The writers at Baseball Prospectus think they can head off criticism by appropriating the idea that “PECOTA hates your favorite team,” and normally I would agree with them. But this year, it’s my favorite team that the projection system hates, so I’m throwing reason out the window.
PECOTA projects the Cardinals to go 80-82, finishing 3rd in the NL Central. As for the entire division, they project:
All in all, PECOTA agrees with the consensus the NL Central will be a tightly contested division, with the exception of the Pirates. But their projections do diverge from the betting market projections I looked at two weeks ago, and all of those lines are holding as of this moment. Draftkings still sets the Cardinals over/under at 85.5 wins, just behind the Cubs 86.5.
So, what does this mean?
Despite my instinctual outrage, I don’t actually believe that PECOTA hates the Cardinals. Projection systems may have flaws or blindspots, but overall a system is going to outperform your gut - especially a well-tested system like PECOTA.
Many of the other notable projections, such as Fangraphs Depth Charts and FiveThirtyEight’s ELO, are not out yet. So aside from current betting markets - which are five games higher on the Cardinals - we don’t really know if this BP projection will be the low mark on St. Louis or something more like the median.
An analysis of various projection systems at Banished to the Pen at the end of last season found a mean error in each system of between 7.7 to 9.4 wins. So there’s a couple of conclusions you could draw from that:
For one thing, the PECOTA projected wins for all four of the contending teams in the NL Central are within the mean error of even the best projection system. So granted, you’d always rather be projected higher, but any of these four teams winning the division would not be a big surprise. That’s also clear from this nice visual that BP provides of their divisional projections:
The other thing that Banished to the Pen analysis highlights is that one system is not really all that much better than another. In their analysis, the crowd-sourced and FiveThirtyEight ELO projections did the best. PECOTA ranked 5th of the 8 systems in both mean absolute error and root mean squared error. But again, the difference in mean error from even the best to the worst system was less than two wins.
If you really want to pick on PECOTA, BP does acknowledge that over the last five seasons, the team it has most often been low on was the Cardinals, underestimating them by an average of 6 wins. That’s probably just one of those things, but if you want to assume there is some Devil Magic calculation that BP is systematically missing, you could add six wins to the Cardinals projection on the back of your napkin... and you’d have them right back where Draftkings has them.
My personal projection for this team is for them to win between 86-91 games. I say that with a degree of confidence because their owner has made it abundantly clear that is the range of MAXIMUM PROFITABILITY, and we all know that is what drives the decision-making. The fact that the Cardinals added nearly nothing this offseason, coming off a 91-win season, when their divisional opponents looked mostly vulnerable, is yet another strong indication this is The Cardinal Way.
That franchise model has sparked plenty of frustration this offseason, as the Cardinals declined to add talent that might push their projection up and over 90 wins. But it should also give you confidence that they won’t let themselves dip much below 86 wins, and certainly not all the way down to 80.
For that reason, if more projection systems come in this low on the Cardinals, that should ring alarm bells in the front office that they may be below that maximum profitability range.
But even if more projections come in this low and even if that’s how this team performs, as currently constructed, I still expect them to end the season in that 86-91 win range. As I mentioned in my preseason betting post, one thing that I look at when wagering which these projection systems do not (nor should not) consider is: How will teams change during the season?
The Cubs have made it pretty clear that they will not add payroll, and may well be looking to shed it. The Cardinals, on the other hand, should have flexibility to spend, and I believe DeWallet will actually open to get the team into the Maximum Profitability Range.
What do you think?