Annually, Baseball Prospectus’s PECOTA projections send various fan bases over a cliff of hostility, believing that the algorithm and computers have it out for their team. It’s HALF tongue-in-cheek, but it’s also just kinda fun to beef with the projected standings, and look back on them and chuckle … or realize that the system saw something we were missing.
For this year – like last year – it’s going to be tough sledding for projection systems, given that players are coming back from a weird season, pitchers will have to deal with innings limits (and hitters will get to face fewer top pitchers maybe?), and teams will probably deal with various bouts of COVID-influenced roster issues. But BP’s PECOTA does its best with the rosters as presently constructed, and Cubs fans might be weirdly surprised by how it sees the team relative to the rest of the division:
Before I get to the obvious stuff, I want to note the shape of the Cubs’ projections – see the flat top? No team in all of baseball has a top quite that flat, which means the Cubs are uniquely situated as a “there’s not really a most likely outcome here” team. Instead, there’s a pretty darn wide range of “yeah, that seems most likely” for the Cubs, from about 83 wins, all the way up to about 90 wins. Given the current roster and the wide range of possibilities for a lot of the players, doesn’t that sound right? If you told me right now that the Cubs were about to win only 75 games, I wouldn’t be THAT shocked. If you told me they wound up winning 95, I also wouldn’t be THAT shocked. I expect a number far within those two outer bounds, but that’s kinda the point – the range is huge.
You’ll want to head over to BP to see the full data on the teams and players, because I’m just gonna touch on the high-level stuff.
OK, so the obvious stuff: the Brewers are projected WAY ahead of any other Central team, and the Cardinals are projected to have a LOSING record. For the Brewers, PECOTA loves the pitching staff, with 13 different pitchers projected for at least 0.5 WARP. That’s kinda how the Brewers have done it for years, getting surprising pitching contributions from random middle relievers who eat important innings and slide in for a start or two. Positionally, it’s the expected guys getting the love, plus … uh … Dan Vogelbach (1.9 WARP) projected to be the fourth most impactful position player on the Brewers? That probably won’t happen, for the record.
The Cardinals are projected to have an absolute disaster of a pitching staff after Jack Flaherty, which is certainly plausible, and is why they’ve been connected to a guy like Jake Odorizzi. Clearly, they need him. By contrast, the positional group is solid and deep, and sees strong seasons ahead for Paul Goldschmidt and Nolan Arenado.
As for the Cubs, the pitching is projected to be a nightmare, as you’d currently expect. It’s Kyle Hendricks, and then a mess. PECOTA is not yet buying Adbert Alzolay, doesn’t see Zach Davies being any different from Alec Mills, does not like any of the Cubs’ young starters, and does not believe in the Cubs’ ability to brew up excellent relievers from the primordial ooze. That’s all pretty understandable, and is a reminder that, yeah, the Cubs need another starting pitcher (and a lot of luck/good defense).
But on the offensive, side, my word. PECOTA projects every single starter to be somewhere from solid to very good. The system digs Nico Hoerner to be a nearly league-average bat, David Bote to be solidly above-average, and even likes Ildemaro Vargas, Phillip Ervin, and Michael Hermosillo as decent bench contributors. The projections here on the positional side are why the Cubs wind up at a touch over 85 wins, second in the Central and holding what would be the last playoff spot in the current system.
Elsewhere in the NL, the Dodgers, Padres, and Mets are projected to be the clear three best teams in the league, with the West a tire fire behind the Padres, and the East all bunched up behind the Mets, save for the Marlins, who are projected to be terrible.
For the lulz, you’ll note that the Cubs are currently projected for two more wins than the Chicago White Sox, which will absolutely be received by White Sox fans in a totally chill manner.