Over the last few days, Baseball Prospectus has been rolling out their yearly PECOTA projection updates, and included in that is the initial take on the division standings. The system projects that three teams — Yankees, Tigers, & Reds — will tie for the second-best record in the majors with 92 wins.
Only one team is projected to beat that, with 93 wins. That team is the Dodgers. I’m not sure if that’s fantastic news or the outright kiss of death.
Just like any projection system, PECOTA is to be taken as an educated guess rather than anything set in concrete, although it did famously nail the 2007 collapse of the White Sox to within one game. Personally, I think it’s underselling Washington (88-74) and perhaps Toronto (85-77), though I’m glad to see that it agrees with me that Baltimore (74-88) is going to sink like a rock to the bottom of the AL East. (In Toronto’s case, at least, the entire existence of R.A. Dickey is understandably confounding to projection systems, which hurts the Blue Jay projection.)
Back to the Dodgers, I don’t think anyone here really sees them as being the “best team in baseball,” simply because there’s so many questions here — ones we’ve been over all winter, like health issues in the rotation and in the outfield, a weak bench, Andre Ethier‘s platoon issues, a giant black hole of mystery on the left side of the infield, and the need for comebacks from past superstars like Adrian Gonzalez, Carl Crawford, & Hanley Ramirez. In the NL alone, I don’t consider the Dodgers as being better than the Nationals or probably the Reds as well; the Braves & Cardinals each have a case to make there too, and as much as I hate to admit it, you can’t count out the Giants based on what they’ve done over the last three years. (Ken Rosenthal’s look at the NL West today, where he considers San Francisco the team to beat, is worth a read if only because it indicates that Scott Proctor wants to be a starting pitcher now. Please, please, please.)
What’s most interesting here to me is why it is the system likes the Dodgers so much. It expects the Los Angeles offense to be only middle-of-the-road, scoring 713 runs. That’s more than the 637 they actually scored in 2012 or the 644 they put up in 2011, but less than the projections for five other NL teams and every AL team other than Baltimore, Houston, Minnesota, & Seattle. Yet where it really likes this club is in run prevention, pegging them to allow only 601 opposing tallies. That’s within the range of what actually happened over the last two seasons (612, 597) but puts them as the best club in baseball in terms of preventing runs, with San Francisco’s 622 coming in second.
That’s because PECOTA really, truly loves the Dodger pitching, even with the expectation that Chad Billingsley is only going to throw 96 innings. It’s no surprise that Clayton Kershaw & Zack Greinke are highly rated, but I do find it surprising that it thinks Josh Beckett is going to bounce back to a 3.17 ERA. By this projection, the bullpen looks stellar — 11 pitchers are included, from excess starters like Ted Lilly & Chris Capuano down to the less likely guys like Mark Lowe & Shawn Tolleson, and only a single pitcher is projected to have an ERA above Scott Elbert‘s 3.68 — Javy Guerra, at 4.13. While I’m well aware that I’m using ERA here and there’s plenty of problems with that, that’s excellent. That’s on top of an offense that looks to have star level seasons from Matt Kemp, Gonzalez, & Ramirez, a bounce-back from Crawford, but is hurt by the usual projection of awfulness from Luis Cruz (.250/.276/.359).
Of course, there’s a lot of counter-arguments to be made here. It’s one projection system of many. PECOTA whiffed on Baltimore & Oakland last year — as, it should be noted, did everyone on the planet. Games are played on the field, not in spreadsheets, you nerd. Why don’t you go meet girls? …and so on.
As I said, I don’t consider the Dodgers the best team in baseball unless everything goes absolutely right, but you could really say that about every team in baseball. (Except you, Houston. Not you.) I expect them to be squarely in the playoff hunt with an equal chance of greatness as there is of falling apart, Lakers-style. Still, this time last year we were wondering just how mediocre a McCourt-deprived team could be. Even if PECOTA is way off, just the fact that we’re having this conversation is a massive step forward.