One hypothesis for baseball’s sluggish free-agent market goes that, in the post-Moneyball era, front offices have “narrowing views of player valuation.” In addition to their scouts, many — if not all — teams have their own projection systems, and projection systems tend to follow similar logic and view players in similar ways. For example, here’s what to expect from Red Sox sophomore Andrew Benintendi this year, according to three public projections:
ZiPS: 18 HR, .282/.354/.456, 84 R, 17 SB, 2.9 WAR
Steamer: 19 HR, .286/.360/.464, 88 R, 15 SB, 2.8 WAR
PECOTA: 18 HR, .272/.345/.446, 86 R, 16 SB, 2.5 WARP
Three systems and three methodologies, but ask them to predict 600 plate appearances, and they disagree on only a half-dozen of them. Most players’ projections aren’t quite this uniform, but rarely will you find yourself flabbergasted by a projection. Nor, probably, should you be, if you’ve been paying attention to the player’s performance.
But this makes those few instances of system disagreement especially interesting. There are, occasionally, players whose outlooks look significantly different depending on the URL at the top of your browser. In turn, those projections might dramatically affect an entire team’s outlook or convince you to push a player six rounds higher in a fantasy draft. These players are windows into the science of projections, and they’re helpful reminders of the utter bonkersness of baseball performance. Settle a few of these disagreements for us, will you?
ZiPS: 6.2 WAR, second-best position player in baseball
Steamer: 5.8 WAR, fifth-best position player in baseball
PECOTA: 4.5 WAR, 14th-best position player in baseball
ZiPS’ and Steamer’s disagreement is over defense and role: Stanton is worth less as a DH, where he’ll likely play some games. Both see Stanton as the second-best hitter in baseball, behind only Mike Trout. ZiPS sees him hitting 55 home runs with a 1.033 OPS; Steamer sees 53 homers and a 1.022 OPS. That’s the same basic hitter with small disagreements over how much he contributes with his glove.
But PECOTA is much more conservative on Stanton the hitter, projecting 41 homers (still the most of any projected hitter) and a .908 OPS. For this, it’s important to remember that in 2016, Stanton hit just .240/.326/.489, and to that point in his career, he had never hit 40 home runs, he had a sub-.900 career OPS, and he had dealt with significant injuries in four of the previous five seasons.
It’s also important to remember that baseball is a cruel game that occasionally flummoxes even the very best players. Aware of that potential for disaster, PECOTA often looks conservative: It’s folding in the very real possibility of collapse for each player. In fact, it often looks too conservative — every year, Mike Trout is projected to have a career-worst season, and every year he bests it — but collectively, the caution seems to pay off. Over the past three seasons, PECOTA’s top 20 projected hitters — 60 hitter seasons in all — have collectively done exactly what PECOTA projected for them, even though more have outhit their projections than come up short.
That gives us three visions of Stanton: The AL’s MVP, a candidate for MVP but a little bit down from 2017 and a valuable All-Star who nevertheless comes up well short of preseason hyperbole. Interestingly, the Fan Projections at FanGraphs — which are based on readers’ crowd-sourced estimates — lean toward the pessimistic view. That’s very rare; fans are almost always more optimistic than soulless projection systems.
For six years in a row, Bautista was an All-Star. Does that seem that long ago to you? Do his top-10 MVP finishes, does his bat flip in the ALCS, seem forever ago? If they do, you’re ZiPS. If they don’t, you’re PECOTA.
ZiPS: -0.1 WAR, .699 OPS, 582nd-best position player in baseball
PECOTA: 3.0 WAR, .812 OPS, 55th-best position player in baseball
(Steamer doesn’t have a WAR because it doesn’t estimate playing time for players who are still free agents. It splits the difference on his offense, though: a .761 OPS)
Remember when we said projection systems tend to follow similar logic? The basis for just about every projection system is what the player has done, how recently and at what age. Some systems go further back for information; some put greater or lesser emphasis on recency; some have different aging curves; some have different ways of neutralizing performances based on ballparks or quality of competition; some fold in other details, the sorts of details more traditionally associated with scouting; some draw more inference based on previous, similar players. But the basis is simple: What has he done, how recently and at what age?
Over the past three years, Bautista has been a very good hitter: He has hit more home runs than George Springer, has a higher OPS than Wil Myers, has outhit (by weighted on-base average) Marcell Ozuna and Justin Smoak. That’s all really good, and it’s relevant. Good players have bad years, often followed by more good years. But last year, Bautista was one of the worst hitters in the game, and he’s old, and those six consecutive All-Star appearances might not tell us much about what’s going on in his cells right now. As a result, one system sees a player who was extremely good not long ago. Another sees a player who was extremely bad very recently.
Turner, the Nationals’ 24-year-old shortstop, has never made an All-Star team, never received an MVP vote, never led his league in any stat, never even qualified for the batting title. (He was called up late in 2015 and 2016, and he broke his wrist in the summer of 2017.) But he’s already a star — or at least close to it. He has been a top-five pick in fantasy drafts this spring, with 20-HR power and 50-SB speed. ZiPS projects him to the 37th-best position player in baseball, with his top player comp being Hall of Famer Ryne Sandberg. Steamer projects him to be the 22nd-most valuable, just behind Freddie Freeman and just ahead of Judge. Impressive.
But then PECOTA butts in. It projects Turner to be the third-most valuable player in baseball, at 6.1 WAR. Surprisingly, it doesn’t forecast much better offensive numbers:
ZiPS: 3.0 WAR, .774 OPS
Steamer: 4.1 WAR, .813 OPS
PECOTA: 6.1 WAR, .805 OPS
The bulk of the gap comes from smaller or harder-to-measure or easier-to-disagree-on things. PECOTA predicts that Turner will be, as a baserunner, eight runs better than the average runner. Steamer and ZiPS say only 3.5 runs and 5.3 runs, respectively. That accounts for about a quarter of the difference between Steamer and PECOTA.
PECOTA also projects Turner to be one of the very best defensive shortstops in baseball, at 11 runs above average. ZiPS and Steamer project him to be just one or two runs above average. Each projection uses different advanced metrics to get to a number, but Turner is especially hard to project as a shortstop because he has played second base, center field and only 103 games at shortstop in his brief major league career. PECOTA is likely drawing from his minor league performance at the position, which (it thinks) was quite impressive.
Honestly, the public might hardly notice the difference between these three projected outcomes. In all three cases, he’d help your fantasy team the same. But the Nationals would notice. Turner’s baserunning and defensive value could span the distance from top MVP candidate to being left off most ballots.
According to Baseball Prospectus’ advanced pitching metric, Deserved Run Average — which considers a dizzying array of factors in and out of a pitcher’s control — Verlander was the eighth-best pitcher in baseball last year. DRA didn’t just like him after the trade to Houston, when his ERA was 1.06 in five starts; it thinks he pitched just as well in Detroit, despite a more mediocre ERA. In 2016, DRA says, Verlander was the best pitcher in baseball.
Which makes this one surprising:
ZiPS: 4.0 WAR (16th among all pitchers), 3.43 ERA, 1.12 WHIP
Steamer: 3.8 WAR (19th among all pitchers), 3.86 ERA, 1.20 WHIP
PECOTA: 2.2 WAR (48th among all pitchers), 4.18 ERA, 1.29 WHIP
This probably comes down to how each system treats aging. Darius Austin, at Baseball Prospectus, wrote this month about the pessimistic case for Verlander:
“While we might look at Verlander and see a workhorse who has a significant track record of success — including back-to-back seasons over 200 innings with more than a strikeout per inning and a very recent spectacular playoff performance — PECOTA sees a 35-year-old with a walk rate over 3.0/9, a home run problem, and a fairly recent season in which he was no better than league average. Most sobering are Verlander’s top three same-age comps: Adam Wainwright, Jason Schmidt, and the late Roy Halladay, all reminders of how rapid the decline can be.”
Of course, nothing about Verlander looks to be in decline. After decreased velocity led to poor 2014 and 2015 seasons — which pollute his projections somewhat — he regained his physical dominance. His average fastball last year was harder than it had been since 2010 and 2.5 mph harder than in 2014. Plus, another of his top same-age comps is Roger Clemens.
The punchline is that Andrew Benintendi will probably do something entirely different from his projections this year. Projection systems might agree, or slightly disagree, on what a player’s most likely outcome is. But one assumption baked into all of them is that the range of outcomes is fantastic. Some part of ZiPS knows PECOTA might be right about Bautista; some part of PECOTA knows Steamer might be right about Stanton; and some part of Steamer knows the only thing we can really count on is looking back at what we thought we knew and laughing.
Let us appreciate the grace and uncommon decency of Henry Aaron
When I first reached out to Henry Aaron to tell him I was interested in writing a book about his life, he did not want to talk to me. He was convinced the public had no interest in him, except to have him serve as their proxy to criticize Barry Bonds as Bonds neared his all-time home run record. Henry’s titanic statistical achievements cemented, he was tired of the constant misinterpretation of his worldview. The journalistic response to his critique of race relations had turned him inward. In print, he saw himself portrayed as bitter, always bitter, when in fact he was merely telling the story of his life — answering the questions he was asked. When we first spoke, he was resigned to the idea that people did not want to really know him. Instead, they wanted him to reflect a sense of their own better selves. His perspective of his greatest moment — breaking Babe Ruth’s all-time home run record — was somehow less important than theirs, and his view that the greatest moment of his career finally ended the worst period of his athletic life complicated their enjoyment that the night of April 8, 1974, brought them. The public reduced the effects of his own journey to him simply being bitter without cause.
I asked him whether he wanted to be known. “Yes, I do,” he told me. “But whenever I say something, the writers get it wrong. Then they try to correct it, and then I have to correct the correction, and finally I just decided it wasn’t worth it. Don’t say anything. Keep to myself. If you don’t say anything, they can’t get it wrong.”
Henry’s critique was central to his life, and the critique was a simultaneously gentle yet ferocious indictment. Over the course of his 86 years, America asked him to do everything right. It asked him to pull himself up by his bootstraps: Henry’s father had built the family house with saved money and leftover planks of wood and nails he scavenged from vacant lots around the Toulminville section of Mobile, while he had taught himself to play baseball. America asked him to put in the hours and the hard work and to not complain: Henry played 23 seasons and never once went on the then-disabled list. No special favors. No handouts. America asked him to believe in meritocracy, the meritocracy of the record books and the scoreboard.
America asked him to do all of the things, and when he did them, he found himself at the top of his nation’s greatest sporting profession through the merit of statistics. In return, the FBI told him his daughter was the target of a kidnapping plot. For nearly three years he required a police escort and an FBI detail for himself and his family. He finished the 1973 season with 713 home runs — one shy of tying Ruth’s record — and believed he would be assassinated in the offseason. He had received enough letters to convince him so. He received death threats from 1972 to 1974 — all for doing what America asked of him.
He was unconvinced a writer would take him seriously, because over his lifetime precious few had. As he seemed to warm to the idea — or at least not view it hostilely — he asked me a question I would never forget: “How many pages will it be?” It seemed so odd — yet the question was self-explanatory and my response would telegraph to him how seriously I took the project. Biographies of towering figures in the classically grand tradition are thick. They are doorstops. They are meaty paperweights that sit on the bookshelves whose girth scream importance — even if 95 percent of the population never finishes them, even if I was thinking, “Mr. Aaron, the only thing worse than writing a lousy book is writing a really long, lousy book.” To him, big people got big books and because he did not yet have one, he did not think people cared. Henry wanted to make sure I was willing to put in the work to understand a life.
He possessed an uncommon decency, a quality in short supply today. His decency convinced him no one was interested in him, not because he did not believe his life was important, but because he was not an anti-hero whose deep flaws, scandal and misdeeds made him more marketable. He was just a solid person. No jail. No arrests. No substance abuse, falls from grace, or mistresses.
Henry understood at once his place in the world and how his talent had created a different lane for him. The people who once dismissed him, and his people, made exceptions for him because he was The Hank Aaron. He was rightfully distrusting of them. He watched the change in how America viewed him as his talent kept proving its cultural racism wrong. And instead of his constant defeat of its presuppositions, the culture did not change, but in its eyes, he did. Henry became dignified.
In the African American story, dignity is such a sly and deceptive word, simultaneously complimentary and condescending, and dignity was attached to Henry like a surname. Its affixation to him, of course, said more about his world than it ever did about him. For what was called dignity was simply an acceptable response to hostility, and it was easier for writers and broadcasters, fans and executives to concentrate on his response to hostility than the hostility itself. It is a common expectation of African Americans that they be more conciliatory and not vengeful, invested and not apathetic, constantly brave and aspiring and dignified in the hostile territory of indignity. When he smiled at the hostility, he was dignified. When he did not, he was bitter. Dignity has always felt like code for treating white incivility as inevitable behavior, of not ever punching the punchers.
His life seemed to mimic his career, a long, triumphant marathon where in the end his values proved sturdier than the temporary sensations of the moment. And through all the years — like hitting 20 home runs for 20 straight years — he was still there.
There was a hidden fear I felt for my own family that I also felt for him: the worry that Black people in their 80s and 90s would die before the 2020 election, and during the last part of their lives they would bear witness to both the elation of an African American president and a hostile response so severe it was reminiscent of the previous backlashes to Black success. When Henry and I last saw each other, in Atlanta in early 2018, this — along with tennis (“Do you think Serena will get another one?” he asked) and the NFL playoffs — is what we talked about. And he reminded me of his father working at the Mobile shipyard during World War II, when white workers rioted because African Americans were being hired, taking what they believed was theirs and theirs only. Henry was dignified, but he never forgot what was done to his people and by whom.
He never mentioned not surviving the vicious presidency of the past four years, but I worried about it for him, as I did for all the Black people of his generation for whom the vote was something some had literally died for — a vote that today was being strategically suppressed and delegitimized. When I wished him a Happy New Year a few weeks ago, he was grateful for surviving, and excited for Georgia. What he saw in the country reminded him of where it had been, of how deeply the past had wounded him, and he feared seeing the past in the future. We talked about losing Joe Morgan and Jimmy Wynn, Tom Seaver and Whitey Ford and Bob Gibson and Lou Brock and Al Kaline with pain and absolutely no hints that day that he and I would never speak again.
Before we hung up the phone he said what he always said, “Call, any time. I love when we talk,” and I said I would, but I also knew the truth: I never called him nearly enough because he was the great man, Henry Aaron, and one does not respect an invitation by overstaying one’s welcome. Now, that time cannot be recovered.
When he was behind Ruth, he was ahead of America. When he passed Ruth, America still had not caught up to him — and now, respected as royalty, I asked him if there was ever a quiet moment when he could sit back with an umbrella in his drink and revel in triumph, that he indeed had made it. He said yes so many times, delighted in the happiness he had not felt in 1974, making bitterness the inappropriate adjective it always had been. He challenged baseball and had reconciled with it. He was an unquestioned immortal, no longer slighted. Jeff Idelson, former president of the National Baseball Hall of Fame, saw to that, as did his friend and former baseball commissioner, Bud Selig, who made it clear to all underlings at MLB that Henry was a made man, not to be harassed. President George W. Bush awarded him the Presidential Medal of Freedom.
In 2009, Henry, his wife, Billye, and I were sitting in a conference room at the Hall of Fame in Cooperstown. I was trying to comprehend the historical arc of Henry Aaron, and told him he represented so much of the Black American aspirational journey. I said to him, “You went from your mother hiding you under the bed when the Klan marched down your street as a toddler to sleeping in the White House as the invited guests of the president.”
“No, no, no, Mr. Bryant,” Billye Aaron interrupted me with a proud smile. “We didn’t sleep at the White House. We slept at the White House twice.”
Sources — Boston Red Sox, Enrique Hernandez agree to 2-year, $14 million deal
Hernandez, originally acquired from the Miami Marlins as part of a seven-player trade in December of 2014, was a key cog for the Los Angeles Dodgers over these last six years because of his infectious energy, defensive versatility and production against left-handed pitching.
Hernandez, 29, is a career .240/.313/.425 hitter, making him slightly below league average, but can provide premium defense as a middle infielder and in the outfield. From 2016 to 2020, Hernandez compiled 5.7 FanGraphs wins above replacement.
One of his greatest highlights with the Dodgers came in October, when he hit the game-tying home run in Game 7 of the National League Championship Series.
MLB Network was first to report the deal.
ESPN’s Alden Gonzalez contributed to this report.
Davey Johnson hospitalized with COVID-19, former New York Mets spokesman says
Former New York Mets manager Davey Johnson is in a Florida hospital with COVID-19, according to former Mets spokesman Jay Horwitz.
Horwitz said he spoke with Johnson briefly on Friday.
— New York Mets (@Mets) January 22, 2021
Johnson, 77, was a four-time All-Star second baseman and managed the Mets to their most recent World Series title in 1986.
He played for Baltimore (1965-72), Atlanta (1973-75), Yomiuri (1976), Philadelphia (1977-78) and the Chicago Cubs (1978), winning a World Series title in 1970 and making the final out of the Orioles’ 1969 Series loss to the Mets. He hit .261 with 136 homers and 609 RBIs, getting picked for All-Star teams from 1968 to ’70 and again in 1973.
Johnson managed the Mets (1985-90), Cincinnati (1993-95), Baltimore (1996-97), the Los Angeles Dodgers (1999-2000) and Washington (2011-13), leading his teams to a 1,372-1,071 record and six first-place finishes. He also managed the U.S. to a bronze medal at the 2008 Olympics and fourth place at the 2009 World Baseball Classic.
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