Tuesday, February 15, 2011

Looking at a Crystal Ball - Positional Players

I mention FanGraphs often in my posts and their website is one I visit regularly, for the articles and for the stats pages they maintain. It's a wonderful resource, one I'm sure most bloggers are very familiar with, and perhaps even a few die-hard fans. One thing I really enjoy about FanGraphs is around this time of year, they release their projections for individual players. They release 3 sets of projections, the first is by the great Bill James, famous baseball writer and statistician known the world 'round. The second, called the Marcels (or Marcel) , is from the mind of writer and Sabermatrician, Tom Tango (mostly anyway). The third set is a compilation of fan votes, with a player needing a minimum 15 ballots-cast for a projection to appear. I imagine the ballots are only sent out to select people, I wonder what it would take to get on that mailing list...

I thought it would be fun to take a look at the projections for some of the more notable Twins players, and see how some of the experts think they will stack up this season. I'll start by going through the hitters and I figured a good start would be Joe Mauer, Justin Morneau (if healthy), Danny Valencia, Delmon Young, Jason Kubel and Michael Cuddyer. I'm only going to reference the Bill James and Marcel projections, mostly because I know those two will be there for every player. One thing to keep in mind is the somewhat obvious fact that all of these projections are based on the assumption that a player plays most or all of next season. 

Joe Mauer - C - Age 27

Marcel has Mauer having a pretty average year (.891) and the most curious thing I see in his projection is that he thinks Mauer will have a very off-year in the K/BB department. Mauer has a career 1.24 K/BB mark, yet Marcel projects him at 1.08 this year which is almost a 20% decline. My guess is that Marcel's projection are probably more conservative by nature. Bill James on the other hand is rather bullish about Mauer, having him at a .927 OPS to go along with 93R and 87RBIs. If Bill's projections prove accurate, that would put Mauer at about 7-8 WAR which would be worthy of the $23M he is set to make this season. 

Justin Morneau - 1B - Age 29

While recent reports (Pioneer Press) regarding Morneau's health have been positive, he's pretty much one bad day away from another setback. I won't believe he's back to 100% until I've seen him on the playing field for a solid week straight. That said, he could play through Spring Training, be OK and end up having a very productive year. He's was clearly not bothered too much by the new digs, but it's impossible to say how a 6-month layoff from baseball activities is going to affect him. Fortunately he's going to have Spring Training (fingers crossed) so he'll have that time to get the kinks worked out. I'm hopeful for a good season, but it wouldn't surprise me at all if Morneau has a slow start, I don't think it would surprise anyone.

Danny Valencia - 3B - Age 25

Valencia had himself a really nice rookie season, proving himself capable of handling an every-day 3B role. My favorite moment of his, personally, was the prodigious HR he hit off Jared Weaver towards the end of August. When looking at Valencia's stat sheet, my first thought was "regression." On second glance though, he's always had a fairly high BABIP and last season, overall, was pretty average for him. His home BABIP was off the charts, so we might see some adjustment there, but overall it's not that far off from what he did in the minors. If Valencia can continue to perform well at the plate and play pretty decent defense at 3rd base, he's golden. He's a pretty good OBP player and he's entering his prime for power, so he could be quite a gem if he can come close to duplicating what he did in 85 games last year. 

Delmon Young - LF/DH - Age 25

Young had a 2.1 WAR last year which is definitely the most valuable he has been as a Twin and it also represented the first time in his career that he had been all that valuable to anyone. Young's success comes down to two words: Plate Discipline. He's a free swinger, yet managed to cut his K rate down by an astounding 39% in 2010 vs. 2009. He also increased his BB rate by 37% which allowed him to reach more of his potential offensively. What's interesting when you look farther down the stat sheet, is that Delmon actually swung at more pitches outside of the zone (40.9%) in 2010 than he did in 2009 (37.1%), swung at less pitches inside the zone, and made WAY more contact with pitches outside the zone (73.4%) than he did in 2009 (53.8%). This worries me in terms of the sustainability of the success he had last year. Young had a .298/.333/.493 line last year to go along with 21HRs, 77Rs and 112RBI and held down a valuable spot in the middle of the lineup. If he can continue to show the type of plate discipline he displayed last year, there is no reason to doubt he can continue to have the type of success he long been touted to be capable of. He is, afterall, still only 25 years old. 

Jason Kubel - RF/DH - Age 28

Kubel had a bad year in 2010 due mostly to a significant correction in his BABIP. In 2009, Kubes had a career-high mark in that category (.327) only to see it drop to a paltry .280 in 2010. This helped to see Kubel's average drop from .300 in 2009 to .249 in 2010. He still managed 92RBIs, though if he had managed 8 more and cracked 100RBIs on the season, he would likely have qualified for one of the worst 100-RBI seasons ever. The maddening part about Kubel is that his plate discipline didn't change much last year from his career norms, so unless he has another lucky year, it's unlikely we'll ever see 2009 production levels again. He's making $5M this year and I'm glad the Twins kept him, but I would not be surprised to see them jettison Kubes in a mid-season trade if they have a weakness in some other area of the team. He's atrocious in the field and depends a lot on luck at the plate...that's a bad combination. 

Michael Cuddyer - RF/1B - Age 31

You have to give Cuddyer credit, he does what is required of him and last year, circumstances dictated he play 1st base for half the season. I've never played baseball at a level even remotely close to the Majors, but I have to imagine that switching from the outfield to 1st Base messes you up a bit. Cuddyer did a good job at first-base, but his batting suffered from what was a fantastic 2009 season. I think we can expect something in between 2009 and 2010 offensively from Michael in 2011 and a move back to his normal RF role should help. Cuddyer is a spark for the Twins and I think he's a valuable part of the team. His contract is up at the end of the season so we could see "contract year" type production out of Cuddy which would, of course, be nice. Hopefully Morneau plays all year and we don't have to see Cuddyer at 1st anymore, but it's good to know that if the Twins need him there, he can fill in.

So that's a quick glance at what we might expect this year. I think in an ideal world, Delmon Young would continue to emerge, Valencia would have himself a nice 2nd year, Morneau would play most, if not all, of the season healthy, Mauer would avoid injury and Kubel would return to something more closely resembling his 2009 campaign. Throwing Nishioka and Casilla into everyday roles outta be interesting but I think with D-Span & Thome included, this lineup is looking pretty damn good again this season. We'll do another one of these and look at the starting pitchers. With these projections, you have to take it with a grain of salt. I'm trying to learn more about how these projections are formulated, and what they are good at predicting vs. what they are not good at projecting.

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