Bradley’s Buzz: Why does PECOTA hate the Braves? (Actually, it doesn’t)

Atlanta Braves players celebrate in the club house after clinching their fifth consecutive NL East title by defeating the Miami Marlins 2-1, in a baseball game, Tuesday, Oct. 4, 2022, in Miami. (AP Photo/Wilfredo Lee)

Credit: Wilfredo Lee

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Atlanta Braves players celebrate in the club house after clinching their fifth consecutive NL East title by defeating the Miami Marlins 2-1, in a baseball game, Tuesday, Oct. 4, 2022, in Miami. (AP Photo/Wilfredo Lee)

Credit: Wilfredo Lee

Credit: Wilfredo Lee

Baseball Prospectus gets great mileage from its annual PECOTA reveal. First come the cold numbers. Then comes the heated debate.

In 2016, Arizona general manager Dave Stewart said: “They think we only win 78 games? That’s a joke.” The Diamondbacks won 69 games. Stewart was fired in October – though not so much because of PECOTA; because he’d traded Dansby Swanson, the No. 1 overall pick in 2015, to the Braves for Shelby Miller, who’d produced an ERA of 6.19.

In 2019, the Cubs posted a note on their spring training bulletin board: “80-82, fifth place in the Central – PECOTA.” Driven by outrage, the Cubs finished 84-80, third in the National League Central.

BP’s PECOTA isn’t related to Bill Pecota, a utility type who played for three MLB teams, the Braves included. It stands for “player empirical comparison and optimization test algorithm.” Nate Silver, now known as the creator of FiveThirtyEight, developed PECOTA 20 years ago in his Prospectus days.

When the great Sam Miller was BP’s editor, he authored the headline that became an evergreen, as we media folks like to say: “Why PECOTA hates your team.” The catch is that PECOTA, a batch of numbers on a spreadsheet, is incapable of human emotion – like, say, hate. The numbers are what they are. As projections, they’re often wrong, except when they’re not.

The greatest point of PECOTA contention came as the Royals – the sort of team analytics, um, hated; they didn’t hit for power – went to consecutive World Series. They lost in seven games in 2014; they won in five the next year. PECOTA projected them to win 79 and 72 games in those pennant-winning seasons. In 2016, PECOTA had the reigning champs winning 76. Said pitcher Danny Duffy: “Every year, we’re underestimated by a Gateway or a Dell.”

The 2016 Royals finished 81-81, third in the American League Central. They haven’t finished above .500 since. Score one for Gateway. (Remember Gateways?)

The Braves have won the NL East five years running. In 2021, PECOTA picked them to win 82 games and finish fourth in their division. They won 88, not that far off. They also won the East – and the World Series. In 2022, they were tabbed to win 82 games – way off; they won 101 – and finish third in a division they won on a tiebreaker.

PECOTA made its 2023 debut last week. As of this morning – BP keeps tweaking numbers – the Braves are picked to win 90.6 games, which is a rounded-up 91. That puts them second in the East, behind the Mets (95.6) and ahead of the Phillies (89.5). Ninety-one wins is fourth-most among NL clubs, also behind the Dodgers (96.3) and Padres (92.9). Two AL clubs – the Yankees and Astros – are projected to win more than the local nine.

So: The Braves are PECOTA’s sixth-best team. Hold the vitriol. PECOTA tends to flatten things out. The Yankees’ 97.6 wins top these projections. Five teams won more than 98 games last year, the Yankees among them.

PECOTA tries to allow for up-and-comers, but nobody saw Kyle Wright winning 21 games in 2022. Nobody picked Michael Harris and Spencer Strider to run 1-2 in rookie-of-the-year voting. For all the numbers crunchable in baseball, almost nobody does precisely as forecast. The same could be said, any given day, of the weather.

I’d guess the 2023 Braves will win 95 games. (They’re in a tough division.) Not coincidentally, that’s their over/under total, as set by BetOnline. Only the Dodgers and Astros were assigned a higher number. The Mets’ over/under is 94.5.

Do I believe the Braves can win the World Series? Sure, but the caveat remains: The playoffs are weird. The 2021 Braves were 88-73 in the regular season and 11-5 thereafter. The 2022 Braves were 101-61 over the sixth-month season and 1-3 over five days in October. This is baseball. You can’t predict baseball.

Actually, though, you can, kind of. Over 162 games, the better/deeper teams tend to prevail. That’s what PECOTA seeks to measure – quality plus quantity. I wouldn’t be shocked if the Braves finish second. I would be shocked if they finish fourth.

The above is part of a regular exercise, written and curated by yours truly, available to all who register on for our free Sports Daily newsletter. The full Buzz, which includes more opinions and extras like a weekly poll and pithy quotes, arrives via email around 1:30 p.m. on Monday, Wednesday and Friday.

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