Baseball Prospectus' projection system, PECOTA, has been released, and along with its predictions for where teams will finish in 2013, we also get to see individual stats. Some of these are as you expect -- spoiler, PECOTA thinks Dustin Pedroia is good at baseball! -- but there are others that surprise, disappoint, or do a little of both. That's typical of projection systems, though: for one reason or another, there are players with which they do not, and cannot, have all the possible information possible.
Granted, in PECOTA's defense, they at least have the percentile projections, so the ceilings, floors, and everything in between are available for you to cite. But, at this early stage, all we have to work with is the most-likely projection, the middle-ground weighted mean, and considering that's what PECOTA feels has the best chance to occur, they're ripe for criticism or praise, where warranted.
We'll take a look at five hitters' projections that stand out today, for good, for bad, or just for surprise factor. Later on this week, we'll tackle things from the pitching side, where there are plenty of the above to consider as well.
Stephen Drew: PECOTA projects free agent signing Drew, who will man shortstop for the Red Sox, for a .262/.325/.423 line, good for a .264 True Average. There are two points that merit mention from this simple slash line: one, Mike Aviles, Boston's primary shortstop in 2012, hit just .250/.282/.381 with a .244 TAv. The average shortstop in the majors last season owned a .254 TAv. Drew projects to be above both of those, so, even if his defense can't compare with that of Aviles, who did have a strong campaign in that regard, he'll be able to make up ground with his bat. If his range has come back a bit after more time for his ankle to heal, then consider that a bonus.
Now, Drew still has to actually hit the threshold above in order to make that all true. But, when you consider that he's had trouble at the plate the last couple of years, and PECOTA still projects him to succeed in 2013, you have to at least feel good about it.
David Ortiz: Ortiz's projection was bound to be a bit weird. It's not bad, at .263/.357/.483, but it's a far cry from 2012's 171 OPS+, which tied for the highest mark of the designated hitter's career. It's easy to see why PECOTA would be a little pessimistic in regards to projecting that exact level of excellence, though: Ortiz will be 37 years old in 2013. There are success stories at the DH position at that age, but it's not a large pool to draw from. Ortiz, by way of being as good as David Ortiz is, is something of an oddity for a projection system to deal with. Because of that, it's easy to envision him "only" being as good as the projection PECOTA has for a weighted mean, but it's also going to be as believable that he'll be markedly better or worse.
Jonny Gomes: The primary issue with Gomes' .239/.326/.429 projection is that it's off-base just in terms of theory. Baseball Prospectus is projecting Gomes for 425 plate appearances, splitting time between DH and left field. Gomes has met or exceeded that many plate appearances in a season twice, when the Reds used him full-time in 2010, and all the way back in 2006, when the then-Devil Rays were terrible enough to do such a thing without it hurting them much more than the alternatives could. The Red Sox might be paying Gomes $5 million per season, and they are likely going to use him more often than the short-end of a platoon would normally see thanks to the sheer number of lefty starters in the AL East, but he's not going to pull in that many plate appearances unless things have gone very wrong on the injury front.
Daniel Nava, whom PECOTA projects for just 329 plate appearances, many of which comes as a backup right fielder, is likely the long-end of the left field platoon. He has a better glove than Gomes, can work in a pinch as a backup right fielder, and has been much better against right-handed pitchers than lefties in his career. Gomes has a career as a part-time player, and now he's being paid more money to continue in that role. The Sox like Daniel Nava a lot, and will give him every opportunity to finish the bulk of the left field plate appearances now that his wrist is healthy.
Pedro Ciriaco: One reason Red Sox fans should be thrilled that Drew is in town to play shortstop is Ciriaco, as both his career and his latest projections make it seem as if he just doesn't have the bat to be a regular. The .299/.319/.406 career hitter, who was much worse than that (.273/.294/.368 in 242 plate appearances) following his early outburst against the Yankees in 2012, is projected to hit just .265/.280/.364, good for a sub-replacement True Average, in 2013. With any luck, the infield will be healthy enough that he'll finish the season with far fewer than the 210 plate appearances projected by Prospectus, limiting the damage such a line could cause.
Will Middlebrooks: Middlebrooks is the kind of player you expect a projection system to be pessimistic about, especially at this stage of his career. He doesn't walk often, he strikes out, at least comparatively, at a rate some find alarming, and his half-season of data in the majors isn't enough to counteract the negatives, especially considering how little time in the upper minors he has behind him. Because of this, seeing PECOTA spit out a .258/.298/.450 line isn't surprising, but a lack of surprise doesn't make it any more correct.
Middlebrooks doesn't walk often, but he's still a patient hitter. He strikes out, yes, but he also has had a tendency in his career to reduce punch outs the more time he spends at a level, and we're talking about a player who barely spent any time at Triple-A before he was pushed to the majors, where he didn't even get to finish the season thanks to injury. He's still at the learning stage, but he has tremendous plate coverage and an eye more selective than his walk rate indicates that has allowed him to succeed in the same way at every level, with each promotion resulting in a better product.
PECOTA likely has that covered with his upper-level projections, though, which will be available on the player cards later this spring. Just as it isn't surprising to see PECOTA expecting disappointment in the mean projection, it wouldn't be a shock to see the system hedging on ceiling, and seeing a Middlebrooks that can hit .280/.330/.500 or so, continuing what he's already started in the bigs.