The beginning of each new baseball season marks the annual tradition of prognosticators attempting to prognosticate how each individual player will do, how each team will fare, and how the divisions will shake out when all is said and done. Baseball Prospectus' PECOTA (Player Empirical Comparison and Optimization Test Algorithm) projections are another educated attempt at playing psychic on a 162-game season that will inevitably have twists and turns that flip all pre-season projections on their head, but there is value in seeing mathematical data behind what amounts to guessing. Besides, we're still a few days away from Spring Training games, so what better to occupy our time with than discussing the rapidly approaching season before us?
According to this season's PECOTA projections, the Yankees' quiet offseason and questionable projected lineup won't keep them from taking home the American League East crown again in 2013 by an impressive six-game margin with 92 wins. It seems a bit optimistic to have the Yankees coasting to that easy of a victory in one of the more difficult divisions in baseball, especially considering the gaping holes in their lineup that have not been filled. Can a team with a fragile left side of the infield, an offensive black hole at catcher, and a potentially historically powerless outfield really take the AL East on the backs of a question mark-riddled pitching staff by six games? I'm skeptical. I believe in this team as a perennial playoff threat, but I'm just not sure I see them running away with their division as one of the teams tied for the second-most wins in baseball behind the Dodgers by only one game.
Of interesting note is that the Yankees are projected to score one more run than they did last season while allowing 23 more on the defensive side of the ball. Assuming that Francisco Cervelli ends up as the starting catcher and that Derek Jeter will be a little less mobile on his surgically-repaired ankle, you can see a bit of room for more runs allowed. The idea that the 2013 Yankees will almost identically match the offensive output of last year's team does not seem very plausible to me. Replacing Russell Martin with the three(four?)-headed monster of Cervelli, Bobby Wilson, Chris Stewart, and Austin Romine may be a small-to-somehow significant drop off in offense, depending on who gets the nod as the everyday catcher. Nick Swisher's void in the outfield will be felt on the offensive side of the ball more than on defense, especially considering his power will be replaced by the light-hitting Brett Gardner and Ichiro Suzuki. Swish's loss may be mitigated slightly by the uptick in defense from the speedier guys, but it seems unlikely that they will make up for his production at the plate. The Yankees could still very well win the division, but I'm not sure it will be because they were able to replicate their offensive numbers from a year ago if they manage to accomplish it.
These projections see a huge bounce back for the Boston Red Sox, who sold off the majority of their good players to the Los Angeles Dodgers a year ago before putting Bobby Valentine and his associated heap of trash out at the curb. Their added players may help them be less of an embarrassment than they were last season, but rebounding to the tune of 86 wins, good enough for a tie for second place in the AL East, seems quite optimistic to me once again. PECOTA has the Tampa Bay Rays tying the 86-win mark, which I think is one of the more reasonable projections for the division. Their pitching staff will once again be incredibly strong, but the questions that surround their offense will continue. If they can score runs, they will be a dangerous team with the ability to vie for the division crown; but that's a big if.
PECOTA also seems to believe that the Orioles' success in 2012 was a fluke; an opinion that many fans seem to share after their improbable playoff run last season. It would be very difficult to replicate their 2012 success again, particularly in the bullpen and one-run game record. If you conclude that the entirety of Baltimore's success came from unsustainable success in those two departments and nowhere else, it's easy to place the Birds back in the AL East cellar for the upcoming season. Baseball isn't played on paper, as the saying goes, and improbable things do happen. The Orioles can go a long way toward proving that last year wasn't a fluke by keeping their heads above water in the division this season.
Perhaps the most surprising projection is for the revamped Toronto Blue Jays team that acquired most of the former Miami Marlins team, in addition to R.A. Dickey and Melky Cabrera to go along with a formidable offensive foundation of Jose Bautista and Edwin Encarnacion. Plenty of question marks surround this team -- how will the former Marlins do in the AL East, and can Jose Reyes, Josh Johnson, and others manage to stay healthy? Picking them to be world beaters may be too far on the optimistic side, but unless most everything goes wrong, I'm not sure I see them as next-to-last in the East, even though only by one game. Because the middle-three teams are bunched together so tightly, someone is going to be the odd man out. I'd think it was more logical to put the Red Sox there instead of the Blue Jays, but I guess it's easier to go with the more recent successful team than the team that might look best purely on paper.
The best projections in the world mean very little once the actual season gets underway, and we are right at the beginning of that now with pitchers and catchers reporting to Tampa this morning. Remember when the Red Sox were supposed to be the best thing since the 1927 Yankees? Remember when the Angels were a near-lock for a playoff run after signing Albert Pujols and C.J. Wilson? Winter is long and boring without baseball, so you might as well have fun with it and try your hand at being Nostradamus with all the mathematical data available to back you up. PECOTA is just another tool for evaluation ahead of the actual season, and their numbers paint a rosier picture for the Yankees than I think most Yankee fans would even hope for. If that turns out to be what we actually get this season, I will sing the praises of PECOTA as often as I can. In an offseason where there hasn't been a lot to be optimistic about, it's at least something.