Baseball Prospectus released its PECOTA rankings last week. (Stands for Player Empirical Comparison and Optimization Test Algorithm.) For those who track sabermetrics, this post-Super Bowl revealing is the first sign that spring is well and truly nigh.
Because BP is a subscription site and PECOTA a proprietary thing, it asks that subscribers not overshare the fullness of its spread-sheeted data. I will continue to comply with that request. I will, however, note that PECOTA casts the 2019 Braves in the same middling light as FanGraphs’ saber-based projections and the over/under lines from Vegas, both of which were mentioned in this space. As constituted, the Braves are tabbed by BP to finish up the track in the National League East – behind the Mets and Nationals, both of whom are slotted to win 89 games, and in a third-place tie with the Phillies at 84-78.
The Braves won the East by eight games last year, finishing 90-72. The only other NL East team to break .500 was Washington, and the Nats achieved that by going 4-2 over the season’s final week. They’ve added Patrick Corbin, Anibal Sanchez and Kurt Suzuki this offseason, the latter two having been signed away from the Braves. The Mets have added Robinson Cano, Wilson Ramos and Edwin Diaz. The Phillies have added Andrew McCutchen, Jean Segura, David Robertson and – just last week – J.T. Realmuto, the catcher the world wanted to pry away from the sell-’em-all Marlins.
As we speak, nobody in the East – heck, nobody in baseball – has signed Bryce Harper or Manny Machado. It was long speculated that at least one would land in this division, and it’s possible both will. The latest consensus on Harper holds, however, that he’s intrigued by the possibility of playing on the West Coast, which would seem to exclude teams based in the Eastern Time Zone. (That consensus could well be based on nothing much, we stipulate.)
The Braves have added Josh Donaldson, the 2015 American League MVP, and Brian McCann, once among the two best catchers in baseball. PECOTA sees Donaldson being the Braves’ third-best position player in 2019, behind Freddie Freeman and – pause for effect – Tyler Flowers. So that’s not nothing. What’s noteworthy is that PECOTA has Ronald Acuna being the team’s fifth-best position player, Ozzie Albies its sixth-best and Johan Camargo its 10th-best. Going by Baseball-Reference’s WAR, those three were Nos. 2, 3 and 4 last year.
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Caveats: BP uses WARP, its version of WAR, and the algorithm is slightly different; being young players, Acuna, Albies and Camargo don’t have extensive bodies of work, and projections are big on body of work, and, in Camargo’s case, the arrival of Donaldson and the retention of Nick Markakis might leave him without a position. (Though I’d be surprised if he doesn’t start 120 games at various positions.)
Still, it’s noteworthy that PECOTA tabs Acuna, Albies and Camargo to have an aggregate WARP of 5.2 in 2019; a year ago, those three had an actual WARP of 8.1. I believe I can speak for every Braves’ fan and Braves’ exec when I say: If those three players, the oldest of whom is 25, all regress this season, the disappointment will be unconfined.
One more note about projections: They tend to flatten toward the mean. PECOTA sees only two position players – Mike Trout, duh, and Mookie Betts – finishing with a WARP above 6.0. Its team forecasts are basically a function of adding up the roster’s PECOTA totals; among NL clubs, only the Dodgers are picked to win more than 90 games. (The Cubs are picked third – third! – in the NL Central.)
Griping about your team’s PECOTA numbers is fast becoming a rite of spring. Even when the Royals were in their consecutive-AL-title mode, PECOTA showed no great love – as if algorithms celebrate Valentine’s Day – for them. Numbers are numbers, and I’d like to think I’m smart enough not to argue with columns of projected data. But I’d be mightily surprised if the Braves finish third, and I’d be downright shocked if they don’t win at least 90 games.
They are, as mentioned, a mostly young team, and they were very good last year. Good young teams tend to get better, do they not?