It’s a big baseball day. No, pitchers and catchers haven’t yet reported, but PECOTA has arrived in all its spreadsheeted glory. PECOTA – stands for Player Empirical Comparison and Optimization Test Algorithm – is the projection system of Baseball Prospectus. There are other such systems, including Dan Szymborki’s ZiPS and something called Steamer, but PECOTA is regarded as the benchmark. The spreadsheet is available to BP subscribers – I downloaded mine before 9 a.m. – and its rollout is always cause for glee/consternation.
We usually concern ourselves with the team projections, but BP, being smart/devious, is holding those until Monday. But today being the official PECOTA Day, we’ll take a shallow dive into the players’ pool. (Note: Because PECOTA is proprietary, BP asks its subscribers not to overshare. I will do my utmost to comply.)
• Freddie Freeman is projected to have the 14th-highest WARP (BP’s version of WAR) among MLB position players. Ronald Acuna is projected to have the 15th-highest. The two finished 40th and 10th in WARP last season.
• Josh Donaldson, no longer a Brave, comes in at 53rd-highest. Last year he finished 19th in WARP. Yes, PECOTA takes age into account.
• Ozuna, now a Brave, is projected to be the 117th-best position player. Travis d’Arnaud, also now a Brave, is slotted at 115th.
• The Braves have four position players among the top 100, though only just. Ozzie Albies is 56th. Owing to the power of pitch-framing, Tyler Flowers is 99th.
• Swanson is listed as the 22nd-best shortstop.
• Nick Markakis is projected as the 774th-best position player.
• Mike Soroka is the highest-ranked Braves pitcher. He’s 39th. Mike Foltynewicz is 51st, Max Fried 58th.
• Cole Hamels, who’ll make $18 million this season, is 83rd.
• The highest-rated Braves reliever is Will Smith, another import.
A few notes: PECOTA tends to flatten toward the middle, meaning it projects the probable, as opposed to the possible. It’s not great at predicting breakouts because, duh, they’re a deviation from the established norm. Younger players, who don’t yet have established norms, are always tricky.
Example: Soroka. Going by WARP, he was MLB’s 20th-best pitcher last season. He’s 22. Is he apt to do better? Or worse?
Sometimes PECOTA whiffs. It was famously lukewarm toward the Royals even as the club was reaching consecutive World Series in 2014 and 2015. Sometimes, though, it’s ahead of the curve. This time a year ago, it projected the Cubs to finish last in the National League Central at 80-82, prompting all manner of harrumphing from the likes of Theo Epstein, Joe Maddon and Kris Bryant. Said Maddon: “Who knows how or why they arrive at that stuff?” (From data, I do believe.)
As it happened, the Cubs didn’t finish last. They finished third – at 84-78. They missed the playoffs for the first time since 2014. Joe Maddon now works elsewhere.
PECOTA also undershot on the 2019 Braves. It projected them to go 84-78 and finish in a tie with Philadelphia in the NL East, behind both Washington and the Mets. (And this was before the Phillies signed Bryce Harper.) The Braves went 97-65 and won the division by four games. PECOTA did, however, tab Donaldson as the Braves’ third-best position player heading into the season, behind Freeman and – nope, not Acuna – Flowers.
On this February Thursday, baseball fans are scrolling through a spreadsheet wondering why PECOTA hates certain players. There’s one player about whom that can never be said. PECOTA loves Tyler Flowers.
Oh, and here’s a recap of PECOTA Days past:
2019: PECOTA projects Braves to tie for third in NL East. (Narrator: They didn’t.)
2018: Braves to win 76 games, Swanson to be less awful. (They won 90 and took the NL East; Swanson had his best full season.)
(They won 72.)
2016: PECOTA has the Braves winning 68 games; I’m going with 71. (They won 68; I’m an idiot.)
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