ESPN Insider is currently running a series in tandem with Baseball Prospectus on the PECOTA Projections for each of the divisional races. PECOTA is a player projection system invented by Nate Silver, who recently became America's most famous statistician, after his wildly popular 2008 election projections at FiveThirtyEight.com. For the last couple seasons, Baseball Prospectus has co-opted the PECOTA player projections to produce team projections as well, with full acknowledgement that there are a variety of factors which cannot be accounted for in this way.
Last season, PECOTA did a fairly good job in the AL, predicting three of the four playoff representatives and coming darn close on a number of win-loss records. They were a bit too high on the Indians (projecting a first place finish) and the Athletics (second place), but otherwise their projections look an awful lot like what actually happened.
PECOTA wasn't nearly as accurate on the NL, netting just one of the four postseason teams (Dodgers). BP was hardly alone in predicting the Cubs to win the Central and the Mets to win the East, though both picks ended up looking silly, as the team finished third and fourth, respectively. Perhaps their most surprisingly call was predicting the D-Backs to take the Wild Card with the Rockies (the eventual Wild Card winner) finishing last in the West.
For 2010, PECOTA has once again yielded some pretty interesting results. The biggest surprise comes from the AL West, where BP is not only predicting a more tightly packed race (which probably goes without saying since all four teams have been very active this offseason), but have the three-time reigning champion Angels finishing dead last. If would be their first such finish of Mike Scioscia's career. PECOTA projects that all three of the other franchises in the AL West will finish above .500, with the Rangers coming out on top by a four games.
Obviously, as I'm sure even BP would readily admit, the margin of error for PECOTA is relatively large. Anytime teams are separated by five games or less, it can probably be considered a tie, which makes the AL Central results even more fascinating. PECOTA has three teams - the White Sox, Twins, and Tigers - in a dead heat for first place, with nobody managing even a .500 record. PECOTA has all three at 80 wins, with the Indians just three games back. I would agree with what this projection implies, that all of these franchises have considerable limitations, and that the division will probably be decided largely by injuries and in-season maneuvering by its exceptional class of managers and general managers (Kenny Williams & Ozzie Guillen, Dave Dombrowski & Jim Leyland, Bill Smith & Ron Gardenhire, Mark Shapiro & Manny Acta).
In the NL, PECOTA lines up pretty closely with the conventional wisdom, with both the Phillies and Cardinals expected to win their divisions by a fairly substantial margin. In the West, BP has gotten on the Colorado bandwagon, perhaps embarrassed by their naysaying in '09 (PECOTA is, of course, a computer program, so, presumably, it doesn't experience embarrassment). They have the Rockies winning the division, with the D-Backs finishing second, in position for the Wild Card. Most surprising, perhaps, is that they've got the Dodgers and Giants, who many expect to battle for first, finishing at only .500, in a tie for third place.
Most people who check in on the PECOTA projections are probably interested foremost by one question, "Yankees or Red Sox?" Last year PECOTA accurately predicted that New York would win the NL East, with Boston taking the Wild Card, and the Rays finishing third with a winning record (PECOTA actually thought Tampa Bay would be slightly better than they were). This year they again see all three teams posting 90+ wins, but with Boston coming out on top, followed by the Yankees and then the Rays. The caveat, of course, is that the trio is separated by only a three-game margin, so clearly, it's anybody's division.
If we re-interpret the PECOTA projections as Power Rankings, they expect the top five teams to be the 1.) Red Sox (94 W), 2.) Yankees (92), 3.) Rays (91), 4t.) Phillies/Cardinals/Rockies (88) and the bottom five teams to be 30.) Blue Jays (71), 29t.) Padres/Pirates (72), 27.) Royals (74), 26t.) Angels/Nationals (76).