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Rockies receive optimistic outlook from major projection system

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The Rockies receive their most optimistic ZiPS projection since 2013

Computer Hackers Congress Starts In Hamburg Photo by Morris MacMatzen/Getty Images

The Rockies edition of Dan Szymborski’s ZiPS projections were released earlier this morning on FanGraphs. Published online since 2004, and hosted primarily on FanGraphs since 2013, ZiPS attempts to forecast individual player performances based on their previous statistics. Szymborski’s methodology has produced a pretty rosy view of the 2017 Rockies.

Overview

ZiPS projects the likely starters (plus the back end of the bullpen) to accrue about 35 WAR. The 12 WAR from the starting rotation matches exactly with last year’s mark, and the 20 WAR from the position players represents a 4-win improvement from 2016. While WAR is too blunt of an instrument to use for detailed relief pitching analysis, the component statistics (ERA, FIP, K/9, BB/9) for the back of the Rockies bullpen would also represent significant improvement over last seasons’ group.

A naive way to use ZiPS to project the 2017 Rockies win total is simply to add the team’s 35 WAR to the 48 wins of a replacement-level team, giving a rough estimate of 83 wins for the team. This isn’t always an advisable method to predict a team’s record, but it’s suitable enough for our purposes.

Most importantly, that mark would represent an important step forward for the franchise, recording their first winning season since winning 83 games in 2010.

To illustrate how this edition of the Rockies are projected, compared to past seasons:

Rockies ZiPS Projections vs. Actual Wins
Data from Dan Szymborski and Fangraphs

Positional Breakdown

Infield

ZiPS projects All-Star Nolan Arenado to replicate his 2016 performance. Now that Arenado enters his 5th season in the Majors, ZiPS sees a player with back-to-back seasons as an elite power hitter and excellent defense. Few players in baseball receive a stronger projection than Arenado.

Trevor Story’s 2.5-win projection might seem light, but actually compares well to other shortstops outside of the Seager/Lindor/Correa tier. Story’s injury cut his 2016 playing time, leading to ZiPS having a bit more uncertainty about his future performance level and playing time, but there are many reasons to be optimistic about Story’s future (despite the Ian Stewart comp that the system lays on him).

DJ LeMahieu ’s 2017 performance could be make-or-break for the Rockies. While ZiPS projects just 2 WAR, it’s still giving fairly strong consideration to seasons before he broke out as a truly elite hitter in 2016. Secondary metrics, such as exit velocity and line drive rate, indicate that DJ is possibly a bit underrated by the ZiPS methodology.

Szymborski’s system also assigns a ~2 WAR projection to Ian Desmond as a first baseman, which is admittedly more optimistic than I had expected. ZiPS sees him as a +6 defender at first base, which would have been among the better marks in baseball in 2016. His groundball heavy approach as a hitter might not be a great fit for Coors Field, but his elite baserunning (9th in the majors since 2014, per Fangraphs’ BSR metric) gives his total offensive production a significant boost.

The catching tandem of Tony Wolters and Tom Murphy receive a projection for just 1 win. As the position with the least major-league experience, there is peak statistical uncertainty. Wolters has never been a strong hitter, even in the minors, but his elite pitch framing (not included in ZiPS) could raise his overall contribution to roughly average. Tom Murphy’s bat is much stronger, and his early MLB performance has been very impressive. However, ZiPS is wary of his minor league strikeout rates and his lower-than-ideal walk rates. Murphy rates well defensively, although perhaps not as well as Wolters. A strong performance from either catcher could put the Rockies in strong position to contend in 2017.

2017 Rockies ZiPS Projections: WAR
Carson Cistulli, Fangraphs
Outfield:

David Dahl rates strongly in the ZiPS methodology. His 2016 MLB batting line was inflated by a .404 BABIP, but his transcendent performance in both AA and AAA portend continued success in the majors. Even though the final number is “just” 2 WAR, the reality is that being projected as a league-average player in one’s first full season is uncommon.

While Arenado is the Rockies’ best player, Charlie Blackmon may have been their best hitter in 2016. His wRC+ of 130 was first on the team and tied for 25th in the majors. Chuck Nazty has always posted strong contact and line drive rates, but in 2016 his power jumped forward along with his walk rate. ZiPS is a believer in Charlie maintaining his power surge going forward, and assigns him a strong 3.5 WAR projection for 2017.

Carlos González might not be the star he once was, but entering the final year of his extension he still profiles as a solid hitter in right field. CarGo’s elite power has been on an every-other-year schedule of appearance, but ZiPS doesn’t put stock in those types of patterns. With a return of 30 home run power, González could push 3 WAR, but with a return to 2015’s deflated BABIP, he could be outplayed by other options.

Bench:

ZiPS sees Raimel Tapia as the best option for the Rockies’ 4th outfielder, assigning him a 1.5 WAR projection on the back of an above-average glove in the outfield. Veteran outfielder (and founder of the “No Walks”-club) Gerardo Parra receives a rather dismal projection of 0 WAR. Jordan Patterson, who could also see time at first base, rates just slightly better than Parra.

Cristhian Adames is ZiPS’ pick to be the backup infielder in 2017. While he’s struggled as a hitter, ZiPS sees his glove as slightly above average and sees him as a half-win player over 450 PA. Alexi Amarista, who has struggled to post positive WAR figures in the past, projects at -0.5 WAR over 328 PA.

Starting Rotation:

Jon Gray has emerged as a legitimate frontline starter for Colorado, after posting the best single-season strikeout rate in team history (boosted by perhaps the best single-game pitching performance ever for a Rockies hurler). ZiPS exercises some typical caution for a pitcher with just 208 major-league innings (forecasting him for just 155 innings pitched), but also leaves hints of the type of season Gray could put together in 2017. I’ll personally take the over on his 3 WAR projection and do so quite comfortably.

Since returning to the use of his curveball, Chad Bettis has been a very effective starter for the Rockies. ZiPS actually projects him for a career-best 3 WAR (on just 167 IP), on the back of solid component metrics across the board. While Bettis’ 2016 ERA didn’t match his strong 2015 performance, ZiPS expects positive regression in his results.

Tyler Anderson was (in my opinion) the single best surprise of 2016, among Rockies players. After losing 2015 to injury, he returned to action and quickly rose to make his MLB debut last year. In his first 114 MLB innings, Anderson posted above-average strikeout, walk, and groundball rates, all while being an elite contact-authority manager. ZiPS sees Tyler as the Rockies second-best staring pitcher on a per-inning basis, but projects him for just 114 innings in 2017. Anderson is one of my personal favorites and I expect him to beat his 2.5-win projection.

Jeff Hoffman is the Rockies’ best pitching prospect, and likely has the inside track to make the opening-day starting rotation. While he struggled in his few 2016 MLB innings, he also pitched by far the most innings in his whole career and likely was feeling the fatigue by seasons’ end. ZiPS is very optimistic and forecasts a 2-win season in only 132 innings. Keeping in mind the high variability for young pitchers, Hoffman could either rise quickly like Gray, or justify some additional time in Triple-A, especially if fellow prospect Germán Márquez impresses.

ZiPS assigns a 2-WAR shrug emoji to Tyler Chatwood. While he posted an elite road ERA of 1.69 in 2016, his struggles at Coors Field dramatically impacted his overall line. Chatwood is also a difficult type of pitcher to project: his strikeout and walk rates are generally below-average, but he mixes in strong groundball/contact-management profiles. ZiPS seems to think Chatwood can maintain his ability to miss barrels, but is cautious about his injury history and therefore only expects him to pitch 91 innings this season. A fully healthy season from Chatwood could push the Rockies forward by a couple of extra wins.

Bullpen:

The 2016 Rockies bullpen didn’t inspire much confidence, but as Ryan Freemyer shared, much of their struggles were due to unusually poor performance in clutch situations. Analysis indicates that clutch performance varies significantly from season-to-season, leading to hope that just a change on the calendar could indicate much improved bullpen results.

The back of the bullpen, while possessing significant talent, also carries the most risk on the whole roster. All three of Adam Ottavino, Jake McGee, and Greg Holland have demonstrated elite performance in times past, but injuries in each of their histories cloud our crystal ball. Ottavino is probably the safest bet in the bunch, having already demonstrated a strong recovery from injury. Holland may have the highest upside, but he is now two years removed from his peak performance as the Best Closer in Baseball. McGee’s 2016 struggles with injury took a chunk out of his strikeout stuff, which previously rated as elite among lefty relievers. While his velocity decline is concerning, there’s still hope for at least a partial rebound.

ZiPS sees newcomer Mike Dunn and young flamethrower Carlos Estevez as the best options to round out the heart of the Rockies’ relief corps. ZiPS also sees swingman Chris Rusin as being a slightly-below average pitcher on a rate basis. Whether his work comes primarily as a reliever or as a starter, Rusin figures to be valuable (and inexpensive) depth for 2017.

Prospects:

Germán Márquez receives the second-most optimistic projection among Rockies prospects, with his 2 win projection falling behind Hoffman’s by a decimal amount. Ryan McMahon, the second-closest to MLB ready position prospect (behind Tapia), is probably not MLB ready, as ZiPS sees him as presently a well-below average hitter and a below-replacement player. A strong bounceback season from McMahon could make him more attractive to Szymborski’s computer. Kyle Freeland is 3rd in line behind Márquez and Hoffman in the pecking order, and ZiPS agrees that he probably deserves more time in AAA.

Review

The 2017 Rockies figure to be the most exciting and competitive Rockies team of this decade. The position player core rates well, with significant upside if sophomores Trevor Story and David Dahl maintain their 2016 performance levels. The top 5 starting pitchers, currently forecasted for 12 WAR in just 670 innings, could break out as a top-10 or even top-5 unit in baseball with health and full seasons of pitching. The bullpen, bound to improve by chance alone, could feature 3 (or even 4) shutdown relievers at the back end. The bench could be better than past years, although it profiles better defensively than offensively (making a bat-first player like Chris Carter a potential strong fit). Count ZiPS firmly in as a believer that the Rockies could make real noise in 2017.