Baseball Prospectus has just released their PECOTA projections for 2019, and you know what? They hate your team.
The funny thing is, PECOTA is not opinion, yet MLB players, managers and fans take it personally.
An acronym for Player Empirical Comparison and Optimization Test Algorithm, the PECOTA projection system was created by Nate Silver for Baseball Prospectus. Silver has since shot to fame with his FiveThirtyEight organisation which, among other things, correctly predicted all 50 states in the US 2012 elections. Probably best that we ignore their projection that Hillary Clinton would gain 71% of the vote in 2016.
You need to remember that PECOTA uses player projections, so obviously these will vary dramatically depending upon playing time, health, form, lineup construction, trades etc.
To nick a line from BP’s former editor-in-chief Sam Miller, “It follows a fairly simple and intuitive logical process to help us evaluate 30 complex collections of 25-plus moving parts.”
Once all of the players’ projections are input, an estimation of the number of wins can be ascertained by the runs scored and conceded. This will not be correct, trust me. But, of all of the teams projected to finish with a winning record in 2018, only the San Francisco Giants failed to live up to their side of the deal.
Differences between the projections and the actual results could be as simple as something like the bullpen. A good bullpen might win five, maybe even 10 tight matches. In 2017, the Cleveland Indians bullpen was the best in the game; the only relief corps with sub-3.00 ERA. Some regression was expected, but no system could have projected they would drop to sixth-worst last season. The Indians missed their 96-win projection by five games – their bullpen was worth 8.00 WAR less than the previous year.
And then, of course, no projection system can make allowances for losing games in a ludicrous fashion … walk-off pop-ups or defensive mind-blurs.
In a repeat of their 2018 projection, PECOTA has the New York Yankees to finish above the Boston Red Sox. I’m going to start #NYbias to see if it catches on. It seems fair to expect some regression from Boston’s emphatic 108-win season, but 18 fewer wins feels like a very big drop.
Although PECOTA hates the Red Sox, on the whole, it likes the division, projecting the Tampa Bay Rays to pick up the second AL wildcard slot. There is certainly an advantage with facing the Baltimore Orioles 18 times.
The scheduling gods have looked kindly on the AL East by pitching it against the NL West in interleague play, which gives six games against the San Francisco Giants and the San Diego Padres – two of the three lowest projected NL teams.
Last year, Baltimore Orioles’ fan website Camden Chat concluded their article on “The projection system still hate the Orioles” with:
“69 wins. Orioles fans have to hope that the system is as hilariously wrong as it has been in the past.”Camden Chat
The article was written in February and by the time the season started, updated PECOTA projections gave the Orioles another couple of wins to 71. Unfortunately, the franchise handed the projection system their biggest whiff. No computer, analyst or commentator suggested the Orioles would endure a historically bad 47-win season.
Just imagine the uproar from Maryland if PECOTA had projected 115-losses.
I’m not saying that the AL Central is bad, but second-place Minnesota Twins are projected to win as many games as the bottom team in the NL Central.
The Indians are clear division favourites with PECOTA projecting a 15-win margin. However, if Francisco Lindor’s calf injury lingers, it could be a far tighter race.
PECOTA has historically and almost comically undervalued the Kansas City Royals. In fact, it underestimated their ability to get wins for 10 years on the trot.
The projection system struggles to accurately value the Royals defensive abilities, their underrated starting pitchers, elite bullpen arms or impactful midseason acquisitions. Given this, it is surprising that PECOTA sees a 14-win jump for the Royals this year to finish third in the division.
Despite some useful additions to their roster, the Chicago White Sox have (so far) failed to land the one or both of the big-name free-agents to thrust the team back into contention. PECOTA projects an improvement of 8 wins for the South Siders, but still expects a losing season. PECOTA hates the White Sox.
Detroit Tigers total lack of investment in 2019 sees them projected as the worst team in the worst division. 67-wins looks like an optimistic outcome for their year of rebuilding.
To me, this division is always exciting, with players like Mike Trout, Shohei Ohtani, Matt Chapman, Yusei Kikuchi and basically everyone in an Astros’ uniform, but PECOTA projects only one team above .500.
The Astros are tipped as the “winningest” (love that adjective!) team in the AL, finishing some 18 wins ahead of the Angels.
The projection system doesn’t get blinded by last season’s team results, so despite the Mariners flattering total of 89-wins, PECOTA ignores that and projects 15 fewer this season.
Oakland is the team that nobody can predict. Rival MLB teams, the media and projection systems undervalue their talents time and time again. Last year the A’s confounded PECOTA to the tune of 21-wins. PECOTA hates the A’s, but don’t be surprised if another projection-busting season comes out of Oakland in 2019.
It will be a tough year for the Texas Rangers, especially as they traded their best hitter to the A’s. With 69-wins, there are only three MLB teams with a lower projected total.
Four teams are projected to finish with winning records, making the NL East, arguably the toughest division in 2019.
Washington Nationals now have one of the best rotations in the NL and are projected to finish top, although PECOTA likes the revitalised Mets to make significant strides on their 2018 fourth-place finish. Cue #NYbias again.
Although the projections have not yet been updated since JT Realmuto’s trade to the Phillies, it is fair to presume that he will improve their total by a couple of wins. Whether this pushes them ahead of the Mets and Nationals remains to be seen, but it certainly helps bridge the gap.
From first to fourth looks harsh for the Atlanta Braves, who will have a whole season from Ronald Acuna to enjoy, and potentially, a massive upgrade at third base with the addition of Josh Donaldson. PECOTA hates the Braves.
Miami Marlins are predicted to win two more games than the 63 they did in 2018. If ever there was a time to “take the under”, it is now.
With no teams projected to finish below .500, the NL Central is the group of death. Pittsburgh Pirates and Cincinnati Reds are the whipping boys, but PECOTA expects an 81-81 season from both.
The Milwaukee Brewers led the NL in 2018 with 96 wins (including game 163), but PECOTA doesn’t like projecting 90+ win seasons, so it has 89 wins and the division title as its expectation.
Chicago Cubs were in first place before the All-Star break and held it until the NL Wildcard playoff game, but PECOTA projects them to drop down to third place in the division by losing 12 more games than in 2018. PECOTA hates the Cubs.
If you believe the projections, this division is a one-horse race with the Los Angeles Dodgers finishing 10 games ahead of their nearest rival, Colorado Rockies. Don’t forget that PECOTA projected a 19-game winning margin for the Dodgers over the Rockies last season. It was one.
Having whiffed so badly on the San Francisco Giants in 2018, PECOTA is not messing around with a winning record for them this season, and in fact, projects the San Diego Padres to leapfrog them into fourth place.
Only three of the 15 NL teams are projected to finish with a losing record in 2019. Two of them are in the NL West.
MLB teams and fans alike are indebted to Baseball Prospectus for continually producing the projections. And although they won’t get many spot on, they will be in the right ballpark for most. After all, projection systems are based on three foundations (and again nicking from Sam Miller)
- The past is a good guide for a player’s future
- A team is a collection of players
- Good teams usually score a lot of runs and don’t allow many
Those all seem intuitive and uncontroversial, and if you agree with them you’re 95% of the way to where PECOTA ends up.
Hot on the heels of the release of BP’s projections is the 2019 Baseball Prospectus annual. The industry-leading baseball annual contains statistics, projections, player notes and team essays, which make it an essential read for all MLB fans. Without doubt, the essays are one of the highlights of the offseason.
This year, Bat Flips and Nerds’ Darius Austin has written Cubs’ player comments, so there is even more reason for UK MLB fans to purchase the annual. Check it out on Amazon today.
What are your opinions on PECOTA? Which projections do you agree or disagree with? We want to hear from you. Follow us on Twitter @batflips_nerds and join in the discussion.