Another structural change could be more subtle. In 2008, Cole Hamels materialized as a true Major League ace, but stressed his body far past its previous limits in doing so. Last year, including the playoffs, Hamels pitched 72 more innings than he ever had in any previous season. The central question surrounding the Boy Wonder is whether the heavy load sustained during last season's joyride to championship glory will take its toll this season. This is less a question of motivation — Hamels' work ethic is lauded throughout the organization — and more of health. Still. Last season Hamels predicted that if he could get through just one season injury-free, all the questions about his fragility would expire. Well, he did and they haven't. Already this spring, questions have arisen about whether Hamels' increased workload will lead to increased time on the sideline, decreased effectiveness or worse.• Proving that I'm nothing if not consistent, I make similar points about the defending World Champions in today's ESPN Insider/BP stroll through the National League version of the PECOTA Projected Standings:
The fears aren't unfounded: The extra work is catching up with the young ace. Two weeks ago, Hamels felt tightness in his pitching elbow and was examined by the team physician. The tightness turned out to be simple inflammation, likely the result of normal wear and tear. This sounds reassuring until you remember that normal wear and tear usually develops toward the end of a long season, not at the beginning of one. Jay Jaffe, one of the authors of the annual Baseball Prospectus tome, explains, "Over a three-year period any given pitcher has something like a 50 percent chance of getting hurt." According to him, for Hamels, a stint or two on the DL would be "pretty par for the course." If he's right, the Phillies, compared to last year, just got quite a bit worse.
Speaking of dangerous trends, the Phillies' bullpen is also unlikely to have the type of season it pulled together in 2008. Behind closer Brad Lidge and his perfect 48-48 in save opportunities, the Phillies not only won every game they were leading after eight innings, but were also ranked by BP as having statistically the best bullpen in baseball. Part of that was skill, but a bigger part was good timing. Lidge, Ryan Madson, J.C. Romero, Chad Durbin and Clay Condrey, the Phillies' first five arms out of the bullpen, all had ERAs well below their career averages. Out of the group, Madson (3.94 to 3.05) was the only one within a full run of his career mark. Regression is likely. "Historically," Jaffe warns, "relievers just haven't held up."
One real pleasure that we get in working with the PECOTA projection system comes when we move beyond the individual player forecasts to the team level. Every year, once we release the first batch of projections, our staff compiles depth charts and calibrates the playing time at each position for each team. Our system adjusts for strength of schedule, team defense, and reliever leverage, and we update these on a daily basis throughout the exhibition season based upon camp reports, expert injury analysis, our own intuition, and input from readers who keep a close eye on their hometown nine.Bitch if you must about the way the PECOTA projections see your favorite team, but the system is the clear leader of the pack at this sort of thing.
The result is our Projected Standings, and it's often where we generate the most controversy. Two years ago, we drew fire for forecasting just 72 wins for the White Sox, who wound up winning exactly that many. Last year, we raised eyebrows with our assertion that the Rays would finish well above .500 for the first time in history. While we don't always hit the bull's-eye so directly, the standings are an area where we stand tall.
Our projections for this year's National League standings aren't likely to receive much brotherly love from Philadelphia, the home of the defending World Champions. That's because PECOTA sees the Phillies finishing with 87 wins, second to the Mets in the NL East and a game short of the Wild Card. Their offense is slated to match last year's number three ranking in scoring, but the pitching is poised for a major drop, from third in runs allowed to 10th. It's not that the staff hasn't seen upgrades; a full year of Joe Blanton and a more or less league-average expectation from fifth-starter candidates Chan Ho Park and J.A. Happ make for a stronger back end of the rotation. Their problems begin with the improbability of Cole Hamels matching last year's 3.09 ERA over a career-high 227 innings (plus another 35 in the postseason); we've got him down for 3.65 and 180, and note that he's already paid a visit to the doctor. The system also sees considerable regression for bullpen studs Brad Lidge and Ryan Madson. If there's room for optimism, it's that 46-year-old freak of nature Jamie Moyer practically broke PECOTA, and our 5.16 ERA forecast is based upon a dearth of comparable players.
As PECOTA sees it, the NL East race should see the twice-brokenhearted Mets christen their new ballpark with a 92-win season and a long-awaited division flag. While they could have done more to patch their rotation and their outfield corners, the bullpen makeover — starring Francisco Rodriguez and J.J. Putz — squarely addresses last year's biggest flaw, and David Wright, Jose Reyes, and Carlos Beltran forecast as the league's third-, fourth-, and fifth-most valuable hitters according to WARP. Also in the hunt for October are the Braves, who not only feature three players who forecast as the league's best or second-best at their positions (Chipper Jones, Brian McCann, and Kelly Johnson), but can boast adding the Derek Lowe-Javier Vazquez tandem to their rotation, the strongest duo of pitchers added by a team last winter this side of the Yankees' CC Sabathia and A.J. Burnett.
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