Tuesday, February 10, 2009

Latest Projection

In the run-up to last fall's election, a friend tipped me off to Nate Silver's polling projection site, fivethirtyeight.com. Silver called the election with such striking precision that I thought I'd better check out his baseball projection system, PECOTA. It lives at Baseball Prospectus, and I treated myself to a premium subscription after the holidays. After familiarizing myself with a host of new stats (FRAA, WXRL), I checked out how accurately they had predicted the Twins' 2008 performance. They were miles off for most players, and certainly for the team as a whole, which they expected to win 73 games, as I recall (that page has been updated for 2009 now). So while it is nice to see that they anticipate the Twins winning 6 more games than they predicted last year, that still only gets us to 79 wins, 5 games back of Cleveland.

Obviously, I hope they have similarly underestimated the potential of the 2009 Twins as they did last year. The system is weighted toward the results of the previous 3 seasons, so it was understandable that many of the Twins' players would be undervalued when their lousy 2005 and 2007 seasons featured so prominently. But I would have expected much better this year, since the team performed so well in 2006 and 2008. However, the team as a whole is projected to score 769 runs, allow 802 and hit .270/.330/.400. Earlier this winter I calculated that if the Twins' veterans repeated their career averages and the young players, on average, maintained their 2008 performances, the team should score 814 runs, allow 671 and hit .285/.349/.426. Clearly, PECOTA doesn't think many Twins will achieve those performances. There's a lot there to quibble with:

Entering the prime years of his career, Joe Mauer is projected to underperform his career OPS by about .025 points.

In the prime of his career, Justin Morneau is projected to hit only 23 HR - the same number he hit last year after 2 straight 30+ HR campaigns.

They expect Denard Span to steal only 19 bases in 539 PA, just 1 more than he stole in 2008 in 411 PA.

Given 50% of the playing time at 3rd, Brian Buscher is projected to hit .250/.310/.390 (about the same as Carlos Gomez), which would represent a .099 point drop in OPS from his rather timid 2008 performance vs. RHP.

And on and on. As for the pitchers:

No starter is projected to throw more than 175 IP.

Scott Baker should perform in line with his career averages for K and HR, but give up 10% more walks.

Kevin Slowey should more or less match last year's numbers for K and HR, but give up 38% more walks.

Of the relievers, only Joe Nathan is expected to have a WHIP under 1.30. The Twins have had at least 3 pitchers in their bullpen under that mark in every year of Ron Gardenhire's tenure.

There are also some odd allocations of playing time: Jason Pridie gets 15% of the playing time at DH; Boof Bonser, Philip Humber and Kevin Mulvey split 29 rather poor starts; Jason Jones and RA Dickey each get 40 IP of long relief.

Basically, some of the contributions that really hurt the Twins' numbers in the projection are really unlikely to happen. Jason Pridie will never be the DH - whatever playing time he gets will be in the field, where his glove can be an asset. If something happens to Jason Kubel that prevents him from suiting up, it's much more likely that someone like Luke Hughes would be called up to fill those ABs.

Jason Jones was the Twins' Rule 5 pickup from the Yankees - he has to stay on the 25-man roster all season or he goes back to NY. Bonser and Humber are both out of options, meaning that they would likely be claimed off waivers if they don't stay on the 25-man all season. With Nathan, Jesse Crain, Matt Guerrier and Craig Breslow all locks to fill slots in the 'pen, and newly-signed Luis Ayala also likely to get a spot, that leaves 2 slots open for Bonser, Humber and Jones (assuming the Twins go with a 7-man bullpen). One of those guys, and the negative value he brings with him, will never throw a pitch for the Twins in 2008, and those innings will instead be taken by someone better.

As the spring training competition unfolds, PECOTA will update its projections, and I bet the Twins' expected win total will improve as things progress.

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