February is too early to try to predict major baseball awards. Hell, August is often too early to try to predict major baseball awards. Nevertheless, in celebration of the release of PECOTA, I’m here to take my hack at things. Though I’ve never been an especially successful prognosticator in the past, I find the old cliché to be true: “If at first you don’t succeed, try, try again (using better data).”
We can use PECOTA’s advice to help project a player’s upcoming performance, and while most people gravitate towards the WARP totals and the slash lines, those aren’t the only tools in the toolbox. We can use the percentile projections to see what the system figures the high end or low end of a player’s performance range might be. We can use the Breakout/Improve/Collapse/Attrition percentages to gauge the ways in which performance might shift from history. And we can look at component and peripheral pieces, filtering out the items we think might be most or least variable, and adjust our assessments accordingly.
With a little back-of-the-napkin work, we can also attempt to add the appropriate context to the data PECOTA provides. If MVP or Cy Young voting was a WARP sorting exercise, it’d be painfully simple to predict. Fortunately, it’s neither the sorting exercise or simple to predict. Contextual factors such as how the player displays their value in attention-grabbing ways (shout out to homers and strikeouts) and how a player’s team performs make it just a bit more difficult to choose an award winner based on numbers alone.
Today, we’ll start with the numbers, and work our way forward. PECOTA gives us our starting line, and we’ll try to project who will make it to the finish.
It’s time to get started on awards fatigue. Over the past four seasons, Mike Trout has either won the American League MVP award or come in a close second place. PECOTA heartily endorses him as the game’s most valuable asset, with 7.3 projected WARP. If you were to assume his 20th percentile projection (5.8 WARP), he’d still be worth more WARP than anyone else is projected for in the AL. He’s also projected for a .332 True Average, which is almost 20 points lower than his career mark, but even with projected decrease he still rings the bell as the system’s pick for best player in his league.
Behind Trout, Miguel Cabrera and Josh Donaldson are projected for the second- and third-most WARP in the American League, respectively. These former MVPs have excellent (projected) cases, but there are big gaps between Trout and each. In Cabrera’s case, even though PECOTA predicts improvement over 2014 and 2015, he still remains more of an injury risk than Trout. As for Donaldson, most might consider his extreme 2015 success a bit of a fluke; while the future looks bright for the next two years, Donaldson would need to hit PECOTA’s 90th percentile projection to outstrip Trout’s 50th percentile WARP. The odds are simply in Trout’s favor to serve up more value, and now that the Angels superstar has cemented himself as a more traditional power hitter, his stats should have that classic MVP look that Cabrera’s and Donaldson’s do.
The pitching crop in the American League—which I’ll get to in a bit—doesn’t appear to have the same standouts as on the hitting side, so given the innate benefits to the guys who take the field every day, I’m less comfortable projecting anyone to jump the line. And while other positional stalwarts like Manny Machado, Russell Martin and Kevin Kiermaier all look to produce loads of value, they’ll provide much of it through defense that may get overlooked in the MVP race.
Wait a second. Did I just lump Manny Machado in with Russell Martin and Kevin Kiermaier? One of these things is not like the other—Machado was a fourth-place MVP finisher who hit 35 homers last season. Well, while PECOTA recognizes last year’s breakout, it also projects him to have offensive numbers that are merely good instead of great next season: a .329 on-base percentage and .278 True Average give him another run with 2014-level production, which might produce an MVP-type WARP but not an MVP-type slash line. And neither the WARP or the slash would figure to be enough to unseat an average Mike Trout year.
And let’s throw this out there: I was leaning toward ignoring the Red Sox, which is in direct conflict with my BP–Boston contract, until my editor brought up the strange optics that would come with a dominant year in Boston. If the Sox run the AL East, the masses will be looking for a reason, and PECOTA projects David Ortiz to hit 30 homers and post a .361/.508 OBP/SLG combo. That’s wild! A 40-year old is projected by PECOTA for roughly the same offense (at least, unadjusted) as Bryce Harper is. While Ortiz is more likely to undershoot his projections than perhaps your average player in his prime, a 30-homer season in his last year would certainly earn him more than a few votes. To actually win the MVP? Trout would have to slide back from his career marks, and Papi would have to hit something like his 80th percentile projection—.295/.383/.544 with 34 homers, while the Sox win 95+ games. But if Ortiz fades, then Mookie Betts is likely to jump his place in the MVP line for a contending Boston team. The young outfielder is projected for his signature high OBP (.360, among the best in baseball), and enough overall value (4.2 WARP as a right fielder) to be a leading light in voting if the Sox turn this thing around from last year.
The only troubles with a Trout victory are those pesky contextual factors I mentioned up front. The Angels as a team are projected to be a 75-win ballclub, despite employing the best player in the world. And Trout certainly may suffer from awards fatigue, as he’s never not in the MVP discussion. However, not winning the 2015 MVP Award might be a blessing in disguise for this year’s candidacy, as the voters may pick him to take first place this time.
By the numbers alone, there might not be a safer award choice in any category. While it’s fun to predict an upset, this is one case where betting the favorite is a great idea.
Predicted Winner: Mike Trout
Top Contenders: Josh Donaldson, Manny Machado, Miguel Cabrera
Dark Horse: Pick a Red Sox player (David Ortiz, Mookie Betts, probably not Pablo Sandoval)
The National League is another story. Bryce Harper’s incredible offensive explosion won the award handily last season, but while PECOTA sees him as one of the National League’s finest players again, it hardly projects him to replicate last year’s merciless tyranny over pitchers. Instead, it has him marked for a respectable .884 mark, a 225-point dropoff. PECOTA may not give Harper enough credit for his breakout last season, but it has to take into account his 2013 and 2014 True Averages (.303 and .290), too. A full repeat of last year’s excellence should be assumed by no one.
At the same time, the weight of expectations—which Harper has shouldered well for much of his life—may harm him in MVP voting even if he puts up something similar (or even mildly superior) to the line PECOTA projects for him. If he launches 40 or fewer homers, or if the Nationals fail to meet the high standard others have set, Harper’s season could be seen as inferior to his last, and thus unworthy of the highest honor in the Senior Circuit. Expectations carry weight, and that could leave the door open for someone else to take the lead.
Let’s circle back to PECOTA’s projections, which posit a pair of catchers in the top five of the game’s WARP leaderboard. Those backstops, Yasmani Grandal (5.9 WARP) and Buster Posey (6.7 WARP) were among the league’s most valuable assets last season. But do their projections posit future MVP awards? Let’s write off Grandal immediately. So much of the underrated backstop’s value comes from his framing and his on-base percentage, and those are two areas that MVP voters may not be willing to throw their weight behind, unless many other factors are in play. Without his framing gifts, what does his profile look like? Well… not that much different from teammate A.J. Ellis over a full season: low average, high OBP, and just enough power to be dangerous. No one save Clayton Kershaw or Ellis’s family would press for Ellis to be an MVP, so it’s tough to imagine awards voters falling in line for Grandal’s similar glamour stats. In addition, Grandal has a tendency to miss time—he’s constantly fighting injury, and has already had shoulder surgery this offseason. Even though PECOTA pegs him at 500 plate appearances, that’s not quite enough to qualify for a batting title, which is almost a pre-requisite to be considered for this honor.
Posey, on the other hand, is projected to be a defensive stud, like Grandal, but also packs the “big-name” statistics that voters could love: namely a .299 batting average projection with 19 home runs. It’s easy to imagine that a nudge over those two marks into some round numbers (such as one might find in his 60th percentile projection) could certainly get the job done. Posey also benefits from being the face of a recognizable franchise and a proven winner, and he’ll bat in the middle of the order. Unlike Grandal, Posey is a dangerous candidate to contend for the award.
But the field in the NL is quite crowded: Joey Votto (.322) is projected for the highest True Average in the National League, but his ballclub and walk-heavy ways tend to boot him from consideration, even if he stays healthy. Andrew McCutchen, somehow, seems to be an afterthought despite his consistency, but if the Pirates overtake the Cubs as darlings of the National League Central, one could make a case for his narrative. Then there’s Giancarlo Stanton, projected by PECOTA to lead all of baseball with 37 homers in 2016. The Marlins are moving their fences in and Stanton could perhaps put forth his first injury-free season of the last few in a park more hospitable to his earth-shaking power. If he chases 45+ homers (a number that PECOTA doesn’t foresee until the highest reaches of his percentiles, mind you), then the optics might be too much to ignore, even in Miami.
With a crowded house, narrative could make all the difference. And that leads us to my pick for this season’s finest: Paul Goldschmidt. Goldy has been a rock of offensive might, and last year turned out a 9.2 WARP season that went almost ignored as Arizona spiraled into mediocrity. With expectations far higher for 2016 with the arrival of Zack Greinke, this might be the season where Goldschmidt gets his gold. If Arizona can stay competitive in the West, all eyes will be on the Snakes, and the wider world of baseball will probably see Goldschmidt do what he usually does: hit for power and average, field his position well, and hustle on the basepaths surprisingly well for a first baseman. For Goldschmidt to run away with the MVP, I’d say he needs to hit his 70th percentile projection—31 homers, .300 batting average and .400 OBP—with Arizona contending for the NL West. Oh, and he’ll also need Bryce Harper to not repeat his 2015 season, lest he collect his third second-place MVP finish.
Projected Winner: Paul Goldschmidt
Top Contenders: Bryce Harper, Buster Posey, Andrew McCutchen
Dark Horse: Giancarlo Stanton
Cy Young Awards
I’ll be honest. I still don’t trust Chris Sale. PECOTA projects the White Sox ace lefty as the best pitcher in the American League, and only second in baseball to Clayton Kershaw with a sterling 3.22 DRA. Sale has the best strikeout stuff in the game among starters, according to PECOTA—his 10.9 strikeouts per nine matches Kershaw’s for the lead—and his track record of success now runs four consecutive years of ace performance. Believe it or not, he’s getting better: his cFIP has dropped every single season since he entered the rotation. He’s as solid and strong as anyone could ask for … and yet … that throwing motion. For years, scouts and fans have wondered if this would be the year that he finally blows out his left wing and requires surgery. Though the doubters have always come out in force, he does seem to miss a start or six every year, and it’s possible that Sale just doesn’t have a serious injury on the docket just yet. He still doesn’t throw as many innings as the Prices and King Felixes of the world, so despite his unmistakeable talent, I just have to choose a different man as the top contender for this award.
That, then, takes PECOTA to Cleveland, where the Indians are again poised to contend (at least pre-season). The team has the second-best defense in the AL, according to PECOTA, a vast improvement over last year’s first-half mess. Corey Kluber is the obvious beneficiary in the Cy Young race, while the less obvious choice is Carlos Carrasco. Both feature outstanding PECOTA projections: Kluber is the safer bet, but Carrasco may actually have the higher floor. Carrasco features a slightly higher strikeouts per nine projection—10.0 to Kluber’s 9.9—and an Attrition percentage that’s positively tiny: 3 percent to Kluber’s 8 percent. Carrasco is projected to allow more groundballs, post an almost identical ERA and WHIP to Kluber… in a vacuum you might actually prefer the less famous hurler to the former Cy Young winner.
Of course, we’re never operating in a vacuum when it comes to baseball. Kluber has the reputation, the past success, and most importantly, two years of throwing more than 220 innings. Carrasco, while brilliant over the past two seasons, has thrown about 320 innings total. Kluber may not have years of track record over Carrasco, but he does have innings. PECOTA currently projects 165 innings for Carrasco, which wouldn’t be enough to contend in a crowded field. Kluber is projected for 194, a far more acceptable amount. There’s a solid chance that both pitchers will surpass their innings projections, and if Carrasco knocks out 200-plus innings, and it’s somewhere around his 70th percentile projection or higher (2.61 ERA, 4.15 strikeouts per walk), watch the heck out.
Despite his comps looking like a who’s who of burned out aces (Ubaldo Jimenez, J.P. Howell, and Erik Bedard), the Rays’ Chris Archer is another pitcher who could be easy to project as a Cy favorite. After his slider’s emergence as a top-flight out-pitch last season, PECOTA sees him as unlikely to backslide, even after his best season as a pro. It would take only a slight bump from his 50th percentile projection to put him in serious contention for a Cy Young run, especially if the Rays follow up on their team PECOTA projections and make a big run at the AL East crown.
There are other talents in the AL to be sure. Last season’s winner Dallas Keuchel is projected to succeed again this year, but so much of his success is based on his snazzy ability to induce grounders. Like it or not, that puts a fair bit of his success on his infield and his luck, so it’s tough to count on the same amount of run prevention again in 2015. (PECOTA has seven other AL starters projected for more WARP.) David Price was brilliant again last year, hitting a new peak while moving from Detroit to Toronto. But pitching in Boston is almost always an adjustment for starters, and while Price is certainly up to the task—and has pitched there plenty in his career—it’s reasonable to think that he may suffer an adjustment period as he figures out Fenway Park. PECOTA gives him a lot of credit for his control (projected 1.9 walks per nine), but he carries a relatively high Attrition percentage (11 percent chance) for a top-flight starter. And while Felix Hernandez is imagined by PECOTA as an ageless wonder (his projection for WARP is fourth in the AL), last season was the worst cFIP (92) of his career. While we can all expect a bit of a bounceback from the King (especially as his groundball rate nears Keuchel-ian levels), he’s gone from a safe bet for a top-three Cy finish to just a regular old safe bet.
Projected Winner: Corey Kluber
Top Contenders: Chris Sale, Chris Archer, David Price
Dark Horse: Carlos Carrasco
How does one predict anything else other than Clayton Kershaw to dominate the National League Cy Young voting? PECOTA gives him almost a full win of projected WARP over every other pitcher in the game, with only Chris Sale nudging within a win of Kershaw’s projection of 5.1. But more than the gaudy WARP number is the Los Angeles ace’s consistency—PECOTA predicts him to throw over 200 innings again in 2016, something the system only did for five veteran starters. Only a handful of starting pitchers are projected for an ERA under 3.00, but Kershaw is miles ahead of the pack at 2.38. His top comparable is Roger Clemens. He’s the Mike Trout of the National League pitching race.
So what about last year’s other competitors for the Cy, Zack Greinke and eventual winner Jake Arrieta? Greinke is moving to Arizona, where the hitter-friendly ballpark will do him no favors, and he’ll have to adapt to catchers like Welington Castillo who are not going to help him with their framing skills. PECOTA sees him doing well (3.66 DRA and 3.0 WARP), but not Kershaw-well. Arrieta, on the other hand, is projected for ace-level performance again, earning the third-highest WARP projection (3.6) in the National League. But he also has the highest Attrition percentage (16 percent) among top-level “ace” starting pitchers, and can’t be expected to rip off another run like his legendary second half of 2015.
That leaves the door open for Max Scherzer, possessed of a projected strikeout rate that nudges up against Kershaw’s (10.8 strikeouts per nine, just 0.1 fewer than Kershaw). He’s also outperformed his upcoming PECOTA projection of 4.1 WARP in each of the last three seasons. Both he and teammate Stephen Strasburg—projected for a healthy 10.1 strikeouts per nine of his own—could benefit from an improved Nationals team and all the narrative attention that would bring. (And, of course, Strasburg could benefit from being in a contract year, where he’ll push to earn a massive contract next offseason.)
A popular pick might be Jose Fernandez, perhaps the only other NL pitcher capable of matching Kershaw’s true talent level on a rate basis. Despite carrying a career ERA of 2.40 and a career FIP of 2.51, PECOTA pegs the Miami hurler for a 3.09 ERA this season, with a strikeout rate resembling his 2013 debut season (10.1 strikeouts per nine). If Fernandez just slides back into his form from the past few years as he fully recovers from his Tommy John surgery, he’ll be a top-three contender. But with Miami announcing an innings limit, moving the fences in at Marlins Park, and producing a team unlikely to draw eyes in a playoff race, it will take a high-talent, high-impact performance to burst through the pack and separate himself from the competition.
My dark horse pick for this category is someone I think could find a lot of success in a hurry: Tyson Ross. Ross has the Dallas Keuchel starter kit: PECOTA projects him for a 61 percent groundball rate in addition to his top-notch strikeout stuff, and he pitches in a friendly ballpark. I’d imagine that if he gets off to a good start, he could be a dynamite mid-season pitching acquisition for some team, which could earn him much-needed visibility and set him apart from the pack. The tough part? If Ross is traded, he’d need to stay in the NL in order to be in line for any Cy Young award.
In a category that seems to fluctuate every season, Kershaw’s ability to not only pitch well, but to take the ball more often than everyone else sets him apart. He’s not a sure thing to win this award, but I like his chances more than anyone else’s.
Projected Winner: Clayton Kershaw
Top Contenders: Jose Fernandez, Max Scherzer, Jake Arrieta
Dark Horse: Tyson Ross
Rookie of the Year Awards
If you examine BP’s Top 101 prospect list, you’ll see two players at the top who’re probably finished with minor-league ball, loaded with tools and talent, and ready to take on starring roles for their respective teams. Corey Seager made a huge impression late in the year for the Dodgers, and is ready to step in as the team’s shortstop and defensive linchpin. Byron Buxton, uh, didn’t exactly blow our hair back in his 2015 debut, but rather struggled through injuries and ineffectiveness. Yet, he remains a font of potential waiting to be tapped.
Well, Byron Buxton also is projected for the 16th-highest WARP among all position players in 2016. PECOTA loves the guy, mostly due to a 25-run defensive projection, modeling him to be the third-most valuable defensive player in baseball (behind Yasmani Grandal and Kevin Kiermaier).
The downside for Buxton, and perhaps for Twins fans jonesing for a new piece of hardware, is that the contextual factors here make Buxton’s candidacy more of a longshot than the PECOTA WARP might have you believe. First of all, defensive greatness does not exactly translate directly to Rookie of the Year (or any other) awards voting. Look at the case of Francisco Lindor last season. Lindor out-WARPed Correa by about half a win (3.3 to 2.8), but that was mostly due to Lindor’s graceful defense outshining Correa’s ho-hum leather. Offensive numbers are likely to play up much better with the voters than metrics like FRAA or DRS.
In addition, there’s a legitimate worry that Buxton’s team may work against him. This season, I’d expect the talented center fielder to be flanked by two young players with remarkable upside of their own: Miguel Sano and Max Kepler. Sano’s power defies gravity, and Kepler could put up startling numbers in his own right—he possesses one of PECOTA’s highest BREAKOUT scores (10%) and has risen up prospect rankings in a hurry over the past couple of seasons. And if the Twins aren’t in the playoff hunt, voters may look to contributors on more competitive teams for their RoY votes.
So, after all of that, which other players look like nice fits for the American League Rookie of the Year award? We only have to travel about 150 feet for the answer.
Jose Berrios is ready to change the dynamic of a Twins rotation long predicated on pitching to contact and avoiding strikeouts at all cost. Today, Berrios ranks a respectable 61st on the PECOTA WARP leaderboard, between fellow Rookie of the Year hopeful Steven Matz and veteran Anibal Sanchez. He’s projected to fan 8.3 batters per nine, and post a DRA of 4.14 in his first year in the league, and I’d expect the Twins to give him every chance to stick in their rotation come May.
Given the vagaries of Target Field’s suppression of offense and the Buxton-based defensive alignment in his outfield, it’s possible to imagine a world in which Berrios performs to his PECOTA-assigned peripherals, but also gets a bit lucky on dingers and BABIP as a flyball fireballer. A Matt Harvey-lite debut? Not out of the question as the percentile projections for Berrios above 50 percent look more and more appealing, even if he doesn’t crack 150 innings.
Here’s another factor working in Berrios’ and, maybe, Buxton’s favor: there simply aren’t a bunch of great candidates after last year’s bumper crop. Combining the best of the PECOTA projections with the BP Top 101 prospect lists leaves us with few good options: The only other names that jump out are Texas slugger Joey Gallo and Cleveland center fielder Bradley Zimmer. Gallo has the eye-popping power to captivate an audience, but PECOTA projects him for a miserable batting average based on his lack of bat-to-ball skills and frightening minor-league strikeout rate—though even with all of that, his projected True Average is .273. A little improvement (say in the 60th percentile or 70th percentile) could bump him from fun curiosity to legit contender. But Gallo also doesn’t have a direct path to playing time in Arlington, which doesn't help. Zimmer looks every bit the part of a new-school Grady Sizemore in Ohio, but he doesn’t yet have Triple-A seasoning. If the Indians decide to jump him up to the big leagues to fill a hole in their highly questionable outfield, he’ll have to prove himself against major-league pitching in a hurry.
Projected Winner: Jose Berrios
Top Contenders: Joey Gallo, Byron Buxton
Dark Horse: Bradley Zimmer
On the National League side, Corey Seager is king of two domains: prospects and rookies. Despite some pretty unimpressive comparables—Brett Lawrie, Mike Moustakas, and prospect ghost Andy Marte—Seager holds the highest projected WARP (3.0) of any rookie, non-Buxton division. PECOTA isn’t so hasty to imagine a repeat of last season’s astounding rate stats; not even his fondest fans expect him to maintain a .425 OBP or .561 SLG long-term. Despite .120-point dips in both of those on PECOTA’s docket, Seager has everything else going for him as a Rookie of the Year candidate. He plays for a high-profile team looking to compete for the playoffs, he carries the incredible hype of the best overall prospect in baseball, and he’s proven his skills, albeit temporarily, at the big-league level.
There will be competition, however, from a trio of rookie pitchers who could contend for his crown. Teammate Kenta Maeda is no prospect, but he’s expected to fill a gap in the Los Angeles rotation. If opposing hitters have a tough time picking up his tricky delivery at first, it could give him the head start needed to snag the award. While it might be tough to imagine, PECOTA gives Maeda a sparkling 3.28 ERA in its projections, and a similar overall line to what was projected for John Lackey. While some scouts may imagine a no. 4 starter profile for the import, if he throws like a no. 2, he’ll be a strong candidate to usurp Seager.
PECOTA also projects Steven Matz of the Mets and John Lamb of the Reds to put up solid numbers in their rookie campaigns. Matz is the real threat here, with all eyes on the rotation in New York following its march to the World Series. Matz has never shown that he can stay healthy, but if he does, he could be a threat. Lamb’s the surprise here where PECOTA may see more than what the naked eye does—he may not even be guaranteed a rotation slot in Cincy. But with the system projecting him for a similar strikeout rate to Matz’s (8.7 strikeouts per nine), well, stranger things have happened.
In addition, Washington’s Trea Turner could play spoiler. He may not wind up at short on Opening Day in the nation’s capital, but he’ll be there soon enough. But not only does PECOTA not predict Seager’s stats for Turner, but Turner’s debut was far less inspiring than his fellow shortstop’s. No, the top prospect in baseball is the name we know, and the face we trust. PECOTA loves him, and he should likely be as strong a front-runner for the award as Kris Bryant was last season.
Projected Winner: Corey Seager
Top Contenders: Steven Matz, Kenta Maeda, Trea Turner
Dark Horse: John Lamb