The season is all but upon us. Opening Day is under a week away, and at this point, we have a decent idea of what awaits. A long, often cold offseason has afforded plenty of time to ruminate on what’s next, and with every major projection system having offered its forecasts, we know what to expect.
Or do we? Every projection system goes through the same general motions, but each has its own individual assumptions and methods that lead to different results. For most players and teams, public projections, namely PECOTA, Steamer, and ZiPS, will end up fairly close together. Some players, however, remain polarizing even in the eyes of calculating projection systems.
Many Yankees have projections that look uniform. There are a few Yankees, though, that the systems disagree on. Which Yankees, as we embark on the 2018 season, enter with the most uncertainty, at least based on the disagreement of the projections?
PECOTA: .260/.357/.557, .914 OPS, 4 WARP
Steamer: .286/.379/.654, 1.033 OPS, 5.7 WAR
ZiPS: .273/.366/.656, 1.022 OPS, 6.5 WAR
Stanton is the reigning NL MVP. ZiPS forecasts Stanton to remain MVP caliber and Steamer projects him near that level, but PECOTA sees him slipping to mere All Star-levels. What gives?
PECOTA, Steamer, and ZiPS all forecast Stanton to be at least slightly above average as a fielder in left or right. It’s at the plate where PECOTA sees Stanton slipping across the board. PECOTA sees his average and OBP each dropping about 20 points, with his slugging dropping nearly 80 points, despite moving to a better offensive environment in Yankee Stadium.
In the face of ZiPS and Steamer and their respective over-1.000 OPS projections, PECOTA certainly looks pessimistic. But is it? In 2016, Stanton hit .240 with a .326 OBP in the prime of his career. His .489 slugging ranked a mere 48th among players with at least 450 plate appearances.
It appears PECOTA has not forgotten that (relatively) poor 2016 season, or the fact that Stanton has missed significant time in two of the past three seasons. Instead of forecasting more MVPs in Stanton’s future, PECOTA is erring on the side of his career norms. Stanton’s career slash line is .268/.360/.554, nearly indentical to PECOTA’s expectations.
Still, the most recent data point is the most important, and that says Stanton is a monster. PECOTA is probably a little overly pessimistic based on Stanton’s feats last season and his move to a friendly offensive environment, but we might do well to heed PECOTA’s advice and remember that Stanton’s return to MVP-form isn’t a foregone conclusion.
PECOTA: .234/.320/.380, .700 OPS, 1.1 WARP
Steamer: .251/.341/.422, .763 OPS, 2.0 WAR
ZiPS: .247/.334/.421, .755 OPS, 1.9 WAR
Again, PECOTA is the low one here. After a breakout 2017 that saw Hicks finally make good on some of the tools that made him a top prospect years ago, Steamer and ZiPS buy into Hicks as a first-division starter. PECOTA grants him status as a nice fourth outfielder, but not much more.
PECOTA recognizes the improved plate discipline Hicks showed last season, and forecasts him to still get on base at a respectable clip. It just doesn’t see Hicks replicating his success swinging the bat. Hicks still only owns a .232 career bating average and .372 slugging, and that surely factors heavily into PECOTA’s projection.
Yet Hicks’ improved approach at the plate did more than help him boost his walk rate. As Hicks’ swing rate fell last season, so did the rate at which he offered at pitches he could do nothing with. Swinging at better pitches helped him do more damage on the balls he did make contact with, helping lead to career highs in hard hit rate and fly ball rate (data courtesy of FanGraphs), and subsequent career bests in home runs and slugging.
PECOTA doesn’t see Hicks as likely to hold those gains on contact. ZiPS and Steamer do. Given that Hicks’ improved results on balls in play can likely be traced to his newly patient approach, I’m inclined to err on the side of the more optimistic projections for Hicks.
PECOTA: .236/.304/.382, .686 OPS, 0.1 WARP
Steamer: .247/.314/.381, .695 OPS, 0.7 WAR
ZiPS: .247/.321/.444, .764 OPS, 1.5 WAR
The most interesting disagreement the projection systems have might be about Gleyber Torres. PECOTA looks at the Yankees’ top prospect and thinks that if the team ends up relying on him this season, something must have gone wrong. Steamer doesn’t love Torres’ bat at the moment, but at least pegs Torres as a useful bench piece, or maybe even an average starter depending on how his infield defense plays up.
ZiPS, however, thinks the Yankees are mistaken in leaving Torres off the team. Torres projects for a .327 wOBA per ZiPS, seventh-best on the team, and better than current third baseman Brandon Drury (though not as good as newly signed Neil Walker). ZiPS basically sees Torres as an above average starter right now, one that the Yankees are willingly sending to the minors.
If ZiPS is right about Torres’ current talent level, and the Yankees are sending Torres down just to game their way to a seventh year of team control, then this profiles as a blunder. There’s no guarantee Torres’ 2025 season is worth sacrificing for right now. There’s no guarantee the 2025 Yankees will be great. Hell, there’s no guarantee baseball will be around in seven years.
Should we take his ZiPS projection at face value, the Yankees’ chances of winning the World Series in 2018 are better with Torres on the team, and sending him down for a seventh year of control is a mistake. That being said, Steamer, PECOTA, and the Yankees themselves say Torres isn’t ready.
With Torres coming off surgery on his non-throwing elbow and with fewer than 100 at-bats at Triple-A, letting him get his feet wet in the minors is a safe, sensible maneuver, even in the face of a rosy ZiPS projection. In this case, if ZiPS is right, it will hurt to not have Torres right away, but the Yankees will still have an ace in the hole. If Torres already projects as an above average hitter, the Yankees have an excellent midseason addition sitting in-house, just waiting to happen.