St. Louis Cardinals: PECOTA pitcher projections for the Cards

SAN DIEGO, CA - SEPTEMBER 4: Carlos Martinez
SAN DIEGO, CA - SEPTEMBER 4: Carlos Martinez /

As is the case every late winter, the baseball world, including St. Louis Cardinals fans, goes nuts debating the pros and cons of projections for the coming MLB season. Few garner as much attention as the Baseball Prospectus (BP) PECOTA algorithm, a proprietary system that combines a variety of statistical data.

In this installment, I’ll provide a complement to the fine work my Redbird Rants colleague Jason did in analyzing the PECOTA projections for St. Louis Cardinals hitters. We’ll take a look here at the ratings for Redbird pitchers, and how they compare to their past performance and to other pitchers around the league.

To set the stage, the Cardinals’ hurlers as a whole stack up quite nicely against the National League. As one would expect, the Los Angeles Dodgers lead the pack with a total of 15.6 WARP (Wins Above Replacement Player). But in a bit of a surprise, PECOTA has the Arizona Diamondbacks as the second best pitching staff at 14.9. The Chicago Cubs finish third at 14.2 and St. Louis follows right behind at 13.

I’m not wild about this assessment, as I see the Cards sitting at either second or third, depending on whether I’m wearing my “homer” or “non-homer” hat, but let’s focus on the pitchers and see what’s what.

There’s one other thing to mention before we dig in. The BP WARP projections are impacted strongly by amount of play, which in the case of each pitcher includes their number of anticipated innings pitched. So I’ll comment in many cases not only on the substantive predictions for the player, but whether the amount of work estimates are realistic.

I’m also not commenting on either wins, which are highly arbitrary, or BP’s more esoteric stats, which you don’t care about.

BP designates the five Cardinals starters, with their innings pitched, as follows: Carlos Martinez (176), Michael Wacha (156), Adam Wainwright (138), Luke Weaver (144) and Miles Mikolas (111). Four others — Mike Mayers (43), Alex Reyes (58), Austin Gomber (25) and Jack Flaherty (95) — are given starting innings in the assessment.

It’s important to note, however, BP does not break out prospective starter innings from the role that these pitchers might play out of the bullpen, so these are TOTAL innings for the second group of four.

This total of 946 innings predicts the Cards will get about 5.8 innings per game from its starters. But this is a bit aggressive since, as noted above, the four “reserve” starters will not spend all their innings in starting roles.

BP is somewhat inconsistent with its predictions of innings from team to team. For instance, the only reason Wacha would be dinged down to 156 innings would be injury risk.

But Wacha has exceeded the 156 total innnings two out of the last three years, and other pitchers around the league with notable injury histories, like the Mets’ Jacob DeGrom (180) and Noah Syndergaard (164), are not given such a conservative allotment. So a grain of salt is highly recommended on this front.

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Martinez is handed a 30.3 VORP, 3.3 WARP, with a 3.39 ERA and 1.21 WHIP. Given that CMart hasn’t shown a consistent ability to perform at a top-10 ace level, this seems quite reasonable. His numbers float right around those of Dbacks ace Zach Greinke, and that’s fair. He sits above the Cubs top two, Jon Lester, who’s handed a 2.7 WARP, and Jose Quintana (3.1).

Wacha weighs in at 21.2 VORP, 2.3 WAR, 3.70 ERA and 1.27 WHIP. Again, not too far off the mark for either his history or a reasonable, but not great, number two. The projection is slightly below his outstanding 2015 (3.0 WARP) but much above his 0.7 from last year. BP is giving him a fair shake. This is just below the assessment BP gives to the Cubs’ Kyle Hendricks (2.5).

It’s at this point the rotation strength drops, but the reasons may be worth some discussion. BP has Wainwright as the Cards’ number three, while, as noted above, only ascribing 138 innings to him.

The projections for him — 12.6 VORP, 1.4 WARP — take his limited innings into consideration, but do they include his 4.09 ERA and a very weak 1.37 WHIP? Truly, if Waino throws at that level, it’s entirely likely he heads to the bullpen.

It’s likely the inning projection stems from the team’s pronouncements about Wainwright’s starting status, plus the inexperience of others like Flaherty and the Cards’ desire to handle Reyes gingerly, for good reason. But if Adam performs as projected by BP, an awful lot of this season’s success will turn on management’s willingness to experiment with other options sooner than later.

Weaver lists as the fourth starter, and his raw numbers, a 3.76 ERA and 1.27 WHIP, weigh in much better than those of Wainwright. Therefore, with about the same number of innings projected for him as for Waino, Weaver’s VORP (18.7) and WARP (2.1) are considerably better.

In fact, it’s entirely likely that if Luke’s innings were the same as Wacha’s, his contributions would project as almost identical. That’s a very good pitcher to have in the fourth spot of an MLB rotation.

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Mikolas is everybody’s guess. Coming back from the Pacific Rim after two outstanding seasons, it’s very hard to find effective translations. BP and PECOTA are unkind to Mikolas in several ways: his numbers of innings pitched at 111, his ERA at 4.40, and his WHIP at 1.36.

Needless to say, this doesn’t jibe with the competitive energy that teams invested in signing him, so his 6.5 VORP and 0.7 WARP are probably worst case analyses at this point, unless he’s entirely displaced from the rotation.

Before we get to the backup starters, I should note that only one of the Milwaukee Brewers’ starters, Zach Davies (listed as second starter behind Chase Anderson), projects out with a better WARP than Wainwright, and then by only a tenth of a percent.

That means the St. Louis Cardinals have four starters expected to essentially be the same or better than Milwaukee’s best. That’s just a dig for those who are so convinced the Brewers sit atop St. Louis.

The WARP for the St. Louis Cardinals’ reserve starters—Mayers (-0.5), Reyes (1.3, which no doubt would be much higher with more innings), Gomber (0.0) and Flaherty (0.4) doesn’t add or detract much from the starter group. Clearly, if Reyes becomes an every fifth day guy, then his projected 3.10 ERA and a 1.20 WHIP, not to mention well over a strikeout an inning, would make him hypervaluable and improve the rotation if either Wainwright or Mikolas were bumped.

Bullpens don’t make nearly as much difference as rotations at BP, but the one place where the Brewers have a notable advantage over the Cards in PECOTA is with their relievers. Most significant is the gap between the powerful Brewers’ closer Corey Knebel, at 13.3 VORP and 1.5 WARP, versus ostensible Cards’ finisher Luke Gregerson, at a 4.9 VORP and 0.5 WARP.

Looking at the roles they’ve played in recent years, Gregerson’s evident struggles in 2017, and Knebel’s lights-out performance last season, this seems like a fair assessment of their differences. I must admit, however, that PECOTA does not like Brandon Morrow, the Cubs’ closer, at all, holding him at a level almost identical to that of Gregerson. That’s an undersell for Morrow, in my opinion.

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It’s the rest of the Cards pen where I have serious issues with PECOTA. After a brilliant season in 2017, Tyler Lyons gets pushed up to a 4.04 ERA, more than a run per nine innings higher than last year.

He and Brett Cecil are both estimated to pitch 61 innings with about a strikeout per inning, and while I guess that’s fair in theory, Lyons looked so much more consistent on the mound while Cecil came to his final figures with a seemingly high standard deviation.

I’d push Lyons closer to a 1.0 WARP, assuming a significantly better ERA than BP estimates.

Another reliever who takes it on the chin is John Brebbia. The young man had a fine season last year, with a 2.44 ERA in about 52 innings in St. Louis. But because his Babip, or opposing hitters’ batting average for balls in play — was an unusually low .219, PECOTA thinks he’ll regress on a more average Babip to a, wait for it, 5.63 ERA, 1.46 WHIP and -0.4 WRAP. With only one exception, 2016 in Memphis, Brebbia’s never had numbers like those. So this is clearly an overcorrection.

Most everyone else, including Sam Tuivailala, Ryan Sherriff, Matt Bowman and John Gant, hover somewhere between zero and 0.5 WAR. That’s fine, we can quibble about each, and it’s likely that one or two will step up bigtime and perhaps one will regress. Rowan Wick and Josh Lucas are in the mix, but I think their contributions will be minimal if anything.

But the one who PECOTA misses big time on, in my opinion, is Dominic Leone. This is a player for whom BP’s view of players over multiple years gets confounding.

Leone has had only two mostly full years in The Show, with 122 appearances total in 2014 and 2017 for Seattle and Toronto, respectively. Between those two, injuries and limited major league appearances led to only 29 MLB innings between 2015 and 2016.

No doubt PECOTA takes those two years into account, but that’s rather ridiculous as Leone was anywhere from very good to fantastic in the two complete years. ERA in the 2’s each of them, WHIPs between 1.05 and 1.16, and more than a strikeout per inning.

Yet BP’s formula leaves him with a 2.0 VORP and a 0.2 WARP for 2018. Perhaps the assumption of only 41 innings contributes to this, but I am guessing, given they call for a 4.35 ERA and a 1.37, that PECOTA simply misses the mark on the 26-year-old.

It’s hard for me to take the bullpen assessment too seriously for the Cardinals, given how on at least three pitchers, Lyons, Brebbia and Leone, BP seems to skew in directions that I don’t find persuasive. I think it’s entirely possible that those three alone, coming up at a total of 0.3 total, could exceed 1.5 WARP in the 2018 season.

Of course, few who are honest with themselves doubt that Gregerson is the answer at closer for the Cards. The addition of Greg Holland, who by Baseball Reference’s rating had a 1.4 WAR last year, would place them close to equal footing with Knebel and better than Morrow. That move alone could have a significant difference in how the St. Louis  Cardinals’ season progresses.

Next: Minor leaguers pose threats

That’s an overview of my analysis of BP’s PECOTA ratings for St. Louis Cardinals pitchers. What are your thoughts?