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The unprojectable teams of 2017

There are a few perspectives on the upcoming season now available, and they don’t always agree.

Wild Card Game - Baltimore Orioles v Toronto Blue Jays Photo by Vaughn Ridley/Getty Images

There are a number of projection systems available, doing their very best to predict the upcoming system as accurately as possible. It’s an impossible task, but one they do a remarkably good job of. PECOTA, from Baseball Prospectus, came out today, which joins Steamer (available at FanGraphs) as the two major systems that are now fully released.

A second perspective is nice, not just because it gives us something else to do while waiting for the snow to melt, but because a basic average of projection systems often produces a more accurate result than any one individually. When two projection systems disagree about a player or team, that might tell us something about both projections, and the likely future of the thing being projected.

Both BP and FanGraphs use PECOTA and Steamer, respectively, to project the expected wins of every team in baseball, along with their runs scored and runs allowed. With the foregoing introduction in mind, here are some of the more interesting points of biggest disagreement, and a prediction of what it might mean for the 2017 season.

St. Louis Cardinals: 77 wins (PECOTA), 84 wins (Steamer)

We start things off with everyone’s favorite team, who have had a remarkable run of success in the last decade, averaging 89 wins per season and falling below .500 only once, and not at all in the last nine years. But PECOTA thinks they’ll match that dubious feat again in 2017, while Steamer is substantially more optimistic.

The difference comes primarily from the pitchers. PECOTA thinks none of the Cardinals’ starters will be even average, with Adam Wainwright (1.5 WARP), Mike Leake (1.8), and Carlos Martinez (1.7) combining to form an uninspiring front of the rotation. Steamer is much more bullish on Martinez in particular, more than doubling his projection (3.7 WAR), but also on Wainright (2.8) and Leake (2.3). Most interesting is that FanGraphs’ FIP-based fWAR and BP’s DRA-based WARP mostly agreed on Martinez’s 2016 (3.3 fWAR vs. 2.9 WARP); they simply disagree about which way he’s trending for 2017.

The Cardinals are in a tough spot, sharing a division with the powerhouse Cubs. If their rotation takes a nosedive, as PECOTA projects, any chance of separation between them and the Wild Card scrum will vanish, and make the path to continued Cardinals excellence that much harder.

Los Angeles Angels: 79 wins (PECOTA), 84 wins (FanGraphs)

Before saying anything else, I’d like to note that the Angels are projected to nearly match the Cardinals in both systems, which is not a sentence I expected to write for a few reasons. The Angels have been a subject for discussion for a chunk of the offseason now, as people looked at that 84-win projection from FanGraphs and wondered if that could possibly be right. They’re a team with no farm system and several gaping roster holes, but also a team with Mike Trout, so you can see it, if you squint.

PECOTA’s not seeing it, though. On the pitching side, it doesn’t think Matt Shoemaker will repeat his solid 2016, projecting him for a subaverage 1.9 WARP where Steamer projects him for 3.2 WAR. It’s also pessimistic about Garrett Richards’s return from Tommy John, pegging him for 1.7 WARP versus Steamer's 2.5 WAR (and in 40 fewer innings to boot).

Among position players, there are two notable differences, involving players about as distinct as possible. PECOTA projects Trout for 7.7 WARP in center field, which would be the lowest of his career by nearly a full win, while Steamer puts him at 8.6 WAR, still below average for Trout but more in line with his past performance. This might have something to do with PECOTA’s method of projecting; generating comparable players for Mike Trout is nearly impossible, as everyone — literally everyone — was worse than he was through age 25.

On the other end of the baseball skill spectrum, there’s Yunel Escobar, projected for 1.5 WAR by Steamer and -1.1 WARP by PECOTA. Escobar is not good, but PECOTA’s projection of him is still somewhat remarkable, as it thinks both his defense and offense will collapse from their acceptable performance in 2016. It disagrees with FanGraphs on his defense over the last few years — BP has him as truly terrible, compared to FG’s view of him as merely bad — but the offensive metrics line up for the most part. Escobar is a strange player to have the outcome of a season turn on, but if he can hit and field like he did last year, the possibility of an Angels Wild Card run is a lot less remote.

Baltimore Orioles: 71 wins (PECOTA), 79 wins (Steamer)

No discussion of projections would be complete without the Orioles. Or maybe that’s backward, given how much the Orioles have seemed to defy the projections in the last five years. Still, the difference between the two systems is enormous, and if the Orioles are starting with a 79-win roster on talent, as Steamer projects, using witchcraft and similar shenanigans to sneak into the playoffs is a lot more plausible than if they’re starting with 71 wins.

The difference is totally one-dimensional; both systems think the Orioles will be not good at preventing runs, and their projections of 5.0 runs allowed per game differ only by a rounding error. But PECOTA thinks the Orioles will hit like a mediocre team, while Steamer projects them to match their run allowing with run scoring.

There are some differences scattered throughout the respective Orioles projections, but the one that jumps out is Manny Machado’s. PECOTA projects him for a .280 TAv, precisely equal to his career average and below his past two years, while Steamer projects him for a 133 wRC+ that would basically match his 2015 and ‘16. It’s difficult to say which is right; Machado hit the snot out of the ball last year, as measured by exit velocity, especially on line drives and fly balls (where exit velocity matters most). While he struck out more and walked less, he compensated with greater power, and PECOTA thinks he won’t maintain it, nor regain his prior on-base friendly approach.

The takeaway from the above? Young, superstar players are unpredictable, and play a huge role in their team’s range of outcomes as a result. If I had simply told you before this article that the 2017s of the Cardinals, Angels, and Orioles would turn most on the performance of Carlos Martinez, Mike Trout, and Manny Machado, respectively, you would’ve wondered why I wasted the words. But it’s not my fault; like I said, there’s a lot of snow, and a lot of winter still to go until we can see these young players actually do their thing. May it fly by for you and me both.