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PECOTA And The Royals: Why Can’t We All Get Along

Here we go again.

Baseball Prospectus (The Mothership as it’s referred to around these parts) released their PECOTA projections on Tuesday. Yep, it’s confirmed. They still hate the Royals.

Last place in the American League. 71 wins. A return to the dark days. Jeez. You’d think the ghost of Tony Muser just walked through that door. It shouldn’t be a surprise anymore. If you thought PECOTA would be understanding after the Royals stumbled to a .500 finish last year, you haven’t been paying attention.

A little history: Recall that for the 2015 season PECOTA projected the Royals to win 72 games. If you’re a true Royals fan, you have that projection taped to your bathroom mirror and use it every morning as motivation to kick ass for the day. You’ll also recall the 2015 Royals won 95 games and capped their dash through the regular season with a World Championship. See? It works!

No matter how you slice into PECOTA, that 2015 projection was quite a miss. Then, last year, with the Royals returning most of the same roster that won those games in 2015, PECOTA went for 76 wins. Egads. Doesn’t PECOTA know flags fly forever? Except last year something funny happened on the way to October. The Royals played close to the projection and obliged with just 81 wins. That was an out-of-nowhere development only the computer seemed to think was possible.

Last year, ahead of the release of PECOTA, former Editor-in-Chief at Baseball Prospectus Sam Miller polled the staff and asked for the Royals win total. Of 27 responses, only one was lower than 85. The average win total was 88. And if you have the capability of jumping in Peabody’s Wayback Machine to February 2015, that’s probably close to the win total you would have predicted for the Royals.

In other words, you probably missed more than PECOTA last year.

That’s okay. It turns out nothing is perfect when it comes to gazing into the future. PECOTA in 2016 was still bearish on the Royals and the humans were overly optimistic. It’s recency bias for the predictions and cold calculations for the projections. If all the prognostications were perfect, what’s the point of playing the games? Where’s the fun in that? What would Nostradamus say?

It’s the usual this year. Despite returning seven offensive starters, the bats are projected to produce a collective .250 TAv, which would be the worst in the American League. That’s an empty glass. But wait! Newcomers Jorge Soler and Brandon Moss have legit power in the eyes of PECOTA. Soler is projected to hit 21 bombs, which would lead the team. (Yes, PECOTA believes in Steve Balboni more than anyone currently on the roster.) Moss has a projected slugging percentage of .458. The glass is half full! It’s possible to read this as PECOTA believes in Dayton Moore’s offseason offensive acquisitions. Can you imagine what the projection would look like without the influx of power from Moss and Soler? Holy cow, everyone on the team could be drawing comps to the dead ball era.

The familiar names are expected to lead the offense. Lorenzo Cain is projected for a 3.3 WARP and he’s followed by Alex Gordon and his 2.2 WARP. No surprise there given both players can score high on the defensive metrics. Gordon could perhaps close the gap if he can outperform his projected 3.5 FRAA (Fielding Runs Above Average) in left field. If that number feels low for the former Platinum Glove winner, it is. He posted double-digit FRAAs from 2011 to 2014. The number fell into the red last summer for the first time in his career as a full-time outfielder. Given that PECOTA incorporates age along with recent performance and trends, it’s not surprising they see him struggling to reach his previous defensive value. Two seasons removed from his breakout and a year after missing 135 games due to injury, Mike Moustakas is projected for a .412 slugging percentage and a .254 TAv, which would represent a return to his 2012 output. It all feels low, but it’s understandable given the recent history of injury with all three.

A key component of any projection system is playing time. PECOTA has Raul Mondesi playing the lion’s share of second base and continuing to struggle. He’s projected to be worth a -1.3 WARP. Billy Burns gets 15 percent of the time in center field. He’s projected at -0.1 WARP. Paulo Orlando gets 30 percent of the innings in right to add to his 10 percent in center. He has a positive WARP at 0.1, but just barely. The core is still there, but the depth is limited.

The nits we all like to pick when deconstructing PECOTA is that it has a difficult time projecting the net effect of defense and a good bullpen. How else can we possibly explain the Royals outperforming projections all those years? Maybe that’s still the case. Only the circuit boards know for certain. What we do know is PECOTA projects the Royals team defense at a collective 2.3 FRAA. That’s just the 10th best in the league.

Interesting! Did you know the Royals defense rated close to the middle of the pack last year? Their Defensive Efficiency was the ninth best in the American League. Their PADE (Park Adjusted Defensive Efficiency) was 13th. There are myriad ways of explaining that away. Cain missing time and moving to right field. The aforementioned un-Gordon like showing in left. Alcides Escobar seemed to have lost a step. Mike Moustakas was out for most of the season. Yada, yada, yada.

Then how about that bullpen? Historically a strength for the Royals, and one that is routinely undervalued by the projection systems, it doesn’t seem to look so strong at the moment. You have Kelvin Herrera who is projected for 25 saves and 62 strikeouts in 59 innings. Brian Flynn can provide some value, but as David Lesky wrote on Tuesday, PECOTA is most unkind to Joakim Soria, projecting a 4.45 ERA and a WARP of 0.2. Of course, missing from the equation is Luke Hochevar and Wade Davis. If the bullpen was undervalued before with those two racking up strikeouts, saves and stranding runners, you can imagine the valuation now.

None of this accounts for Matt Strahm. PECOTA isn’t that enthusiastic, projecting a 4.41 ERA, most of those innings coming in a starting role. We’ll see how it all shakes out in the next month and a half, but the wager here is the majority of Strahm’s action will be out of the bullpen. We saw how effective he could be last summer, can he repeat his success? PECOTA always seem to be the most uncertain about a young player who has had limited major league exposure. Track record matters. The more evidence accumulated, the better.

So what are we supposed to do with these projections that so clearly hate the Royals? Maybe we should do the same thing we do with the predictions from the broadcasters and writers that take a stab at the order of finish and the playoff teams. No system or person is foolproof. If anything, it’s a fun debate. A way to pass the time before the first pitch is thrown. God knows we can use diversions in February.

So print out this year’s version of PECOTA and tape it up to your bathroom mirror. As Sam Miller put it so eloquently last year when PECOTA once again slammed the Royals: “Shredded projections are the confetti in their World Series parades.”

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