The Chicago White Sox have had an interesting offseason. Even if you share Jeff’s view that they aren’t yet a very good team, you can’t deny that they made some nice additions this winter. The Sox added Melky Cabrera, David Robertson, Zach Duke, Adam LaRoche, Jeff Samardzija, and Emilio Bonifacio to a roster that included superstars like Chris Sale and Jose Abreu and very good players Adam Eaton and Jose Quintana.
The problem for the White Sox, of course, is all of those nice additions were replacing talent vacancies. As Jeff noted, the Sox got better but becoming Wild Card contenders or challenging the Tigers for division supremacy was a tall order given where they started. Even after the spending spree, they have serious issues behind the plate, at second base, at third base, in right field, and at the back end of the rotation.
It’s a roster that’s moving in a good direction, but it’s still pretty rare to see teams with that many serious holes make a legitimate playoff push. There’s no doubt the Sox are working to build a winner in the relatively near future. You don’t have the winter they had without a focus on the next one to three seasons, which naturally seems to hinge on Avisail Garcia in the short term to some degree.
Garcia, in his age 24 season, is in line to be the primary right fielder on the south side with fewer than 500 career plate appearances to his name, but with plenty of scouting reports dripping with reports of his athletic potential. He was involved in the Jake Peavy–Jose Iglesias trade in 2013 and if not for an injury last year, we might have a slightly better idea where his development stands.
This time of year is all about projections. Most of the important free agents have signed. The big trades are likely done. It’s extension season then it’s Spring Training ephemera, and then we can start to talk about the games. For now, most of what we’re doing is trying to figure out what kind of year everyone is going to have. Sometimes that means projection systems like Steamer or ZiPS, but it can be as simple as you opening up a player page, recalling the times you observed them last year, and making an internal estimate.
Projecting is just a matter of determining what you think is going to happen. Some projections rely on raw data and some are emotional, but we’re all making projections all the time. At FanGraphs, we recently started hosting FAN projections that allow readers to log their expectations for the upcoming year and I’ve been very interested in the results.
Avisail Garcia is a particularly interesting case because of how favorable his FAN projection compares to his Steamer projection. Right now, among players with at least five FAN projections, Garcia is one of the players whom the fans like a lot more than Steamer for the upcoming year (Keep in mind the FAN projections will update with new votes).
The fans project a .350 wOBA for Garcia in 562 plate appearances while Steamer projects a .318 wOBA in 544 PA. Now, among the 291 players with at least five FAN projections, Steamer projects a .326 wOBA and the fans project a .332 wOBA, so I mentally added six points of wOBA to everyone’s Steamer projection when I compared the numbers. It’s a uniform transformation, so it’s not terribly important and there’s no reason to add to Steamer versus subtracting from FAN.
When you compare the fans and the adjusted Steamer numbers, Garcia has the fourth highest difference between what the fans expect and what Steamer does. George Springer and Kevin Kiermaier beat him by a single point of wOBA. Somehow Dilson Herrera finished in first place by 19 points of wOBA!
There isn’t a prize for where you rank in this index, but the fans like Garcia for 26 extra points of wOBA relative to Steamer, which is a sizable gap (the standard deviation of the difference is 12 points). Obviously, we’re talking about a dozen or so voters in most cases, so we aren’t going to take any of these as gospel, but 26 points of wOBA over a full year is in the neighborhood of a win of difference.
This is all very interesting if you just happen to like playing around with numbers and comparing projections, but there’s something else fascinating at work here. If you invert the list, and look at the players who have the biggest difference in the other direction (i.e. higher Steamer projections than FAN projections), Garcia’s teammate Dayan Viciedo is king.
His adjusted Steamer projection is .328 wOBA in 221 PA and his FAN projection is .290 wOBA in 281 PA. That 38 points difference bests second place Jesus Sucre by seven points. The fans who voted are very bullish on Garcia and extremely negative about Viciedo, even though Steamer considers them fairly equivalent hitters for 2015.
Immediately, you want to talk about age. Garcia is two years younger and he’s a more athletic guy with more impressive scouting reports. The fans are optimistic because they must see something in Garcia’s potential that Steamer is missing.
Let’s compare the two players’ career numbers:
|Avisail Garcia||497||5.2 %||22.7 %||0.136||0.329|
|Dayan Viciedo||1798||5.3 %||21.6 %||0.170||0.291|
They are extremely similar, but we have to acknowledge the sample size. So let’s just look at both players through age 23 (where Garcia sits):
|Avisail Garcia||497||5.2 %||22.7 %||0.136||0.329|
|Dayan Viciedo||762||5.1 %||22.0 %||0.173||0.302|
Again, a very similar story. More power for Viciedo, a little more average for Garcia, but the numbers line up. In fact, if you look at their plate discipline from the similarly aged years (21-23), Garcia swings more and makes less contact.
|Avisail Garcia||39.5 %||76.7 %||56.5 %||55.4 %||79.8 %||70.6 %|
|Dayan Viciedo||38.0 %||64.1 %||50.2 %||65.5 %||82.5 %||75.7 %|
Garcia seems to have worse plate discipline than Viciedo, less power, and Viciedo’s own history suggests that Garcia isn’t going to suddenly get better at 24 or 25. He obviously could, but the evidence isn’t favoring that projection.
It wouldn’t surprise me at all to learn that the FanGraphs readers who are voting have player-type biases, but it is strange that two nearly identical players from the same team are getting such a wildly different treatment.
The two explanations that come to mind are related. One is age and one is the way we discuss upside in scouting reports. It could be as simple as the fans giving high projections to very young players, but I think it’s more about the way scouting information is communicated and understood by most people.
A good scout (or scouting writer) should discuss a realistic ceiling when telling you about a player. We all know the story about the scout who said Derek Jeter was destined for the Hall of Fame. You want to know what a player will become if everything goes right. Furthermore, good scouts and writers talk a lot about their realistic expectation for the player. Their best guess for what that player will be.
The problem comes in the way the reader interprets those two pieces of information, likely placing far too much weight on the former and not enough on the latter. In one of my other jobs, I cover the Detroit Tigers, the team that originally signed Garcia. The raw ability has been evident forever, but people who cover the Tigers farm system have always been cautious about Garcia’s ability to make contact and lay off bad pitches.
His flaws have always been there, but until a player fails enough at the MLB level, their ceiling is still possible. I think that’s what is driving the Garcia-Viciedo gap. They’re very similar players, but Garcia is young and only has 500 PA to his name, so we haven’t disproved his potential. Viciedo, on the other hand, is about to be 26 and has 1800 MLB plate appearances, which is enough to wipe the optimism from his name.
It is potentially a very interesting phenomenon. There’s a point in time or a number of plate appearances at which the fans will “give up” on a player. It might vary based on a whole lot of factors, but seeing it in practice is a bit jarring. Presumably, you would expect a slow decay of expectations as each additional PA makes you less excited about a player, but the drop off from Garcia to Viciedo this year is remarkable. The fans couldn’t be more excited about Garcia and think Viciedo will hit like Anthony Gose without any of the defense.
The White Sox are hoping the fans are right about Garcia. The difference in projection wouldn’t suddenly make them World Series contenders, but every little bit pushes them toward meaningful September baseball. Unfortunately for the Sox, they’re also in the position of having lived through this same kind of optimism once before without reaping any rewards.
Neil Weinberg is the Site Educator at FanGraphs and can be found writing enthusiastically about the Detroit Tigers at New English D. Follow and interact with him on Twitter @NeilWeinberg44.