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Using ZiPS to Rank the National League Contenders

ZiPS projections came out last week. Can we use them along with Depth Charts to project NL standings? Sure!

Atlanta Braves v St. Louis Cardinals Photo by Dilip Vishwanat/Getty Images

Happy Saturday, Viva El Birdos!

This coming week the calendar turns. We enter February. Do you know what happens in February? Baseball happens!

Pitchers and catchers are set to report to the Cardinals on February 15th. The full squad arrives on the 20th. Of course, those dates are deadlines; the last day to show up. Many players will be cycling into camp early. We know two Cardinals who struggled last year, Dakota Hudson and Paul DeJong, have already made the trek to Jupiter to work out with Cardinals coaches. Others are probably there as well, working out in unreported bliss.

It’s a great time for optimism! It’s a wonderful time to believe that tweaking a leg kick or adjusting arm slot mechanics can turn a last-summer disappointment into a this-spring surprise.

Everyone, including said writer, is in the best shape of his life! (Excuse me while I go pop another ibuprofen for my raging carpal tunnel.)

Normally computer-simulated projections would be a cup of cold water in the face of that rising spring optimism. Projections default to 50th-percentile midpoints. They are notoriously conservative in projecting defense. They are ruthless in applying age regressions. They’ll take 100-win teams and knock off 10 wins just because history says so. They can take a team that has finished under .500 one time in the last twenty-odd years and annually pick them to win around 75 games.

It’s probably out of spite.

If you read Dan Szymborski (who hates us all) and his article on the Cardinals’ ZiPS projections this year, though, you’ll know that’s not the case. Szymborski’s computers are bleeding Cardinals red this winter, spitting out a projection that, and I quote, places “St. Louis in the same range as the Padres, Astros, Braves, Dodgers, and Mets.” Are the Cardinals as good as the big-spending teams in the NL East and West?

Dan, because he hates us, is inclined to disagree with his own software, placing the Cards just below some in the above group but still in the 89-93 win range. A solidly “good” team.

Very early Steamer-based projections tend to agree with that conclusion, giving the Cardinals 46.5 fWAR (33.4 on offense + 13.0 on pitching) and placing them 5th in the NL, just behind the Dodgers, but well back of the Mets, Braves, and Padres.

Leading up to this article, I would have been right there with Dan and Steamer based both on the recent winning history of the teams ahead of the Cardinals and the never-reliable roster eyeball test. The Cards feel like they are about one ace starter behind the win potential of the Braves, Mets, and Padres. I can’t discount the Dodgers, even though conventional wisdom suggests they’ve taken a step back. Add it up and I would have dropped them 5th in the NL with something in the neighborhood of 92-95 projected wins.

That’s a small step up from where I had the club last year (91-93). I do believe this is a better roster. I just don’t know that this Cardinals team has the capacity to make a large jump forward. I think some regression for Goldschmidt and Arenado is not only likely but virtually certain. A more consistent rotation, a year-older young offense with legitimate depth, and a good bullpen (I liked the pen last year, too) will allow them to more than weather the drop in production from their MVP-caliber core falling back from career years. 4 fWAR lost from the MV2 plus 5-6 fWAR gained from the rest of the roster nets out better than ’22 but limits the club’s ceiling.

Let me give you an example of how this could play out. Take Nootbaar. What if Nootbaar goes nuts and produces 6 fWAR next year? Cool! Well, in my mind, I already have him pegged for 3.5 fWAR or so. A 2.5 fWAR gain is great. Really, that’s great! But it’s so easily lost if, say, Willson Contreras gets hit on the hand and Knizner and Herrera have 2 months of around replacement level starts. Or if some combo of Mikolas/Matz/Montgomery go down and Liberatore and Hudson have to 30 starts between them.

The 2023 Cardinals are deep. They are filled with players who should provide solid-to-good production pretty far down the roster. But the floor on those players is already high enough that a few overperformances that we really could see probably balance out with a few underperformances or injuries that we really should expect.

The moral of the story here is that it’s really hard to project a team to win 100 games. That kind of win total should never be assumed. Not for the Cardinals. And not for their NL competition.

Which is a really important point today as I more carefully consider where I have the Cardinals in the National League. With spring nearing, let’s set aside those gut feelings and circle back to last week’s ZiPS projections.

Szymborski’s computer suggests that the Cardinals are right there with the best teams in the NL. Why?

ZiPS produces a WAR chart for each team based on Depth Chart’s playing time assumptions. With a little bit of math, we can easily compare ZiPS Depth Chart WAR projections for each contending team in the NL and the NL Central and assign a number value to them. Rank those numbers and you have something like the projected standings in the NL. Easy peasy!

Except… it does force us to assume that the Depth Charts projections are reasonably accurate for the Cardinals and for the rest of the teams in the NL. The temptation will be to pick apart playing time projections for the Cardinals, but it’s just not worth it. You would have to do the same for the rest of the NL, which would add a whole new level of subjectivity to this. That’s unnecessary. Plus, there’s already an assumed margin of error baked into these projections.

In other words, think of everything you see today as a range of likely outcomes, not a hard-and-fast WAR value or win total.

With the fine print out of the way, let’s start with the NL Central since winning the NLC is and should be the team’s first goal. (I’ll list a few of the images for clubs, but not all of them or this article will quickly become image overload).

The Cardinals Compared to the National League Central

St. Louis Cardinals
Rotation: 13.8
Lineup/Bench: 29.8
Bullpen: 5.0
Cardinals Total: 48.6

Milwaukee Brewers
Rotation: 16.7
Lineup/Bench: 21.6
Bullpen: 3.9
Brewers Total: 42.2

Chicago Cubs
Rotation: 12.4
Lineup/Bench: 20.5
Bullpen: 2.5
Cubs Total: 35.4

Cincinnati Reds
Rotation: 12.2
Lineup/Bench: 10.1
Bullpen: 4.0
Reds Total: 26.3

Pittsburgh Pirates
Rotation: 9.1
Lineup/Bench: 19
Bullpen: 2.8
Pirates Total: 27.9

The Cardinals are sitting pretty in the Central with really only one contender to challenge them. The Cards currently have 48.6 projected fWAR with the second-best rotation in the division, behind the Brewers, and by far the best offense. The Brewers are entering February with 6.4 wins to make up. The Cardinals won the division by 7 games last year, so it looks like that gap is going to hold up for another season.

Next in line is the Cubs, who spent a little money this offseason and carry a payroll higher than the Cardinals. The extra money isn’t going to show up in the standings. They are 13 wins back and look like they might be around a .500 squad. The Reds and Pirates are two of the worst teams in the NL.

If the Cardinals’ goal is to build a roster that will compete for the NL Central, they’ve more than done that. I’m sure that the Brewers will make things more interesting than we might want, but it would be a shock if the Cards don’t come away with their second straight division crown.

The Cardinals Compared to the National League Contenders

In the NL I looked at all the division favorites and last year’s playoff teams. I included the Giants and Brewers (since they’re in the NLC) but stopped before I got to the Marlins. That more than covers all the teams who are likely to land in the Cardinals’ projected range.

Here are your projected NL standings based on ZiPS Depth Charts WAR, with a few included images:

1. Atlanta Braves
Rotation: 17.7
Lineup/Bench: 31.1
Bullpen: 6.0
Braves Total: 54.8

2. Los Angeles Dodgers
Rotation: 16.8
Lineup/Bench: 27.5
Bullpen: 4.5
Dodgers Total: 48.8

3. St. Louis Cardinals
Rotation: 13.8
Lineup/Bench: 29.8
Bullpen: 5.0
Cardinals Total: 48.6

4. New York Mets
Rotation: 14.6
Lineup/Bench: 29
Bullpen: 4.2
Mets Total: 47.8

5. San Diego Padres
Rotation: 11.4
Lineup/Bench: 32.6
Bullpen: 3.3
Padres Total: 47.3

6. Philadelphia Phillies
Rotation: 16
Lineup/Bench: 23.8
Bullpen: 3.6
Phillies Total: 43.4

7. Milwaukee Brewers
Rotation: 16.7
Lineup/Bench: 21.6
Bullpen: 3.9
Brewers Total: 42.2

8. San Francisco Giants
Rotation: 14.4
Lineup/Bench: 20.7
Bullpen: 3.9
Giants Total: 39

The Braves are the clear class of the National League. That doesn’t surprise me at all. I’ve been very impressed with the way they have constructed their team and locked most of it up for a long time. They’re going to be a problem for years to come.

ATL has about a six-game lead over the next four teams, who are clumped together pretty tightly. Statistically, there’s no significance to the 1.5 WAR difference that separates the Dodgers, Cardinals, Mets, and Padres. That’s well within the margin of error we should assume for a project like this.

Still, there is a gap and that gap does allow us to draw some conclusions and apply a ranking, even while acknowledging how meaningless these rankings are.

The Dodgers have a minuscule .2 WAR edge over the Cardinals for second place in the NL. That was surprising to me. All offseason we’ve heard how the Dodgers are intentionally taking a step back for salary purposes. The Cardinals only added Willson Contreras, have a bunch of unused budget space, and admitted they failed to do everything they wanted to do.

How are these two teams who intentionally had quiet offseasons not only keeping pace with the NL’s biggest spenders but are sitting a hair’s width ahead of them?

I wonder if the answer is found in the way both teams have approached roster construction. The Cardinals and the Dodgers have their share of superstars but they’ve surrounded them with a very complete and deep supporting cast. We’re right back to that gut-feeling argument I make above. A deep team with a high floor can virtually guarantee a baseline of quality production regardless of the certainty of injuries and underperformance.

This is the kind of arrangement that the computers, and this system of simply adding up computer projections, is going to like. When you go 30-35 players deep – and all rosters will use that many players over the course of a season – having more 2.0 WAR players even if you have fewer 4.0 WAR players means something.

The Cardinals are projected to get under 1.6 WAR from just 2 places on their depth chart – their number 6 & 7 starters. The Dodgers also have just 2 players below that total – left field and their #6 starter.

The Mets and Padres both have 5 players slated to produce 1.8 WAR or below.

In some ways, ZiPS is showing us that if the superstars on the Mets and Padres perform above their 50th percentiles, those teams are going to win a lot of games and the rest of the supporting cast isn’t going to matter that much.

But this is baseball and baseball happens. Teams built with solid-to-good production throughout the roster might be better equipped to thrive over 162 games.

Beyond those five, the Phillies pop in with a roster that’s a bit flawed but with lots of production potential. They are the proverbial “built to win in October” kind of club. Then it drops off quickly.

So, where do the Cardinals sit heading into February?

They’re probably better than I thought relative to the rest of the National League. They might not be the best team in the National League – that’s Atlanta – but they are virtual locks to win the division and have as good a shot at a first-round bye as almost anyone else.

How’s that for spring optimism? Have a happy Saturday, Viva El Birdos!