The spring training season is almost upon it, and with it, the deluge of player projections. The best of these is ZiPS, the system designed and crunched by Orioles fan, ESPN Insider, and former Camdencast guest Dan Szymborski.
ZiPS looks at every player, including many who will never come anywhere close to MLB this year, and projects their performance based on comparisons to other players who have had similar careers, statistically. Every scout type will compare a black outfielder to Torii Hunter; funnily enough, ZiPS agrees with this as the #1 comparison for Adam Jones. Again, that's based on Jones' career arc to date when compared to Hunter's to that point.
If you want to look at the full set of projections for yourself, they've been posted on Fangraphs. There is a lot of obscure noise in the post - such as, did you know there was a recent Orioles farmhand named Rich Rundles, and his #1 comparison is bit part Moneyball reliever Mike Venafro? Fascinating!
ZiPS and William Shakespeare would agree that what's past is prologue, but any player is capable of writing his own plot twist for the upcoming season, for good or ill.
Remember, OPS+ is the OPS (OBP + SLG) as compared to league average, with 100 being league average. It is park-adjusted. Higher than 100 is above league average, and the more above 100, the better.
Markakis had been on a downward trajectory prior to last year. He found some of his power stroke again, and exceeded the projection by a nice amount. If that continues, he will probably exceed the projection again, because that would mean he is not the player that ZiPS thinks he is based on his down seasons.
Jones enjoyed a true breakout season, earning deserved recognition as one of the most valuable players in the American League. Last year's ZiPS did not see this coming, projecting 22 home runs where Jones hit 32 in the real world, among the other improvements that led to his great season. A 106 OPS+ is a good year, but not a great year, and 2013 ZiPS predicts somewhere in between good and great, which is probably fair. Orioles fans hope Jones will surprise us and break out even more, but a .797 OPS would be just fine too.
Note that the actual numbers for McLouth just include his time with the Orioles, and his 2012 ZiPS came from his projection when he was still with the Pirates. Again, McLouth is a player who was on a downward trajectory - which he reversed once he passed through Norfolk purgatory and came back to Baltimore looking like a different player. If he is going to have a decent 2013, he will again have to buck the historical trends that ZiPS uses to make its predictions.
Nolan Reimold will also get some time here if he isn't injured and doesn't suck. Since he only had 69 plate appearances in 2012, I'm not going to do his comparison here, but ZiPS puts him at a .246/.319/.420 with 12 home runs in 329 plate appearances.
Much like Jones, Davis is a player who exceeded what the system thought about him in 2012 in a big way. He did this despite striking out at about the rate ZiPS predicted and walking at about the rate ZiPS predicted, but ZiPS does not account for Mjolnir. He hit ten more home runs than projected. This year, ZiPS projects him for 25 home runs.
With Davis seeming to be ticketed to be the everyday first baseman, we may be as interested in how he does in the field as we are in how he does at the plate. If he can mash, there will be a place for him somewhere. He will be 27 when the season starts. As Dan Duquette likes to say, he is a player in his prime.
It seems that we may be forever doomed to watch light-hitting second basemen, and there are worse things to have to deal with in life. Casilla was worth +8 runs by UZR in only 744 innings in 2012, which may be why Duquette liked him as insurance for the inevitable Roberts injury/ineffectiveness setback. If he's going to underperform a 77 OPS+ projection, he sure better be a human vacuum cleaner out there in the field.
Any time I see that .300 or below OBP, I get a little sad. While he hit 22 home runs, Hardy was generally a disappointment at the plate in 2012. How much of that was bad luck? He hit .253 on balls in play, a fair amount below the .275 mark of his career. But bad luck could really just be bad swings and bad contact.
You might think ZiPS doesn't like Hardy based on his offensive projections, but it also puts him at a 3.5 WAR, which means it really likes his defense. I also really like his defense. He has saved 10 or more runs by UZR in each of the last two years. But if he could at least get above the Izturis Line for OBP (.300), that would be good.
Machado will not turn 21 until July. ZiPS likes him for 18 home runs. I would also like him for 18 home runs. We all hope this is only the beginning for Manny. As his frame fills out for power and he gets a better feel for big league pitching, the power and walk rate will hopefully increase - but probably not this year. We will probably be happy to watch Machado do his thing at third base - made all the more grateful because in recent years we've seen Mark Reynolds and Wilson Betemit there - and if he hangs in the vicinity of a league-average OPS, that would be just fine.
When Wieters was drafted, the phenomenon of Matt Wieters Facts had us all hoping for a .300/.400/.500 player who would be throwing out baserunners if they ever actually reached base, which they wouldn't because his perfect handling of the pitching staff would mean the perfect pitch to record an out would be made every time. In the deepest parts of our hearts, we still hope for something of that player, but the Wieters we have is very good already.
Slightly better than league average at the plate while blocking pitches and destroying most baserunners he has half a chance to throw out? That's pretty cool. But if he wanted to hit 30 home runs instead of 21 home runs, that would also be pretty cool. At a 4.3 projected WAR, ZiPS believes Wieters will be the best player on the Orioles.
ZiPS doesn't really do platoon splits; if the team really goes with the combination of Wilson Betemit and someone who can hit left-handed pitching (Danny Valencia, Russ Canzler, who knows) then maybe this won't be a complete black hole. I am not looking forward to this experiment, and to the extent that ZiPS projects individual players, neither is it. Not that a projection system has emotions anyway. You know what I mean.
If you add up the WAR projections from ZiPS for the 12 players who we think may get the most playing time - McLouth/Reimold in LF, Betemit/Valencia at DH, Wieters/Teagarden at C, it comes out to about 20.1 WAR. Last year the Orioles had positional players worth a total of 15.3 WAR, though there were many negative-value players who played due to injuries to others, and some will turn out to be that this year as well.
If you are more sunny on certain players than ZiPS is - which Duquette certainly seems to be about players like Jones, Davis, Markakis and Wieters - then you have plenty of reason to believe the team will have a good offense this year. If you think that some or all of those players are due for regression to a true talent level below their 2012 performance, then you have plenty of reason to believe the 2013 Orioles are in trouble.
In the end, ZiPS is nothing more than a guess, and as the cliche goes, that's why they play the games. Last year's Orioles did not much care about what they were expected to do as they racked up a 93-69 record and made it into the playoffs.
When next we convene to look at ZiPS, I will run down the starting rotation. Spoiler: it looks familiar.