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Thoughts on Cards ZiPS projections

ZiPS were released and I have some thoughts

Wild Card Round - St. Louis Cardinals v Los Angeles Dodgers Photo by Harry How/Getty Images

ZIPS released its annual Cardinals projections yesterday and I really don’t envy projection sites this year. I feel like COVID is going to make projections extremely difficult for at least a few more years with a missing minor league season and a two month season for anyone lucky enough to play in the majors. Look at any random two month sample in any given season and you can see the difficulty.

Pulling a name out of a hat - Tommy Edman - had a 68 wRC+ in June and July last year, 106 wRC+ in April and May. Kind of hoped the latter number would be higher for my point, but nevertheless neither number reflects the player he actually is. And a two month sample in 2020 seems pretty likely to have several players with overall lines out of whack with what they’d do over a full season. And these are the players who actually provided new data.

.... With that said, I really hope their position player projections are accurate, because they are GOOD as hell. Like really good. They have eight players who project for 2.5+ WAR or more, with I would say only two of them needing to be met with skepticism. Which I will explain later in this article. Catcher is the Cardinals weakest position - and by far - but even that doesn’t come across badly. (It’s crazy how much JT Realmuto would have made sense to sign a couple years ago, if you can ignore the whole personal aspect of why they didn’t.)

So here are my off-the cuff thoughts on the ZiPS projection

Tommy Edman is the Cardinals “2nd best player”

Okay so I mentioned that two projections stand out as needing to be met with skepticism. This is one of them. Tommy Edman will not be a 3.9 WAR player next year. I’d bet quite a bit of money on that one, but I don’t bet and also I’m not sure those are the kinds of bets Vegas is taking. However, there are two key reasons why it’s too high of a projection and neither should sour you on Tommy Edman.

The first is that ZiPS is, well weirdly isn’t the right word, but they are uncharacteristically high on Edman’s defense. If you have followed these projections in past years, you’d notice that the defensive component for elite fielders is usually lower than what you’d probably peg that player’s defensive value as. This is normal. Projections are conservative. But I was pretty shocked when I saw Edman as a +8 fielder by ZiPS. It’s purely because of the nature of projection systems why I’m shocked.

Fangraphs UZR saw Edman as a +2 fielder at 2B, Statcast saw him as a +13 fielder, and Baseball’s Reference dWAR saw him as a 0.9 (+9) fielder. So with those numbers, yeah +8 makes sense. Except Statcast thought Edman was a +0 fielder in 2020 and a +2 fielder at 2B in 2019. He’s a +3.8 fielder for his career by UZR. For comparison’s sake, ZiPS had Kolten Wong as a +6 fielder last year. It’s just weird!

Secondly, I really don’t think he’s getting 667 plate appearances this year. I know why they think he will. He got 691 plate appearances in 2021. But there are a multitude of factors why he probably won’t: he may lose his leadoff spot, his playing time is threatened by Nolan Gorman, he literally played too much last year. Even so, this is safely a 3+ WAR projection no matter how you slice it, and serves as a reminder that Edman is a good player.

Gorman’s projection isn’t as good as it seems

Second player for which skepticism is needed. Gorman’s projection of 2.5 WAR actually has nothing to do with the fact that I don’t think he’ll get 548 PAs. For minor leaguers, lots of plate appearances helps us figure out what they are right now so it’s obviously preferable to seeing a projection with a more realistic number of 200-300 PAs. It’s more of skepticism towards the rate of his value over those plate appearances.

Because as much as it would delight me, I would be pretty, pretty surprised if Nolan Gorman is a +7 fielder. That’s one worse than Nolan Arenado’s projection. Minor league defensive data is super unreliable so this is an easy one to dismiss. Not to mention it’s based on him playing 3B, and no matter how optimistic you are on Gorman’s defense, you probably don’t see him nearly matching Edman as a defender. Anything’s possible, but it’s probably not happening.

In light of not knowing how to grade his defense, it’s more instructive to look at his offense. And his offensive projection is worse than Edman. He has a .250/.293/.430 line, good for a 95 OPS+. Edman has a 99 OPS+. But it’s still a very good projection for a guy who has never made the majors. Because let’s say he’s a +2 fielder. Then he’s exactly league average right now without ever playing a game. But yeah that 2.5 sure jumps out and it’s probably not to be trusted.

The pitching is better than it seems

I’m not sure it gives you any comfort if you’re concerned about the health of the starting rotation, but the primary reason the Cardinals have an underwhelming projection is due to innings. Jack Flaherty has an underratedly good projection, with 2.4 WAR in just 130 innings. That’s a 3 WAR projection with perfect health. Miles Mikolas, projected for just 111 innings, would have a 2.1 WAR projection with perfect health. Dakota Hudson, a 2.2 WAR projection. Wainwright, 2.4. Matz, 2.1.

Yeah, yeah we all know why they aren’t projected for more innings. It doesn’t change the fact that, when they’re actually on the field, all five members of the rotation are projected as average or better pitchers. It’s not exciting. With a lesser position player group, it would be a problem. But clearly the position players are the stars of this team. The pitching just needs to be average and the defense will prop up their stats, and the Cardinals should win enough games with some health luck.

But they better stay healthy

Another thing we already knew, but... the Cardinals have no pitching depth. No ready to pop into the majors pitching depth. Matt Liberatore has a slightly below average projection, which is encouraging after he had a season that was fine more than good down at AAA. He improved as the season went along and was crazy young, but still nice to see a solid projection from him. Connor Thomas comes across, looking the best, with a 1.4 WAR projection in 127.3 IP. That’s also slightly below average, but maybe we should count him in on the plans.

After that it is bleak. Angel Rondon, Johan Oviedo, and the currently injured Ljay Newsome all project for 0.7 WAR with around 100 IP. Actually Oviedo has that figure in 118 innings pitched which is a really bad projection. The other two are in 92 innings pitched, which is better, but still not good. Andre Pallante is at 0.6 and then you have to skip over a bunch of reliever projections, so not great that Cards, at least by projections, run just 7 deep. Usually need about three more starters than that.

Fun #1 Comps

Paul Goldschmidt’s #1 comp is former Cardinal and Cardinal Hall of Famer Bill White. I’m going to assume that ZiPS would have foreseen a bounceback for Bill White at 34 that never actually happened. These comps are, I believe, based on age-related comparison. White was coming off a 1.1 win season in 369 PAs, but had five straight 4+ win seasons prior to that. Sounds like the kind of consistency Paul Goldschmidt has had for most of his career. But the bounceback never came, and he lasted just two more years. Despite just a 1 win season at 34 from Bill White, ZiPS foresees a 3.4 WAR season for Goldy next year.

Nolan Gorman has an interesting one if only for the fact that it will be a moment in time when he will never ever be compared to this player ever again. Gorman is being compared to David Bell, which would not be encouraging if not for the fact that it doesn’t really make any sense. Bell showed barely any power in the minors being hitting 18 homers in AAA at 21 in 539 PAs. He then didn’t show much power in the majors.

Matt Koperniak has a very fun comparison. Dan stopped by here yesterday and helpfully let us know that comps are purely based on offense. Which is why it’s pretty encouraging for him to get a comp of Casey Kotchman, who had a fairly length career. He was only a 93 wRC+ hitter for his career, which made him a bad player because he played 1B, but Koperniak plays OF and has played CF at least part-time. Kotchman sure had some wild swings to get that 93 number.

Miles Mikolas gets a comp to... former Cardinal Bob Tewksbury. That’s pretty fun. And Bob aged absurdly well, so if Mikolas can go ahead and duplicate Bob in the final few years of his contract, it’d be much appreciated. Liberatore’s #1 comp is Butch Henry, who actually had a good run from 25-28 despite being constantly injured. He was worth 5.3 fWAR in 318.1 IP in those three years (which included being injured for his age 27 season). If he can just avoid the injuries, that’s a great outcome.

Giovanny’s #1 comp is JJ Putz, who was coming off a 3.4 WAR season after 29, and followed it up with a 2.1 WAR season. He then had a couple injury-plagued years before being one of the most consistent relievers in baseball with three straight 1.5 WAR seasons. In other positive news, the #1 comp for Kodi Whitley is Derrick Turnbow, whose career trajectory I hope Whitley doesn’t follow but I do hope he follows his age 27 season, which was a 1.74 ERA and 39 saves. The advanced stats aren’t as good, but a 1.2 win season would be fantastic from him. Ryan Helsley’s #1 comp is... Todd Wellemeyer. Trade him immediately.

All in all, I’m very happy with the projections from ZiPS and am pleasantly surprised.