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ZiPS Projections: The Cardinals are the Cardinals Again

It’s ZiPS time again! Let’s break down the projections.

On Tuesday, Dan Szymborski over at Fangraphs released his annual ZiPS projections for the St. Louis Cardinals.

2024 ZiPS Projections: St. Louis Cardinals

You should go and read the article, perusing the projections before you read my analysis. Give Fangraphs the clicks they deserve! Better yet, subscribe for more of their excellent content.

For those who aren’t familiar with ZiPS, Szymborski and his cats created an advanced AI algorithm on his supercomputer which subsequently became sentient, and instead of destroying the world Skynet style, it predicts statistics for baseball players.

It also has a Biff Tannen level of accuracy. Szymborski is rightly proud of it. Consider these results:

Szymborski constructs his projections based on a variety of factors, including previous performance, minor league stats, advanced analytics, Statcast metrics, and the tossing of bones.

And, yes, he readily admits that he hates you and your favorite team.

While that’s not true, it feels like it is because the projections are designed to be interpreted in tiers of possible outcomes, like the ones you see in the Tweet above. The stats he publishes represent a player’s 50th percentile projection – their most likely, average, mid-point level of possible performance.

Players, though, often overperform and underperform. History tells us that some players will stay remarkably healthy. Some will get injured and miss significant time. Some will overperform. Some will disappoint. All that shifts their production up or down based around a likely center.

In other words, 20% of hitters, then, should, uh, hit their 80th percentile outcome – performing significantly better than their previous metrics suggest they should.

20% of hitters will fall to their 20th percentile outcome – suffering injury or a down year that carries them below reasonable expectations.

The majority of hitters, and pitchers, will be somewhere in between.

So, if you look at the ZiPS projections for a player and think to yourself, “That doesn’t take into account the freak injury he had last year! He’ll be better than that!” then you already get the way the system works. Yes, Player X had a freak injury last year and could be better. Or they could have another injury again and be worse. It’s the nature of the game.

Take Lars Nootbaar. Nootbaar had unfortunate injuries last year and had to earn his way to a full-time role the season before. If he stays healthy and gets a full season of full-time PAs, he should be one of the best hitters on the team over 650 PAs. But ZiPS has him declining from 3.2 fWAR to 2.4 and only gives him 500 PAs! Szymborski hates Nootbaar and the Cardinals! Pitchforks! Torches! Someone bring Arnold Schwarzenegger back from the future!

Or maybe ZiPS is just being reasonable about Nootbaar’s history – you know, what has actually happened in his brief career.

If you look at Nootbaar’s 80th percentile outcome, he jumps to 3.7 fWAR with an OPS+ of 139. That’s one of the best optimistic projections on the team.

In other words, it helps to think of the numbers in ZiPS’ projections as the midpoint of a range of outcomes. What you are seeing in his spreadsheet is a very average outcome – not a good one, not a bad one, an average outcome – for every player. Adjust up or down yourself based on your optimism or pessimism.

Of course, a full team will have its share of ups and downs. Add them together, and a club is likely to land around its 50th percentile projections. What is that projection for the Cardinals as a whole?

Szymborski does this for every team. He can compare production levels vs. the competition and provide an expected win total for a team. As of now, he has the Cardinals rebounding from their 91-loss season back to an 85-90 win season.

ZiPS is telling us here that the Cardinals are back to being the Cardinals.

The Reds have been active. The Brewers and Cubs have not. The Pirates are still the Pirates. A projected win total that caps around 90 wins on the optimistic side is enough to put StL in contention in the Central but doesn’t guarantee them the division crown. A lot will depend on what happens the rest of the winter.

And on what happens with the Cardinals players during the season. Let’s take a closer look at what ZiPS projects for the offense and pitching staff.

Offense: The Cardinals are Back to Being a Team Without Stars

It was just two years ago that Nolan Arenado and Paul Goldschmidt were top contenders for the NL MVP award. Goldy had 7 fWAR. Arenado eclipsed 5. They were inarguably two of the top three players in the league.

Not anymore. We expected regression from both last season and received it. Goldy fell to 3.7 fWAR and a 122 wRC+. Arenado was at 2.6 fWAR with a 107.

Next season, ZiPS thinks the younger Arenado will have the bigger bounce back, climbing back to a 116 OPS+. (I’ll use OPS+ and wRC+ as interchangeable here.) He also gets a defensive bump that carries him to 3.4 fWAR. While that’s better than 2023, it would still be Arenado’s lowest fWAR since he was a second-year player in 2014.

Worse is ZiPS’ projections for Goldschmidt. The system just isn’t going to bake optimism into his projections at 36 years old. He’s reached the age where, historically, players are fully into their decline phase. The computers think Goldy will take a slight step forward in wRC+/OPS+ and reach 124, likely because his peripherals are just too strong to ignore, but his fWAR will slip under 3.0. That would be his worst season since 2012.

Not only does ZiPS have the team’s two former MVPs not reaching their career peaks production, but they aren’t even at their typical All-Star levels. Both Goldy and Nado should still good players. But they can’t carry this team by themselves.

Neither can anyone else on the squad. Edman’s 3.1 fWAR projection is in line with the expectations he established on the infield, but his 99 wRC+ doesn’t play as well as it did at SS. The computers believe in his CF defense but it’s a production potential built on a pretty small sample size.

ZiPS thinks Gorman might have tapped out his potential already, which I don’t necessarily agree with. And while Jordan Walker looks ready to take a significant step forward in overall production, it’s only enough to pull him from replacement level to average. He has that much of a defensive hole to climb.

So, this is a bad offensive team? Not at all! It is a sum-of-its-parts offensive unit that can claim average or better performance at every spot on the diamond. It can also trace production depth from the bench and down into AAA. Look at Carlson’s projection. Palacios’ fWAR numbers. Victor Scott. Thomas Saggese.

The Cardinals might not have any 50th percentile All-Star hitters in 2024, but they don’t have any Taylor Motters either.

That doesn’t mean someone can’t over perform. Based on 80th percentile projections, Arenado could reach 5.0 fWAR again. Edman could sneak up to 4.3 fWAR. Goldy could reach 4.2.

And, in maybe the biggest surprise of all, the other 80th percentile 4 fWAR “star” is Masyn Winn! The rookie would need to show elite defensively but only be just above average at the plate – 107 OPS+. That’s a very positive upside projection for Winn, and not completely impossible.

The Cardinals offense is deep. It doesn’t have many superstars, but all those 2-3 fWAR hitters add up to one of the better units in the National League.

Pitching: The Cardinals Bought Themselves Depth but Little Upside From the Rotation

Turning to the other side of the ball, the Cardinals entered the offseason wanting “pitching, pitching, pitching” and acted early to lock up their rotation, signing Lance Lynn, Kyle Gibson, and ’23 Cy Young candidate Sonny Gray. Szymborski’s computers are not very impressed with the additions.

Gray’s elite 2023 season was built upon unsustainably high luck with home runs. Speaking for the writing team at VEB, we did not think that would continue. Neither does ZiPS. It projects Gray to fall to a 3.0 fWAR and a 4.04 FIP. That’s a massive drop from 5.3 and 2.83 last year. I feel pretty confident that Gray will beat that FIP projection. As it is, ZiPS thinks Gray should still be one of the best starters in the NL Central.

ZiPS shares my oft-documented fears about Miles Mikolas. Mik’s Statcast metrics declined significantly last year. Innings and a low HR rate propped up his fWAR totals last season, but the underlying metrics simply don’t support what he produced. ZiPS thinks Mikolas’ FIP will fall back toward his xFIP and ERA last season, landing at 4.61. That will cost him nearly a full point from his fWAR even if he manages to get close to 200 innings again. (ZiPS doesn’t think he can.)

And the rest of the rotation?

Mikolas – 165 IPS, 4.61 FIP, 1.9 fWAR
Gibson – 149.7 IPs, 4.51 FIP, 1.6 fWAR
Lynn – 141.3 IPs, 4.49 FIP, 1.5 fWAR
Matz – 103.7 IPs, 3.98 FIP, 1.5 fWAR

Szymborski lobs Mikolas together with Gibson, Lynn, and Matz as “non-descript 4th starter types”. It’s a fair description of these arms based on the projections above. Gibson, Lynn, and Mikolas all generate production from innings thrown not the quality of their stuff. ZiPS has trouble believing these arms will reach the kind of innings the Cardinals likely expect, even with their high volume history. Age means injury. It’s that simple for the computers.

Matz has the opposite problem. He still has stuff to show – you can see it in his projected peripherals — but his injury history cuts deeply into his projections. This leaves me in the same place I’ve been with him: trying to talk myself out hyping him up. I’ve been an unfortunately staunch supporter of Matz the last few seasons and he’s pretty much made me look like an idiot. By April I’ll be saying something stupid like “Matz could be the best starter on this staff” again. I can feel it coming. I just haven’t said it yet. (And saying I might say it doesn’t count, so don’t hold me to it yet!)

What’s fascinating is that those four aren’t alone in that “non-descript 4th starter type” category. Sometimes ZiPS spits out some really weird results. Like this one: Michael McGreevy, with his 4.49 ERA and 4.52 FIP in Memphis last season, projects as the club’s third-best pitcher overall.

It’s true. Crazy. But true.

And I’m not done! Who is better – Drew Rom or Miles Mikolas? Mikolas, obviously. It’s an absurd question. But if you change nothing about Rom’s projected performance and just up his innings to match Mikolas’ 165 IPs, Rom projects to have a 2.3 fWAR. That’s 0.4 fWAR better than Mikolas! It’s amazing what the ability to generate K’s will do to a pitcher’s upside.

You could play similar games with Matthew Liberatore, who makes sense, but also Connor Thomas, Victor Santos, Connor Lunn, and Packy Naughton, who don’t make any sense at all.

ZiPS isn’t really trying to tell us that Connor Lunn and Kyle Gibson are interchangeable. It’s trying to tell us us that the Cardinals have a significant number of fringe MLB, AAA, and AA arms who project to be better-than-replacement level if they find their way into service. Considering the state of the club’s pitching depth back in May, that’s a pretty incredible result for the front office.

Here’s how deep the pitching depth goes, if we cap it at 1.0 fWAR:

Michael McGreevy – 1.6 fWAR
Drew Rom – 1.4
Matthew Liberatore – 1.3
Connor Thomas – 1.3
Victor Santos – 1.3
Connor Lunn – 1.2
Tink Hence – 1.1
Sem Robberse – 1.1
Tekoah Roby – 1.1
Packy Naughton – 1.0
Gordon Graceffo – 1.0
Adam Kloffenstein – 1.0
Alex Cornwell – 1.0

Surprisingly, Zack Thompson, the club’s likely first choice for the rotation when a starter goes down, is not on that list. ZiPS does think he could throw 93 innings but only gives him 0.9 fWAR. His pretty terrible AAA performance cuts deeply into the encouraging innings he provided at the end of the season for the club. That’s a very fair result based on the statistics Thompson has put up over his professional career. Is it fair based on how he looked at the end of the season? Let’s just say that I would take my chances with him over Alex Cornwell.

The takeaway here is that the Cardinals should have the arms they need to get by in the rotation in 2024. If I take the ZiPS projections for the team’s projected 5 starters, ignore McGreevy, and add in Drew Rom (he’s the next highest-rated starter by production but you could pick anyone, and the results won’t change), I get to 157 games started and 10.8 fWAR.

10.8 fWAR would have ranked 15th in baseball last season. That seems about right for this team. This is an average rotation built around one quality arm and a bunch of interchangeable depth.

I don’t think the rotation will be particularly pretty but Marmol and Mozeliak should have the arms to get the job done. With $30M in budget space remaining unspent and little chance that money goes toward the rotation at this point in the offseason, it’s reasonable to question the club’s approach to rebuilding this rotation. It’s surprisingly deep. It could have been better.

The bullpen, on the other hand, looks like a top third unit in baseball, and the club might still add to it. Helsley’s projection is solid. Romero’s 2023 surge isn’t entirely sustainable, but he’s right with Gallegos in terms of projected ERA. I’ll take it. Pallante will be pretty decent again if he stays out of the rotation — some assumed starts are cutting into his projected performance. Then there’s plenty of depth with the rest of the relief candidates and all those AAA starter prospects mentioned above, some of whom will find their way to the bullpen.

The Cardinals seem likely to spend another $10-15M on a relief arm or two but they don’t seem likely to get much production out of their money. The gap between someone like Robertson or Robberse and someone like Hicks feels substantial, but it’s probably less than .5 fWAR over 60 innings and $10M or so in cost difference. Of course, those differences can happen in close games, and bullpen blow-ups can make $10M feel worth it. It all evens out though. Adding a reliever would not hurt this team at all. It’s just not going to bump the club up in the win column as much as improving the rotation would have.

The Bottom Line: The Cardinals are the Cardinals Again

In the end, this club looks a lot like the Cardinals teams of the past half-decade. The front office has made it very clear that they prefer to build their rotation from within and will not invest in long-term, market-rate contracts for starters. They’ll pay market rates over short terms – like Sonny Gray for 3 or Lance Lynn for 1+. They’ll accept longer terms if it means a below-market AAV – Steven Matz. But they prefer to go year-to-year, leaving space for young arms to ascend, if any do. Few have since the mid-2010s. ZiPS doesn’t think that will change this year. While any of the Cardinals’ young starters look capable of adequately filling a back-end rotation spot in the event of injury, none have the projectable upside to believe they are ready for more. Right now.

That’s good news and bad news. The good news is that the slew of AA/AAA arms with 1.0 fWAR projections before they’ve even hit the Majors, like Roby, Hence, Robberse, Graceffo, and Kloffenstein, don’t have that far to go to show 2.0+ fWAR seasons down the road. Even two of those arms reaching a 2.0 fWAR floor projection for 2025 or 2026 would help the Cards redirect funds they’re currently investing in get-by starters. That’s exactly what the club is hoping for and what they tried to do at the deadline. So far so good on that experiment!

The bad news is that the Cardinals still have to get-by in 2024. An injury to Sonny Gray, who has not been the perfect picture of health and is 34 this season, would really damage this rotation’s chances. He’s the key since it doesn’t look like the health of Gibson, Matz, Lynn, or Mikolas matters as much as I originally believed. Subbing one of those arms out for the depth starters would add more variance and roster churn to a team that seems ready-made to churn its roster. Gray, though? There is no Flaherty, Martinez, Miller, or Lynn waiting to step into an impact rotation role out of Spring Training.

The offense, meanwhile, is deep and could be quite productive, even if it lacks stars. If players like Donovan, Carlson, or Palacios find themselves with significant playing time in the field, there’s little drop-off from the players ahead of them. Even Herrera (91 OPS+, 1.2 fWAR), Burleson (108 OPS+, 1.2 fWAR), Thomas Saggese (87 OPS+, 1.3 fWAR), and Victor Scott (80 OPS+, 1.7 fWAR) look capable of providing just enough in certain areas, whether that’s offense, defense, or speed, to fill gaps without lowering the bench’s floor.

This is not a great offense. I don’t think they’ll finish top 5 in baseball. But it’s more than good enough. It’s not a great defense, but it should get quality glove work from a few key positions, including 3rd, SS, and CF. It’s definitely not a great rotation. But the staff should be around average if it avoids injuries and has enough promotable talent to push the replacement level floor up enough to hang on when the inevitable injuries strike.

In other words, this is still a very Cardinals team. Many of us have said this for awhile but now we have some harder numbers to back it up. This team will not lose 91 games. They probably won’t win 91 games either. Though, the latter is more likely than the former.

The 2024 Cardinals should be able to contend in the NL Central, especially if the Cubs and Brewers continue just treading water. They can likely push for a back-end playoff spot even if they can’t take the division. The computers suggest that the roster lacks the projectable upside to believe they are capable of much more than that. 85-90 wins. That’s ZiPS mathematical take. It seems right on to me. Such a win total will feel refreshing after a torturous 2023. It’s right in the Cardinals’ preferred zone of contention. This is not a team that is built to push the Dodgers, Braves, Phillies, or Diamondbacks for NL bragging rights. It is a team thats good enough to bring us back to baseball this summer.