The Most Improved Players Thus Far by Projected WAR

What follows represents an attempt by the author to utilize the projections available at the site to identify the five major-league hitters whose WAR projections have most improved on a rate basis since the beginning of the season.

For every batter, what I’ve done is first to calculate his preseason (PRE) WAR projection per every 550 plate appearances (or 415 for catchers), averaging together Steamer and ZiPS forecasts where both are available. What I’ve done next is to calculate every hitter’s rest-of-season (ROS) WAR projection (again, prorated to 550 PA and using both Steamer and ZiPS when available). I’ve then found the difference in WAR per 550 PA between the preseason and rest-of-season projection.

When I attempted a similar exercise two months ago, I used updated end-of-season projections instead of rest-of-season ones. The advantage of the latter (and why I’m using it here) is that it provides the closest available thing to an estimate of any given player’s current true-talent level — which, reason dictates, is what one requires to best identify those players who have most improved.

Only those hitters have been considered who both (a) are currently on a major-league roster and (b) have recorded 100-plus plate appearances and (c) weren’t accidentally omitted by the author, who is a moron. Note that Projection denotes a composite Steamer and ZiPS projection. PRE denotes the player’s preseason projection; ROS, the rest-of-season projection. Plate-appearances estimates for both PRE and ROS projections are taken from relevant batter’s depth-chart projection. Note that, while individual player projections (both preseason and rest-of-season) are rendered below in raw form, the author (once again) has utilized prorated projections (per 550 PA for field players and 415 PA for catchers) as the means by which to adjudge the “most improved” players by WAR. Data is current as of Monday.


5. Seth Smith, OF, San Diego (Profile)
Projection (PRE): 326 PA, .246/.323/.407, 105 wRC+, 2 Off, -8 Def, 0.5 WAR
Projection (ROS): 192 PA, .254/.338/.428, 118 wRC+, 4 Off, -3 Def, 0.8 WAR

Prorated to 550 plate appearances, Smith’s WAR projection has improved by about 1.3 wins over the course of the season, from a combined preseason Steamer and ZiPS projection of 0.7 to a current mark of 2.0 (again, between both systems per 550 PA). That Smith has faced right-handed pitchers in just under 90% of his 272 plate appearances certainly won’t have hurt him; however, one notes both that (a) he’s outproduced his previously established levels against right-handers and also (b) has done the same thing in brief exposure to left-handers, as well — in the latter case, by mostly not swinging.

4. Bobby Abreu, OF, New York NL (Profile)
Projection (PRE): 29 PA, .240/.333/.361, 94 wRC+, 0 Off, -1 Def, 0.0 WAR
Projection (ROS): 101 PA, .249/.339/.363, 103 wRC+, 0 Off, -1 Def, 0.2 WAR

That Bobby Abreu has, in the past, been an excellent player is impossible to ignore. That he’s now a 40-year-old person, however, with some demonstrable physical limitations is also pretty clear. Nor do the projection systems ignore Abreu’s shortcomings: Steamer regards him as about a one-win player per every 550 plate appearances right now. That’s the true-talent level of a valuable role player, that — better than replacement level, but not really average, either. If it’s an underwhelming assessment, it’s also a more optimistic one than Steamer produced in March — about 1.5 wins better per 550 PA.

3. Kevin Kiermaier, OF, Tampa Bay (Profile)
Projection (PRE): 1 PA, .245/.299/.344, 82 wRC+, 0 Off, 0 Def, 0.4 WAR
Projection (ROS): 162 PA, .255/.308/.381, 96 wRC+, -1 Off, 1 Def, 0.7 WAR

While he’s generally produced competent plate-discipline figures in the minors, that hasn’t been the case this season in the majors for Kevin Kiermaier, whose walk- and strikeout-rate differential of -14.6 percentage points is just the 236th-best mark (out of 345) among batters to have recorded 100-plus plate appearances. And yet, one finds that Kiermaier currently possesses the third-most-improved WAR projection of all players on a rate basis since the beginning of the season. A brief inspection of the numbers reveals, among other contributing factors, increased optimism for Kiermaier’s power. By way of illustration, consider his ZiPS projections. Before the season, ZiPS called for four home runs from Kiermaier per every 550 plate appearances; his ZiPS rest-of-season projections forecasts three of them, however, over just 199 PAs — or about eight per 550 plate appearances. That improvement, in conjunction with his already above-average defense, renders Kiermaier almost precisely a league-average player now, probably.

2. Charlie Blackmon, OF, Colorado (Profile)
Projection (PRE): 177 PA, .268/.318/.409, 87 wRC+, -2 Off, -4 Def, -0.1 WAR
Projection (ROS): 276 PA, .278/.326/.430, 97 wRC+, -1 Off, -2 Def, 0.6 WAR

Blackmon’s 2014 season hasn’t been the revelation one might have expected given the outfielder’s first month. An inspection of the WAR leaderboard from April reveals Blackmon’s name ninth among all major-league batters, at 1.4 — not far off the pace set by Troy Tulowitzki (2.1) and Mike Trout (1.9) at that time. Now 226 plate appearances later, Blackmon has only added +0.1 WAR to his overall season total. Still, even over those latter two months, Blackmon has produced a strikeout rate (13.7%) better than either Steamer or ZiPS projected at the beginning of the season (16.3% and 16.9%, respectively) and a home-run rate above 1.5 times greater than what Steamer or ZiPS forecast.

1. Steve Pearce, 1B/OF, Baltimore (Profile)
Projection (PRE): 164 PA, .248/.333/.408, 102 wRC+, 0 Off, -3 Def, 0.3 WAR
Projection (ROS): 195 PA, .268/.346/.456, 121 wRC+, 5 Off, -2 Def, 0.8 WAR

Pearce entered the 2008 season among both Baseball America’s and Baseball Prospectus’s top-100 prospects, but produced only mediocre numbers with Pittsburgh over parts of five seasons, and everntually became a free agent at the end of 2011. Since then, he’s belonged (in some capacity) to the Twins, Yankees, Orioles, Astros, Yankees (again), and then finally the Orioles (also again). Last year with Baltimore, Pearce was serviceable, producing a 115 wRC+ and 0.8 WAR in 138 plate appearances. This year, he’s been much more than that, appearing on the second page of baseball’s WAR leaderboards (between Hanley Ramirez and Yadier Molina) despite having recorded too few plate appearances to qualify for the batting title. Much of the improvement to the projection appears to be derived from a more optimistic BABIP forecast: an 11-point increase per Steamer and 34-point one per ZiPS.

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