The PECOTA projections, a well-respected projection system created by Nate Silver for Baseball Prospectus, have been unveiled for the 2016 season. It predicts Kansas City to finish last in the American League Central with a mere 76 wins to its name. That is the second-worst projected record in the American League, and a worse record than the rebuilding Milwaukee Brewers.
Over the last three years, the Royals have been the best team in the American League, and have accumulated the swag to with that title. Two American League pennants and a World Series trophy later, with the core of the 2013-2015 squad being retained, you would think that the projection systems would be kinder.
You would be incorrect. Earlier this year, Fangraphs released their projected standings, wherein they pegged the Royals to win 79 games and finish fourth in the AL Central. PECOTA is harsher, but it follows similar mathematical processes as other systems.
The projection systems were wrong about the Royals last year, as were most pundits and baseball observers. PECOTA projected the Royals to win just 72 games last year, when the Royals went on to win 95 games. In 2014, when the Royals won their first pennant in 29 years with a 89-win season, PECOTA projected the team to win 79 games. In 2013, when the Royals had a late run to win 86 games, PECOTA had projected the team to finish with just 76 wins.
This has not been a banner year or two for projection systems. Last August, FiveThirtyEight featured a piece asking if 2015 was the year projection systems failed, co-written by Nate Silver, the aforementioned creator of PECOTA:
Paradoxically, in an age of unprecedented baseball data, we somehow appear to be getting worse at knowing which teams are — and will be — good.
In an absolute sense, this season’s forecast win totals aren’t any further off than usual. But that obscures the way predictions — and, in fact, actual team records — have also gotten more compressed over the years. As a result of the trend toward parity in MLB, preseason projections explain less of the variation among teams’ records now than they have at any point in the last 20 seasons.
The staff at Baseball Prospectus seems to know that something weird is going on with projections as well.
Our staff didn’t want it. It’s not just that when we polled our writers for their own Royals predictions—before PECOTA had been run—not one of them went as low as 76. It’s not even that not one of them went lower than 80, or that only one of 27 responses was lower than 85, or that the plurality response was 90, or that the average was 88.
It’s this: When I asked a follow-up question a few days later—"If I told you PECOTA projects them to win 76 games this year, does your answer change?"—the response was overwhelmingly "nah." In fact… counting them out… 73 percent of staff said it didn’t change their answer at all.
As one put it: "No, because the projections just seem to not like the Royals." This seems awfully close to a crisis of confidence.
Despite winning 95 games and retaining most of their core, the Royals are projected to be underdogs once again. Perhaps the projection systems have a hard time properly weighing what it is the Royals do well. Or perhaps this is just random variance. Or maybe the entire projection system is flawed. Or maybe predicting baseball standings is very, very difficult. Regardless, this result will only fuel the fire of those who dislike projections, numbers, or attempts to objectively gather data. Prepare your hot takes.