Baseball Prospectus’s annual PECOTA projections are out and they aren’t too high on the Chicago Cubs in 2019. Naturally, Cubs Twitter is losing their minds.
If we are to believe the PECOTA projection system, the Chicago Cubs are in for a last-place finish in the NL Central this season. Not only that, it predicts the team will win a paltry 79 games. Chicago is only three years removed from winning the World Series and has won no fewer than 92 games in each of its last four seasons.
If this isn’t your queue to put less stock into computer projections, I don’t know what is. The Cubs have retained most of the core players that have helped them reach the postseason every year since 2015. And in some ways, their lineup and pitching rotation are actually poised to be better than they were in 2018.
Bottom line is this: PECOTA gets it wrong a lot. Let’s take a look at some notable instances where the algorithm missed the mark.
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The first big discrepancy between projection and reality that comes to mind is the 2015 Kansas City Royals. PECOTA picked them to finish in last place with just 72 wins. If you’ll recall, they won 95 games in the regular season and beat the New York Mets to win the World Series that year.
Last year PECOTA had the Atlanta Braves winning only 76 games. They won 90 and finished in first place in the NL East.
In 2016, the projection algorithm predicted the Baltimore Orioles would win 72 games, but they ended up winning 89. Sure, Baltimore’s pitching staff didn’t look impressive in 2016, at least not on paper. But their lineup certainly did.
The Oakland Athletics were projected to go 77-85 in 2018 but ended up winning nearly 100 games. Granted, no one could have predicted that. But all of this is to say no algorithm can get it right all the time.
Baseball is arguably the most unpredictable of the major professional sports in America. Am I saying PECOTA is always wrong? Of course not. But Baseball Prospectus’s algorithm is made by humans, and so it is still susceptible to human error. In fact, it’s inevitable.
This year’s Cubs prediction is a reminder that you should never take this stuff too seriously. How they managed to conclude the Cubs would win less than 80 games is beyond me. Consider this: PECOTA had initially picked the Cubs to win 82 games this year, but downgraded them to 79 when Milwaukee re-signed Mike Moustakas.
Moustakas is a fine player, but it’s a bit absurd to think he’ll make that much of an impact. He was worth just 0.4 WAR last year, so PECOTA obviously believes he’s in for a big comeback season.
The NL Central could end up being the toughest division in baseball this year. And the Cubs could definitely have a harder time against the Cardinals and Reds than they’ve had the past couple of years. But they are still objectively a very talented ball club. And even if they aren’t the top team in the NL Central, the talent gap between them and the Brewers is nowhere near as wide as PECOTA projects.