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Look on the Giants’ 2020 ZiPS projections and despair

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It’s not looking good. Then again, it hasn’t looked good for a while.

St. Louis Cardinals v San Francisco Giants

The Giants might still make a couple more moves before spring training begins next month, but for now all we and the projection systems have to go by is the thoroughly mediocre roster cobbled together through until today.

It’s not inspiring, exciting, or even vaguely promising. It simply exists, but Dan Szymborski’s ZiPS projection for 2020 is here to tell us, “Hey, look, it could be worse, okay?” For all the gnashing of teeth over the certainty of another losing season and the hard to ignore feeling that the team is still years from being competitive, they’re still not going to be the Tigers. At least, according to ZiPS.

You can jump right over to FanGraphs to read all of Dan’s work and see for yourself the nifty graphic he puts together for each team that really shows you the minimal WAR talent on the page, but here’s the opening graf:

The Giants’ lineup won’t be mistaken for a great (or even good) one, but it’s not really all that bad. Sure, many of the contributors are on the wrong side of 30 — even last year’s surprise contributor Mike Yastrzemski will turn 30 before the end of the season — but that’s balanced by the fact that the majority underperformed expectations in 2019. That shouldn’t be taken as good news, as players who underperform see their expectations drop, but it’s still a silver lining — the offense probably wasn’t as inept as it appeared last year.

It feels like we’re in year . . . five, maybe? of reading somewhere about how the lineup won’t be as bad this year because of underperformance or bad luck. Let’s not quibble with the projection — after all, it’s merely using comparisons, age, and track records to generate its predictions — but merely consider the possibly that it might not be as bad as we fear; and yet, still keep in mind that Buster Posey, Brandon Belt, and Brandon Crawford are far beyond their primes at the plate and beyond them, the rest of the lineup is aging, unproven, or likely to wash out.

With that in mind . . .

The Good

Mike Yastrzemski’s regression to the mean will still put him as a squarely average player (2.1 fWAR; 19 home runs). By OPS+, he (101) and Brandon Belt (103) are expected to be the two best hitters in 2020. That’s a little surprising if you, like me, thought it’d be Yaz and Longoria at the top, but we’ll save that projection for later.

Not only does ZiPS like Belt and Yastrzemski’s bats, it likes their gloves, too. Belt (+6 Defensive Runs Above Average), and Yastrzemski (+7) are in the top five of projected best defenders, with Buster Posey leading the way at +9. He’s still an elite backstop, which shouldn’t be a surprise.

Neither should his 96 OPS+ projection.

But! This is the section with the good stuff. Gabe Kapler and Farhan Zaidi are wildly optimistic about Jaylin Davis and, indeed, ZiPS backs this up. A .225/.289/.382 line is objectively not good (79 OPS+), but a projected 18 home runs and 20 doubles suggests that, on paper, he’s supposed to be a major leaguer with some power. Add in a projected +5 Defensive Runs Above Average, (and $555,000 salary) and you can see very easily why they chose him over Kevin Pillar.

Mauricio Dubon is right there in the Davis arena, posting a sub-average offensive line (.260/.296/.378; +81 OPS+) while providing stellar defense (+7 Defensive Runs Above Average). ZiPS envisions 26 doubles and 13 home runs from Dubon over a full season (622 PA). The system, in fact, sees a lot of similarities between he and Brandon Crawford (.245/.313/.376; 85 OPS+; 24 doubles, 11 HR; +5 Defensive Runs Above Average), which could happen, though it seems remote, as Crawford has had only five months out of his last 12 with an OPS above .700.

The hitting group, overall, is projected to provide +13.9 wins above replacement. They were +10 last season.

The pitching has far fewer bright spots in it. Kevin Gausman is your fWAR leader (2.1). He’s expected to be more valuable than Cueto (1.0) and Samardzija (1.0). ZiPS foresees a 3.81 ERA / 3.50 FIP in 151 innings with a 149/42 K/BB. The next-most valuable pitcher of the projection is the injured Tyler Anderson, whom you may recall once received a Madison Bumgarner comp from a soon-to-be-unemployed baseball blogger . . .

ZiPS includes his reduced playing time (he’s still working his way back from major knee surgery), but still thinks he’ll punch out 120 in 120 innings while walking just 39. That works out to a 9.0 K/9 and 2.9 BB/9.

Logan Webb projects to be the only other starter besides Gausman to register a sub-4.00 FIP (3.99), and overall, the system seems to like him a little bit, even if it doesn’t think he’ll break 100 innings this season. The Giants are sure to be careful with his workload, so that makes sense.

Recent signing Drew Smyly checks in with a 0.9 fWAR projection, but more importantly, a 9.1 K/9. That doesn’t necessarily mean anything, but the Giants haven’t had a qualified starting pitcher end a season with a K/9 above 9 since Madison Bumgarner’s 9.97 K/9 in 2016. It’s doubtful that Smyly pitches the entire season, but between Smyly and Gausman, the Giants have managed to counterbalance the pitch to contact pair of Cueto and Samardzija.

The “legacy” players all project to be positive, modest contributors: Posey (3.0 fWAR), Belt (2.2), Crawford (1.9), Longoria (1.9), Cueto (1.0), Samardzija (1.0), and Tony Watson (0.4). Nothing spectacular, but not entirely the problem, either.

The Bad

The Giants have no pitching. It’s really important to note that. Still, as below average as the rotation projects to be, and as below average as the bullpen projects to be, it’s not as though the Giants have a bunch of minor league arms set to get rocked every night. Just . . . most of the time.

[...] the Giants will likely have one of the worst team bullpen forecasts. It’s probably not all that surprising given that the team has traded away almost an entire above-average bullpen in the last year or so — even the deepest team doesn’t go 20-deep on quality relief pitching.

[...]

The good news is that even if the pitching isn’t all that good, it’s actually quite deep. ZiPS only projects a single starter with an ERA+ above 100, but even after crossing out the pitchers who are unsigned minor league free agents, you still have a dozen or so starting pitchers projected to have an ERA+ of 85 to 100.

ZiPS’ outlook for the primary bullpen pieces — which includes Tony Watson, Jandel Gustave, Shaun Anderson, Tyler Rogers, Sam Coonrod, Trevor Gott, and Wandy Peralta — is a dire 1.2 fWAR combined. But that’s the projected opening day bunch and bullpens are usually the most unpredictable part of any roster. A lot can happen before opening day.

Then again, maybe not!

The Giants’ pitching posted a +7.6 fWAR last year (25th in MLB). ZiPS has them at +9.3. Still pretty optimistic for what figures to be a really tough part of the team to watch. It, of course, doesn’t help that there’s no real pitching talent in the upper minors. Webb and Sean Hjelle make the projection cut, but combine for just 1.6 fWAR.

Evan Longoria’s 96 OPS+ (.253/.307/.425) surprised me a little bit, but then again, ZiPS is looking at a 34-year old third baseman who hasn’t hit like Josh Donaldson the last three years and basically suggesting that his 2020 will look like the average of his 2017-2019 (.254/.307/.424; 97 OPS+). Fair enough. Especially if the glove hangs steady.

The Bummer

For now, ZiPS isn’t reacting to the Giants having five players in MLB Pipeline’s top 100 prospects. Joey Bart’s fractured finger to end 2019 got factored into his projection and, for now, ZiPS sees an 89 OPS+ and 1.1 fWAR in 346 plate appearances for the top prospect (#14 in MLB). Not quite enough to push Buster Posey.

There’s also talk about Heliot Ramos’ below average defense in center field and how that lackluster performance undercuts a projection. He’ll still be just 20 years old this year and that combined with the defensive adjustment spits out a -0.3 fWAR over the season.

The young players who are supposed to help the Giants rebuild project to be non-factors in 2020 — Dubon (1.8), Abiatal Avelino (0.8), Jaylin Davis (0.7), Kean Wong (0.6), Steven Duggar (0.5) — which doesn’t actually tell us much beyond what we could guess. This was always going to be a “summer school” / develop by way of crushing defeat after crushing defeat kind of season and just because a player is young and exciting doesn’t mean he’s guaranteed to work out.

I’m also discounting that both Chris Shaw (0.1 fWAR) and Darin Ruf (0.1) get favorable shoutouts because I just don’t figure them to supplant the rest of the roster. So, I could be wrong, and they very well could hit 20 and 19 home runs, respectively, and combine for 1,064 plate appearances. It’s not impossible, even if it seems unlikely. Maybe their similar projections just means that between these two player types, there’s a chance the Giants have one slow, bad defender who can still hit .230 and hit close to 20 home runs.

Which reminds me: Alex Dickerson projects to hit .257/.320/.417 (0.6 fWAR) with 8 home runs in 319 plate appearances — a bit of a non-factor, which makes sense, given his injury history.

Still, let’s give some credit to analytics. They’ve penetrated the zeitgeist. We’re all very close to calculating win probability from our seats nowadays. At this point, we’ve become familiar enough with the values and processes that most of these computer-generated values shouldn’t come as a surprise:

  • Buster Posey remains the best player on the team.
  • Brandon Crawford, Evan Longoria, and Brandon Belt derive a good chunk of their value from defense.
  • The pitching will be bad.

Last year, ZiPS had the Giants at 77 wins. They . . . won 77. This year, it’s 71.

We could have probably guessed that before looking at the numbers, but it’s nice to know that there’s data to backup the inescapable belief that the Giants are going to totally blow.