Angi: Breaking Down Bill James’ White Sox Projections
By Cee Angi-
(CBS) I like getting mail.
Some people get bogged down by bills and junk mail, but each day I anticipate that there could be something special waiting for me, and given the large volume of household items I order from Amazon and have delivered directly to my place, that’s usually true.
In early November, there’s one thing that I’m waiting desperately for: The Bill James Handbook.
By this point, everyone’s heard of James. Maybe you remember him from “Moneyball” or perhaps you’ve heard his name come up in endlessly mocking caricatures of sabermetrics dweebs, but whether you like math or not, James’ impact on baseball has been undeniable. Since the 70’s, he’s invested his energy in a series of annuals about baseball.
His first endeavors were his Abstracts, which he started back in his days of working nights in a factory that canned Pork and Beans. When the abstracts ended, he penned “The Baseball Book” with the help of one of my idols turned colleagues, Rob Neyer of ESPN and SB Nation fame. The latest iteration has been going strong for decades and is released every November.
For the uninitiated, the Handbook is for anyone who has even the slightest interest in sabermetrics. It’s not the sort of book that anyone should read cover-to-cover, though I enthusiastically do, but it’s more than just a reference material. It’s full of stats, predictions, and analysis. There’s Hall of Fame monitoring, Awards, and Win-Shares. From now onto April, this book will alternate between my bedroom, my backpack, and occasionally function as commuting reading material.
The part of the Handbook I look forward to most is the Pitcher and Hitter projections. James created a projection system in which he can, fairly accurately, predict the performance of a player for the following season. Of course, he’s not clairvoyant nor does he have a crystal ball, but he does have math and statistics on his side. While James’ methodology isn’t transparent, the predictions found in the book aren’t about stepping out on a thin limb and saying something like, “Leury Garcia is going to hit 25 home runs next season!” but more about looking at who will regress or improve, which he has done more accurately than Miss Cleo, anyone looking at tea leaves, and even some of other projection systems in baseball. Even though you can get a lot of projection data online now, there’s still something different about holding them in your hands and being able to flip around the pages. Also, though James’ projections may or may not be the most accurate, they are the earliest released.
While I’d encourage you to get your own copy of the book, I’ll share some of the White Sox projections with you with one caveat: These are just predictions. They aren’t perfect, but they are illustrative and worth discussing. I suppose there is also a second caveat: If Tyler Flowers hits 45 home runs next season, please don’t rub it in Mr. James’ face.
To simplify, we can sort how players might fare next season into three simple categories: Some of the players are projected to improve, some will stay about the same, and, while no one is predicted to have a massive drop off (because that’s not the way these projections work), there are still some players on the Sox’ roster whose numbers suggest they shouldn’t wield a bat unless they are trying to hit a piñata at a kid’s birthday party.
Jeff Keppinger: When the Sox signed Keppinger to a three-year, $12 million deal last December at the Winter Meetings, I actually thought it was a decent move for a team that didn’t want to spend any money. The team needed someone who could at least stand at third base regularly even if he couldn’t defend it well. More importantly, they needed a player who could hit for average and get on base. Entering 2013, Keppinger’s career on-base percentage was .337, but that dropped to .283 last season, which you probably don’t need me to point out was miserable. James’ projections give Keppinger the benefit of the doubt and say that he’ll hit.276/.323/.369, which would be more in line with what he’s done over his nine-season career and make me feel a little better about assuming his upside as I did in the first place.
Paul Konerko: He may not even be on the roster next season, but the projections predict resurgence, so he’s worth mentioning. While the Sox would be fine with a combination of Jose Abreu, Adam Dunn, or Dayan Viciedo at first, if Paulie wants to come back the front office might be blinded enough by the nostalgia to allow it. Paying him for the sort of production he had this year (.244/.313/.355 with 12 HR) would be a mistake, but the projections seem to attribute his struggles to injury and predict that the 37-year-old could hit .271/.353/.443 with 23 home runs next year. That’s still not on par with Konerko’s best seasons, but if they could secure him on a cheap one-year deal for that sort of productivity, I wouldn’t protest too loudly.
Avisail Garcia: After being acquired from the Tigers in the midseason Jake Peavy trade, the 22-year-old Garcia gave a glimpse at what his potential might be, hitting .304/.327/.447. Small sample caveats apply, and his critics have vocally been concerned about his bat speed, but at least so far it seems that he’s doing better against major-league pitching than expected (though don’t ask about his splits against lefties). The Handbook says the Garcia will play 144 games and hit .312/.344/.454 with 16 home runs while earning the league minimum, leaving a chorus of people asking, “Alex Rios who?”
Marcus Semien: The Sox don’t have many prospects ready for a promotion, but Semien, who played 22 games in the majors this season, might make the roster next spring. Semien’s greatest attribute is his keen eye at the plate, and he’s so patient that you’d swear he has a different hitting coach than everyone else in the organization. Semien could be the future at second base if the Sox part with Gordon Beckham or could play third base. James’ projections have him hitting .270/.369/.453 with 80 walks, which is even more than Adam Dunn had this season (76).
Alejandro De Aza: It’s not clear if De Aza will be the 2014 center fielder or if the White Sox will non-tender him, but he’s expected to be basically the same offensively as he was this season. If De Aza does hit .283/.344/.428 with 13 home runs as predicted, that’d make him above league average in center offensively (the average major league center fielder hit .261/.328/.402 this year), but given the runs he costs in the field and on the base paths, it’s probably a wash.
Alexei Ramirez: Some players benefit from things staying the same, and Ramirez is no exception. Ramirez struggled at times this year, but his numbers were mostly in line with his career production –though his power has disappeared, which he credits to a change in approach because of where he’s hitting in the batting order (which is foolish, but we can address that at another time). The projections have Ramirez hitting .275/.314/.384 with 11 home runs next season, a comfortable line (and better than average) for a shortstop. The Handbook doesn’t do defensive projections, so I’ll make my own here: In 2014, Ramirez doesn’t have anywhere near the 22 errors he had this season.
The Pitchers: Like most people and things, the projections love Chris Sale. The Handbook thinks Sale will pitch 223 innings next season, which would be a career high, and that he’ll strike out 237 batters (also a career high) with a 3.07 ERA. The Handbook also does no-hitter projections and suggests there’s a 16 percent chance that Sale throws a no-hitter next season. The projections have most of the Sox rotation performing roughly in line with how they have in the past, and if Andre Rienzo joins the rotation next season, it estimates a 3.99 ERA in 142 innings pitched with 126 strikeouts. The bullpen rounds out just as anyone might predict: Donnie Veal’s ERA is high, Addison Reed’s is low, and Hector Santiago does a combination of starting and relieving. The Handbook also makes a prediction that Jesse Crain will pitch well for the Sox next season, but we’ll forgive them the blunder of forgetting the trade considering all of the other solid content housed within the annual.
Well, this is awkward
Gordon Beckham: The projections don’t think Beckham is going to get better, which is unfortunate, but may make the decision to non-tender him a little bit easier. Beckham was below league average at second last season, and his projections for next season fall between his career numbers (.249/.314/.380) and last season’s .267/.322/.372. Perhaps this will finally be the season that he proves everyone, including Bill James, wrong, but it seems that the genie isn’t listening to Beckham’s wishes when he asks for better plate discipline and an ability to hit left-handed pitchers.
Jose Abreu and Adam Dunn: When I was going through the book to highlight all of the Sox players, I was anxiously looking for two players: Abreu and Dunn. I had a hunch that Abreu, given that he was signed recently and has never appeared in the majors might miss the deadline and sadly, that was correct. While it’s sad that there’s no prediction for Abreu to share, having seen Dunn’s I wish it were left out of the book as well. Dunn is predicted to hit .211/.331/.431 with 211 strikeouts next season, which would be just shy of his major-league-leading 2012 strikeout total. I’ve been a champion of Dunn given his value in terms of patience and power, but there’s really no sugar-coating that line.
Tyler Flowers and Josh Phegley: Currently the Sox have both Flowers and Phegley as options behind the plate next season; they may want to check behind door number three after looking at the projections. Last season, the average American League catcher hit .246/.312/.396. The Sox catchers were the worst in the league, hitting .196/.238/.325, which is embarrassing. The bad news is that neither catcher is favored to improve here; Phegley had the worst wRC+ (34) of any player in the majors last season who had at least 210 plate appearances, and he’s predicted to hit .254/.288/.410 with 11 home runs next season, an improvement but still not great. Flowers on the other hand, gets a weirdly optimistic projection from James for next season (.230/.315/.429), much better than the .195/.247/.355 he hit this season. Flowers is projected to be better than the average AL catcher next season, especially in slugging, but while there is always a little hope that the unexpected could happen and that even the blindest squirrels can find nuts, a breakout season from Flowers seems suspect (and James only projects him playing 80 games). If there’s one position that the Sox have to make a priority this offseason, it’s catcher.
Cee Angi is a freelance sportswriter, whose work has appeared at Baseball Prospectus, The Platoon Advantage, The Classical, and is currently one of SB Nation’s featured columnists covering Major League Baseball. Follow her on Twitter @CeeAngi and read more of her CBS Chicago blog entries here.