Baseball Prospectus’s PECOTA projections were unveiled today, and, as one of the most robust projection systems, it merits our attention. We’ll talk in a bit about how it sees things playing out for various individual Cubs in 2019, but I first wanted to note just how down BP is on the Cubs overall.
As far as the NL Central goes, right now, BP sees it as the Brewers and Cardinals, and then the Cubs, Reds, and Pirates as virtually indistinguishable at the bottom of a very good division:
BP's PECOTA projections are out today, and the updated projected standings … kinda think the Cubs suck: pic.twitter.com/vGjyEL6eEE
— Bleacher Nation (@BleacherNation) February 7, 2019
As you can immediately see, in the aggregate, PECOTA thinks the Cubs’ pitching and defense is going to be a big problem in 2019 (only the Dodgers, Rockies, and Reds are projected to score more runs in the NL). Moreover, the projected defensive difference between the Cubs and the Brewers almost entirely explains their gap in projected win total. And moreover moreover, that defensive gap is almost entirely explained by the difference in defensive value between Yasmani Grandal and Willson Contreras. Notably, BP incorporates pitch-framing into its metrics, and while Grandal is one of the best in the biz, BP projects Contreras to be a framing disaster.
There are other areas where BP is down on the Cubs – it sees the rotation as “meh” and the bullpen as weak – but those framing runs by far mark the biggest difference between the Cubs and Brewers.
On that front, BP has been at the vanguard in valuing catcher pitch-framing, and it has always been a much more significant component of their projections than other systems (most of which exclude it entirely because pegging the precise value is considered controversial). Personally, I think pitch-framing remains an incredibly valuable (or damaging) skill, and it’s probably not a coincidence that some Cubs pitching performances have turned in the last two years, as the Cubs moved from one of the best groups of framers in the game to one of the worst.
Is the difference *this* much? Can Contreras not get significantly better? Gut says the answers are “no, probably not,” and “yes, he can,” respectively. I do think it would help the Cubs’ pitchers – and Contreras – enormously if they would bring in a veteran, elite framer like Martin Maldonado to pair with (and work with) Contreras. In the one year where Contreras was working with Miguel Montero and David Ross, he rated as a good framer. Maybe that was just a coincidence. Maybe it wasn’t.
In any case, I reckon the Cubs are probably a little better than this, and the Brewers and Cardinals may be pegged just right.
The point is not to give dogmatic allegiance to any projection system, but instead to take note of possible warning signs. Here, for the Cubs, the warning is blaring: in a world where, like it or not, pitch-framing impacts the flow of every single game, the Cubs’ pitchers are going to need to get a much better performance back there from their catchers in 2019.