While reading Baseball Prospectus's list of nine potential breakout candidates yesterday, I was legitimately surprised to find Travis Snider at number six on the list. Then, I thought about it some and decided that I was surprised to find myself surprised to find Travis Snider at number six on the list. I was excited when the Pirates traded for him in July and he actually played pretty well until the hamstring injury messed up the end of his season. I puzzled some more and I realized that I really don't have much of a handle on my expectations for Travis Snider for the 2013 season. Snider, or at least the concept of finding a second dynamic outfield bat to help Andrew McCutchen carry the load o in the lineup, is pretty important to the Pirates in 2013, so it's probably a time to try and figure out what to expect.
The good news is that by Valentine's Day, most of the projection systems have churned out their numbers for the Pirates. Let's look at what the various projections see for Snider:
PECOTA ($): .249/.308/.419 with 11 homers in 336 plate appearances. That's a TAv of .264, which is just about average for Random Hitter X, but probably a little on the low side for a corner outfielder.
Steamer (link goes to FanGraphs page, where Bill James and Oliver projections can be found, as well): .267/.334/.459 in with 19 homers in 530 plate appearances. wOBA is .341.
Bill James: .278/.345/.468 with 11 homers in 312 plate appearances. wOBA: .352
Oliver: .262/.324/.437 with 16 homers in 482 plate appearances. wOBA: .328
In short, we've got two systems (Steamer and James) that see a breakout year for Snider. Two systems (PECOTA and ZiPS) that see disappointment in his future and one (Oliver) that basically splits the difference. Of course, no projection system is perfect. James's projections, for example, are almost always hitter-friendly. Oliver uses a unique MLE calculator for minor league numbers which tends to make it useful for young players. ZiPS and PECOTA both use historical comparisons and adjust for aging with various levels of complexity.
The important question with regards to Snider at this point is probably this: just how much do his minor league numbers still matter? His ZiPS and PECOTA projections are below-average because he's been a mostly below-average Major League hitter since 2009. The question we should really be asking at this point is if there's any good reason to believe that this is a poor conclusion to draw.
Snider's first month as a Pirate was fairly promising. He hit .301/.385/.422 in 28 games. His power was noteably below expectation (he had only five doubles, a triple, and a homer among his 25 hits), but he also only struck out 17 times in 96 plate appearances. That's noteably lower than his 26.7% career big league rate and lower than even his 22.8% minor league rate, so it seemed like maybe the Pirates had him working on his swing. It was hard to tell, though, because he was already struggling with the hamstring by late August and it got pretty bad in September. He finished the season terribly (.156/.204/.156 post August 31).
Here's what we have heading into 2013 with Snider: a 25-year old that's now four years removed from being one of baseball's best prospects, 1,062 big league plate appearances with an OPS+ of 94, and a few flashes of his talent peppered here and there throughout the five years that he's spent part of in the big leagues. What does that mean? Given the other options (Clint Robinson and Gaby Sanchez getting more time at first base, Jose Tabata, Alex Presley), I think that the right field job should be Snider's to lose and that he should get some substantial at-bats at least in the early part of the season. From February, he's young enough that he deserves one more chance and he's almost certainly the Pirates best option. It's just that I can't really find anything to convince me that he's going to make any more with this chance than he already has. I hope I'm wrong.