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Weird projections about the 2017 Twins

What’s notable about Baseball Prospectus’ fresh batch of projections for the Twins?

Seattle Mariners v Minnesota Twins
PECOTA projects Duffey to be the Twins’ best starter
Photo by Hannah Foslien/Getty Images

Baseball Prospectus released its PECOTA projections earlier this week, and Nate Silver’s prognostication engine dug the Twins, — surprising, given the 103-loss abomination from which the erstwhile Senators are rebounding.

The startlingly rosy projection largely stems from BP’s bullish view on the development of Twins youngsters Miguel Sano, Byron Buxton, Max Kepler, Jorge Polanco, Jose Berrios and Tyler Duffey and improvements wrought by the addition of new catcher Jason Castro.

Today I’m taking a look at the PECOTA numbers to highlight a few particularly noteworthy projections.

The reports of Jason Castro’s framing are not greatly exaggerated

The new regime’s big free-agent acquisition fit the “New sabermetrically inclined front office shakes things up” narrative quite nicely: they signed Jason Castro, a feeble-hitting catcher who could steal strikes with his excellent framing skills, embarking on exactly the kind of remodel that Falvey and Levine’s more archaic predecessors would have eschewed.

The 2016 Twins’ catchers — largely Kurt Suzuki with some Juan Centeno and John Ryan Murphy mixed in for bad measure — were worth -16.3 framing runs and -22.7 Fielding Runs Above Average last season, the second-worst mark in MLB, per Baseball Prospectus.

Here’s how Fangraphs illustrated the difference between Suzuki and Castro in the above linked article, using their Framing Runs metric:

With Kepler, Buxton and Rosario playing a full season in the outfield and Castro behind the plate — the projected starting lineup that received the bulk of the playing time in BP’s simulations — the Twins are projected to be 35.1 Fielding Runs Above Average, good for the third-best defense in the majors. (That impressive number is calculated with Miguel Sano receiving 65% of the playing time at the hot corner, for what it’s worth.)

All told, PECOTA projects huge improvements for the Twins defense, and the bulk of that improvement comes from simply installing Jason Castro behind the plate.

MLB: Minnesota Twins at Detroit Tigers
Hubba hubba
Rick Osentoski-USA TODAY Sports

Tyler Duffey will be the Twins’ best starter

Tyler Duffey did not have a pleasant 2016. The big Texan posted a 6.43 ERA in 26 appearances, the worst ERA in the majors of any starter with more than 20 games started last season.

But BP’s Deserved Run Average still likes Duffey; even during his calamitous ‘16 campaign, his DRA was 3.97, only 0.45 points higher than his solid 2015 season, when Duffey looked like a budding rotation fixture.

Perhaps because of DRA’s love of Duffey, PECOTA expects big things out of the 26-year-old for 2017. Here are PECOTA’s projections for the six pitchers it expects to make at least 20 starts for the 2017 Twins:

Twins starters’ PECOTA projections

Ervin Santana 28 176 4.26 1.30 156 11.4 1.2
Kyle Gibson 29 165 4.25 1.40 131 10.7 1.2
Hector Santiago 28 160 5.05 1.45 140 -3.7 -0.4
Tyler Duffey 26 130 3.97 1.32 103 12.3 1.4
Phil Hughes 23 138 4.49 1.35 106 5.6 0.6
Jose Berrios 23 131 4.29 1.41 112 7.8 0.9

Now, you could quibble that Santana projects to be better — more innings, more strikeouts, lower WHIP — but Duffey sits far closer in PECOTA’s reckoning than in Twins fans’ estimation, methinks.

Duffey could be one of the biggest beneficiaries of the team’s supposedly improved defense. Last season, the righty incurred a ghastly .339 Batting Average on Balls in Play, the eighth-highest mark in the majors of any pitcher with more than 100 innings pitched. Yes, a lot of that defensive gain will come from Castro’s contributions behind the plate, not out in the field, but Duffey’s BABIP should improve with the possible increase in called strikes and the attendant increase in beneficial counts.

Duffey’s 2016 campaign also bore several other indicators that bad luck may have monkeyed with his ERA: his HR/FB rate — a statistic that fluctuates greatly year-to-year and has some luck baked in — was 19.5%, the fourth-worst mark in the league; and his Left-On-Base percentage, an extremely luck-based stat, was a league-worst 60% in 2016. With a little better luck on batted balls and a sturdier defense across the diamond, Duffey could see a big improvement.

But, here’s the thing: opposing batters hit the ball HARD against Duffey last year — the kind of hard that ain’t nobody catching. Batters “barreled” the ball — a batted ball with a BA/SLG above .500/1.500 — in 6.7% of Duffey’s plate appearances last year, the third-highest mark in the league, per Statcast. (In a parenthetical that will provide no succor to Twins fans, Duffey was joined by Phil Hughes and Hector Santiago in the top 10 in that category last season.)

Duffey surrendered the 10th-fastest exit velocity on line drives and fly balls, which would help account for the massive HR/FB percentage I mentioned above. When people hit the ball very hard in the air, it goes very far.

Fastball velocity and movement has never been Duffey’s bread and butter, so he needs to locate. In 2016, Duffey grooved an alarming number of fastballs.

Duffey threw as many fastballs directly down the middle of the plate, belt-high, as he did the low-and-outside corner (to a righty). When you barely touch 90 and throw a flat four-seamer, that is how you get rocked. Hard.

Fangraphs features pitch-type linear weights, which is a complicated way of saying rating how many runs below or above average a particular pitch is. Duffey’s fastball was worth 3.9 runs above average in 2015 and a nauseating -21.8 runs last year without any drop-off in velocity.

How about a visual representation of a vintage 2016 Tyler Duffey middle-in fastball, eh? You may recall this gasp-inducer struck by Nelson Cruz on September 24, long after the Twins’ season stopped mattering.

I, for one, appreciate Nelly Cruz, Jose Bautista, Mike Napoli and the like coming to town to remind us that the U.S. Bank Home Run Porch is not, in fact, ironically named.

Here’s hoping that PECOTA is right and 2017 promises less neck whiplash for Mr. Duffey and a return to an ERA below 6, let’s say.

MLB: Minnesota Twins at Los Angeles Angels
Sorry, Dick, but it’s like the opposite of “The 300” out here.
Kirby Lee-USA TODAY Sports

Your uncle and Dick Bremer will continue to bellyache about batting average

PECOTA projects the Twins for a team batting average of .251, the same mark they posted last season. My least favorite part of every Twins telecast last year was when Fox Sports North would post the pregame chyron showing each hitter’s batting average as Bremer and Blyleven super insightfully pointed out that, “Golly, none of these fellas is hitting .300! How can you win without a .300 hitter! Tony Oliva! Rod Carew! Ahhhh!!!!”

Well, Dick, it ain’t getting any prettier, I’m afraid.

For the second straight year, PECOTA predicts that zero Twins batters will reach the .300 mark in batting average.

Joe Mauer leads the pack with a projected .275 average, and PECOTA puts Jorge Polanco at a respectable-enough .265, but there’s not much that’s easy on the eyes here. Now, using BP’s projected batting order, let’s imagine this as the FSN pregame chyron on September 17, 2017.

  1. Brian Dozier - .244
  2. Jorge Polanco - .265
  3. Joe Mauer - .275
  4. Miguel Sano - .240
  5. Max Kepler - .256
  6. Kennys Vargas - .247
  7. Jason Castro - .239
  8. Eddie Rosario - .257
  9. Byron Buxton - .244

I can hear the overwrought distress already.

For what it’s worth, 37 teams have made the playoffs with a team batting average at or below .251 since integration, including, most recently, the 2016 Los Angeles Dodgers, who were an excellent baseball team. Offense is down and batting average ain’t what it used to be, sorry to say. We all know that our trusted broadcasters and Hamm’s-swilling uncles will never adjust; the least we can do is prepare ourselves.

For those with Baseball Prospectus access, here’s a link to the 2017 PECOTA forecasts.

Does anything else stand out to you, Twinkie Town community? Eddie Rosario logging a .286 on-base-percentage feels like the most spot-on projection to this Twins fan, but there’s plenty to like and/or raise a skeptical eyebrow at here. What do you think?