On April 10th, the Cubs will play their first real game at Wrigley since the World Series, and they’ll do so against the Dodgers. The rematch of the NLCS should be a well-played series between two evenly-matched teams. This offseason, many comparisons of the two teams have been made, and the consensus seems to be that there’s no way to argue one team is clearly better than the other. PECOTA, however, disagrees.
Currently, PECOTA has the Cubs winning 91 games and the NL Central. Somehow, that feels disappointing considering the Cubs won 103 games in 2016 despite underperforming their run differential. Zack Moser already broke down why the conservative projections make sense and where they might be undervaluing players. It’s reasonable for the projections to be bearish on even the best of teams. But then the Dodgers are projected for 99 wins. 99!
While it’s true that the Dodgers have certain advantages over the Cubs in their roster construction: they have about four starting pitchers waiting in the wings in case of injuries, and they have a deep enough farm that they could make any midseason trade happen without forfeiting their future. PECOTA, of course, doesn’t take future trades into consideration, and the Cubs are also able to make midseason trades without giving up too much. They’re below the luxury tax threshold so they have money to spend.
Neither team has made any major changes to their roster. The Dodgers’ offseason basically consisted of resigning Kenly Jansen, Justin Turner, and Chase Utley and trading for Logan Forsythe. How then, do the Dodgers project to be so much better than the Cubs? Here’s a table comparing the likely starting line-ups and rotations of both teams and their projected WARP:
|Position||Cub||Projected WARP||Dodger||Projected WARP||Difference|
|C||Wilson Contreras||2.0||Yasmani Grandal||6.7||-4.7|
|1B||Anthony Rizzo||4.0||Adrian Gonzalez||2.1||1.9|
|2B||Ben Zobrist||3.0||Logan Forsythe||2.1||0.9|
|3B||Kris Bryant||5.1||Justin Turner||2.9||2.2|
|SS||Addison Russell||2.3||Corey Seager||4.1||-1.8|
|LF||Kyle Schwarber||2.8||Andrew Toles||0.9||1.9|
|CF||Jon Jay||0.7||Joc Pederson||2.5||-1.8|
|RF||Jason Heyward||3.5||Yasiel Puig||3.0||0.5|
|Starter 1||Jon Lester||3.2||Clayton Kershaw||5.1||-1.9|
|Starter 2||Jake Arrieta||3.0||Kenta Maeda||2.3||0.7|
|Starter 3||John Lackey||1.8||Scott Kazmir||1.0||0.8|
|Starter 4||Kyle Hendricks||2.1||Rich Hill||2.1||0|
|Starter 5||Mike Montgomery||0.9||Julio Urias||1.4||-0.5|
I chose not to include bench players or the bullpen because WARP is limited by players who don’t play as often. Using a blunt tool like WARP in a blunt way like this will likely miss some nuances. However, it’s interesting to note that the combined difference in WARP between these players in 0. That’s right. By WARP alone, there is no difference in the starting line-ups and rotations of the Cubs and Dodgers. If you want to include Albert Almora Jr.’s projected WARP alongside Jon Jay’s, the Cubs come out at 0.2 WARP better.
It would make sense for the Dodgers to have a higher projected record since the NL West has been much weaker than the NL Central the past few years. Currently, though, the Cubs are the only team expected to have a winning record in their division with the Pirates finishing in second with an 80-82 record. So why the discrepancy?
PECOTA Doesn’t Care About the Cubs’ Historic BABIP
Last year, Cubs pitchers and defense induced a .255 BABIP, which was good for best in the league by twenty-seven points. PECOTA, of course, doesn’t think will happen again, which is more than reasonable since that’s the lowest in the expansion era. PECOTA also expects a regression on the Cubs defense from great to good. The Cubs are only expected for 7.3 FRAA and their BABIP will regress to the mean.
Yasmani Grandal’s Excellent Framing Makes Their Defense Look A Lot Better
Meanwhile, the Dodgers are projected to have the second- best team FRAA at 28.5. While the Cubs and Dodgers are expected to hit about the same and score a comparable amount of runs, the Dodgers are expected to only give up 595 runs. The Cubs are projected to give up 667. The difference between Yasmani Grandal’s framing and Willson Contreras’ might be a third of the difference in runs allowed by each team. Grandal is one of the elite framers in baseball, right behind Buster Posey. Last year, he was worth 26.7 framing runs and 32.2 FRAA alone. Meanwhile, Contreras is average at best, posting 3.6 framing runs in half as many games. As Randy Holt has written, the Cubs are counting on Willson Contreras to put it together behind the plate.
Yasiel Puig is expected to be good and on the Dodgers
Neither of those things might be true. It’s a bit of a surprise that Puig is still on the Dodgers. Near the end of the season, it seemed inevitable that Puig would be traded. For now, Dave Roberts and the Dodgers are giving him another chance after a down year wherein Puig was sent to AAA before coming back and being the old Puig. Still, Puig is projected for 3.0 WARP despite not breaking 2.0 in the last two seasons.
PECOTA doesn’t believe in Kyle Hendricks
Kyle Hendricks doesn’t have to regress, but it’s no surprise that PECOTA hasn’t hopped on the Hendricks bandwagon. PECOTA doesn’t care that Hendricks led the National League in ERA last year. Projection systems largely ignore balls put in play, and one of Hendricks’ strengths is inducing weak contact through tight tunneling. PECOTA is projecting Hendricks to have a .277 BABIP which would still be beneath the league average but nearly thirty points higher than he was last year.
PECOTA also doesn’t believe in Rich Hill
If you expect Kyle Hendricks to outperform his projections, then the same expectations should be given to Rich Hill. In limited action, Hill was a Cy Young caliber pitcher with a 2.12 ERA and a 3.12 DRA. But he only threw 110 innings as he was constantly sidelined with injuries. The most Rich Hill start of the year came on September 10th when he took a perfect game into the seventh inning and was pulled because of concerns about his blisters. For 2017, Hill is projected for a 3.26 ERA and 3.81 DRA in 131 IP, which is still great, but Hill looked unhittable last year. Still, he’s 37 and he’s averaged less than 100 IP every season across all levels, so even putting him at 131 IP is being somewhat optimistic.
Fortunately for the Cubs, even if the Dodgers are that much better, it won’t affect them much. They don’t hinder the Cubs ability to win the central, and they’ll only face each other six times in the regular season—all before June. If they do meet again in the postseason, home-field advantage should not negatively impact the Cubs’ odds of winning by more than one or two percent.
The Dodgers’ projections pan out better because their defensive strengths are more easily quantified. The defense looks average because the Cubs don’t have an elite framing catcher to boost their overall FRAA. The Cubs might have the same recipe to recreate their absurdly low BABIP, but projections aren’t going to count on that. However, that doesn’t mean the Cubs should be counted out.
Lead photo courtesy Jerry Lai—USA Today Sports