Thursday, February 19, 2015

How Will These Yankees Outperform Their Projections?

Welcome to Day 2 of How Blank's Convoluted Baseball Ideas. (Still trying to think of a better name.)

The Yankees report to spring training tomorrow, so over the next two days, I want to examine how a projection system views some of the team's notable players. Today, I'll highlight two players that I expect to outperform their projections. Tomorrow, I'll piss on that optimistic fire by pointing out two Yankees who might underperform.

Before I get into my expected overachievers, here's a little explanation of the projection system I'll be referencing:
Steamer is a projection system for player statistics that is featured on well-respected sites like Fangraphs. Steamer uses a player's past performance, home ballpark, and other variables to perform difficult math that leads to a projection for each player that we can understand. In this case, we'll be using Fangraphs Wins Above Replacement (fWAR) projections as a shorthand for Steamer's projection of each player.

With that being said, let's examine one Yankees position player and one pitcher who I think will outperform their Steamer projections for the 2015 season.

Player: Chase Headley
Projected WAR: 3.8

Why Steamer is Pessimistic: As far as projection systems go, Steamer is more optimistic than Baseball Prospectus's PECOTA, which pegs Headley for about 2 WAR. Steamer thinks the third baseman will lead Yankees position players with 3.8 WAR, but that number would be low for a team leader. Headley's WAR projection is lower than his 2014 WAR total (4.4), partly because last year he posted more defensive runs saved than he usually does. Since defensive metrics are notoriously inconsistent, Steamer is factoring in some regression for Headley on defense.

Moreover, Steamer bakes park factors into a player's projection. Therefore, even though Headley's traditional stats should improve markedly in his first full season away from the Elephant Graveyard that is Petco Park, his WAR won't be helped by Yankee Stadium's cozier confines. Lastly, projection systems are historically conservative so only true stars should expect projections of 5 WAR or more.

Why You Shouldn't Trust the Damn Projection: Even though it's higher than PECOTA's projection, Steamer's forecast seems low to me for a number of (biased and unbiased) reasons. As a partisan fan, I'm hoping that Headley can regain his MVP-caliber form from 2012. My unbiased reasons are more important, though. After his mid-season trade to the Yankees last year, Headley posted 2.8 WAR in just 58 games, so 3.8 WAR over a full campaign seems more than doable. Even though last year's WAR total was boosted by Headley's defense, he also hit very well after entering a pseudo-pennant race with the Yankees. He has a track record of success, having exceeded 4 WAR in three of his last four healthy seasons. Also, Headley's still just 30, making him a spring chicken in the Bronx. The Yankees will pay him like a star ($13 million annually) so nobody should be shocked when Headley produces like one.


Player: Dellin Betances
Projected WAR: 1.0

Why Steamer is Pessimistic: The computer has a much longer memory than humans. And Steamer recalls Betances' underwhelming years as a minor league starter. Before turning into '96 Rivera over 90 innings last season, Betances struggled at various minor league levels from 2006-13. He started almost every game that he pitched during that time-frame, and it didn't suit him. The six-foot-eight righty was wild and had difficulty keeping his mechanics sound. As a result of that track record -- as well as the fact that projection systems often have difficulty predicting performance for starters who convert to relievers -- Steamer expects Betances to regress in almost every category in 2015. Steamer also expects Betances to toss just 65 innings, a much more traditional workload for a relief pitcher than the 90 frames he whirled in 2014.

Why You Shouldn't Trust the Damn Projection: Betances recorded the best park- and league-adjusted ERA in all of baseball among pitchers who tossed as many innings last season. He also notched a stellar 5.63 strikeouts for every batter he walked. For 2015, meanwhile, Steamer projects that strikeout-to-walk ratio to regress to 3.21. That projection is mostly based on Betances' years as a starter, but his switch to reliever has allowed him to hone and repeat his mechanics. Don't expect the type of regression that Steamer foresees.

When I highlighted the 15 things New York sports fans should be excited about in 2015, I wrote that Betances is one of the city's brightest superstars. If I could wager against the Steamer prediction for one player, the over on Betances would be my bet. With that being said, another masterful 90 innings from Betances probably won't be enough to rescue the Yankees' triage unit of starting pitchers. (More on that tomorrow.)

Why I'll Probably Be Wrong about Both Predictions: Because computers are smart (and humans are not).

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