MLB Metrics 101: Full-Season Stat Projections for the Top 25 Players
With the 2017 season underway, the best players in Major League Baseball have already set out to remind everyone that they are indeed the best players in baseball.
That will be determined by their numbers in the end. But why wait for then when now is as good a time as any to make projections?
That's the name of the game in the latest installment of B/R's MLB Metrics 101 series.
For this, a list of the top 25 players is needed. For that, your humble narrator is going to use the top 25 from his preseason rankings of the top 100 players in MLB.
Of course, those rankings weren't put together with any specific projections in mind. It's time to fix that and see how things change. For more on how it will be done, read on.
Before considering what a player will do in the future, the first step is considering what he's done in the past.
For each of the 25 players ahead, the first order of business will be looking at the numbers they averaged over the 2015 and 2016 seasons. A larger sample size would be better, but two seasons make for a good enough snapshot of a player's current abilities.
Besides, a handful of players on this list have only played in two seasons. And three of them—Francisco Lindor, Corey Seager and Carlos Correa—only have a season and change under their belts. To account for that, their specific two-year averages are scaled to 162 games.
From here, there are any number of projection systems to consult for a well-calculated prediction of a player's future performance. The choice here is ZiPS, developed by ESPN's Dan Szymborski. As summarized by MLB.com, here's how it works:
The system uses statistics from the previous four years for players from ages 24-38, and it weights more recent seasons heavier. For younger or older players, it uses weighted statistics from only the previous three years. The system also factors velocities, injury data and play-by-play data into its equations.
From 2015-16 performance and ZiPS projections, you can get a clear enough picture of the talent that each player is bringing into 2017. The only thing left to do is weigh its merits.
That's where I come in. While keeping the above information in mind, I dove into each player's individual abilities—specifically hitting abilities for position players—as well as durability red flags and any relevant league-wide trends.
In all, I basically looked for reasons to raise, lower or do nothing with the expectations inspired by the 2015-2016 numbers and/or ZiPS projections. The end result is projections that aren't scientific by any means but do have a human touch that would otherwise be missing.
(And speaking of human touch, any ties in WAR projections were settled with a judgment call.)
25. Brian Dozier, Minnesota Twins
Brian Dozier's 2015-16 numbers are skewed by a 2016 season that featured a 42-homer explosion.
It's hard to ask Dozier to do better, but his step down shouldn't be as big as ZiPS is suggesting.
These are good times for home run hitters, and it's no accident that Dozier joined the ranks of the best in 2016. He's one of baseball's most extreme fly-ball and pull hitters, and his hard-hit percentage is on an upward trajectory. Thus, his uptick in barrels—a Statcast specialty for measuring ideal contact—in 2016.
With a consistently above-average walk percentage, Dozier also has a habit that's conducive to on-base percentage. That plus his decent speed will keep the stolen bases coming.
The downside is that Dozier's approach isn't batting average-friendly. And as long as he stays atop the Minnesota Twins' lineup, he'll rack up more runs than RBI.
24. Kyle Seager, Seattle Mariners
Kyle Seager has been good for five years now but is coming into 2017 hot off a career-best season in 2016. He set several career highs, including home runs (30), OPS (.859) and WAR (5.5).
But while it looks good that Seager barreled his way to an increase in power in 2016, his actual batted ball profile raises questions. He has settled into a groove as a fly-ball hitter, but his pull rate is trending down, and his hard-hit rate has been up and down.
Meanwhile, he still hasn't found a way to beat the shift, which teams have been throwing at him more and more. That's a check against his batting average.
But lest anyone think the sky is falling, the fact is Seager is a disciplined hitter with a power-friendly swing. And as a bonus, getting to bat in a deeper Seattle lineup this year should be good for his RBI and runs.
23. Miguel Cabrera, Detroit Tigers
Miguel Cabrera seemed to settle into a new normal as a less healthy, less powerful version of himself in 2014 and 2015. Then came 2016, when he snapped back into vintage mode.
However, ZiPS is right to be skeptical. Cabrera is pushing 34, and one good season doesn't necessarily erase his lingering questions. He's going to hit, but are his durability and power really back?
Baseball's power-surged environment bodes well for the latter. So does the fact that Cabrera was barreling balls at an absurd rate when he got hot with 19 homers in his final 255 plate appearances of 2016. He's not going to stay on a 50-homer pace, but something clearly clicked for him.
In light of his age and all the mileage on his body, his durability is more of a coin flip. But while logic says not to expect too much, a guy who averages 155 games per season deserves at least cautious optimism.
22. Corey Kluber, Cleveland Indians
Yes, there's reason to worry about a pitcher who has one Cy Young and made a strong case for another in 2016.
There's how Corey Kluber was tasked with pitching 249.1 innings last season. Then there's a strikeout rate that's slipping from its peak as his velocity slips from its peak. With him going into his age-31 season, it's fair to expect him to not be as durable or as whiff-happy.
But one thing that should save him from breaking down completely is his mechanics, which Baseball Prospectus' Doug Thorburn highlighted as the best in the AL Central in 2014. That lessens the pressure on his arm and shoulder and allows him to disguise his pitches through consistent release points. That's a good way to get away with diminished stuff. And with his movement, even his diminished stuff is nasty.
So, even a lesser season from Kluber should still be great.
21. Buster Posey, San Francisco Giants
Disclaimer: Buster Posey is better represented by Baseball Prospectus' WARP than FanGraphs' WAR. The former more fully recognizes his defensive value, which is always good and which was the best in 2016.
But of course, the big question is whether Posey can bounce back from last year's disappointing showing at the plate. He hit "only" .288 with "only" a .362 OBP.
It was better than it looked. Posey remained a tough out by having nearly as many walks (64) as strikeouts (68). And despite an uptick in his ground-ball rate, he otherwise continued to use an all-fields approach that contained plenty of hard contact. Thus, his rate of barreled balls didn't budge.
Posey did recently turn 30, so he's no longer one of baseball's bright young stars. But while that's an excuse for some caution in projecting him, it's still easy to see a better season in his future.
20. Anthony Rizzo, Chicago Cubs
The one thing that's misleading about the above table is Anthony Rizzo's apparent base-stealing prowess.
The figures in the first two rows are skewed by a 2015 season in which he swiped 17 bags. That's 11 more than he's swiped in any other season, and it's unlikely to happen again. Rizzo isn't that fast, and he's now part of a Chicago Cubs lineup that finds ways to be productive on the bases without risking outs on steals.
Otherwise...man, it's hard to find nits to pick.
Stolen bases aside, Rizzo has been remarkably consistent in every other department over the last three years. His OPS trendline is nearly straight. He's finished with either 31 or 32 homers each year. And he's run into more RBI and runs amid better lineups the last two years.
Frankly, it's hard to imagine what other tricks the 27-year-old is capable of. So, more of the same it is.
19. Madison Bumgarner, San Francisco Giants
If it's Madison Bumgarner the power hitter you're interested in, go here. If it's Madison Bumgarner the pitcher you're interested in, stick around.
MadBum's been baseball's most consistent ace for good reasons. They start with his durability, which comes from his big, strong frame and mechanics that also get a thumb's up from Thorburn. Those mechanics also lend themselves to consistent release points, which allow him to disguise his pitches with the best of 'em.
Meanwhile, Bumgarner's strikeout rate has already been trending up, and he teased extra velocity in his Opening Day start on Sunday. FanGraphs' Dave Cameron highlighted how there's a catch with this year's velocity readings, but it's still a positive sign after Bumgarner's velocity dipped in 2016.
Bumgarner is thus a case of a pitcher who's not only been consistent, but still has room to grow. Get excited.
18. Nolan Arenado, Colorado Rockies
Nolan Arenado is a dude in his mid-20s who's led the National League in total bases, home runs and RBI in each of the last two seasons. That alone will do for an indicator that he'll continue being a stud in 2017.
Still, it's worth diving into the improvements he's making.
He's tailored his batted-ball profile for power. With each passing year, his fly-ball, pull and hard-hit rates have gone up. Even better is how he finally started taking his walks last year. That came from strides in his selectivity that he had been slowly working toward.
With Arenado in the thick of his prime and still playing half his games at Coors Field—which I counted against his WAR—there's no reason to expect a downturn in his hitting talent. With plenty of talent around him in Colorado's lineup, he should keep getting his share of RBI and runs as well.
17. Freddie Freeman, Atlanta Braves
Freddie Freeman hit the big time in 2016, setting career highs in home runs (34) and OPS (.968). More subdued numbers be damned, let's say this: It was about time.
Freeman's long been willing to take his walks and has had a quick swing built for line drives and hard contact. If only he could recalibrate his swing for more loft, he could add some serious power to his game.
According to Mike Petriello of MLB.com, Freeman did do some sort of recalibrating last June. The 30.1 ground-ball percentage he had from June on shines light on the loft he added. His rewards were a heaping helping of barreled balls and a 1.068 OPS.
It therefore looks like he got over the hump for real in 2016, so pardon me while I buy in completely. And with a deeper lineup around him in Atlanta, more RBI and runs should be in order, too.
16. Chris Sale, Boston Red Sox
Chris Sale could do nothing different from 2015 and 2016 and still have a better season in 2017.
Simply moving from the Chicago White Sox to the Boston Red Sox comes with two benefits. One is a defense that's not as terrible as what Sale was used to in Chicago. The other, as MLB.com's Mike Petriello covered in December, is better pitch framing.
Less certain is if Sale can reverse last year's decline in his strikeout rate. But for that, optimism is warranted.
Even if his dip in fastball velocity is permanent, Sale didn't need vintage velo to whiff 10.3 batters per nine innings in the final two months of 2016. He got more proactive at changing eye levels, and voila. Strikeouts.
The only other question has to do with Sale's durability. The gut maintains he's a major injury risk. The head has eyes that see his 28 years and clean injury history. Advantage: head.
15. Jose Altuve, Houston Astros
Meanwhile, his power has been trending up. His big step was upping the rate at which he gets under balls from 2015 to 2016, resulting in a big uptick in barrels. Thus, he had a new career high with 24 homers.
The catch is that last year was the first time Altuve put up even a moderately impressive hard-hit rate. That gets at how there is only so much power packed into his 5'6" frame. Likewise, the way in which he's gone from 56 steals in 2014 to just 30 steals in 2016 suggests his speed is starting to wear thin.
These words of warning aside, though, Altuve will remain an elite hitter with a decent mix of pop and wheels.
14. Joey Votto, Cincinnati Reds
If Joey Votto picks up where he left off in the second half of 2016, he'll be the first hitter since Ted Williams to bat over .400 and will also have a .490 OBP and a .668 slugging percentage.
Already sounds unlikely, huh? Of course, and that's before you get into how Votto's hot second half sprung out of an approach that was on the aggressive side of his usual standards. That's probably not going to last.
However, Votto's trademark discipline and immaculate batted ball profile—check out his line drives, hard contact and all-fields approach—will ensure he remains the toughest out in baseball. His consistent barrel ability and his bandbox home ballpark will keep the power coming as well.
The warning issued by ZiPS is not to count on Votto staying healthy in his age-33 season. But like with Cabrera, there's enough durability in his background to warrant cautious optimism.
13. Noah Syndergaard, New York Mets
FanGraphs WAR presents the case that Noah Syndergaard was the best pitcher in baseball last season, his first as a full-time starter for the New York Mets. If nothing else, he did look the part.
At 97.9 mph, Thor broke his own record for hardest average fastball by a starter. Throw in filthy secondaries and solid command, and you get the total package: a pitcher who limited walks, limited contact and limited barrels.
Alas, Syndergaard's ERA will continue to be held back by bad defense. There's also the question of his durability. But for that, it bodes well that he added strength to an already sturdy 6'6" frame and is also willing to adapt his workload to avoid injury.
It's a good guess he won't stray far north of 30 starts and may not even reach 200 innings. But the payoff should be continued excellence when he does pitch.
12. Paul Goldschmidt, Arizona Diamondbacks
Tons of players would love to have the kind of "off" year that Paul Goldschmidt had in 2016. The dude hit .297 with a .411 OBP, 24 home runs and 32 stolen bases.
Still, it's concerning that his power experienced a drastic drop-off. That didn't happen by accident. He hit fewer fly balls and made less frequent hard contact, resulting in a big downturn in his rate of barreled balls.
What caused this is elusive, but Arizona Diamondbacks hitting coach Dave Magadan hinted at mechanical issues in speaking to Nick Piecoro of the Arizona Republic. It's not much, but it's a more reasonable explanation than 2016 being the start of Goldschmidt's decline. He's only 29 years old.
Plus, all his other skills remained intact. It's worth believing he'll get his mechanics squared away and get his power pack. That's how he'll regain his place as one of baseball's elite players.
11. Francisco Lindor, Cleveland Indians
As one of the best defensive shortstops in baseball, Francisco Lindor gets most of his value from his glove. That's just something to remember when gauging his potential for 2017.
Offensively, he wasn't supposed to be this good of a hitter. But he did a fine job of providing answers to questions that were lingering after his rookie breakthrough in 2015. He tightened up an already solid approach with more walks and fewer strikeouts, and also made more consistent hard contact.
Still, 17-18 homers seems too optimistic. He only got to 15 last year, and he lacks both the raw pop and lofty swing to go further. His game should stay centered around being a tough out and a pest on the bases.
And if he continues to bat second for Terry Francona this season, he shouldn't lose too many RBI whilst gaining some runs.
10. Carlos Correa, Houston Astros
Carlos Correa's follow-up to his Rookie of the Year season in 2016 was at once excellent and disappointing.
What was behind that power decline is a complicated topic worthy of its own article. But the optimistic summary of it is that it wasn't because Correa overachieved as a rookie. His power is real.
The question he must answer is how consistently he can tap into it. Since Correa has several different avenues—better health, appropriate selectivity, getting back to opposite-field power—to more consistent power, yours truly is a believer.
Combined with his athleticism and his sweet spot at No. 4 in the Houston Astros' lineup, he should become what he's supposed to be in 2017.
9. Max Scherzer, Washington Nationals
Max Scherzer just won his second Cy Young and is well established as one of the most dominant pitchers in baseball. What reasons are there to worry?
Well, he does have that annoying finger injury. He also has homeritis. And he's 32 years old. So, the list of reasons isn't empty.
But...that's about it.
Scherzer seems to have realized he's in the National League now, as he's become one of baseball's most aggressive strike throwers. Despite that, contact off him remains scarce. That speaks to the electricity in his arsenal, which is headlined by his mid-90s fastball.
When it comes down to it, there's only one pitcher who's better than Scherzer. More on him later.
8. Corey Seager, Los Angeles Dodgers
Well, this human will point out that the 22-year-old has hit the ball harder than any shortstop since debuting in 2015, with a knack for line drives and an eye on all fields to boot. And despite his youth, he defied a platoon split by being one of the Los Angeles Dodgers' best hitters against lefties last year.
Perhaps Seager's only vice is that he prefers swinging his bat to working counts. But he's more selectively aggressive than aggressive, period. And to the naked eye, he rarely looks overmatched.
Perhaps he can't be better, but he shouldn't get worse. And with Logan Forsythe in to upgrade what had been a struggling leadoff spot, ZiPS should at least be right about his RBI boost.
7. Manny Machado, Baltimore Orioles
Manny Machado's last two seasons look similar enough, but there are some not-insignificant differences.
He was a more complete player in 2015 because he added two new skills he didn't have before: walks with a 9.8 BB% and extra baserunning value in 20 stolen bases. It was fair to expect him to carry those over from his age-22 season to his age-23 season. Alas, he didn't.
At least he kept his power. He's become a fly-ball hitter who makes hard contact more consistently than he did early in his career. That's a good way to get barrels, and it's a good sign that his ticked up in 2016.
6. Mookie Betts, Boston Red Sox
All the same, said bat is damned impressive. Betts is an excellent contact hitter and has a better eye for the zone than his modest walk habit would indicate. And courtesy of his quick wrists, he can generate power beyond what his 5'9" frame would indicate is possible.
The one and only gripe: He's proooooooobably not a 30-homer hitter. Although he went from 18 homers in 2015 to 31 in 2016, he barreled the ball at only a slightly higher rate. Lo and behold, not all of his homers would have left any ballpark.
But even if Betts is only a 20-homer guy, oh well. That's only a small chunk out of a great big pile of value.
5. Josh Donaldson, Toronto Blue Jays
The possibility of Josh Donaldson regressing in 2017 can't be overlooked. He's a 31-year-old with a growing history of nagging injuries, and his 2016 season wasn't quite as good as his MVP-winning 2015 season.
But rumors of his demise...well, you know how it goes.
Although they didn't move his surface numbers too much, Donaldson actually made improvements in 2016. An approach that was already advanced produced nearly as many walks (109) as strikeouts (119). And while he didn't barrel balls at the same rate, his fly-ball and hard-hit rates both went up.
Donaldson could look his age on defense and on the basepaths in 2017 and could lose some runs from not having Edwin Encarnacion behind him. Otherwise, he'll continue being his same monstrous self at the dish.
4. Bryce Harper, Washington Nationals
Hoo boy. How do you project a guy whose performance is as up and down as Bryce Harper's? Hoo boy.
His upside is certainly enormous. His MVP-winning 2015 was just part of a nearly 1,000-plate appearance sample size in which he dominated with a 1.040 OPS. When he's hot, he's hot.
When he's not, he's not so hot. That was the case for most of 2016, as Harper was a league-average hitter after May. That might have been because the Chicago Cubs short-circuited his approach. It might have been because of a phantom shoulder injury. Or both.
Whatever the case, Harper has reinvigorated belief in his upside with a red-hot spring and his latest Opening Day home run. He's looked like his best self: a hitter with a sharp eye and a swing built for barreling the ball.
Nothing is guaranteed with him. But at 24, he's still worth going out on a limb for.
3. Clayton Kershaw, Los Angeles Dodgers
The 301 strikeouts Clayton Kershaw had in 2015 made for a hard act to follow. But follow it he did. Albeit in just 149 innings, he whiffed 161 more batters than he walked in 2016.
Kershaw draws his dominance from three key abilities: He's one of the most aggressive strike throwers in baseball and, courtesy of new research from Baseball Prospectus, the best there is with late movement and one of the best there is at changing speeds.
Ah, but his durability. Injuries have limited him to under 30 starts in two of the last three seasons. And while he's still only 29, he has a lot of miles on him. He says he's healthy now, but you do wonder.
What could be his saving grace in 2017 is the amount of pitching depth the Los Angeles Dodgers have. If they need to take it easy with their ace, they can. It's not a guarantee of good health, but it's something.
2. Kris Bryant, Chicago Cubs
Following his Rookie of the Year win in 2015, Kris Bryant took a risk. He wanted to strike out less often, so he remodeled his swing to be more direct to the ball.
That worked like gangbusters. And it's not just his 39 home runs that prove he didn't sacrifice any power. His rate of barreled balls went way up. Such is life with high rates of fly balls and hard contact.
Since Bryant is only 25, the next logical step would be for him to cut his strikeout rate even more. But at 6'5", he can't do much about having a huge strike zone. And he's probably not going to make his swing any flatter.
Of course, he won't be held back by this. He has a good eye to go with his extreme power. He's also an underrated defender and a hugely underrated baserunner. Expect him to further settle into his groove as a superstar.
1. Mike Trout, Los Angeles Angels
Mike Trout is going to be the best player in baseball in 2017. The only question is, in what way?
He was becoming a slugger first and foremost, peaking with 41 home runs in 2015. Then he changed course and got back to a balance of power and speed with 29 homers and 30 stolen bases in 2016.
The man himself appears to favor the 2016 version of himself, saying he wants to steal 40 bases in 2017. At 25, he still has the speed to do that. So, why not?
If that means remaining a less powerful hitter, he'll at least be more of a complete hitter. He's been boosting his walks and cutting his strikeouts. He's also been working on a more balanced batted-ball profile, hitting fewer fly balls while making more hard contact. Meanwhile, he remains an elite barreler.
Given his background, it's hard to say Trout can be better than ever. But he should be as good as ever.