Evaluating the 2009 NL East via PECOTA

If you’ve read this blog at some time over the past few weeks, you’ve no doubt seen my post regarding projected performance for the Phillies in 2009. If not, go read up when you have a chance.

Now, I think it’s time to put some of these projections into play across the entire NL East, to give a better feel for just what the Phillies may – or may not – be up against in the NL’s toughest division this year.

To keep things consolidated, I’ll be using PECOTA Value Over Replacement Player (VORP) projections as provided by Baseball Prospectus.

Starting Rotations

A big reason for Philly’s success in 2008 was the durability of its pitching staff. Cole Hamels and Jamie Moyer missed almost no time, and only seven different starting pitchers were used throughout the entire year. Compare that number with New York, Atlanta , Florida, and Washington, which all used 11 different starters, and the correlation holds; at least for one year.

Will this hold up? Will the health of Philly pitchers once again hold up so miraculously for an entire year? It’s unlikely, but possible. Just as possible as any one of the division’s other four teams replicating what the Phillies did.

Health aside, however, how effective will these starters be? Taking PECOTA’s projected VORP for each team’s expected top five starters, here’s what shapes up.

Team Starter VORP
Braves 114.9
Mets 114.5
Phillies 106.1
Marlins 83.4
Nationals 53

The Braves and Mets are ahead by a decent margin; New York is headed by NL East projected leader Johan Santana, and Atlanta gains a double boost with Derek Lowe and Javier Vazquez. The difference is statistically significant, but not as massive as the gaps between Philly and Florida, or the Marlins and Nationals. Philly should be able to keep close.

Bullpen

By far and away, the most highly touted aspect of the Phils’ championship run was the play of the bullpen. And true, it was stellar through September and October, led mostly by Ryan Madson and Brad Lidge, with timely out-producing by J.C. Romero.

The Mets, on the other hand, are all too familiar with bullpen blow-ups. Will the additions of Francisco Rodriguez and J.J. Putz help? Undoubtedly. But how much will they help?

Team Bullpen
Mets 62.2
Braves 44.8
Phillies 43.9
Marlins 39.9
Nationals 22.5

Apparently, they’ll help a whole lot. Putz and Rodriguez both regressed peripherally in 2008 – stories lost beneath Rodriguez’s save accumulation and Seattle’s irrelevance – yet both are expected to have big years in New York. The Phillies’ entire bullpen is expected to relapse and put up unseemly numbers. Not a single pitcher is expected to have an ERA below 3.50 (with Brad Lidge on the cusp at 3.49), when in 2008, all five of the team’s most-used relievers had ERAs below that mark. It seems questionable to me.

Getting Rafael Soriano and Peter Moylan back and healthy will certainly benefit the Braves, and a full season from Mike Gonzalez couldn’t hurt, either. As for the Marlins, Matt Lindstrom will look to fill Kevin Gregg’s shoes as the ninth inning man, but Florida and Washington both still have holes too significant to ignore.

Lineup

In 2007, it was Philly’s offense that propelled the team into the playoffs. Last year, the pitching staff covered for a team that slumped a bit on the whole. The Mets have a solid enough lineup, but are aging. The Braves are composed of a bunch of unknowns that may surprise, and the Marlins are prepared to slug their way through teams. What does BP say?

Team Lineup
Mets 253
Phillies 236.4
Nationals 222.4
Marlins 221.3
Braves 216.5

Boy, BP sure does love those Mets, and especially Jose Reyes. Why? A .309/.374/.478 projected line for a shortstop is very good, to be sure. But Reyes projected OPS of .852 has been done 106 times before by shortstops with at least 400 PAs. His projected OBP of .374 has been done 198 times. Yet Reyes’s 65.2 VORP would put him sixth in all of baseball if this were 2008, among the usual slugging positions like 1B, 3B, and corner OF. Even in 2008 he was in the top ten. It must be the steals. I don’t understand it.

In any case, the Mets have the edge here. The Braves, surprisingly, fall to the cellar despite the addition of Garret Anderson and the presence of Chipper Jones and Kelly Johnson. The Marlins look like they’ll be living off Hanley Ramirez and his massive VORP of 80.7.

Add up those three totals and what do you get? A pretty graph.

VORP Graph

Favorable projections drive the Mets to the top of the VORP totem pole, while the Phillies slide down amid less-than-outstanding bullpen forecasts. All told, the division should be highly competitive once again, with the Mets appearing to be the statistical favorite.

Well, that was the case the past two seasons as well. I guess that’s why they play the games.

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