The ZiPS Projections Midpoint Roundup of Triumph and Shame: The Players by Dan Szymborski July 15, 2021 As we’ve passed both the literal midpoint of the season (1,215 games) and the philosophical one (the All-Star Game), it’s time to look back at the sample-size-fueled joy and sadness of the best and worst individual player projections for the first half. Projecting this season was particularly tricky for the obvious reason that the 2020 season was only 60 games and there was no minor league season at all. There’s not really much you can do to compensate for the lack of data; in the end, you’re likely to be less accurate no matter your approach. This isn’t as big a deal when it comes to the team projections, where there are enough players that you just hope the mistakes aren’t all in the same direction, but it can matter when you’re talking about a single player. (In hindsight, it makes me happy I never needed to project the 1995 season using replacement players, if that had actually happened.) Let’s start with the hitters. Given the volatility of defensive measures, this is a comparison of the offensive numbers, not WAR as a whole. I’m setting 200 plate appearances as the minimum. Here are the position players ZiPS most underrated: ZiPS Projections – The Most Underrated Hitters Name wRC+ Preseason wRC+ Difference Buster Posey 164 89 75 Vladimir Guerrero Jr. 189 120 69 Shohei Ohtani 180 116 64 Brandon Crawford 147 84 63 Cedric Mullins 151 90 61 Akil Baddoo 121 61 60 Bryan Reynolds 146 96 50 Mike Zunino 123 75 48 Tyler O’Neill 138 90 48 Tyler Stephenson 122 74 48 Adolis García 127 81 46 Nick Castellanos 156 111 45 Omar Narváez 137 94 43 Yuli Gurriel 136 93 43 Jonathan India 123 81 42 A few of the names on the list don’t really surprise me. It was difficult to get a read on what Shohei Ohtani was going to do coming into the season, both because his professional career in the United States has been so short and because recovering from a pitching-related injury introduced an additional complication. I’m actually quite happy that ZiPS missed on this one; Ohtani is having the kind of year I’ve wanted to see since the moment it was clear that he was going to come over to the US. Meanwhile, there being a number of young players among the biggest misses isn’t unusual. Even if you somehow knew that a player who is early in his career was going to break out, it wouldn’t mean you’d necessarily know quite when. Mean projections are supposed to get a lot wrong, so seeing Vladimir Guerrero Jr. and Akil Baddoo and Jonathan India here is not particularly odd. Guerrero was the top pick on my breakout hitters list, so I’m not all that upset about the ZiPS mean projection being on the light side. Then there’s Mike Zunino, though honestly, I think I’d be more surprised if ZiPS had gotten Zunino right than wrong. He has an 86 career wRC+, but over his nine seasons in the majors, his average deviation from his career average is a whopping 25 points of wRC+. The “typical” Zunino season barely exists. That two of the biggest misses were Buster Posey and Brandon Crawford goes a long way to explaining how the Giants are second in the National League in runs scored. Usually, this type of player — the early-to-mid 30s veteran gently declining — is one of the easier archetypes to project, but in this case, they’re suddenly matching their best performances ever. And in Crawford’s case, he’s greatly exceeding them! Next, we’ll consider the most overrated hitters: ZiPS Projections – The Most Overrated Hitters Player wRC+ Preseason wRC+ Difference Jorge Soler 66 124 -58 Marcell Ozuna 77 132 -55 Gleyber Torres 82 134 -52 Hunter Dozier 58 110 -52 Eugenio Suárez 68 114 -46 Jackie Bradley Jr. 49 93 -44 Anthony Rendon 98 142 -44 Ha-Seong Kim 김하성 71 110 -39 Kevin Newman 45 84 -39 Marwin Gonzalez 61 98 -37 Michael Conforto 94 129 -35 Anthony Santander 77 112 -35 Ian Happ 78 113 -35 Christian Walker 69 102 -33 Miguel Sanó 92 125 -33 There are a lot more surprises on this list given that we’re primarily talking about well-established hitters in the middle of their careers. Jackie Bradley Jr. is the only hitter here who I had pegged to underperform his projection coming into the season, though the possibility existed with Kim since we only had KBO stats to go on. I’ll beg out and blame injuries for Anthony Rendon, but these players have otherwise been relatively healthy. Gleyber Torres is particularly confounding. At age 21 and 22, he showed the ability to turn on a pitch with authority, posting ISO numbers above .200 in both seasons. But that ability seemed to disappear in 2020 and especially ’21. It’s not just that making more contact has resulted in more weak hits off borderline pitches; he’s also struggling with pitches in the heart of the strike zone. There have been 117 players who have seen at least 300 pitches that Statcast defines as in the “heart” of the strike zone this year. Torres ranks 105th in slugging percentage and 96th in exit velocity, with his .431 SLG on those pitches paling in comparison to his .691 in 2018 and .776 in ’19. This kind of decline is disappointing but not completely unheard of: Randy Ready and Chris Speier are high on Torres’ ZiPS comp list, among much more distinguished players. ZiPS has Torres rebounding to a 120 wRC+ in 2022, but at this point, I have to take the under. Overall, the average miss on the hitters has been 18 points of wRC+. Normally with the percentage of the season played so far, that mark is around 16 or 17 points, so the projections haven’t missed by as much as I expected. Now to the pitchers, starting with the most underrated: ZiPS Projections – The Most Underrated Pitchers Name ERA- Preseason ERA- Difference John Means 53 110 57 Kyle Gibson 53 108 55 James Kaprielian 70 122 52 Danny Duffy 57 109 52 Carlos Rodón 54 105 51 Cristian Javier 72 122 50 Kevin Gausman 44 93 49 Lance Lynn 46 89 43 Trevor Rogers 60 99 39 Jacob deGrom 28 67 39 Zack Wheeler 56 92 36 Wade Miley 68 104 36 Taijuan Walker 65 101 36 Spencer Turnbull 65 100 35 Anthony DeSclafani 69 104 35 As I’m from Baltimore and also had him on my pitcher breakouts list, I’m not at all displeased to see John Means make this list. Shoulder injuries are always concerning, but I’m not as worried as some that his 4.19 FIP portends regression. He’s been lucky in his BABIP, but the argument can be made that he’s been unlucky in a couple of the FIP components. Based on the peripheral numbers, ZiPS sees Means as the second-biggest strikeout underperformer compared to his zSO, behind only Matthew Boyd. In swinging strike rate, Means ranks 17th in the majors, sandwiched between Ohtani and Gerrit Cole, but only 43rd in strikeout percentage. After him spending a half-season fighting Bob Gibson’s modern ERA record, I’d have been extremely concerned about calibration issues if the mean projection for Jacob deGrom was actually correct. Something like this should never be the over/under. Carlos Rodón is by far the biggest surprise for me here. Yes, he’s been battling injuries for years, and it’s always tricky to evaluate a pitcher in that situation. But if you told me he’d get back just to 2015-2016 levels of performance, I’d still have been surprised. Of course, Rodón didn’t even stop there; he’s throwing 96 mph and looking a lot like the best-case scenario the team envisioned when the White Sox took him with the third pick in the 2014 draft. And he’s not even really beating his seasonal FIP! Coming into 2021, ZiPS projected Rodón for a 4.68 ERA for 2022. That’s down to a 3.31 now, the largest improvement in baseball. Now for the most overrated hurlers: ZiPS Projections – The Most Overrated Pitchers Name ERA- Preseason ERA- Difference Matt Shoemaker 184 111 -73 Dylan Bundy 155 96 -59 Carlos Martínez 160 104 -56 Jake Arrieta 157 104 -53 Justus Sheffield 155 105 -50 David Peterson 145 98 -47 José Ureña 146 100 -46 Riley Smith 152 106 -46 Chris Paddack 137 92 -45 Marco Gonzales 141 96 -45 Blake Snell 127 83 -44 Patrick Corbin 131 89 -42 Matt Harvey 178 137 -41 Brad Keller 135 99 -36 Andrew Heaney 125 89 -36 Considering that ZiPS projected Matt Harvey for a 6.08 ERA, it’s a bummer to see him on this list. I remain hopeful about Chris Paddack, though the membership roll for the Paddack Optimists Club appears to be shrinking. Some of the players on this list are playing poorly, but in Paddack’s case, his FIP is basically identical to what it was in his rookie season. Another bounce-back candidate is Dylan Bundy. When I posted the pitcher zStat leaderboards back in May, Bundy was one of the biggest FIP underperformers. Some of the other underperformers have already salvaged their seasons; Luis Castillo and Germán Márquez have been terrific since then. But neither Bundy nor teammate Andrew Heaney have turned it around. On the other hand, Jake Arrieta is one pitcher I don’t expect to recover. Calling his command spotty would be overly generous at this point, and as they did in 2020, hitters are successfully waiting him out until they get a crushable offering. Nor am I optimistic about Patrick Corbin. He lost 100 rpm on his slider in 2020 before the crackdown on sticky substances, and the probability a hitter would whiff on one dropped accordingly. His average spin rate has dropped from 2241 rpm in 2020 to 2210 this year, and in the running average of his 50 most recent sliders, it has dropped to under 2200 in the last month (currently 2171). Looking at the projections as a whole, I’ve examined how errors are correlated, hoping it would give me an idea of whether there were specific types of players who the odd 2020 season hurt more than others or at least made less predictable. So far, I’ve found nothing systematic along those lines. A wider post-mortem will be performed after the season, and hopefully, it will offer some additional insight about how to project two of the weirdest years in baseball history.