Monday, January 06, 2014

Thoughts on ZIPS Projections

Dan Szymborski has released his annual ZIPS projections for Tigers players and they are posted at FanGraphs.  Pre-season projections should always be taken with a grain of salt, but ZIPS is one of the longest-running and accurate systems available.  

The good thing about projections is that they are unbiased and not subject to the emotions of overly optimistic (or pessimistic) hometown fans eagerly awaiting (dreading) the upcoming season.  The limitation of projections is that they do not take into account anything beyond the numbers.  For example, it might be known that a player worked through an injury last year or is scheduled to receive more minor league seasoning or any other non-statistical factor that could impact his upcoming season. 

I like to think of a projection as a baseline rather than a prediction.  They tell you how a player should perform based on his past record and the records of similar players. A knowledgeable fan can then take that projection and adjust it up or down according to what he or she knows about that player beyond the statistics.  One area where forecasting systems often fail is in allotting playing time.  Fans generally know more than computers which players are going to play regularly, which ones will ride the bench and who will be farmed out to the minors to start the season.

That being said, here is what I found interesting about the 2014 ZIPS:

Not surprisingly, MVP Miguel Cabrera is not expected to hit as well as he did last year in his best season.  After hitting .348/.442/.636 in 2013, ZIPS pegs him at .317/.404/.581 next season. Some might think that's too much of a drop, but he's turning 30, coming off a serious injury and his projections are right around his career averages, so it seems reasonable.  When a player has a season where he performs way above what his career averages, he typically does not do as well the next season.  This phenomenon is called regression to the mean and most forecasting systems will factor that in to next seasons projection.  Of course, we are talking about the most elite hitter in the game and it's not like his 2013 season was an outlier.  So, I wouldn't bet against another monster season for the Tigers superstar.. 

The other player, who is projected to take a hit is right fielder Torii Hunter, whose OPS is expected to drop from .799 to .752.  It's hard to argue against a player falling hard at the age of 38.

The Tiger who figures to improve the most is catcher Alex Avila.  After hitting for a .695 OPS last year, ZIPS has him down for .737 in 2014.  Most projection systems are optimistic about Avila, probably because they "remember" his glorious 2011 season.  If he can stop getting beat up so badly behind the plate, he does seem capable of improvement.

Rookies are always hard pin down, but ZIPS has third baseman Nick Castellanos hitting an unspectacular, but respectable .277/.320/.429.  His closest comparable is former White Sox third sacker Joe Crede.  Hitting for Crede-like power would be acceptable, but hopefully Castellanos will have a higher lifetime on-base percentage than .304.

I don't think there is any projection system out there that is able to figure out the unpredictable animals of the mound, so I won't dwell too much on that.  The system is a little pessimistic on Drew Smiley though giving him a 4.07 ERA in 135 innings.  He seems capable of more, but given that he has never had a large workload, I can see him having some trouble with durability.  His closet comparable is Jeff Francis, who had a couple of pretty solid seasons with the Rockies before his career was derailed by injuries.

That's all for now,  I will wait until spring training winds down before I sift through all the projections and other data and come up with my own predictions.


  1. I can't imagine a healthy Cabrera hitting as low as the ZIPS Projections.

  2. Fans probably said the same thing about Frank Thomas and Albert Pujols when they turned 30. I can imagine in it, but I think he'll do better.

  3. Cabrera is the only player they project at .430 SLG or above, and only 5 players project to clear .266 BA. We should be able to do better than that.



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