High Oliver fWAR projections worth revisiting: Part 1

Dale Zanine-USA TODAY Sports

Kevin Kiermaier isn't the only player who had an unexpected projection at the beginning of this season. Let's take a dive into some better-known players with surprising WAR projections from FanGraphs' modeling of the Oliver projection system.

On Saturday, I posted an article outlining the unique situation of Kevin Kiermaier, the unheralded Rays prospect who has turned into a solid contributor. Kiermaier's breakout wasn't something most were expecting, unless you examined his projection from the Oliver projection system -- which could be found at FanGraphs predicting a five-win season from Kiermaier were he given 600 plate appearances this year.

Kiermaier had a surprisingly high projection from this system, and he's doing his part to reach it. Perhaps it's worth examining some of the other players who had (what I would consider) surprisingly high Oliver projections and see how they're faring against those bullish numbers in the small sample that is two-and-a-half months of work.

As a small programming note, I've split these posts into two parts, this one covering guys who are "bigger" names — people we as baseball fans probably recognize.

Oh, and it's important to not that the FanGraphs wins above replacement (fWAR) projections used here are the ones derived from FanGraphs' interpretation of the raw inputs generated by Brian Cartwright's Oliver system. The "raw" Oliver WAR calculations were somewhat different — but these are the fWAR values you can find easily on FanGraphs.

Let's get to it.

Tommy La Stella - Atlanta Braves: 3.9 fWAR

How do you solve a problem like Dan Uggla? Coming into 2014, La Stella was a hot name among Braves fans and prospect watchers as a possible fix for the team's expensive hole up the middle. Never a prospect who appealed to scouts because of dynamic athleticism, La Stella's calling card has always been his combination of a solid hit tool and approach at the plate, which many thought would be able to drive a high OBP, even at the big-league level.

Where the FanGraphs Oliver projection imagined a .289/,360/.421 triple-slash line over 600 PA in the bigs in 2014, La Stella has offered a glimpse of his OBP skills — without any power — slashing .302/.368/.337 in his limited action. That, combined with pretty good defensive numbers so far (Inside Edge numbers say that he's making most of the easier plays, and none of the tougher ones), has given him a fair bit of value so far this season: 0.5 fWAR. Given that his BABIP isn't completely unsustainable, you could expect his overall hitting value to stick, his defense to stay solid, and that four-win projection doesn't seem too far out of left field.

What did Oliver see that the consensus did not?: A good-to-great top-of-the-order hitter at a valuable defensive position; one of the top 10 second basemen in baseball.

Verdict so far?: La Stella has been a pretty great top-of-the-order hitter at a valuable defensive position. There's a long way to go, but so far, so good.

Justin Ruggiano - Chicago Cubs: 4.5 fWAR

There are only a couple of guys whose FanGraphs Oliver fWAR projections seemed a little crazy, but were also established major leaguers. Justin Ruggiano was one of them. Ruggiano, if you recall, had a bonkers 2012, putting up a .390 wOBA* (a measure of overall hitting ability) in a little more than half a season of work with the Marlins. His 2013 wasn't quite as productive: the wOBA dropped to .307, which was below league average.

* - For context, Andrew McCutchen put up a similar wOBA over the 2013 season: .393. That's a big reason why he won the MVP award.

While Ruggiano is no spring chicken — this is actually his age-32 season — his on-again, off-again time in the majors meant that he didn't get a "real" shot in the bigs until that 2012 season. In the minors, Ruggiano showed of a well-rounded skill set: some power, some patience, some speed, and a consistently high batting average on balls in play.

The FanGraphs Oliver projection seemed to see something a little closer to the 2012 Ruggiano than the 2013 Ruggiano, while splitting much of the difference. the wOBA projection was .356, which was higher than what was projected for any other Cubs player. That came along with 27 homers and 19 stolen bases, which would have made Ruggiano a fantasy AND real-life stud. But instead, Ruggiano hasn't spent much time on the field this season, and hasn't been great when he has. His .317 wOBA is good enough to be close to the league average, but the advanced numbers for his fielding and baserunning aren't good, and have cost him about four runs of value. When paired with the low offensive numbers — including only two dingers — that's nothing to write home about. At this rate, the FanGraphs Oliver projection will be off by about, oh, 4.5 wins.

What did Oliver see that the consensus did not?: A legitimate middle-of-the-order bat with 25-homer power and good defense.

Verdict so far?: Ruggiano has been oh-so-slightly worse than replacement-level, with very limited power. This one doesn't look so good.

Photo credit: Ken Blaze-USA TODAY Sports

Lonnie Chisenhall - Cleveland Indians: 3.1 fWAR

This is kind of fun, as Chisenhall is another guy like Ruggiano, in that he did have about 700 plate appearances coming into this system to help build this projection. He's always been a solid power prospect, but hasn't shown the on-base mojo to make that work in his time in the big leagues. He's also shown a pronounced platoon split, which didn't help him fight off challenges at third base from folks like Mike Aviles and Carlos Santana. With unimpressive defensive numbers, he needs to really hit to stick at third. And he just hadn't — at least in the majors — leading up to this season.

So when we talk about Chisenhall's 2014, we have to start with this: among all players with 200 or more plate appearances, Lonnie is the second-best hitter of them all. Full stop. Only Troy Tulowitzki has a higher wRC+ (adjusted for league and park) and wOBA. Mike Trout? Worse hitter so far this year. Yasiel Puig? Worse hitter this year. Victor Martinez and Giancarlo Stanton? Wishing they were hitting as well as Lonnie. But where other projections (like Steamer and ZIPS) pegged Chisenhall as something closer to a .315-.318 wOBA hitter, Oliver was a little more bullish, putting him at a .333 wOBA. Now, that's nowhere near his current .424 wOBA, but it did give him extra credit towards his bat.

What did Oliver see that the consensus did not?: A first-division starter with the bat to carry an iffy glove; an above-average starting third baseman.

Verdict so far?: Chisenhall is benefiting from a great BABIP, but also from terrific power. He's likely to regress, but also to hit that fWAR projection pretty soon.

Scott Sizemore - New York Yankees: 3.3 fWAR

Once upon a time, Scott Sizemore was a pretty interesting second base prospect coming up for the Detroit Tigers. He had great hitting numbers coming up through their system, but couldn't make it work in Detroit. After a disappointing 2010 and partial 2011, he moved to Oakland and promptly started hitting. In more than half a season there, he leveraged his great plate discipline, turned up the power, and promptly tore his ACL twice. That meant he only played two major league games in two seasons (2012 and 2013).

For 2014, Sizemore was picked up by the Yankees, and the Oliver projection at FanGraphs gave him a similar triple-slash line to fellow new acquisition Jacoby Ellsbury. The system saw Sizemore's previous performance and forecasted .251/.339/.404, along with half a win of value on defense. While I'm not clear if that was with Sizemore playing second base, third base, or some combination of the two, Oliver was bullish on his defensive ability at one of those two spots.

What did Oliver see that the consensus did not?: Scott Sizemore returning from injury even better than before two ACL tears, playing good defense and getting on base.

Verdict so far?: Oh my, no. Sizemore is hitting at a league-average level ... at Triple-A. And those numbers don't indicate even average MLB performance, much less a three-win season.

Adam Eaton - Chicago White Sox: 3.4 fWAR

Adam Eaton parlayed a solid minor-league hitting line into a cup of coffee in 2012, despite having little prospect pedigree when drafted in the 19th round by the Diamondbacks. Capable of hitting for average and displaying a good walk rate, Eaton started strong in his 2012 debut before getting injured and backsliding in 2013. He still showed the tools of improving defense in center field and some speed on the basepaths to round out his big-league toolset.

Despite Eaton's iffy 2013 numbers, the FanGraphs Oliver projection for Eaton gave loads of credit to his peripherals and minor league hitting numbers, and projected him as a three-and-a-half win player for his new team: the Chicago White Sox. The system projected Eaton's center field defense as a solid positive (about six runs of value), and his projected .341 OBP could make up for a low .380 slugging percentage, especially at the top of the Chicago order.

It is safe to say that if the Diamondbacks projected Eaton to be an immediate three-to-four-win option in the outfield, and weighted wins equally no matter where they came from, they probably wouldn't have traded him and Tyler Skaggs for Mark Trumbo. Trumbo has never been worth three wins in a season by fWAR, and has been replacement-level (0.0 fWAR) in 2014. And in kind of a fun turn of events, those OBP and SLG numbers that I cited before? They're almost exactly what Eaton's posted so far this season (.339 OBP, .370 SLG). It's just that his defense (half a run of value so far) and baserunning (-1.5 runs of value) haven't caught up to his projection yet, putting him at 0.7 fWAR this season.

What did Oliver see that the consensus did not?: The 2013 version of Denard Span.

Verdict so far?: Not far off, but something closer to the 2011 version of Denard Span, minus some of the speed and defense.

Of the five guys I covered, the prediction on Tommy La Stella seems to be the most accurate. Oliver certainly deserves credit for being higher on Lonnie Chisenhall's bat than other systems, and getting pretty close to Adam Eaton's overall offensive performance. However, the high marks for Justin Ruggiano and Scott Sizemore seem to be way off from their current performance.

Still, I'd consider the overall level of accuracy here to be pretty good. Forecasting players with zero or limited major league experience isn't an exact science, and Oliver has acquitted itself pretty well here. Though, to be fair, there's a lot of season left to go.

Next time, I'll touch on guys who are more like Kevin Kiermaier, those players who weren't big-leaguers or well-regarded prospects who had higher-than-expected Oliver fWAR projections.

. . .

All statistics courtesy of FanGraphsBaseball Prospectus, and Baseball-Reference.

Bryan Grosnick is the Managing Editor of Beyond the Box Score. You can follow him on Twitter at @bgrosnick.

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