PECOTA sure to stir annual debate
Named for former infielder, system projects many of season's results
When Nate Silver devised the unique PECOTA rating system for Baseball Prospectus, he had a light-hitting Kansas City Royals infielder in mind.
And when that infielder, Bill Pecota, found out that thousands of seamheads spend thousands of hours delving into performance projection statistics named after him, he couldn't help but smile.
"Hey, any pub is good pub at this point," says Pecota, who left the game in 1994 with a .249 lifetime batting average and 22 career home runs in 698 games for the Kansas City Royals, New York Mets and Atlanta Braves.
"I definitely didn't do enough on the field to get people to notice me, so if they're noticing me now, that's awesome."
Pecota, who played every position on the field in his career, including one inning as a pitcher, admits quickly that he doesn't understand PECOTA at all. He has never met Silver, and has only heard rumors of why he was plucked to be a figurehead for the fantasy -- and reality -- baseball hopes of so many.
"In the beginning, I thought it was an acronym that just worked out that way," Pecota says. "But then someone said it was because I was an average player. To tell you the truth, I think I'm kind of below average in some of the categories."
PECOTA stands for the Player Empirical Comparison and Optimization Test Algorithm system, and with it, Silver and the sabermetricians at Baseball Prospectus predict the performance of every Major Leaguer for an upcoming season by Opening Day.
Using time-honored and new-age hitting stats, pitching stats and defensive metrics, adjusting for variables such as stadium effects and injuries and comparing them to players with similar stats in baseball history, Silver and his colleagues compile "player cards," and when they're amalgamated into 25-man rosters, they figure out projected overall MLB standings.
The initial 2009 PECOTA league standings are out now and the yearly Baseball Prospectus book will be out Tuesday stocked with individual player PECOTAs.
And while Silver warns that with so many free agents still available, the final PECOTA standings released close to Opening Day will probably look a bit different, there's plenty of educated prognostication fodder for rotisserie drafts and serious inside-baseball speculation right now.
This year's PECOTA has the Boston Red Sox back on top in the American League East with a Major League-best 98-64 record and the new-look New York Yankees second at 96-66. The Tampa Bay Rays, whom PECOTA tabbed to win 90 games last year in one of the surprise picks of the '08 offseason -- they won 97, taking the division en route to the AL championship -- are projected third at 92-70.
"One reason we had Tampa doing so well last year is we project defense," Silver explains. "They had a horrible defense in 2007, but by not having B.J. Upton play second base, we knew they were going to have a much better defense. That knocks a bunch of ERA off of a pitching staff, and that's one of the things we caught last year."
As for this year, PECOTA has the AL Central and AL West as weak divisions, with the Cleveland Indians having the only winning record in the Central at 83-79 and the Los Angeles Angels taking the West with a mark of 84-78, a full 16 games worse than their division-winning 100-62 record in 2008.
"We feel that the Angels' offense is getting old and not getting any better," Silver says. "The pitching should be OK, but we just don't see them scoring enough runs to do what they did last year."
In the National League, the world champion Phillies are picked to go 87-75 and finish tied with Atlanta for second in the East, five games behind the 92-70 New York Mets.
PECOTA predicts the Arizona Diamondbacks will boat-race the West, going 92-70 to finish eight games up on the second-place Dodgers, and, to little surprise, PECOTA projects the Chicago Cubs to take the Central once again.
"I don't think we're going out on a limb there," Silver says. "We expect the Cubs to be the best team in the National League."
And why should anyone listen to this man?
Well, if you've been paying any attention to politics recently, you know that you quite simply must listen to this man.
Silver astonished well-connected Washington pundits and landed himself a book deal when his political projection site, FiveThirtyEight.com, nailed Barack Obama's victory over John McCain in the presidential election better than any poll could ever dream of.
FiveThirtyEight.com, named for the total number of electoral college votes in the presidential election, predicted that Obama would win by 6.1 percentage points (he won by 7.0) and was correct in picking the winner in 49 of the 50 states plus the District of Columbia.
And while PECOTA and some of Baseball Prospectus' other new-age stats still inspire occasional bursts of anger from old-school non-believers, the work of Silver and his gang, plus plenty of like-minded sites and blogs, are circulating more and more around the front offices of big-league teams that value this kind of information.
One of those blogs, USS Mariner, uses statistics to suggest personnel moves for its favorite team, the Seattle Mariners. And one of USS Mariner's founders, Dave Cameron, appreciates what Silver and PECOTA bring to the table while admitting that stats are only half the Major League battle.
"The goal is to build a house, and you need a hammer and a saw," Cameron says. "You can't say, 'I only need this one thing.' That's crazy. And every organization that's doing a good job is a really good merger of the two.
"[New Mariners general manager Jack] Zduriencik, for example, is a more traditional guy with a lot of scouting experience, his right-hand man [Tony] Blengino is into sabermetrics and stats, and working together, they're already doing a good job of assembling a roster. So the truth lies directly in the merger of the two."
OK, so now we (sort of) understand PECOTA. But why Pecota?
Back at his home outside Kansas City, Bill still wants to know.
"Here's the real story," Silver explains with a laugh. "I was a Detroit Tigers fan growing up and the Royals, at the time, were a big rival of the Tigers. Bill Pecota, while not being a terrific player by any means, always seemed to be a thorn in the Tigers' side. I think he had a .311 lifetime average against the Tigers.(It's actually .303, but we won't hold it against him.)
"So I wanted some acronym that would resonate, I guess, and [former light-hitting Royals shortstop Buddy] Biancalana wouldn't quite fit an acronym. But I have nothing against Bill. He's kind of an innocent victim here."
Victim? Ha. Hardly.
"I'm not insulted," Bill says. "I guess I really was just an average Major League player. And to be honest, I felt that way. I didn't really think I was very good, and I didn't feel I was bad, either."
Doug Miller is reporter for MLB.com. This story was not subject to the approval of Major League Baseball or its clubs.