Don’t expect the Houston Astros to fall apart following their sign-stealing scandal. Despite an offseason filled with controversy, the Astros are projected to win 98 games in 2020, according to Baseball Prospectus’ PECOTA projections.
Those projections — which were released early Tuesday — mark the unofficial end of the offseason for ultra-dedicated fans and stat nerds. They present one of the first opportunities to see if your team did enough in the offseason to push itself into playoff contention.
While the 2020 PECOTA projections contain some surprises, the team everyone wants to know about is the Astros. Houston is coming off one of the biggest baseball scandals in recent memory. And while MLB couldn’t find evidence the team cheated in 2019, that didn’t stop the internet from creating conspiracy theories.
The fallout figures to follow the Astros throughout all of 2020. But don’t expect that to slow the team on the field. With a projection of 98 wins, the Astros are expected to take home their fourth straight American League West title.
For anyone wondering why PECOTA doesn’t foresee an Astros decline after the scandal, there’s a simple answer: The sign-stealing scandal couldn't mathematically be factored into the projection.
There are good reasons for that, according to Baseball Prospectus’ Jonathan Judge — who works intimately with the PECOTA projection system.
“It would be hard to come up with a correction mechanism that wouldn’t be worse than just leaving it as is,” Judge told Yahoo Sports. “It would just be a complete ‘this is what it looks like to me, or this feels fair to me because those guys shouldn’t have done that’ and that’s not a very mathematical way to solve a problem.”
In other words, PECOTA — like everyone else — can’t know exactly how much the Astros benefited from stealing signs. It can’t definitively say Jose Altuve’s average is going to drop by .023 points because the Astros are no longer using prohibited methods to steal signs. That’s not how it operates.
PECOTA uses a number of formulas to predict player and team performance. Nate Silver, now of FiveThirtyEight, created PECOTA in 2002-03. The system has been completely reworked this year. That makeover started last September, and various tweaks were made in the offseason to ensure it was accurate.
How is that done? The team at Baseball Prospectus looks at data from previous seasons to test PECOTA. They can take the current formulas, input data from 2016 and see how close the new and improved system projected the 2017 season. Since they already know the answers, they can see where the system is accurate, and where formulas need to be adjusted.
Once they feel good about the current system, the team at Baseball Prospectus simulates the season roughly 1,000 times. That produces a range of wins for each team. The final number listed in the 2020 PECOTA projections is considered the most likely outcome for each team based on all those simulations.
While fans might be adamant the sign-stealing helped, and that each Astros player should be discounted in the projections as a result, that introduces a level of subjectivity into the equation, and projections aren’t supposed to be subjective.
On top of that, Judge doesn’t feel the Astros’ sign-stealing resulted in a net gain for the team. Judge pointed to an article written by Baseball Prospectus’ Rob Arthur, which argued the Astros performed far better than normal when players knew what pitch was coming, but far worse than normal when the bang was wrong — or when they expected a curveball but the pitcher threw a fastball.
“Whenever the bang was correct, so to speak, and it was an off-speed pitch, they would do extremely well,” Judge says. “But sometimes the bang was wrong, and on those pitches, the Astros were just disastrously bad, as you might expect. Because they went looking for a pitch that was not there.
“Our conclusion is, without excusing the conduct, that … the Astros actually gained absolutely nothing from all of the sign-stealing, which makes it all the more amazing in its pointlessness. Good job, guys.”
The rest of the league
The Astros’ sign-stealing scandal may have dominated the headlines all offseason, but there are plenty of other surprising projections worth noting.
• The Los Angeles Dodgers are projected at a league-best 103 wins. That’s quite the feat, as projection systems usually aren’t as aggressive when predicting teams wins. The New York Yankees are a close second, with 99 projected wins. The Astros sit third at 98 wins.
• There’s going to be a new champion in the National League Central. PECOTA liked the Cincinnati Reds’ additions of Shogo Akiyama, Nick Castellanos and Wade Miley. With 86 wins, the Reds are projected to take the Central. The Chicago Cubs (85 wins) and St. Louis Cardinals (80 wins) aren’t far behind, though.
• Over in the American League West, PECOTA doesn’t see the Oakland Athletics (85 wins) repeating their strong season. The Los Angeles Angels (87 wins) are projected to have more wins in 2020.
• The reigning World Series champs might have some issues defending their title. The New York Mets (88 wins) are projected to topple the Washington Nationals (87 wins) in the National League East. Nats fans shouldn’t worry too much, though, as the two teams aren’t separated by much, and the Nats currently project to take home a wild-card spot.
• Last but not least, there are the Boston Red Sox. The team made waves Sunday, trading away both Mookie Betts and David Price to the Dodgers. If the projections are accurate, the team may be kicking itself in October. Without Betts and Price, the Red Sox are projected for 85 wins, just missing the postseason. The trade may have cost the team its shot at another playoff run.
Projections are not gospel
While it’s fun to look at projections and dream about what could happen, they should not be considered gospel. While PECOTA has had some major hits over the years — calling the Kansas City Royals drop-off after winning the World Series and predicting the rise of the Tampa Bay Rays — there is always room for surprising results.
Perhaps the Astros can’t deal with the pressure of constantly being asked about the sign-stealing scandal and crumble. Maybe the Chicago White Sox’s youngsters decide to arrive a year early. Maybe your team’s closer chokes its star player and tears the clubhouse apart.
The unexpected is what makes the game great. So if the projections don’t like your team, that’s OK. A lot can change once players take the field.
Until then, baseball fans can have spirited debates about projections to pass the time.
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