Baseball Prospectus released their PECOTA projections for the 2015 season on January 26. The release of these projections, originally created by stats-guru Nate Silver and la…ter advanced by current Astros statistician Colin Wyers, is one of the first signs that a new season is drawing near. Whether you are a fan looking for something to help pass the time until spring training starts or a fantasy baseball player looking for an edge, these projections deserve some attention. I've pulled out three projections for starting pitchers that standout to me as worthy of a little more investigation.
Cleveland fans might want to look away. The 2014 Cy Young Award winner is not getting much love from PECOTA this winter. Kluber broke out in a major way last season, leading the American League in wins with an 18-9 record while posting the third best strikeout rate and ERA in the league and the best Fielding Independent Pitching (FIP) mark. PECOTA isn't buying it, however. The Indians righty has improved his innings totals, walk rates and strikeout rates with each season he has spent in the majors, but these projections see him taking a major step back. Kluber's projections don't just exclude him from the upper echelon of pitchers, they see him as positively pedestrian.
It is hard to understand exactly why that is though. Stats like wins and ERA are too prone to random variations and external forces to be predictive, but FIP is a reasonably good gauge of true talent and Kluber also had an elite expect FIP (xFIP) rate, a FIP variation that accounts for luck in home run rates. PECOTA nails Kluber with a high Batting Average on Balls in Play (BABIP), in part because he can't hope for much help from a weak Indians defense, but Kluber survived a .316 BABIP last season so that doesn't solve this riddle. The biggest differences PECOTA expects are regression in his elite strikeout rate and his walk rate. That isn't completely unreasonable, but I personally feel like PECOTA has taken things a bit too far in that respect. Kluber probably won't match his excellent 2014 season, but he probably doesn't belong in the same tier as pitchers like Bartolo Colon or Collin McHugh either.
PECOTA might distrust Kluber, but it is absolutely in love with Reds lefty Tony Cingrani. A Shoulder injury and poor performance limited the 25-year-old to just 11 starts last season and he will be fighting for this place in the rotation this spring, but Baseball Prospectus' numbers like his chances more than just a little. These numbers are interested in just being friends, this is painful, heart-shattering, Shakespeare-tragedy style love. PECOTA might not know anything about the health of his shoulder, which is still a question, but it knows all it needs to about his stuff. It completely dismisses the woeful 4.55 ERA and 5.37 FIP in last season's short sample and the concerns it raises about his command and sees him radically improving on his career groundball rate, which has been one of the lowest in baseball to this point in his young career, while also matching his career strikeout rate and his walk rate from 2013.
This projection isn't quite as radical as the Kluber one in my opinion, however. Cingrani is young and his two-year sample of statistics amounts to about one season worth of innings. Given his age and inexperience, he should be expected to improve his command some as he adjusts to life in the big leagues and he has already demonstrated excellent strikeout ability. His minor league track record is very strong as well, and PECOTA is incorporating that into the mix here too. The outlier among the projections is that groundball rate. Cingrani has the 13th lowest groundball rate of any pitcher to pitch more than 150 innings over the past two seasons. Looking at the other names around him on that list, it is almost impossible to find anyone who has topped a 40 percent groundball in a full season. Cingrani is an extreme fly-ball pitcher and pitching in Great American Ballpark makes that a tough way to make a living. Among his fellow fly-ball pitchers Cingrani has the highest home-run-to-fly-ball ratio and that isn't surprising when you consider the environment. Living up to this projection might be a tall order for Cingrani, but it isn't completely far-fetched given his age and talent.
A little less than a year ago, I wrote about some of the more interesting projections for 2014 and I included Cain because one projection system, Steamer, didn't believe in a bounce-back for the one-time ace, while others were cautiously optimistic. We are still a few weeks away from the full release of some of the other systems, but I expect that Cain's PECOTA projection will be an outlier in the other direction this time around. After a down year in 2013, Cain battled injuries and had season-ending elbow surgery to remove bone chips in his throwing arm. PECOTA isn't calling for him to take Madison Bumgarner's spot at the top of the rotation this coming season, but it is fairly bullish, especially compared to Steamer's current projections and his last two seasons.
PECOTA is known for its elephant's memory in comparison to some of the other projection systems and that fact helps explain some of what is going one with Cain. His 90 injury-hampered innings last year haven't done much to change PECOTA's take on him. In this way, the BP projection system lives in a different world than most of us who follow baseball closely, possibly a better one. With twitter feeds rehashing every comment anyone even close to the game makes for hours and endless streams of up-to-the-minute analysis, it is can be hard to recall the not-so-distance past. In that not-so-distance past, Matt Cain was one heck of a pitcher. He was not a dominant strikeout guy or a Cliff Lee-type who would never dream of throwing a pitch out of the zone. He was something else, a kind of enigma, statistically speaking. He was a flash point for any conversation about whether or not pitchers can reliably induce weak contact. But he was also excellent at preventing runs.
Prior to 2013, he had three seasons with an ERA under 3.00 and just one (his rookie season) over 4.00 in seven full seasons. What changed? Not as much as you might think. His 2014 strikeout rate was a career low, but that wasn't his issue in 2013. His walk rate was worse than his career average, but not by leaps and bounds. Most importantly, given his relatively unimpressive career strikeout and walk rates, his BABIP remained extremely low. So how did he end up with two seasons below league-average? Mostly, it was home runs. Cain had been unusually good at suppressing home runs, or at least lucky with them prior to 2013. That year he regressed to the mean and in 2014, he was far worse. PECOTA is betting on another return to the mean, this time in the opposite direction. That is about all that it sees changing, actually. More negative projections expect a slip in BABIP to off-set a more normal HR/FB rate, but PECTOA is betting on his ability to keep that number down. If you can force yourself to think back more than two whole seasons, you might consider it a fairly good bet. His health remains a question right now, but if Cain looks strong this spring he might be an excellent sleeper pick for fantasy players.
These are just a few of the pitching projections that caught my eye. For serious fans and fantasy players, it is well worth the cost of a yearly subscription to Baseball Prospectus (just $35) to get access to the full spreadsheet along with the wealth of insightful analysis the site provides on a daily basis.