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

Notes
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

Notes
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

Notes
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

Notes
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

Notes
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 occasionally publishes spirited ejaculations at The New Enthusiast.


20 Responses to “The Most Improved Players Thus Far by Projected WAR”

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  1. Professor Ross Eforp says:

    3. Kevin Kiermaier, OF, Tampa Bay (Profile)
    Projection (PRE): 1 PA, .245/.299/.344, 82 wRC+, 0 Off, 0 Def, 0.4 WAR

    Only Corey Kluber could post a WAR of 0.4 in one PA where he somehow had a 0.245 average and 0.299 OBP.

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    • kdm628496 says:

      0.4 WAR per 550 PAs. reading is hard.

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      • Professor Ross Eforp says:

        Apparently so is being a cordial human being on the internets.

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      • Professor Ross Eforp says:

        Also, you missed like 75% of what I was saying. I will say that I biffed on the WAR part (though I’m not sure how instructive a projection of 1 PA is), but the projection system literally projected him to post a BA of 0.245 and an OBP of 0.299 in one plate appearance.

        That’s funny. It isn’t intended to be a damnation of the system. I understand why it happens. But it’s funny, like when a pitcher has a fantastic game and posts a negative FIP.

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  2. Yirmiyahu says:

    Anyone know if its still true that the RoS projection systems calculate wOBA based off of the projected (rounded) counting stats? Last I knew, they did, and that method can produce some weird wOBA numbers towards the latter half of the season because of rounding.

    Basically, if a guy is projected for 1.5 HR’s and 2.6 triples in 50 PA’s, it’ll get rounded to 2 HR’s and 3 triples and the projected wOBA will get a substantial bump.

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  3. jim S. says:

    J.D. Martinez has 154 plate appearances and an OPS of .953.

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    • Professor Ross Eforp says:

      The projection system also has a better grasp of J.D. Martinez’s true talent level. Or at least that is the theory. Abreu is old and has not been effective in some time. Most of the rest of the guys have very little major league track record (except Smith).

      I assume that, on the whole, this is the correct way to go about things. I think there is a better chance that Charlie Blackmon is better than he was thought to be than there is that J.D. Martinez is.

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      • jim S. says:

        Point taken. However, just go back to Fangraphs’ home page and scroll down to Jeff Sullivan’s “J.D. Martinez Changes Everything, Changes Everything.”

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      • Emcee Peepants says:

        Is Blackmon better than he was thought to be though? Even with his hot start, his current wOBA and wRC+ are almost identical to last year. Even if you look at the projections, his projected ROS counting stats are almost identical to what he put up in the same number of PAs last year. I think Blackmon is the same player he was last year, just with a hot start skewing his season-end totals.

        As for Martinez, he is essentially a different hitter now, from approach, to swing, to results, so I think it’s fair to say the projections don’t have a handle on who he is at the moment (essentially the gist of the article referenced by jim S.). Martinez has 1133 MLB PAs to base projections on, but only 158, plus 71 MiLB, are really relevant. There is also a big difference in hitting in the middle of the Tigers’ lineup vs. the historically bad lineups he was a part of the past 3 seasons. I obviously don’t think he is really as good as he has been so far this season, but I think he could definitely be better than he was in 2011-2013.

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        • Professor Ross Eforp says:

          The history of baseball suggests that Martinez is not actually a different hitter. The list of guys that went from ~0.140 ISO guys to 0.310 ISO guys is limited. Off the top of my head it is Jose Bautista, though even he had shown more power than Martinez up to this point.

          Don’t get me wrong. I’m open to the idea that he has actually made some change that turned him from a fringe-useful guy into a legitimate slugger. I’m going to side with the projection systems on this one, but I’m really just playing the numbers that I am right here.

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        • Emcee Peepants says:

          I agree, he is probably not a .310 ISO guy, but from the aforementioned article: Astros outfielder J.D. Martinez didn’t tinker with his swing this winter. He blew the whole thing up.

          “I changed everything,” Martinez said. “From my hands to my feet, my leg kick, my stride, my load — just everything.”

          That essentially does make him a different hitter and he has been getting different results in a limited sample size in MiLB and MLB so far this year. It remains to be seen how sustainable the improvement is, but to rely heavily on the projection systems for him might not be as accurate as it would be for another player who is simply getting different results without making the huge changes Martinez has.

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        • Professor Ross Eforp says:

          I’m skeptical that a player could completely rework his swing at the MLB level and immediately attain that level of success. Particularly when said player had never achieved anywhere near this type of success.

          I don’t think it’s impossible, but it just doesn’t feel right to me. I’m not sure that I buy he has changed his approach much either when he is still getting the same non-batted ball results.

          Look, my stance is an easy one to take here. The odds say that it’s all a fluke. I could say that about every hot streak ever and I would be right way more times than I am wrong. I don’t think I am making a ground-breaking argument or anything. I genuinely appreciate the idea that maybe he actually changed something, but I also think sometimes these things just happen for what seem like extended periods of time.

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        • Emcee Peepants says:

          Yeah, I hear you and actually agree with most of what you are saying. I guess my point is that I believe in Martinez’s hot streak as an indicator of potential long-term improvement more than I believed in Blackmon’s earlier in the year, b/c Martinez had made significant changes while Blackmon was, to my knowledge, doing the same things he always had been.

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        • Dan says:

          Martinez won’t keep this up (not many players could), but this isn’t quite a sudden as it all seems. He re-worked his swing and hit 10 homers in like 70 International League plate appearances, basically forcing the Tigers to call him up. And then, as soon as he got a chance to play in the majors he raked and is continuing to rake. I don’t know, this kinda looks real to me.

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        • Professor Ross Eforp says:

          This is the beauty of baseball. There is a lot that sabermetrics can teach us about the game, and that stuff is absolutely fascinating, but there is always going to be some part of the human element that cannot be accounted for.

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        • Wobatus says:

          He may not be a permanent .300+ iso guy but actually there are tons of guys who add power in their late 20s to early 30s, and often it is guys who showed it in the minors.

          Don’t forget Martinez slugged .230+ in A ball. It is completely feasible he could become a .250 ISO guy for a few years starting at age 26+ like this year, even peaking above .300.

          Guys who added power late: Galarraga (although he had one 200+ year in his 20s, he had gobs in his 30s, including one after leaving Colorado as a geezer).

          John Jaha

          Luis Gonzalez

          Mike Stanley

          BTW, Steve Pearce also had a huge iso in the minors in 2007, .289 over 3 levels from high A to AAA.

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        • Wobatus says:

          Oh, and Brandon Moss. He did a .300+ iso “out of nowehere” in his late 20s. And has followed that up with .250 ish in the 2 years since.

          Some guys do it one year and fade back (Brady Anderson, Davey Johnson). Some guys may have one huge year but sustain a higher level.

          Of course, naturally, odds are at it isn’t completely sustainable because most players don’t iso over .300 a full year. But it really isn’t all that strange for Martinez to be going through a power peak and may be mid-200s for the next 3 years or so.

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  4. Any idea what Josh Harrison’s changed projection looks like?

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  5. Cicero says:

    Blackmon also has a BABIP 60+ points below his career average during that two months and was on pace for 22HR-25SB/650PA in May/June

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  6. MG says:

    I do admire Duquette’s never-ending quest to turn over almost every rock to look for talent and discard it if it doesn’t work.

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