It’s the age-old battle of Guardians’ grit and computer calculations with the hearts of Cleveland fans hanging in the balance.
If you haven’t had the chance to look over FanGraphs’ Dan Szymborski’s article accompanying the ZiPS projections for the 2024 Cleveland Guardians, it’s an encouraging exercise that also shows where the team should look to improve before the season starts and where players will have to outplay the robots to give the Guardians a chance at a playoff run. Today, we will take a look at what the projections have to say about the Guardians’ position players.
First of all, it’s certainly encouraging that Szymborski’s main summary of the projections was “there’s a surprising lot to like about this team if you’re a believer in the ZiPS projections.” This matches, in general, my observations of Steamer’s projections for the Guardians (and, comparing Steamer and ZiPS, most players’ projections are very similar to each other in the two systems - which hasn’t always been the case in past seasons). As Richard from Guardians’ Twitter noted below, the team looks to be about the 4th best according to the ZiPS projections that have been released so far (4th of 17 teams as of the writing of this article).
So this is a bit crude but here is Cleveland’s ranks in fWAR among the 15 total teams that have ZIPS projections so far (at least according to the sneak peak graphics)— Richard (@_R3I3) December 20, 2023
Position players: 4th
Overall: 4th https://t.co/3hPasQ8QNL
That’s a team that certainly seems poised to compete for the AL Central, though Minnesota’s ZiPS haven’t yet been published.
Overall, in regards the Guardians’ lineup, ZiPS thinks Jose Ramirez and Andres Gimenez are all-star players at 5.1 and 4.6 fWAR, respectively. Steven Kwan (2.7 fWAR), Bo Naylor (2.4), Josh Naylor (1.9) and Brayan Rocchio (1.9) also hit respectable numbers as regular contributors. Where it’s a little more fun is to look at the 80th percentile projections ZiPS gives to Guardians players, showing where the computers are looking at some past performances, underlying metrics and baseball-wide trends to see some potential upside. How does a 144 OPS+ for Josh Naylor sound? Sign me up, also, for a 138 OPS+ for Kyle Manzardo, 125 for Bo Naylor, 120 for Ramon Laureano, 116 for George Valera, 115 for David Fry, or 112 for Chase DeLauter as a rookie.
The number that puzzles me the most is that Myles Straw is somehow projected for a 79 OPS+ (83 wRC+ by Steamer). His 20th percentile projection is a 63 OPS+ which would be about what over what he has actually produced over the past two seasons (68 wRC+). I suspect ZiPS is telling us that at Straw’s contact rate and speed, he should be reaching base more often. But, I also suspect ZiPS is not properly considering how poor his contact quality and placement is. Doesn’t matter how many hard ground balls you hit to shortstop or how many soft fly balls you poke into right-center, your BABIP isn’t ever going to be any good, especially when outfielders are playing you so far in they can’t even hear the drunk hecklers in the outfield bleachers anymore. But, hey, sign me up for Straw at close to 80 OPS+, that and his defense and a return to form as a baserunner would be a welcome addition to the 2024 Guardians.
The Guardians’ outfielders, as a whole, are projected to be better in 2023, but it would legitimately be harder to be less effective than they were in 2022. I know people won’t want to hear this, but ZiPS is saying that Kwan in left, Straw in Center and Laureano in right is currently the team’s best alignment. Again, if Straw could get close to 80 OPS+, I think I could probably be convinced that’s true (though I’d obviously still prefer an outside addition to add some thump). It’s important to contextualize the improvement, as well, as ZiPS seems to be projecting an overall improvement in home run numbers across MLB. For example, the 29th ranked team in 2022 in outfielder homers, the Washington Nationals, have their top seven outfielders projected by ZiPS for 96 homers. The Guardians’ top seven (I included Angel Martinez and David Fry in the outfield for the sake of this exercise) only project for 75 homers (and remember that ZiPS projects most players basically for a full season’s worth of plate appearances).
Be sure to take a look at player comps for some more interesting potential futures to dream about. Bo Naylor does, indeed, have a little of the Carlos Santana about him. Sign me up for Brayan Rocchio as Ozzie Smith, obviously. Kyle Manzardo as Todd Helton, yes, please. Deyvison De Los Santos as Nolan Gorman, let’s go. And Chase DeLauter as Harvey Kuenn isn’t bad at all. These comps are offered mostly for fun, but they do tell us that, hey, there’s something interesting in this player that should be monitored.
The computer is not yet a true believer in our low-K-high-BB-pulled-fly-ball king Juan Brito (though 90 OPS+ for a player who hasn’t yet played in Triple-A is not bad), but give it time. It also isn’t really buying Gabriel Arias as a hitter (85 OPS+) or not even particularly as a special fielder (1 defensive win). I think this is where I’d most be interested in seeing Cleveland’s internal projections, as some of the folks who know the team best have been indicating the team prefers Arias to Rocchio. That will be an interesting battle to watch in the spring. Chase DeLauter being projected for a 93 OPS+ after having only a handful of AB’s in Akron is a positive sign, so let’s hope he can continue to push the envelope and force Cleveland’s hand for a late season 2024 call-up. I’d also be interested to see what Johnathan Rodriguez’s 89 OPS+ would look like were he projected to take 70% of his plate appearances against LHP.
The good news is that Cleveland has a lot of players the computers project to be able to contribute at around a league average rate. The team looks especially strong, defensively. The questions remain: will any of these players breakout and defy their hitting projections? And, will the team make an external addition to add a win or two in projections from their outfield?
Next, as soon as I can type it up amidst the holiday rush, we will take a look at what ZiPS has to say about the Cleveland pitching. Merry Christmas to all who celebrate, happy holidays and seasons greetings to everyone else. Thanks for making this the best Cleveland baseball fan community on the internet.