The 2013 ZIPS Red Sox Projections: The Good, The Bad and the Ugly

Will Middlebrooks

In the wake of the 2013 blizzard that dumped two plus feet of snow on most of New England at velocities upwards of 60 MPH, one could be forgiven for failing to notice that Fangraphs had finally released the entirety of Dan Szymborski’s ZIPS projections for the Boston Red Sox. But given that plenty of words have been written touting PECOTA’s 86 win, tied-for-second place in the AL East forecast for the club, it seems reasonable to assume more than the storm is at work. Specifically, Red Sox fans might be underreporting ZIPS because it forecasts a great deal of underperformance from our roster.

ZIPS is conservative by design, which is a useful counter to overly optimistic forecasts such as Bill James’ projections. Even so, the future ZIPS anticipates is not one kind to the Red Sox. If ZIPS projections for the starting rotation hold, in fact, it’s likely that the club will struggle to reach .500. It’s not all bad, but it’s definitely not good. Here then are the highlights and lowlights from the ZIPS 2013 numbers.

The Good

The good news from ZIPS is easy to summarize.

  • Pedroia will remain an effective, star-caliber player, putting up a .289/.357/.456 line from second base. That plus his defense makes him the only 5 win player on the roster.
  • Ortiz will remain an elite offensive force at .294/.288/.558, although the optimism here is tempered by ZIPS belief that Ortiz will be limited to 418 at bats. In spite of his DH status, ZIPS expects Ortiz to be the second most valuable position player at 3.4 wins. Which is a compliment to Ortiz and a criticism of our roster at the same time.
  • Napoli, though not projected to rebound to his 2011 levels of performance, will easily best the .275/.325/.425 line our first basemen put up last year at .248/.347/.488. Even so, the combination of his defense and limited playing time – presumably due to injury – leaves him just shy of a two win player (for context, Adrian Gonzalez was worth 2.6 wins to us last year, in spite of the fact that he was traded in August).
  • The playing time forecast for new shortstop Stephen Drew is actually relatively positive: ZIPS sees him accumulating 450+ at bats. The problem is that his expected offensive performance (.250/.322/.396) is a far cry from his 2010 peak (.278/.352/.458). Still, given that our shortstops hit .234/.272/.359 last year, Drew represents a considerable upgrade – assuming he’s healthy enough to field the position adequately.
  • David Ross was told that he would play more than a typical backup with the Red Sox, but ZIPS sees him getting fewer at bats, in fact, than last season: 163 versus 196. When he plays, though, he’ll be much better than a typical backup, getting on base 31.5% of the time and slugging .414. Given that our starting catcher (until he’s traded, anyway) didn’t get on base even 30% of the time last year and isn’t forecast to this year, I’ll take it.
  • ZIPS doesn’t love Koji Uehara’s health, calling him for to contribute a mere 39.7 innings, but it loves his performance when he’s on the field, anticipating a 2.72 ERA/2.80 FIP with 49 strikeouts against 6 walks. The fact that he’s the only pitcher ZIPS really likes is the real problem here.
  • One quick aside: ZIPS thinks Jackie Bradley Jr. could put up a .249/.329/.367 line in the majors right now, which would be more than adequate if the reports on his defense are even partially correct. He won’t make anybody forget Ellsbury’s 2011 season, but that’s not too far from what Ellsbury was when he came back last year. Good depth to have.

The Bad

  • Ryan Lavarnway already has questions as to whether he’ll stick at the catcher position – at least outside of the Red Sox organization – and his 2013 ZIPS forecast makes it improbable that he’d have a career at anywhere else on the diamond. Here’s hoping his .243/.311/.388 projection is light across the board, particularly because ZIPS sees him getting 500+ at bats. If you’re looking for reasons to be optimistic, it seems at least possible that ZIPS is overweighting his major league numbers from last year; Lavarnway’s average on base percentage in five minor league seasons is .376.
  • If you were wondering whether Iglesias would ever hit, ZIPS is not likely to inspire much confidence. Last season, ZIPS forecast an anemic .251/.289/.311 line for Iglesias, which he actually underperformed – subtantially – with a .118/.200/.191 in 77 plate appearances. This season ZIPS expects little change with a .254/.298/.304. Everyone is rooting for the kid because his glove is that good, but the chances that he’ll ever be adequate at the plate are growing dimmer.
  • It’s easy to expect Jon Lester to improve this season, because established major league pitchers of his age do not typically drop off a performance cliff that quickly barring injury. Even if you buy into the regression to the mean theory, however, there are some alarming trends in his numbers that act to throttle expectations. Here are his K/9 numbers the past four years: 9.96, 9.74, 8.55, 7.28. And his average fastball velocity over that same span: 93.5, 93.5, 92.6, 92.0. Add it all up and ZIPS forecasts an improvement, but a modest one: a 3.97 ERA and a 3.91 FIP over 188.3 innings (which would be his lowest innings total since 2007). If Lester doesn’t throw something close to 200 innings, at a better rate than that, we’re likely in trouble.
  • If ZIPS is low on Lester, it’s lower on Buchholz. Which is certainly understandable given his early season struggles last season. What’s interesting about ZIPS is that it holds with Buchholz’ historical ability to outperform his FIP – often substantially so. Five out of his six seasons in the majors, Buchholz has underperformed his FIP. ZIPS continues this trend, forecasting an ERA of 4.16 against a FIP of 4.43. It also doesn’t expect Buchholz to exceed the 150 IP threshold, which he’s done two out of the last three years (2011’s back fracture held him to 82 IP). Like Lester, the Red Sox need him to outperform this projection if they are to contend.
  • ZIPS actually expects Doubront to improve somewhat from 2012. While the left hander started strong last year – and was actually the club’s best starter in stretches – his overall line was impacted by late season fatigue. In 2012, he put up an ERA of 4.86 and a FIP of 4.37. ZIPS expects a 4.59 and 4.36 this season. That’s the good news. The bad news is that it’s forecasting only 120+ IP from Doubront, down from last season’s 160+. Given the already existing concerns about his innings jump last season and the fact that he reportedly showed up to camp overweight, the ZIPS projected innings mark could be more accurate than the Red Sox would like.
  • One of the few bright spots last season, Junichi Tazawa was stellar after his call up posting a 1.82 FIP over 44 IP with 9.20 K/9 and 1.02 BB/9 rates. It’s hard to expect a pitcher to improve on those numbers, but ZIPS forecasts a substantial regression. Specifically, it calls for a 3.94 FIP over 80 innings, with 74 strikeouts but a spike in walks to 30. Still a useful reliever, but hardly the revelation he was last season.

The Ugly

  • If there was one forecast it would be reasonable to question, it might be Lackey’s. Like all projection systems, ZIPS is based off on performance metrics, and Lackey’s are compromised at least in part by the fact that the last season he was on the field he was pitching with a damaged elbow ligament. It’s reasonable to expect a bit more upside, then, than projection systems will anticipate. The problem is that Lackey’s numbers are so poor, even outperforming them will leave him significantly below average. To begin with, ZIPS expects very little in the way of innings pitched: 127, or twenty starts or so. Over that span, ZIPS expects an ERA of 5.24, a FIP of 4.86 and a K/9 of 5.53 against a BB/9 of 3.19. ZIPS expects Lackey, ultimately, to be worth less than a win, to be less valuable than Rubby De La Rosa, Craig Breslow, Franklin Morales and Brandon Workman. If all of that is true, the Red Sox will have a serious hole to fill in the rotation.
  • The good news for Bard is that ZIPS expects him to throw 65+ innings at the major league level. The bad news is that it doesn’t expect him to throw well. ZIPS sees Bard putting up a 4.50 ERA / 4.68 FIP, which are not the numbers of a premier reliever. And while it projects something of a recovery in his strikeout rate – 8.05 K/9 (8.81 career) – it believes he’ll continue to have a problem with walks. Specifically, it expects him to walk 41 batters over those 66 IP (5.59 BB/9) – an entirely unacceptable number for a high leverage relief pitcher. If true, Bard’s going to be toiling in middle relief if he’s lucky, and more likely to be living in Pawtucket for a few months.
  • There was a great deal of skepticism in the industry following Cherington’s signing of Jonny Gomes, and ZIPS shares it. For the player commonly assumed to be the regular left fielder, ZIPS expects only 391 plate appearances. Which would be a blessing if his line approximates the forecast .240/.332/.423. That’s acceptable if you’re a catcher; it’s not a starter in left field – at least for a contender.
  • Perhaps the player that ZIPS is hardest on is the sophomore third baseman Will Middlebrooks. SBNation’s Marc Normandin, among other writers, believes that Middlebrooks is an anomaly that projection systems are ill-equipped to handle. As written here in December, I’m highly concerned about his approach at the plate. If ZIPS is correct, those concerns are appropriate. ZIPS expects Middlebrooks – whose 2012 line of .288/.325/.509 masked signs the league was adjusting to the rookie – to regress to .255/.292/.434. His defense and a projected 19 home runs make him almost a two win player, but a third baseman who can’t get on base even 30% of the time (the average major league third baseman last year had a .323 OBP) is not a positive. As indeed so little of the 2013 ZIPS projections are for the club.
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