With Spring Training just over a week away, season predictions and projections are starting to roll out. While the slow offseason free agent market could make these projections very much a work in progress, they are still a fun snapshot of where things stand heading into the regular season.
First, a disclaimer: projection systems such as PECOTA are very much like prospect lists. Different systems value different things and it is best to take them all into account and form an opinion. With that said, Baseball Prospectus annual PECOTA rankings were released Wednesday morning and project the Atlanta Braves for a 76-86 record and a fourth place finish in the NL East.
An interesting note is the Braves are projected to be the best defensive team in the East and the third best in all of the National League in terms of Baseball Prospectus Fielding Runs Above Average metric. That is worth mentioning given that it was a stated goal by new general manager Alex Anthopoulos entering the offseason. Getting Matt Kemp out of left field and replacing him with Ronald Acuna will pay big dividends and the Braves are banking on a better season from shortstop Dansby Swanson along with a full season of Ozzie Albies at second.
Where the Braves fall short is offensively, where they are projected for 704 runs, the fewest in the division for anyone not named the Marlins. Additionally, PECOTA predicts some growing pains for Atlanta’s young pitching staff with 757 runs allowed which is tied for 11th in the National League.
Individually, Freddie Freeman is unsurprisingly projected as the Braves’ top performer even if the power totals are a bit underwhelming at .293/.384/.508 with 25 home runs. He is projected to be worth 3.2 WARP which is the Baseball Prospectus version of Wins Above Replacement.
Ozzie Albies is second at 2.9 WARP and followed by Tyler Flowers (2.7), Ender Inciarte (2.6) and Dansby Swanson (1.2).
PECOTA also predicts Ronald Acuna for a .268/.320/.450 line with 20 home runs in 500 plate appearances with a 0.9 WARP.
On the pitching side, Sean Newcomb is projected to be Atlanta’s best starter in terms of WARP at 1.3. PECOTA pegs him for 127 1/3 innings, a 3.87 ERA and 4.31 DRA. DRA = Deserved Run Average for those wondering.
That would be pretty appealing for Newcomb and will be a pretty good test case for PECOTA according to Baseball Prospectus writer Zach Crizer who took a closer look at Newcomb’s projection.
It’s not a special projection, but … it’s pretty good! And it’s perhaps the one that confronted my biased human instincts most forcefully. What I’ll draw your attention to is the combination of process statistics that inform Newcomb’s overall numbers. The main arc of his development–can he throw enough strikes?–seems to take a backseat, in PECOTA’s eyes, to these numbers: 10.3 SO/9, 44.5 percent ground-ball rate. History says that combination in a starter produces good things basically every single time. His ERA projection is almost a dead-on match for Danny Salazar‘s very similar and totally useful 2016 season.
The least successful seasons meeting those criteria unsurprisingly occurred very recently (2016 Robbie Ray and Michael Pineda), but to especially homer-prone hurlers. The question, then, morphs into a wider one: At what point do strikeout- and grounder-inducing abilities not paint enough of a picture to provide a general forecast of a pitcher’s effectiveness? As observers, it feels like we have already subconsciously decided we’re past that point. But PECOTA, steady Eddie that it is, has not. Newcomb could give us a better idea of where we stand.
Mike Foltynewicz is projected just behind Newcomb with a 1.2 WARP and is followed by Julio Teheran (1.1) and Luiz Gohara (0.5). Interesting that PECOTA isn’t as high on Gohara as some of the other projections systems out there. Also interesting is that the system does not believe in veteran Brandon McCarthy who is at minus-0.5.
Again, these are projections that should be taken in context but it is interesting look at the team as spring training nears.