PECOTA projections were unveiled at Baseball Prospectus on Wednesday, which means everyone in Kansas City is angry. Overall – and someone better versed in PECOTA’s recent history can correct me if I’m wrong – there are more great and terrible teams in the forecast than I can recall from past years. Four teams are projected to win 96 or more games and four other teams are expected to lose at least 69. That’s pretty rare for a projection model which tends to pull everyone and everything toward the middle. But that meshes with one of baseball's narratives during this awful, slow-paced offseason which is that it's currently a league of several “super teams" and several going for the tank.
The Cardinals do not fall under either of these categories. PECOTA sees them winning 84 games and tying the Giants for the second Wild Card (and in that play-in game, the Cardinals will have a 3-1 lead going into the 4th inning before being outscored 35-0 the rest of the way). And that sounds about right, doesn’t it? The rotation could go any which way (speaking of which, yesterday Bernie Miklasz had a good column on that very thing), the lineup is solid 1-8 though lacking a truly elite bat, and the bullpen is, well, a bullpen, and barely worth speculating on in February.
Given all of that, 84 wins sounds fair, generous even. After all, this is PECOTA, an algorithm which tends to low-ball the Cardinals. Last season the initial projection pegged them to win 76 games. No one confused the 2017 Cardinals season with a barrel of fun, but they did win 83 games, marking the fifth straight season they’ve beaten PECOTA. And why is that? Rob Mains of Baseball Prospectus has some ideas:
And then there’s Cardinals Devil Magic. Aledmys Diaz. Paul DeJong. Tommy Pham. Jedd Gyorko. Peak Jason Heyward and Jhonny Peralta. The 2013 team that batted .330 with runners in scoring position, the best such performance since 1930. Every year, it seems, the Cardinals turn some middling prospect into gold, or get a career-year out of an unremarkable veteran. The team’s had admirable depth, but a bottom-up projection system like PECOTA captures that. What it doesn’t capture is players who perform far above their expectation. Every. Single. Year.
He's not wrong. And that doesn't even mention Jose Martinez. Or Cardinals pinch-hitters in 2016 having a 165 wRC+ in 275 plate appearances. Or Stephen Piscotty's .372 BABIP in 2015. So don't be surprised when Miles Mikolas throws 175 innings this year with an ERA under 3.50.
A few other things about PECOTA's projections that caught my eye...
No Aledmys-like sophomore slump for Paul DeJong
DeJong is projected to have the highest WARP (2.2) for all position players with a profile fittingly similar to last season - lots of home runs, not a lot of walks. Of course, 2.2 wins above replacement doesn't sound very high and it's not, but again, these models are conservative by design. Only five players (Joey Votto, Kris Bryant, Lorenzo Cain, Anthony Rizzo, Starling Marte) in the NL Central are projected to be above 3.0 WARP and no one projects above 4.6. If curious, last season Yadier Molina was projected to lead the team with a 2.5 WARP and six Cardinals (Tommy Pham, Jedd Gyorko, Matt Carpenter, Dexter Fowler, DeJong, Molina) ended up exceeding that number.
Speaking of Yadi, is Carson Kelly going to see some more playing time this season?
Molina is projected to fall under 500 plate appearances which would only be the second time since 2008 that that's happened. The reason? Carson Kelly is expected to get about 25 percent of the playing time at catcher. That would be a nice development. Molina is 35-years old and has more mileage on his knees than any catcher in the league. It was also be a shift from 2017, when the Cardinals called up Kelly in mid-July to do basically nothing. He saw only 14 starts the rest of the season while Molina had nearly 240 plate appearances after the All-Star break.
PECOTA believes in Carlos Martinez
PECOTA projects Carlos Martinez to be worth 3.3 WARP, which is the highest on staff and the best in the NL Central. Again, that might not sound all that notable – Martinez has had a 3.0 WARP or higher every season as a full-time starter - but PECOTA hasn't always been a believer. Even with Martinez having two solid seasons as a starter in the books, Mike Leake was projected last season to lead the staff with a 1.8 WARP, which, of course, means Martinez was below that. Someone smarter than me will have to explain what changed - perhaps it was another season of Martinez proving to be a durable starter as he enters his prime years, coupled with his unique ability to miss a lot of bats and induce a lot of grounders - but PECOTA seems to have come around.
There you go, those are some initial stray thoughts. The Cardinals are close to convening in Jupiter, where they will commence the mission of beating PECOTA once again. Also, there are still over 100 free agents remaining on the market, so who the hell really knows with all of this 2018 projection stuff anyway.