Mariners general manager Jerry Dipoto had to like what he saw Tuesday, when the numbers crunchers at Baseball Prospectus projected Seattle to win 84 games and compete for the American League’s second wild-card playoff slot.
To be precise, it wasn’t the crunchers who did the projecting. The projecting came from a format called PECOTA, which stands for Player Empirical Comparison and Optimization Test Algorithm. It also happens to be the name of former utility player Bill Pecota, the childhood hero of noted statistician Nate Silver, who developed the PECOTA rankings in 2003.
Stat formats that contain words such as “empirical” and “optimization” are easy to ridicule, but Dipoto is a devotee of using advanced analytics to help foresee performance. He probably even understands why PECOTA likes the Mariners much more than it likes the Kansas City Royals.
PECOTA doesn’t merely dislike the defending World Series champs. It mocks them, spits at them, goes Donald-at-a-debate on them. After predicting the Royals would stumble to a 72-90 finish last season, PECOTA has them at 76-86, worth last place in the A.L. Central.
Baseball Prospectus executive editor Sam Miller published an essay Tuesday explaining that he and his staff wanted the results to better reflect the Royals’ tendency to surpass statistical-profile expectations.
“The only people who wanted this projection were probably the Royals themselves,” Miller wrote. “Shredded projections are the confetti in their World Series parade.”
But statistical analysis is predicated on eliminating subjectivity — it’s all about that data, boss — and there’s something almost admirable about Miller’s unconditional allegiance to numbers that make him wince.
And while nobody capable of identifying the difference between a pitcher’s mound and a batter’s box believes the Royals suddenly will stumble into a crater below mediocrity, PECOTA is regarded to be more a reliable fortune-telling method than, say, Punxsutawney Phil’s recognition of his shadow on Groundhog Day.
The advanced-stat community’s respect for PECOTA can be traced to Silver, a pioneer in the baseball analytics industry who has gone on to apply his mathematical principles to politics. As creator of the website FiveThirtyEight.com — referring to the 538 voters in the electoral college — Silver correctly predicted how 49 states would swing in the 2008 presidential election. Four years ago, he went 50 for 50.
You’re free to roll your eyes and dismiss PECOTA as the brainchild of a nerd, but know this: Dipoto is all in on the idea of embracing statistics rather than dismissing them. The prevailing theme of an offseason that found the Mariners busy replacing Names We Know with Names We Don’t Know was “bounce back.”
That a player struggled in 2015, Dipoto believes, does not necessarily foretell he’ll continue to struggle in 2016. Some players will, sure, but three or four or five others figure to bounce back with seasons reflecting their successful careers.
Dipoto didn’t retool the Mariners roster because of his yearning to post a respectable PECOTA score in the middle of February, but that’s what happened. All those names we don’t know were analyzed by a computer, and the computer responded with a forecast calling for six months of relevance at Safeco Field.
I’ll be surprised if the Mariners win eight more games than Kansas City, the best team in baseball. But I have great expectations — thanks, PECOTA! — of them winning 84 games. If the bullpen manages to protect a ninth-inning meltdown once a month, 84 victories translates into 90 victories and the franchise’s first playoff berth since 2001.
As for the advanced analytics that have determined the 2016 Mariners to be winners and the 2016 Royals to be losers, I’m conflicted. I suppose I shouldn’t be a proponent of statistical-evaluation methods I don’t understand, but it can’t be a coincidence that every front office in baseball does.
PECOTA remains a work in progress, an exercise in numbers-crunching that still can’t quantify such intangibles as heart and soul.
Its flaws aside, PECOTA has set the high-jump bar for the Mariners at 84 victories: Right there in the playoff hunt, right there through the last day of the regular season.
If a World Series parade awaits a championship team in Seattle, the confetti won’t be made of shredded projections.
John McGrath: firstname.lastname@example.org