The Most Improved Hitters Thus Far by Projected WAR

Last week in these pages, the author considered the most improved pitchers by projected WAR. What follows is a very similar thing, except for hitters. As noted in that first post, there are multiple ways to perform such an exercise. As in the case of that first post, I’ve chosen here to (first) calculate the average of Steamer and ZiPS’ preseason WAR projections for each player and then (second) find the difference between that figure and the average updated WAR projection. As with last week, I’ve scaled all ZiPS projections to FanGraphs’ depth-chart plate-appearance projections.

What follows are the five hitters whose end-of-season WAR projections have most improved since the beginning of the season. Projection denotes a composite Steamer and ZiPS projection. PRE denotes the player’s preseason projection; UPD, the updated projection. All figures are current as of some time in the middle of the night between Tuesday and Wednesday.

5. Mike Trout, OF, Los Angeles AL (Profile)
Projection (PRE): 663 PA, .303/.402/.529, 160 wRC+, 50 Off, 5 Def, 8.6 WAR
Projection (UPD): 685 PA, .307/.399/.542, 164 wRC+, 54 Off, 14 Def, 10.1 WAR

There are certain elements of Mike Trout’s first 100-plus plate appearances that aren’t ideal. His walk rate, for example, is nearly just half of what it was in 2013; his strikeout rate, about 50% higher. The likely explanation for both trends: Trout has made less contact thus far than in previous seasons. If certain mild concerns exist with regard to the process, less can be said about the product. Both case and point: Trout, who has led the major leagues in WAR over each of the past two seasons, is doing that same exact thing again through the first month of this one. Incredibly, after having received the highest projected WAR figures from both Steamer and ZiPS before the season, Trout has somehow managed to exceed expectations.

4. Chase Utley, 2B, Philadelphia (Profile)
Projection (PRE): 540 PA, .258/.337/.432, 112 wRC+, 8 Off, 6 Def, 3.0 WAR
Projection (UPD): 556 PA, .286/.358/.473, 132 wRC+, 22 Off, 7 Def, 4.7 WAR

Between 2005 and -09, Utley averaged about 6.5 wins for every 600 plate appearances. Since then, the figure has been more like 5.0 WAR per 600. The difference, mostly, has been one of power. The peak version of Utley hit 25 home runs over those same 600 PAs; the more recent one, about 18. That slight decline has created a lower ceiling for Utley, but his lack of erosion in other areas has preserved rather a high floor for him. It’s not surprising that projection systems would produce preseason forecasts calling for an overall decline in the skills of a 35-year-old with some less-than-full seasons in his recent history. With his performance over the first month, however, Utley’s updated projections very closely resemble those he’s produced over the first half of his 30s.

3. Brian Dozier, 2B, Minnesota (Profile)
Projection (PRE): 531 PA, .246/.304/.376, 88 wRC+, -8 Off, 3 Def, 1.5 WAR
Projection (UPD): 629 PA, .239/.318/.395, 100 wRC+, 2 Off, 8 Def, 3.4 WAR

Some brief and perhaps inaccurate research on the matter seems to reveal that Brian Dozier hit his first professional home run on June 24, 2010, whilst playing for the High-A Fort Myers Miracle. This is notable because Dozier had recorded (a) his first professional plate appearance almost exactly a year before that (June 30, 2009) in the Gulf Coast League and (b) about 560 professional plate appearances total in the interim — always playing at an age above the relevant league’s average. Over the past recent calendar year as of today (Tuesday), Dozier has somehow recorded 25 home runs (i.e. many more of them) — and all against major-league pitchers. Even despite the dramatic increase in his homer total last season, both Steamer and ZiPS projected only about 12 of them for Dozier per 600 plate appearances in 2014. After a month, the Twins second baseman is over half way to that mark.

2. Emilio Bonifacio, UT, Chicago NL (Profile)
Projection (PRE): 267 PA, .255/.314/.334, 78 wRC+, -5 Off, -4 Def, 0.1 WAR
Projection (UPD): 454 PA, .278/.337/.356, 94 wRC+, 1 Off, 1 Def, 1.8 WAR

In terms of approach — and, in most cases, results — there actually isn’t a lot different about this version of Emilio Bonifacio than previous ones. He’s struck out maybe slightly less often than usual and produced slightly more runs (on a rate basis) by means of baserunning and defense. Otherwise, however, he’s more or less the same player. Indeed, much of his added value thus far is derived from batted-ball outcomes: his .405 BABIP thus far exceeds his career total to date by about 70 points. Of some note is how Bonifacio’s batted-ball production reveals how aggressively Steamer and ZiPS, respectively, integrate smallish BABIP samples into their rest-of-season projections.

Regard, by way of example, the following table, which reveals that ZiPS’ rest-of-season BABIP projection (ROS) is much higher than its preseason one (PRE), while Steamer’s is roughly the same.

System PRE ROS Diff
Steamer .318 .321 .003
ZiPS .319 .336 .017

1. Charlie Blackmon, OF, Colorado (Profile)
Projection (PRE): 177 PA, .268/.318/.409, 87 wRC+, -2 Off, -4 Def, -0.1 WAR
Projection (UPD): 557 PA, .304/.355/.478, 122 wRC+, 14 Off, 3 Def, 3.5 WAR

Before the season began, it wasn’t entirely clear that Blackmon would be receiving anything like regular playing time. With Carlos Gonzalez and Michael Cuddyer expected to compile something approaching a full complement of plate appearances at the corner-outfield spots, a number of other players — including Brandon Barnes, Corey Dickerson, Drew Stubbs, and Blackmon himself — all found themselves competing for center field. Now, after 27 games, Blackmon has actually recorded the second-highest number of outfield starts for the Rockies — a number augmented in part by an injury to Michael Cuddyer, but also very much earned by Blackmon for his performance. Indeed, after 102 plate appearances, Blackmon has been worth two wins already — the third-highest total in the league. And while certainly some of the improvement to Blackmon’s updated WAR projection is a factor of the wins he’s already produced, it’s also true that his rest-of-season WAR projection — the closest thing to a measurement of his true talent — are considerably more promising. To wit: Steamer and ZiPS projected a combined 87 wRC+ for Blackmon this preseason and are currently projection a combined 102 wRC+ for the rest of the season — a difference of +15.

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Carson Cistulli occasionally publishes spirited ejaculations at The New Enthusiast.

32 Responses to “The Most Improved Hitters Thus Far by Projected WAR”

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  1. It’s amazing that Mike Trout can improve upon projections, guy is incredible.

    I was also surprised to not see Jose Abreu in here but that could be because of his defense at 1B (even though it’s been solid).

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  2. Nick says:

    I’m curious where Andrelton Simmons stands in this category

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  3. Sosa says:

    Kind of misleading headline, it talks about the most improved hitters but Trout’s projections only jumped from 160 wRC+ to 164 wRC+, the jump in his WAR is from a massive defensive value projection shift which doesn’t make much sense, nothing he’s done defensively in this sample should call for such a dramatically different projection. It looks like everyone except Utley has received a large bump in their expected defensive value.

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    • Ed says:

      Sosa I was thinking the same thing. “Most Improved Position Players…” would make more sense.

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      • everdiso says:

        But that wouldn’t make a whole lotta sense anyways, since projecting any significant difference in projected defensive value based on less than a month of defensive data is……foolhardy.

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    • Emcee Peepants says:

      I do agree that the headline is somewhat misleading, but everyone but Trout also has a pretty significant bump in projected wRC+. Maybe at this point in the season, that (or wOBA) would have been more useful b/c of the SSS impact on defensive projections.

      On a side note, isn’t Trout’s defensive bump likely due to the fact that he is back in CF this year, where the metrics like his defense, after being in LF last year, where they didn’t? Perhaps the preseason projections didn’t take that into account?

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      • vivalajeter says:

        To some extent, yes, but it’s also a sample size issue. He’s been worth 7 runs on defense, which pro-rates to 42 runs in 150 games. That’s too fluky for my taste.

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    • dc says:

      I came here just to write this exact comment.

      well done

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    • jruby says:

      It’s ambiguous, but clearly being used as opposed to pitchers, yes? Probably more precise would have been “Most Improved Position Players”

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  4. Tim says:

    Man, Trout on pace for 15 WAR if he somehow keeps this pace up.

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    • Well-Beered Englishman says:

      On the one hand, I know he can’t do it, but on the other hand, with Mike Trout there may not be such a thing as “can’t”.

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    • Erik says:

      What’s amazing is that most Angel fans will tell you he might be slumping!

      His offense is up a tick despite a huge increase in strikeouts. He’s also walking less, which I would mostly attribute to teams finally fearing Albert Pujols behind him.

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  5. Bryan Richert says:

    How about Alexi Ramirez? The Cuban Missile has been on a tear the first month of the season.

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  6. everdiso says:

    Kinda shocked Melky isn’t on this list.

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  7. RoastBeeph says:

    I think Simmons isn’t on the list because for some reason his defense thus far has been judged to be pretty pedestrian, at least by Simmons standards, which IMO is completely bogus. I have seen every Braves game so far this year and IMO he looks the best he ever has. Some of the plays he has made this year have been utterly astounding and he is as consistent as ever, literally making EVERY play.

    It just goes to show how defensive stats are something to ignore until at least two months into the season or so. It seems like they are wildly inaccurate until then.

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    • The Other Simmons says:

      Defensive stats are kind of like Styles from Teen Wolf. They’re fun to have around & they’ll have your back when its convenient for them when you feel inclined to ‘surf’ on the top of a van through 1980s small town Nebraska, but they’re not incredibly reliable from day to day. Yup, this is my input…

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      • American Stephen Crane says:


        Making a gallon of soup with a pint of water.

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        • Spit Ball says:

          One pint of water can work wonders for a hardy gallon of soup given decent veggies, meat and spices.

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    • macheesmo3 says:

      I think it’s because he hasn’t had as many chances as he usually does. Maybe I’m just not noticing, but it seems like Dan has had an abnormally large amount of chances at 2b (which explains his positive defensive value) and Simmons has had an abnormally small amount of chances. (thus the reverse). I expect, come years end, Simmons will be at the top of the SS defensive rankings.

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      • Spit Ball says:

        I also think his bat blossoms this year. He has 2 walks and 3 strikeouts. Someone needs to help him get the ball in the air a bit because he has a decent power stroke. He also needs to wait on his pitch a bit. He was a speed guy in the minors and learned to hit the ball on the ground. His batted ball profile is moving to a good spot. I think their is a 350 OBP, 60-70 extra base hit bat inside of him. He needs to wait on his pitch and not chase the high pitch that he pops up on the infield as he looks to drive the ball more. If pitchers fear him driving the ball, his walks should AT LEAST stay even with the 40 he had last year if not tick up a bit. He might strikeout 100 times but who cares if the OBP and power are where they COULD be. He’s an athlete but not a speed guy at this level. Use your power young man. I say this both from watching him 100 times on TV and by looking at his batted ball profiles.

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        • TKDC says:

          .350 OBP and 60-70 XBHs…

          Well, that would make him basically Derek Jeter with the bat, which with his defense would make him one of the greatest players of all time, perhaps a top-10 all time player. I hope you’re right!!!

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        • frivoflava29 says:

          Sweet analysis, have you emailed him?

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  8. American Stephen Crane says:

    You know who made a doozy Dozier prediction? Eno(s):

    Brian Dozier will figure out his pop-up problems and have a huge year.

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    • Emcee Peepants says:

      His IFFB% is 15.2% compared to 14.4% last year, so not really. His increased value this year is due mostly to a great walk rate (over double from 2013) which could be sustainable and a ludicrous HR/FB of 21.8% which almost definitely is not.

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  9. Hurtlockertwo says:

    I find it odd that all those great athletes, I’m looking at you Mike Trout, also eat Subway sandwiches. Has anyone analyzed what’s in those sandwiches??

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    • Alex Andreopoulos says:

      Performance enhancing sandwiches and surgeries should be at the top of everyone’s witch hunt list.

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      • jruby says:

        Dear Lord. Imagine how terrible Ryan Howard would be if he didn’t have Flatizzas to enhance his performance.

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  10. Kevin says:

    So Utley is still pretty good at baseball.

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  11. CajunDodger says:

    My surprise omission was Dee Gordon…

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  12. Erik says:

    People need to realize that defensive stats are all about chances. It’s just like offense but with a variable amount of plate appearances in each game. Some days you might get 5 or 6, others you might get 0.

    We need to look at the underlying process that leads to the numbers – are they high or low because of the chances or because of the performance on the chances?

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