With the offseason blazing by as quickly as Albert Pujols post-Thanksgiving meal and pre-Thanksgiving nap, topics related to the Boston Red Sox are few and far between. Hell, topics related to MLB as a whole are hard to come by. A random signing here and a stray rumor there are not going to keep the whistle of baseball fans wet for long—there are only so many times people can get jazzed up about what beat writers are potentially hearing.
We need stuff to write about to keep the lights on, folks!
So imagine my stupendous delight (read as: mild amusement) when FanGraphs announced that they had begun their 2023 ZiPS projection series with the Olde Towne Team earlier this week. At the very least, it gives all of us something new to at least look at in anticipation for the upcoming season.
According a Q&A on the Baseball Think Factory website, ZiPS uses growth and decline curves based on player type to find trends. It then factors those trends into the past performance of those players to come up with projections. The system uses statistics from the previous four years for players from ages 24-38, and it weights more recent seasons heavier. For younger or older players, it uses weighted statistics from only the previous three years. The system also factors velocities, injury data and play-by-play data into its equations.
Szymborski’s full write-up previewing the ‘23 ZiPS results gives a good summary as to what the general mission of the system is, but for the purpose of this blog post (written by a man way less smart than Szymborski) remember that one of those key goals is “estimating what the baseline expectation for a player is at the moment (he hits) the button.” Dan’s words, not mine.
I looked through the Red Sox’s ZiPS projections myself. I’d like to share three—count ‘em, three—interesting tidbits that I saw.
1. Is a Trevor Story rebound imminent?
I’m not telling any tales out of school when I say that Trevor Story’s freshman year in Boston was underwhelming. Outright bad? No; defensive brilliance and flashes of elite offensive production were enough to save face. Yet with injuries and numbers like OBP and SLG below what you’d typically expect out of Story, I don’t think it’s unfair to call 2022 a bit of a disappointment at the plate for the big ticket acquisition of the previous offseason.
But you can call ZiPS “Chris Martin,” because the system is telling us that Everything’s Not Lost even after some Colder Play from Story. (Totally understand if you rolled your eyes there but I wasn’t gonna pass up the opportunity to reference a deep cut from Parachutes.)
The FanGraphs model has given Story “quite the bullish projection,” per Szymborski. The middle infielder is slated to finish with an OPS+ of 111—11% better than the league average hitter—with room to grow if things really break his way. That’s a pretty notable jump from his 2022 mark of a 102 OPS+.
The ‘23 outlook also has Story clocking in with 21 home runs, 16 steals, a .325 OBP, and a .467 SLG. While those are all below his typical 162 game averages over the course of his career, I do think that the ZiPS projections could be underselling the opportunity here for a Story rebound.
Going into Opening Day with a full Spring Training under his belt along with a (hopefully) clean bill of health and an understanding of the expectations that come with being a nine-figure player in Boston could do wonders for Story. With his feet wet, I think we could expect something closer to 25 home runs and a slugging percentage in the upper .400’s if he gets the 500-and-change plate appearances he’s projected to receive by ZiPS.
One thing I’m gonna need to see less of from Story: the strikeouts. Baseball Savant (which, like the guys from Full Metal Jacket regarding their rifles, I am useless without) shows that his strikeout percentage jumped up for a career-best of 23.4% in 2021 to 30.8% this past season, good for the bottom 6% league-wide. It was his worst mark in that category since 2017. Not to state the obvious, but a more patient approach would bode well for him.
We all saw what this guy can do when he’s locked in at the dish. That mixed with the stellar defense up the middle is the recipe for a bounce back in 2023 for Trevor Story.
2. How much progress will we see from Brayan Bello?
Here’s what Szymborski had to say to open the pitching section of the ZiPS projection article:
I wouldn’t call ZiPS “all in” on Brayan Bello, but as with Shane Bieber‘s 2018, the computer saw Bello’s debut in the majors as quite convincing despite the high ERA.
I’ve officially seen enough: the Brayan Bello 2023 Cy Young campaign begins right here and right now. All aboard the hype train because it’s leavin’ the station soon.
In all seriousness, ZiPS does seem to be buying a fair amount of Brayan Bello shares. The model sees his .404 BABIP as a stat that won’t stick—and for the love of God and everything that is good I sure hope it wouldn’t—and is calling for a 2023 line that features a 3.99 ERA to go with 140 punch outs over about 135 innings. His luck has to change for the better...right?
Those projections are numbers I’d easily take from a budding 23-year-old who could become a mainstay in the rotation for years to come, especially if the innings can climb even higher. 135 innings is fair to project after Bello threw 57.1 innings in the bigs last year. And hey, maybe next year he can even get to the neighborhood of 153.1 innings, which is how many he logged between the majors and the minors combined in 2022.
The upside with Bello is undeniable. One look at his changeup painting the corner or his heater tying up a righty with arm-side run and you’ll be salivating...just like I am typing this very sentence and finding these clips.
Brayan Bello, 97mph Fastball and 89mph Changeup, Overlay pic.twitter.com/NqanOJ8G6Y— Rob Friedman (@PitchingNinja) September 10, 2022
Brayan Bello, Sick 96mph Two Seamer.— Rob Friedman (@PitchingNinja) September 15, 2022
18 inches of run. pic.twitter.com/SeALbt0jGY
Brayan Bello, 98mph ... and K Strut. pic.twitter.com/01lQ2OkYnT— Rob Friedman (@PitchingNinja) July 30, 2022
The ZiPS numbers under the hood back up what your eyes tell you in the moment when you watch the kid pitch. Bello is projected to finish with a 113 ERA+ and a 3.67 FIP next season—a strong yearly performance from a raw pitching perspective. That outlook could be a testament to his relative success at limiting back-breaking damage to opposing hitters (73rd percentile in expected slugging and 80th percentile in barrel percentage per Savant, both impressive from a guy who is just baaaarely gonna miss out on rookie eligibility in 2023).
Bello does need to cut down on the walks, though (20th percentile across MLB last year; thanks again to Savant). The autopsies showed that many of his 2022 misfortunes were due to death by a thousand paper cuts, and free passes are only going to exacerbate strokes of bad luck when contact is surrendered.
Much of this analysis is based off of a small sample size, sure, but Bello’s stuff is pure electricity. That won’t be changing anytime soon. A breakout in 2023 is surely possible, and ZiPS seems to recognize that.
My plea: trust your stuff, Brayan. Attack the zone! Attack, attack, attack! You’re talented enough of a pitcher to limit catastrophic contact on a regular basis while still making hitters look silly.
Do your thing, my sweet prince.
3. Back to (technically speaking) winning ways? Whaddaya askin’ me for?
After some positive insights here and there, Szymborski finishes his write up on ZiPS’ Red Sox outlook with this sobering thought:
The “start of the winter” ZiPS projections have the Red Sox at 82 wins, but that could deteriorate quickly, as most of the rest of the division is likely to be aggressive in the winter. This team has a lot of holes, and I’m not sure they’re going to fill most of them.
Bit of a downer to wrap things up on FanGraphs, no? I understand that the AL East is more like an AL Beast, but it’s still a bummer to face that potential reality.
I say “potential” because, at the end of the day—or at least this current day—much of the offseason has yet to unfold. The hot stove has developed nothing more that a simmer.
It’s been repeated since the final days of the 2022 season, but it remains a fact that the Red Sox can go in a number of different directions this winter. The nucleus could be out of town come March 30, or the cornerstone pieces could all have new contracts locked in with new faces to help supplement the lineup and pitching staff.
We’ve heard that Xander Bogaerts has cut off communications with the Red Sox camp and that the front office has only had eyes for the aforementioned shortstop going forward. Both of those developments have come within the past few dozen of hours alone. The Red Sox are without star players signed long-term while simultaneously being in the hunt for Mitch Haniger, a guy just one year removed from a 39-homer year who would slot in nicely behind Bogaerts and Rafael Devers.
Point is: who the hell knows what the plan is at this stage of the game? And with that, how the hell can we project how the team will finish?
Will they be signing Carlos Rodón as the new ace? Is Sean Murphy gonna be the Opening Day catcher? Could it be Kenley Jansen coming out of the bullpen for the ninth inning? Or could absolutely none of that come to pass and this whole operation takes a nosedive, Wile E. Coyote style? Will the 2023 Red Sox become a shell of their former selves?
Answering the win-loss question at the start of December, at the time of publication, is a futile effort. The point is moot. It brings us no use to debate one way or the other how this club will be playing when, as Szymborski astutely points out, there are serious holes that need to be filled on the roster. Holes, as in plural.
With a ton of money coming off the books, maybe Chaim Bloom is able to fill all of them efficiently! Maybe he can do that while also locking in the left side of the infield after John Henry snaps out of it and breaks out the checkbook! Or maybe it all goes to shite and we of Red Sox Nation will be peeking at the 2024 draft class sooner than we’d like to admit!
I have no idea how it’ll turn out and neither do you, because so many dominoes have yet to fall. I know that’s a cowardly answer and it goes against what I said about looking forward to the new season at the start of the post, but it’s true.
It could end up being an 82 win season for Boston, or that mark could shift 10-to-15 notches in either direction. That will be based on a wide range of factors, and we currently do not have the facilities to break those factors down. We’re just left to guess in the meantime.
After all, there’s a reason why they’re called projections; my baseline expectation for the team as a whole at the moment I hit the button is that there is no baseline expectation.
Let’s see what the team looks like first.