When the PECOTA projections came out last week for the 2017 season, the biggest thing that jumped out at me was the 76-win projection for the St. Louis Cardinals. Although there are legitimate questions about the team, particularly with respect to the age of a number of their key contributors, as well as their overall team defense, it’s hard for me to see this team finishing below .500.
That said, PECOTA nailed all five NL playoff teams last year (as well as three of the five AL teams, including being super high on the Indians, when few others were). Last year, they had the Cardinals at 82 wins, and the team, in fact, won only four more than that. Projection systems are only that – projections based on the best available information at the time – but they aren’t totally worthless, either.
Cardinals manager Mike Matheny might not agree.
When asked about the very-sub-.500 projection for his team in 2017, Matheny called it “unbelievable,” and hopes that his players saw the projection (Post-Dispatch).
Moreover, Matheny believes his team is a lot better than folks (or computers) are crediting, especially when you consider – in Matheny’s view – the particular challenges they faced last year. Specifically, Matheny pointed to the number of young players on which the Cardinals had to rely, and how much of the team’s defensive troubles were because those young players were thrust into new or unfamiliar situations. (More of Matheny’s thoughts here at 101sports.com.)
Setting aside the fact that citing these issues borders on complaining about the roster, Matheny is right to note that the Cardinals dealt with injury issues in 2016 that thrust certain players into new roles.
But that said, the problem with blaming defensive problems on the young players he mentions: three of the four rated as positive defensive contributors (Jedd Gyorko, Kolten Wong, Randal Grichuk), and Aledmys Diaz wasn’t that far below average. The three worst defenders on the team, according to the advanced metrics, were veterans Matt Holliday, Matt Carpenter, and Jhonny Peralta.
If the Cardinals are to improve in 2017 – and handily beat those “unbelievable” projections – they’ll have to improve overall on defense, where they gave back roughly 30 runs, give or take. By pitching WAR and offensive WAR, the Cardinals were a top 10 team in baseball last year, and it’s only fair to point out that the underlying data suggest they probably should have won closer to 90 games than 86.
Matheny’s comments came before word today that young righty Alex Reyes is having an MRI on his pitching elbow after experiencing discomfort. If he winds up missing significant time, it figures to be an additional hit to the team’s projections.
In the end, though, I believe the Cardinals will be a competitive team in the NL Central this year. Even if they lost Reyes, I’d have trouble pegging them for just 76 wins.
But sometimes the projection systems see things that our eyes cannot.