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PECOTA projections don’t hate the Cubs quite as much as they did in 2019

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...but they predict a really tight race in the NL Central.

Nico Hoerner hits a home run at Wrigley Field in September
Photo by Nuccio DiNuzzo/Getty Images

About a year ago Cubs Twitter was livid. PECOTA projections had the Cubs finishing last in the NL Central winning a measly 79 games. This number wound up fluctuating a bit (sometimes 82, sometimes 80) but the bottom line was the PECOTA thought the 2019 Chicago Cubs were about a .500 team and that while the NL Central race would be tight, other teams would have better seasons then the Cubs:

PECOTA projections 2019
Baseball Prospectus

The final standings wound up looking quite a bit different. The Cubs wound up in third with 84 wins. Interestingly, even as early as the start of September it looked like they still had 88-90 wins in them. Their Pythagorean record (which is based on runs scored/runs allowed) projected they should have finished 90-72.

Well, PECOTA rankings are out for 2020 and you all will be happy to hear that PECOTA doesn’t hate the 2020 Cubs. It doesn’t love them, but it’s projecting another tight race in the NL Central with the Cubs finishing second with right around 84-85 wins:

PECOTA projections 2020
Baseball Prospectus

PECOTA projections are built on individual player projections based on historical data and similarity scores. It then puts all those player assumptions together and predicts a range of games a team comprised of those players might win given their schedule and circumstances.

I can already hear some people now: The Cubs did very little in the 2020 offseason and lost key pieces in Nicholas Castellanos and Ben Zobrist. How can PECOTA like them more in 2020? The answer is all about the other teams in the league, as Nick Schaefer reports:

We’re coming off two offseasons in a row where the Cubs have let their championship-caliber core rot on the vine through being uh…“thrifty” and once again they’ve lost more than they’ve gained. They’re relying, again, on good variance from veteran starters, bargain-basement utility guys, and a couple of solid if likely unspectacular internal promotions.

Despite all of this, PECOTA predicts more wins for the Cubs in 2020 than it did in 2019, in part because most of the NL Central has decided to adopt the Cubs’ apathy. The Pirates appear to be going full Marlins, the Cardinals lost Marcell Ozuna, the Brewers similarly let a star walk in Yasmani Grandal, and both were generally passive otherwise. Only the Reds seemed to push their chips in for 2020, but while they’ve improved, they’re hardly a powerhouse.

For example, one team PECOTA is pretty down on for 2020 is the St. Louis Cardinals, as you can see below:

Yes, we know they won 91 games last year. 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 for 2020? They lost Michael Wacha and Marcell Ozuna. They traded Randy Arozarena and José Martínez for prospects who won’t help the club this year. Re-signing Matt Wieters and Adam Wainwright doesn’t count. PECOTA sees a rebound from Paul Goldschmidt (to 132 DRC+, 3.5 WARP) but he has a lot of teammates, like him, on the wrong side of 30, and showing it: Matt Carpenter, Dexter Fowler, Miles Mikolas, Andrew Miller, and Yadier Molina, along with Wainwright and Wieters.

And while PECOTA does like the moves that the Reds have made (frankly, I do as well) it sees those moves as pulling the Reds closer to competitive, not as making them the world beaters of the NL Central. As you can see from these very cool range of outcomes graphs, PECOTA projects a really tight race in the NL Central, as do other projection systems:

PECOTA Range of Outcomes projections NL Central 2020
Baseball Prospectus

As for the rest of the National League there are a few surprises worth mentioning. It will surprise no one that the Dodgers are projected to steamroll the NL West, but these projections in the NL East made my eyes pop, a bit:

PECOTA projected standings 2020
Baseball Prospectus

Yes, you are looking at that correctly. That is the New York Mets projected atop the NL East while the Atlanta Braves struggle to a .500 record. Here’s the explanation behind PECOTA’s projected regression for the Braves:

The Braves were in first in the NL East in 97 of the 162 days of the 2019 season. They were in first for 105 days in 2018. The core of Ronald Acuña, Ozzie Albies, and Mike Soroka is returning and they’re all 23 or younger. Freddie Freeman’s been a four-win player for four straight years. What’s not to like?

To their credit, the Braves have sought to improve the club, signing free agents Travis d’Arnaud, Cole Hamels, Marcell Ozuna, and Will Smith. PECOTA sees them adding 6.5 wins. But they also lost Josh Donaldson, Dallas Keuchel, and Julio Teheran, who contributed 9.2 wins in 2019. That’s nearly a three-win deficit. And PECOTA expects the Acuña/Albies/Soroka/Freeman core to generate nearly six fewer wins than in 2019. The bullpen’s deep, but the rotation falls off after Soroka and Hamels.

One thing to keep in mind, PECOTA projections are updated as teams make moves and players are injured, so these could still change in the 36 days before opening day. In the meantime, however, I’m gearing up for what looks like a couple knock down drag out division races in the National League.