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Five interesting Red Sox ZiPS projections

ZiPS projections for the Red Sox were released this week, so let’s look through some interesting examples.

MLB: ALDS-Cleveland Indians at Boston Red Sox Bob DeChiara-USA TODAY Sports

It’s the middle of December, which in the baseball world means we’ve reached one of the dead points of the offseason. There will probably be a move made here and there, but the league is likely to be mostly quiet for the next couple of weeks as we make it through the holiday season. This time of year also means we get some projections coming out, though, which is always fun as we look ahead to next season. On Monday, Fangraphs released the ZiPS projections (courtesy of Dan Szymborski) for the Red Sox. As we all know, projections are far from gospel and will be wrong plenty of the time, but they are usually a better gauge than our gut feelings. With that in mind, let’s look at five projections for some of the more interesting players on the roster.

Mookie Betts: HR

Last year was something of a breakout for Betts, who took the step from promising young player to legitimate MVP candidate. A big part of this breakout was his power display, which may not have come completely out of nowhere, but was unexpected nonetheless. In 2016, he smashed 31 home runs and finished the year with a .216 Isolated Power. Next year, ZiPS projects him to hit 24 home runs with a .197 ISO. The home run mark seems about right to me, as it’s essentially the exact midpoint between his 2016 outburst and the 18 home runs he hit in his first full season in 2015. If anything, I’d probably expect him to finish a bit closer to his 2016 with another year under his belt, though I don’t foresee him hitting the 30 mark again. Even if he doesn’t reach quite the same peak, ZiPS is still a big believer in Betts’ power potential. I suspect they’ll be on the right side of history in this regard.

Jackie Bradley: K%

At this time last year, I also identified Bradley’s strikeout rate as one of the more intriguing projections to look at for next year. This past season was a big year for Bradley’s offensive reputation, and he passed whatever test was put in front of him. This is especially true with his strikeouts. In the past, this was his number one issue with major-league pitching, as he was consistently striking out around 30 percent of the time and his overall performance suffered. Last season, he only struck out 22 percent of the time, and had just one month with a rate of at least 25 percent. In 2017, ZiPS pegs him just over 24 percent, which is buying in to some of his changes. Some of this makes sense, as he increased his contact rate on pitches both in and out of the zone. On the other hand, he still chased as many pitches out of the zone as before and his swinging strike rate remained among the top quarter of hitters. I’d say he’s made enough improvements to stay below 30 percent, but I’d guess Bradley’s strikeout rate will finish in the 25-30 range, despite last year’s improvements.

MLB: New York Yankees at Boston Red Sox Bob DeChiara-USA TODAY Sports

Sandy Leon: OPS+

Ok, so this is the one I was most interested in before these were published. Leon is such a weird case, as he was so bad in the first few partial years of his career, then caught on fire in 2016. He finished the season with a 120 OPS+ in 283 plate appearances after posting a career mark of 33 in 235 PAs heading into 2016. ZiPS projects him to finish at 81 next year, which just so happens to be his career OPS+ after factoring in 2016’s performance. That’s obviously a huge dropoff, but it’s also entirely fair. The projections are normalizing his batting average on balls in play, which finished at a whopping .392 last year and is projected for .313 in 2017. Even the projected BABIP may be a tad high. They are also seeing some regression in his power, with his ISO dropping from .167 in 2016 to .121 next year. The good news is that catchers are bad at hitting across the league and Leon is a strong defensive backstop. This baseline is a fair expectation, and if that’s all they get from their starting catcher the Red Sox can definitely overcome it.

David Price: ERA

Depending on how you look at things, Price’s first year in Boston was either very disappointing or very unlucky. The answer is probably somewhere in the middle. He had some real command issues that led to a lot of hits and home runs, which helped lead to his 3.99 ERA. On the other hand, his peripherals, particularly strikeouts and walks, looked more like a legitimate ace. ZiPS has him pegged for a 3.47 mark in 2017. On the one hand, this doesn’t seem ace-like once again, and it would be his third worst mark since 2010. On the other hand, he played much of that time in pitcher-friendly Tampa Bay. The 122 ERA+ he’s projected for would be better than a couple of the years in which his regular old ERA would be worse. The projections still believe he’ll allow more than a home run per nine innings and a BABIP right around .300, but overall they see a bounce-back performance for Price in 2017. It’s hard to argue with that line of thinking.

Craig Kimbrel: BB%

Overall, it was a positive year for Kimbrel, who came in with massive expectations after the haul it took to acquire him. Of course, performances are magnified for closers and Kimbrel was shaky at some inopportune times. More than anything else, it was the control that betrayed him. He’s always had some issues with free passes, but he’s coming off a season in which he walked a whopping 13.6 percent of his opponents. ZiPS sees that coming down to roughly 11 percent in 2017. That is still a bit higher than one would like, but it’s also a rate he’s excelled with in the past. Kimbrel took a big step back in terms of hitting the zone in 2015, and continued that trend last year. Even worse, it was both his fastball and his curveball that were missing the zone more often. I can’t imagine he’ll have worse control in 2017 than he did in 2016, but I wouldn’t be surprised if he finished worse than ZiPS projects him for. The good news is Kimbrel still has the strikeout stuff to work around the walks more often than not.