Making sense of PECOTA’s bold NL East projections for 2021 season originally appeared on NBC Sports Washington
The NL East figures to be one of the most competitive divisions in baseball this season.
All five teams have a shot at making the playoffs, something that can’t be said for any other division in MLB. The Atlanta Braves, reigning two-time division champs, are coming off an NLCS appearance. Just 15 months ago, the Nationals were hosting a World Series parade. The New York Mets have enjoyed a splashy offseason while the Philadelphia Phillies are running it back with a similar roster to what they had last year. Even the lowly Miami Marlins made the playoffs in 2020.
However, one projection system doesn’t think the division will be all that close. Here’s how Baseball Prospectus’s projection model PECOTA sees the NL East shaking out in 2021:
Mets – 95.5 wins (77.4% chance to win division)
Nationals – 85 wins (9.8%)
Phillies – 83 wins (7.4%)
Braves – 82.4 wins (5.4%)
Marlins – 68.1 wins (0.0%)
For comparison’s sake, here’s how the sports book PointsBet ranks the five teams in terms of betting odds to win the division:
Braves – 5/4 (+125 odds)
Mets – 29/20 (+145)
Nationals – 6/1 (+600)
Phillies – 17/2 (+850)
Marlins – 35/1 (+3500)
To make sense of this, it’s first important to understand what exactly PECOTA does. The acronym stands for Player Empirical Comparison and Optimization Test Algorithm, which is a fancy way of saying it takes previous seasons and tries to predict future performance from them. The model runs simulations to determine how many runs a team will score and how many it will give up, then takes the difference between the two and translates it into an average win total.
So, the Braves. Are they really the fourth-best team in the division? No, PECOTA is saying that the average number of wins the Braves had in its simulations of the 2021 season was 82.4. That is, of course, striking because Atlanta has finished on a 90-win pace each of the last three years. But what the model is trying to say is it expects some regression from Braves players who overperformed last year.
The opposite could be said for the Mets, who are projected to easily take the division with an average of 10 more wins than any other team. New York tied the Nationals for fourth in the NL East with a 26-34 record last season. Now, with the additions of Francisco Lindor, James McCann and Carlos Carrasco, PECOTA sees a big leap in expectations that were already boosted by a projected rise in production.
It’s worth pointing out that the Nationals, Phillies and Braves were separated by just 2.6 wins between the three of them. There were plenty of simulations that had each of those three teams in different spots; they’re close enough to each other that it’s considered a toss-up as to which club will finish with the most wins.
The Marlins benefitted from the shortened season and expanded playoff format in 2020, making the postseason with just a 31-29 record. Miami was also 31-29 after its first 60 games in 2016 but went on to finish 79-82 and miss the playoffs. The rebuild wasn’t finished last year and while more prospects will be reaching the majors in 2021, the Marlins’ window of contention doesn’t appear to be open just yet.
Of course, PECOTA isn’t always right. In fact, this is the third-straight year that the model is picking the Mets to win the NL East. Yet it can tell a cautionary tale: Cubs players and fans alike were irate in 2019 over PECOTA picking them to win 79 games and finish fifth in the NL Central. Chicago ended up going just 84-78 and missed the playoffs.
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