“I don’t think the Braves are an 82-win team. I don’t think the Braves are an 85-win team. I think they are better than that.”
Baseball Prospectus Editor in Chief Craig Goldstein doesn’t intend for this to be a controversial statement. The vast majority of baseball fans expect the Atlanta Braves to be one of the best teams in MLB in 2021. After winning their third straight division title in 2020, the Braves are as close to a certainty as you can get in baseball.
But Goldstein’s declaration is notable, especially after PECOTA, his organization's long-running projection system, projected the Braves to win just 82.4 games in 2021.
“You know, we have a lot of explaining to do there,” he says.
This is one of the many challenges a website that relies on gathering huge samples of data faces coming off a pandemic-shortened season. Baseball analytics thrives on large numbers. In a normal 162-game season, a player might receive 600 plate appearances, giving analysts — and projection systems — a fair amount of information to use to identify trends and predict future performance. In a 60-game season — in which no player exceeded 267 plate appearances — the amount of data received is much smaller. If not handled carefully, those figures can lead to unreliable predictions.
So when BP’s deadly accurate PECOTA projection system — which correctly predicted the Chicago White Sox's playoff surge and the emergence of the Cincinnati Reds last season — spits out a result like this, it’s tough not to question whether the lack of data from 2020 played a role.
Before you go flooding the BP Twitter account with “small sample,” understand that’s not what’s going on here. The BP stats team — led by Jonathan Judge and Harry Pavlidis — already adjusted for the pandemic. How? By building a system that doesn’t place extra weight on a player’s most recent performance.
As Judge explained in a Feb. 1 article, “there is nothing special about 2020 MLB performances as far as PECOTA is concerned, as compared to other samples of similar size.”
Basically, PECOTA deals with 60-game samples all the time. It’s going to pull from all of those and treat them with equal weight. What a player or team did in 2020 isn’t considered more important than the rest of the data.
All of this is to say, sorry Braves fans, you can’t blame the pandemic-shortened season for PECOTA’s low projection.
How do you evaluate prospects with no minor-league games?
That doesn’t mean the pandemic-shortened season had no impact on how Baseball Prospectus operated when putting together it’s annual guide* to the 2021 season. On top of projections, the site also prides itself on its prospect evaluations. The prospect team at BP relies heavily on eye-witness scouting reports (a number of evaluators from BP have gone on to work in front offices across the league).
That was a significant issue in 2020, as there was no minor-league season. As such, the prospect team had to adapt.
“We retooled how we went about [gathering information on prospects,]” Goldstein says. “We have a lot of people that we talked to in the industry before, but not necessarily every team, and we didn’t always seek team input on their own guys because there’s an inherent bias in that too.”
That last part became a necessity in 2020. If the BP team wanted to evaluate a player at a team’s alternate site, they had to rely on reports from that team. That information had to be filtered, as a team might be higher on its own prospects than others. They were sometimes able to get data from some alternate sites, which helped them confirm or adjust what they were hearing from team sources.
It was easier to evaluate prospects who made their way to the majors in 2020. Braves pitcher Ian Anderson saw a big jump — from No. 38 to No. 5 — in BP's annual prospect rankings based on his dominant 1.95 ERA over 32 1/3 innings in the majors. It wasn’t just Anderson’s numbers that fueled his rise, it was also the prospect team getting eyes on Anderson and determining his changeup had taken a step forward.
That offers a glimmer of hope to Braves fans hoping BP's projections are off. Eye-witness reports don't factor into PECOTA's projections. If the Braves are going to beat PECOTA's win total, it will be a result of the team's young pitchers continuing to make progress. PECOTA can't recognize Anderson's changeup improved, but evaluators can. As always, scouting and stats are best used together.
While seeing some players helped, it was still a difficult year to gather accurate information on prospects.
“There are always going to be more blind spots given the lack of information available and how hard it was to get information in general throughout the year,” Goldstein admits.
What if the projections are wrong?
Projections are never foolproof. While countless fantasy players have used PECOTA’s projections to win their leagues, and bettors have relied on PECOTA’s team win totals to make some extra cash, the system still gets things wrong. PECOTA famously projected the Kansas City Royals to win 72 games in 2015. They won 95 games and finished the season as World Series champions.
Goldstein wants PECOTA to be right. He wants people to view Baseball Prospectus as a site that does strong work. That’s his job. But he doesn’t get discouraged when the system makes an eyebrow-raising call or even a mistake. He views it as an opportunity to be more knowledgeable about the game.
“That’s just more to learn,” Goldstein says. "There’s more to dig into. It means we’re not all there. If we were all the way there on predicting this stuff, it would be so f***ing boring."
Maybe PECOTA is right about the Braves. Perhaps when the 2021 MLB season ends, we’ll look at its 82.4 win total as prescient.
But if the system is wrong, and the Braves once again win 90+ games, it won’t be a result of the pandemic. It will be further confirmation that — despite all we know about the game — baseball still has the ability to surprise and amaze.
Getting it wrong isn't a bad thing in baseball. It just means there's still more to discover.
*Full disclosure: The author has contributed to previous versions of the Baseball Prospectus annual.
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