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In PECOTA We (Do Not) Trust for the Cardinals

MLB: Pittsburgh Pirates at St. Louis Cardinals

After a disappointing 86 win season, the Cardinals look to improve on that total and enter the playoffs. PECOTA, Baseball Prospectus’ projection system, says we should not get our hopes up, as it projects only 77 wins and a tie for third place with Milwaukee in the division.

Now it may seem weird to be angry at a computer projection system, especially considering that it has absolutely no impact on the season. Yet that is exactly what many Cardinals bloggers have seemed to do, show anger for a computer system. I’ll try to take a different approach, and discuss where it might be right, which is pretty much the worst case scenario for the Cardinals next season, and where I see the Cardinals outperforming their PECOTA projections.

The Cardinals last season struggled mightily getting on base. Where their offense came from was the long ball, as players like Jedd Gyorko hit lots of homeruns, more than they are likely to hit next season. With the loss of Brandon Moss, the pinch-hit homerun becomes less of a factor, and should the rest of the Cardinals’ lineup regress to career power numbers the offense might get ugly.

What I believe happened in these projections is that it overvalued power regression for Cardinals’ hitters while undervaluing their improvements in batting average. Take Stephen Piscotty, who last season hit .273, with 22 homeruns. A very solid season. That contributed to a 2.9 WAR in his first full season. PECOTA projects that his WAR will decline to 2.3, still good, but not quite where he was this season. In this way, I think PECOTA made a mistake. For a sizeable stretch in the season, Piscotty appeared exhausted, not fully ready for the 162 game grind. During that stretch his batting average plummeted. Should he stay healthy next season, he should be more prepared to play every day, which could improve his batting average.

The fundamental problem right now with computer projection programs is that they cannot actually interpret what is seen by fans when watching the games. What PECOTA sees instead of a tired Stephen Piscotty is just a stretch of baseball where he played poorly.

PECOTA also projects every single Cardinals’ starter to have an ERA above 4.00. Yes, even Carlos Martinez, who is expected to have an ERA of 4.20. How this number popped out of the math confuses me. In his two seasons starting, his ERA has hovered around 3.00, and has not been anywhere close to 4.00 since 2014, when he was pitching both out of the bullpen and as a starting pitcher. Barring a catastrophic meltdown, I struggle to see Martinez with a 4.20 ERA next season.

The rest of the Cardinals’ pitching rotation makes a little more sense, although I still think that PECOTA is showing us the absolute bottom of what the Cardinals can achieve next season.

In my opinion the Cardinals as a team under-performed in 2016, for a variety of reasons: injuries, weak starts, defense, but PECOTA viewed 2016 differently, expecting Cardinals’ players individually to experience serious regression, even the young players who should be improving next year.

The Cardinals do not have a superstar, and that is both their strength and their weakness. Their lineup is filled with players who are solid contributors, but not elite MVP-caliber players. In the pitching staff, Carlos Martinez is a number one pitcher, but has yet to reach the level that Max Scherzer, Madison Bumgarner, 2014 Adam Wainwright, have pitched at. He could very well reach that tier next season should he continue his progression and should the Cardinals’ defense be more reliable.

PECOTA, and projection systems in general seem to undervalue the kinds of players the Cardinals have, expecting regressions from being a very solid contributor to an average MLB player. While, worst case scenario, PECOTA may be right about next season, do not get your hopes down. I mean, what is the chance the Cardinals finish with a worse record than the Twins (who won only 59 games last season)? In my opinion, not very high.

Photo Credit: Jeff Curry-USA TODAY Sports