Projecting The Unpredictable Red Sox With ZiPS

Jared Wickerham

With the ZiPS projections for the Red Sox coming out yesterday, we look at some of the harder players on the roster to evaluate, and see how this particular model rated them heading into 2013.

During this time of year, when pitchers and catchers are reporting and Spring Training is about to really get going, projection systems created by some of the smartest baseball minds in the world are released. Yesterday morning, the projections for the Red Sox were released by Dan Szymborski's system, ZiPS. As with all projection models, it is important to remember that these are not predictions. These models strictly try to find a player's true-talent level, and give a baseline for reasonable expectations. It is always possible for a guy to vastly outperform his projections, or to come up short of what ZiPS projected of him.

Because of this fact, there are certain players who are harder to project than others. There are guys, like Josh Beckett before he was traded, who seemingly switched off between greatness and mediocrity. For a computer projection system, it is extremely difficult to predict someone like that's numbers. On this year's Red Sox team, there were five players in particular for whom I was interested in seeing their projections, as 2013 seems like a wide open season for them.

Jon Lester

ZiPS Projection: 188-1/3 IP, 173 K, 69 BB, 3.97 ERA, 3.91 FIP, 110 ERA+

Over the past couple of seasons, the Red Sox have seen the man they'd hoped would become one of the game's elite take a step back towards the middle of the pack instead. After three straight seasons with an ERA+ of at least 134, Lester fell back to a 124 ERA+ in 2011, before totally collapsing and finishing with a 90 ERA+ a year ago. According to this particular projection, it should be safe to expect at least a step back in the right direction for Lester in 2013. The 110 ERA+ would represent his second-worst season since becoming a full-time starter, but it would also be a huge step forward from last year's debacle. The thing that stood out the most about this projection for me, though, was the innings pitched. Even despite the recent regression in his performance, Lester has always been a durable workhorse-type pitcher. Since 2008, he's never made less than 31 starts in a season, and the only time he finished with less than 200 innings was 2011, when he threw 191-2/3.This makes ZiPS projecting a career-low for the 29 year old a bit worrisome, as it means some of his career comps began suffering injuries around this point in their career. Apart from that, though, ZiPS seems to like Lester to begin a return to form this season.

Will Middlebrooks

ZiPS: 500 PA .255/.292/.434 19 HR, 92 OPS+, 1.8 WAR

Last year, Middlebrooks burst onto the scene as a rookie and proved very early on that he was more than capable of handling big-league pitching. Before his season was cut short when a pitch broke his wrist, he showed great promise to the tune of a .288/.325/.509 slash-line, with a 120 OPS+. That was done in just 286 plate appearances, so of course a small sample size comes into play here. The sample size came into play even more for a projection system like ZiPS, who isn't convinced Middlebrooks can sustain his 2012-performance over a full season of work. As I wrote a few weeks ago, a player such as Boston's young third baseman can still provide good value for a team without drawing walks. However, a lot of that hinged on very good contact skill, something that ZiPS does not foresee here. A weak .255 batting average leads to an even weaker .292 on-base percentage, a number that just won't meet our expectations. That OBP really crushes any chance of him providing big-time value, as he still projects to be a below-average hitter despite solid power, and positive defense.

Daniel Bard

ZiPS: 68 G, 66 IP, 59 K, 41 BB, 4.50 ERA, 4.68 FIP, 97 ERA+

After Bard's struggles last season upon being moved to the rotation, many are wondering what the right-hander can provide as he returns to the bullpen in 2013. Before the transistion to being a starter, Bard was one of the most dominant relievers in the game, and fans hope he can return to something close to that level and make this already-strong bullpen that much better. ZiPS doesn't like the chances of that, as they predict more middle-of-the-road performances for him. The projection doesn't include any starts, so we couldn't even use that as an excuse for his poor numbers here. The 59/41 K/BB ratio would represent his worst ever as a full-time reliever, and just marginally better than his 2012 ratio. According to this particular projection system, that one year in the rotation could have set Bard off permanently, and his days of being one of the premier bullpen arms in all of baseball are over.

John Lackey

ZiPS: 127 IP, 21 GS, 78 K, 45 BB, 5.24 ERA, 4.86 FIP, 83 ERA+

Lackey became everyone's favorite punching bag after being the worst starting pitcher in all of baseball in 2011. After missing all of last season due to Tommy John surgery, fans and team officials are holding out hope that a completely healthy John Lackey can get back to at least a league-average level with a full season's workload. ZiPS is not optimistic on either of these fronts. Since he hasn't pitched since 2011, seeing a smaller number for his innings pitched isn't all that surprising coming from a projection system such as this. It's just an example of them choosing the midpoint between his 200-inning potential and his potential to be injured. The actual on-field performance is also less than stellar here. His 83 ERA+ is the worst projected performance by any Red Sox pitcher who is expected to get significant playing time. It's tough for a computer to project someone who missed the previous season, and I'd expect Lackey to outperform this projection.

Jacoby Ellsbury

ZiPS: 451 PA, .284/.333/.445 12 HR, 107 OPS+, 2.5 WAR

Ellsbury has been among the most talked about returning players for the Red Sox this offseason. There were those who thought the 2011 MVP candidate could have been traded this winter, but the Boston front office opted to hold on to him, for now. After a stellar season two years ago in which he was an elite hitter, defender and baserunner, he fell to the injury bug once again in 2012. He hopes that this coming season will be a full one with good performance, as he is due for free agency at year's end. ZiPS isn't optimistic about either. Projecting Ellsbury for just 451 plate appearances signals that the system would expect at least one trip to the DL, which is especially low for a leadoff hitter. The projection for his production is slightly less optimistic than other models, but it seems close to reasonable. Nobody would expect Ellsbury to repeat his 32 home run, .552 slugging campaign from two years ago, and a .445 slugging seems like a good balance for him. The .333 OBP is a bit surprising, though, as it would represent the lowest OBP he's ever posted in a year he played at least half of the games.

Players like the ones above have too much going into their season for the projection systems to possibly be able to take everything into account. However, they do provide us with reasonable baseline expectations for players, some of which will be close to right, others will be far from it. For the Red Sox in 2013, their unpredictable players got somewhat of a mixed bag from the ZiPS projection system.

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