A few months ago, Fangraphs published its projected win totals for 2016. They weren’t very complimentary of the Orioles as they projected them to win just 80 games and be the worst team in the AL East. The Royals, the 2015 World Series Champions, are projected to win only 77 games this season despite minimal changes. I thought it would be worth looking into why Fangraphs thought that the Orioles might struggle.
Fangraphs projects the Orioles to score 4.64 runs per game (752 total) while allowing 4.69 (760 total). If the Orioles did score 752 runs, then that would be the most they’ve scored since 2008. It's clear that the projections predict that the Orioles’ pitching is their weak point.
Fangraphs WAR depth charts tell a similar story. They project the Orioles’ to have the eighth highest offensive WAR totals, but tied for the sixth lowest pitching WAR totals. However, what’s interesting about the Fangraphs WAR depth charts is that they project a total of 1085.8 WAR. Given that there can only be 1000 WAR in a season, they have an error somewhere. Neil Weinberg suggested “the reason for this is because no one has gotten hurt yet, so the depth charts are oversampling PA/IP from good players”. If this is the case, then Fangraphs is being overly optimistic projecting health from established players. The Orioles are depending on a number of star players and have limited quality depth available, so they are more vulnerable to injuries than other clubs. Such a flaw would overrate the Orioles’ ability.
Fangraphs doesn’t think much of the Orioles starting pitching. It is ranked third worst in WAR and are projected to have the second lowest ERA. They also project the Orioles’ starters to throw the second lowest amount of innings in the majors, even fewer than teams like the Reds and Phillies. The Orioles rotation performed poorly in 2015, and lost Wei-Yin Chen in free agency so such an event would be unfortunate but also plausible.
Fangraphs is higher on the Orioles’ bullpen. It is ranked sixth in WAR, and 20th in ERA. The Orioles’ rotation isn’t expected to throw many innings and therefore the bullpen will have to take over the slack. As a result, the Orioles top relievers of Britton, O’Day, Brach and Givens are projected to throw only 230 of the 523 innings thrown by the bullpen. The more innings thrown by long relievers and non-elite arms, the more runs that the Orioles’ bullpen will allow to opposing teams. It’s very possible for the Orioles to have elite relievers in the bullpen and still have a poor bullpen ERA.
It makes sense to presume that the Orioles pitching will struggle due to the weakness of the Orioles rotation, but not that they would be the second worst in the majors especially given their decent bullpen. I decided to create a table showing the total runs allowed by each teams’ pitching, and the amount of earned runs allowed by starters and relievers. In addition, by subtracting total runs from earned runs, I was able to derive the total amount of unearned runs allowed by each team.
I found that the Orioles rotation was projected to allow roughly 455 earned runs or the fourth most in the majors. Their bullpen was projected to allow 218 earned runs or the seventh most in the majors and all told the Orioles were expected to allow 674 earned runs good for the fifth most in the majors. It wouldn’t be particularly surprising if the Orioles allowed that many earned runs. The Orioles allowed 642 in 2012, 678 in 2013, 558 in 2014 and 646 in 2015 so allowing 674 in 2016 would be within reason even if I’d expect 650. The chart looks like this.
The reason why the Orioles do so poorly is that they are projected to allow 86 unearned runs or tie for worst in the majors with the Blue Jays. This is surprising as the Orioles allowed 31 in 2013, 35 in 2014 and 47 in 2015. 86 unearned runs is more then the Orioles allowed in 2014 and 2015 combined. No team has allowed 86 unearned runs or more in the past three seasons and these projections project that each team will allow an average of 75 unearned runs this year versus roughly 50 from 2013-2015.
The numbers look even more bizarre when looking at the five teams projected to allow the most unearned runs in 2016. The Royals are actually tied for third with 84 despite having an elite defense and the other two clubs are the Diamondbacks and Reds. All five of these clubs are projected to have top eight defenses in 2016 as measured by Fangraphs Field Metric and would probably be expected to have some of the lowest unearned run totals in the majors.
Neil did argue that fielding isn’t equal to unearned runs. This is completely true, but the field metric does have a correlation with unearned runs. The correlation between the fielding metric and unearned runs was -.436 in 2013, -.491 in 2014, -.489 in 2015. This is the expected result as it suggests there's a moderate correlation between having good fielders and limiting unearned runs. One shouldn't expect a strong correlation because factors such as sequencing impact the amount of unearned runs a team allows and is independent of defense. Likewise, teams with good range will have good fielding scores but may have many errors.
For 2016, the projected correlation is +.487. This suggests that there’s the same amount of certainty between 2013-2015 and 2016, but Fangraphs is projecting that good fielding teams will allow more unearned runs. This is counter to historical data and basic common sense. Given the relationship between the field metric and unearned runs, it would seem likely that there is a faulty addition or subtraction operation in their projection model.
Using historical data and 2016 projected defense, I built two models that project how many unearned runs teams should be expected to allow in 2016. I found that teams like the Orioles and Royals should be expected to give up forty fewer unearned runs than currently projected while teams like the Pirates and Padres should probably allow roughly 60 unearned runs. If so, when taking into account the lower run environment, teams like the Royals should be expected to win an extra two games, while the Padres should be another two games worse. Two wins may appear to have only a minor impact, but the difference between the third-best team and third-worst team in the majors is only 17 wins and another six wins would change the Royals from being in the cellar to being in first place. Small changes have a larger impact then one may think.
The Fangraphs model has 1080 WAR instead of 1000 and projects each team will allow 75 unearned runs rather than only 50. They may want to consider looking into these problems and fixing them.