Projections in baseball are a funny thing. For the most part, they’re a crapshoot. As hard as it is to hit a round ball with a round bat, it’s even harder for us to try to predict just how successful a given player will be at hitting a round ball with a round bat, not to mention how well that guy will play in the field and on the basepaths. Today’s analysts are spoiled by technology that attempts to measure quality of contact and plate discipline, facets of the game we used to judge by the “eye test”. Now computers can tell us how a player will most likely perform over 162 games, taking into account that player’s history, all of the data available to us, and trends like aging and progression curves.
I tend to dislike projections, probably because I’m a Cincinnati Reds fan. They’re generally released right when baseball season is starting to gain steam, and optimism is at its highest for the upcoming system. That optimism can be crushed in a hurry when ZiPS or Steamer tells you that your favorite team will only have three above-average hitters over the course of the next season. “Nah,” I’ll say, “These things are always conservative. Billy Hamilton is finally going to figure it out! Jose Peraza for All-Star! Scott Schebler is about to break out!”
The truth is, these projections really are just a crapshoot. They’re the result of a bunch of smart people who haven’t watched this team on a regular basis at all trying to figure out what they might do. They don’t know, for instance, that if Robert Stephenson, Amir Garrett and Cody Reed combine to pitch 400 innings, as ZiPS projects, that this city will likely be burnt to the ground by the time September rolls around.
Let’s take a look at Zack Cozart, for instance. The former Red was coming off of an abysmal second half in 2016, batting .223/.291/.312 in 41 games down the stretch in that season. That’s after a .267/.316/.482 slashline in 80 games in the first half. So, you can’t really blame ZiPS for their .248/.298/.396 projection for Cozart in 2017.
Of course, we all know what happens next. Fueled by the potential realization of finally owning a donkey of his own, Cozart went on to have the best offensive seasons from the shortstop position in recent Reds memory. Where did it come from? The computer projections were way off. And, to be fair, most of our own projections were pretty far off as well.
But Cozart came out of the gate swinging in Spring Training ‘17, completely on fire. Why? An improved plate approach, which involved more relaxation before the pitch, and placing his bat on his shoulders. That’s it! That simple change, and the mindset and confidence that came with it, turned one of the worst offensive players in baseball into a hot-ticket free agent.
And, again to be fair, most of us missed this. For every story like this, there’s an example of the projections getting it right. But this is the grain of salt we need to keep in mind when taking a look at the projections below. There’s a lot of variance to be had. These are humans, hitting a round ball with a round bat.
Let’s take a look first at the projections for the Reds offense in 2018:
Here are a few takeaways from these projections:
Player Comps are Fun
One of my favorite features of the ZiPS projections are the player comps. While they should be taken with an even smaller grain of salt than the projections themselves, they’re fun to look at. And boy, do we have a couple of interesting player comps here. Starting at the top, the controversy here is that there’s an argument to be made that Joey Votto’s comparison to Todd Helton isn’t aggressive enough. That’s (should be) Hall of Famer Todd Helton.
Interestingly, Todd Helton isn’t even the best player on this comp list. All aboard the hype train, ladies and gentlemen: ZiPS has saddled top prospect Nick Senzel with a comparison to future Hall of Famer Adrian Beltre. I’m not going to look too into this, since again, these are mostly just for fun, and Nick the Stick has yet to step in the box in a Major League game, but that’s some high praise. If he turns into anything similar to Beltre, we’re in for a few good years to say the least.
The System is Low on Joey Votto… Again
Every projection system south of Fangraph’s Fan Projections criminally undervalue Joey Votto every season. That’s saying something, considering both ZiPS and Steamer have Votto near the top of the Major Leagues in most value measuring numbers. Maybe it’s the conservative nature of projections as a whole, or maybe it’s the fact that JDV ages one year at a time just like the rest of us, but there’s no eye test in the world that would suggest this guy is slowing down. The computers agree, with much having been made of Votto’s ridiculous plate discipline statistics in 2017. Votto’s game is like a fine wine – it’s getting better with age. Although 4.2 WAR is nothing to sneeze at, I’d expect Votto to easily trump those numbers in ‘18.
The Reds Offense is Pretty Average
Only two shoo-in starters project to be bad offensively (Don’t bother scrolling back up, it’s the two guys you think they are), and only Votto projects to be well above average as a hitter in 2018. Everyone else is hovering right 100 in the wRC+ category, which is league average. That reflects what actually happened in 2017, when Schebler, Duvall, and Tucker Barnhart all were basically league average hitters. There’s some regression built in there for the expected-to-regress Scooter Gennett, but the head scratcher here is Eugenio Suarez. ZiPS is projecting Suarez to have a 108 wRC+, with Steamer slightly behind at 103. Neither number is bad, but it’d definitely be a step back from the third baseman’s 117 wRC+ mark in 2017.
Patience, Young Grasshoppers
Both projection systems believe the Reds will be adept at taking their walks in 2018, led by some of the younger names on the list. Jesse Winker, Phil Ervin and Alex Blandino are projected to have a higher BB% than the league average of 8%. When you add that to Votto, Suarez, Barnhart, and Devin Mesoraco likely adding their own above average walk rates to the lineup, and you can see that the Reds are making a concerted effort to get more patient at the plate. Interestingly, Senzel is not included in this group, despite never having anything outside of an above average BB% over an entire season in the minor leagues.
The two projection systems just flat out don’t agree on the Reds defense for 2018. ZiPs is far more optimistic about the glovework, rating only Scott Schebler and Scooter Gennett as below average among the starting 9. Steamer, on the other hand, thinks Joey Votto, Adam Duvall, and Jesse Winker, as well as Schebler and Gennett, will be below average defensively. Defense still is pretty hard to round down to a single metric, so it’s understandable that there’s such a wide margin here. According to FanGraphs, the team finished 4th in Defensive Runs Above Average (Def) in the entire MLB last season, so I’ll lean toward the ZiPS projections until I see proof that the defense isn’t as good as it was in 2017.
So, there we have it. I’ll be checking in again before Spring Training is officially underway to discuss the pitching projections. But, until then, let’s discuss the offense in the comments below. Is Jose Peraza projected too highly? Not high enough? Will Eugenio Suarez really regress? Does Nick Senzel being compared to a better player than Joey Votto’s comparison mean that Nick Senzel will be better than Joey Votto one day? You tell us!