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Playing Over/Under with ZiPS projections

How do you think the projection system did?

Boston Red Sox v New York Yankees Photo by Jim McIsaac/Getty Images

As we turn the calendar to 2021, so too can we turn our eyes away from the travesty that was the 2020 Red Sox and look ahead to a hopefully less embarrassing team in 2021. Part of looking ahead to new seasons is looking at computer-generated projections. I use some version of this preamble a few times every year, and it’s worth throwing it out there again today. Nobody claims projections are 100 percent accurate. They are a guide, to be used along with your own personal intuition, to form a broad set of expectations for the coming season. To me at least, part of the fun is the inevitable disagreement we have with the systems on individual projections.

With all of that said, I want to take a quick look at the ZiPS projections for the Red Sox today. Somehow I missed when these were originally published over two weeks ago now, which is odd because I had been on the lookout for them since the start of December. But they arrived past an apparently oblivious me on on December 17, and you can see them in full here. Note that this came before the Matt Andriese signing, so he won’t be included.

ZiPS is one of my favorite projection systems every year, and one of the reasons I like it is because of the player comps it spits out. This part, even more than the projections itself, is more fun than practical. Some of my favorites this year are:

  • Alan Trammel for Xander Bogaerts.
  • Jose Vidro for Christian Arroyo
  • Jarrod Salatalamacchia for Deivy Grullón (No longer on the Red Sox)
  • Mark Mulder for Eduardo Rodriguez (there will be a movie about the success of the 2021 Red Sox that entirely ignores the important contributions of Rodriguez)
  • Julian Tavarez for Zack Godley (No longer on the Red Sox)

You can check out all of the comps by following the link above. But now we’ll get into the actual reason for this post, which is to look at the statistical projections themselves. And specifically, I chose eight projections — four from hitters, four from pitchers — to play a little over/under.

Andrew Benintendi: .162 Isolated Power

To me, Benintendi is the most interesting projection in general after his terrible and very short 2020, which comes off a less terrible but still not great 2019. Benintendi has played three full seasons in the majors, and in two of them he has beaten this .162 ISO mark, coming short only in his first full season in 2017. Last season his ISO was only. 026, but that was also only 52 plate appearances. I’m not necessarily a big believer in a Benintendi bounce-back, or breakout or whatever you’d like to call it, but a .162 ISO is still 11 points shy of a league-average mark from a year ago. We’re assuming some semblance of health for most of these, so I think Benintendi will hit enough to be average. I’ll take the over here, but not by a ton.

Verdict: Over

Boston Red Sox v Atlanta Braves Photo by Todd Kirkland/Getty Images

Christian Vázquez: 94 OPS+

We’ve talked about it a whole lot on this site, but Vázquez has pretty safely put himself among the top five catchers in the game right now. A good chunk of that is due to defensive prowess, but he’s also been a very good hitter for the position, including back-to-back seasons with an OPS+ over 100. ZiPS sees a bit of a backslide here, likely due to his .341 batting average on balls in play last year. Despite that, he’s just found a way to produce at the plate the last two years. I don’t think a 94 OPS+ would qualify as a disappointment, to be fair, but I think he’ll be right around 100 yet again, so I’ll take the over.

Verdict: Over

J.D. Martinez: 27 Home Runs

Like Benintendi, Martinez is a very interesting projection case given how much worse he was in 2020 than his typical seasons. He was healthy all year, but obviously it was a strange one for everyone. It’s hard to know how a computer would react to this kind of season. They see something of a bounce-back here, but nothing major, and in the power department his 27 homers would be his fewest in a 162-game season since 2016 when he hit 22, though he missed some time that season as well. I think he’ll probably be on a 27-homer pace at least, but between last season’s performance, the fact that he’s had back problems and that he’s entering his age-33 season and could start to miss more time, I’m going to tentatively take the under here. I don’t feel great about it though.

Verdict: Under

Bobby Dalbec: .307 On-Base Percentage

Dalbec should get every chance to take the first base job and run with it in 2021, but it’s up in the air how that will go. The power is very real, but you have to make contact to tap into that. If Dalbec is going to make an impact, he has to at least reach this low OBP mark while coming close to maxing out the power. This is not a very high bar, and he can still reasonably get here even striking out over 30 percent of the time. The issue will come if he strikes out over 35 percent of the time — his rate was 42 percent in his small sample 2020 — and/or if he can’t draw walks. I’ve gone back and forth on this one, but I’m going to go very slightly over largely due to the ability he’s shown to draw walks throughout the minors and in the majors last year. That said, I could certainly see things going very wrong.

Verdict: Over

Nathan Eovaldi: 90 innings pitched

This one is, admittedly, basically impossible to predict. I don’t love the idea of predicting injuries, but I think this has been a bit underrated in how important it is to the 2021 Red Sox. Eovaldi missed some time in 2020, but when he was healthy he often looked pretty damn close to his 2018 self. If the Red Sox are going to be good, they probably need at least 120 innings from him, a bar he has not hit in the regular season since 2016. I’m going to be optimistic here and take the over, but that’s largely because I have no way of knowing so why not think positively?

Verdict: Over

Eduardo Rodriguez: 23.7 percent strikeout rate

This is a fascinating one for me. Rodriguez has beaten this mark in each of his last three seasons, but that obviously does not include the 2020 season of which he missed the entirety due to COVID and myocarditis that came as a result of COVID. By all accounts he is back and feeling good, and if he does indeed feel good all season I don’t know why he wouldn’t beat this mark. That said, I just can’t believe that things will go this smooth and he won’t have to take a little off to make it through the year. I am very much not a medical professional so take this all with a grain of salt, but it’s a gut feeling. I’m taking the under.

Verdict: Under

Chris Sale: 3.1 WAR

ZiPS knows that Sale is going to miss some time, as he is projected to make 20 starts over the course of the season, which would put him on track for roughly a late-May/early-June return. That’s not unreasonable, but it assumes no setbacks and that the Red Sox let him work his way back a bit at the major-league level, which is not impossible. What’s interesting is that despite this missed time they still have Sale as the most valuable pitcher on the team by WAR. I think Sale will be pretty close to his old self by the end of the year, but I’m less optimistic he’ll return at the early end of expectations and also skeptical that there will be almost no rust to shake off. I’m taking the under.

Verdict: Under

Matt Barnes: 13.3 percent walk rate

As of now, Matt Barnes is the top reliever in the bullpen, and even as the number one Barnes fan I acknowledge that is an issue and expect another late-inning arm to be added at some point. A big reason is Barnes’s inconsistent control. He can survive with below-average control because he is one of the game’s elite strikeout pitchers, but even then there is a limit to how many free passes he can allow before it comes back to bite them. He’s hit this mark in each of the last two years, and it’s probably right on the upper limit of where he can still be successful. I believe Barnes is going to have a big year ahead of free agency — and I also think he’ll finish it in a different uniform, but that’s a conversation for another day — so I’m going to take the under here.

Verdict: Under