You know who had a really good year last year? Alfonso Alcantara. The guy obviously dedicated himself to the sport, got himself in great condition, learned a new trick or two, and/or was just darned focused like a great athlete should be. I have no idea who Alfonso Alcantara is.
What I do know is that PECOTA likes him more than a full run of ERA better this year than it did last year. That’s not easy to make PECOTA do, though it helps if (as I’ve just learned about Alcantara) the player enters the season with just 59 stateside innings to go on. It also helps if the starting point is a 6.48 projected ERA, which is what Alcantara’s was before last year. Alcantara isn’t exciting, but who better to start an article with than a pitcher you haven’t heard of and don’t care about?
So let’s just forget we did that and pivot to the names you do care about. These are the pitchers who changed PECOTA’s mind–who most moved the needle on their own projections, overwhelming PECOTA’s long memory. Unlike with hitters, we won’t be looking at WARP, but at ERA, and unlike hitters we won’t just look at a list of names, unless you want to see a bunch of 20-year-olds in A-ball who lowered their projected ERAs out of the sixes, and who (according to some sources) are actually named Victor Alcantara. Rather, categories.
One note: The “Now” projections you’ll see are slightly higher than you’ll see when we release the official projections next week. These projections are based on a run-scoring environment that PECOTA anticipated last year, which is higher than the run-scoring environment that PECOTA anticipates this year. The adjustments will be made in the spreadsheet we release, but to keep year-to-year changes consistent in this article the adjustments have not been made here.
The Irrelevants (But Still Somewhat Interesting)
Like: Ian Clarkin. Was: 7.20. Now: 5.10
And Also: Kevin Ziomek, Teddy Stankiewicz, Josh Hader
They’re irrelevant because they’re still a long ways from the majors, and because their projections are still terrible; we’re in election-results-with-<1-percent-of-precincts-reporting territory here. But they’re still somewhat interesting because these guys are more than book-filler. They’re second-tier prospects, the guys who have a clear path to careers as long as they keep getting outs, each out giving that projection a little bitty boost toward legitimacy. Clarkin, for instance, struck out a batter per inning and kept the walks down as a 19-year-old in Low-A, good enough to earn a token start in High-A to punctuate his season. We’re not so nuts as to just scout a low-A stat line, but other than grow three inches and add five mph to a fastball, “really good stat line” is about as good a goal for a young pitcher as any.
In a sense, their inclusion in this article is nothing more than a data catch-up: Clarkin had five pro innings before last year, Ziomek eight, Stankiewicz 20. Practically all PECOTA really knew about them was whether they could beatbox. But in another sense, that’s the point, and that’s the story: We met them, they pitched well, and the long march toward promise being fulfilled began, promisingly.
Like: Luis Severino. Was: 6.11. Now: 4.56.
And Also: Lucas Giolito, Daniel Norris, Chi Chi Gonzalez
Unlike the irrelevants, these are guys who not only added to their statistical resumes, but who went from exciting young things to relevant exciting young things. A year ago, if you asked PECOTA about Giolito, it would have mumbled something about TINSTAAPP and fuzzed awkwardly about sample size and conceded that the scouting reports are far more telling than any projection system at that stage and boy that stuff looks great but I’m sure not a scout. Ask again this year, and PECOTA will tell you Giolito is better than Bud Norris right now, and it won’t even apologize for it.
It’s not just performance that spikes these guys. Norris entered last season with one start above the Midwest League; he ended it in the majors. Chi Chi handled the Double-A test easily, with the sixth-best ERA among starters in the Texas League; no younger Texas Leaguer was better than he was. Hell, we liked him so much we went ahead and changed his name on the site to Chi Chi officially. And Severino kept dominating and getting promotions until eventually he was the second-youngest pitcher in the Eastern League. Hot stats will impress PECOTA, but high levels will really spin its propellor hat.
Like: Ken Giles. Was: 4.72. Now: 3.15.
And Also: Cam Bedrosian, Dellin Betances, Jake Diekman
There’s this moment in Justified’s fifth season where Michael Rapport’s Daryl is badmouthing Boyd Crowder without realizing he’s talking to Boyd Crowder, who promptly gets the drop on him.
Daryl: Damn man that was cool as ice!
Boyd: I ain't gonna take your compliment after taking your insult.
In 2014, Giles threw all of 46 innings in the majors (and 15 in Double-A, and 13 in Triple-A), and they were so cool that PECOTA upgraded him from “basically Phillippe Aumont” to “basically Rafael Soriano.” That might still seem low to you, considering 3.15’s not all that special for a reliever: “basically Fernando Salas,” I could have said, or “basically Joe Thatcher,” but c’mon, it was only 46 big-league innings! Before that, Giles had never pitched above A+, and even there had been D-. As we put it in this year’s Annual: “The guy who allowed seven runs per nine in High-A a year earlier allowed seven baserunners per nine in the majors.” We could have also used: “The guy who had a .79 WHIP in the majors last year had a .74 WIP in High-A the year before.”
Bedrosian’s a fun one because he got this new algorithmic admirer despite a 6.52 ERA in the majors. Rather, he dominated in the minors, where his season started like this:
Cam Bedrosian has thrown 8 2/3 minor league innings this year and struck out 21
Between High-A and Double-A, he struck out 72 batters in 38 innings; he allowed 11 hits. Triple-A was a disaster and the majors were, too, but: 11 hits in 38 innings! This is a pitcher who’d been essentially given up on two years ago, by PECOTA as much as by anybody. “Admirer” might have been too strong a word for me to use up there, as we still see a mid-4s ERA from Bedrosian, but, hey, one of his comps is Phillippe Aumont, which is almost like saying one of his comps is Ken Giles, right?
Like: Zach Britton. Was: 4.64 Now: 3.45.
And Also: Jenrry Mejia, Zach Duke
Anybody’s ERA will go down with a switch from starting to the bullpen. If we go by Nate Silver’s 25 percent rule—"the typical pitcher will have an ERA about 25% higher when pitching in a starting role than when pitching in relief”—then we’d expect Britton’s projected ERA to drop to 3.71 from the switch alone. And Mejia’s to 3.56 (it’s actually 3.53). So they didn’t really change PECOTA’s mind at all! You might think I just wasted your time, in which case I apologize. Mostly just wanted to point out how predictable their “breakout” 2014 seasons were.
The Actual Breakouts
Like: Jacob DeGrom. Was: 4.40. Now: 3.60.
And Also: Garrett Richards. Was: 4.67. Now: 4.02.
And: Jake Arrieta. Was: 4.20. Now: 3.74.
And: Yusmeiro Petit. Was: 3.94. Now: 3.25.
And Especially: Corey Kluber. Was: 4.77. Now: 4.20.
PECOTA is itself somewhat predictable. I anticipated, for instance, that Corey Kluber’s projection would look way pessimistic for a defending Cy Young winner; and I can confidently predict that when we release these next week Kluber’s projection is going to be the most controversial. Rob McQuown will explain it a bit on the site next week, and I think it’s fair to say that well over half of BP staff writers would take the under on that ERA if they had to lay down a bet. But there’s also a logic to it, whether it’s right or not: PECOTA has a long memory, and Kluber was pretty mediocre even in recent memory. This long-view approach will cause it to miss true breakouts from time to time; it’ll also keep it from being duped by, say, 2013 Ubaldo Jimenez or 2013 Chris Davis. There's no easy answer when somebody who wasn't great suddenly pitches like Sandy Koufax or hits like Hank Aaron.
Nonetheless, Kluber sheds more than a half-run of ERA, just as he did from 2013 (when his projected ERA was 5.38) to 2014. He’s another great year from convincing PECOTA he’s a star, but at least he’s convinced PECOTA he’s not Armando Galarraga. I won’t try to convince you that’s a great achievement, but projecting 2,100 unique careers using a consistent logical framework is going to be a constant challenge when things like Corey Kluber exist.