Bat Flips and Nerds versus the Projections

Who needs projection systems? Last week, the Bat Flips and Nerds podcast crew got together and produced a meticulously-crafted set of win predictions for all 30 major league teams, live on YouTube, in just one hour. Some pedants might argue that “meticulously-crafted” is a funny term for spouting a lot of nonsense and sounding a bit like Alan Partridge. It really did only take us an hour, though.

John suggested during the show that we ought to compare our predictions to those of systems such as PECOTA to see where the major disagreements lie, and to return to later in the year to determine if we emerged victorious. Believe it or not, this is the kind of thing I do recreationally, so I quickly volunteered for the task.

The below table shows the Baseball Prospectus (based on PECOTA) and FanGraphs Depth Charts (based on Steamer and ZiPS combined with a playing time adjustment) win total projections for each team as of March 21st, along with our predictions from the podcasts, the difference from each, and the total difference combined. Positive values mean that we were more optimistic than the systems, negative more pessimistic. I’ve then offered a few thoughts on the biggest disagreements.

Team PECOTA FanGraphs BFN BFNvPEC BFNvFG Total Diff
LAD 96 93 102 6 9 15
COL 77 79 85 8 6 14
LAA 79 84 87 8 3 11
MIN 83 82 86 3 4 7
CHC 91 94 96 5 2 7
NYM 81 82 85 4 3 7
MIL 84 78 84 0 6 6
CLE 96 93 97 1 4 5
WAS 88 89 91 3 2 5
SFG 83 82 85 2 3 5
PHI 81 75 80 -1 5 4
ARI 87 81 86 -1 5 4
KCR 65 71 68 3 -3 0
BOS 89 93 91 2 -2 0
TOR 79 86 82 3 -4 -1
BAL 70 78 73 3 -5 -2
HOU 99 101 99 0 -2 -2
ATL 76 72 73 -3 1 -2
SDP 73 73 72 -1 -1 -2
CIN 75 71 71 -4 0 -4
TEX 76 79 75 -1 -4 -5
MIA 65 64 62 -3 -2 -5
NYY 97 95 93 -4 -2 -6
CHW 71 66 65 -6 -1 -7
OAK 76 80 74 -2 -6 -8
STL 85 87 82 -3 -5 -8
PIT 78 75 72 -6 -3 -9
SEA 82 80 76 -6 -4 -10
TBR 83 78 75 -8 -3 -11
DET 68 70 63 -5 -7 -12

Teams We’re High On

Los Angeles Dodgers, 102 wins

We started the Dodgers out at 100 on the podcast and decided it was too low. They won 104 in 2017 despite injuries to many of their key pieces, and it took a historically bad losing streak to bring them that low. The projection systems are still relatively positive as these things go; it’s rare to see a system go to triple digits, so picking 102 was always likely to net us 3 or 4 wins per system at least.

There’s no doubt that the rotation is still a question health-wise. FanGraphs in particular is relatively low on Los Angeles, with both Chris Taylor and their left field situation projected to be just average, and questions about much of the bullpen behind Kenley Jansen, as well as the playing time of those starters. There’s also the factor of the strong NL West, which brings us to…

Colorado Rockies, 85 wins

Yep, this is Ben’s fault. The Rockies had a great run last year, have one of baseball’s best all-around players in Nolan Arenado, and look like they might finally have someone to lead a rotation in Jon Gray. It’s not hard to see why the projection systems don’t like them so much, though. Charlie Blackmon is a good player but his park-adjusted numbers are nowhere near as gaudy. Ian Desmond is 32, coming off an injury-hit season, and doesn’t offer much defensive value.

The team just brought back Carlos Gonzalez to block their promising prospects like Raimel Tapia and David Dahl. CarGo could show that he still has plenty to offer with the bat, as he did last September, or he could be a disaster, as he was for the previous five months. They invested a ton in the bullpen, which is often a prime reason for outperforming projections, as the Orioles and Royals have shown us. The rotation is full of players without a long track record who were surprisingly good last year but ultimately are still stuck in the worst pitcher’s park in the game. And they, too, have to deal with the NL West. This seems like an opportune time to note that we projected the National League for over 20 more wins than the American League, yet the NL hasn’t won interleague play since 2003. We probably should have thought about this.

Los Angeles Angels, 87 wins

The Angels haven’t really gone anywhere according to PECOTA, which seems very strange when you think about the moves they have made: signing Shohei Ohtani and Zack Cozart; trading for Ian Kinsler. It’s not that strange when you consider the specific players in more detail. Ohtani’s projection is good but not great. He’s brand new to the league and could easily struggle as he adjusts. Kinsler is soon to be 36 and had a poor season by his standards, while Cozart had a great one but it was his first, and it came at the age of 31. Neither of these things are likely to be of much help when it comes to PECOTA’s inputs.

There’s also an egregiously low projection for Andrelton Simmons, who doesn’t seem to be given the credit he deserves for having the best glove at the most important defensive position. I think we’d also all agree that seven wins is a little low for Mike Trout, who was essentially worth that by WARP despite missing almost 50 games in 2017. FanGraphs thinks they’ll be better but still isn’t as optimistic, which is hard to argue with when you look at the volatility in this rotation.

Teams We’re Low On

Detroit Tigers, 63 wins

During the podcast, I suggested that at least one of the three basement-dwellers in the AL Central would be better than we predicted simply by virtue of how dreadful the other two were. The Tigers seem to be the big ‘winners’ on this front, although we were also low on the White Sox by PECOTA’s standards, and the Royals relative to FanGraphs. They do actual strength of schedule adjustments rather than making it up on the fly and just shunting those wins to teams like Cleveland, so who am I to argue?

It’s a little hard to tell why either of these systems actually thinks the Tigers are any good, which suggests that this probably is a comment on their woeful divisional rivals rather than the Tigers themselves. I’m pretty sure that the Tigers were 61-101 before the schedule adjustment came. Miguel Cabrera and Michael Fulmer, both coming off injury-hit seasons. are the only players to get at least two-win projections by either system, and PECOTA has Crap Catcher Bet legend James McCann at a putrid -1.5 WARP thanks to his framing skills, or lack thereof. This is a team that tanked hard to get down to 64 wins and the number one pick in the draft in the second half; I don’t know why 2018 would be any different.

Tampa Bay Rays, 75 wins

My guess is that we would still be considered a little high on the Rays on average given their recent trades and negative press. PECOTA can always be counted on to love the Rays; at this stage it’s almost as dependable as the system hating the Royals and Orioles. Kevin Kiermaier is a phenomenal outfielder who is going to record a lot of extra outs for a promising rotation led by Chris Archer, and featuring the highly-touted Blake Snell as well as 2017 rookie standout Jacob Faria.

On the flip side, it’s hard to be that optimistic about a team in the same division as New York and Boston, that may well be using Denard Span on a regular basis, and set to start the season with a nebulous four-man rotation plus bullpen day plan. They’ll need every bit of the significant defensive value projected by PECOTA to get here: BP’s system sees the Rays as the best defensive team in baseball, almost 32 runs above average in the field. FanGraphs is much closer to us at 78 wins, a number that seems more realistic for a team that hasn’t topped .500 since 2013.

Seattle Mariners, 76 wins

Nothing seems to be going right for the Mariners this spring. New acquisition Ryon Healy suffered one of the first injuries of the spring when he needed hand surgery to remove a bone spur. Nelson Cruz has a quad strain. Ben Gamel is out with a strained oblique. The team just announced that David Phelps will need Tommy John surgery. Mariners fans probably don’t need any help, but this sure seems like a lot of reasons to be concerned about an injury-cursed season, especially with a pitching staff led by James Paxton.

While that bad injury run probably influenced my personal outlook a little, the truth is that the Mariners have felt stuck in the middle for a little while, oscillating between the mid-seventies and mid-eighties in wins over the last four years. They have reliable, proven talent such as Robinson Cano, Kyle Seager, and Cruz, but little has arrived from the barren farm system and for all Jerry Dipoto‘s wheeling and dealing, no massive upgrades that have pushed them over the edge into playoff contention. Maybe Dee Gordon can do that if he takes to centre field. Nothing about either system’s projections looks outlandish, which is hardly surprising as they average out at 81 wins. That’s the thing about .500 teams: if you’re just a little pessimistic about the team’s direction, 76 wins is not much of a leap, and in a division with the reigning World Series champions and a team with both the best player in baseball and a flashier offseason, the Mariners feel like they might have been left behind.

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