Fans tend to be either overly optimistic or pessimistic. That is why it is important to look at unbiased, systematic approaches to projections. One of the best sets available are the ZiPS projections from ESPN Insider and Baseball Think Factory Editor-in-Chief Dan Szymborski. Recently Szymborski, an Orioles fan, agreed to a Q&A about his projections and feelings regarding the Mets. Here are this year’s ZiPS projections for the Mets.
Can you explain in basic terms how the ZiPS projection system works?
DS: The simplest way I can describe it is: ZiPS uses the last 4 years to establish a baseline for a player from their performance and from predictive models for things like BABIP. It then applies a regression model and calculates probabilities for age-related changes based on large groups of similar players from MLB histories. ZiPS uses the recent past for a player and tries to find similar players at roughly the same age.
ZiPS shows Jason Bay with a .170 ISO. In his two years with the Mets, Bay posted a .143 ISO in 2010 and a .129 ISO last year. Since these projections were done without the benefit of the new dimensions – why are they so optimistic about his power production?
DS: ZiPS still sees a glimmer of hope. While he’s been disappointing even by ZiPS’s grumpy projections for Bay after signing, he’s not a million years old and he *has* hit with power, so it still sees a chance.
Last year we saw a slight drop in K% from David Wright. This year’s ZiPS projects basically the same 21.7 K% (perhaps even less depending on SH and SF). Is there any precedent of an established player like Wright significantly lowering his K%? Subjectively, do you think the new dimensions have any chance to help Wright in this regard? Finally, what would Wright’s line look like if he had a 16.0 K% like he did in 2008?
DS: It’s very rare to cut down on strikeouts long-term, but in the rare situations that it does happen, it usually sticks a bit as strikeout rate for batters isn’t subject to volatility anywhere near the degree that some stats are. The most notable player that I can think of that cut down on strikeouts during his career is Barry Bonds. Usually, players don’t do it to that degree. Simply put, it’s so hard to make and stay in the top handful of players in the world using your best hitting approach that drastically changing style is very, very difficult. Pitchers seem to have more success at it as they are less reliant on timing.
In his first 104 ABs in the majors, Lucas Duda hit .183 and in his final 281 ABs, he has a .306 AVG. In his brief major league career, Duda has a .273 AVG. Why does the forecast for a guy entering his age 26 season (.256/.338/.431) look so pessimistic?
DS: A year ago, that wouldn’t been a grumpy projection! Before 2010, he didn’t really translate all that well and people generally underestimate downside risk when eyeballing.
Last year ZiPS seemed conflicted on what type of player Angel Pagan was going to be, giving him almost equal chances to be EX, VG, AVG or worse. This year it sees him most likely to be AVG (44%) but with nowhere near the potential upside of a season ago. How much do you think Pagan is “worth” in 2012 and could the Mets, with limited financial resources and unlikely to contend in 2012, be justified in non-tendering him or would that just be foolish on their part?
DS: With Sizemore already signed and not including Cespedes, I would want Pagan on my team as much as any other centerfielder in free agency. While that wouldn’t necessarily mean a long-term contract is justified, I think that’s a good reason to not simply non-tender a player. If the Mets were going to a full-scale rebuild, that’d be one thing, but if they’re not, I think Pagan being at his lowest value and some goodwill issues with the fanbase due to the ownership situation mean that they should stick with him unless they have a truly compelling reason not to.
Ruben Tejada put himself in some good company by producing a 96 OPS+ as a middle infielder at age 21. Of course he did that with a .331 BABIP. ZiPS projects him this year with an 83 OPS+ and a .302 BABIP. Is there really that little chance for Tejada to post above-average BABIPs, given his batted ball profile of being a LD and GB hitter?
DS: There’s a good chance, and ZiPS has Tejada going into the 90s long-term. He did only hit 246/314/353 and 280/329/344 at AAA the last two years and while he’s very young, it’s a stretch to consider a 96 OPS+ a baseline expectation at this point. Remember, unlike the major leagues, the minors didn’t have a decline in offense, so the translation from AAA to MLB will naturally look rougher for hitters than usual (and milder for pitchers).
Talk about what goes into projecting R.A. Dickey, a knuckleball pitcher. Do you feel ZiPS has as good of a grip on a pitcher who relies on the knuckler as it does for other pitchers?
DS: I don’t think anyone has any luck with predicting what knuckleballers will do. There also aren’t really enough knuckleballers in history to really have the basis for a solid model, either – there are too many variables in a player to simply assume all knuckleballers will be like Wakefield or Hough.
Last year, Jonathon Niese had a great year by xFIP (3.28) yet had a 4.40 ERA. ZiPS projects him with a 4.17 ERA in 2012. Why the big difference between his peripherals and his actual results and is there hope for him to take a step forward and pitch like his estimators think he’s capable?
DS: There’s always a chance, especially with a young pitcher. I had expected it to be a little better, too, but ZiPS isn’t quite as impressed with his history or comps.
The Mets are hoping that their top four pitching prospects – Jeurys Familia, Matt Harvey, Jenrry Mejia and Zack Wheeler – can be the backbone of a top-notch pitching staff. Which one of these do you think has the best chance of being a top-flight pitcher and which one do you think is least likely?
DS: I’ll have to say Familia is the safest as he’s already had success in a high minor league and seems to have gotten control of his command, which is the usual bugaboo for a lot of young prospects. Wheeler’s probably got the highest upside, but he still hasn’t yet pitched in AA ball, so it makes sense to be conservative.
A lot of fans really have hopes that Dillon Gee can be a solid mid-rotation MLB pitcher. Is there any reason for this optimism and if not, what’s his biggest obstacle to being a quality pitcher?
DS: Control. Pitchers with mediocre or worse strikeout rates can succeed in the majors, but the error margins are smaller. Gee doesn’t really keep the ball down very well and he’s not getting ahead of batters. He’s not going to succeed playing 90th of 98 qualifiers in first-strike percentage. Lincecum and Buehrle are two pitchers that had low first-strike percentages as well, but Gee doesn’t have anywhere near the command those two have to get away with it. Part of Doug Fister‘s success is that he does get ahead of things. It’s not like Gee’s going to become a huge strikeout guy anytime soon, either – I don’t know how Mets fans feel about him, but when I’ve seen him his stuff is pretty unimpressive.
In the past two seasons, Manny Acosta and Bobby Parnell have provided very similar results. Acosta has a 3.22 ERA, a 1.304 WHP and a 2.67 K/9 while Parnell has a 3.34 ERA, a 1.442 WHIP and a 2.77 K/9. Yet ZiPS sees Parnell as being significantly better this year with a 3.75 ERA compared to a 4.31 ERA for Acosta. Is this one of those – anything can happen in 65 IP things or is there another reason to prefer Parnell in 2012?
DS: ZiPS is more worried about Acosta’s occasional lapses in command. Relievers that allow more walks tend to have more downside.
Finally, last year I wagered you a Coke that Francisco Rodriguez would beat his BB/9 (4.3) and ERA (3.14) projections. He finished the year with a 3.27 BB/9 and a 2.64 ERA. Can we go double or nothing on Ike Davis hitting 30 HR? Is the reason that ZiPS sees him as having no shot of doing this simply a result of missing so much time last year or is there something else going on?
DS: Sure, as long as it’s Coke and not a Pepsi. In this case, it’s mostly the missed playing time, which adds injury risk. While ZiPS sees a full-time Davis as more a 20-25 guy than a 30 guy, there’s always a reasonable chance for a 20-25 guy to hit 30 in any given season. But since we’re betting beverages and not souls of my non-existent children, I’ll still take the best. Though in fairness, the miss wasn’t quite as bad (130 ERA+ vs. 145) because ZiPS missed high on both league offense and park effects (it’s regressed to 1 when we have limited data).