You can make reasonably accurate predictions about MLB players with significant experience by looking at what they’ve done in the past. It’s possible to account for decreased skill as players age. The tricky part is projecting how inexperienced players will turn out, especially those who have yet to make their big-league debut.
That's why Baseball Prospectus got my attention with its recent announcement of a complete revamp of its PECOTA projection system. BP retroactively applied the new formula to past seasons to see how it compared with outcomes and other forecast systems.
Two claims stood out, as relayed by BP's Jonathan Judge:
“PECOTA seems to have a slight advantage when it comes to projecting pitchers with previous major-league experience . . . and has a massive advantage in projecting pitchers with no recent major-league experience.”
Those points are relevant for the Braves this season. Two pitchers penciled in for their rotation, Mike Soroka and Max Fried, each have less than 40 career starts. Two other pitchers vying to crack the rotation technically still are rookies: Bryse Wilson and Kyle Wright. Top pitching prospect Ian Anderson ended last season at Triple-A Gwinnett.
If everything goes as planned, Soroka and Fried are the only pitchers among that group the Braves will need for major innings. That would mean Sean Newcomb proving he can be a reliable starter, Mike Foltynewicz bouncing back from his NLDS debacle and Cole Hamels showing he has plenty left in the tank.
Things hardly ever go according to script, though. The Braves used 11 starting pitchers last season. Nine of them made at least four starts. Chances are the Braves are going to need at least one of their young pitchers to take a few turns in the rotation in 2020.
Here’s how they’ll fare, according to PECOTA’s new system:
- Soroka, an All-Star as a rookie, will regress from the 29th-best starter in the majors to 39th.
- Fried, ranked 24th in 2019, will make a bigger drop to No. 56.
- Wilson and Wright still won't be ready.
- Anderson will get his shot and perform very well.
I don’t see much to quibble with here. It’s reasonable to expect regression from Soroka and Fried (though I think the latter’s won’t be so drastic). Anderson ran into trouble last summer once he got to Gwinnett but dominated at Double-A Mississippi. Apparently the new-and-improved PECOTA puts more stock in the 25 Double-A starts than the five at Gwinnett.
There’s significant disagreement about the young Braves pitchers between PECOTA and ZiPS, one system it compares itself against. ZiPS also predicts a drop-off for Soroka, but thinks Fried will be improved. ZiPS believes Wilson and Wright will stick in the majors and give the Braves some effective innings. (The system also likes Tucker Davidson, a less-heralded starter prospect who finished 2019 at Gwinnett.)
The way it looks, the Braves have four rotation positions set as they head to spring training. There’s little reason to doubt Hamels will be effective. Soroka and Fried will be valuable even if they aren’t as good as last season. How you feel about things after that depends on your view of Foltynewicz.
Foltynewicz was good from August until the NLDS. That was after he was sent down to work things out, less than a year after he was named an All-Star. “Folty” has had one consistent, standout season among five with the Braves. His fortunes usually come down to whether he’s keeping the ball in the park.
Newcomb couldn't stay in the rotation in 2019. He had success in the bullpen, but he's not needed as much out there since the Braves fortified it with veterans. One interesting note from ZiPS developer Dan Szymborski: His system likes Wilson better than Newcomb, with Wright and Anderson not far behind.
It’s possible that at least one of those three prospects can help the Braves this season. I say it’s essential. For all the talk about the hole at third base, rotation depth might be the bigger issue. This time there is no Dallas Keuchel on the market to serve as an in-season patch.
The good thing for the Braves is that, after Soroka and Fried graduated, they still have plenty of good pitching prospects. General manager Alex Anthopoulos inherited a farm system full of them and has built a winner without sacrificing the best. Soroka and Fried already paid some dividends.
It’s hard to predict future performance for inexperienced MLB players, but PECOTA and ZiPS think the Braves will get meaningful contributions from young arms again in 2020.
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