By Scott Lindholm-
(CBS) Despite meteorological evidence to the contrary, spring is approaching. For the statistically-inclined baseball fan, one of the first signs is when the tender shoots of Baseball Prospectus‘ PECOTA (Player Empirical Comparison and Optimization Test Algorithm) projections are announced, a first glance on how well teams are expected to perform in 2014.
BP projects the Sox with a 75-87 record, fourth in the AL Central behind Detroit (88-74), Cleveland (79-83) and Kansas City (79-83) but ahead of Minnesota (71-91). While this isn’t the record fans are hoping for, it would represent a 12-game improvement over 2013 (63-99). BP predicts a World Series between Boston or Tampa (both 89-73) and their prohibitive favorite to win the National League, the Los Angeles Dodgers (98-64, a full 10 games better than any other team).
Any team prediction is the sum of its parts, and these are the PECOTA projections for Sox position players:
The plate appearances projected for Jose Abreu are confounding. He wasn’t signed for $68 million over six years to be gently eased into playing. I tweeted Harry Pavlidis, Baseball’s Prospectus’ director of technology, who replied:
@ScottLindholm It may be revised upwards, Tim Collins is leading that up and I think the rule of thumb is conservative PT for newbies.
— Harry Pavlidis (@harrypav) February 5, 2014
It’s difficult to project how well a player from Cuba will adapt — it can be seamless like Yasiel Puig and Yoenis Cespedes or it can fizzle completely like Juan Miranda (Who? That’s my point). Absent a total disaster, Abreu will be the Sox first baseman for 2014. Scaling his production to 600 plate appearances could generate 25-30 home runs, 80-90 RBIs and 2-3 points of WARP, and if he can deliver numbers like that he’ll be worth every penny of his contract.
These are the White Sox pitchers’ projections:
The best pitchers in baseball like Clayton Kershaw or Justin Verlander have projected records of 16-11 and 16-9, respectively — it’s virtually impossible to predict outlier years. At the beginning of 2013, no one said, “I see Max Scherzer going 21-3″ because in the history of baseball only three pitchers have ever had more wins with only three losses. Projections work on what has been seen with educated guesses as to what might occur next, taking numerous factors into account. The projections for the starters are best attempts to reconcile a team record with pitcher performance and will show the most variability of all.
Other useful PECOTA projections regard the likelihood players will produce better or worse than expected. They use four categories:
Breakout — production will increase by 20 percent or more over recent production.
Improve — any improvement, and if the player is expected to stay the same, the number is 50
Collapse — production will decline by 25 percent or more over recent production
Attrition — playing time will decrease by 50 percent or more compared to recent production
These are the values for the Sox position players:
To explain the numbers, the MLB player with the highest value under Breakout is the Twins’ Pedro Florimon, with an 18 percent chance of exceeding the criteria for Breakout, lending hope for Jordan Danks and Adam Eaton. Likewise, only around 60 or so players have an Improve over 50, suggesting Beckham and Viciedo can perform as they have — take that as you will. Josh Phegley‘s chances of collapsing are uncomfortably high. Beyond that, a Sox lineup that has remained similar to previous years is reasonably expected to perform as in recent years.
This chart shows the same information for the pitchers:
There is more variability with pitchers, as they have greater potential for breakout seasons and collapses. The projections suggest Chris Sale will continue to to be one of the best pitchers in the American League, and Jose Quintana and John Danks could join him to provide a solid foundation at the top of the rotation. If this occurs, the Sox will have a chance to be competitive.
The only guarantee is these projections will be wrong for just about every player — some will be overvalued, others shortchanged. Abreu is as close to a blank slate as the White Sox have had in some time — he could hit the cover off the ball from Day 1 and put up a 50-homore, 125-RBI season, but to predict that one might as well pencil in Sale for 27 wins and Nate Jones for 65 saves. The PECOTA projections are simply good faith estimates of what can be expected, and they’ve projected nothing that doesn’t fall within reasonable expectations of what the White Sox might accomplish this year.
The determining factor for the White Sox will be their ability to rebound from a difficult 2013. The BP projections suggest this might be difficult as the combination of an aging lineup, few stars and little immediate help from their farm system point to another challenging year. Take the projections for what they are, very educated guesses for 2014 performances.
In the end, do they differ much from realistic expectations?
Note: All tables adapted from Baseball Prospectus PECOTA projection data
Follow Scott on Twitter @ScottLindholm.