keyboard_arrow_uptop

This all began with R.A. Dickey, who’s projected (by PECOTA) for just 0.4 WARP next year. On the face of it, that seems rather odd. Here are Dickey’s WARP totals since 2010, complete and unabridged:

Year

WARP

2010

3.5

2011

2.7

2012

4.5

2013

2.9

2014

2.5

2015

2.8

This is not the picture of a man who had one good season (2012, in which he won the Cy Young award with the Mets) and has sucked thereafter, as some narratives would have it. Rather, this is the picture of a man who, during the 2009-10 offseason, worked out how to sustain 2.5 WARP-level performance well into his 40s, almost-accidentally had one season far better than that in 2012, and thus set himself up to disappoint observers when he turned out to be exactly what he looked like before that miracle year: a perfectly adequate knuckleballer, but not an ace.

And this is, more to the point, the picture of a man who seems designed specifically to confuse PECOTA, which explains, in part, his odd projection. Granted, Dickey will be 41 years old this year. Most pitchers aren’t very good in their age-41 season, and PECOTA knows that. But most pitchers don’t throw a knuckleball 80 percent of the time, as Dickey does, and most pitchers haven’t put up 8.2 WARP throwing that knuckleball over the past three seasons, which is exactly what Dickey has done since he left New York.

All of which is to say that I’d be very surprised if Dickey produced just 0.4 WARP worth of value in 2016, barring injury. And that got me thinking about upside in the rest of the Toronto rotation, and whether there might be reason to be bullish, relative to PECOTA’s projections, about those pitchers, as well. I’m not the only one thinking along these lines: Jays Journal ran a piece in December calling the Jays rotation the “league leaders in upside.”

I can sort of see the case. Marcus Stroman is a 24-year-old with a glorious sinker and two other plus pitches to boot. J.A. Happ appears to have graduated from the Ray Searage school of pitching with a newfound ability to work off of his fastball. Drew Hutchinson and Marco Estrada, too, have moments you can dream on. And yet, even considering all that, PECOTA projects the whole group for just 5.0 WARP in 2016, which feels… rather unsatisfying. Surely it’s incumbent upon analysts to account and give credit for the breakout potential in Toronto’s starting five, which—at least to the naked eye—seems to be rather more than the usual amount.

So let’s try to give Toronto as much credit as we can, and take a look at PECOTA’s 90th-percentile projections for the Queen City starting five. Here’s how the Jays’ rotation might perform next year, if everything goes exceptionally well for everyone involved (also included: 10th percentile projections, just for fun):

Name

2016 PECOTA

90th Percentile

10th Percentile

Marcus Stroman

1.9

4.0

-0.3

J.A. Happ

1.2

3.1

-0.8

Drew Hutchinson

0.9

2.5

-0.7

Marco Estrada

0.6

2.6

-1.5

R.A. Dickey

0.4

2.4

-1.7

SUM

5.0

14.6

-5.0

Hey, 14.6 WARP! That’s suddenly a very good rotation; more productive, in fact, than all but eight entire MLB pitching staffs—never mind rotations—were in 2015. So, yes, there’s unrealized upside in the Toronto rotation. And if you look at Stroman’s profile and want to make the case that he’s going to put up a lot more than 1.9 WARP in 2016, go ahead. There’s about a 50 percent chance that you’ll be right. If, like me, you look at Dickey’s projection and are near-certain that he’ll produce more than 0.4 WARP next year, by all means carry on preaching that gospel.

But is that upside in any way notable or impressive? Is it weird?

Fact is, most pitching staffs start looking very, very good if you project them at their 90th-percentile marks, and most pitching staffs, unfortunately for Toronto boosters, start from a higher base than the five men the Blue Jays will be running out to the mound in 2016. Take, for example, the rest of the AL East next year, sorted by their staffs’ combined 90th-percentile projections:

Rotation

2016 PECOTA

90th Percentile

10th Percentile

Yankees

7.8

19.6

-1.3

Red Sox

9.3

18.1

-1.1

Rays

8.0

17.7

-2.2

Orioles

5.2

14.9

-5.0

Blue Jays

5.0

14.6

-5.0

Suddenly, that 14.6 projected WARP for Toronto (at the 90th percentile) starts looking much less fancy, and that -5.0 WARP (at the 10th percentile) starts looking downright terrible. But, again, maybe we’re not giving Toronto enough credit here.

Up to this point, we’ve talked about how good we expect each rotation to be if everything breaks right for them (which is a concept we can express quantitatively with a 90th-percentile projection), but not about how good we expect each rotation could be if everything breaks right for them relative to how good we expect they’ll be if everything just goes sort of okay—a concept we can represent with a 90th-percentile projection, divided by an overall projection. And perhaps that second number is more what our minds naturally jump to when we think of upside, and thus is why PECOTA’s 5.0 WARP projection for the Blue Jays feels sort of off.

Put in other words: if you expect a ten-cent lollipop to suck, and it turns out to be decent instead, you’re usually more surprised than you would be if you expect a chocolate cake at a fancy restaurant to be very good, and it’s excellent instead. The cake was better all along, and indeed beat your expectations just like the lollipop did, but it also surprised you less, because your expectations for its baseline performance were higher in the first place. In the end, the chocolate cake beat your expectations by a lower margin.

In a vain attempt to run far away from this metaphor as fast as I can, here’s the AL East’s 90th-percentile rotation projections, divided by their overall PECOTA projections, and sorted by the result.

TEAM

2016 PECOTA

90th Percentile as % of 2016 PECOTA

Blue Jays

5.0

292

Orioles

5.2

286

Yankees

7.8

251

Rays

8.0

221

Red Sox

9.3

195

And here, we have something. Granted, this exercise will tilt toward the lower-denominator teams, but remember our awesome and totally relatable chocolate cake metaphor? Point is, this is why we feel a little unsettled when we look at Toronto’s 5.0 WARP PECOTA projection: Their upside performance, if they realize it, is a full 192 percent higher than their “normal” projection, which is a larger gap than that projected for every other team in the AL East. If the Red Sox’s starters, for example, pitch as well as they possibly can, they’ll only be 95 percent better than we expected them to be in the first place, and we’ll be correspondingly less surprised at their performance at the end of the year. Hence, we feel less unsettled looking at Boston’s 50th-percentile projections right now than we do looking at Toronto’s.

So, yeah, the degree of upside in the Blue Jays’ rotation is indeed, a little weird. Case closed?

Not yet. There’s one more thing to talk about. Although Toronto’s performance on this metric I just made up is the highest in its division, it isn’t the highest in the major leagues. Here, for your viewing pleasure, are the teams ranked two through five:

Rank

TEAM

90th Percentile as % of 2016 PECOTA

1

???

???

2

Royals

327

3

Braves

312

4

A’s

293

5

Blue Jays

291

There, at five, are the Blue Jays. The A’s, Braves, and Royals—all teams, I hope you’ll note, with rotations generally projected to be poor—take spots four through two. And that leads us to this:

Name

2016 PECOTA

90th Percentile

90th Percentile as % of 2016 PECOTA

Garrett Richards

1.7

3.9

229

Jered Weaver

0.3

2.4

800

C.J. Wilson

0.7

2.6

371

Hector Santiago

0.2

2.1

1050

Andrew Heaney

1.0

2.6

260

TOTAL

3.9

13.6

349

There in red, white and grey, plying their craft under a Trout’s watchful eye, are the actual league leaders in upside: the Los Angeles Angels.

You need to be logged in to comment. Login or Subscribe
bhacking
3/01
In Toronto talk of the upside of the starting pitching centers around Aaron Sanchez and whether he can / will be the 5th starter in place of Hutchinson. I have my doubts Sanchez can hold up for a full season, but the upside is certainly there.
rianwatt
3/01
Oh, absolutely. Just went on the basis of the BP depth charts, for ease of comparison between teams. If you want to replace Hutchinson with Sanchez to make the case for Toronto, that's totally fair.
mattyjames1
3/01
Sanchez is going to have seriously work on his delivery from the wind up. One he focused on predominantly working out of the stretch in relief , the results were much more improved. My (uneducated and very limited) look at him last year up close in Spring Training was that his left foot has a landing spot of a 3' circle in diameter out of the windup, causing him to overthrow or correct across his body. I would say that Osuna has the much better delivery for starting, if they needed to plug someone in for now.
marctacoma
3/01
I really liked this attempt at coming up with a way to measure upside or variance or whatever you want to call it, but this left me with a million statistical questions, and the more I poke around, the more confused I get. Let's take RA Dickey. Sure, I can imagine PECOTA would pick him to decline, but that recent performance history makes a collapse down to 0.4 kind of hard to imagine. Same sort of a thing (to a much smaller degree) with Garrett Richards - he declined, sure, but the level of performance seems higher than what PECOTA is showing. I looked up 2015 WARP in the sortable stats, though, and I get completely different numbers. Dickey's 2015 WARP isn't 2.8, it's *0.15* - the sort of thing that makes a projection of 0.4 a bit easier to understand. Richards' isn't coming off a great 2014 and a good 2014 - in the WARP table, he shows a mark of 1.06, not the 3.3 on his PECOTA page. This makes the projection of 1.7 a bit easier to understand, I guess, but that would imply PECOTA doesn't think he's coming off years of 4.6 and 3.3, and that Dickey isn't coming off six years of well-above-average production. This has probably been hashed out somewhere in a stats article or comment section, but I'm confused - why would WARP differ from the sortable stats and the PECOTA pages? More broadly, what should we think of as "Average" for a starting pitcher throwing about 200 innings? The projections for the Jays and Angels are so, so low, it implies that pitching is responsible for much less of a win than other WAR iterations. Maybe that's a feature and not a bug; I can imagine WARP reallocating runs to catchers for framing and position players for defense, which totally makes sense. It just means I'm struggling to make sense of the lower WARP totals. Sorry to derail, and again, enjoyed the concept here.
rianwatt
3/02
First, I'll say that this was a very nice way of putting this question -- seriously -- so thanks for that. Secondly, though, I'm not sure where you're finding 0.15 WARP for Dickey. Is it here? http://www.baseballprospectus.com/sortable/index.php?cid=1858482 That's the sortable table for pitcher seasons in 2015, and it has Dickey right at 2.83, which puts him in the top 30 across MLB. Happy to continue to engage on this, but want to make sure we're on the same page (literally, insofar as the web has literal pages) before we do. And again, thanks for the way you put this.
marctacoma
3/02
I asked Harry Pavlidis on Twitter. Apparently the 'WARP' metric on the customizable reports in 'sortable stats' is still the Fair RA version. If you want the new WARP, you need to get DRA_WARP. As Harry explained it, it's cFIP components driving the projections, which accounts for the big swings in recent performance vs. predicted WARP...makes a big difference for Sonny Gray and, yes, RA Dickey.
BrewersTT
3/02
There seems to be a strong pattern of lesser rotations having higher percentages of upside. The whole AL east is shown, and the percentage differences between projection and 90th percentile are in exact reverse order of projection. The other top teams in terms of percentages are projected to be lesser rotations. It would be interested to understand why this is. The other thing that strikes me is how little spread there is. Many observers think of the Orioles rotation as potentially a big problem, yet if they outperform their projection by only 3 or 4 wins (perhaps 65th or 70th percentile?) they would probably be among the better rotations in the division - at least not a drag on the win total.