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The Impact of Six Games

A hot start or a cold start impacts what we can expect from a player

MLB: St. Louis Cardinals at Milwaukee Brewers Michael McLoone-USA TODAY Sports

With six games in the books, the season is much too short to draw any meaningful conclusions from the results thus far. The Cardinals will probably not finish 23 of their games the way they have finished four of their first six games. Can you imagine going through 108 of those games? A game-saving robbed homer, a walk-off loss, and two extra innings wins, one of which had the tying run on third and the winning run on second and the other which involved Yadier Molina playing 3B and the winning run at the plate. I’m just grateful the Cardinals ended up 2-2 in those games. It could have been worse.

Thus, I must preface my post with the disclaimer that it is only six games. But I’m fascinated by how much six games can swing a player’s season. To illustrate my point, let’s look at the Cardinals’ hottest hitter and the Cardinals’ coldest hitter. Fangraphs has a useful tool that updates projections based off how they have played all year. In this case, all year means just six games. In the vast majority of cases, the players “rest of season” projections are not affected. For example, Dexter Fowler has been below average offensively, but he hasn’t been bad enough to move his rest of season projection. He’s still projected for the same wRC+ he started with.

I must also explain how a player’s rest of season projection can move one way or the other. To use Fowler as an example again, prior to last night’s game, he had an equal number of walks and strikeouts. The strikeouts were in line with his projected strikeouts, but the walks were double his projection. Despite not many hits falling, his plate discipline numbers were enough to keep his projection the same. Which is to say that K%, BB%, BABIP, ISO are ultimately just as important in determining rest of season projection as the actual stats themselves.

Context also matters. Paul Goldschmidt, if he were 0-24 to start the year, probably wouldn’t see that large of a drop in expected performance. (His start has raised his wRC+ projection from 131 to 134 thanks to an expected increase in power). But 45-year-old Ichiro Suzuki needs much less prodding to drop his projection. He went 0-5 with a BB, and ZiPS moved his rest of season projected from 57 to 53. Age and underlying peripherals matter.

With that explanation out of the way, let’s look at the coldest hitter first, Yadier Molina. Molina is 36, so ZiPS would theoretically take a drop in performance in six games a little more seriously than a similar start from Goldschmidt. Molina does have a little going for him. He has an 11.1% BB rate and an 18.5% K rate. More strikeouts than usual, but the walks probably even that out. He also has a .105 BABIP and .042 ISO. Sure enough, the rest of season projections see a drop in BABIP and ISO, and a rise in strikeouts and walks. Overall, Molina’s wRC+ went from 92 to 90. (It has since moved down to 89 after last night’s game)

Now, the real reason I wrote this post is Kolten Wong. Because I pointed out that Molina’s wRC+ went down 2 points will give you some context on Wong. Alright, the negative of Wong’s start is an increase in strikeouts. That’s literally it. He has a 20.8% K rate to begin the year, which is above his career 15.3% and original projection of 15.9%. He has 3 walks to begin the season, a double, a triple, and three home runs. His BABIP is .538 and his ISO is .571, which would be a pretty great slugging percentage, but it’s his ISO. Slugging percentage minus batting average. He has a 292 wRC+ on the year, which is so absurdly high that a 1-3 day with a BB and a triple brought that down.

As I said, Molina’s went down two. Kolten Wong’s original projection called for a 100 wRC+ for the season. His rest of season projections see an increase in BABIP by 7 and an increase of ISO by 14 points. He has raised his expected slash line from .256/.336/.396 to .264/.344/.416 after just six games. That is a wRC+ of 108. Yes, his jumped up that much

Wong’s original projection from ZiPS was 1.9 WAR. ZiPS rest of season projection is now 2.3 WAR. Wong already has 0.7 WAR on the season, so if you include that with his projections, ZiPS thinks Wong will finish with 3 WAR. But wait, there’s more! If one were to be so inclined as to be optimistic on Wong’s defense, a rather easy thing to do, one could think ZiPS has a low outlook on Wong. They have Wong’s defense as just +3.4, or +4.5 UZR/150, which would actually be lower than his career UZR.

In addition, Wong’s projection only calls for 121 games played for the rest of the season, which seems a bit low. Yes, he’s had his share of injuries, but he’s also been benched and healthy a lot too. When healthy, I’m not expecting Wong to be benched all that much. So believe it or not, Wong has some upside on that 3 WAR number.

It’s just six games. A few games can wildly swing these numbers. But Wong had about the best six games you can have and because of that we can actually raise our expectation of him from his projections from 1.9 WAR to 3 WAR and counting. Six games did that. Let’s hope Wong can stay healthy and put together his best season of his career. He’s off to a great start.

(Edit: Wong’s game last night, actually pushed his rest of season projection to a 109 wRC+ and 2.4 WAR so now he’s at 3.2 WAR? Wow)