Baseball — actual, factual baseball — is growing closer. While healthy human beings are focusing on the World Baseball Classic, the sabermetricians among us are obsessing over spreadsheets of projections. ZiPS and Steamer, two popular systems hosted at FanGraphs, give us something to look forward to during the dog days of winter: We can look at their appraisal of a player, and dream of home runs hit, strikeouts thrown, and catches made.
Of course, Steamer and ZiPS don’t always see eye-to-eye — which is where I come in. Over the past couple of months, I’ve looked at some individual cases where the projections disagree; now, as the season draws near, it’s time to wrap things up and bring everyone under the microscope. Which players have the biggest gaps between their projections? And what should we believe?
We’ll start on the hitting side of things. FanGraphs’ Depth Charts project 195 players to qualify for the batting title this year. Of those hitters, these are the ones where ZiPS is the most optimistic:
ZiPS-minus-Steamer leaders, hitters
After Dahl comes Fuld, who missed the entire 2016 season with a shoulder injury and has yet to find a team for 2017. Given his immense struggles at the plate in 2015, both Steamer (67 wRC+) and ZiPS (72) don’t think highly of his offense. On defense, some issues arise: ZiPS pegs him as an elite glove (9.7 Def/600), while Steamer is more grounded (1.2 Def/600). Fuld turned 35 in November, and his shoulder could still be bothering him; optimism here wouldn’t be wise.
Buxton is very much the opposite of Fuld — young, right-handed, a stud throughout the minors. He hasn’t quite delivered on that potential, though, and Steamer doesn’t think he will this year, with so-so contact (.167 ISO, .322 BABIP) and respectable defense (5.2 Def/600). ZiPS, by contrast, expects him to clobber the ball (.185 ISO, .345 BABIP) and cover a lot of ground (11.8 Def/600). Buxton has struggled in the majors to this point, yet for someone of his age and potential, anything is possible.
Through the first five seasons of his career, Blackmon had a middling 96 wRC+. Then last year, he flipped the switch, spiking to 130. His power drove that breakout — he leapt from a .148 ISO to .228 — and ZiPS expects him to retain more of that (.204 ISO) than Steamer does (.171 ISO). While he had a pedestrian hard contact rate last year, Blackmon also put the ball in the air pretty often, which in Coors Field will give you a ton of extra-base hits.
It’s hard for me to believe, but Nunez was actually an above-average player in 2016: After being worth -0.6 fWAR prior to last year, he racked up 2.7 fWAR for the Twins and Giants. Steamer is a little bit more bearish on pretty much everything — walks, BABIP, ISO, baserunning, and defense. Looking at his track record, I find pessimism to be the more rational choice.
Now let’s look at the other side. These hitters have a sunnier outlook from Steamer:
Steamer-minus-ZiPS leaders, hitters
Iglesias had a down year in 2016; after BABIPing his way to a 100 wRC+ between 2013 and 2015, he crashed down to a 73 wRC+ last season. Disagreements in that regard — Steamer predicts a .304 BABIP, ZiPS .291 — motivate the gap for him; Steamer thinks he’ll rebound to a 90 wRC+, while ZiPS expects him to remain at 76. Since he’s had one of the lowest hard contact rates in baseball, it’s probably safe to take the under.
Moustakas, on the other hand, has reason for optimism. Earlier in the offseason, my colleague Austin Yamada noted the Royals third baseman had improved dramatically in 2016: He had career bests in walk rate, strikeout rate, and ISO, while a flukishly low BABIP kept him down. Assuming he’s recovered from his torn ACL, we should expect great things from Moose.
Like the Nationals themselves, Werth had a terrible year in 2015, then bounced back in 2016. In the final season of his seven-year deal, Werth’s production could hinge on his BABIP. If he meets the .313 that Steamer expects, he could hit at an above-average level; if he stays at ZiPS’s .278 — in line with his 2015–16 BABIP of .275 — he’ll regress at the plate.
Then we come to the two Cubs. Heyward’s also an outfielder on a massive contract who struggled in 2016 — he just did so a little differently. His strikeout and walk rates have always remained stable; the question is whether he’ll be able to square the ball up again, as Steamer projects (.147 ISO, .300 BABIP), or continue to flounder, as ZiPS projects (.133 ISO, .293 BABIP). This hinges on the effectiveness of his revamped swing, and the early returns aren’t especially encouraging.
Schwarber’s projections have some interesting nuances to them. ZiPS thinks he’ll strike out 30.6 percent of the time yet make up for that with a .261 ISO; Steamer predicts a little more contact (23.5 percent strikeout rate) and a little less power (.226 ISO). Altogether, the systems are essentially identical by wRC+. The disagreement comes on defense, where ZiPS (-15.1 Def/600) is twice as pessimistic as Steamer (-7.5 Def/600). I’d expect this nominal corner outfielder to struggle with range, which will likely put a cap on his value in the field.
Now, on to pitchers. Where does ZiPS take the high ground?
ZiPS-minus-Steamer leaders, pitchers
Sale, the newest marquee Red Sox starter, should be either very good or great in 2017. I profiled the southpaw back in January; regardless of which projection he fulfills, he’ll be the best pitcher on this list.
Estrada has a habit of beating his FIP — since 2015, no pitcher with as many innings has done it better. For better or for worse, though, FIP is what makes up fWAR, which means it’s the source of our disagreement here. Indeed, Steamer expects Estrada to have problems with four-baggers this year (1.56 HR/9), while ZiPS thinks he can keep the ball in the yard (1.20 HR/9). He walks a fine line pitching in the homer-friendly Rogers Centre, but he’s toed it pretty well over the past two years, and he could keep it up for a third.
Lewis, like Fuld, hasn’t found a team yet. That’s not because of injury, though — he’s 37, and he had a pretty rough time last year, with a 4.81 FIP in 116 1⁄3 innings. Interestingly enough, both ZiPS and Steamer expect him to gain some strikeouts this year, regression toward the mean after a sustained decline. The difference is with home runs: Steamer projects 1.52 per nine innings, ZiPS 1.25. That’ll depend on where Lewis ends up signing, but with his velocity subpar and getting worse, he runs the risk of getting knocked around.
In an all-around crazy 2016 for the Astros, McHugh managed to pack on some strikeouts — he fanned 8.63 batters per nine innings — while seeing his home runs spike to 1.22 per nine, the highest of his three seasons in Houston. Steamer expects the home runs to stay high and the strikeouts to fall; ZiPS expects, well, the exact opposite of that. He gets a good amount of whiffs, and he’s given up more hard contact as of late, so this one could go either way.
Like McHugh — and a lot of pitchers, come to think of it — Odorizzi gave up long balls in bunches last year. He set a career-worst with 1.39 home runs allowed per nine innings. (Home runs are a common theme for this crowd.) Odorizzi, luckily, has the benefit of pitching half his games in Tropicana Field, which swallows up fly balls before they hit the bleachers. The 1.29 HR/9 Steamer projects seems far less probable than ZiPS’s 1.07.
And, to wrap things up, we’ll look at the five pitchers with better Steamer prognostications:
Steamer-minus-ZiPS leaders, pitchers
Perdomo’s another interesting hurler, whom I’ve already scrutinized in-depth. Of the four players that follow him, three are young pitchers who broke out last year, and one is a grizzled veteran trying to hang on.
Taillon didn’t make it onto the diamond, at any level, in 2014 and 2015. His injury woes finally seemed to dissipate in 2016, though, and he made that campaign count, with a 3.71 FIP in 104 innings for the Pirates. ZiPS puts that as his true talent level, whereas Steamer expects some more progress. If the 25-year-old can stay healthy, his upside is sky-high.
Anderson and Paxton are somewhat similar cases. Both southpaws had surprisingly good full-season debuts in 2016, with control and ground balls helping them stay afloat. For 2017, ZiPS predicts each of them will lose some strikeouts and allow more home runs, while Steamer expects more of the same. Each of them showed some sharp skills last year, though — Anderson got a ton of soft contact, and Paxton had superb command — so we might be a little bullish here.
The guy those two youngsters are surrounding is pretty distinct. Dickey turned 42 in December, following the worst season of his knuckleballing career. For this year, Steamer foresees worse strikeout and walk rates (6.19 K/9 and 3.21 BB/9) than ZiPS (7.25 K/9 and 3.07 BB/9). Dickey’s zone rate is trending in the wrong direction, and he’s not at the age where he can improve much, so on each of those, I’d take the under.
Opening Day is just three weeks away, with the first three games of the season set to kick off on April 2. Until then, we can look at projections to give us some solace — oh yeah, and get mad at American players for betraying their country. Whatever we’re doing, it’ll all get better when those players hit the diamond once again.