One real pleasure that we get in working with the PECOTA projection system comes when we move beyond the individual player forecasts to the team level. Every year, once we release the first batch of projections, our staff compiles depth charts and calibrates the playing time at each position for each team. Our system adjusts for strength of schedule, team defense, and reliever leverage, and we update these on a daily basis throughout the exhibition season based upon camp reports, expert injury analysis, our own intuition, and input from readers who keep a close eye on their hometown nine.
The result is our Projected Standings, and it’s often where we generate the most controversy. Two years ago, we drew fire for forecasting just 72 wins for the White Sox, who wound up winning exactly that many. Last year, we raised eyebrows with our assertion that the Rays would finish well above .500 for the first time in history. While we don’t always hit the bull’s-eye so directly, the standings are an area where we stand tall.
Our projections for this year’s National League standings aren’t likely to receive much brotherly love from Philadelphia, the home of the defending World Champions. That’s because PECOTA sees the Phillies finishing with 87 wins, second to the Mets in the NL East and a game short of the Wild Card. Their offense is slated to match last year’s number three ranking in scoring, but the pitching is poised for a major drop, from third in runs allowed to 10th. It’s not that the staff hasn’t seen upgrades; a full year of Joe Blanton and a more or less league-average expectation from fifth-starter candidates Chan Ho Park and J.A. Happ make for a stronger back end of the rotation. Their problems begin with the improbability of Cole Hamels matching last year’s 3.09 ERA over a career-high 227 innings (plus another 35 in the postseason); we’ve got him down for 3.65 and 180, and note that he’s already paid a visit to the doctor. The system also sees considerable regression for bullpen studs Brad Lidge and Ryan Madson. If there’s room for optimism, it’s that 46-year-old freak of nature Jamie Moyer practically broke PECOTA, and our 5.16 ERA forecast is based upon a dearth of comparable players.
As PECOTA sees it, the NL East race should see the twice-brokenhearted Mets christen their new ballpark with a 92-win season and a long-awaited division flag. While they could have done more to patch their rotation and their outfield corners, the bullpen makeover-starring Francisco Rodriguez and J.J. Putz-squarely addresses last year’s biggest flaw, and David Wright, Jose Reyes, and Carlos Beltran forecast as the league’s third-, fourth-, and fifth-most valuable hitters according to WARP. Also in the hunt for October are the Braves, who not only feature three players who forecast as the league’s best or second-best at their positions (Chipper Jones, Brian McCann, and Kelly Johnson), but can boast adding the Derek Lowe-Javier Vazquez tandem to their rotation, the strongest duo of pitchers added by a team last winter this side of the Yankees‘ CC Sabathia and A.J. Burnett.
Over in the NL Central, the Cubs forecast to have the league’s highest win total (95), as well as the largest margin (11 games) over the second-place team (the Brewers). The division could be a closer contest if Carlos Zambrano‘s shoulder problems return, or if oft-injured Milton Bradley and Rich Harden-the team’s two major additions from this time last year, one a winter free agent, the other a mid-summer acquisition-can’t approach their playing-time projections (491 PA and 155 innings pitched). The Brew Crew’s winter blueprint consisted of trying to replace the departed Sabathia and Ben Sheets with Braden Looper (good luck with that), and still figure to be respectable (84 wins), but not much more than that, particularly with ace-in-waiting Yovani Gallardo capped around 150 innings due to age-related workload concerns. They’ll scuffle with the 83-win Cardinals, whose hopes of soaring higher hinge upon Chris Carpenter outdoing his projection (110 IP, 4.02 ERA), and with the 79-win Reds, whose fate could improve if the much-touted maturation of Homer Bailey (80 innings last year with a dreadful 5.62 ERA) is for real. The Cards are dragged down by a truly awful defense whose outlook isn’t helped by the conversion of Skip Schumaker to the keystone; the Reds are limited by Dusty Baker‘s insistence upon not only playing Willy Taveras regularly, but sticking the projected .263/.320/.323 hitter in the leadoff spot.
The Central forecasts as the league’s weakest division according to overall winning percentage (.488) because of the presence of two doormats, the Astros and Pirates. The 64-win Bucs are a lock for their 17th consecutive losing season, while the 69-win Astros are poised for a 17-win drop-off from last year. The latter finished nine wins above their Pythagorean record last year, so they’re already an easy bet to regress, and the combination of an inflexible payroll hamstrung by a few big contracts, the worst farm system in the game, and a rotation relying upon Brian Moehler (5.46 ERA) and the undead Mike Hampton and Russ Ortiz-both last effective during the first Dubya administration-add up to one more chance to invoke the time-honored phrase, “Houston, we have a problem.”
The Dodgers took home last year’s Mild Mild West flag with a paltry 84 wins, but their current forecast calls for a robust 92 victories thanks to the maturation of their homegrown talent. Led by young studs Chad Billingsley (3.51 ERA), Clayton Kershaw (3.98), and Jonathan Broxton (2.78), their staff projects to be the league’s best run-prevention unit. On the flip side, their offense projects to finish fifth in scoring, thanks largely to a .342 OBP, second in the league. Perhaps most interesting about their two-team race with the Diamondbacks is that it has changed dramatically since pitchers and catchers reported, with late-spring free-agent additions Manny Ramirez and Orlando Hudson spearheading a 12-game flip-flop relative to our initial projections.
As for the Diamondbacks, their 88-win forecast makes them the favorite for the Wild Card. Despite a winter which saw them shed several key free agents (Hudson, Randy Johnson, Adam Dunn, Juan Cruz) and skimp on their replacements due to economic concerns, they forecast to be solid in both scoring (sixth) and pitching (fifth), thanks to an enviable young nucleus of their own in Chris B. Young, Stephen Drew, Conor Jackson, and Justin Upton, not to mention Brandon Webb and Dan Haren, who forecast to be two of the game’s four most valuable pitchers.
At the end of the day, our Projected Standings are not destiny; they’re a shorthand for a wider range of probabilities-hundreds, even thousands of them for the players involved-centered around the stated won-loss records. Which teams will break out beyond their projections, or underachieve drastically relative to them, is part of the fun of watching a season unfold. With Opening Day right around the corner, let the unfolding begin.
East W-L RS RA AVG/ OBP/ SLG Mets 92-70 825 721 .266/.341/.421 Phillies 87-75 828 769 .265/.339/.436 Braves 86-76 799 742 .272/.342/.420 Nationals 77-85 780 819 .259/.340/.416 Marlins 71-91 727 824 .254/.325/.417 Central W-L RS RA AVG/ OBP/ SLG Cubs 95-67 861 726 .271/.347/.432 Brewers 84-78 785 754 .258/.331/.426 Cardinals 83-79 787 767 .258/.333/.428 Reds 79-83 762 775 .257/.325/.421 Astros 69-93 704 811 .261/.321/.403 Pirates 64-98 709 875 .257/.324/.405 West W-L RS RA AVG/ OBP/ SLG Dodgers 92-70 819 714 .272/.342/.415 D'backs 88-74 815 741 .262/.335/.434 Giants 76-86 683 717 .263/.319/.397 Padres 72-90 679 753 .252/.323/.394 Rockies 71-91 842 951 .269/.345/.439
A version of this story originally appeared on ESPN Insider .