JUPITER, Fla. — Not since the 2006 World Series champions reunion tour came apart in such fractured fashion that ownership had to promote John Mozeliak to put the brand back together have the Cardinals had a losing season. They’ve gone 12 consecutive seasons with a winning record, and no other team in the National League can say that.
That run is about to come to an unceremonious ending.
So says PECOTA.
Baseball Prospectus’ highly regarded super-prediction machine, originally choreographed by Nate Silver, spun into action and spit out the likely results of the 2020 baseball season. The predictions are unkind to the Cardinals. According to the thousands upon thousands of simulations run by PECOTA, the Cardinals have a high probability of finishing with a losing record, at 80-82. That’s good enough for third place in the NL Central, behind the hard-charging Cincinnati Reds (86-76) and the second-place Chicago Cubs (85-77).
In the current format for the playoffs, the Cardinals would not reach the postseason. In the proposed format for a new playoff format, as disclosed in a recent article by the New York Post, the Cardinals would be one of the teams in the playoffs, with a losing record. Swell.
Baseball Prospectus’ PECOTA projections are one in an industry of such preseason prognostications. There’s also the ZIPS projections done at FanGraphs.com, Steamer, and in the Bill James Handbook that comes out annually there are projections as well. PECOTA, which stands for “Player Empirical Comparison and Optimization Test Algorithm,” has as its statistical backbone a comparison – to history, over time, and for players against similar players. Those act as mathematical guardrails for the predictions. When it comes to the standings, Baseball Prospectus stresses that the above numbers mentioned are averages of the scope of outcomes. The simulations are run over and over and over again and thus present a wide range of possible outcomes for the season and individual team.
There are simulations where the Cardinals win 100 games.
There are simulations where the Cardinals exuviate into a blubbering mess of a team and lose more than 100 games.
On average, right there in the heart of the bell curve of outcomes, they are just a losing team – hovering around .500, profoundly meh.
They defined projections before.
“Yes, we know they won 91 games last year,” Rob Mains writes in the PECOTA explanation, ‘Why PECOTA Hates Your Favorite Team, 2020 Edition.’ “And they haven’t had a losing record since 2007. And there’ll be some nobody who’ll give them four wins. All givens. But what have they done to improve themselves in 2020?”
This is not only a question asked repeatedly by the fan base – especially in the chat, and all over social media – but also reflected in any of the projections you visit.
The Cardinals insist their offense will improve from within.
The advanced projections are skeptical.
While conservative by the nature of their algorithms, the projections entering this season do not see the robust rebound of the offense that the Cardinals are betting on. From Bill James to PECOTA to ZIPS, the projections see some upticks, but few breakouts or bounce backs. Matt Carpenter, who is at the center of the Cardinals’ Project Rebound, is primed to improve upon his 2019 according to the projections, but not to thunder away like he did in 2018. The numbers:
PECOTA: .241/.351/.430, .780 OPS, 19 HR
ZIPS: .240/.354/.444, .798 OPS, 2.6 WAR
Bill James: .246/.362/.444, .806 OPS, 19 HR, 76 RC
Likewise, Paul Goldschmidt’s production will swing back, and the Bill James Handbook is especially bullish on his second year with the Cardinals.
PECOTA: .268/.380/.456, .836 OPS, 21 HR
ZIPS: .262/.361/.465, .826 OPS, 2.8 WAR
Bill James: .281/.382/.507, .889, 33 HR
Carpenter and Goldschmidt, however, are the only everyday players – and that qualification is important – projected to have the .800 OPS that the Cardinals feel they can replace so readily as Marcell Ozuna leaves. Tyler O’Neill does come close, and PECOTA is especially high on him.
The rest of the lineup:
PECOTA: .244/.334/.371, .705 OPS, 9 HR
ZIPS: .270/.351/.407, .758 OPS, 2.8 WAR
Bill James: .269/.349/.407, .756 OPS, 11 HR
PECOTA: .251/.318/.445, .763 OPS, 24 HR
ZIPS: .249/.320/.455, .775 OPS, 3.6 WAR
Bill James: .249/.323/.468, .791 OPS, 29 HR
PECOTA: .237/.328/.385, .713 OPS, 5 HR
ZIPS: .234/.337/.399, .736 OPS, 0.8 WAR
Bill James: .244/.347/.408, .755 OPS, 13 HR
PECOTA: .249/.307/.391, .698 OPS, 11 HR
ZIPS: .258/.302/.395, .697 OPS, 1.8 WAR
Bill James: .270/.320/.406, .725 OPS, 11 HR
PECOTA: .244/.310/.482, .792 OPS, 23 HR
ZIPS: .245/.302/.468, .770 OPS, 0.9 WAR
Bill James: .233/,298/.472, .770 OPS, 10 HR
PECOTA: .240/.305/.393, .698 OPS, 18 HR
ZIPS: .238/.321/.413, .734 OPS, 2.5 WAR
Bill James: .234/.321/.410, .731 OPS, 14 HR
PECOTA: .229/.276/.404, .680 OPS, 12 HR
ZIPS: .231/.297/.386, .683 OPS, 0.8 WAR
Bill James: .229/.310/.413, .723 OPS, 7 HR
PECOTA: .250/.300/.381, .681 OPS, 12 HR
ZIPS: .269/.315/.408, .723 OPS, 2.6 WAR
Bill James: .291/.343/.437, .780 OPS, 8 HR
As you can see the projections have varied opinions on Edman, and some of that could trace back to a defining trait of any projections: Playing time. They’re projecting that, too. With a stacking stat like WAR that could hold a player back. Enter Thomas. For a player like Carpenter, who is projected to see his playing time erode to 459 at-bats this season, it would explain why some of the counting stats are light, like the projected 75-76 runs he’s to score or the 76 runs the Bill James Handbook suggest he’ll create.
There is one Cardinals player that the Bill James Handbook adores more than the others, and that is in large part because it’s working off the belief that he’ll get 476 at-bats this season.
With the numbers published Dylan Carlson could win rookie of the year.
Bill James: .256/.341/.479, .820 OPS, 22 HR, 83 runs, 78 RC
The other projections are lighter but positive for the top prospects.
PECOTA: .220/.280/.351, .631 OPS, 16 HR (530 PA!)
ZIPS: .246/.321/.430, .751 OPS, 1.7 WAR
A year ago, the Cubs were so irked by PECOTA’s projection that they would have a losing year that it was featured as bulletin board material in spring training. The Cardinals have an ongoing run of outperforming PECOTA in part because of the arrival of young players like Edman in 2019 or the roster reorganization that has beefed-up the bullpen in years. The Cardinals were pegged to win 86 games by PECOTA entering 2019. They won 91.
They haven’t been projected by PECOTA to win more than 90 games in many years, and over the past five seasons they’ve outperformed PECOTA by an average of five wins.
Most of that came in 2015.
Projected to win 89, the Cardinals won 100.
“The Twins look a lot like a classic Cardinals team in that there are no real superstars but very few real weaknesses, making the chances of an actually louse season quite small,” FanGraphs author Dan Szymborski wrote as he unveiled his ZIPS projections. “In fact, the Twins might be a better Cardinals team than the 2020 Cardinals, as there are holes here, starting in the outfield.”
There is one filler for that outfield hole that some of the projections do seem to like based on his age, past performance, comparable players and such. Ozuna is targeted for 95 RC and 29 home runs and that .841 OPS that the Cardinals crave, according to Bill James. As it is with the standings, PECOTA is more sober with its projection.
It pegs Ozuna for a .776 OPS.
The Cardinals think they can cover that with internal options and some regression to the mean. Projections see only regression.