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the difference between 95 and 90

based on the last few days' posts, i'm starting to believe that -- barring injury blah blah blah -- the cardinals will average almost 5 runs a game this year. their aggregated pecota projections support the assertion; so does david pinto's lineup toy (again, using PECOTA figures). and in a series of 100 full-season simulations based on ZIPS projections, the cardinals averaged 768 runs per season, or 4.75 runs a game -- a significant dropoff from 2004-05, but still 3d-highest among the nl teams, behind the rockies and mets.

that level of scoring ought to get the team safely into the postseason, assuming the pitching holds up -- and we all assume that, right? the 100 full-season simulations surely do; they had the cardinals as the nl's top staff by a long, long shot, yielding just 628 runs -- fewer than 4 a game. that was nearly 50 runs better than the next-best nl staff (the phillies . . . ??) and more than 100 runs (0.6 runs/game) better than the average nl staff. if that makes you feel good and you don't need the spell broken by further, potentially negative information, stop reading now; see you tomorrow.

for those of you intrepidly forging ahead with me, let's do as we did for the hitters -- aggregate the pecota projections for stl's pitchers and see what they suggest about the 2006 staff. i will assume that reyes and ponson share the #5 slot in the rotation; that both marquis and suppan will stay with the cardinals all summer; and that the primary bullpeners will be izzy / looper / rincon / thompson / flores / nelson / mateo. that combination totals 162 starts (sweet!) and 1312 innings, about 135 ip shy of a full season's worth; to make up the diff'nce i'll pro-rate the lines of the best (per pecota) remaining pitchers, who include adam wainwright, josh hancock, tyler johnson, brad voyles, and dennis tankersley. here's the output, with last year's numbers alongside for reference:

ip h w so hr era whip
2005 1445 1399 443 974 153 3.49 1.274
2006 (PEC) 1445 1462 473 959 156 4.08 1.339

uh oh; that ain't good. by this projection, the cardinals will allow about 712 runs in 2006. that figure -- based on the projected team era, plus 0.35 unearned runs per game (they've averaged 0.37 the last two seasons) -- represents a 79-run increase over last season.

why does pecota hate our pitching staff so much? in part, it's because pecota hates everything -- it's designed to haul outliers (both good and bad) back to the center -- and in part it's because pecota likes strikeouts and doesn't like groundballs. hence the system projects that all 7 of the cards' returning pitchers will see their eras rise in 2006, by a collective half-run a game -- from 3.40 to 3.90. pecota foresees an era increase of about half a run apiece for carpenter and suppan, a third of a run for mulder and marquis; it pads izzy's line by more than a run per 9 innings -- and those of us who saw izzy tightrope his way out of jam after jam can perhaps understand why.

it's difficult to build a case against the projections for carpenter and suppan; even with their projected era increases, pecota is still predicting that each player will post the 2d-best era of his career in 2006. you can hardly call that pessimistic. the mulder and marquis projections are more debatable. you could argue, if you wanted, that since both players finished so strong in 2005, they're more likely to beat their pecota averages. indeed, for those not famliar with the system, pecota actually makes a range of forecasts for each player; e.g., it assigns marquis about a 1 in 4 chance of lowering his era by 25 points. jason's totals last season were marred by a truly aberrant stretch of bad pitching, bad luck, and bad handling by his manager; it might be argued, based on those considerations, that pecota underestimates marquis. but one could just as easily argue that, taking marquis' career as a whole, the aberrant stretch was 2004, and the "real" jason resurfaced last summer.

i'm not making either case; i'm simply taking the projections at face value. if you'll do that with me for one more step, we can now derive a pecota-based won-loss projection for the 2006 cardinals. to do that, we simply plug the team's pecota-based projections for runs (793) and runs allowed (712) into the pythagorean formula to get an expected won-loss percentage of . . . . . . .554. that's a 90-72 record. pessimistic? yes, but maybe not inordinately so. it's not that much lower than the range i arrived at in this two-month-old post about back-to-back 100-win teams, where i concluded: "if the cardinals are just your average back-to-back 100-win team, we might expect them to win 92 to 95 games in 2006." the 100-win simulation ref'nced above put the cards at 96 wins.

i trust the latter forecast far more than the pecota-based prediction, which i freely admit is based on some convoluted, rather hasty tabulations of projections that may or may not be realistic. another important factor: we have no idea how the new ballpark will play, which makes the pecota numbers all the more dubious. nevertheless, i would not dismiss the pecota-based number out of hand; far from it. the cardinals really could be a 90-win team in 2006. and the difference between 95 wins and 90 is the difference between ev'ything and nothing -- between october baseball and october cleaning out the gutters.

getting those last five wins may prove to be the central quest of the 2006 season.