 after his otherworldly performance in the postseason. The smart bet is to not get too high on Bumgarner because it's likely we're all suffering from a bit of recency bias. But even so, PECOTA has him valued nearly the same as Michael Pineda, which, at first glance, seems like a slap in the face of Bumgarner. In the last three seasons, the young southpaw has a 114 ERA+ and is averaging 203 innings pitched, 203 strikeouts, and 55 walks a season. On the other hand, Pineda has battled shoulder injuries each of the last three seasons (after a very strong 2011 rookie campaign), managing only 76 2/3 innings, all delivered last summer, before those shoulder issues popped up once again, costing him 87 games. But this isn't about Bumgarner possibly being undervalued—PECOTA has him properly slotted among the 20 or so best starters in baseball. But Pineda managing to be sandwiched in between Bumgarner and Johnny Cueto according to PECOTA is an intriguing possibility.
After returning from the 60-day disabled list last August, Pineda made nine starts and looked strong, giving the team a 1.91 ERA in 56 2/3 innings while posting a FIP that bettered David Price's, Jon Lesters, and all but 11 other starters. So it's it's easy to see Pineda-believers being bullish on the 26-year-old. PECOTA is one of those believers, having pegged Pineda to toss 159 2/3 innings—which doesn't seem like much, but that alone would be a victory for the Yankees—and in those innings, he's performing at a near-ace level, striking out 155 batters, walking just 40 while posting a strong 3.11 ERA. The entire Yankees roster is filled with questions, with some of the biggest coming in the rotation. If the Bombers get 28 starts out of Pineda at an average level, let alone the high level PECOTA has projected for him, it answers one huge question for the team. Of course, it still leaves a dozen more before they can start feeling comfortable about getting back to the top of the AL East. —Sahadev Sharma
7. Mookie Betts will lead the Red Sox in WARP
Despite a disappointing follow-up campaign to their 2013 championship, the Red Sox have been mentioned as a potentially elite offense this year. Top free agents Hanley Ramirez and Pablo Sandoval join Boston legends David Ortiz and Dustin Pedroia, as well as slugger Mike Napoli and Cuban star Rusney Castillo. The pitching isn’t as highly touted, but we have seen some excellent seasons from Koji Uehara, Rick Porcello, and Clay Buchholz. However, none of these stars has the highest projected WARP on the team.
That distinction belongs to Mookie Betts.
I—like literally everybody else—love Mookie, but I never would have guessed that PECOTA would favor him over so many established producers, especially given his uncertain lineup spot. Pedroia occupies Betts’ natural 2B, and while Mookie is the strongest candidate to claim RF, he still has to outplay Shane Victorino, Daniel Nava, and Allen Craig for that honor. I’m not saying I’d be floored if Betts’ projection came true, but projection systems aren’t usually so favorable to guys without long track records. If PECOTA is right, though, we’ll be watching the beginning of Boston’s next great sports hero. —Andrew Hopen
8. Mike Hessman could slug with the best of them
For the third straight year, Mike Hessman, who is two years older than Albert Pujols, is ranked in the top 20 in PECOTA’s isolated power—17th, with a .221 mark (.218/.285/.439). Last year he was tied for 18th in projections, which is where I first noticed it. In 2013 he was third. But for the third straight year, he will almost certainly not play in the major leagues.
After breaking the International League record for home runs in 2014, this year he will likely become the all-time minor league king and become crowned Actually Crash Davis. The reason he has stayed in the minors so long is, to quote the 2014 Annual, “Hessman is what materialized when baseball scientists asked, ‘What if it’s possible to achieve higher than 80 power by giving the specimen 20s everywhere else?’”
PECOTA estimates Hessman hitting 13 MLB home runs with a standard playing time of 250 PA, which is nice since he has 250 career PA in the bigs and 14 homers. The full projection shows someone who can contribute more than the average Triple-A player (hence the 0.5 WARP), which makes sense since he’s always been an extraordinary Triple-A player. He has right-handed power in a world that reads about right-handed power mostly in history textbooks, but a single legendary tool just isn’t enough in a billion-dollar industry.
Hessman, who is two years older than Albert Pujols, has 438 career home runs in across major leagues, minor leagues, Japanese leagues and the Olympics, with a .234 career minor-league ISO, but the game asks for more complete players, and while he can play a decent corner infield (FRAA even likes him at third base), he’s not on the Tigers’ depth-chart radar, so he’s instead going to hit 30 home runs for the Toledo Mud Hens. But I am happy to start a petition, cult, Tumblr and series of sonnets wishing that Hessman gets a September call-up, hits a baseball out of the stadium, and hangs it up after the season. —Matt Sussman