Numbers can be such a buzz-kill.
Here we are at the happiest place on earth during the most carefree time of the year, and the digits seem determined to drag down the Braves. In spring, when all things should be possible, the math is saying, “Not so much,” while hitting this team in the face with the cold, dead mackerel of odds and quotients.
First, there’s the wise guys. Your friendly Bovada oddsmaker has put the Braves on 66 1/2 wins in 2016, inviting the optimist to bet above that or the cynic to go below. That over-under number is just a tick below their win total of 2015 (67). And it is just a tick above the absolute bottom of the Majors (it has Phillies at 65 1/2).
Then, there’s the guys with the thick glasses and high-waisted pants who have reduced baseball to a formula.
Baseball Prospectus produces something called the Player Empirical Comparison and Optimization Test Algorithm (PECOTA). That proprietary system weighs every roster and spits out how many wins we should expect of these various collections of flawed humans.
Per the Prospectus, the algorithm contains three main elements: “Major League equivalencies;” “baseline forecasts;” and “career path adjustment.” And how are you going to argue against all that?
And according to PECOTA, the Braves are going to have another season of diminished returns, winning 68 games. Thank heaven again for Philadelphia, for it is the only team forecast to win fewer — 65. The Phillies are the French drain in this basement.
So, let’s recap: Weeks before the first real game is played, the Braves already have been mathematically eliminated. Having more questions than the new SAT test tends to lead to that kind of empirical doubt.
“I think the biggest reason we rank so low is that nobody has any idea who we are,” explained one of the enigmas in the starting rotation, 23-year-old Matt Wisler. “They don’t know what kind of team we’re going to throw out there this year.
“Honestly, I think we have a lot better team than people think.” Ah, the blind, unshakable hopefulness of the young.
Actually, Braves both veteran and new don’t seem to be taking the numbers to heart. Regardless of the expectations that have been lowered like a flag at sunset, they seem intent upon playing out the season anyway. No forfeits just yet.
I think there’s a lot of energy and positivity going on right now. It’s a pretty cool thing to see.
Freddie Freeman, Braves first baseman
Listen to how some Braves defiantly spit in the face of overwhelming numerical inferiority.
First-baseman Freddie Freeman: “That doesn’t factor injuries or anything like that. A lot of people didn’t think us to go 42-42 at one point last year. Then a couple of us got hurt and some trades went down. You don’t know what’s going to happen, that’s the beauty of playing 162 games.
“I think there’s a lot of energy and positivity going on right now. It’s a pretty cool thing to see.”
Manager Fredi Gonzalez: “You don’t play the schedule on paper. You got to play the schedule in actual games, actual time. … My expectation for us is to always be a playoff team, get in there somehow. A lot of stuff has to go right for us to do that, obviously, with all these young players who are going to have to do some stuff. Why not have those expectations that you’re going to be competitive and get into one of those playoff spots?”
They do their things on the computers — get the geek squad to do all their stuff. And you know what? We suit up and go play every day and do the work. To me that other stuff carries no weight.
Jace Peterson, Braves infielder
Infielder Jace Peterson: “They do their things on the computers — get the geek squad to do all their stuff. And you know what? We suit up and go play every day and do the work. To me that other stuff carries no weight.”
The PECOTA crystal ball was far from perfect last year. Ask any Brave, and he seems to know automatically that the same program that so under-values his team had the Kansas City Royals winning only 72 games in 2015. That was just 23 shy of the actual 95 they won on the way to the world championship.
There are 30 Major League teams. Eight of PERCOTA projections fell within five games, plus or minus, of the actual 2015 win total. Twenty teams fell within nine games of their PERCOTA projection, the remaining 10 weren’t within double digits of the computer’s reckoning, led by the titanic misread of the Royals. The 67-win Braves of 2015 fell short of their projection by six games. Erring on the upside will be the commandment of 2016.
Now, the Braves GM respects numbers as much as the next baseball wonk. He can recite them from dusk till dawn, like an Oxford professor can recite Keats.
But even numbers can be impure, John Coppolella admits, especially when they don’t suit an optimistic narrative.
“I think those projections don’t account for the impact of a lot of young talent, which we’ve got in spades,” Coppolella said.
“If you see the different PERCOTA projections, they are basically an amalgamation of career averages vs. last three- or four-year averages vs. aging curves. I don’t think there’s a lot of imagination in it. A lot of times they’re close. But a lot of times they miss, too.”
“I don’t think they’re going to miss on every single player with us,” he said, “but I think we have a lot of good young players coming up — same way the Royals did — where they may not account for the improvement young players make on a year-to-year basis.”
The only numbers that matter, of course, will be those written indelibly into the Major League standings, day after day, over the long arc of a season. Those never lie.
Until then, it’s all a matter of a gut choice, really. No science or math involved. On which side of the expectation gap do you wish to stand? Coppolella chooses to take the over — just theoretically speaking, of course.
“I think for all of us — the front office, the coaching staff, the players — we feel we’re much better than the so-called experts are saying. I think we’ll get the opportunity to show that once the season starts,” he said.