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The Yankees hitters the projections can’t agree on

Humans can’t always agree on which players are good and which aren’t. Sometimes, the computers can’t either.

New York Yankees v Toronto Blue Jays Photo by Vaughn Ridley/Getty Images

Last week, Baseball Prospectus revealed their PECOTA projections for the 2022 season. Our own Esteban analyzed those projections from the Yankees perspective. He found many members of the Yankee lineup had pretty volatile forecasts, that PECOTA had put a wide range between their best, median, and worst outcomes. Somewhat unsurprisingly, it seems we should expect variance when it comes to the performances of some of the Bombers.

PECOTA isn’t the only public projection system, though. Today, inspired by the large variance Esteban saw just in digging through BP’s work, I wanted to see which players saw the most variance across their projections from different systems. Sure, any particular system may look at a player and seem unsure what to do with them. But what should we do as fans when it’s clear that several different systems can’t agree on a player’s future? What can we learn when the cold hard algorithms disagree just as much as we humans do?

Giancarlo Stanton

Steamer projection: .268/.353/.539, .892 OPS

ZiPS projection: .255/.338/.491, .829 OPS

PECOTA projection: .262/.354/.525, .879 OPS

In truth, when I started digging through the different projections, it became clear that, even with a roster with as many question marks as the Yankees, the systems will generally land close to each other on most players. There’s only so much disagreement that can occur with the likes of Aaron Judge or Joey Gallo. With that said, we’ll start with a player where there isn’t that much disagreement between the projections, but where the discrepancy indicated does say something important about the player and his trajectory with the club.

To some extent, Stanton is a known quantity. He crushes baseballs in a way no other human can, and he also struggles to stay healthy, and can at times go on cold streaks that are just as cold as his hot streaks are hot.

There is still some disagreement from the computers about what exactly to expect from Stanton at age-32. PECOTA and Steamer see Stanton as a superstar-caliber hitter. Both systems call for a top-eight finish across the majors in homers, and a top-13 finish in OPS. No, that’s not Juan Soto or Mike Trout territory, but that kind of forecast still puts Stanton in that next tier of great hitters, along with the likes of Freddie Freeman, or his teammate Judge.

ZiPS is worryingly pessimistic. There’s nothing wrong with an .829 OPS or 30 dingers, but that level of production is of a decidedly lesser caliber than what the other systems call for. This would make Stanton a very good hitter, but clearly sub-elite, more content to swim with the Rhys Hoskins and Anthony Rizzos of the world rather than the Bryce Harpers.

I think whichever path Stanton takes here could have an outsize impact on his and the Yankees’ fortunes. Stanton is tied to the Yankees for another six years. A step back like ZiPS is projecting would pretty firmly put Stanton on a troubling downward trajectory. Yet an All-Star level season like PECOTA and Steamer suggest would mean that Stanton had consolidated the gains he made in 2021, and would hint at a future where Stanton could chug along through his early-to-mid-30s as the kind of slugger that plays 130 games a year and produces like a top-15 hitter. The 2022 Yankees could use that hitter, as could the 2023, 2024, and 2025 editions of the club.

Anthony Volpe

Steamer projection: .229/.290/.392, .682 OPS

ZiPS projection: .228/.296/.419, .715 OPS

PECOTA projection: .236/.328/.412, .740 OPS

Of all the players that the projections disagree on, it’s one that may not even play for the Yankees this year that might be the most interesting. At just 21 years old and with precisely zero games played above the A-Ball level, both Steamer and ZiPS are understandably skeptical that Volpe could be a positive big league contributor today.

But PECOTA goes out on a limb for the top prospect. PECOTA seems to love Volpe’s eye at the plate, projecting him to showcase top tier plate discipline from day one. His .178 ISO forecast is none too shabby, too. In all, PECOTA’s median outcome for Volpe is 1.0 WARP in 251 plate appearances, a figure befitting of a quality starter.

There’s nothing much I can do here to weigh in on which system is right; I’m neither a talent evaluator nor a supercomputer. But it’s fascinating in and of itself that at least one algorithm looks at Volpe’s short but meteoric ascent and says it could continue right on into the major leagues as soon as this spring. I and many others have written on this site that the Yankees should spare no expense in upgrading the shortstop position via free agency (something I certainly would still argue regardless of what PECOTA says), but it would be quite the twist if the simplest upgrade the Yankees could’ve made all along was to just install Volpe at short as soon as possible.

Gio Urshela

Steamer projection: .262/.309/.415, .724 OPS

ZiPS projection: .279/.318/.458, .777 OPS

PECOTA projection: .257/.307/.396, .703 OPS

Urshela’s role with the Yankees as the 2022 season (hopefully) nears remains unstable, and his projections are no different. Steamer walks the middle line and gives a seemingly reasonable projection, that of an average hitter, a versatile defender, and in all an excellent backup or serviceable starter on the dirt.

But ZiPS and PECOTA stake out territory on completely opposite ends of the spectrum. To ZiPS, Urshela’s uneven 2021 campaign was a blip. Though it won’t call for Urshela to reach the heights of 2019-2020, when the third baseman looked like a borderline star, ZiPS still sees Urshela as a first-division starter at age-30.

PECOTA, meanwhile, remains mostly unconvinced by Urshela’s mid-career arc. To mirror ZiPS, PECOTA won’t call for Urshela to slip to his pre-2018 standards, when he was at best a replacement level infielder, but it also won’t project him for anything for than weak backup status. Urshela pulls a same-age comp of Marwin Gonzalez, who at age-30 produced a 94 OPS+ as a utility player for the 2019 Twins.

That there’s so much disagreement between projections regarding a player who debuted as a professional 13 years ago demonstrates to me just how much we still have to learn about this sport. Urshela signed with the Cleveland organization in 2009, and has at various times since profiled as a mildly interesting prospect, an overmatched big league hitter, and an All-Star at the highest level. No matter the level of advancement in terms of analytics and projections, we will never have perfect answers for players like Urshela, and the game will be more interesting for it.