One of the ongoing themes of the Buck Showalter/Dan Duquette era of the Orioles has been that they have succeeded without ever getting much, or any, love from the cottage industry of preseason prognosticators. If the 2017 Orioles are at all decent, Birdland will be able to line up for another round of projection bashing. The venerable PECOTA has taken its swing at this year’s team and spit out a 72-90 projected record.
This is the exact record that PECOTA had projected for the 2016 team that went on to win 89 games and make it into the playoffs, succeeding in spite of a starting rotation that was, for a lot of the season, really, really bad. The Orioles have beaten their PECOTA projections in each of the last five seasons, beating it by 10+ wins in four of the five years and 15+ in three of five.
It’s not like PECOTA or the people at Baseball Prospectus who maintain it have some particular grudge against the Orioles that they act out on every February. I’m sure they would much rather be right with their projections than hilariously wrong, such as last year, when they projected that the Tampa Bay Rays would win the AL East with 91 wins. The Rays actually went 68-94.
The Orioles just seem to have some kind of je ne sais quoi that the system simply can’t figure out. To be fair to PECOTA and its masters, many Orioles fans across Birdland probably came away from the 2016 season thinking, “How the heck did these guys make the playoffs?” But there’s a whole lot of daylight between “decent, but not good enough for the postseason” and “72 wins.” It’s not like PECOTA missed by only a little bit.
Looking at BPro’s PECOTA page for the Orioles players (subscription required), it’s not much of a shock why they think that this will be a 72 win team that gives up 818 runs. PECOTA has spit out a starting rotation that is worse than even the worst nightmares of this dedicated pessimist:
- Chris Tillman - 5.06 ERA
- Kevin Gausman - 4.34
- Wade Miley - 4.56
- Ubaldo Jimenez - 4.99
- Dylan Bundy - 4.66
One must agree that an Orioles rotation that ends up looking like that at the end of the year is probably a rotation for a bad baseball team. Where we all are going to depart from PECOTA is thinking that Tillman and Gausman are very likely to put up numbers that bad. Both were under 4 for the 2016 season and should be capable of better still than that.
Bundy is much more of a wild card. How many games will he start? How good will he be? Quotes from the Orioles, especially Showalter, make it sound like he will start a full season worth of games and be pretty good. That’s more optimistic than I feel about him. PECOTA’s guess of ERA and IP (only 101) could well be accurate.
But the rotation was bad last year and the O’s have shown that, to a degree, they can overcome a bad rotation. So it’s not going out on much of a limb to make a projection that the Orioles rotation will be bad again. On the other hand, PECOTA has come out with this for the bullpen:
- Zach Britton - 2.84 ERA
- Brad Brach - 3.96
- Darren O’Day - 3.97
- Mychal Givens - 4.13
- Donnie Hart - 4.88
An area where the Orioles have consistently found success in the Showalter/Duquette era has been in the bullpen, particularly at the very back of the bullpen in their good seasons. If PECOTA looks at the bullpen and thinks this is what they’re going to get, it’s no wonder the Orioles are able to do better than the projections expect.
I’m at a loss to guess at why PECOTA might think that Britton, whose highest ERA in three full seasons as a reliever has been 1.92, will suddenly pop up near 3. To be sure, it’s very, very hard to be as good as a 0.54 ERA and 47-for-47 in save opportunities two years running, but if he was suddenly more than two runs worse, that would be a surprise.
It’s more than just predicting a high ERA. Britton has never had a WHIP over 1 as a reliever and PECOTA spit out a 1.14 WHIP for him. Barring an unexpected disaster, their closer will be better than PECOTA thinks.
Brach is another one with a surprisingly high PECOTA ERA. In five seasons where he’s pitched in at least 30 games at the MLB level, he’s never had an ERA that high, and in the three seasons since coming to Baltimore, his highest ERA has been 3.18. Although he stumbled in the second half last season, he still closed out with an excellent 2.05 ERA.
Even an injured O’Day was better than a 3.97 ERA in 2016, though not by much at 3.77. In the four seasons before that, his highest ERA was 2.28. O’Day is 34 now, so maybe he’s old for a baseball player and that will be the new normal, but maybe he’ll be closer to form and at year’s end we’ll look at PECOTA and laugh.
For players with less MLB experience like Givens and Hart, some volatility is to be expected, but for Givens, that’s a run higher than what he put together last year, and if nothing else, we can be sure that a near-5 ERA Hart isn’t going to stay in the bullpen all year. The Orioles will find someone else. They always have someone else.
It’s not like PECOTA just is incapable of making a low-2 ERA projection for a reliever, either. For just a couple of examples, Yankees reliever Dellin Betances is projected to have a 2.03 ERA for the season. He posted a 3.08 last year.
Indians reliever Andrew Miller, who, like Britton, was a failed MLB starter before becoming an elite reliever, has a projected 2.11 ERA. He’s beaten even that low number each of the last three years. Why don’t they put Britton on this level? I have no idea.
PECOTA is not terrible at everything it does. It’s still around after all this time for a reason. It predicted three of the six division winners correctly last season. PECOTA also nailed eight of the ten postseason teams - every one except for the Orioles and Rangers. It just can’t make sense of the Buck-era Orioles.
I can hardly blame PECOTA for that, because even as a fan of the team, they don’t make much sense to me either. Sometimes, the most rational-seeming explanation for all of this is just, “Orioles magic, baby!” Which is, of course, not very rational at all. I just hope PECOTA is way wrong once again.