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Fun with the A’s PECOTA projections, which aren’t fun at all

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Another projection system isn’t fond of the A’s chances.

MLB: Texas Rangers at Oakland Athletics Neville E. Guard-USA TODAY Sports

We’re still in the heart of no real baseball, so let’s take a look at another well respected but not perfect projection system. This week’s system is PECOTA, Nate Silver’s baby from over a decade ago. What is PECOTA?

Stands for Player Empirical Comparison and Optimization Test Algorithm. PECOTA is BP's proprietary system that projects player performance based on comparison with historical player-seasons. There are three elements to PECOTA:

1) Major-league equivalencies, to allow us to use minor-league stats to project how a player will perform in the majors;

2) Baseline forecasts, which use weighted averages and regression to the mean to produce an estimate of a player's true talent level;

3) A career-path adjustment, which incorporates information about how comparable players' stats changed over time.

Overall, PECOTA is a good but imperfect projection system, and we should at least consider its message, which is basically to stop being an A’s fan and get a new hobby.

The overall standings

The especially fun thing about PECOTA is its specificity. Unlike ZiPS or STEAMER, PECOTA endeavors to project playing time, thereby enabling them to project standings. This is of course ambitious and therefore often wrong, but that’s okay.

Team win projections are available for all to see, and those can be found here. To locate the A’s, simply turn your eyes towards the AL West Column, look down, no lower, yes there, past the Los Angeles Mike Trouts to find your last-place projected A’s. That last place finish is estimated at a 75-87 record, which sadly and completely seriously made me think “hey, that’s not that bad”.

That’s not that bad is a relative term, as of course, 75-87 is pretty dang bad. But it’d be a step up from the past two seasons in terms of win total, and a team with 75 win talent could easily find themselves in the conversation of .500, which would be a solid year for the green and gold.

In baseball as a whole, things look rather boring for a second straight year. PECOTA envisions exactly one captivating division race (the NL East), with every other division being won by at least six games. In our very own division, PECOTA sees the Astros winning the crown with a robust 94 wins, seven games better than the Seattle Mariners who would, in this scenario, host the Wild Card game. That’d mark the first playoff appearance for the Mariners since 2001.

If you’re wary of those standings, you have reason to be. PECOTA has whiffed on the Rangers in two consecutive years, possibly indicating something systemic. The Astros are indeed stacked, though, and have had a fruitful offseason thus far. Might this be the year they really tap into the resources gained during their mid-50s win campaigns of earlier this decade?

Overall, it’s clear that baseball has lost its divisional parity, something that made seasons from early this decade so very much fun. Hopefully things will shake out to be more competitive than they appear on paper!

So how’d we get there?

PECOTA’s player stats require a paid subscription, and in the interest of not being a total wiener, I won’t copy pasta the entire A’s team here. If you are a subscriber, you can find individual projections here. However, we can talk about some interesting trends!

The A’s won’t get on base (again)

Not really a surprise here, but PECOTA projects a .305 OBP for the A’s as a team. If that sounds bad, it’s because it’s bad. The league average OBP last year was .322, something only two A’s are projected to eclipse, per PECOTA. Those players are Yonder Alonso and Matt Joyce, which, ew and okay.

.305 is actually higher than last years’ team OBP (by .001!) so this is something you’re used to. And it’s not like the A’s signed a bunch of OBP threats, so this was destiny. But if there’s a hallmark of boring, it’s an inability to even threaten to score by getting on base, so excitement will have to come from other places in 2017.

The rotation might not be our savior

If there’s a reason for optimism, it’s the A’s pitching staff. Sonny Gray has nearly won a Cy Young award, Sean Manaea was a top prospect before a successful Major League cup of coffee, Jharel Cotton’s changeup defies physics, and so on and so forth.

The projections are less bullish, probably due to an overall lack of experience among many of the A’s young starters. Most pitchers experience growing pains as they ascend to the bigs, and the A’s have only one starter who has even reached arbitration. PECOTA is probably wary of the A’s youth.

Over the course of baseball history, there’s been thousands of pitchers who have shown bursts of greatness like much of the staff did late last year. Most of those have failed to sustain that success, and a historically based system like PECOTA will naturally be bearish. It wouldn’t be a surprise to see the A’s staff take huge leaps forward, and be the anchor of a team in transition. It’s also possible the staff experiences growing pains, and their development isn’t guaranteed.

Personally, I’m excited about the A’s rotation and think the projection systems miss out here. For one, their success last year came with such a horrific defense, and a high ERA would be somewhat a product of their surroundings.

The A’s have historically been excellent at scouting and finding pitching, and I have faith that will continue with this batch. Their stuff looks good, they’re development has been tangible, and Curt Young has proven able to optimize pitchers to their peak potential.

Ryon Healy, meet BABIP cliff

The projection systems all agree, Healy is headed for a sophomore slump. PECOTA’s numbers are particularly rough, projecting just a .290 OBP for the young slugger.

Again, this isn’t a surprise. Projection systems are wary of sudden breakouts and don’t consider huge factors like a nearly complete swing change.

That said, Ryon Healy isn’t the first player to remake his swing and untap his power stroke. PECOTA is wary because guys who have shown small sample abilities to mash in the past haven’t always gone on to mash in the future. Personally, I believe in Healy and his adjustments enough to think he’ll have a solid sophomore campaign. The projections are a necessary reminder that it’s not a guarantee.