Projecting Objectively

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If you’re like me, you pay attention every winter as the various projection systems roll out their numbers. Winter is long and cold and there’s no baseball. You take what you can get. Consistently, the best performing projection system is ZiPS, which is put out by Ohio resident Dan Szymborski and available at Fangraphs. The nice thing about projection systems is that they are objective—cold and calculating. They don’t care, for instance, about the conventional wisdom that the Reds have serious lineup problems. In fact, ZiPS likes the Reds lineup.

Wins Above Replacement (WAR) has become the catchall stat of choice in recent years, with a WAR of 2.0 meaning the player is roughly average. A 5 or 6 WAR is All-Star level. Beyond that, and we’re in the MVP discussion. Below, you can see the WAR numbers ZiPS projects the Reds will get from the members of the club’s (presumed) starting eight. I’ve put the projected OPS of each player in parenthesis, for those who prefer a more traditional measure.

Votto: 3.5 (.886)
Byrd: 2.6 (.795)
Bruce: 2.6  (.796)
Mesoraco: 2.9 (.789)
Frazier: 3.7 (.777)
Phillips: 2.0 (.697)
Hamilton: 3.1 (.682)
Cozart: 1.8 (.643)

Those are nice numbers, and they look better when considering that because of recent history, Votto and Mesoraco are projected to miss significant time to injury—meaning if all goes well, those numbers are conservative. Given that, it’s tough not to feel good about the projection. Sure, there are caveats: The Reds don’t have much depth and can’t afford to absorb injuries (see: 2014), and ZiPS is much more optimistic on Byrd than every other projection I’ve seen. And certainly, some players in the lineup (Cozart, Phillips, and Hamilton) see their value come from defense more than offense, but there’s still hope in the numbers.

In the rotation, things aren’t quite as rosy. Take a look at the WAR projections, with the projected ERA in parenthesis:

Cueto: 3.0 (2.88)
Bailey: 2.2 (3.54)
Leake: 1.6 (3.94)
Desclafani: 0.4 (4.45)
Marquis: -0.6 (5.29)
Iglesias: -0.6 (4.93)
Cingrani: 0.8 (3.98)

Blergh. That doesn’t look pretty. What hope can we wring out of it?

Well, for starters, the statsy community is much better at projecting hitters than pitchers. Over the course of their careers, Leake and Cueto have been exactly the kind of pitchers the systems seem to get wrong—Cueto, especially, is always undervalued. It’s one of the reasons you often see him omitted from discussions of elite pitchers. There’s also the fact that ZiPS has basically nothing to go on with Iglesias, so his projection is pretty shaky. Similar things can be said about Desclafani. It’s fair to say with both of them that no one knows quite what will happen, which could be good or bad. Marquis is concerning, though. Perhaps we’re all wrong, but I don’t know anyone outside of the Reds’ braintrust who thinks his presence in the rotation is a good idea. He has no recent history to suggest he belongs in a major league rotation. Certainly, his projection for negative WAR (meaning he’s worse than a guy you could typically pluck from the minors as roster fill) carries weight. I included Cingrani as a counterpoint, though he also has issues.

In the end, the Reds are more than fine in the first three slots, assuming Bailey returns from his injury on-schedule. The last two could be scary, but there’s enough depth in the system (I haven’t even mentioned several prospects) that offer hope the Reds will be able to cobble something acceptable together in the back of the rotation.

Over the last few weeks, I have found that the more I look at this team, the less work I have to do to make myself believe that they might be fun to watch. Last year was miserable, but nearly everyone was hurt. I don’t feel like it’s unreasonable to expect a healthier year from the roster. And that’s really all the Reds need to be better—better health. The ZiPS projections show us just how true this is, especially when we look at the batting lineup. This is a team that has won 90 games in three of the last five years. This is a team with a lot of good players. This is a team that gives a fan plenty of reasons to hope. The calendar just turned to April. If your team has Votto and Mesoraco and Cueto and Bailey and Bruce and Chapman and you’re already giving up in April, maybe it’s time to take step back and reevaluate.

This is not a perfect team, by any stretch. It has holes. There is almost no depth. But it is a team that can compete if it stays healthy. It has a core that is good. So let’s all hope. At least for now.

Jason Linden is a Nuxhall Way contributor who also writes for Redleg Nation and The Hardball Times. His debut novel, When the Sparrow Sings, is out now. You can follow him on Twitter at @JasonLinden.

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