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 has just published a book of aphorisms called Spirited Ejaculations of a New Enthusiast.

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