Honesty in a headline!
Baseball Prospectus’s long-awaited PECOTA projections came out last week for the 2015 MLB season, and we discussed them just a touch last week. But, now, with more time to digest, I want to dig in on something specific: the Cubs’ 82 win projection.
Generally speaking, the number is not unreasonable given the composition of the roster (note that ZiPS and FanGraphs put the Cubs in roughly the same range), and the sheer volume of youth upon which the Cubs must rely. With where the Cubs have wound up the last few years, a winning record – even just barely – would probably not be the worst outcome this year.
I’d also like to re-emphasize something I always say with respect to projections: they are conservative toward the center. We know that extremes play out in baseball, but, almost definitionally, it doesn’t make sense for a dispassionate data system to project extremes. So, when it comes to team win totals, I prefer to look instead at the relative order of teams, rather than the final win number. At 82 wins, the Cubs are behind five other teams in the National League. That feels about right, doesn’t it? Borderline playoff team? In the Wild Card discussion? Just missing by a game?
That is all to say, when I see “82 wins” projected for the Cubs by PECOTA, I nod with a half smile and think, “That’ll do, pig. That’ll do.”
But what if we look a little closer at where those 82 wins are coming from? What if that eminently reasonable projection is actually … a bit too low?
No, I’m not going to take issue with the individual player projections that make up the team totals. PECOTA’s not sold on Jake Arrieta, but is sold on Anthony Rizzo. So be it.
Instead, I want to tweak a very small portion of the PECOTA projections in a very reasonable way. I want to tweak the various players’ projected playing time, and see what that does to the projected win total. This is an imperfect exercise – WAR (or WARP, as BP uses) doesn’t always scale precisely as you increase plate appearances and decrease innings – but it’s close enough that it makes for an interesting discussion.
On to the tweaks …
PECOTA has Edwin Jackson getting nearly 200 innings in 2015 for the Cubs, despite posting a -0.7 WARP. Kyle Hendricks, by contrast, is at just 68 innings, and a 1.0 WARP. It remains possible that Edwin Jackson breaks camp in the Cubs’ rotation, but it is relatively unlikely. (In PECOTA’s Cubs rotation, Travis Wood is also a primary starter, but he doesn’t flop entirely, so we’ll just leave him where he is.) Jackson’s innings total has to be reduced, and Hendricks’ total has to be increased.
So, let’s put Hendricks in the rotation getting Jackson’s innings, and bounce Jackson from the roster entirely – a perfectly plausible outcome by April 5. With these projections, then, Hendricks winds up nearly 3.0 WARP over 200 innings, and Jackson’s -0.7 goes off the books. Let’s be conservative and say that the original 68 innings that would have gone to Hendricks now go to a pitcher like Jackson (i.e., projected as below replacement-level), which yields about -0.25. So, with this realistic playing time change, the Cubs pick up about 1.75 WARP (assuming, as we are for the sake of this discussion, that you buy Hendricks’ projection).
Kris Bryant is projected by PECOTA to be a beast: .261/.351/.515. That projection, however, is over just 199 plate appearances, or less than 1/3 of a full season, in which Bryant is worth 2.0 WARP. Assuming health, as we must in this projection since there is no reason to expect a serious Bryant injury, we know that Bryant is very likely to play a whole lot more at the big league level in 2015. Our expectation is that Bryant will be up with the big team as soon as late April, and sometime in May at the latest. That, in addition to giving Bryant a little more time at AAA to do whatever it is he needs to do, would also ensure that the Cubs secure an additional year of control over their young, potential star. It is not expected, by contrast, that the Cubs will keep Bryant down until well into June merely to avoid him reaching Super Two status.
So, then, we’d expect to see Bryant getting something closer to 400 to 500 plate appearances for the Cubs in 2015. Again being conservative, let’s go with 400, which would make Bryant’s WARP for the Cubs about 4.0 (which would be insane for a rookie in just 2/3 of a season, but, hey, that’s the projection). That adds about two more wins to the total.
Those extra starts for Bryant would come at the expense of Tommy La Stella and Mike Olt – that’s the PECOTA projection, I mean – who combine to be worth a little less than 1.8 WARP in their time playing third base over the course of 2/3 of a season. Swapping out half of that for another 200 PAs going to Bryant takes about 0.9 WARP from the Cubs’ total.
Thus, simply by increasing Kris Bryant’s playing time to a more realistic level, and swapping Kyle Hendricks and Edwin Jackson in the rotation, the Cubs net about 2.85 WARP. Let’s call that three more wins added to the 82-win projection.
How do the Cubs fare in the projected standings with 85 wins? Well, the Cubs still finish second in the NL Central behind the Cardinals (89 wins). But they pass the Padres and Giants, and slide into the top Wild Card spot.
You could undoubtedly perform this same exercise for other NL teams, and, as the headline indicates, I was looking to bump up the Cubs’ win total here. But, still: a few very realistic tweaks to playing time – not to the actual player rate projections, themselves – and the Cubs project to make the playoffs, according to PECOTA.