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Bill James Projections Fun: Hitter Surprises Edition

One of the most exciting times of the off-season is when the first projection set is released. We now have the Bill James system on the player pages for our analyzational (I like making up words) pleasure. One of the most difficult things us fantasy owners have to figure out every year is what to expect from the past season’s biggest surprises. So, let’s take a look at four of this year’s most surprising hitters, both on the positive side and the negative side, and examine each of their early projections.

Edwin Encarnacion

Season Team AB HR R RBI SB AVG OBP SLG BB% K% ISO BABIP
2012 Blue Jays 542 42 93 110 13 0.280 0.384 0.557 13.0% 14.6% 0.277 0.266
2013 Bill James 532 31 82 89 9 0.271 0.359 0.504 10.9% 15.7% 0.233 0.278

Naturally, the Bill James projections are expecting some regression after Encarnacion’s monstrous performance this season. The projection isn’t so crazy though. Encarnacion posted a nearly identical ISO in 2010 and his home run total prorated to his 2013 projected at-bat total would be 34. Assuming all else equal, Bill James is projecting a HR/FB ratio of around 14%. The calculation is a little off given the expected increase in strikeout rate, but it’s probably close enough. That 14% is just above Encarnacion’s career average and is certainly not outrageous. I think this appears to be a reasonable baseline for what we should expect from Encarnacion next season.

Chase Headley

Season Team AB HR R RBI SB AVG OBP SLG BB% K% ISO BABIP
2012 Padres 604 31 95 115 17 0.286 0.376 0.498 12.3% 22.5% 0.212 0.337
2013 Bill James 608 22 85 88 14 0.278 0.365 0.454 11.6% 22.5% 0.176 0.341

Once again, Bill James is projecting regression here, essentially splitting the difference between his shocking power display this past season and years past. A HR/FB ratio of about 15% is inferred from the projections, and before this season, Headley had never even come close to that level of power. Chris Cwik recently concluded that Headley was a bit lucky with some of his fly balls clearing the fence, and even with the fences moving in at PETCO, he will have a tough time repeating. Although the projection looks like a safe one, it may prove to not be conservative enough. Then again, the park changes could offset a loss in power, so Headley will be one of the biggest wild cards in drafts next year.

Jacoby Ellsbury

Season Team AB HR R RBI SB AVG OBP SLG BB% K% ISO BABIP
2011 Red Sox 660 32 119 105 39 0.321 0.376 0.552 7.1% 13.4% 0.23 0.336
2012 Red Sox 303 4 43 26 14 0.271 0.313 0.37 5.9% 13.3% 0.099 0.304
2013 Bill James 622 15 100 67 37 0.294 0.346 0.436 6.9% 13.2% 0.142 0.324

I included Ellsbury’s 2011 season for obvious reasons. Ellsbury would have been included in this type of column last year, and the pessimists would have won. Now the question once again is how much weight we put on his 2011 breakout. Bill James seems to be putting some weight on it, as Ellsbury had never hit more than nine home runs in any other season aside from 2011. He is also expecting a small jump in stolen bases (even after prorating this year to the same number of at-bats). We all have to wonder how much the shoulder injury early in the year played a role in Ellsbury’s lack of power, and how much of the decline would have happened anyway just due to expected regression. Bill James is giving Ellsbury a mulligan, but clearly not giving him much credit for his 2011. A quick look at his 2011 average fly ball plus home run distance yields a barely above league average mark. This doesn’t make me very optimistic that he’ll reach even 20 home runs again any time soon.

Carlos Gomez

Season Team AB HR R RBI SB AVG OBP SLG BB% K% ISO BABIP
2012 Brewers 415 19 72 51 37 0.260 0.305 0.463 4.4% 21.7% 0.202 0.296
2013 Bill James 351 11 55 38 27 0.251 0.302 0.407 5.6% 22.8% 0.156 0.302

One of the least talked about breakouts is Carlos Gomez. There are two obvious reasons for this — he wasn’t a true full-time player, only accumulating 415 at-bats, and his breakout was more of the relative kind as he still wasn’t all that good offensively from a real baseball standpoint. The hints first came in 2011, as his ISO suddenly jumped along with his HR/FB ratio. That trend continued this year and led to an exciting power/speed combo. By my estimate, Bill James is expecting a HR/FB ratio regression all the way down to about 10%. Even his 2011 was higher than that. Gomez’s FB% has also jumped over the last two seasons to over 40%, which coupled with the power increase, appears to be due to a legitimate change in approach. His average fly ball plus home run distance also lends credence to this power surge being for real. I would bet on Gomez’s new found power being mostly sustainable and for him to exceed the Bill James power projections.