It’s that time of the year. This past Friday, Dan Szymborski of ESPN released his 2018 Yankees ZiPS projections. If you need a refresher, ZiPS is a projection system developed by Szymborski himself while he was at the Baseball Think Factory and it is considered one of the most accurate predictors in the industry. It takes a player’s recent performances + the career aging curve + park factor to count as many current indicators as possible to figure out the 50th percentile outcome.
Remember, projections are not predictions. Their main job is to try to figure out a player’s skill level. A player could hypothetically play to the level displayed by ZiPS but in a lot of the cases, they either exceed or underperform. That’s baseball. The game wouldn’t be as fun if everything played out as expected.
Here is the basic WAR depth chart of the Yankees team projection:
And here is the FanGraphs article talking about the team outlook and the projections. If you haven’t, take a read. A lot of fascinating numbers and comparisons in there. I have some thoughts from it.
1. Holy bullpen
The Yankees have shown commitment in #bullpening as part of their strategy and it shows in the projection. As you can see in their depth chart, the combination of top five of their relievers sum out to 8 WAR, which is massive. Add Adam Warren (1.2 fWAR in 2017) in there and that could boost it up to a 9 WAR one, which is neat to think about.
Is this an overly optimistic projection? Well, Aroldis Chapman, David Robertson, Tommy Kahnle, Chad Green and Dellin Betances combined for a 9.1 fWAR last year, believe it or not. The relievers are volatile beings so I wouldn’t necessarily bet on them to be 100% all year. If they are, then great! What matters right now is that the Yankees have stockpiled bullpen arms in the age where they have become a more valuable resource. Remember when they signed Andrew Miller for a 4-year, $36-million deal and that seemed like a hefty sum? It would easily be an underpay in the current market. Not only their bullpen is poised to supply a lot of value, but also will win the Yankees several more valuable close wins that will pay off during the pennant race.
2. The infield weakness is clear
Looking at the infield, we see that Didi Gregorius is the only guy who is projected to put up 1 WAR season. ZiPS has Miguel Andujar as the NYY starting third baseman with a 1.2 WAR and 93 wRC+. It also has Ronald Torreyes as the starting second baseman with a 0.1 WAR in 395 PA while slashing .258/.290/.340. Oof.
First off, I doubt that the Yankees will go with Torreyes as the primary starting second baseman for most of the season. But with Starlin Castro gone and Torreyes being the only infielder with extensive reps at 2B in the majors, it is easy to plug him in as the starter at this moment. At the same time, it is pretty telling that Gleyber Torres (projected 1.5 WAR, .247/.321/.444) will take over that spot as soon as the team deems him ready (which could be right out of Spring Training – but we’ll see). We talked about this many a time in this website. They could make a move, they could go with what they have, we’ll see.
Third base is a trickier one. Mike wrote about the reasons to believe (or not to believe) in the Yankees sticking with kids for infield solutions. While penciling Torres for long-term second baseman is a sure thing, I don’t know if (especially with Manny Machado’s free agency looming in next winter) one can say the same about Andujar (.267/.307/.432, 1.2 WAR projected for 2018) and the 3B.
For what it’s worth, ZiPS’ Todd Frazier projection is something that I’d buy into for a full-time third baseman: .249/.334/.482 (115 wRC+) with a 3.5 WAR. While projection is not the best case to make for the team to sign Frazier, you know that he is capable of producing 2-3 WAR full-time. At the same time, teams shouldn’t make decisions based on a projection. If they decide to swap around Andujar/Tyler Wade/Torreyes until Torres gets promoted, it’s not the end of the world. In fact, there’s a chance that a talent like Andujar could pleasantly surprise the fans thanks to his bat.
3. ZiPS is skeptical of the Hicks breakout
Aaron Hicks has had very different 2016 and 2017 seasons. He went from a middling 4th outfielder type to a useful everyday centerfielder with plate discipline and power. I love the type of player he’s become. He’s always had the glove and arm but the bat had always been an enigma ever since he came out of the Twins system as a 5-tool top prospect. In 2017, he put up 3.3 fWAR despite limited to only 88 games due to injuries – hitting for a strong .266/.372/.475 and playing a great defense as usual will help the value.
However, ZiPS thinks that Hicks played well-above his skill level in 2017. It projects him to hit an underwhelming .247/.334/.421, which is right around league-average. Why such regression? Well, again, Hicks was pretty bad in 2016 (.217/.281/.336) and the projection also takes account of pre-2017 performances. Hicks’ no.1 statistical match is Ron Roenicke, who hit .256/.400/.406 in age-29 season in 170 PA’s in 1985. That was his finest hitting season of his unremarkable career and his stats fizzled off after that year. Gotta hope that Hicks continues on with a better career trajectory than Roenicke.
4. Bird’s projection is a reality check… again
Last year, Mike noted that the 2017 ZiPS projection was lower on Bird than many Yankee fans would have liked to see. Bird didn’t help his case by not putting much production on-field by missing most of the season with injuries. We all know what Bird can do when he’s healthy and locked in. However, he’s shown that burst of brilliance for too short stretch of time to instill that confidence into the ZiPS system. And that kind of stuff is the reality for Bird right now – while he has shown that he is capable of driving the ball, he needs to show that for longer than a few months. If you want to be more optimistic, last year, ZiPS had Mo Vaughn as Bird’s top statistical comparison at age. This year, they have… David Ortiz. It remains to be seen whether Bird will have a breakout that everyone is waiting for. Putting up a -0.4 fWAR season wasn’t going to help his case in the projections, but he can beat the expectations in real life.
5. The rotation looks pretty good on paper
The ZiPS projections’ top statistical comparison on the Yankee starting pitchers are quite glowing. Luis Severino is paired with none other than Dwight Gooden (!), Masahiro Tanaka has Kevin Tapani, Sonny Gray is with Jack Morris, Jordan Montgomery got Andy Pettitte and CC Sabathia is similar to late-career Kenny Rogers. I mean, that’s some pretty good company and a nice perspective on how good this rotation could be.
Tanaka is expected to rebound with a 3.64 ERA/3.69 FIP season and Gray is projected to be respectable with a 3.80 ERA/3.83 FIP projected. Having Severino – Tanaka – Gray pitch well throughout the season will be a huge key to the 2018 team success both during the regular season and postseason. The 2018 Yankees rotation will not be confused for 2011 Phillies one, but they have the cast members that helped the team come within a win of reaching the World Series. Do these projections mean that I am satisfied with current rotation? Not really. Projections are, again, just projections. A lot of things could go wrong with pitchers during the season. Add more arms, etc.
6. How about Giancarlo Stanton?
.273/.366/.656, 55 HRs, 161 wRC+ as the 50th percentile outcome is pretty ridiculous. It takes into account that he’s at a new ballpark, in the prime of the career, etc. Imagine if he finishes, let’s say, 65 percentile of what ZiPS projected. It would be pretty incredible. Stanton’s no. 1 statistical comparison is Harmon Killebrew, who hit a career-high 49 dingers in his age-28 season (1964) and showed 30 HR power going into the age-36 season in 1972 (26 HRs in 139 games). For what it’s worth, Stanton’s 13-year deal will end right before he turns 38, so if the Yankees were to have him for the entirety of his contract, him following Killebrew’s career trajectory wouldn’t be abysmal.