Today marks the release of the 2018 PECOTA projections. Here are a baker’s dozen that caught our eye …
1. Sean Newcomb
That the 24-year-old Sean Newcomb is projected to be the best pitcher on the Braves–presently in a strange limbo between rebuilding and competing–is not PECOTA’s most surprising vision for 2018. Julio Teheran and Mike Foltynewicz have piled up enough mediocrity to obscure evidence of promise; the army of prospects are still mostly prospects. Newcomb, meanwhile, has 100 big-league innings and a minor-league resume that gave PECOTA reason to hem and haw and peg his most likely 2018 numbers here: 127 1/3 innings, 3.87 ERA, 4.31 DRA.
It’s not a special projection, but … it’s pretty good! And it’s perhaps the one that confronted my biased human instincts most forcefully. What I’ll draw your attention to is the combination of process statistics that inform Newcomb’s overall numbers. The main arc of his development–can he throw enough strikes?–seems to take a backseat, in PECOTA’s eyes, to these numbers: 10.3 SO/9, 44.5 percent ground-ball rate. History says that combination in a starter produces good things basically every single time. His ERA projection is almost a dead-on match for Danny Salazar‘s very similar and totally useful 2016 season.
History, alas, is also not fully aware of the conditions creating larger cohorts of strikeout-and-grounder starters. The least successful seasons meeting those criteria unsurprisingly occurred very recently (2016 Robbie Ray and Michael Pineda), but to especially homer-prone hurlers. The question, then, morphs into a wider one: At what point do strikeout- and grounder-inducing abilities not paint enough of a picture to provide a general forecast of a pitcher’s effectiveness? As observers, it feels like we have already subconsciously decided we’re past that point. But PECOTA, steady Eddie that it is, has not. Newcomb could give us a better idea of where we stand. —Zach Crizer
2. Catcher defense
In the 2017 Hardball Times Annual, Jeff Sullivan theorized that as the dramatic value of pitch framing becomes better understood, the gap between teams would shrink. It made a lot of sense: teams with massive black holes would find cheap, weak-hitting defensive specialists to shore up their weakness, and better framers would earn more playing time. Except, for 2018, PECOTA isn’t impressed; by its count, catcher defense is as vital, and as polar, as it’s ever been. Nine of the top 16 defensive players in baseball, by projected FRAA, are backstops, including the top two: Austin Hedges (21.8) and Buster Posey (20.6).
Meanwhile, on the other end of the spectrum, the result is a mirror image. Nine of the 16 biggest defensive liabilities project to wear the tools. And at the bottom, you’ve got James McCann, who’s already provided four seasons and 1,200 plate appearances of sub-replacement value. Two years ago, McCann found his way into this very feature; at the time, there was optimism that he’d figure out his framing woes, but he gave all those gains back in an atrocious 2017 season. With the Tigers where they are, and with few reinforcements on the horizon, it’s possible (though unthinkable) that we’ll be talking about him again in 2020. It goes to show you: free agency isn’t the only phenomenon destroyed by tanking. —Patrick Dubuque
3. Zack Cozart
PECOTA’s theory of self is all about being rather than becoming; more David Byrne than Bowie. I realize that all projection systems have to rely on the long rather than the recent past. I know that as I go through life, the grooves of habit get deeper, the tendencies—for better or worse, but let’s be honest, mostly worse—grow more rigid by the day. But Zack Cozart changed! From his major-league debut in 2011 through 2016, he had a 5.3 percent walk rate and an on-base percentage of .289. He’d bumbled to a career WARP that hadn’t even cracked double digits in five-plus seasons. But what does 2017 mean? What does a 12 percent walk rate mean? What of a .385 OBP? Do we just laugh and cast aside a five-WARP season with a position-leading .321 TAv? PECOTA, the patriarch of prohibition, the everlasting NAY, says this: You are 32. You are 14 home runs. You are a sub-.300 OBP. You aren’t even half a win. You are you. —Jon Hegglund
There’s nothing responsible about this. PECOTA projects Craig Kimbrel for 93 strikeouts in 197 batters faced, with a 1.34 ERA and a 1.78 DRA. In 51 innings, PECOTA thinks Kimbrel is going to be worth 2.0 WARP. It’s a ludicrous projection. It violates the most oft-repeated and important tenet of projection systems—their unshakable and infuriating conservatism. This shouldn’t be the median projection for any human. There’s also a good chance it’s right on the money. Kimbrel is a near-certain future Hall of Famer. —Matthew Trueblood
Do androids dream of electric sheep? Do projection systems feel regret? One decade ago, Jose Bautista had a breakout season that no one–especially not this Robo-stradamus–saw coming. Nine seasons later, does PECOTA remember the shock of his coming-out party? Is it possible that the system that weighs past performance and spies the graceful arc of a career recalls how once Joey Bats came out of nowhere to defy projection systems and transmute from a journeyman utility player to a full-fledged superstar with no warning?
If so, then that’s the only way this projection passes the quick eye test. After two consecutive down seasons and a 2017 that left him looking like he was on his way out of the league, PECOTA gives the bearded wonder a projection for a .274 True Average and 2.6 WARP … or about the same numbers projected for wunderkind Andrew Benintendi or hitting savant Michael Brantley. If PECOTA’s projections were truth, Bautista would be in line for a top-60 overall performance among hitters in MLB, and perhaps a final All-Star berth at age 37. My gut says this is not likely, but my gut wouldn’t have predicted his 2011 apotheosis either. Maybe PECOTA has learned something that we humans also discovered: that Bautista can surprise us when we least expect it? Perhaps our machine is learning to dream? —Bryan Grosnick
[Camera cuts into Thanksgiving dinner in the Seager household]
Mrs. Seager: So, guys, how were your 2018 seasons?
Corey: I did fine. Swatted 25 bombs while stealing four bases in six attempts.
Kyle: Oh, did you? I put up those exact numbers!
Corey: OMG that’s crazy, brother! What was your WARP?
Corey: Holy crap, I had 3.7! I can’t believe how similar our seasons were!
7. San Francisco’s starting rotation
Before the Cubs so rudely interrupted San Francisco’s Even Year Magic, all fans needed to say entering this year is “2018!” Cite that magic, destiny once more, as the Giants were to compete for their fifth championship in nine seasons. No longer afforded that luxury, the club’s front office went out and acquired some finely aged superstars, but these Giants aren’t going to win with an all-hit, no-pitching approach. Instead, a trio of starters and gang of “prospect” arms lead the way.
Quick, count off the best set of 1-2-3 starters in baseball. Better make room for Madison Bumgarner, Jeff Samardzija, and Johnny Cueto in that mix, and start thinking about this group competing for the Wild Card. But here PECOTA essentially stands with three Roy Oswalts, one in their age-28 season, the other two pushing 32-33, producing a trio of starters judged quite fairly by WARP. Nothing is sexy here, as the metrics equally weigh “Breakout” and “Attrition” potential, which is kind of a fitting description of the Giants’ offseason transactions. Like that Even Year Magic, these guys are good bounceback candidates serving as a top-10 rotation trio. Like their front rotation trio, so go these bounceback Giants. —Nicholas Zettel
8. The Angels
The Angels have two ticking time bombs, both set to explode in 2021. One is Mike Trout‘s contract—the greatest player of this generation becomes a free agent in 2021. The other is Albert Pujols‘ contract—the greatest player of the generation before Trout’s is signed through 2021. So the challenge for Angels general manager Billy Eppler is finding a window in which to field a team that can play deep into October between the former’s contract turning into a pumpkin and the latter’s contract turning into an albatross.
And Eppler did everything he could to meet that challenge. He traded for Jim Johnson and Ian Kinsler. He signed Zack Cozart and Shohei Ohtani. And all the while, he’s quietly improved the team’s farm system, all the way from worst-in-baseball to garden-variety-bad. They play in the same division as the Astros, so first place is pretty much out of the question. But maybe a Wild Card? Anything can happen once you reach the postseason.
Yet even with your best efforts, life disappoints. You get a new haircut and new clothes for the junior high dance, and the cutie still doesn’t notice you. You cram for the Organic Chem midterm, and you still pull a C-minus. You kill yourself doing interval workouts, and your next 5K is only three seconds faster. Or you’re the 2018 Angels, coming off an 80-82 record, and you’ve been tabbed the early frontrunner for winning the offseason, and then PECOTA projects … exactly the same record. And all of a sudden, you realize your life isn’t a romcom, you’re not going to med school, and you’re as fast as you’ll ever get. And every day brings you closer to 2021. —Rob Mains
PECOTA expects Lewis Brinson—new Marlins savior now freed of playing time constraints—to be really damn good. So, good, in fact, that he’d probably be the Rookie of the Year favorite if his projected line—including 24 homers, 16 steals, and a .442 slugging percentage—came to fruition. A combined 40 homers/steals might seem a little bonkers for someone with 55 career major-league plate appearances, but Brinson, ranked 18th in our just-released top 101 prospects list and is dripping with the tools to potentially become a 30/30 center fielder one day.
The Marlins have absolutely no reason to limit his playing time this year to help begin building that All-Star foundation. He loved the team when he was young—Juan Pierre was his idol—and now it’s in the interest of both parties that he becomes the next face of the franchise. As a tortured Marlins fan, no other projection makes me happier. And if you come to these pages for our excellent fantasy content, don’t overlook his 333 NFBC ADP. He’ll certainly keep rising as the days pass, but he’ll inevitably end up being a steal either way. —Eddy Almaguer
10. Justin Verlander
PECOTA thinks the Astros are really good. As reigning World Series champions coming off a 103-win season, that’s not going to come as a surprise to many. While the majority of players responsible for the 99-win projection are similarly unsurprising, it’s a player contributing fewer than two projected WARP who really sticks out. It’s the player projected to be their fifth-best starter: Justin Verlander. The projections for the Astros’ rotation are in fact almost in reverse order from their 2017 production: Lance McCullers (3.3 WARP), Gerrit Cole (2.8), Dallas Keuchel (2.6), and Charlie Morton (2.0). Verlander’s 5.4 WARP between Detroit and Houston was the best of the group in 2017, yet at 1.9 WARP he’s projected to have the worst season even with the highest innings projection.
While we might look at Verlander and see a workhorse who has a significant track record of success—including back-to-back seasons over 200 innings with more than a strikeout per inning and a very recent spectacular playoff performance—PECOTA sees a 35-year-old with a walk rate over 3.0/9, a home run problem, and a fairly recent season in which he was no better than league average. Most sobering are Verlander’s top three same-age comps: Adam Wainwright, Jason Schmidt, and the late Roy Halladay, all reminders of how rapid the decline can be. —Darius Austin
11. Zach Davies
Ever since BP introduced a metric for measuring command, I’ve had my eye on Brewers right-hander Zach Davies, who appeared prominently in that first piece. Davies has pedestrian stuff, but his command is excellent, and after a slow start in 2017 he rallied to finish fourth in Called Strikes Above Average (CSAA), proving that this skill is no fluke. He tops out around 90 mph and looks like he’s 12 years old, which is what most people see, but I kept wondering, would PECOTA see deeper? Would it drill down to the Cobra Commander under his youthful facade? It would seem so.
The Brewers don’t have an ace with Jimmy Nelson on the shelf, but PECOTA expects Davies to lead the rotation in his absence, pegging him for a team-leading 174 innings, 146 strikeouts against 60 walks, and a 4.15 ERA. His DRA of 4.43 won’t blow anyone away, but his 1.6 WARP and third-starter production should play well if the Brewers can nab a top-of-the-rotation guy before the season starts. I’m pleased that PECOTA sees a bit more in Davies than a fluky junkballer primed for regression. —Paul Noonan
Needless to say, Mike Foltynewicz didn’t have the season we’d hoped for in 2017, producing between his 10th and 20 percentile projections. So what’s to like here? Of all pitchers, he’s the second-most likely to improve (70 percent and the 16th-most likely to break out (37 percent). PECOTA is making some assumptions here: a better BABIP, improved GB%, improved K/9, and improved BB/9. Though it seems crazy to assume he’ll go across the board, it really doesn’t take much in any of these categories to get him back on track. His slider and curveball have taken steps forward, though he’s struggled with his fastball. He’s reduced hard contact (and hard-hit fly balls) for three seasons, which supports his improving HR/9 and HR/FB.
Jameson Taillon is in the same boat as Foltynewicz: fourth-most likely to improve (69 percent) and seventh-most likely to break out (39 percent). Taillon was expected to progress from his solid rookie season, but underwent surgery for testicular cancer on early May and difficulty stringing together solid upon his return. There’s not a lot to parse in Taillon’s stats. PECOTA doesn’t have him really improving on his strikeout rate, but that’s fine if it sits at 8.5 K/9. It gives him some rebound in walk rate to 2.8 BB/9. Mostly, it’s assuming a return to league-average BABIP, which makes sense considering Taillon reduced his hard-hit rate last year. That’s good enough for PECOTA to give him the 21st-best WARP for pitchers. —Kevin Jebens
13. Chris Taylor
Chris Taylor was never intended to be a star. PECOTA wasn’t very high on him the past two seasons, projecting him at 0.4 WARP in 2016 and 0.3 WARP in 2017. In fact, Taylor was such an afterthought in the Dodgers’ loaded system that he went from having his own Baseball Prospectus Annual player comment with Seattle to merely being featured in the Lineout section for Los Angeles. But baseball has a way of showing us up, and 2017 was not different. Taylor was good. Not at any position, but at every position he played. In Taylor, the Dodgers got a younger, cheaper version of Ben Zobrist: a super-utility player capable of getting on base quite frequently and flashing occasional power.
But, just like Icarus, we must be careful not to fly too close to the sun. We’re talking about a player who went from -0.2 WARP to 5.7 WARP within 12 months, and I wouldn’t blame PECOTA if it had been conservative on Taylor. However, as a projected three-WARP player, capable of playing five positions, batting leadoff, and keeping up with Justin Turner, Corey Seager, and Cody Bellinger, PECOTA has certainly become a believer. Even if Taylor fails to reach that mark, he’s still good enough to be a part-time player and bench asset for a team that loves flexibility and depth. —Martin Alonso
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