The ZiPS (Almost) Midseason Update – American League

When looking at the differences between midseason and original projections, it’s always fun to see where reality shredded expectations the most. The American League in 2019, on the other hand, is fairly boring. We have one big surprise, bordering on the edge of truly affecting the playoff hunt, and a relatively mild switcheroo in the AL Central leader. Sure, the White Sox are a bit better than projected and the Angels a bit worse, but it’s generally a league in which most teams are at least in the same time zone as their preseason win prognostications.

So how do the ZiPS in-season projections work? For the Big Official ones, I use the full-on ZiPS model rather than the comparatively simple in-season one, to try to get the best estimates possible. Each player gets a percentile projection, with ZiPS randomly selecting from each player’s distribution to get a range of the expected roster strength for each individual team. Then each team is projected against every other team in their schedule a million times for the rest of the year. All this has the benefit of getting more accurate tails as opposed to the binomial distribution when you’re working with an assumed roster strength; one of the most important things in ZiPS is that on all layers, it’s designed to be skeptical about its own accuracy.

So let’s dive right into the American League.

ZiPS Playoff Matrix – 6/21
To Win 10th 20th 30th 40th 50th 60th 70th 80th 90th
AL East 94.3 95.7 96.8 97.7 98.6 99.5 100.5 101.7 103.4
AL Central 93.4 95.2 96.5 97.7 98.8 99.9 101.0 102.4 104.4
AL West 95.9 97.9 99.4 100.6 101.7 102.9 104.1 105.4 107.3
AL Wild Card 1 91.4 92.6 93.4 94.1 94.9 95.6 96.4 97.3 98.5
AL Wild Card 2 88.6 89.7 90.5 91.2 91.9 92.6 93.2 94.1 95.2

Coming into the season, the projections for the American League indicated a rather bifurcated league, with a fairly clear division between the winners and the win-nots. With only a few teams making up the team’s middle class (the Twins and Angels, most prominently), ZiPS projected a season that looked a lot like 2018. With the Twins surging and the Rays’ average pitcher pitching like a career-average Lefty Grove (I’m not making this up), the wins needed to make the playoffs have moved into the range at which even the second wild card will almost certainly not be limping into October. In March, ZiPS expected that the second wild card would be, on average, a team winning 88.9 games. That’s crept up to a hair under 92 wins, something that has to be in the mind of the marginal teams when they plan how aggressively to treat the trade deadline.

ZiPS Mean Projected Standings – AL East – 6/21
New York Yankees 97 65 .599 61.2% 31.8% 93.0% 11.7% 0.0% 26.7
Tampa Bay Rays 94 68 3 .580 25.1% 52.8% 77.9% 6.4% 0.0% 24.8
Boston Red Sox 92 70 5 .568 13.7% 50.2% 63.9% 4.3% 0.0% 23.6
Toronto Blue Jays 63 99 34 .389 0.0% 0.0% 0.0% 0.0% 1.9% 4.0
Baltimore Orioles 52 110 45 .321 0.0% 0.0% 0.0% 0.0% 79.1% 1.3

Despite all the hemming and the hawing around the Boston Red Sox and their poor start to the season, their return from the dead in May and June has them at the point at which they’re only projected as two wins off the preaseason estimates. That the divisional probability has dropped off (from 35% to 14%) is more due to the presence of the Tampa Bay Rays than anything. When looking at the difference between March and June, Tampa Bay’s divisional shot has come mainly at the expense of the Red Sox. Why has it come more from Boston than the Yankees? ZiPS still feels that the Red Sox have the worst depth in the division and are most susceptible to a sudden, nasty injury. The Yankees hold up because essentially every emergency replacement is well above replacement level, some as strong as league-average, something that has been demonstrated by the team’s brutal injury record.

The Blue Jays are about as depressing as expected, but perhaps the most disappointing individual projection is Vladimir Guerrero Jr.’s relatively disappointing debut. There’s been no significant change in his long-term outlook, and it’s not as if he’s playing like Jose Ramirez has this season, but he’s almost been curiously passive at the plate compared to the minors. Until Vladito starts crushing the ball — which I still expect — the main interest for the Jays is when they trade off their remaining players with value, most notably Marcus Stroman.

Baltimore’s season has gone about as… uh… “well” as can be expected, but on the negative side, there are fewer assets to theoretically trade in July than they may have hoped. Alex Cobb‘s season ended early, and it’s uncertain whether Mark Trumbo will ever return, so there’s no chance he could come back and mash enough to get a C+ prospect at the deadline. Andrew Cashner’s been okayish at times, but more on the level of Tyson Ross last year in that they may get someone to claim him to take his salary, but not more than that. Mychal Givens likely has extremely limited trade value at this point and Dan Straily couldn’t even fetch the second-base Luis Castillo unless the O’s paid his entire salary.

ZiPS Mean Projected Standings – AL Central – 6/21
Minnesota Twins 98 64 .605 90.1% 6.8% 96.9% 14.9% 0.0% 27.4
Cleveland Indians 90 72 8 .556 9.9% 37.9% 47.8% 3.0% 0.0% 22.4
Chicago White Sox 74 88 24 .457 0.0% 0.0% 0.0% 0.0% 0.0% 9.3
Detroit Tigers 66 96 32 .407 0.0% 0.0% 0.0% 0.0% 0.6% 4.9
Kansas City Royals 66 96 32 .407 0.0% 0.0% 0.0% 0.0% 0.5% 5.0

Can Cleveland get back into the race? The Indians still have a theoretical chance at taking the AL Central, on the level of the preseason divisional probability for the Twins, but I’m not sure if ZiPS isn’t overrating the Indians. Sure, the projection for Jose Ramirez has dropped 81 points of OPS since the start of the season, but is he even a .276/.358/.476 hitter right now? He didn’t even hit up to the level of that projection in his mini-revival in May (.245/.353/.373) and he’s been even worse in June (.167/.219/.258) than at the start of the season. Something really weird has happened with Ramirez — and I don’t think anyone knows the answer — and I’m not sure that the normal procedure of a projection system looking at Ramirez as just having a really awful slump even works anymore.

In addition, there’s a lot riding on the returns of three-fifths of the starting rotation. ZiPS is assuming the Indians get 187 innings over the second-half of the season from Mike Clevinger, Carlos Carrasco, and Corey Kluber combined. But that’s hardly a guarantee, and given how crucial these pitchers are to the team’s success, the projections drop fairly quickly. Cleveland’s on the precipice even more than these projections suggest.

Complicating matters (for the Indians) is that ZiPS is a believer in the Twins. It now takes all these positive beliefs about Ramirez and the pitcher injuries just to get ZiPS projecting the Indians roster as just slightly stronger than the Twins. Nine games back, Cleveland needs to be better than slightly stronger. The projections now believe Minnesota’s a better-than-90-win team and that the sources for the team’s improvement, mainly the explosion in home run power and real steps forward from Jake Odorizzi and Martin Perez, are sustainable. And Minnesota has this roster now; these assumptions are made without having a lot of scenarios work out.

The team most affected by the wild card win projection increasing is the Chicago White Sox. At 35-37, Chicago is theoretically in the wild card race, but with a target of 92 wins to hit the second spot, the White Sox have to win at a .633 pace, or 102.5 wins over a full 162-game season. That’s a tall order for a half-season and it’s unlikely that the team is really any better than a .500 team right now at best. There have been some wonderful developments in Chicago to take some pain off the Tommy John surgery tally (Lucas Giolito, Tim Anderson, Yoan Moncada), but I don’t think the Sox can make the playoffs right now. If they make trades this summer, they should only be ones that help the team in future seasons.

ZiPS Mean Projected Standings – AL West – 6/21
Houston Astros 102 60 .630 99.1% 0.5% 99.7% 19.5% 0.0% 28.6
Oakland A’s 86 76 16 .531 0.8% 15.9% 16.7% 0.8% 0.0% 19.4
Texas Rangers 82 80 20 .506 0.1% 3.8% 3.9% 0.1% 0.0% 16.0
Los Angeles Angels 78 84 24 .481 0.0% 0.4% 0.4% 0.0% 0.0% 12.3
Seattle Mariners 72 90 30 .444 0.0% 0.0% 0.0% 0.0% 0.0% 8.4

The Mariners briefly frightened the division with a 13-2 start, but that proved to be (unsurprisingly) unsustainable, and rather than tread water just well enough to survive into the summer, as the Milwaukee Brewers did in 2014, they bombed quickly, to the extent that they’re now projected to be the last-place team in the AL West.

Houston has one of the best records in baseball, and they have enough in-house reinforcements that they could probably survive the entire starting outfield deciding to become Tibetan monks over the All-Star break, and if something goes seriously wrong, they also have the ability to make a large trade. ZiPS may be a believer in the Minnesota Twins, but it’s less in on the Texas Rangers. ZiPS still sees the Rangers as a below-.500 team, though their playoff probability has crept up as they continue to win games. This gives the Ranger front office an interesting dilemma in that while it makes sense on one level to make a move as soon as possible to improve their seasonal bottom line, it also makes sense on another to wait as long as possible to see if the team is actually for real. This storyline will likely pop up over the next month.

Dan Szymborski is a senior writer for FanGraphs and the developer of the ZiPS projection system. He was a writer for 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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4 years ago

It’s going to be really hard for the Rangers to sell off players if they’re not that far off from a wild-card berth. It’s funny because the Rangers probably signed all those veterans to trade some of them, but they’ve become good enough that they can’t. Not that I think they’re complaining, since they have a new stadium on the horizon and they want to drum up interest. You can imagine them having a quiet deadline.

I wonder how similar that is to the White Sox. They’re a little further behind in the standings, but aside from James McCann and Alex Colome I’m not sure they even have trade pieces, so you can imagine them treading water as well.

4 years ago
Reply to  sadtrombone

they’ll be selling. gallo performing like an mvp and calhoun showing out have been the only real positive long-term developments from the core, and daniels has essentially said as much…they’ll be getting some real nice offers for minor and/or lynn and i assume only one of them makes it to august as a ranger.

4 years ago

Daniels has said that? My understanding was that his comments were more along the lines of “we don’t necessarily think you need to sell everything.” From that, I don’t think he’d get rid of Pence, Santana, Forsythe, or Cabrera for salary relief and a fringe prospect in the DSL if the team is still within spitting distance of a wild-card spot in a month.

As far Minor and Lynn, they are under control for a little while. Unless you get a team trying to blow you away, or you think what they’re doing is a mirage, you have to balance it against the value of winning now to getting fans in the building. Do you think that teams will buy Minor and Lynn as front-line starters and give up prospects like Kyle Tucker, Alex Kirilloff, or AJ Puk? If they get a package like that, then obviously they should take it, but I am skeptical it will come to that.

I would also add Jurado to the successes column.

Anthony Princeton
4 years ago
Reply to  sadtrombone

Yeah, not much left to trade from the MLB roster for the White Sox. Jon Jay, should be back soon and is a possibility other than Colome. Abreu might be worth more to the Sox right now than to other teams. McCann is under team control for next year and he really isn’t blocking any prospects, I don’t see a reason to trade him unless the return is really good.

4 years ago

I think they could do a bit better than Jeimer Candelario (FV50) and Isaac Paredes (FV40) from the Cubs to the Tigers for 1.5 years of Justin Wilson and a half-season of Alex Avila in 2016. I would do that if I’m the White Sox since Colome and McCann are easily replaced in the off-season by FA’s on 1- or 2-year deals.

4 years ago
Reply to  Shalesh

McCann and Avila are comparable, but Wilson was performing way better than Colome is now, and Colome is making more money now than Wilson was then so they’d have to eat more money, plus Wilson was a lefty and those are always in hot demand at the deadline. I don’t think there’s any way they get an FV50 out of a deal where Colome is the most valuable asset.

4 years ago
Reply to  sadtrombone

I’d argue that the acquirer would be getting 1.5 years of 2.5-WAR McCann, thus he’s the more valuable asset than Colome, who would be a setup man on a contender. I think the WSox could get an FV50 and an FV45. Fairly good catchers are pretty valuable and McCann, while not a great pitch-framer, is very good at calling a game and controlling the opposing team’s running game. Plus, dude’s OPS+ is 142 right now and his bWAR is already 2.7 so maybe teams see him as more of a 3.5-WAR catcher.

4 years ago
Reply to  Shalesh

The dude was sub-replacement level over the 4 years he’s played in the majors prior to this season where he’s somehow running a .409 BABIP. I don’t think anyone is buying him as a 2.5 WAR player, much less 3.5.

4 years ago
Reply to  alieas

Haha, that’s why as a WSox fan, I want to trade him. Still, his ZIPS projection for this year is 2.5 WAR and again he’s already accumulated 2.7 bWAR. I know GM’s aren’t dumb, but the dude is hot (I should have written 142 wrc+ above). Contenders need dudes having career seasons.