Saturday, January 10, 2015

ZiPS Projections Over Time

In the last day or two (at the time of writing), FanGraphs released their ZiPS projections for the 2015 edition of the Houston Astros.  Kudos to Baseball Think Factory and Dan Szymborski for their hard work on this system.  There is a lot of information in the article - starting with the WAR values for the projected lineup, rotation and bullpen, then moving on to vast tables of counting stats, rates and averages, and projections for more advanced stats.  The eagled-eyed reader would even notice a Dickie Thon comparison, which is bound to make the Constable come closer to exploding with excitement.

Projection systems aren't bulletproof.  If they were, then we could sim the entire season, and not worry about this whole "playing" thing.  But, in a slow period of the offseason, they do nicely as a substitution for the real thing.  And we all know the offseason has only slowed down because the Padres have had their computer mainframe crash in their front office - once that is up and going again, watch out!!  So we are forced to get our baseball fix with with various awesome historical fantasy leagues and prospect lists until the glorious day that pitchers and catchers actually report, indicating that the season is near.

Anyhow, in this quick look at the ZiPS projection, I thought it would be interesting to compare the 2015 projections with those of the last few years.  I think everyone agrees that the the 2014 Astros made a huge step forward compared to the 2013, 2012 and 2011 editions: that assertion can be easily made by comparing the respective win-loss records - 70-92 versus 51-111, 55-107 and 56-106 (most recent first).  But those that followed the Astros would have noticed the emergence of the basics of an offensive core, much improved starting pitching, and a bullpen that was - for extended periods - not entirely awful.  And it is not like they were totally charmed in 2014: their major OBP threat missed a decent length of time twice, George Springer played approximately a half-season only, two key bullpen acquisitions played one month between them, and a host of other part-pieces sat with injuries when they were just starting to look like they were putting it together (looking at you, Alex Presley).

So, with all that positivity out of the way, allow me to present the 2015 ZiPS projection table (and don't ask me why the background is all dark.  Something weird is going on):

The standout features here are pretty obvious.  Keuchel and McHugh's steps forward are real, according to ZiPS.  The offensive black holes at Left, Third and First look set to continue to be the weak points in 2015.  The Astros are also projected to be pretty good up-the-middle - at least by WAR.

How did 2014 look??  Scroll down a bit and see...

Looking through the retrospectoscope, it is evident that ZiPS may have underestimated the Astros in 2014.  ZiPS underestimated the contributions from Keuchel and Altuve by 3.9 and 3.1 WAR respectively, but equally overestimated the contributions from Matt Dominguez and the catching duo by 3.7 and 2.1 WAR respectively.  Additionally, much of the extra added value for the Astros in 2014 was from people not listed on the depth chart above, particularly Collin McHugh and George Springer.

And the projections for 2013 (noting the yellowing with age):

Wow.  Roster turnover!!  Only Alex White, Matt Dominguez, Jose Altuve and the catchers are still with the organisation.  Jose Veras may yet be back.  Jed Lowrie has, of course, returned.  That J.D. Martinez guy just didn't have what it took to play in the Majors.... oh.

And, presumably because pixilated ballpark diagrams were not available prior to 2013, the 2012 ZiPS projections are in tabulated form only.  Jump to the link, if only to have a quick look where the "league average" lines happen to sit amongst the pitchers' projections.  Spoiler alert!!  Close to the top for the staters (only Bud Norris and Wandy Rodriguez were projected to be above average) and at the top for the 'pen.  The whole 'pen was projected to be below average!  Yikes.

So even ZiPS seems to agree that the Astros have improved.  Adding up the WAR numbers in the various pictorial representations confirms this.  In 2013, the Astros were projected to have 16 WAR accounted for via the projections.  In 2014, the Astros were again projected for 16 WAR.  In 2015, the Astros account for a much more palatable 26 WAR.  Not world-beating, but certainly an improvement.

For comparison, the 2015 Los Angeles Angels of Anaheim are projected for 40 WAR.  Mike Trout accounts for 10 of those - hope he doesn't get injured!  Their rotation accounts for 12 of those - which I have difficulty seeing.  But that is what the ZiPS system thinks will happen.  And the Angels had the best record in the AL in 2014, so they are the benchmark for the Astros at the moment.

The final points that I think is relevant here is that the Astros would not be an easy team to project.  Because of their youth, they have less established track records, and therefore their error-bars could be wider than a team of established major-leaguers.  And also, just as Springer and McHugh provided a boost to the Astros in 2014 (despite being left off the projected 2014 depth-chart), many of the Astros' impact prospects will open the season close to the top levels of the system.  There is considerable potential for the Astros to get a 4 WAR season from someone not listed - perhaps even moreso than in 2014.

This is probably way too many words to dedicate to a seasonal projection, but as I mentioned earlier, it is all we have until pitchers and catchers report.  Which is February 20 - or 42 days away.  But the improvement in the Astros has been considerable, and the ZiPS projections only add to the evidence that Astros have bottomed out and are on the improve.