It’s Jan. 13 and baseball news is pretty boring. The Mariners have probably made another five minor trades between the time this post was written and the time it was posted, but other than that it’s pretty quiet. That means the annual release of the Dodgers’ ZiPS projections at FanGraphs, which happened two days ago, is newsworthy. Stuff worth talking about in January! We’ll take what we can get.
This post runs down some of the more interesting individual player projections, but first it must be prefaced with some caveats. Projection systems are not gospel, nor do they replace other systems of player valuation. A projection does not override a contrary scouting report. Also, most online projection systems do not easily reveal the spread of a player’s performance, which increasingly bothers me. PECOTA has done this forever (but has buried the info), Steamer buries it even deeper, and as far as I can tell ZiPS doesn’t show it at all. The spread is nearly as important as the median for projecting player impact, but that’s not available here.
Also, there are a few things specific to the projections listed below which need to be mentioned. First, playing time projections are based upon previous history, but not the current depth chart. For example, the tandem Adrian Gonzalez/Cody Bellinger projections below combine to nearly 1,100 plate appearances and that’s obviously not going to happen. Additionally, the FanGraphs post above notes that the projections were run assuming a league-average ERA of 3.97, which is below last year’s mark of 4.17.
Without further delay, let’s look at a few Dodger projections.
For the first time in many years, Kershaw does not have the highest WAR projection among starting pitchers by ZiPS. That honor belongs to Chris Sale now. However, much of that is because of Kershaw’s lower innings total in 2016. His rate stats are still insane, though curiously ZiPS is projecting a spike in Kershaw’s home run rate. That makes the other numbers even more impressive. The climb in the ERA seems particularly high, but it’s near-identical to the 57 ERA- Kershaw posted in 2015.
ZiPS also provides a top comparable player for each projection. Kershaw’s is incredibly obvious: Sandy Koufax. Koufax has been listed as the top comp for Kershaw for a few years now, but it still makes me smile every time I see it.
Kazmir’s 2016 season was frequently hard to watch, with occasional gem outings sprinkled among many terrible ones. His stuff was often there, but it was marred with extremely poor command and a lack of ability to go deep into games. Kazmir has been rumored to be on the trading block this offseason, and if a repeat of last season is in order that trade would be welcome.
However, projection systems tend to have a longer memory than most fans, and Kazmir is not far removed from being a good starter. If ZiPS is to be believed, the Dodgers would likely be better off hanging onto Kazmir than shipping him away. His 142 2/3 innings isn’t a lot, but that many league-average innings would likely be helpful given how injury-prone the rest of the pitching staff is. Obviously, Kazmir’s injury problems at the end of last season cause a lot of uncertainty in this projection, but it’s a good reminder that more than 2016 matters when thinking about 2017.
This projection is just about as positive as you should expect to see for a sophomore season at age 29. If Dayton were to match that projected ERA-, it would be the same as what Dellin Betances posted last year. The FIP- is in line with Shawn Kelley and Brad Ziegler. They’re not elite closer numbers, but they don’t have to be. I’m the high person on Dayton (another post on him may be coming soon), and this projection matches that level of optimism.
Seager’s projected numbers take a step back, though that’s not really unexpected for somebody who put up a near-MVP season in his rookie year. ZiPS does have Seager striking out significantly less than before, but it takes away a little bit of power (.188 ISO, compared to .204 last year) and a lot of BABIP (.308 to .355). Projecting BABIP is one of the hardest things to do, so regressing it almost all the way to the league mean is common for younger players. Seager ran some high BABIP numbers in the minor leagues, and he does possess good bat control that prevents him from hitting many pop flies (just three last year). Still, since BABIP fluctuates a lot from year to year, and since Seager is not fast, a conservative projection makes sense. The projected step back in defensive value makes up the rest of the WAR difference, which makes sense because Seager likely isn’t a true-talent +11 run/season shortstop like FanGraphs credited him for last season. Take all of that away, and Seager is still projected to be one of the best shortstops in baseball.
Oh, and like Kershaw, Seager’s ZiPS comp is hilariously unambiguous. Of course it’s Cal Ripken.
Since Bellinger replacing Gonzalez is an obvious case of direct lineage, it’s interesting to compare their projections back-to-back. ZiPS thinks that that transition could happen now and the drop-off would be nearly negligible. Gonzalez has an edge in projected WAR, but if you bump Bellinger’s plate appearances to match Gonzalez’, the difference is halved.
Gonzalez does get a small increase in WAR compared to last season, which may seem odd due to the decrease in BA and OBP. However, next season’s ZiPS projections are run in a lower run environment than what was present in 2016. Gonzalez is also given credit for a slight rebound in defensive value, which matches what his expectations usually are.
Bellinger’s projection assumes he skips straight to the majors and that he could handle the transition mostly well. He gets some credit for good defense, but his batting line isn’t quite up to his future potential yet. That he’s projected to out-slug Gonzalez is very impressive, as is the fact that he’d be projected to lead the team in homers, with 26. However, the high strikeout rate is a reflection of the size of the jump between AA and the majors. It’s not necessarily a sign that Bellinger will have a strikeout problem in the majors eventually, just that he might not yet be at the peak of his potential. This projection lines up with the optimistic scouting reports, which are more important anyways.
I think Taylor’s projection is the most interesting of the post. By WAR, Taylor is projected to be the Dodgers’ eighth-best position player. His projected WAR is the same as Gonzalez’s. Normally a statement like that would be somewhat damning of the team’s depth, but the projected value of 2.1 is excellent, and significantly higher than expected. ZiPS does not see Taylor as an above-average hitter, but he more than makes up for it because he’s projected as a shortstop.
With a projection like that, one could potentially make an argument that Taylor might be in the running for the currently (mostly) vacant second base job. Taylor has significantly less experience there than he has at short (705 innings to 3,463, per Baseball Reference), and he’ll lose some positional value as well, since the offensive expectation is higher at second.
However, it seems pretty clear that the Dodgers do not view Taylor in the same light as this projection, because they had a chance to act upon that last season. Instead, Charlie Culberson (he of a .231/.270/.324 career batting line) was clearly above Taylor on the depth chart by the end of the year. Actions like that give some insight into the Dodgers’ mindset, and Taylor’s .207/.258/.362 line in blue didn’t exactly help his case for playing time. For now, he should be viewed as a viable backup piece, but this projection feels like the best of the best case scenarios.
Projected to have the highest ISO on the team (and do almost nothing else). He’s still a free agent, but unemployed baseball players are projected with their previous teams. Sure, why not.
There are still a few interesting projections, but there isn’t enough post to go through every player individually. Kenta Maeda has a very positive 3.2 WAR projection. Alex Wood is projected to be below league-average, which feels overly pessimistic. All in all, ZiPS projects the Dodgers to be a pretty good team. The starting pitching projections are mostly optimistic, and the lineup has a lot of depth. There’s still more work to be done at second base and in the bullpen, but you didn’t need that post to tell you that. Still, it reaffirms that the team is in a good place.