Last week, Baseball Prospectus published its annual PECOTA projections for 2019, and their high profile within the sport means that they’re certainly worth taking a serious look into. So, with pitchers and catchers finally about to report, let’s look even further ahead at the coming season, and what to make of these predictions.
The Astros are still really good
I want to start here. Obviously, we all expect them to be good to some extent, so it’s not like this is a surprise. But still, I think before diving deep into the individual trees, it’s important just to take a look at the whole forest that is these projections. Baseball Prospectus’s model has the Astros as a 98-win team in 2019.
That’s of course more than anyone else in the AL West, and by a comfortable margin (their numbers have the Angels and Athletics duking things out for second while both hover around .500). But it’s also more than the Yankees, the reigning-champion Red Sox, the back-to-back-pennant-winning Dodgers, or anyone else.
This is a team that’s going to October, and very likely skipping the Wild Card round. Sure, anything can happen, disaster can strike in any number of ways, and any number of other clichés you want to say, but all of that’s true for every team. Even if you’re the type that wishes they had done something different this offseason, they’ll be more than fine this year, especially in a division that seems to have taken a step back on the whole.
The inherent conservatism of projections makes for a good source of optimism
Projections have to strike a balance between best and worst case scenarios, so there are plenty of places to see upside with this team. For example, the single biggest drop in Wins Above Replacement Player (WARP) among Astros position players is Alex Bregman, in part because it’s difficult for anyone to repeat an 8.0-WARP season (like he had last season). There’s still plenty of room for Bregman to regress and still surpass the 4.7 WARP PECOTA projects for him. The same goes on the pitching side for Justin Verlander (7.3 WARP in 2018, 3.3 projected) and Gerrit Cole (6.4 in 2018, 3.9 projected).
Similarly, injuries affect the prediction process. Jose Altuve, for instance, is projected for a .310/.389/.473 batting line in 623 plate appearances, which looks a lot like his .316/.386/.451 line in 599 PAs last season. Even if you’re pessimistic and think a replication of his 2017 MVP season isn’t likely, all four of those numbers were at their lowest point in three seasons last year. PECOTA has to account for the chance that Altuve’s injuries linger, but that makes it that much easier for him to outperform those estimates if he is healthy; even if last year’s batting line is his new normal and not just an injury-fueled aberration, getting back to the 660-720 range of plate appearances would still be an improvement over last year.
The same goes for Correa, although the balance of optimism to pessimism is a little less lopsided; the projected batting line (.264/.358/.441) would be his second-worst, only top last year’s numbers, but they are also projecting him for 597 plate appearances (more than he’s had since 2016).
There’s also the question of players who have made real improvements in their approach, like Tyler White. His projected .254/.331/.455 line looks a lot like his career numbers, but understates things significantly if you think his .276/.354/.533 line is not a half-season fluke. And of course, if White does hit like that, he’s absolutely going to get more playing time at first than Yuli Gurriel, who’s projected for a .271/.320/.414 line (which I don’t especially disagree with, in comparison) but 65% of the playing time at first to White’s 20% (which I think will only happen if the league’s pitchers have adjusted to White’s adjustments enough to return him to his pre-2018 level and get him benched).
The Wild Cards
There are a few other areas that are interesting to keep an eye on. The obvious ones are the performance of rookies, since PECOTA is based on similar players and rookies have a lot less to go on than established players. PECOTA has Kyle Tucker as a .275/.338/.494 batter and 1.2 WARP in a little under half a season of plate appearances, which doesn’t feel awful all things considered, but could also easily be surpassed if he’s ready sooner. The same goes for predicted fifth starter Josh James (1.7 WARP in 106 IP) and the trio of Forrest Whitley, Cionel Perez, and Corbin Martin (a combined 26 starts, 172 IP, and 1.8 WARP).
There’s also the case of new arrival Wade Miley; if the team wants to make adjustments, and those pay off, he could be worth more than PECOTA thinks, but it makes sense that it only sees him as half of a win as-is. Similarly, Collin McHugh has done better as a starter than the 1.9 WARP it predicts from him, but given his injuries in 2017 and bullpen role in 2018, it definitely makes sense to peg him a little below that peak to play it safe I think. Even if he winds up spending most of 2019 in the pen, he was worth 1.9 WARP last year, so that estimate feels pretty safe, if nothing else. And in any case, between McHugh and Miley, the missing value between the really good scenarios and the official PECOTA mark feels much more modest than, say, the potential of a healthy Correa or the chance of Bregman having a follow-up great season. Maybe one or both surprises us, though.
Additionally, the Astros’ depth also plays into things here, as well as their position heads-and-shoulders above the rest of the division. They can play around a little with the roster at the edges, trying out younger players or swapping in others as needed to find who struggles the least this year. If Whitley or James or somebody else struggles in the majors, the team has the option to let them figure things out in the majors or to send them back to the minors without things becoming urgent. Things don’t necessarily have to click immediately.
On the whole, I think that’s the biggest take-away from these PECOTA estimates. Yes, the Astros will almost certainly be good this year. But even in the event of bad luck like injuries or underperformance, they have enough quality options available that they likely won’t need to suffer too badly. One spot in the order or rotation won’t have to be a total black hole indefinitely; one all-star-caliber player underperforming can just as easily be countered with another one beating projections to make up some of the difference. There are a lot of reasons to be just as optimistic for 2019 as you were for 2018.