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Takeaways from Cards ZiPS’ projections

Biggest winners? The position player depth and Jordan Montgomery

MLB: Pittsburgh Pirates at St. Louis Cardinals Jeff Curry-USA TODAY Sports

Yesterday, on Fangraphs, the Cardinals team projections dropped via the projection system ZiPS. It was an overwhelmingly positive one, putting the Cardinals “in the same range as the Padres, Astros, Braves, Dodgers, and Mets.” That’s a direct quote from the article itself, though Dan makes sure to say that he doesn’t really think the Cardinals are in that tier.

Which puts him in line with the consensus of the fanbase, so I can’t really blame him. But this has got to be the first time in the projection era that a projection system has been more positive about the Cardinals than the fanbase at large. It’s a weird feeling, honestly, because most years - if not every year frankly - the fanbase feels like the projection systems don’t accurately capture something about the Cardinals and underrates them. (ZiPS has been less guilty of this than the others, like PECOTA)

Here are my takeaways:

Nolan Arenado has the best projection by a Cardinal since Albert Pujols

So I can’t actually confirm this, because Fangraphs has been hosting ZiPS projections since the 2013 season. Before that, it was on Baseball Think Factory. Baseball Think Factory did not post the WAR numbers in its projection. However, a couple years ago, Dan wrote an article about Pujols’ decline, by imagining a world where he aged like a normal hitter. And helpfully, he plotted out the projections from 2011 onward. In 2011, Pujols was projected as an 8.1 player. Nolan’s projection is 5.8, which is easily the best since then. The only person to come close is Yadier Molina, with 5, back in 2014.

Which brings up a natural question: are the Cardinals ever going to have a player with a greater projection than Pujols in 2011?

Pay attention to plate appearances

When looking at the total WAR numbers, make sure to look at how many times they come to the plate by the projection. A great example is Lars Nootbaar. At first, his projection seems underwhelming: 2.1 WAR. They should trade him immediately if that’s what to expect, given the hype he currently has. But ZiPS projects just 439 PAs. If he were to get 600 PAs - and by all accounts, the Cardinals seem to plan on it - he is projected for 2.9 WAR. That’s a big difference.

Then take into account that 2.9 WAR is his median projection, that we have essentially no minor league data to work with, that he unlocked something in the 2nd half, and that he is still increasing his bat speed this offseason, and it’s easier to see why he is approaching untouchable.

Pay attention to defense

Unfortunately, this is the big one when it comes to ZiPS. I don’t think they have really figured out the defensive component to projections. I know there’s a system in place, but it does not produce reliable numbers. I understand why - defense is already hard to judge, projecting is already hard, combine the two together and it’s no surprise it’s not reliable.

A couple of red flags, if you will, are in Alec Burleson, with an absurd +6 to his WAR number, and Juan Yepez, with a seemingly reasonable -4, though if you’ve ever watched him play in the OF, you’d know why I point it out. I think even the biggest optimist on Burleson’s defense would not accept that +6 number. That’s why I like to look at offense and then try to figure out the defense in my head. Burleson’s 2.2 WAR in 514 looks way less impressive since his hitting line is a 105 OPS+ and he’s largely expected to be below average defensively. Yepez’s overall value might not be impressive, but his 118 OPS+ certainly is and I would be delighted if he could do that.

Jordan Walker and Masyn Winn are not MLB ready - by ZiPS anyway

From a projection system standpoint, of course this makes sense. Neither has played in AAA. Walker’s numbers in AA are undoubtedly good, but they aren’t... that good. They aren’t skip AAA good basically. Winn is a much more straightforward case. He was dead average in AA offensively, no chance would any projection system think he’s MLB ready the year after doing that.

There is reason for optimism though. Considering he’s never played in AAA, it should not be seen as a negative that he has 1.2 WAR in 515 PAs. It should be seen as a positive that they already see him as a 1.4 WAR player per 600 PAs without playing a single game in AAA. I guarantee you as soon as he starts hitting in AAA, at the age of 21, you would see his 89 OPS+ projection rise quickly. In the case of Winn, for some reason, his defensive number is horrible. I’m going to take the over on his -7 defense at SS, thank you very much.

Surprising depth

A couple players had surprisingly good projections that, if at all accurate, would give the Cardinals more depth than previously understood. At shortstop, Paul DeJong has a frankly absurd projection with 2.4 WAR, which is very strange because he’s only had 2.4 WAR once in his career and it’s even stranger because in that lone season where he did it, he was a 2.7 WAR player per 480 PAs, which by the way, is his plate appearance projection. They have him almost matching his career best performance on a rate basis in 2023. That is odd as hell.

Also surprisingly high is Kramer Robertson, who has 1.9 WAR in 483 PAs. Apparently, the Cards are ridiculously stacked at the shortstop position. What’s cool about Robertson’s is that it doesn’t actually look that absurd when you look at how he got that. He is a +4 SS, which may not be true, but doesn’t seem crazy. And his OPS+ is 79. That’s not only reasonable, I think he can do better than that. Do I think he’s an average player? No. But an above average defending shortstop means his bat doesn’t need to be much, so let’s hope he’s that. Also can’t sleep on the 1.4 WAR from former Card prospect Oscar Mercado in 431 PAs. Also seems high, but what is minor league depth if not for a player like him?

Given all this, I found Dan’s comments strange. “If there’s a weakness here, it might be the lack of usable depth in the high minors to serve as midseason reinforcements.” He must really not trust his own projection numbers, because this statement makes no sense if he does. I’ve established ZiPs thinks the Cardinals are deep at SS. And seeing as Nolan Gorman is the odd man out of the infield, any potential injury could be filled by him, DeJong, or Robertson. In the outfield, backing up the starting three you have Burleson, Yepez, and Donovan. And again if you believe the projections at all, Oscar Mercado too.

Now, most of the names are not going to be in the high minors I suppose, so this may be one of those technically true, but not meaningfully true things. And besides, I feel like to accept that statement, one has to accept Jordan Walker is not usable high minors depth. Perhaps not on Opening Day, but midseason? Injuries will have to eat up a lot of the MLB team to where Walker is needed, and if he’s up when he’s not “needed,” he’s made himself usable. Just a weird statement.

The Bullpen is projected to be elite

Hat tip to twitter user VHS (who is a must-follow) for providing me with this graphic:

Through most of the projections so far, the Cardinals have the third highest WAR total by the bullpen. That number may go down - Atlanta and Tampa Bay have pretty good pens - but either way, they are at least top 5 in the league. And while the Cardinals have a two-headed monster of Giovanny Gallegos and Ryan Helsley, they’re only projected for 2 of the 5 WAR. I’m not exactly sure how they calculated the innings - for example, Packy Naughton has a 1 WAR projection in 88 innings, but Depth Charts - the source used for the above graphic - has him with just 42 IP. It seems to be a well-rounded team effort to get to that 5 number.

But a couple of standouts are Jordan Hicks, somehow with 1 WAR, despite not showing anything of the sort so far, and Ryan Loutos, who has 0.6 WAR in 58 IP. He’s 24-years-old and started last year in High A and threw 20+ innings at three levels. That’s super encouraging. However, Depth Charts has Loutos throwing exactly zero innings in the MLB so he isn’t actually contributing to that total.

ZiPS is high on the starting pitching depth

From a rate basis, the Cardinals have quite a few options at starting pitcher. Jordan Montgomery leads the pack with 3 WAR, followed by 2.3 by Mikolas, 1.9 each from Flaherty and Wainwright and 1.5 from Matz. That sounds not good, except as I said, on a rate basis, it is good. Flaherty is projected for just 103.7 IP (2.7 WAR per 150 IP), Matz for just 97 (2.3 per 150 IP), and while both Mikolas and Wainwright have a fair projected IP number, if they are healthy all year, they will throw quite a few more innings than their projection.

If that was all it was, I wouldn’t point this out. ZiPS still likes Matthew Liberatore, who is seen as a league average pitcher right now. He has 1.9 WAR in 141 IP. Connor Thomas, with 1.7 WAR in 128 IP, is also seen as a league average pitcher. Andre Pallante has 1.5 WAR in 100 innings. Dakota Hudson has 1.7 WAR in 144.7 IP. Gordon Graceffo already has 1.1 WAR in 126 IP, despite not pitching in AAA yet. (I cannot stress enough how difficult it is to have a good projection without playing at AAA at least a little). Jake Woodford has 1 WAR in 98 IP. This is an incredible, incredible amount of pitching depth, if we can take these projections at face value.

The Best Player Comps

Before I give you the names, I must point out that the player comps ZiPS comes up with is offense-based and also based upon the specific age the player is now. Paul Goldschmidt is being compared with other 35-year-old 1B who, going into their age 35 season, had a similar projection in the past. Right, that must be said.

Paul Goldschmidt’s #2 comp is Lou Gehrig. His #3 comp is Edgar Martinez. His #1 comp is former Cardinal Pedro Guerrero. While I’m sure some readers have fond memories of Guerrero, let’s focus on the other two. Guerrero is an odd #1 comp given Guerrero had a 102 wRC+ in his age 34 season, though he did have a 147 wRC+ the year before. Honestly, the sample size of 34-year-old 1B with MVP level offensive seasons can’t be large. Gehrig, in essentially his last season, had 4.9 WAR at age 35 and boy is Edgar an exciting comp given he had a 157 wRC+ at 35, then 161, then 154, then 157, then 141, then 142 before finally declining at age 41. So yeah... give me that outcome please.

Nolan Arenado, all things considered, has underwhelming comps. His #1 is Mike Lowell and #2 is Aramis Ramirez. But well that’s because defense isn’t considered in this. However his #3 comp is Cal Ripken Jr. Top two players with three combined Hall of Famers as one of their three best comps. Cool. Willson Contreras has two Hall of Famers as well, with #1 being Carlton Fisk - which yes sign me up that, he aged really well - and #3 being Gabby Hartnett, whose not as exciting but would mean this would be a great deal.

Lars Nootbaar has a real weird comp - Cody Bellinger, but on the downslope. Well it wasn’t clear it was a downslope entering his age 25 season, as he was coming off a 112 wRC+, right after being the MVP. So his top comp is a former MVP coming off a 112 wRC+ is the way to look at it. Brendan Donovan’s #2 comp is Jose Oquendo which is quite amusing, and his #3 comp is... Edgar Martinez? Okay sure whatever. Nolan Gorman’s #3 comp is Austin Riley, yeah sign me the hell up for that.

Pitching is a lot less interesting, although there are some interesting names for sure. Montgomery’s #1 comp is Hall of Famer Jim Kaat, his #2 is Jose Quintana, and his #3 is Vida Blue. That’s a pretty damn good list. Andre Pallante’s #2 comp is Jeff Samardzija, which yes please. Mikolas also has Samardzija - much later in his career obviously - as his #3, with Ivan Nova and Jeremy Guthrie ahead of him.

Liberatore’s #1 comp is Jim Abbott, which is fun as hell. Zack Thompson’s #3 comp is Pedro Martinez! No not that one, I just wanted you to briefly have your eyes bulge out of your head. Wainwright is in rare company and as such, has only familiar names: Derek Lowe, R.A. Dickey, Steve Sparks. Genesis Cabrera gets a Kenny Rogers comp and a Sam Freeman one. Packy Naughton gets former pitching coach Derek Lilliquist.

The 80th percentile group

Lastly, ZiPS threw up both an 80th percentile outcome and a 20th percentile one. I will not focus on the 20th percentile, because why. The Cardinals have 13 hitters whose 80th percentile projection is 3 WAR. So that’s cool. I’ll ignore the obvious suspects and point you to some - I don’t know if surprising is the right word - but is exciting for sure.

There are five players with an 80th percentile of 4 WAR or higher - you’ll be glad to know Dylan Carlson is on that list, as is Willson Contreras. You can probably guess who the other three are. The best of the rest may surprise you, or may not: Nolan Gorman. His 80th percentile of 3.8 is better than the 3.7 by both Alec Burleson - which to be fair does depend on him being a +6 fielder - and Tyler O’Neill. DeJong, Donovan, Nootbaar, Yepez, and shockingly Robertson round out the 3+ WAR field.

The pitching has less upside - breaking news here - and it appears to still use the same innings projection in the 80th percentile as the normal projection, so keep that in mind. Montgomery is by far the highest with 4.1 WAR, followed by a 3.3 WAR appearance by Mikolas and Liberatore - seriously people do not give up on Gorman or Liberatore. Flaherty and Matz are at 2.7 and 2.2, though again I think this is an innings thing since if you give them both 150 IP, they are already at those numbers.

The 80th percentile projection reaches 2+ WAR for ten pitchers, which includes Hudson, Thomas, Wainwright, Pallante, and oddly enough Michael McGreevy with exactly 2 WAR. He has a better ZiPS projection than Graceffo actually, barely. Graceffo is right behind him with 1.9 WAR.

And if you’re wondering about the upside of the bullpen - again apart from the obvious names - some 80th percentile names that stick out are Hicks (1.6 WAR!!), Naughton (1.5 in 88 IP), Jojo Romero (1.3 WAR), Stratton (1.1), and Loutos (1). And Drew VerHagen comes close with 0.8 WAR as his 80th percentile. Comparatively speaking, it is a little disappointing to see how low the 80th percentile is for Wilkin Rodriguez (0.3), Freddy Pacheco (0.5), and Guillmero Zuniga (0.3).

And that’s all folks, we talked about ZiPS all day, hopefully you won’t get tired of discussing it, and maybe I provided a few new talking points.