Spring training games are being played, but it's not real baseball. Pitchers are lifted early, hitters are working half-days, the games don't actually count: we're not quite to where we want to be just yet. That's okay, though. We've still got things like regular season projections to tide us over for the next few weeks.
The first time around, we checked out Baseball Prospectus' PECOTA forecasts on their most basic level: the weighted mean projection. This time, we'll take a closer look and analyze their percentile forecasts, which add more nuance to PECOTA's expectations for a given player.
The "weighted mean" forecast is an average of the percentiles, which go from 10th percentile (worst) to 90th percentile (best). So, we can learn some things about which players PECOTA sees as having high floors, low ceilings, or the reverse by checking out the percentiles. Here are five forecasts that stuck out when giving these a look.
Betts vs. Bogaerts is no contest at their best
Mookie Betts, or Xander Bogaerts? The debate about which will be the better player and have the better career is ongoing and unlikely to be solved anytime soon given their ages and ceilings. PECOTA has picked a side, though, at least for 2016, and it is very much Team Mookie.
Betts' 90th percentile forecast -- essentially his best-case scenario -- is a .330/.396/.523 line with 21 homers in 700 plate appearances. Throw in his defense, and PECOTA is projecting him to around a seven-win season. That's not MVP-worthy, not in a league where Mike Trout exists, but it would easily make him the best player on the Red Sox and maybe even the AL East.
As for Bogaerts, his top-end projection is still wonderful, but it pales in comparison to Betts' forecast. PECOTA has Bogaerts batting .315/.369/.463 with 15 homers for his top-end, which is around a five-win season. It's good to see PECOTA hasn't given up on the idea of Bogaerts hitting for power yet, but until he actually does swat some dingers, it seems like the forecasts are going to favor Betts. Maybe 2016 will be the year we start to see that change, but if Bogaerts "only" hit the above, the Red Sox will probably learn to live with it.
Travis Shaw could be literally anything in 2016
Travis Shaw's weighted mean forecast is .250/.323/.423. That's not great, but it is league-average, and he could absolutely be the starting third baseman for the Sox if necessary if he's going to hit that well. The forecasts that helped create that average are where the intrigue lies, though, as Shaw's 90th percentile is a stunning .289/.368/.491 -- good enough to not just play first base in the majors, but excel at it -- while his 10th percentile projection looks like that of someone who should consider a new line of work.
At the 10th percentile, PECOTA sees a .204/.268/.345 line. Things get better as you move up the percentiles -- that's the point! -- but it takes until the 80th percentile until you see him putting up a line that would work well at first base, and the 60th for the same at third. His floor is ridiculously low, but his ceiling is as high in the opposite direction. PECOTA can't tell you what kind of adjustments Shaw has made or has yet to make, but it still accidentally came to the proper conclusions that a scout using their eyes could. Shaw's 2016 could be just about anything, and we'll know much more about his future in the bigs when it's done.
PECOTA doesn't know which catcher should start
Looking at PECOTA's weighted-mean forecasts for Red Sox catchers shows very little separation among them. Blake Swihart is projected for a .249 True Average (BP's offensive metric that is on a batting average scale where .260 is average and .230 is replacement level), while Christian Vazquez is at .249 and Ryan Hanigan .250. Things don't get any less confusing when you look at the 90th percentile forecasts for the group, with Vazquez the leader at .287, followed by Hanigan at .286, and Swihart bringing up the rear at .281.
The bottom-end projections aren't much clearer, as Swihart walks the least of the trio but is also the most likely to hit for power and average. Now, realistically, Swihart has the highest ceiling of the bunch: Hanigan's success has come off lefties far more than righties, so his lines look good in limited duty, while Vazquez basically has walks going for him and little else. Swihart hasn't produced quite enough in the majors for PECOTA to bank of this, though, so we'll have to wait to see what that looks like.
Don't be discouraged, though: PECOTA does think enough of Swihart to put him down for .303/.351/.451 for his 90th percentile.
PECOTA hasn't given up on Pablo Sandoval
PECOTA still thinks the Sandoval the Red Sox signed is lurking in there somewhere. His weighted-mean forecast is .282/.334/.448 -- the Sox would throw a party if Panda hits that well -- and his 90th percentile still sees the possibility of greatness in him, with a .312/.367/.497 showing.
That's great! It should also be noted that while PECOTA hasn't discounted 2015's struggles entirely, things don't look so bad on the lower end of his projections until you get all the way to the bottom. Yes, at the 10th percentile, PECOTA sees just a .251/.299/.398 showing, but even his 20th percentile forecast (.261/.311/.415) would be a helpful season compared to 2015's replacement-level fiasco.
This is partially because PECOTA doesn't do the whole scouting thing, and can't perceive just how awful Sandoval looked in 2015. It's also partially because PECOTA uses a deep pool of comparable players to create projections, and there is a long history of players as good as Sandoval was bouncing back after uncharacteristically difficult campaigns. We'll see which side Panda actually lands on, but PECOTA is leaning toward rebound for now.
Brian Johnson is the young lefty PECOTA loves most
Brian Johnson is probably last in line to get a rotation spot in 2016 among Boston's many depth options. He's PECOTA's favorite to excel were he to get into one of those spots, though, and it's not particularly close.
Henry Owens and Roenis Elias are both projected for a 4.24 ERA at the weighted-mean level, and at their 90th percentiles, those numbers are 3.28 and 3.33. At the 10th percentile, Owens and Elias come in at 5.27 and 5.22, respectively, so like with Travis Shaw on the hitting side of things, PECOTA is not quite sure what any of these young arms actually are going to be. Johnson's low-end forecast isn't appealing, either, as he's projected for a 5.18 ERA at that level, but that's better than what the other two managed.
It's also not the only spot in which Johnson comes out looking better. His weighted-mean ERA? 4.03. His 90th percentile? An even 3.00, and extrapolated over 33 starts, something close to a four-win season. Now, even as the officially recognized Brian Johnson Superfan, that's an outrageous forecast. However, it's not a surprising one given Johnson's dominance of the minors and the difficulty a projection system would have in translating that to the reality of the majors, where Johnson's stuff and approach should play very differently.
Johnson has a lower ceiling than Owens, but a higher floor, and it plays out in these projections as making him appear to be the best all-around pick for any level of projection. He might be the better pitcher in the end given that floor, but this projection is not really an accurate representation of his potential.