Baseball Prospectus released its PECOTA projections for MLB teams and players Tuesday — basically, the projected records for teams and stats for various players based on data. If you want to get really fancy, PECOTA is an acronym for Player Empirical Comparison and Optimization Test Algorithm. But you already knew that.
BP puts out a book every year (the foreword is written this season by none other than Twins pitcher Glen Perkins) that is worth your time. For now, a peek behind the curtain at the Twins numbers is quite fascinating — and more optimistic than you might assume.
The number that immediately jumps out is the Twins' win total. Baseball Prospectus projects the Twins will win 79 games this season. While 79-83 wouldn't be a "good" year in many senses, it would be a dramatic improvement from last year's 59-103 disaster.
It would be good for second in the AL Central — behind Cleveland but ahead of everyone else. Now, even the best projections using the best data can be wrong. PECOTA has rather infamously whiffed on projections for the Royals in previous years. For now, though, it is interesting to see the relative faith placed in the Twins.
To figure out why, let's look at a few more of the numbers:
•The PECOTA projections see a clear progression for Byron Buxton, who checks in with an anticipated 17 home runs and a .730 OPS in 509 plate appearances in 2017. He's projected for 2.9 wins above replacement player (WARP) — best on the team and indicative of the fact that he could emerge as the Twins' best player as soon as this season. Miguel Sano is next with a 2.6 WARP, fueled by 31 homers. It's pretty safe to say the Twins would love it if those two were their best players in 2017. Brian Dozier is next with a 2.2 WARP. Fourth in WARP? New catcher Jason Castro (15 homers, 1.8 WARP).
•One has to imagine full years from Buxton and Castro — the former having tremendous range in center and the latter coming in with a reputation for being a great pitch framer — helped fuel the projection that the Twins will finish 22.7 fielding runs above average in 2017. That's the second-highest projection of any American League team and the third-best in the majors. That would be quite the upgrade from 2016, when FanGraphs had the Twins finishing at minus-45.7 in defensive runs above average — second-worst in the majors.
•The PECOTA projections see starting pitchers Tyler Duffey, Ervin Santana and Kyle Gibson as basically the same — all with 1.2 projected wins above replacement, all with ERAs between 4 and 4.3. That would mean a regression from Santana from 2016 to 2017 and a step back forward for Duffey and Gibson, who both struggled last season. Projections are also much higher on Jose Berrios (4.31 ERA) than Hector Santiago (5.06 ERA). It's safe to say the Baseball Prospectus numbers call into question the Twins' decision to keep Santiago on a one-year, $8 million deal — projecting a regression from relative past success.
Long story short: Baseball Prospectus' PECOTA projections see improvement from the Twins' young core, middling (but close to adequate) starting pitching and a significant defensive improvement. Those things add up to a projected 79-win season.
After the way 2016 played out, getting anywhere near .500 would be a pleasant surprise.