Projecting ZiPS projections

The fun part about the annual release of the different pre-season projections is that within a week of the numbers coming out, there are all kinds of interesting articles to read discussing the projections and you can start to get an idea of how the coming season might shake out. 

Since the ZiPS projections came out last Friday, both Bucs Dugout and Pirates Prospects used them to try and forecast a record for the Pirates in 2014. Because ZiPS doesn't project playing time, the numbers need to be tweaked a bit to really try and get a win forecast. At Pirates Prospects, Tim adjusted the WAR projections for playing time and innings pitched and got 88 wins. At Bucs Dugout, David Manel used wOBA to calculate wRC and then runs scored for the hitters and ERA with an unearned run estimation to calculate runs allowed by the pitchers, then used those two numbers to do a pythagorean record and got between 78 and 82 wins, depending on the projection system used (he used ZiPS, Steamer, and Oliver). 

I think the big difference in result comes from extrapolating WAR directly as opposed to trying to calculate runs from the underlying stats, but I also don't think there's really anything wrong with saying that the ZiPS gives us a ten-game window for the Pirates that suggests they're probably a 78-88 win team, as currently constructed. That inherently feels about right to me, if you consider that they probably weren't quite a 94-win team last year based on talent and performance (for future predictive purposes, I mean; obviously they won 94 games last year and that makes them a 94-win team) and that replacing AJ Burnett with Edinson Volquez and not addressing the first base situation makes them a little bit worse this year. 

Of course, it's also relatively easy to pick through the ZiPS projections and find places where the Pirates might over-perform in 2013. Charlie Morton is an obvious place to start; ZiPS doesn't "know" that Morton was hurt when he put up his miserable K/BB ration in 2012 and it doesn't "know" that his increased strikeout total in 2013 stemmed at least partially from a big increase in velocity that came from being healthy, which is something that we could reasonably conclude will hold in 2014. The same goes for Gerrit Cole; Cole's projection is likely based heavily on his middling numbers from Triple-A and his solid-but-unspectacular first 15 starts with the Pirates in 2013. We can reasonably hope, I think, that the Cole we saw that dominated the month of September is going to be appearing a lot more in 2014 and that he could end up outpitching his projection by quite a bit. Obviously that's no guarantee (nothing about young pitching is a guarantee), but Cole is the sort of pitcher that's easy to dream on.

This goes both ways, of course. Pedro Alvarez is constantly teetering on a razor-thin wire between being useful and being terrible. I suspect that at some point in the very near future he's going to head into Mark Reynolds territory if he can't fix his approach at the plate. Neil Walker is a constant threat to miss two months worth of games. Starling Marte's relative inexperience (games played compared to age) and plate approach means that he could swing dramatically to either side of his projection. The projection for Gregory Polanco is a really generous one, and we don't really know enough about him to know if he's ready to meet that quite yet. And so on. 

Of course, it's also worth mentioning that the Pirates' ZiPS projection last year was probably in the neighborhood of 75-85 wins, and they exceeded that by quite a bit in the actual win total. And for all we know, the Pirates will take the field in April with AJ Burnett and a real first baseman on the field. For now, though, I think that saying they're an 85ish-win team with some upside, depending on a few of the younger and more uncertain players, and some downside, depending on players like Walker and Alvarez that are getting older, is probably an accurate assessment of the state of the Pirates on January 21st.

Pat Lackey

About Pat Lackey

In 2005, I started a WHYGAVS instead of working on organic chemistry homework. Many years later, I've written about baseball and the Pirates for a number of sites all across the internet, but WHYGAVS is still my home. I still haven't finished that O-Chem homework, though.

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