Happy Birthday Boy! Bill Pecota turns 52

Alex Remington
Big League Stew

On occasion, Big League Stew honors a birthday boy per week by taking a longer look at his career. Please join us in lighting the candles.

It must be a strange life, being Bill Pecota and being better known for being a statistic than as a man. When Nate Silver developed his PECOTA projection system in 2003, long before creating fivethirtyeight.com or becoming a New York Times writer, he knew he wanted to give it a silly acronym name that honored a player from when he was growing up in the 1980s. He thought of Dan Petry and Bill Pecota. The PECOTA acronym he eventually settled on was Player Empirical Comparison and Optimization Test Algorithm.

As Silver explained to Rich Lederer:

So the 'P' in the garbled acronym that you see above originally stood for 'Pitcher,' and from there it was just a matter of stringing together various words and letters that seemed relevant enough to come up with a catchy acronym. I think the finalists were PECOTA and PETRY — you can see the influence of American League Baseball circa 1987. But I couldn't come up anything to match the 'Y' in PETRY...

When I was growing up in Michigan and listening to Ernie Harwell, I didn't think of him that way — it seemed like Bill Pecota was always a real thorn in the side of the Tigers. And now, thanks to the magic of Retrosheet and Baseball Reference, we can look back and see that this wasn't entirely my imagination - Pecota was a .303 lifetime hitter against Detroit.

After PECOTA came a number of other player-named projection systems: Sean Smith's now-defunct CHONE, the Replacement Level Yankees Weblog's CAIRO, and, for the NBA and NHL, SCHOENE and VUKOTA. (SCHOENE and VUKOTA are published by Basketball Prospectus and Hockey Prospectus, sister organizations to Silver's onetime employer, Baseball Prospectus.)

But as a real person — and not a projection system — Pecota had a nine-season major-league career, including six years in Kansas City, where he made his name as a utilityman with little power but a solid batting eye and tremendous defensive versatility.

Best Year: 1991: .286/.356/.399, 6 HR, 45 RBIs, 16 SB/7 CS, 41 BB/45 K, 2.8 rWAR

Bill Pecota could never hold down a starting job, but in 1990 and 1991, he was a phenomenal supersub, easily one of the best in baseball. (Fun fact: Bill Pecota is one of only eight players in the last 80 years, and one of only 15 players in the modern era, to play every single one of the nine positions.) In those two years, he hit .270/.348/.393 with 11 homers in 728 plate appearances, while playing solid defense all over the diamond. He even pitched two innings in 1991!

In large part due to his defensive versatility, he was worth 2.8 Wins Above Replacement to the Royals in 1991, tied with Mike Macfarlane and second only to Danny Tartabull among the team's hitters. The pitching staff was a lot better, led by Bret Saberhagen, Kevin Appier, Mike Boddicker, Jeff Montgomery and a young Tom Gordon. Still, it was a tough division: the Royals were 82-80 but finished sixth in a stacked AL West, 13 games behind the worst-to-first World Series champion Minnesota Twins.

Worst Year: 1992: .227/.293/.297, 2 HR, 26 RBIs, 9 SB/3 CS, 25 BB/40 K, 0.2 rWAR

After 1991, disaster struck: The Royals traded Pecota and Saberhagen to the Mets for Gregg Jefferies, Kevin McReynolds and Keith Miller.

The trade was pretty terrible for all involved. Saberhagen was plagued by injury for the rest of his career, Jefferies played only one mediocre year in KC before they traded him away, and Miller and McReynolds' careers both collapsed after 1992. Bill Pecota only played three more seasons, batting .237 over the span, and then he finally retired.

Pecota played every infield position but catcher in 1992 — first, second, third, short and pitcher — but after making 105 starts in 1991, he only received 68 starts and the 32-year-old had to realize that the end of his career was near.

He bounced back in 1993, hitting .323 as a pinch-hitter for the Atlanta Braves, but he only got 65 at-bats and four starts. In 1994, he hit .214 for the Braves, and the strike ended the season in August. Baseball came back in 1995, but he never got another job.

Claim to Fame: Since Nate Silver left Baseball Prospectus, the PECOTA projections have declined in prominence. But Bill Pecota himself will always be fondly remembered, particularly by Royals fans.

Rob Neyer told the Jays blog battersbox.ca that Tim Wakefield was his favorite current player, but Bill Pecota was his favorite player of all time. He explained to the Portland Tribune that Pecota was the reason he was a Royals fan. As reporter Jason Vondersmith explained:

An avid Kansas City fan, he listened to a game on the radio one night, and utility player Bill Pecota hit two home runs. He became a fan. Simple as that.

That was on July 14, 1989, and it was the most amazing day of Pecota's career. In a doubleheader against the Yankees, Pecota hit three home runs — two in the first game, one in the second — and played shortstop, third base and right field. They were his only three home runs of the year.

In 2008, Royals Review named Pecota the 66th greatest Royal of all time. The blogger RetroRoyals explained why Pecota was so beloved:

Bill Pecota was a utility infielder for the Royals in the late 80s and early 90s and has developed something of a cult following among Royals fans. He has been mentioned as ESPN columnist Rob Neyer's favorite player, has had a player projection system named after him, has been lampooned at Progressive Boink as a "protector of baseball's innocence", and was the inspiration for my moniker when I first began posting on Royals message boards.

He was given the nickname "I-29" for constantly shuttling between Kansas City and the Royals top minor league affiliate in Omaha. "'I like the name when I'm going southbound, not northbound,'' he once remarked. Pecota was a likeable, hard-working, light-hitting utility player, endearing him to fans who probably thought he was not that much different from them.
He retired after the 1994 season and became a championship bass fisherman.

No, really. He became a bass fisherman.

Happy birthday, Bill!

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