Although the offseason isn’t over and many free agents remain on the market, projection season is upon us as spring training inches closer. Dan Szymborski’s annual ZiPS projections were released for the Reds today. Unlike the last several years, have a more sunny outlook on the upcoming year. You can take a look at the full projections over at FanGraphs, but let’s break down some of the more notable ones here.
Will Joey Votto bounce back?
“Bounce back” seems like silly phrase to associate with Votto, who had a fine season in 2018. However, it wasn’t quite up to Votto standards — especially regarding the power. His .419 slugging percentage was a career low in a season in which he stayed (mostly) healthy. He hit just 12 home runs and 28 doubles. On the surface, that could be a cause for concern when coupled with his age (35). However, there’s an argument that some bad luck came his way, too.
Votto’s expected slugging percentage (xSLG) was over 50 points higher (.472) and his expected weighted on-base average (.390) was 20 points higher than his actual output (.490). As a reminder, these stats measure what the outcome should have been based on exit velocity and launch angle. In short, Votto is still hitting the ball hard. He just wasn’t finding the gaps or getting the ball over the wall with regularity.
ZiPS expects Votto’s fortunes to even out a bit in 2019, but not as much as hoped in the power department. The system projects him to have a 4.3 fWAR, up from 3.5 last season, with a .291/.421/.467 slash line — an improvement over his .284/.417/.419 showing last year. Still, it doesn’t have him rebounding to the .500 slugger we grew accustomed to throughout his career. ZiPS projects 18 home runs and 26 doubles for Votto. If the rest of the lineup performs as expected, the Reds can live with that.
How will the offseason additions perform?
The Reds’ front office was busy on the trade front during the offseason, adding Tanner Roark, Alex Wood, Yasiel Puig, and Sonny Gray to the mix.
We’ll start with the most popular man in Cincinnati right now. Puig’s power has many wondering whether he’ll get to 30 home runs for the first time in his career while playing half of his games in Great American Ball Park. ZiPS has him coming up short at 24. It does, however, project a 2.7 WAR, which trails only Votto and Eugenio Suarez.
Roark, Wood, and Gray aren’t expected to become aces but solid middle-of-the-rotation arms that the Reds haven’t had in years. Wood is projected for the best season of the bunch with a 3.86 ERA (3.87 FIP), 8.16 K/9, 2.76 BB/9, and 2.3 WAR. Gray is expected to improve on his inflated ERA from a year ago with a 4.14 mark in 2019. The strikeouts are expected to stay even (8.53 K/9), while the walks come down slightly (3.40 BB/9). Roark’s projections are in line with expectations for a No. 5 starter: a 4.60 ERA, 4.64 FIP, 7.62 K/9, and 3.03 BB/9.
How much better is the starting rotation?
You probably didn’t need ZiPS to tell you this, but the rotation should be significantly better than last year. It currently has six starters projected to be worth at least one win, with Luis Castillo, Wood, and Gray coming in above two wins. For reference, the last Reds starter to reach that benchmark was Anthony DeSclafani in 2016. The last Cincinnati team with a pair of two-win pitchers was in 2015 (DeSclafani and Johnny Cueto), and the last Reds club with three two-win starting pitchers was the 2013 squad (Mat Latos, Homer Bailey, and Mike Leake).
The projections weren’t quite as kind to DeSclafani (4.62 ERA, 4.78 FIP) or Tyler Mahle (4.71 ERA, 4.80 FIP). The Mahle projection is the biggest head-scratcher, as the system doesn’t anticipate much growth from the young right-hander. Given his minor-league track record and how he pitched in the first half last season, it’d be surprising if Mahle doesn’t take a step forward this season. On the bright side, ZiPS does expect his surprisingly high walk numbers to come down to 3.54 per nine innings. There’s room for improvement beyond that, as he never walked more than 2.52 batters per nine innings in the minors.
Is Nick Senzel an instant-impact player?
The 2019 season is when we’ll finally see Nick Senzel in the big leagues. And it sounds like he has at least a shot at making the Opening Day roster as the starting center fielder. In light of that news, the ZiPS projections seemingly undervalues him. The system went light on the games played projection for Senzel (86), but it expects him to make an impact when he is on the field, with a .267/.335/.447 slash line, 21 doubles, three triples, 11 home runs, and 11 steals.
Paired with a positive defensive contribution, that gives him a 1.9 WAR in those 86 games, which is quite a significant contribution in only half a season. That would place him sixth on the team, and his WAR per game would trail only Votto and Suarez. If we take that projection out to 120 games, that comes out to a 2.6 WAR. If Senzel can play 140 games, it would put him at 3.1 and into the NL Rookie of the Year conversation. For the curious, the Reds haven’t had a rookie hitter with a WAR over 3.0 since Votto in 2008.
Which players could regress and who could break out in 2019?
Projections aren’t perfect, and players often outperform or underperform them. But ZiPS uses an immense amount of data to make these projections. It can often determine a player who will disappoint or pleasantly surprise in the coming year.
Scooter Gennett is projected to have the biggest regression, falling from a 4.5 to 2.2 WAR. Most likely, ZiPS doesn’t think he’ll maintain a .358 batting average on balls in play, which is more than fair given his .334 career mark. While his power output is about the same (21 home runs), his slash line falls from .310/.357/.490 to .278/.325/.455. The batting average projection is likely a tad low, but he’s probably not going to hit .310 again if he needs a .350+ BABIP to do it. He also loses some value defensively.
On the pitching side, ZiPS expects regression from Jared Hughes and David Hernandez. This isn’t particularly surprising since both pitchers had a big discrepancy between their ERA and FIP/xFIP/SIERA. Hughes’ differential was largely due to a lack of strikeouts and Hernandez because of his low ground-ball rate. That said, ZiPS still thinks both will be productive relievers in 2019. It gives Hughes a 3.55 ERA and 4.03 FIP, and Hernandez a 3.57 ERA and 3.72 FIP.
Offensively, Senzel is the breakout star, but ZiPS also sees solid contributions from Jesse Winker. It believes his defense will improve from really bad to average and his offense will remain strong (.279/.371/.430). Winker gets shorted a bit in the power department (21 doubles, 12 homers). It wouldn’t be a shock to see him unlock more power this year, as his average exit velocity (90.3 mph) was 58th out of 332 players with at least 150 batted ball events and trailed only Suarez among Reds hitters.
ZiPS doesn’t believe any Reds pitchers will “break out,” but it does project more improvement for Castillo. His strikeout and walk rates are projected to stay about the same, but it doesn’t expect home runs to be as problematic. In total, it has him down for a career-high 2.6 WAR. That seems like a conservative projection when factoring in how he pitched in the last four months of the 2018 campaign.
Who had the most interesting player comparisons?
Player comparisons are often a futile exercise, but hey, they’re still fun. The Reds had a few fun player comps in this year’s ZiPS projections. Jose Peraza’s best comparison is Julio Franco, so we can safely assume he’ll play until he’s 48, too. Puig was compared to Richard Hidalgo; let’s just hope it’s referring to that weird 2000 season when Hidalgo exploded for 44 home runs. Senzel gets Travis Fryman, which is a pretty strong statement for a player who’s yet to appear in a big-league game.
On the pitching side of things, Castillo’s comparison is Dennis Martinez. Martinez put up a 3.70 ERA and 3.91 FIP in a 23-year Major League career. Tanner Roark is matched up with Bob Walk. That is probably the worst name for a pitcher outside of Homer Bailey. Recent signee Ian Krol gets a Tippy Martinez comp. I don’t have anything to add here except that we need more cool baseball names like “Tippy.”