Early last week, as part of his annual series at FanGraphs, Dan Szymborski released his ZiPS projections for the 2015 Yankees. As always, projections don’t mean a whole lot of anything. They aren’t predictions — projections are an estimate of current talent level — and while ZiPS has historically been accurate on a macro level, there are always individual outliers. Projections are a completely objective look at a player and a conversation starter, that’s all.
The graphic above shows the rough WAR projections for the Yankees’ regulars. The team’s full ZiPS projections are right here, so check them out at your own convenience. I want to focus on five players with projections that stood out as interesting to me, either for good reasons or bad reasons. Let’s get to it …
Brian McCann: +3.0 WAR
Catcher defense is still very difficult to quantify and ZiPS doesn’t handle it well, so there’s no point in looking at McCann’s projected WAR. The most important thing is ZiPS sees him as a .249/.316/.431 (.325 wOBA) hitter this coming season, which is way better than the .232/.286/.406 (.306 wOBA) line he put up last year. It’s down slightly from his .252/.329/.441 (.332 wOBA) line with the Braves from 2011-13 but still in the same ballpark. That’s encouraging.
Remember, ZiPS knows all about McCann’s heavy career workload and catcher aging curves and all that. It knows that catchers McCann’s age tend to continue declining once they’ve started declining, yet it still expects him to bounce back in 2015. That’s because it sees his .231 BABIP last summer and knows it was out of line with his .283 career mark. That said, it only has him getting back to .260 BABIP. This 100% objective computer system doesn’t expect McCann to slide into uselessness just yet and for some reason I find that reassuring.
Didi Gregorius: +1.6 WAR
Defensive stats are sketchy and defensive projections are even sketchier. ZiPS pegs Gregorius as a +1 defender, which is actually better than his career UZR (-3.6) and DRS (0) numbers at short, but not in line with his reputation. Is it possible Didi’s defensive skills have been overstated? Oh hell yeah. It happens all the time, especially with players who can’t hit. But, as I explained a few weeks ago, the scouting reports and Inside Edge data make it seem Gregorius is a standout defender with a knack for the occasional mental mistake on routine plays. That is something that can be improved with experience, in theory.
Anyway, aside from the defense, ZiPS has Didi as a .251/.307/.369 (.295 wOBA) hitter and that sorta stinks. The league average shortstop put up a .251/.306/.363 (.297 wOBA) line last year though, so Gregorius is projected as almost a perfectly league average hitting shortstop. There’s nothing sexy about that, but Derek Jeter did hit .256/.304/.313 (.279 wOBA) last season, and that’s really really bad. Even at the league shortstop average, Didi will be a big upgrade at the plate. Add in even +1 defense, and he’s an even bigger upgrade. The Yankees got -2.3 WAR from their shortstops a year ago, easily the worst in baseball. Gregorius is looking very much like a multi-win upgrade even with the modest ZiPS projections.
Nathan Eovaldi: +1.1 WAR
To me, Eovaldi is the perfect example of a pitcher poised to exceed projections. ZiPS only knows the stats, remember. It doesn’t know Masahiro Tanaka has a tiny tear in his UCL, for example. It doesn’t know Chasen Shreve decided to throw harder last year. And it doesn’t know Eovaldi appeared to improve his changeup late last season or that he is going from an atrocious pitch-framer (Jarrod Saltalamacchia) to an elite one (McCann) or that pitching coach Larry Rothschild has a long history of improving strikeout rates. Those are three ZiPS ignored factors that could have a major impact going forward. Eovaldi is projected for a 4.51 ERA (4.16 FIP) and I wouldn’t be surprised if he outperforms that by a full run this coming season. Okay, fine, let’s say half-a-run instead. Either way, I like Eovaldi’s chances of exceeding ZiPS.
Justin Wilson: -0.1 WAR
So ZiPS isn’t a fan of New York’s new lefty middle reliever. Wilson has a 2.99 ERA (3.45 FIP) in 138.1 career innings and the projection system has him as a true talent 4.31 ERA (4.54 FIP) pitcher in 2015. His strikeout and walk rate projections (23.6 K% and 12.8 K%) are right in line with his 2014 performance (23.8 K% and 11.7 BB%), so the difference is all in home run rate. After allowing eight homers in his first 138.1 big league innings, ZiPS sees Wilson as an eight homers in 64.2 innings guy right now. That … seems weird.
Yes, Wilson is moving into a much more hitter friendly ballpark. Yankee Stadium had a 111 HR Park Factor last summer — that means it inflated homer production to 11% more than the league average — while PNC Park had an 88 HR Park Factor, so that’s a big difference. Enough to go from a 0.52 HR/9 from 2012-14 to 1.11 HR/9 in 2015? Maybe! That just seems like an exorbitant spike in homer rate, especially for a pitcher with a career 50.9% ground ball rate.
Reliever homer rates can be pretty volatile year to year because they inherently work in small samples, maybe 60-70 innings per year. One single homer results in a pretty big change in a reliever’s homer rate. Five dingers in 50 innings is 0.90 HR/9. Four is 0.72. Six is 1.08. Those are pretty big swings that result from one swing of the bat, one gust of wind, a couple degrees of temperature, stuff like that. ZiPS sees Wilson being replacement level because it expects him to start serving up long balls, but reliever homer rates are really volatile. The computer is being pretty pessimistic.
Bryan Mitchell: -1.3 WAR
Yikes. ZiPS pegs Mitchell for a 5.92 ERA (5.68 FIP) with mediocre strikeout (15.0 K%) and walk (11.5 BB%) rates, which isn’t good at all but not completely unexpected for a non-elite 23-year-old pitching prospect. The problem is Mitchell is more or less the team’s sixth starter. Maybe he’s more like the eighth starter behind Adam Warren and Esmil Rogers, but the point is he’s not all that far down the depth chart. ZiPS won’t have any impact on Mitchell’s real life performance, but geez, it would have been nice to see the system be a little more optimistic heading into the season.