White Sox 2021 ZiPS projections reflect improvement, room for more
Usually in my Bill James Handbook write-ups, I’ll sprinkle in some projections from the latest edition among the other notes. But with White Sox ZiPS coming around the corner, I figured it would make sense to cross-check some of the subjects in the event that the strange 60-game season caused some hiccups between the systems.
Dan Szymborski posted the 2021 White Sox ZiPS at FanGraphs on Monday, and it seems like the two projection system mainly interpret the short schedule the same way. That’s not great news for White Sox fans looking for dreaming material. Considering the White Sox were coming off an uneven but exciting regular season, FanGraphs’ diamond display for their 2021 ZiPS projections doesn’t quite line up with the expectations.
Projection systems generally don’t identify stars until they’re sure, which is why Lucas Giolito, with his consecutive Cy Young finishes, is the only White Sox player who projects to be worth more than 4 WAR. Tim Anderson isn’t quite on that level, but he made similar strides by following up his 2019 batting title with another high average in 2020, and his ZiPS projection gained 25 points of batting average year over year.
Specific to this season, a number of players had excellent 60-game seasons after flawed 162-game performances the year before, so the built-in recency bias is more muted than usual. Apologies to José Abreu.
While the progress is reduced, progress remains, and it’s easier to see when you can compare the two diamonds side-by-side.
The White Sox made gains at first, second, shortstop, center field, DH, rotation and bullpen, a reflection of big 2021 seasons from previously unproven or questionable sources with less-than-ideal plate discipline.
The reasons they’ve lost ground are all understandable. Yoán Moncada’s production took a hit due to COVID, Zack Collins replaced James McCann on the depth chart at catcher, and the FanGraphs depth charts moved some of Eloy Jiménez’s production to DH. Just like last year’s map was published before the White Sox signed Dallas Keuchel, additional reinforcement should be expected.
With all these acknowledgements out of the way, here are the projections that most jump out to me.
If you don’t this projection is worthy of an MVP, neither was last year’s.
- 2020 ZiPS: .269/.322/.476
- 2020 actual: .317/.360/.617
Lord, to be 33 forever.
I don’t envy anybody trying to project Abreu’s future from 34 on, because his attributes (performance, loud contact) and deficits (age, huge strike zone, double plays) are in open conflict, and Paul Konerko shows us what happens when ground balls to the left side take over a profile like knotweed. But Konerko also had recurring injuries and managed conditions that accelerated his aging at times, while Abreu has nothing persistent on his record. It wouldn’t surprise me if he stiff-arms Father Time and pantses the projections for a few more years, but one should be at least be aware of the pitfalls.
This one’s a little weird to me, in that Jiménez exceeded his 2020 ZiPS projections as a 23-year-old.
- 2020 ZiPS: .281/.329/.532
- 2020 actual: .296/.332/.559
- 2021 ZiPS: .285/.328/.543
The conservative outlook might be due to Jiménez’s batted-ball stats. His ground-ball rate jumped four points to 52 percent, while his pop-up rate spiked to 11.1 percent. He hits the ball so hard that he can produce through these self-imposed restrictions, but maybe ZiPS won’t show more of an upswing until Jiménez’s bat path does the same.
Given that Robert had one electrifying month and one awful month around extremely aggressive tendencies as a precocious 22-year-old, I didn’t know what the algorithms would make of it. These make as much sense as anything, and his defense gives him a high floor.
ZiPS sees Madrigal exceeding his 2020 extra-base hit output (three) in the home-run column alone, which would represent his first four MLB homers. That .368 slugging percentage matches his 2020 edition (.369), but he gets there via three times the ISO. It’ll be fascinating to see whether Madrigal gains enough strength to resemble this more standard MLB profile, or whether he causes the computers self-defenestrate.
While we didn’t see 2020 results force upward turns for 2021 projections with Abreu and Jiménez, here’s a case where Giolito’s peripherals made ZiPS love him more despite a smidge of underperformance the previous season:
- 2020 ZiPS: 176 IP, 3.22 ERA, 3.16 FIP, 7.9% BB, 33.1% K
- 2020 actual: 72.1 IP, 3.48 ERA, 3.19 FIP, 9.7% BB, 33.7% K
- 2021 ZiPS: 180 IP, 3.00 ERA, 7.8% BB, 34.5% K
Asking more from Giolito is greedy, given that we know what he looked like at his worst. Here’s a case where ZiPS’ lack of feelings benefits everybody involved.
Cease didn’t care much for math and logic in 2020. He had more than a two-run difference between his ERA (4.01) and FIP (6.38) because he was a fly-ball pitcher who led th eleague in double plays. ZiPS seems to be willing Cease’s unorthodox profile into something more standard. This 4.48 ERA (4.60 FIP) features a tolerable strikeout rate (22.8 percent), which indeed squares up a lot better than his combination of a 4.01 ERA and a 17.3 percent strikeout rate. He’s probably Job One for Ethan Katz, assuming Katz is made official and Cease is still around.
And finally, one more position player who is no longer a White Sox…
These projections surprised me more than any other, mostly because McCann hit .276/.334/.474 over his 149 games with the White Sox over the past two seasons. Maybe they shoudn’t have, since it’s basically what he’s done for his career (.249/.300/.394), but given the disparity between his performances with Detroit and Chicago, I wouldn’t just average them out and say “This is what he is now,” and that’s what the systems are suggesting.
You can look at these numbers a couple different ways. If you’re skeptical of McCann’s future, this is all the more inspiration to cash in the winnings from a successful signing. If you think McCann has way more to give than this, maybe you don’t rule out his affordability, especially if other teams’ analytic departments are sizing him up a similar way.
For what it’s worth, Szymborski’s write-up suggests that ZiPS might be unerappreciating him.
Now that the White Sox are a legitimate contender, the calculus for overpaying James McCann to be a backup-plus — thus pushing Yasmani Grandal to some DH at-bats to keep him fresh — changes significantly. For a team in the middle of a rebuild, it’s an awkward luxury, but the White Sox are now in a position where they ought to absorb less risk. Zack Collins — or some veteran stopgap — would be perfectly fine as a backup, but I think the White Sox ought to retain more depth here. Grandal not having as many innings behind the plate as the average 32-year-old catcher isn’t quite the same thing as having 22-year-old knees.
(Photo by Nick Wosika/Icon Sportswire)
Just taking the temperature of the room here:
How confident are you that Andrew Vaughn and his 0 PA above A-ball will make the majority of the starts at DH? On a scale from “Reynaldo Lopez is a major league starter” to “Eloy has an above-average bat”?
For a team with championship aspirations, penciling Vaughn in for regular at bats without a quality alternative seems very risky. That is why I added two bats in my OPP, Brantley and Pederson. Of course I’d rather have one of those be Springer, but I chose Bauer over Springer as the big ticket signing. If Vaughn rakes early on in AA or AAA and forces his way up, that is a very nice problem to have. But if he struggles and can’t handle major league pitching right away, that leaves a big hole in the lineup.
It doesn’t leave that big of a hole. The Sox were one of the best offenses in baseball last year with Edwin Encarnacion hitting in the middle of the order for most of it. I’d think even at his worst Vaughn is as good as Edwin last year—and he’ll start in the 7 or 8 hole.
Plus, if does leave a hole, it’s a hole that can be patched at the trade deadline.
Having two black holes in the lineup is a major part of the reason they were a wildcard instead of the division winner. That didn’t really matter this year with the wonky playoff setup, but it would have any other year.
Well, sure, if they had league average guys instead of Edwin and Mazara that would have helped, but the offense isn’t the reason they were a wildcard instead of a division winner. They had the best offense in the division according to WAR, Off, wRC+, OPS—and no other team in the division was really close.
Plus, my point was Vaughn’s *worst-case* scenario is probably 2020 Edwin and the White Sox were a great/elite offense with 2020 Edwin. So, I’m not sure how Vaughn hitting 8th, even in the unlikely event that he’s as bad as 2020 Edwin, leaves a “big hole” in the lineup. Maybe it’s a hole of some size, but this is an excellent lineup either way.
Signing guys with a little bit of positional flexibility as DH would help. Basically someone good enough to DH but can slide into the field to fill in for an injured player / make way for Vaughn if he is ready. Like DJ LeMahieu would be a better fit that a Nelson Cruz.
I’m not sure he will, but I think he should be starting DH from opening day. I was stumping for him to get ABs last year.
This offense is plenty good even if Vaughn is bad in the 8 hole. If he’s struggling into July, patch the hole via trade for a playoff run. More likely, he struggles early but hits a stride mid-summer and makes this offense even more dangerous and deep.
That probably shouldn’t be the plan, but it certainly seems like a strong possibility (especially if Jerry doesn’t let them add a ton of payroll). That spot is primed for a cheapo vet signing that can hold down the fort until he’s ready and step into more of a part-time role once he is.
To me, this is all the more reason to start with Vaughn. Either give the reins to Vaughn on opening day or sign someone legit and push Vaughn to 2022. The reason I don’t care for signing an uninspiring, “hold the fort down” option is because you can get that guy at the trade deadline if Vaughn doesn’t work out. And I’d rather Vaughn be forced to make adjustments to MLB pitching in May/June rather than August/September.
I’m amazed by how similar the projections were between Zips and Bill James for the players you highlighted.