Alek Manoah’s Steamer Projection is a feature, not a bug

© Nick Turchiaro-USA TODAY Sports

For the most part, projection systems correspond to the public perception of gamers. Jordan Alvarez will be very good next season but Raimel Tapia will not be. Shohei Ohtani is the eighth wonder of the world and so on. But every once in a while, they produce a head-scratcher that becomes the subject of debate. This leads to many takes, some good but many of them bad. Worst of all are variations on “Projection X thinks badly about Player Y, whom I like, so it must be illegitimate.” They’re sometimes fun to read, but mostly annoying because they’re based on a fundamental misunderstanding of what projection systems achieve to attempt.

Let’s get down to business. The reason I’m writing about this is because steamer Alek Manoah, who placed third in the Cy Young voting and served as the Blue Jays’ ace, plans to field a 4.09 ERA next season. This seems strange, even knowing that projection systems are inherently conservative. Manoah isn’t just a one-season wonder. His excellence dates back to his rookie campaign in 2021 and his sophomore effort seemed like a natural progression. The narrative is there: A great starter blossoms into a phenomenal one. The claim that Manoah will go from an ERA in the low 2.00s to one in the low 4.00s is more or less a rebuke of it.

Of course, Steamer doesn’t think Manoah will land I agree on a 4.09 ERA – more on that later – but considering this is the expected mid-range result, the shock is understandable. And while I’m not here to endorse it, I’d like to point out that it’s not an indication that the system is broken or that you hold a grudge against your favorite gamer. You have your reasons, and so does Steamer.

First, a little bit about Steamer’s methodology. There are quite a number of projection systems, and the most basic of these, at least among the well-known ones, is Marcel. It uses a player’s performance over the past three years, gives more weight to the most recent, and then bakes in a regression to the league average to determine the player’s future performance. Meanwhile, PECOTA and ZiPS predict how someone will fare in the future based on past players who share similar characteristics: body type, position, minor league stats, and more. They also factor in variables like park factors and the league-wide environment, which arguably provide a better estimate of what a player’s accomplishments are – and what they’re capable of.

If Marcel is one end of the spectrum and ZiPS is the other, Steamer falls somewhere in the middle. His primary focus is on past performance and regression to the mean, but unlike Marcel, the weights and regression amount are based on the player in question rather than a fixed set of numbers. Basically, Steamer takes elements from both types of projections and creates its own proprietary blend.

For our purposes, the bottom line is that while Steamer is far more complicated than a projection named after a monkey, it still holds firmly to the belief that (1) a player should be given the greatest credit for what they have achieved in the last time has reached, and (2) that given enough time, the majority of players will see their production drifting towards the average.

But wait, isn’t Manoah’s latest work a season of Cy Young caliber? True, but Steamer cares a lot more about what’s under the hood. Compared to his debut in 2022, Manoah went with fewer batters. He also hit out fewer batters, conceded fewer home runs even though his fly ball rate hadn’t changed much, and stranded more runners on base. And for the second straight season, Manoah ran a decidedly frugal BABIP – one of the lowest of any starting pitcher that year. Here’s another comparison, this time against the entire league:

Manoah vs. League Pitching

statistics 2022 Manoah League 2022
K% 22.9% 22.4%
BB% 6.5% 8.2%
HR/FB% 7.1% 11.4%
PRAISE% 82.6% 72.6%
BABIP .244 .289

Manoah’s walk rate was great, and his command is one of the many things that set him apart from a regular pitcher. But if we look at his strikeout rate, we see that it was barely above the league average. Not much of Manoah’s running handicap came from puffs. Steamer doesn’t believe that relying on batted ball-outs to keep runs off the board is a reliable method, and his projections reflect that view. Perhaps Manoah has a real talent for suppressing hard contact, and if so, we can scoff at this debacle later. Thing is, metrics like base percentage remaining and home run per fly ball rate take forever — and I mean forever – stabilize.” Not even Manoah’s 300 big league innings is enough to determine if he actually has control over her.

So how does Steamer adapt when faced with a lack of information? It fills in the gaps with numbers regressed to the league average. The result is largely what would have happened if Manoah hadn’t had the best score in every conceivable fleeting aspect of pitching. If he really is Prime Zack Greinke’s second coming, then Manoah deserves these results. But Steamer, a methodical and probabilistic projection system, has little to no reason to believe this to be true. Using player comparisons, ZiPS might have figured out a higher probability of Manoah following in the footsteps of every pitcher of all time, but I still think it would have been down compared to the average fan. Bottom line: Manoah hasn’t really improved on his rookie season in terms of meaningful areas.

I’m inclined to split the difference. Based on his footage and control, I see Manoah’s strikeout rate recovering. And that’s anecdotal, but seeing him switch between his four-hem and his sinker to throw batsmen off balance, I think he’s going to have a low home run rate. But I certainly don’t see him anywhere near a .244 BABIP, especially when the new infield positioning restrictions have made Toronto’s defensive ingenuity less useful. Also, since he doesn’t rack up strikeouts like some of his peers, I have a harder time believing he can hold stranded baserunners. Manoah isn’t an “ace” in the sense that he’s one of the best pitchers out there, but he seems to be the number two starter, a real workhorse. Starter number two don’t put on low 4.00 ERAs!

Another thing I would like to say about this eyesore of an ERA projection is that it may not reflect the full range of possible outcomes. An ERA of 4.09 is not a death sentence – it just means that 50% of the predictions are under and 50% are over. Yes, Steamer thinks Manoah could do it even worse. But let’s consider the cup half full for now. There are likely scenarios where he writes another wonderful year. However, if they are outliers, they would not shift the median, which is simply the mean. The fact that they are assigned to Manoah at all speaks volumes to his raw, potentially untapped potential. Most pitchers are paired with a selection of tightly clustered outcomes that reflect how unspectacular they are. This is speculation on my part as I don’t have access to specific data, but it makes sense. Steamer wouldn’t just ignore a season that Manoah ended two months ago. It might have affected the top percentile results, just not the median, which everyone sees so much.

Above all, projection systems are not, and do not profess to be, an almighty decree. They’re one of the many tools we have at our disposal to rate and analyze players, making them just as important as anything else in the toolbox. They are here to inform our decisions, not enforce them. You don’t have to agree with Steamer to appreciate that there is a concrete and rigorous process behind his predictions. I certainly don’t think Manoah will become Marcus Stroman next year, but I can see how Steamer came to that conclusion. It’s skeptical, and with good reason. If projection systems crowned every breakout starter an all-time ace, they wouldn’t be very accurate. Manoah might be an exception, but decades of data tells us he’s likely a good player moving forward, plain and simple.

At the same time, blindly trusting a projection is about as stupid as not considering it at all. This reduces baseball discourse to a recitation of numbers, throwing nuance and perspective out the window. Foggernaut is hardly perfect, and there’s a good chance Manoah is dead wrong. This article is neither a defense nor a refutation of this particular Alek Manoah projection. It’s more of a reminder – no, Steamer hasn’t lost his marbles, and yes, it’s okay if you’re outraged by his pessimistic perspective. Just don’t dismiss the whole system for a single statistic. That’s not what projection is about, and that’s what it is definitely is not what baseball is about.

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