Perhaps you aren’t a baseball fan keen on offseason projections, and to an extent, I understand the disinterest and suspicion. It’s quite an endeavor to predict how a player might perform in an upcoming season, particularly with factors contributing to performance in ways that previous stats — and even the smartest of algorithms — simply can not quantify.
Projections do have merit, however, and it’s unfortunate the extent to which their intent has been improperly mythologized. Projections aren’t a hard and fast proclamation; nor are they insistent on their numbers being unquestionably accurate. Rather, the best of projection systems offer up statistics that reflect a player’s likely contribution based on previous performance and historical comparisons.
Dan Szymborksi’s ZiPS Projections, which have been lauded industry-wide, do just that. Per Dan’s primer on his system, he offers the following: “There are a lot more bells and whistles, but at its core, ZiPS engages in two fundamental tasks when making a projection: establishing a baseline for a player, and estimating what their future looks like using that baseline.”
Szymborski goes on to describe his projections as a “midpoint”, inserting into the projections themselves the likelihood some players will fall short of their midpoint, while others might greatly surpass theirs.
My defense of the application of projections now complete, let’s take a look at what ZiPS says about the Cubs in 2021. Hint: You’re not going to be surprised.
While the graph in the tweet above is a solid primer (if not quick and dirty), the full article on the Cubs — with a breakdown of positions and charts of player projections — is a highly encouraged read.
Unsurprisingly, Brett Taylor at Bleacher Nation has already provided his analysis on the ZiPS projections, and he does a nice job providing commentary on positions by groups. Rather than regurgitate that information I’ll offer some thoughts where I think ZiPS is understandable, and where I think the projections are off base.
The Projections We Were Expecting
Working backward, I’m going to start with the ‘pen. Craig Kimbrel is the only pitcher ZiPS offers as above-average-to-solid, suggesting a 3.67 ERA (3.95 FIP), and a tidy 33.3 K%. I think these numbers sell Kimbrel a bit short given his dominant late-season run in 2020, but they are understandable nonetheless.
Outside of the assumed closer, the ‘pen looks rather tragic — and, as Szymborski points out, ZiPS pegs them as a bottom five unit in MLB in 2021. This is likely an unfair declaration, as Brett Taylor points out the Cubs continue to build their ‘pen on unheralded names whose repertoire is tweaked/revamped in the Pitch Lab. While the projections are perhaps awkwardly dismissive of Rowan Wick and Jason Adam, the uncertainty regarding the current makeup of the ‘pen, coupled with several names that struggled last year, makes these projections understandable.
On the offensive front, ZiPS offers solid-but-not-great years from the likes of Anthony Rizzo, Javier Baez, and Kris Bryant. Such projections offer assurance the Cubs should positively regress offensively, yet an overall competent offensive core isn’t exactly something to get excited about.
Oddly, Javy is projected to have the team’s highest batting average at .266, a projection I can’t get behind. I do, however, believe his projected OPS+ of 102 is an absolute bottom-of-barrel season , and that Rizzo’s OPS+ (118), Ian Happ‘s (113), and KB’s (110) are decent reflections given the 2020 season. Whereas ZiPS feels Happ has established himself as a solid offensive performer (13 percent above average ain’t nothing to scoff at), Bryant’s meh projected performance is likely influenced a bit too heavily by last year’s numbers.
Still, these numbers make sense on the whole.
The Head Scratching Projections
It likely goes without saying, but every year I’m fascinated with how down on Kyle Hendricks projection models are. For the past several years I’ve anticipated the release of these models, and it seems that every damn year Hendricks is projected to have an ERA (and FIP) north of 4.00. Again, this is a midpoint projection, but that midpoint is an awfully low bar for an established No. 2 starter. Given that projections are based on previous performance, and ZiPS in particular are weighted in favor of most recent seasons, Hendricks in 2021 should be much better than the projected 4.11 ERA (4.23 FIP). Granted, ZiPS suggests a solidly above average starter (2.7 fWAR, 94 ERA-), with BB% (5.0) and K% (19.7) in line with career norms.
We are talking about a pitcher with a career 3.12 ERA (3.53 FIP), however, in what amounts to basically six full MLB campaigns, from his debut in 2014 to the pandemic-shortened 2020 season. Yet ZiPS specifically — and projection models generally — have undervalued Hendricks on an annual basis, rendering my rage to be expected each winter. Perhaps it’s the (lack of) velocity or the inability to properly value the manner he has altered his repertoire usage that cause models to undervalue Hendricks. He has shown, time and again, that he outpitches his periperhals and projections, and 2021 should be no exception.
My second point of contention is regarding Willson Contreras, and not because his offense isn’t granted enough respect (although a 104 OPS+ does sell him short) but because defensive projections are wildly unkind. Again, Brett Taylor already pointed this out, but Willson’s pitch framing strides last season are here to stay — and combining that with his incredible arm, he should be one of the most valuable catchers in the game.
Lastly, I find it laughable that Nico Hoerner‘s projected Def metric (fielding above average) is precisely 0. In a shortened season with limited playing time, Hoerner put up a 3.1 Def, was a Gold Glove finalist, and tallied 4 Outs Above Average — trailing only two second baseman in MLB. Hoerner’s offensive projections (.261/.325/.366, 1.2 fWAR) aren’t terrible, but I can’t help but laugh at the notion he’ll be merely a league average defender.
Projections are Fun!
Despite the fact that these projections are a bit sobering for Cubs fans, I maintain the position they are fun to examine, analyze, and protest when appropriate. At their worst, projections serve as a reminder that no matter how much effort we put into understanding the future, we’ll never know what happens ’til we get there. At their best, projections offer up reasonable expectations that allow us to gage a certain player or team’s abilities heading into the season.
There’s way more to dig into with ZiPS than I’ve done here. And you know what? That’s the beauty of projections.
Featured Photo: Armando L. Sanchez, Chicago Tribune
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