I’ve been waiting for this. I’ve been waiting for this ever since I saw a tweet a little over a month ago.
With Cole, Astros now project at 103.5 2018 wins. Easily the highest pre-season W projection NEIFI has ever forecast.
— NEIFI Analytics (@NEIFIco) January 13, 2018
I don’t know much about the NEIFI projection system, and I don’t have access to its archives. I don’t know how far back it goes. The tweet, though, stuck in my memory, and for weeks I looked forward to what numbers would show up right here. We’ve always had the Steamer projection system numbers on display, but only the other day did we get to include ZiPS. So, things are pretty much final, pending injuries and a few further significant free-agent signings. The Astros’ roster looks set. Maybe there’s a bullpen battle or two. Whatever. Here are the current projected standings.
The Astros are projected to win 101 games. That’s an extraordinary total, and no one is close. I’ll acknowledge right here that this isn’t very surprising. Also, the Astros just actually won the World Series, so, who cares? A great team is a great team. I get it, and you can close this window if you want to. I’m just wired to delight in fun facts. I come carrying further fun facts.
I’m going back to my spreadsheet of preseason team projections since 2005. This time of year, it’s one of my favorite little resources. In 2016, the Cubs were projected to win 96.2 games, which was the highest preseason projected win total since 2006. And then, the following year, the Cubs were projected to win 96.4 games, and the Dodgers were projected to win 96.7. Those just slightly eclipsed the Cubs’ mark from the year before. But the actual best projection I’ve had on record belongs to the 2005 Cardinals, projected to finish 101-61. Those Cardinals actually finished 100-62. Good job of meeting expectations. Way to go, Cardinals.
This year’s Astros are also projected to win 101 games, tying those Cardinals for the best projection in the era. And if you want to be needlessly precise, this year’s Astros are projected to win 101.3 games. Technically, that would be better. I don’t want to sit here and make too much of three-tenths of one projected win, but when I sort the spreadsheet in descending order of projected wins, the 2018 Astros are at the top. This team looks incredible.
Baseball has played 20 seasons with 30 teams. Over that span, 24 teams have won at least 100 games, for an average of basically one a season. The Astros are already projected to win more than 100 games, and projections are built to regress to the mean. I don’t mean to be all breathless here, because, after all, last year’s Astros finished 101-61 in the regular season, too. Everyone has already long known the Astros are great. It’s just, this isn’t some ordinary great team. I know that the actual baseball is independent of what the preseason projections say, but this is a testament to what the organization has built.
The Astros are looking at a full season of Justin Verlander. They’re looking at a full season of Gerrit Cole. Hector Rondon and Joe Smith have been added to the bullpen. The significant departures would be Carlos Beltran, Nori Aoki, Mike Fiers, Joe Musgrove, Luke Gregerson, and Michael Feliz. There are some players in there who I believe in, but last season the group combined to be worth 0.3 WAR. The Astros are so good and so deep that Brad Peacock is unlikely to even open the year as a member of the starting rotation. As a starter last year, Peacock ran a 3.22 ERA, with a strikeout rate of 29%. It’s fair to say he’d be a starter for literally everyone else.
We can take a quick look at the Astros, positionally. Here is projected WAR by position, as expressed by MLB rank. I can’t think of a better way to explain how the Astros look as good as they do. Let me take that back. They’re literally the reigning champions. That’s also a good explanation. But, well, I already made this plot, so I should share it.
The Astros, of course, rank first in baseball in overall projected WAR. They’re first in projected position-player WAR, and they’re first in projected pitcher WAR. Positionally, they’re first at second base and shortstop, and they’re in the top five at catcher, center field, and right field. The Astros also project to have the best rotation, and the second-best bullpen. If there’s a weakness, it might be 1B/DH, but even there, weakness is relative, because Yulieski Gurriel and Evan Gattis are fine. And if you have any concern about left field, well, Kyle Tucker is coming, and he was recently ranked the No. 10 overall prospect.
Let’s go back to the spreadsheet that stretches to 2005. As noted, the Astros are already at least tied for the best projection in the window. But there’s also another way of looking at this. The Astros project seven wins better than the next-best team. That’s the widest gap in the 14 seasons. The average win gap has been three. The 2005 Cardinals projected five wins better than the next-best team, and so did the 2007 Yankees. That would be the Astros’ competition. They’re out there, standing as the clear team to beat.
Now, about those 2007 Yankees — they didn’t actually finish with the real best record in baseball. They were very good, but even in their own division, they wound up a couple games behind the Red Sox. You don’t need another reminder that projections aren’t destiny. But the Astros have that one trait we all remember, that being that they just won the championship. According to people who followed the 2017 Cubs closely, they struggled at first because they didn’t seem to have the same motivation. Might the Astros experience something of a World Series hangover? Might they disappoint, that inner fire having been extinguished?
Sure, it could happen, but it hasn’t happened much in recent history. Out of the 13 defending champions I have in the spreadsheet, they’ve averaged 88 projected wins, and 86 actual wins. That does show slight under-performance, but it’s mostly because of the 2014 Red Sox, who fell flat on their faces. If you switch from averages to medians, you go from 87 projected wins to 88 actual wins. Not much of a hint of anything. And let’s say you want to increase the sample, because, well, playing throughout the playoffs can be exhausting, and it shrinks the offseason. Teams coming off World Series losses have averaged 88 projected wins, and 91 actual wins. The medians are 89 and 93. Fatigue hasn’t really shown up. At least recently, there hasn’t been a carryover effect from World Series participation. Yes, winning it all certainly changes things, but, even the 2017 Cubs shook it off. Players are motivated to win the first time, but then after that, they can be motivated to try to establish a dynasty.
I don’t know how the Astros feel. And of course the Astros could be toppled. They’re not baseball’s only great team, and a handful of unfortunate injuries could knock them down several pegs. That’s why, as they say, they play the games. I just wanted to shed some light on this particular moment in time. Right now, at this moment, the Astros are not only the league’s defending champions. They also appear to be a juggernaut. Relative to these Astros, even the Yankees are an underdog.
Jeff made Lookout Landing a thing, but he does not still write there about the Mariners. He does write here, sometimes about the Mariners, but usually not.