It's a little like Christmas morning each time one of the major projection systems releases their calculated guesses for what the upcoming season holds like Baseball Prospectus did this morning with PECOTA. You race downstairs and open your browsers to find...well, if you're a Royals fan, you apparently find a lump of coal. Or worse. Somebody must have been a bad fanbase this year.
The important thing to remember about projections is that they're inherently conservative and skew towards the mean. They generally don't project teams to break out for more than 95 wins or 100 losses because, no matter how good a team you assemble, any club requires a good amount of good or bad luck to reach that plateau. And projection systems don't do luck.
Also, projection systems are less affected by recency bias than people are. So while you might expect Yoenis Cespedes to be worth six wins again because he did it last year, projection systems take into account that he was around a three-win player before that. Naturally, then, they produce results that don't jive with your expectations.
Still, some of them seem, at first glance, to defy expectations. Let's go through some of the weirdest PECOTA projections, why they might look like that, and what they mean going forward. We're going to look at the teams today, but that will allow us to dig down into some of the player issues:
What the Hell? The Kansas City Royals will only win 76 games?
This is the biggest one. Over the last three years, the Royals have won 270 games, making the World Series twice and winning it once. Personally, until they falter, I'm going to keep assuming that they'll make the postseason, especially in a weak AL Central.
So why doesn't PECOTA like them? For one thing, it hates their starting pitching, projecting only Yordano Ventura to be worth more than a win in 2016. The system also doesn't have any faith in Chris Young, a weird pitcher who seems to constantly beat his projections, or Edinson Volquez, who improved his peripherals as a Pirate and Royal over the last two years.
It also doesn't like the bullpen that the Royals have assembled. For one thing, it hasn't caught up with Wade Davis's transformation yet. But I also look at the way that relievers are going to be used in baseball in 2016, and I think that PECOTA (and others) haven't caught up to the usage patterns that have shortened the game and allowed starters to be more effective over less time, and emphasizing the value of elite relievers. For instance, the Yankees trio of Aroldis Chapman, Andrew Miller, and Dellin Betances are projected to be worth about four wins altogether, which would represent a huge disappointment.
Finally, PECOTA expects serious regressions for everyone in the Royals lineup, most tellingly in Lorenzo Cain and the re-signed Alex Gordon. The Royals' lineup certainly isn't young, but the only hitter older than 33 is Omar Infante, so age-related declines seem relatively unlikely. Still, PECOTA is hardly alone here.
Dan Szymborski's ZiPS system also expects them to finish below .500 Dan got ahold of me on Twitter to provide this update about ZiPS projection for the Royals:
@MikeBatesSBN For the record, as of today, ZiPS does have the Royals above .500, at 84 wins.— Dan Szymborski (@DSzymborski) February 16, 2016
For what it's worth, I think the core of this club has one more year in them before things start to go south.
Whoa! The Cleveland Indians will win 92 games?
PECOTA sees Cleveland's lineup as being incredibly balanced, with only weaknesses at third base and centerfield. It doesn't buy that Carlos Santana's decline last year is for real, and it assumes Mike Napoli will bounce back. It also thinks Lonnie Chisenhall's return from the dead is real, and buys into his defense in right field. Why does it believe these things and not that the Royals will be fine in 2016? I couldn't tell you.
It continues to like pitchers Corey Kluber, Carlos Carrasco, and Danny Salazar as well. Finally, PECOTA also guesses that Michael Brantley will get to play about 60 percent of the season in left field, which seems relatively unlikely at this point.
C'mon, you think the Texas Rangers lose 82 games?
Last year, Texas won the AL West with a surprise 88 win season. Now, that outperformed their run expectancy by four games, and relied, in part, on a surprising leap forward by Mitch Moreldan and Robinson Chirinos. The Rangers also had Yovani Gallardo as a good number two starter, who is still out there as a free agent.
PECOTA assumes Chirinos and Moreland regress significantly. It also doesn't like Cole Hamels much, projecting him to struggle through his worst season as a professional. That seems super weird. It also projects Yu Darvish to only throw 74 innings, which seems ridiculous, and is particularly sour on the Rangers bullpen.
What are you smoking that you think the St. Louis Cardinals will only win 82 games?
The Cardinals won 100 games last year, and 86 games every year since 2007. Is this finally the year they collapse? I wouldn't count on it.
After all, it's counting on a pretty extreme regression from the team's pitching staff, expecting the club's ERA to rise by almost a full run in 2016, and its runs allowed to jump by almost 140. Now, the loss of Lance Lynn and John Lackey will hurt in that regard, and you can't assume that Jaime Garcia is going to have a 2.43 ERA again. But that's a fairly extreme reaction to a club bringing back Adam Wainwright and bringing in a perfectly capable Mike Leake. Also, PECOTA again seems to discount the potential awesomeness of St. Louis's bullpen, like it did with Kansas City above. It also really dislikes Randall Grichuk and Stephen Piscotty, and thinks Matt Carpenter is done as an All Star caliber player.
How can you look at yourself in the mirror, knowing you projected the Pittsburgh Pirates to lose 83 games?
The Pirates have won at least 88 games in each of the last three seasons. They lost A.J. Burnett, J.A. Happ, Joe Blanton, Joakim Soria, and Neil Walker this offseason. But they got back Jon Niese and PECOTA can't account for Ray Searage's devil magic with pitchers. As such, it hates everybody not named Gerrit Cole or Francisco Liriano on the pitching staff. Until the devil magic fails, assume it's still in effect.
PECOTA also doesn't think much about John Jaso's ability to stay healthy, despite moving to first base, and it seriously (in my opinion) underrates the starting outfield trio of Andrew McCutchen, Starling Marte, and Gregory Polanco, who just might be the best starting trio in the National League.
So, if we're going to take anything systematic away from this, it's probably these key points:
1) PECOTA doesn't see devil magic.
2) PECOTA doesn't account for the new bullpen paradigm.
3) PECOTA expects some serious regressions for some really established players, as long as they don't play for the Cleveland Indians, apparently.
4) PECOTA hates you and it hates your favorite team and is biased and you hate it.