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Hope and Hype in the NL East, Conclusions

Mike SteffanosTuesday, February 27, 2007
By Mike Steffanos


Last week I previewed the other teams in the National League Eastern Division, primarily concentrating on the pitching staffs. I thought it was important to take note of the fact that all of these teams, including the mighty Phillies, have some huge question marks heading into the 2007 campaign. While I certainly see the division as extremely competitive this season, I'm not as down on the Mets chances as some seem to be.

For instance, a good friend of mine who introduced me to statistical analysis a while back is quite pessimistic about the upcoming season. Apparently Baseball Prospectus' PECOTA forecasting system foresees drop-offs in both the Mets offensive and bullpen performance compared to last year. Since starting pitching is decidedly not a strength of this team, that certainly could make for a disappointing campaign for the Flushing nine in 2007. I've made some strides in understanding and appreciating statistical analysis these last few years after spending most of my career of baseball fandom as an unrepentant dinosaur, but I'm not buying into this one. While I concede that Jose Valentin, Endy Chavez and perhaps Carlos Beltran will perform closer to their career averages, I think it's likely that others will step forward and have big years. That's what happens on good teams. My friend's cherished PECOTA might be accurate when all is said and done, but I don't see it with the same aura of inevitability that he does.

Besides, what do you think projection systems like PECOTA would have spit out last season if you factored in only 23 starts from Pedro and figured in 20 starts from Orlando Hernandez, 15 from John Maine, 8 from Alay Soler, 7 from Oliver Perez, 6 from Brian Bannister, 5 from Dave Williams, 4 each from Jose Lima and Mike Pelfrey and 3 from Geremi Gonzalez?

I've read other, more conventional, baseball analysis that looks at every negative about the Mets -- particularly the age of some key players and questions about the starters -- and accepts the darkest possible outcomes for the Mets while glossing over potential pitfalls for the other NL east clubs. Yet the Philadelphia bullpen is a huge question mark -- magnified if one or more of their starters gets hurt. Atlanta's hopes ride on the health of several key contributors, as they lack any real depth. The Marlins are very talented, but they're also quite young and have more questions about their bullpen than the Phillies.

This isn't to gloss over the Mets problems, which could indeed derail their hopes this season, but it's hardly as hopeless as some would have you believe. The Mets pitching is in a state of flux, but they're lucky enough to have some young, talented guys in the mix for spots. Where there is uncertainty there is also opportunity, and jobs could be nailed down not just for this season but also for the next few years.

Other than the Nationals, I could make a case for any of the other teams to win the division. I could also make a worst-case scenario for any of the four, including the Mets, to finish fourth. If the Phillies can stay healthy and find a bullpen, they could win. If the Braves get everything to fall their way, they potentially have the most balanced pitching in the division. If the Marlins could keep all of their young starters healthy, they could run away with things. The one thing that I notice, however, looking at all of the others, is that all have some big weakness and very little depth. If the Phillies lose a couple of starters for any length of time, they don't have the bullpen to compensate. The Braves have no real depth at all, and Chipper's foot problems are chronic. The Marlins have no bullpen at all right now, and a couple of starting pitchers experienced problems before spring training even started.

For the Mets, the two biggest stumbling blocks are having a lot of older players that they're depending on and the unsettled starting rotation. I read a lot about the club every day, but I've gotten away from all of negative stuff. It's not that I can't accept bad news about the team I root for; it's just that enough is enough. I get the fact that the Mets are leaning on some old players while they're waiting for the young talent in the organization to develop. I get it that there is uncertainty surrounding the rotation. I don't need to be hammered with it every other item that I read.

When it comes to sports, perception often seems to trump reality. Last year many pundits picked the Braves to win the NL East, ignoring the obvious fact that the Braves had done nothing to address an extremely weak bullpen. The attitude was, "they're the Braves; they'll figure it out." The perception was that the Braves were a winning organization that would find a way to overcome their deficiencies. Meanwhile, the Mets had (rightfully) earned the reputation as an organization that would, more often than not, find a way to screw things up. Over the past couple of years, the Mets have given every indication that things have changed, but the pundits still view them through the old perception. They tend to give more weight to potential obstacles that stand in the way of Mets success.

Meanwhile, the Phillies seem to have received a pass on their own history, their lack of a sound bullpen and the reality that a couple of injuries to starting pitchers could derail their train very easily. Also, their starting rotation, while hugely improved, hardly rivals the 1971 Orioles. And by the way, could local Philadelphia newspaper writers please stop their pathetic fiction that all the talk is getting to the Mets? I know that kind of cheap bravado plays well in Philly, but all we hear out of Mets camp is how little reaction the press is able to get out of this "story".

The Mets starting pitching actually looks better to me than last year, despite the uncertainty surrounding Pedro's return. In case the pundits have forgotten, Martinez only contributed 9 wins in 2006. The difference this season is that the Phillies and Braves are much improved, while the Marlins won't have to overcome a 16-33 start as they did last year. I expect the NL East to be a dogfight all season long, and that's how it should be. I don't think there are going to be many games separating the top 3 teams in the east in 2007, but I think the advantage the Mets enjoy in depth over their competition will carry them through. Here is my projected order of finish:

  1. Mets
  2. Phillies
  3. Marlins
  4. Braves
  5. Nationals

About Mike: I was the original writer on this web site, actually its only writer for the first 15 months of existence. Although I am grateful for the excellent contributions of my fellow writers here, I have no plans of stepping back into strictly an editorial role. I started this thing in the first place because I love to write and I love the Mets, and blogging here keeps me somewhat sane. If you haven't had enough already, more bio info can be found here.

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Comments (11)

Mike, great post, as usual. I couldn't agree more. Although I am concerned about the improvements in both the Braves and the Phillies' teams, I don't see the "doom" everyone else is predicting for the Mets. I too like our pitching staff better than what we had last year. I guess everyone forgets all of the talk last spring concerning Pedro's toe or "Lima time". I just can't wait for the year to start. It should be a competitive, fun year to be a fan. Only time will tell.

I agree, with your thoughts concerning the Mets pitching. I also agree with your predictions for the NL East. Damn, this is getting tiresome; would you please write something I can dispute?

I wouldn't mind having the '71 Oriole's rotation, but I like what he do have: a terrific team to watch, and the prospect of having several young players step forward along the ride. You can't hardly beat that.

Who would want to be a Yankee fan, with these Mets in town?

Joe - Just hearing the words "Lima Time" sent a cold shudder down my back.
---------------------------------
dd - When I looked back at the stats on that O's rotation I had to laugh at the innings pitched.
Cuellar - 292 (7.7 innings per start)
Dobson - 282 (7.6)
Palmer - 282 (7.6)
McNally - 224 (7.5)

We wouldn't need much of a bullpen with that kind of rotation...

I agree with your comments on PECOTA. The biggest flaw in the system is well known to those using it, but swept under the rug: PECOTA is hard pressed to get 20% of its predictions correct to within 10% (i.e., if it predicts 40 home runs, that would be a range of 36-44).

So, ultimately, PECOTA is just a guess. A lot of numbers go into it, but it's no different from someone saying, "I think he'll hit the same as he did last year." It's too filled with uncertainty to be used as a guide to anything, since 80% or more of the predictions are going to be well off the mark.

Chuck - It's important to note that I'm not anti-PECOTA, but I think we need to take it with a grain of salt. It's fun to look at the projections, but if it really worked people would be in Vegas getting rich off this thing.

Mike,

From your mouth to God's ears on that predicted order of finish. The only swap I'd make would be Braves third and the Fish fourth, but what's one or two games further back of the Mets among friends?

Thanks for the heads-up on this PECOTA thing; it's kind of intriguing. I'll be digging into it throughout the season. Not because I particularly believe it to be a good barometer of future performance. Just for fun.

One more day until the first official MLB spring training game. It's about freakin' time!

Mike S., "if" is one of the biggest words in the English language. Thank God our boys actually have to play 162 games, or these latter-day "Strat-O-Matics" would take all the fun out of following the Mets.

We're coming back with an improved offense (Alou for Floyd,) more experienced defense (a year older/wiser,) same speed, improved bullpen and a more interesting yet more potentially capable mix for the starting rotation than last year (no Lima, no Trachsie and the young guns may be ready to step up.)

Trying hard not to be a homer here, but I'm seeing the "ifs" bugging the opposition a lot more than us. Third place? Let the Fish & Bwaves fight it out... just promise me you'll post a pic of Larry Jones admitting defeat on Sep 30th!

The Bwaves? Is Elmer Fudd a Mets fan now?

Shhhh! Be Vewy quiet! I'm hunting Chippah! Huh!huh!huh!huh!huh!!

NostraDennis - Lisa bought me a gift certificate to Baseball Prospectus last Christmas and I've enjoyed it a lot, even though I don't buy into everything.
----------------------------
Geezer - I really do think the race will be very close all season, and it may come down to who stays the healthiest. If there is a pic of Larry conceding defeat it will surely make it up here.

Mike, it'll be closer than last year, but not by as much as some in Philly or Atlanta might hope. Just listened to some schmuck who called in to the Schmooze, plugging the Bwaves and predicting the Fish ahead of us, in third place! Oy.

dd: I'd never heard of the term "Skankee" until I'd got on these blogs back in November. Worked for me, but hating the Braves far more than the Yanks, I had to come up with something of my own that could express my utter disdain for the likes of Sneering Larry J., Smirky Greg M., and so on and so forth. One night, the image of Elmer Fudd popped into mind; make whatever cultural connections you will. For me, they are forever more the Bwaves.

Huh-huh-huh-huh-huh....

Geezer - Must have been a Yankees fan.

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