February 23, 2017
A Single Ray of Hope
Though they aren’t mentioned in the same breath as the Royals and the Orioles, the Rays have revealed a bit of a weakness deep in the cog-spinning heart of PECOTA. Last year our robotic pal picked the plucky, underpowered Boys in Columbia Blue to win the AL East, ahead of the favored Red Sox and Blue Jays. Needless to say, it wasn’t the system’s finest moment, as they finished tied for the second-worst record in baseball, ahead of only the Twins.
Computers know neither love nor regret, however, so PECOTA has returned in 2017 to slot the Rays in at a healthy (if more cautious) 84 wins, a total that places them a single game out of the playoff picture. If there’s something projections hate about the Orioles, something in their bullpen management or their pluck that hides amongst the numbers, cynics claim that the opposite is true of the Rays. Look only at the Steven Souza trade, a prospect adored by the system at near-Wieters levels, as aligning with some priority the team itself places, to find the natural flaws.
While the Rays haven’t been misjudged quite to the level of the Orioles—who have been underrated by an average of a dozen wins per season during the past half-decade—recent history hints that PECOTA has a hard time letting go of the Rays’ recent mini-dynasty.
For three years the Rays have seemed to fall from their stretch of greatness; poor drafting and the rising level of statistical competence throughout the league has cut away at the team’s advantages, throwing the future of the franchise into doubt. And yet PECOTA actually considered these teams to be as strong, if not stronger, than those of the playoff era. So what’s going on? Does PECOTA have a blind spot or is it in our own narratives?
First, let’s break down how 2016 went so terribly wrong for Tampa Bay and computer alike. Below is a list of all Rays position players with at least 100 plate appearances, comparing their projected performance with their actual numbers.
The Rays lost more than 11 wins off their total on offense, a staggering amount. In fact, only one player dramatically outperformed expectations: Steve Pearce, signed on a one-year, $4.75 million contract. Pearce provided 60 excellent games of offense and positional flexibility before straining a hamstring and, after the season was obviously lost, moving to Baltimore in a deadline deal.
The rest of the team hit about as expected, with a few notable exceptions: former first rounder Mikie Mahtook, Pearce’s substitute, was disastrous, and Desmond Jennings wrung out the last drop of hope for his long-past potential stardom. The crescendo of Souza’s strikeout totals was matched only by the stock of the players involved in the three-way trade that brought him there. Finally there was Hank Conger, symbol for the Rays’ attempts to stay ahead of the curve. Instead he symbolized the franchise’s inability to find a catcher with any hitting acumen, and soon found himself out of a job.
But as uninspiring as the offense was, that was never the draw for the Rays bandwagon anyway. It was the defense that was supposed to make the team special. It was the defense, led by Conger and standout center fielder Kevin Kiermaier, that made them an elite club. It proved to be a reminder of the fickleness of defense and defensive metrics. The Rays gave up a whopping six wins off their projected win total on the field. Kiermaier had a rough year, or the two-thirds of it he played; Conger’s framing skills never arrived, and just about everyone else underperformed to various levels of unseemliness.
On the pitching side, the situation was somewhat rosier.
Here, there are reasons for optimism: the projected pitchers actually threw more innings than expected, meaning the team made fewer trips to the dump for spare parts. Chris Archer overcame a rough start to beat his conservative estimate, while Jake Odorizzi and Matt Andriese appeared to take a step forward. The bullpen was underwhelming in general, with Brad Boxberger never rediscovering his 2015 form.
That explains part of it. Pythagoras played his part as well; the Rays underperformed their runs scored/allowed ratio by nine wins, anchored by a 13-27 record in one-run games. The bullpen was poor but not Reds-level; they just always seemed to give up one more than they could make up.
So that sums up 2016. What about this year? I compiled a list of 2016 performance by position and compared it to PECOTA’s 2017 projections, in an attempt to see where PECOTA generates its optimism:
The Rays have moved around a lot of pieces, but in essence the offense can be explained in a few transactions. They’ve replaced Brandon Guyer at designated hitter with Colby Rasmus in left field, Pearce at first base with Matt Duffy at shortstop, Logan Forsythe with backup Nick Franklin, and Conger and some of Curtis Casali’s plate appearances with Wilson Ramos as soon as it’s physically possible. The rest is all regression: Kiermaier upward, Evan Longoria and Tim Beckham downward. The majority of the improvement comes from the catchers doing anything, Kiermaier getting back to MVP-downvote level, and Mahtook not being allowed on the premises.
Meanwhile, a hopefully healthy Alex Cobb and newly-acquired Jose De Leon replace Drew Smyly and Matt Moore, with the rest of the rotation essentially identical. Cobb’s return is vital for the club, and hardly a given. Here PECOTA’s conservative nature toward starting pitchers is a major factor: only Archer and Odorizzi project to top 160 innings, and DRAs hover around 4.50 across the rotation. And that’s an issue: since the Rays hold a two-times-through-the-order philosophy, their starters had better be excellent. Because this is a bullpen, on paper, that isn’t going to lock down the sixth and seventh innings like an Orioles or a Yankees club. Based on how their talent is devoted, manager Kevin Cash may have to loosen the reins on his starters out of necessity.
How is it possible that a team that lost 94 games, that sold some of its starters for current backups in De Leon and Mallex Smith, that essentially spent the offseason treading water, finishes with a winning record? The answer lies in how you feel about projection systems in general. PECOTA doesn’t think in terms of teams, or team performance; it doesn’t care about leverage or one-run games. It simply looks at the value of individual players, adds them up, and divides by the league. And from that standpoint, PECOTA looks at the 2016 Rays and doesn’t see a 68-win team. It counts 33 WARP, less than it expected but certainly plenty. Even with the roster changes, it sees a team that’s above average both on the mound and down the lineup.
How you react to this news is entirely up to you; cynicism is not only your privilege, but it’s entirely logical. It depends on where you starting point is: performance or talent. If you start with performance, you can look at that Souza projection, snicker, and hack a win off there; you can blindfold yourself, throw a dart at Franklin’s career stats, and go with whichever year you land on. You can look at Brad Miller’s home run total from 2016 and rub your eyes like a wolf in a cartoon. The roster is thin: Tampa Bay can’t afford to go buy low-upside thirtysomethings like Howie Kendrick to plug holes.
But if you come from the other side, there are reasons for optimism. The 91 wins that PECOTA estimated last year were based on a few major tentpoles: on Kiermaier providing 130 games of the best defense in baseball, on Conger being worth two wins on framing alone. This year the Rays don’t need to rely on five wins from their defense; PECOTA gives them just one. And if you looked down that rotation and envisioned more than a single pitcher cracking two wins, that’s fine too. And the bullpen? It’s a bullpen, regress away. This is a club with a lot of variance in it, a lot of career highs and career lows close in the rear-view mirror.
PECOTA is a projection system, not a prediction system. It can only look at the roster as it stands, today, and judge. But the truth is that while some teams have the resources to patch the inevitable leaks along the long season, the Rays lack these. Next year, prospects like Willy Adames, Brent Honeywell, and Jake Bauers will be ready to prop up the roster; 2017 is kind of an in-between year, a single roll of the dice.
But that’s not the narrative. The narrative is that the Rays feel like a bad team, a maybe-last-place-for-a-couple-years team, like they’re getting swept in the wrong direction. Maybe they are. They certainly have lost, through the David Price and Souza trades, through that disastrous 2011 draft, that sense of invincibility. There’s no wellspring of hope in the farm, no margin for error, at least not this year. But despite the mistakes and missed opportunities, despite the limitations, the Rays still might have a pretty fair team, depending on how you look at them.