Every year projection systems come out right around this time with their predictions for each team’s most likely outcome given the roster additions and changes they made in the offseason. The last few year’s it’s probably felt more like Spring Training could be renamed “PECOTA hates the Cubs” season but truly, whether the system is based on PECOTA, ZiPS, or something else, I promise it is agnostic on our favorite team. These projections are based on well-thought out calculations and simulated seasons run tens of thousands of time to come up with the most educated guess possible about how the 162-game season will end. Let’s take a look at a couple of the more popular projection systems and what they have to say about the 2023 Chicago Cubs below.
PECOTA is Baseball Prospectus’ long running projections system that stands for “Player Empirical Comparison and Optimization Test Algorithm.” It really rolls right off the tongue. While it may feel like PECOTA hates the Cubs, it’s worth noting that the system was dead on accurate at predicting the Cubs 74-88 record in 2023. In fact, if there is a team that PECOTA truly hates in the NL Central it is the Cardinals, as Rob Mains wrote when this year’s projections were released:
But nobody can match the Cardinals. They’ve exceeded their PECOTA projection for nine straight seasons.
There is not, I swear, a line of PECOTA’s code that reads IF TEAM=”SLN” THEN WINS = WINS -10. But it’s worked out that way. A breakout Tyler O’Neill here, a back-from-Yomiuri Miles Mikolas there, add a 1-3 finish in the MVP vote from Goldschmidt and Arenado, plus your basic Cardinals Devil Magic (Allen Craig’s 2013, Aledmys Díaz’ 2016, Tommy Pham’s 2017, Albert Pujols’ swan song) and, well, you’re going to confound projection systems.
At least Baseball Prospectus acknowledges the existence of Cardinals Devil Magic.
So, how does PECOTA see the NL Central shaking out in 2023? Pretty much the same way they saw it shaking out in 2022, so I’m sure the Cardinals will win the division again (I mostly jest):
One interesting note, PECOTA updates as news comes in, so the 75-win Cubs took a hit with Seiya Suzuki being sidelined by an oblique injury. However, that hit wasn’t like from contention to 75 wins — they were originally projected for a not-that-much-closer-to-contention 77 wins. Yep, that’s right. All of those offseason signings, the Cubs committing so much money this offseason, all of it, had PECOTA projecting the Cubs for three more wins than they had in 2022.
Now, projection systems aren’t crystal balls. It’s much better to think of them as a range of possible outcomes and PECOTA thinks it’s most likely the Cubs will win 75 (ish) games. You can see the range of possible outcomes for all of the teams in the NL Central below:
There is no way to sugarcoat this. For the Cubs to have as many wins as PECOTA projects for the Cardinals and Brewers, the Cubs need pretty much everything to go right, while simultaneously hoping pretty much everything goes wrong for the Brewers and Cardinals.
ZiPS is Dan Szymborski’s projection system. You can peruse it at FanGraphs and read his explanation for how it works in his own words from the NL Projections here:
Naturally, I used the ZiPS projection system to get the latest run of team win totals. Borrowing from my piece on the American League, the methodology I’m using here isn’t identical to the one we use in our Projected Standings, meaning there will naturally be some important differences in the results. So how does ZiPS calculate the season? Stored within ZiPS are the first through 99th-percentile projections for each player. I start by making a generalized depth chart, using our Depth Charts as a jumping off point. Since these are my curated projections, I make changes based on my personal feelings about who will receive playing time as filtered through arbitrary whimsy my logic and reasoning. ZiPS then generates a million versions of each team in Monte Carlo fashion — the computational algorithms, that is (no one is dressing up in a tuxedo and playing baccarat like James Bond).
After that is done, ZiPS applies another set of algorithms with a generalized distribution of injury risk that changes the baseline PAs/IPs for each player. Of note is that higher-percentile projections already have more playing time than lower-percentile projections before this step. ZiPS then automatically “fills in” playing time from the next players on the list (proportionally) to get to a full slate of plate appearances and innings.
The result is a million different rosters for each team and an associated winning percentage for each of those million teams. After applying the new strength of schedule calculations based on the other 29 teams, I end up with the standings for each of the million seasons. This is actually much less complex than it sounds.
So, how does a system with so many inputs and calculations imagine the 2023 Chicago Cubs will fare? I’m so glad you asked:
Huh — almost exactly the same as PECOTA. ZiPS sees a slightly improved but still sub-.500 team on the North Side of Chicago. Dan’s write up of the Cubs seems particularly on point to me:
The Cubs are improved, but they’re still a team with holes to address. The addition of Jameson Taillon improves the middle of the rotation, but they still look to be behind the Cardinals and especially the Brewers there. And while the team is better with Dansby Swanson, it’s still missing a real high-end bat. They’re close enough to be interesting, but I’m accordance with the computer here: they’re clearly a big step behind the first two teams in the division.
Now, I’ve hung around the comment sections here at BCB long enough to know quite a few of you are already firing up your optimistic objections to both ZiPS and PECOTA above. Y’all know me well enough to know that I’ll side with the projections systems here, but I also acknowledge there is an optimistic case to be made. As luck would have it, Eno Sarris and Sahadev Sharma wrote just such a piece about the 2023 Cubs looking at the 80th and 20th percentile outcomes for the Cubs for The Athletic.
Volatility is not all bad! A team full of average guys who were also not volatile should produce an average team most years. But fill that same team with volatile players, and there would also be much better, luckier years where it all came together. So the players on the Cubs who are the most volatile by this description might actually be the guys driving a good year in Wrigley by hitting the top end of their projections.
Thanks to Dan Szymborski and his ZiPS projection system, we can take a look at which Cubs, projected for at least 300 plate appearances, have the widest disparity between their 80th-percentile and 20th-percentile projections. Your most volatile Cubs hitters:
I’d encourage you to read the whole piece before arguing about, say, Brennen Davis’ upside — mainly because that’s addressed in the article. That said, the Suzuki setback to start Spring Training already has warning bells going off in my head regarding hoping too much for the 80th percentile outcomes here. The Cubs likely need a full season of Suzuki at his best, plus most of a season of Mervis’ projected best AND at least one of Patrick Wisdom, Christopher Morel or Zach McKinstry to hit the top range of their projections to compete in the NL Central. I’m not saying it’s impossible... you can squint really hard and see it. But it’s just as easy to squint and see those players all struggle or get hurt.
The 2023 Cubs are a slightly better team than they were in 2022 according to most projection systems, but we are talking two to four wins of improvement here. Considering the 2022 squad finished 19 games behind the division winning Cardinals and seven games behind the final wild card spot, they still need everything to go right and a couple more guys if they are going to play meaningful baseball next October.