It’s nigh time we indulge in one of the late offseason’s finest traditions: the ceremonial handwringing over projections! Baseball Prospectus released its 2017 PECOTA projections, and, as always, there are some interesting quirks that deserve some cursory inspection. So, let’s get right to it. You can access the Cubs’ full projections on Baseball Prospectus’ main site here.
The Cubs are pegged for 91 wins, a full 12 wins fewer than last year’s astounding 103. Very, very rarely will a projection system see 100-plus wins for a club on the horizon, and especially so for a team with the Cubs’ youth and short track record. They might yet be a dynasty, but they’re a nascent one. In 2016, the Cubs scored 808 runs and allowed a paltry 556; PECOTA foresees 767 and 668, respectively. The latter is the number that jumps out: clearly there’s something suggesting that the Cubs’ defense and pitching will take a step back next year, and intuition bears that out. The 2016 Cubs were a historically good defensive club by many metrics, and by the eye test. It stands to reason that they’ll regress, although it’s necessary to look at the component parts to come to a better idea of whether this number makes sense.
Much of the defensive uncertainty that PECOTA casts upon the Cubs stems from the team’s young position players. Jason Heyward, as expected, acquits himself well here, projected for 15 Fielding Runs Above Average (FRAA) in right field. The rest of the club is hairier. Willson Contreras receives a -8 mark at catcher, largely the function of his developing receiving skills, which make up a significant portion of PECOTA’s projection. Kris Bryant, Ben Zobrist, and Anthony Rizzo all appear around average, Kyle Schwarber is -5 in left, and Jon Jay gets a goose egg in center. Those are all defensible and well-reasoned, if skeptical on Bryant and Rizzo. Contreras has a good opportunity to exceed his projection, as he’s shown growth behind the plate, and he already exhibits a strong arm and other desirable catching qualities.
What appears unusual is PECOTA’s good, but not great, outlook for Addison Russell at shortstop. His +5 FRAA is in line with Brandon Crawford’s projection, however, and Crawford is regarded as an elite defender. It could be a shortstop-wide blip—Brewers’ phenom Orlando Arcia gets a hefty +12. Also curious is its seeming inability to deal with the glory and the weirdness that is Javier Baez on defense, for Baez gets a zero at second base and a +4 at third. The important takeaways here are that the Cubs’ defenders would be hard pressed to perform worse than these projections, and several of them have great chances to outperform them.
The second thing that jumps off the page lies in the projected playing time for the Cubs’ center field tandem of Jon Jay and Albert Almora. PECOTA sees the alliterative duo getting a 60/40 split in playing time, which deserves some skepticism. Barring a disastrous Spring Training, Almora seems primed to snag the majority of the starts in center. In addition to scoring the go-ahead run in the tenth inning of World Series Game Seven, Almora curried the favor of Joe Maddon and his teammates with his outstanding defense and solid hitting. Theo Epstein and Jed Hoyer signed Jay as insurance, in the event that Almora flames out, but clearly they trust Almora with the reigns. Jay has a slight advantage on the hitting side, but Almora’s youth, again, precludes confident projection.
As we turn to the pitching side, there are fewer surprises and fewer things upon which we cast some doubt. The Cubs’ top four starters—Jake Arrieta, John Lester, Kyle Hendricks, and John Lackey—all look to be above-average to very good again, as they have fairly steady track records that make for more certain projections. Lester might deserve some more credit, as his 3.4 WARP would constitute a full two-win slide from his five-plus win average over the last three seasons. We also know a bit more about how Lester works, thanks to BP’s new tunneling and sequencing data, so we’re (as always) still learning about how pitchers like Lester find success.
Hendricks is the only other questionable case, as PECOTA expects a severe regression for the 2016 NL ERA leader. Even Hendricks’ 90th percentile projections (illustrating the upper end of what makes sense according to PECOTA) don’t get to Hendricks’ numbers over the last two seasons.
Some final observations: PECOTA loves Contreras, the hitter, as it should, but expresses some distaste for Russell. Many have doubts that Russell will fulfill the high offensive ceiling he carried throughout his minor-league career, so this reflects some of the other knowledge that player evaluation has begat. Heyward is projected for a rebound year, with a round .270 TAv and a return to normal slugging range. Finally, Bryant’s 5.2 WARP would represent a nearly four-win slip from his MVP 2016, when he led the league (yes, even Mike Trout) with 9 WARP. The projection system anticipates twenty-point hits in batting average, OBP, and slugging, and a more pedestrian 33 home runs.
If the Cubs were to win the 91 games projected, they would be in fine position to repeat as Central Division champions. The other teams in the division look, well, bad: no others garner even an over-.500 projection from PECOTA. But projection systems, including PECOTA, are useless if they are not used in concert with other forms of knowledge. Often, it’s a great place to start, and a good way to prod us, those who take it upon ourselves to analyze baseball, to ask questions and explore why.
Lead photo courtesy Ken Blaze—USA Today Sports