Who’s trending way up and way down in 2016 stat projections?

Albert Pujols' MVP days might be over, while Bryce Harper's are just beginning. 

In a few weeks, we at Baseball Prospectus will release our PECOTA projections, forecasting the 2016 seasons of a few thousand players. One of the strengths of a system like PECOTA is that it has a fairly long memory. We humans might see Robinson Cano lose 50 points of OBP, get frustrated that our first-round pick cost us the fantasy season, get overwhelmed thinking about the $190 million the Mariners still owe him, grab popcorn when his former coach, Andy Van Slyke, publicly rips him, and write Cano off as a has-been. But PECOTA remembers that he was really good really recently, and a great bet to bounce back. So its projection for him this year will be a lot like its projection for him last year:

The point is that to really change PECOTA’s mind, a player usually has to do something fairly extraordinary. So these are the players whose projections this year are the least like their projections last year:

Michael Conforto

(True Average is BP’s preferred hitting stat. It includes all of the player’s production, adjusts for league and park and so on, and spits out a number that is scaled to batting average, so that .300 is really good and .260 is league average.)

Conforto was a polarizing prospect a year ago, ranking toward the bottom of the top 100 prospects on Baseball America and MLB.com but just ninth in the Mets’ system at Baseball Prospectus. We dinged him for having a strikeout-prone uppercut swing and little value beyond his bat, and put a major-league ETA of 2016 on him. That made sense; the 2014 first-round draft pick hadn’t even played in a full-season league yet. But he ripped through High-A and Double-A and ended up being the second-best bat in a Mets World Series lineup.

"There’s nothing in here that screams ‘regression,’ either," wrote BP’s Jeffrey Paternostro, who follows Mets prospects closely. "His walk and strikeout rates are both good. His BABIP is a completely unexceptional .301. He’s shown power to all fields and goes up to the plate with a plan. He is comfortable with two strikes. He is comfortable against major league off-speed. Maybe this is all a small sample mirage, but it sure doesn’t feel like one so far."

Carlos Correa

If the projections alone don’t show how much PECOTA changed its mind, maybe the top comparables for Correa will: Last year, his top comps were Brad Harman, an Australian-born middle infielder, and Addison Russell and Francisco Lindor, two elite shortstop prospects who had yet to see major-league action. This year, his top three are Jason Heyward, Xander Bogaerts and Mike Trout. Only one other player got a Mike Trout comp, and he’s Bryce Harper.  

HOT STOVE LEAGUE

Correa was already seen by everybody as a future star, but he had never hit more than nine home runs in a season and still hadn’t passed the Double-A test. His body suggested the power might come, and his defense and hit tool suggested he could be an immediately valuable major leaguer, but — well, actually, that all sounds a lot like Trout at the same age. And, like Trout, the power came way faster than anybody expected. Indeed, as with Trout, Correa did things in his rookie year that not everybody was sure he would ever do, hitting 22 big-league home runs and 32 overall.

PECOTA is hedging some, still: It projects Correa to be the 43rd best hitter in baseball and the 24th most valuable position player. 

Bryce Harper

Unlike Correa, Harper was already on PECOTA’s good side, with comps before last year that included Frank Robinson, Jason Heyward and Albert Pujols. But Harper had stalled in 2014: He struggled with injuries for a second year in a row, lost walks, added strikeouts, and saw his power drop to, oh, Melky Cabrera levels. If all you knew about Harper was what he had done at age 19 and you drew a trajectory from there to here, the age-20 and age-21 seasons would be wildly out of place. But the age-22 season he put up in 2015 was probably right on target, one of the greatest non-Bonds hitting seasons of our lifetimes. Harper’s isolated power and walk rates doubled, and he shaved a quarter of his strikeout rate.

A year ago, Harper projected to be the 31st best hitter in baseball. This year, he projects to be seventh — which undoubtedly strikes you as low. PECOTA’s got a longer memory than you, is all.

David Peralta

Peralta actually made a bigger leap, in PECOTA’s estimation, from 2014 to 2015, when he went from being a too-old-to-be-a-prospect indie-baller with almost no track record to a pretty good corner outfielder in Arizona. Don’t underestimate how hard this profile is to project; projections only work when there’s either a long history of performance or a long list of similar players to compare against. And Peralta — €”a former pitching prospect who disappeared to Venezuela before reemerging in low-level unaffiliated leagues, where he was discovered by Diamondbacks scout Chris Carminucci — had neither. In 2014, PECOTA estimated a well below-average hitter, then ate crow and in 2015 projected an average hitter with poor defense.

Now, it sees an above-average player who could compete for a spot in the All-Star Game, if not necessarily on MVP ballots. Part of the gain comes from a more reliable bat, but a lot of it is due to Peralta’s improvement in the field. The more he plays, the easier he is to project. His comps this year — Ben Francisco, Juan Rivera and David Murphy — seem a lot less made up than Nick Stavinoha, Craig Brazell and Val Majewski, his 2014 comps.

And, on the sad side:

Albert Pujols

In a lot of ways, Pujols looks like a model of consistency in Anaheim: His OPS has barely fluctuated from year to year, going .767 to .790 to .787 over the past three years. But more of that OPS is coming from power, rather than OBP, which makes it a less valuable figure than it used to be.

More importantly, though, is this: PECOTA’s memory is long, but it’s not that long, and every year Pujols limps along at a level just better than league average, the projections’ lop one of his elite MVP-caliber Cardinal years off the equation. A few of those years are still part of the PECOTA math, but they’re fading away and are increasingly outweighed by the recent and mediocre. So even though Pujols hasn’t changed much since his first day in Anaheim, his projections have:

When the Angels signed Pujols, they surely expected his decline years to kick in around now. But in those first four years, he produced only 11 wins, not the 23 that PECOTA projected. Now that PECOTA has caught up to his decline, the rest of the deal looks unsalvageable. Not that the GM who gave it to him, now-division-rival Jerry Dipoto, cares too much. 

AROUND THE HORN