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PECOTA projects Phillies for 78 wins

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The annual projection totals by Baseball Prospectus have the Phillies improving, but not quite ready for prime time yet.

American League Division Series Game Four: Cleveland Indians v. New York Yankees

Now that the Top-100 prospect lists are all out of the way, it’s the computers’ turn to take the MLB spotlight. I mean, no one is signing free agents so let’s let the computers have their day in the sun!

Baseball Prospectus’ computer projection system PECOTA is out with their annual numbers and they’re not quite ready to declare the Phillies wild card contenders just yet.

PECOTA’s 2017 NL projections

A 78-84 record would be a 12-game improvement over last year, which jives with the numbers I broke down in my latest Felske Files podcast, although PECOTA gets there through some different calculations.

PECOTA sees the Phils finishing in 3rd place in the NL East, with the New York Mets at 81-81 and the Washington Nationals leading the division with an 89-73 record. Again, none of that is crazy and very believable if the Mets’ starting rotation comes back strong this year, which it could.

The numbers project a Phils offense that would score the 7th-most runs in the National League next season, which would be middle of the pack, and give up the 3rd-most runs, thanks mostly to a starting rotation that contains a lot of question marks at the moment. They also see the Phils as having the worst defense in the NL.

Breaking it down by player, they project Rhys Hoskins as their most valuable position guy, worth 3.1 WARP next season. Aaron Nola is their most valuable player overall, at 3.2 WARP, but some of the other numbers raise an eyebrow or two.

Carlos Santana at 1.7 WARP seems low. After all, he’s been worth 3.4, 3.1, 0.4, 2.6 and 2.4 WARP over the last five seasons. They have Cesar Hernandez at 2.1 WARP, a steep drop from the 3.4 and 3.5 WARPs he’s put up the last two seasons. And Odubel Herrera at 2.2 would be another drop off from his 5.6 and 3.3 seasons the previous two years.

Having Maikel Franco at -0.2 WARP is fine, but is Tommy Joseph really going to be a half-win better than Franco, at 0.2 WARP in 2018? And to have Nick Williams at 0.5 and Aaron Altherr at 0.8 seems low, although the two are most likely going to split time in a corner outfield spot.

Much of this lost value is coming on the defensive side, it seems, and I think the Phils are getting a bad rap here. Santana, Hernandez, Crawford and Herrera are all plus-fielders. Franco can even hold his own at third. Alfaro and Hoskins have a lot of work to do, there’s just no way around that, but I don’t understand why Williams is always rated so poorly, and Altherr is a plus-defender in the corner, too.

This is not a bad defensive group, and certainly not the worst in the NL.

Now, the pitching staff.

Nola at 3.2 is fine. A 1.5 WARP season from Vince Velasquez would be a career high and is actually kind of optimistic. I think a 1.0 WARP season for Jerad Eickhoff balances out that Velasquez optimism, he was worth 2.7 WARP in 2016 and 0.2 last year, so I guess they’re splitting the difference. All told, 5.7 WARP among the top three starters isn’t great.

Of course, for the last two spots, they’re throwing spaghetti at the wall and I can’t blame them.

I do think they’re selling the bullpen short. Hector Neris at 0.4 would be a drop from his 1.2 last year and 2.2 in ‘16. Luis Garcia and Edubray Ramos were both over 1.0 WARP last season, PECOTA has them both a less than a win in 2018. And after putting up a 1.8 WARP season last year for the Phils and Rockies, they have Pat Neshek at 0.2. They’ve also dinged Tommy Hunter from a 1.2 to a 0.4.

I think the ‘pen will be stronger than they project, although if the starting rotation can’t give the Phillies consistent innings, those relievers could be stretched thin.

It’s also important to remember that projections, by their nature, are conservative. Projections always tend to take a more pessimistic view of future outcomes, to play it safe. So much of this can be taken with a grain of salt.

However, I think it’s fair to pinpoint the team as having a high-70s win roster, without the addition of another starting pitcher. But what if they added someone? How much closer does that get them?

Yu Darvish was worth 5.2 WARP last season. Were he to repeat that season, that would push the Phillies to 83 wins. Jake Arrieta was worth 2.5 WARP, so that would push the total to 79-80. Alex Cobb was worth 3.0 WARP in 2017, sending the Phils to about 81 wins, and Lance Lynn’s 2.1 WARP would pus the Phils to the 79-80 range, like Arrieta.

Of course, that’s using last year’s numbers. It’s not an exact science. There’s no real way to predict the future. But the Phillies should take advantage of a weaker NL East and see if the addition of a pitcher like Darvish, Arrieta, Lynn or Cobb could help them compete for a wild card spot next year.

After all, if some of these young Phils players overperform these projections, and fewer perform worse than expected, the Phillies could be looking at a .500 team right now. The projections indicate to me that the team is close enough to make a push in free agency for a helpful starting pitcher.