Szymborski’s 2023 Bust Candidates: Hitters

Paul Goldschmidt
Tommy Gilligan-USA TODAY Sports

We’ve reached the point in the offseason when it’s time for one of my favorite/most hated preseason traditions: my attempt to predict breakouts and busts. Since those are beyond what a projection system suggests are naturally going to be low-probability outcomes, there’s a high probability of me looking pretty silly — something writers generally try to avoid. Let’s start by looking back at how smart I was last year…or how foolish:

ZiPS Bust Hitters, 2022
Player BA OBP SLG wRC+ wRC+ Percentile WAR
Mike Trout .283 .369 .630 176 61st 6.0
Christian Yelich .252 .355 .383 111 32nd 2.3
Austin Riley .273 .349 .528 142 81st 5.5
Wil Myers .261 .315 .398 104 52nd 1.0
Matt Chapman .229 .324 .433 117 47th 4.1
Frank Schwindel .229 .277 .358 78 9th -0.7
Salvador Perez .254 .292 .465 108 47th 0.5
Gio Urshela .285 .338 .429 119 64th 2.4

Thank goodness I had a weaker year than average overall, as I included a few of my favorite players in the mix! Being right for breakouts is a lot of fun, but being right on the busts is a bit depressing, a definite sign that I’ve mellowed as I enter middle age. Trout’s contact rate didn’t bounce back, and his BABIP crashed by well over 100 points, but his newfound grounder proclivity disappeared, and the power boost more than compensated for an OBP nearly 50 points below his career average. Riley’s BABIP also predictably fell, but he hit the ball harder and became a more well-rounded hitter, crushing most pitches instead of predominantly fastballs. Most of the rest came in at the middle-third of the ZiPS projections, which is a victory for the computer rather than me — all that is except for Schwindel, who didn’t just regress toward the mean; he lapped it.

Now, let’s turn to this year’s picks, as I throw myself upon the tender mercies of fortune.

Paul Goldschmidt, St. Louis Cardinals

I’ve long been a fan of Goldschmidt, so I’m a little annoyed at putting him here, but he’s also one of the players who had a superstar season who I think is most likely to drop off a ton. You could argue that Aaron Judge will likely drop off even more simply by virtue of the fact he put up an 11-WAR season, but the best ZiPS-projected position player as a bust seems a little too perverse for even me.

Goldschmidt is probably going to be very good still, but there was more helium in his BABIP than usual. And while he does have a long-term pattern of overperforming his expected BABIP (18 points a year entering 2022), that’s also something ZiPS accounts for given how long he’s been doing it; his projection has a BABIP 21 points higher than it would have been without that history. His 71-point overperformance was the largest of his career and the second largest in baseball behind Seby Zavala, a part-time catcher who would be an odd choice for this exercise. The fact that Goldschmidt will turn 36 later this year certainly isn’t a good thing, either.

Of the eight players here, Goldschmidt is the one I’m most wrong about and probably the one who can start making a Hall of Fame argument if he ages well. He was a guy who was definitely underrated as a prospect but looked good by the numbers; his ZiPS projections as a prospect would have him ranked third if I had done a Top 100 list back before the 2012 season. ZiPS thinks he’ll end up over 400 homers and within shouting distance of 2,500 hits, and he’s already in the top 20 at first base per my colleague Jay Jaffe’s JAWS, but I’m not sure that’s good enough for the BBWAA. I’d cast a vote! But if he does worse than ZiPS suggests, I think those chances get to zero fairly quickly.

ZiPS Projection Percentiles – Paul Goldschmidt
Percentile 2B HR BA OBP SLG OPS+ WAR
95% 43 38 .320 .407 .575 170 7.0
90% 40 35 .310 .393 .552 161 6.3
80% 37 32 .298 .382 .532 152 5.6
70% 35 30 .291 .376 .510 144 5.1
60% 33 27 .282 .368 .495 139 4.7
50% 31 26 .275 .360 .481 134 4.3
40% 29 24 .269 .351 .466 128 3.8
30% 28 22 .260 .343 .450 123 3.4
20% 26 20 .252 .332 .433 116 2.9
10% 23 17 .237 .319 .411 105 2.0
5% 21 15 .219 .306 .391 96 1.3

Joey Gallo, Minnesota Twins

Gallo certainly could have a bounceback season, but I’m skeptical about the general optimism that the changes in shift rules are going to be as much a fix-it for him as many people think they will be. There were 91 batters who faced at least 1,500 pitches when batting left-handed in 2022; Gallo pulled the fewest grounders of that group, getting two hits (a single and a double right down the line) in 28 opportunities. Someone like Corey Seager, who went 8-for-111, seems like a better candidate to scoop up extra hits. Simply put, Gallo, even in a good year, doesn’t actually put that many balls into play, so he’s likely to get less off a benefit from the shift going away than most left-handed hitters.

There’s also the fact that from 2015 to ’22, all left-handed hitters combined for a .204 BABIP when pulling grounders and no shift was in effect. Would four extra singles really have changed anything about Gallo’s 2022 performance? A .204 BABIP only nets him four singles in 2021, two singles in ’20, and one single in ’19. And without the shift, he probably would also give back at least few of his 16 opposite-field groundball singles the last three years. He went 17-for-22 in pulled line drives in 2022, so it’s not like there’s room to improve significantly there, either.

Gallo has multiple problems as a hitter. He’s always been a terrible contact hitter, but his out-of-zone swing percentage ballooned nearly 50% from 2022, and though he still has an excellent hard-hit percentage, his average exit velocity has dropped considerably as well, meaning that his power has grown less consistent. In the end, the fact that his problems are something he has to fix in his game rather than something that will disappear with the demise of the shift makes me quite unsure a that bounceback will be all that great.

ZiPS Projection Percentiles – Joey Gallo
Percentile 2B HR BA OBP SLG OPS+ WAR
95% 21 38 .248 .385 .579 162 5.4
90% 19 35 .234 .371 .536 147 4.7
80% 17 31 .219 .354 .494 131 3.7
70% 16 29 .210 .344 .464 123 3.3
60% 15 27 .201 .336 .444 117 2.9
50% 14 25 .194 .330 .426 110 2.6
40% 13 23 .188 .322 .405 104 2.2
30% 12 22 .179 .314 .383 97 1.8
20% 11 19 .169 .303 .362 89 1.3
10% 9 16 .154 .288 .325 76 0.6
5% 8 14 .143 .277 .299 64 0.0

Nick Castellanos, Philadelphia Phillies

Like with Gallo, I’m not at all convinced that a Castellanos comeback season will be all that impactful. He’s two years older than Gallo, which actually matters, and his hard-hit percentage fell off a cliff in 2022, down under the 35% mark, a number that’s typically seen with good contact hitters and lousy everything-else hitters. Castellanos is definitely a player I’d like to have detailed bat speed data for; his swing looked a lot slower to me last year than it did when he was in Cincinnati. But failing that, he hit the ball less forcefully and more to the opposite field, and he declined against fastballs. He’s been working to simplify his swing this offseason, so that theoretically might help, but I’m very worried about him.

ZiPS Projection Percentiles – Nick Castellanos
Percentile 2B HR BA OBP SLG OPS+ WAR
95% 47 32 .317 .366 .547 142 3.5
90% 43 29 .301 .351 .529 136 3.2
80% 40 27 .289 .340 .503 127 2.5
70% 38 24 .278 .331 .482 118 1.8
60% 36 23 .270 .322 .466 112 1.4
50% 34 21 .263 .314 .453 107 1.0
40% 32 19 .256 .305 .441 101 0.6
30% 30 18 .246 .296 .424 95 0.2
20% 28 16 .237 .288 .406 88 -0.3
10% 24 14 .223 .275 .376 77 -1.0
5% 21 11 .213 .264 .342 68 -1.7

Yasmani Grandal, Chicago White Sox

Grandal’s 2022 season was marred by injury, but when he was healthy enough to take the field, he was absolutely atrocious. I think I’d be more optimistic if he had been fully healthy and had a mechanical problem that needed to be dealt with; has anyone every felt better after being told “hey, don’t worry, the 34-year-old catcher was just injured?” ZiPS is actually the most bullish of the projection systems when it comes to him, but I’m just not buying it. Even his vaunted plate discipline looked a bit shaky last year. I’d probably knock off a win off the projection for Grandal in 2023.

ZiPS Projection Percentiles – Yasmani Grandal
Percentile 2B HR BA OBP SLG OPS+ WAR
95% 19 28 .284 .412 .522 155 4.9
90% 18 24 .267 .401 .491 140 4.2
80% 16 21 .252 .379 .453 130 3.8
70% 15 19 .242 .370 .432 122 3.4
60% 14 18 .234 .363 .416 115 3.1
50% 13 16 .226 .353 .397 108 2.7
40% 12 15 .217 .344 .379 102 2.4
30% 11 14 .208 .335 .360 96 2.1
20% 10 12 .198 .321 .336 87 1.7
10% 8 9 .187 .304 .310 75 1.0
5% 7 8 .171 .292 .283 67 0.5

C.J. Cron, Colorado Rockies

This isn’t an organization I compliment very often, but the Rockies did a really good job when it came to Cron. They picked him up for a pittance at a time when teams had probably gone too far in downgrading 30-year-old first base/DH types and got a solid 2021 season out of him, and while 2022 was less impressive, it was a bargain given his two-year, $14.5 million deal. That said, I think 2022 is likely closer to Cron’s ability level at this point than ’21; he’s well into the age range where decline is likely, and he’s not starting off as a star-level player at the cold corner. Now we’ll see if the Rockies pass the next test and realize that a player being a good stopgap solution is not automatically a good long-term solution and start looking for Cron’s successor.

ZiPS Projection Percentiles – C.J. Cron
Percentile 2B HR BA OBP SLG OPS+ WAR
95% 40 37 .312 .382 .594 145 3.5
90% 37 34 .300 .372 .563 134 2.8
80% 33 31 .287 .356 .527 123 2.1
70% 31 28 .279 .348 .508 117 1.7
60% 29 27 .268 .340 .490 112 1.4
50% 27 25 .262 .333 .475 107 1.1
40% 25 23 .254 .326 .456 100 0.6
30% 23 21 .244 .318 .439 95 0.3
20% 21 19 .234 .308 .413 87 -0.2
10% 17 15 .218 .288 .371 72 -1.2
5% 15 13 .198 .273 .346 59 -2.0

Josh Donaldson, New York Yankees

I’m down on Donaldson, and Yankees fans are definitely down on Donaldson — I’d bet that he’d do worse in a poll of fans than Isiah Kiner-Falefa — but Aaron Boone certainly seems to disagree strongly with that position. Donaldson’s defense has held up suprisingly well, but he had one of the largest one-year dropoffs in hard-hit rate of any player in baseball last year. Add in hitting the ball more softly with a significant degradation of his plate discipline, and the fact that he’s 37, and I have a strong suspicion of permanent toastification. I think the Yankees would be best off trying to get all three of their interesting young infielders onto the roster, eat Donaldson’s salary and make him another team’s problem.

ZiPS Projection Percentiles – Josh Donaldson
Percentile 2B HR BA OBP SLG OPS+ WAR
95% 32 29 .273 .370 .507 136 4.4
90% 29 27 .260 .360 .484 130 4.0
80% 26 24 .248 .346 .462 119 3.3
70% 24 22 .240 .336 .442 113 3.0
60% 22 20 .231 .329 .425 107 2.6
50% 21 19 .223 .321 .406 101 2.3
40% 19 18 .216 .313 .388 95 1.9
30% 18 16 .207 .305 .372 89 1.6
20% 17 15 .199 .294 .354 80 1.0
10% 14 12 .185 .279 .322 70 0.4
5% 11 11 .173 .262 .311 60 -0.2

Salvador Perez, Kansas City Royals

I’ve been known to put players on consecutive breakout lists — most notoriously with Nomar Mazara for three consecutive seasons, which worked out wonderfully — but I don’t think I’ve ever put a player on consecutive bust lists. Perez wasn’t exactly a bust offensively in 2022, but it was a massive dropoff from his crazy 48-homer 2021 season. I think his offensive decline continues apace in large part due to who he is as a hitter. He’s always been an ultra-aggressive swinger, but he makes contact less and less often; most players who have success swinging at a million out-of-zone pitches are actually pretty good at making contact with them, but he has declined to being below-average at that, too. His profile reminds me of an inflation death spiral, as he has to hit the ball harder and harder yet makes contact less and less often against worse pitches. Suffice it to say, I’m not on board with the ZiPS projection below, which I think is crazy optimistic; I’d pick something around the 20th percentile offensively. We’ll see if ZiPS gets the last laugh.

ZiPS Projection Percentiles – Salvador Perez
Percentile 2B HR BA OBP SLG OPS+ WAR
95% 33 42 .329 .366 .638 168 5.5
90% 30 38 .316 .355 .607 158 4.9
80% 27 34 .298 .339 .558 142 3.9
70% 25 32 .286 .328 .541 134 3.4
60% 23 30 .276 .319 .519 126 2.9
50% 22 28 .267 .310 .499 118 2.4
40% 21 26 .258 .301 .481 112 2.0
30% 20 24 .250 .294 .464 105 1.6
20% 18 22 .240 .281 .438 97 1.1
10% 15 19 .225 .268 .404 86 0.4
5% 13 16 .208 .256 .383 75 -0.3

Christian Walker, Arizona Diamondbacks

Walker is a wonderful defensive player at first base, and I’m very happy that he won a Gold Glove, something that would have been unlikely 30 years ago when awards were more often than not given to whoever won it the year before. I’m less convinced that 36 homers is repeatable, and while zHR (built in to to ZiPS) agrees quite often with xSLG, it doesn’t here, pegging him as the largest home run overperformer with nine. Looking at the largest overperformers historically in zHR (the 10 leaders for each of the last five years), 44 out of 50 saw their home run total decline the following year by an average of 7.1 homers. Walker’s glove will lessen the blow of any offensive decline, but I think he’s clearly not a star [Word fixed -DS], just a good league-average first baseman coming off a peak year.

ZiPS Projection Percentiles – Christian Walker
Percentile 2B HR BA OBP SLG OPS+ WAR
95% 40 34 .306 .385 .542 150 5.4
90% 36 32 .295 .376 .525 141 4.7
80% 33 29 .283 .361 .497 132 4.1
70% 31 27 .272 .352 .484 125 3.5
60% 29 25 .262 .343 .465 119 3.2
50% 27 24 .254 .336 .451 114 2.8
40% 26 22 .247 .328 .435 107 2.3
30% 24 20 .238 .321 .421 103 1.9
20% 22 19 .229 .312 .403 96 1.5
10% 19 16 .217 .298 .379 87 0.9
5% 17 14 .205 .287 .351 76 0.2





Dan Szymborski is a senior writer for FanGraphs and the developer of the ZiPS projection system. He was a writer for ESPN.com from 2010-2018, a regular guest on a number of radio shows and podcasts, and a voting BBWAA member. He also maintains a terrible Twitter account at @DSzymborski.

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Cool Lester Smoothmember
11 months ago

I think Walker’s Daric Barton with a bit more pop…which I’d rate as a viable starter!

As long as his defense holds up, he only needs a 110 wRC+ to be in that 3 WAR range.

Ivan_Grushenkomember
11 months ago

Well it needs to be a lot more pop because Barton couldn’t hit at all after his 5 WAR year. An average hitter playing 1B isn’t a very good player.

Cool Lester Smoothmember
11 months ago
Reply to  Ivan_Grushenko

Yeah, I was looking at the career line, not the crazy dropoff.

I think he’s a legit 15-25 HR guy who just had a crazy year…but he’s also a +10 1B defender and a scratch baserunner, which gives his bat more leeway.