The PECOTA projections for the 2017 season are now out over at Baseball Prospectus which means real baseball is just around the corner. It also means that Royals fans aren’t very happy. One of two teams projected to lose more than 90 games, the Royals have been somewhat of a blind spot for PECOTA ever since they appeared in the 2014 World Series.
After winning 89 games and losing to the Giants in the World Series in 2014, PECOTA projected them to win just 72 games the following season. The Royals bounced back even stronger in 2015 however, winning 95 games and the World Series in dominant 4-1 fashion.
This season though, the Royals are coming off of a .500 season in which they missed the playoffs and don’t appear to have a clear path to the postseason. This might end up being a transitional year for the Royals, who have already traded away the expiring contracts of Wade Davis and Jarrod Dyson.
But this isn’t only about the Royals, PECOTA projected the outcome of 29 other teams as well. For those unaware, PECOTA is an acronym that stands for Player Empirical Comparison and Optimization Test Algorithm. In fact, it’s also a backronym for former Royals’ utility player Bill Pecota. By using comparisons to other players who have already gone through similar career arcs, and then regressing to the mean, PECOTA makes educated guesses on the outcome of each player, and then the entire season. Let’s break down the surprises by division:
Once again, it appears that the division will be hotly-contested by the Mets and Nationals with the Braves and Phillies dwindling at the basement. What’s surprising this season though, is that the Marlins are projected to be just one win better than the fourth-place Braves.
In the 2016 season, there was a pretty clear tier of competitiveness in the NL East. The Mets and Nationals being contenders, the Marlins being in-between, and the Braves and Phillies in rebuild. It appears that the Marlins may be considered closer to rebuild than contender this season though. And with very few prospects in the farm, Marlins fans are likely hoping that PECOTA is wrong.
There are a couple surprises coming out of the NL Central according to PECOTA. We could go with the fact that the Cubs are only projected to win 91 games—coming off of a 103-win campaign. We could go with the fact that the Pirates were pinned as the second-place team. However, nothing is more surprising than the fact that the Brewers and the Cardinals are projected to win the same amount of games.
The Brewers are probably considered midway through a rebuild, while the Cardinals are just two seasons removed from a 100-win campaign. Both teams are projected by PECOTA to finish below .500 at 76-86. While that wouldn’t be a terrible season in Milwaukee, that would be seen as a massive failure in St. Louis. If the Brewers and Cardinals line up in the same neighborhood of the standings, it could mean things are looking up in Milwaukee, but would likely mean change in St. Louis.
While there are no particular surprises in the way the standings read for the NL West, the fact that the Dodgers reign supreme over all of baseball is eye-opening. The Dodgers are projected to go 98-64; seven games better than the Cubs. Perhaps something inherent in their player projections is inflating them too much; like Yasiel Puig projected to be worth 3.2 WARP. Over the past two seasons, Puig has been worth 3.4 WARP combined.
Given the layout of the NL overall, the Giants would be due to squeeze into the second Wild Card spot and face the Nationals. At 86 wins, that feels a tad low for the Giants, especially considering that would be 12 games back of the Dodgers. However, the placement seems at the very least defensible.
With three postseason teams in 2016, PECOTA has the AL East boasting possibly just one: the Boston Red Sox. The Rays are projected to finish second place and tie with the Rangers for the second Wild Card spot, so, really, PECOTA hedges on 1.5 playoff teams coming from the AL East.
In all honesty though, the biggest surprise is the fact that the Orioles and Blue Jays are projected to dwell in the basement of the division in 2017. After winning 89 games each in 2016, the Orioles and Jays are projected to win just 73 and 81 games respectively this season. While the Blue Jays lost Edwin Encarnacion to free agency, the Orioles stayed almost exactly the same, losing just Matt Wieters who is still dwindling in free agency. The AL East is a tough one to call this season for anyone, even PECOTA. While the Red Sox are the consensus favorites, second- to fifth-place could finish in any order really.
You mean aside from the Royals being projected for last place in the league, let alone the division? The Twins projected to finish in second, right around .500 sounds pretty magical. With plenty of prospects going through growth, the Twins could take a major step forward from last season. The problem though is, a major step forward from 59-103 would be a 70-win season, let alone an 80-win season that PECOTA is projecting.
While the addition of Jason Castro was nice, it certainly doesn’t take a team from 100-losses to nearly-.500. Byron Buxton is still a PECOTA darling and is projected to be worth 3.2 WARP despite only being worth 2.1 over his short career. The AL Central is a mixed bag of difficult teams to pin down. Like the AL East, the consensus favorite is the only easy one to pin down. All others could finish in any sequence.
Probably the biggest surprise of the AL West is the fact that the Rangers are projected to finish in third at 84-78. While that might be good enough for a postseason spot—it would tie them with the Rays for the second Wild Card spot—that’s a far cry from their 95-win campaign in 2016 that made them the best team in the American League.
Of course, upon further inspection, third-order win-expectancy never really liked the Rangers’ odds last season though. By run differential, the Rangers were much closer to a 79-83 team than a 95-67 team. Of course, winning one-run games might be the Rangers’ thing, but history indicates that that isn’t a repeatable skill over time.
PECOTA isn’t perfect—no projection system is. However, it does give us a baseline by which to see where the season might go, and what traits we, as baseball fans, undervalue and overvalue when it comes to winning baseball games. What the release of the projections really means though is that we’re one step closer to seeing actual baseball.