Sunday, March 25, 2007

Some Surprising PECOTA Team Projections

Baseball Prospectus released their annual PECOTA projected team standings a little early this year. Though the methodology is certainly sound and the results nearly as accurate as possible, the exercise never fails to deliver a few W-L forecasts that turn heads. One of these, the 72-90 projection for a team that's won 189 games over the past two years, has even found its way into the clubhouse, not that they've let it get them down.

In this entry, we'll look at a few teams whose PECOTA output differs significantly from their public perception (as measured by the Las Vegas over/under line) to see if we can shed some light on the gap. We may as well begin with the aforementioned...

Chicago White Sox

Vegas line: 87.5 wins

PECOTA forecast: 72 wins

To a typical baseball fan, projecting a team to drop 18 games in the standings from 2006 and 27 from 2005 may seem like sheer lunacy. Of course, that fan is living in the era of ESPN-driven hype, where it's easy to see this year's Pale Hose combining 2005's excellent pitching with 2006's offensive output, but not the other way around. As it turns out, PECOTA is not the only projection system that foresees a sub-.500 season on the South Side; all the major ones do.

The Sox do have a confluence of factors working against them, something I've written about before. In short, they received a lot of surprising offensive performances last year, stayed impeccably healthy, and their pitching staff had a collective career year in 2005. All these things are likely to regress this year, although some certainly can't believe this is the case. Despite the number of recognizable faces on the team, the Sox have no true superstars; no one is projected to top 30 VORP in 2007.

At the same time, I think they will win more than 72 games. Yes, they play in a tough division and a tough league, and yes, they will regress substantially, but the current BP team depth chart sees 498 PA for Darin Erstad (compared to 505 for Jim Thome) and 100 innings for Gavin Floyd, neither of which seems likely. Just balancing out the team playing time distribution adds a couple of wins to the forecast, bringing us up to 74.

Though no individual player's projected line seems off by a huge amount once you account for Thome's age and Jermaine Dye's lack of a track record, the collective bearishness of PECOTA on the offense is a little hard to swallow. Though the computer is much better at this than I am, I'm inclined to add two wins on this basis. The pitching forecasts look about right, so no change for those. We're now at 76.

Some have argued that the team is in a good position to make a big midseason acquisition, and should receive bonus wins for this in their projection. Before this past offseason, I might have bought this, but it seems that GM Kenny Williams is now more interested in taking advantage of a seller's market, and he has several desirable players, including Dye and Mark Buehrle, whose contracts expire after 2007. What's more, the Sox aren't particularly likely to be leading the division or wild card race in July, and have a shallow farm system, making a blockbuster deal unlikely. A top midseason acquisition will likely only add a win or two to the equation anyway. No change for this factor.

PECOTA also can't account for skilled managerial or medical staffs, but it's difficult to measure their benefit, and thus difficult to account for them in a team forecast. I'll add one more win, but this effect could easily be off in either direction.

Final Verdict: 77 wins

Tampa Bay Devil Rays

Vegas line: 67 wins

PECOTA forecast: 79 wins

Nate Silver, the mastermind behind PECOTA, has already done this little exercise for the NL and AL East, and concludes that the Devil Rays should lose about three wins from their forecast.

What's interesting here is that while the other projection systems agree that the White Sox will not top 80 wins, no one else sees the Devil Rays straying significantly from their 67-win Vegas line, and certainly they don't anticipate them finishing seven games above the 2005 champs.

I can't fully explain the difference between PECOTA and the other systems, although certainly the team ERA is significantly lower in PECOTA. Since pitching forecasts are inherently less accurate, I'm inclined to deduct two wins for the outlier effect. Running total of 77.

As Silver points out, Rocco Baldelli is reasonably likely to be dealt for pitching prospects at some point during the year. If the team actually does make a run at .500, it will be interesting to see whether the front office keeps the faces of the franchise around as a PR move. The Devil Rays have a surplus of young outfielders, but will need more good young pitching to compete in 2009-11 and are unlikely to get it without dealing an established regular or two. Combining the trade possibilities with an aggressive projection for Akinori Iwamura and a gaggle of insufficient first base stopgaps, I'm deducting two wins from the offense.

Final verdict: 75 wins

Arizona Diamondbacks

Vegas line: 78.5 wins

PECOTA forecast: 88 wins

At least in this case it's easy to explain the gap of 9.5 wins: the 2007 D'backs will feature a ton of rookies, and the linesmakers and public fail to appreciate just how good they are. Digging deeper, they have only one real star, Brandon Webb, who is underappreciated by the public. Nobody thinks Randy Johnson has anything left, but they will likely be surprised. Chris Young is projected to instantly become a monster in center field, and Stephen Drew and Orlando Hudson should rival Rafael Furcal and Jeff Kent as the league's most valuable keystone combo west of Philadelphia.

What adjustments need to be made? Hudson is one of my favorite players, but asking him to set a new career high in VORP seems a little much. Meanwhile, I don't think even Young's parents expect him to top a .900 OPS this year, and Chad Tracy has been the subject of frequent trade discussions. Two wins get lopped off for the offense.

On the pitching front, 120 innings for Johnson may actually be a conservative forecast, and I don't think his 3.78 ERA is unreasonable at all given a return to the NL and his solid peripherals in New York. Livan Hernandez has defied PECOTA for years and I think he should be worth five runs more than his projection. I do wonder if Edgar Gonzalez can maintain a sub-5.00 ERA in the bigs, but he can be replaced by Enrique Gonzalez or Dustin Nippert with no real loss.

While some say Jose Valverde needs to get a better head on his shoulders or become more consistent, I point to his excellent K rates throughout the past four years and the inherent variance involved in 50-inning relief "seasons," where one cold spell can kill your bottom line. He should match or beat his 3.71 ERA. Jorge Julio's name pops up in trade talks, but if he is dealt it will be for something of immediate and comparable value. Overall, the pitching staff is worth one more win than advertised.

Final verdict: 87 wins

Conclusions

As I mentioned earlier, Nate Silver is tweaking his projections on his own. While I'd be interested in seeing whether this improves the forecasts, there's really no realistic way to filter out the "noise" in a 30-team sample. Plus, according to Diamond Mind's three year prediction rankings, it seems Silver should stick to what his computer tells him. After all, it is "deadly accurate."

Friday, March 09, 2007

Fantasy Pitchers to Watch For in 2007

Picking the sleepers in your fantasy draft is an inexact science, largely because there is a natural limit to how well you can predict a breakout season. The best you can do, perhaps, is pick guys who will break out 30% of the time instead of 15%.

This is still a reasonable edge, of course, in a game where a single breakout player can be worth quite a few points in the standings. But it's important to remember that just because someone touted Takashi Saito last year, it doesn't make him some kind of soothsayer.

Enough talk. On to the sleepers.

What to look for: Guys whose base skills have far exceeded their recent fantasy value

Examples: Jeremy Bonderman, Jake Peavy, Ben Sheets, Cole Hamels, Jonathan Broxton, Jose Valverde, Hong-Chih Kuo

It's often said that pitchers are totally unpredictable. As Baseball Between The Numbers points out, however, pitchers' skills are actually fairly consistent from year to year, but their results are not, because of factors beyond their control such as run support, team defense, and simple variance. You can throw a great pitch and induce a double-play grounder, but if it squirts through the infield because Michael Young is your shortstop, it goes as a single in the scorebook.

Fantasy guru Ron Shandler's mantra is to invest in skills rather than roles or past results, and with good reason. Numbers like strikeout rate and walk rate offer a far better prediction of a pitcher's future than his win or save total. In the case of relievers, your strategy is to draft Joel Zumaya, a flamethrower who may get save opportunities along the way, rather than Todd Jones, who has nothing going for him but the job of "closer."

What we really want is a guy who has put up good numbers in the past, and who takes it to the next level this year because of a skills breakout, a change of role, or both. Since the two most important numbers are strikeout rate and walk rate, a quick-and-dirty benchmark is a guy whose (K/9 - BB/9) is greater than 4.5. If it's simpler, you can take his strikeouts, subtract walks, and multiply the result by 2. If the final number is greater than his innings, he is a good candidate. Some examples are Kerry Wood in 2003, Ben Sheets in 2004, Chris Carpenter in 2005, and Aaron Harang last year.

Another class of breakout candidate is (relatively) young power pitchers who have top strikeout rates but have had control issues. If they cut down on walks, they can become studs. Randy Johnson is the classic example, although it's unreasonable to expect that level of improvement. Some more recent success stories include B.J. Ryan, Scott Kazmir, Jason Schmidt, and Oliver Perez (for one year anyway). This year's crop includes Daniel Cabrera and Hong-Chih Kuo, among others.

So who are the top sleepers? A few names stand out. Jeremy Bonderman fits the profile beautifully: he's a power arm who also gives up few walks, but had a mediocre ERA and WHIP owing to some lousy luck. Bonderman is just 24 this year, plays in front of a good defense, and pitches in a canyon, so he has other factors working in his favor. 200 strikeouts are certainly possible if he remains healthy, as are a 3.50 ERA and 1.20 WHIP.

Jake Peavy, despite being one of the first eight pitchers off the board in most drafts, is liable to be undervalued in drafts because he had an apparent down year in 2006, going 11-14 with a sharp ERA increase, despite having basically the same walk and strikeout rates as in 2004-05, when he was one of the top fantasy pitchers. PETCO Park still plays heavily in his favor. I think Peavy is the best pitcher not named Johan Santana this year, and he's a steal in the fourth round.

Ben Sheets is the only pitcher whose base skills can rival Santana's, and perhaps the best bet to take over the position of top fantasy hurler from Johan...if he can make 30 starts. He hasn't done that since 2004, but the reports on his shoulder are good. Over the past three years, Sheets has some absolutely sick numbers: 521 K against 68 walks in 499.2 innings. You can count on a great strikeout rate and an ERA and WHIP near 3.20 and 1.05, but you can't count on more than 20 starts. If he's healthy, though, he could return first-round value from a sixth-round pick.

Cole Hamels followed up a ridiculous AAA stint (36:1 K/BB ratio in 23 innings) with a very good MLB debut, averaging almost 10 K/9 with three times as many strikeouts as walks. His ERA was over 4.00, but his skill set is excellent. Even without any improvement, he'll be worth 200 strikeouts in a full season, and he has a great offense providing run support.

Jonathan Broxton is the embodiment of Ron Shandler's maxim of drafting skills over roles. He enters 2007 as the clear second banana to Takashi Saito, but has some of the sickest stuff in the majors and the stats to go with it. He'll come cheaply in the draft, but is one of the only relievers that's a legitimate threat to crack 100 strikeouts (97 last year), and could instantly become a top-10 closer if he inherits the job.

Jose Valverde is an example in why it's futile to analyze relievers based on one season's work. His ERA and WHIP were awful last year, but his strikeouts were off the charts as usual, and his walk and home run rates were no worse than his career marks. His career ERA and WHIP of 3.50 and 1.19 are far more relevant than last year's marks, and they set a reasonable baseline for 2007 expectations. Plus, he should have the closer's job to himself, barring an injury or extreme ineffectiveness.

Daniel Cabrera is a particularly interesting case. In a twist right out of Major League, Cabrera began wearing glasses in mid-season last year and sharply improved his command. This offseason, Cabrera had LASIK surgery, and claims he is seeing the plate even better. His August-September totals: 62.1 IP, 29 BB, 67 K, 4 HR, and a one-hitter against the Yankees. With those rates and some normal luck on balls in play, a 3.75 ERA and 1.30 WHIP are reasonable, but it remains to be seen whether he can maintain those gains. If Leo Mazzone can work his magic and Cabrera keeps his walks below 4 per 9 innings, he could be a top-10 fantasy pitcher, but those are big ifs.

Hong-Chih Kuo may be the ultimate high-risk, high-reward proposition this year. He's survived two Tommy John surgeries, but his strikeout rates both in the majors and minors have been extremely high. Though he needs to cut down on his walks, his numbers improved significantly after a move to the rotation late last year (3.07 ERA, 35 K, 7 BB, 1 HR in 29.1 innings as a starter). He enters 2007 as a spot starter, but if he gets a regular turn in the rotation, he could be a monster. At this point, he is a far better choice for a spot in the rotation than Chad Billingsley, who showed no command whatsoever last year.

One last (old) guy...Randy Johnson may seem like an odd choice for this column as he's only a couple of years removed from being the top fantasy pitcher in all of baseball. However, he's coming off a 5.00 ERA that was largely influenced by luck, is moving back to the weaker NL, and is going very late in drafts. His command numbers are down somewhat, but his strikeout and walk rates were still very respectable and should be helped by the move out of the DH league. He should return to form with a sub-4.00 ERA this year, and could pick up a lot of wins on a powerful Arizona team.

Tuesday, March 06, 2007

The $80 Million Mistake

Amidst the madness of this offseason's baseball market, many teams are sticking with the same losing plans they've been on for years. The Giants continued to sign AARP-eligible free agents, while the Mariners again allowed Bill Bavasi within 50 feet of a telephone. And in Arlington, the Rangers gave a five year contract (Chan Ho Park, anyone?) to a shortstop (hmm...) for a big annual salary (A-Rod, Juan Gone, Park, etc.).

I speak, of course, of the $80 million the Rangers are giving Michael Young to be with the team through 2013, when he'll be 36. Naturally, everyone and their mother is trying their best to rationalize the deal. The goal of this post is to debunk the most common excuses.

(Note: I normally don't make it a policy to openly mock people who pretend to know things about baseball and economics, at least not while they're within earshot, but this is the most convenient format.)

"Salaries are up everywhere this offseason"

This one would make sense, if it were true. Though salaries are up almost across the board, middle infielders are the guys who aren't profiting from the bull market. While Carlos Lee and Sarge Jr. collected the megabucks, Adam Kennedy got three years and $10M, Marcus Giles managed only one guaranteed year, and Ronnie Belliard couldn't even finagle a MLB contract. On the other side of the keystone, Julio Lugo was the only shortstop in a market where several conteders were looking to upgrade at the position, and still managed to sign one of the more fair-valued deals of the winter.

Technically, this won't apply to Young by the end of the deal, since he won't be playing in the middle infield when this contract expires. More on that later.

"The Rangers want Young to be the face of their franchise"

Turning baseball decisions into subjective arguments is a great way to completely miss the point while simultaneously rationalizing poor moves.

That said, even this argument doesn't hold water, because the Rangers have a better player, three years Young's junior, whose contract is also up after 2008, and who could already be considered the face of the franchise. Mark Teixeira is a big offensive threat, like Young, but is younger, plays good defense, and could probably have been signed for a similar deal.

Fitting Tex into the 2009 budget has suddenly become a challenge. If Texas commits to Young instead of Teixeira, it could turn into their version of the Cubs picking Ryne Sandberg over Greg Maddux in the '92-'93 offseason.

"$80 million won't look like much after two more years' inflation"

In a way, it's ironic that I'm disputing this, since people often forget about the effects of inflation in a long-term contract. However, in almost all cases, the inflation is more than offset by the decline in the player's value over the course of the deal.

Often times, a team will sign a player for too much money or too many years, because they need the player now and are willing to take future risks to win in the present. This is a dubious strategy, but at least it gives the team immediate help to fill a pressing need. Giving Michael Young five years from 2009-2013 does nothing to help the team in the short term; he was already signed for the next two years.

If Young had come to your team this offseason and offered to sign for either $7 million and two years or $87 million and seven years, would you have opted for the latter? Actually, the money for the first two years is irrelevant since it's a sunk cost, so let's say it's a decision between $30 million for two years and $110M for seven. Are you still leaning for the long-term deal?

"Young deserves a big raise"

Some argue that Young, formerly one of the game's most underpaid players, needed to be compensated for his on-field production. I hear this a lot, and frankly it annoys the hell out of me. If a player with a moderate salary is just going to demand a raise whenever he offers a positive return on investment, what should motivate the team to sign him in the first place? Either the player will collect a fat paycheck for doing nothing, else he will demand a raise until he is overpaid once again. It's essentially the system the NFL is currently working with.

Years ago, when Young signed his current deal, he opted for financial security over the prospect of riches. I'm not saying he made the wrong decision (at the time; remember the title of the website), but he should have been prepared for the consequences, including the possibility that he will have left $20 million on the table by taking the guaranteed contract.

It's strange that fans often feel sorry for underpaid figures in sports, people who still collect more money in a year than most of us will see in a lifetime. In Chicago, everyone spent the offseason clamoring for Lovie Smith to get a new, higher-paying contract. As a Bears fan, I definitely approve of the job Lovie has done with the team, but if he wants a higher salary, he shouldn't have signed a low-paying contract through this year. It's not like he would have offered to give the money back if he had been fired. Lovie, of course, got his wish with a $22 million extension.

"Young provides offense at a scarce position"

This one is true--for now. Young has two major factors working against him, though. For one, his offense is built largely around batting average, which is less likely to hold up over time than the ability to hit for power. Put another way, if you had to invest in Jason Bay or Freddy Sanchez for the next seven years, you would be stupid to pick Sanchez. Furthermore, his numbers are inflated by the home park he plays in. All in all, strictly in terms of offensive value, Young is probably about the seventh or eighth best shortstop in the league, both right now and going forward.

But then, to call him a shortstop at all is a bit of a stretch. Michael Young is the worst defensive shortstop in baseball by any number of metrics. The Fielding Bible, which included an essay by Bill James on why Derek Jeter is the worst defensive shortstop in baseball history, still ranked Young below Jeter. His numbers are in a zone where only a player labeled as a franchise cornerstone--like Jeter, Junior Griffey, or Young--could avoid a move to a less demanding position.

Entering last year, with Alfonso Soriano out of the picture and shortstop prospect Ian Kinsler coming up, the Rangers could have moved Young back to second base, but chose to stick Kinsler there instead, because Young was entrenched. Now, much like with Griffey or Jeter, it seems Divine Intervention will be necessary to move Young elsewhere on the diamond.

Young's defense, which rates poorly now, is certainly not likely to improve between now and 2013, when he will be 36. Sometime along the way, he MUST be moved or he'll begin costing the Rangers more than 20 runs per year with his glove.

Where will he go? Young didn't rate well at second base, either, so it's not a great option. First base, third base and the outfield are all possibilities, but it's no guarantee he can be a decent defender at any of those spots.

So, what's the verdict?

Your honor, we the jury find the Rangers guilty on the count of fiscal irresponsibility. They will serve a sentence of four years paying for Alex Rodriguez to play for a rival team while languishing between second and third place in the AL West.