The Limits of Projections: The Bench
So far, we’ve talked about two 2016 Mariners who are uniquely resistant to forecasting. Today, we’ll turn to the bench, and some of the interesting positional battles – or at least, what the projections think could be positional battles, but the humans running the team don’t. In each case, we’re dealing with the predictably noisy, never-as-much-as-you’d-like data, and the enduring mystery of how players will transition from the minors to the majors.
Ketel Marte is the starting shortstop. Let’s just get that out of the way. I saw him a few times in Tacoma and always struggled to match what I saw with what actual prospect evaluators saw, which is to say, frighteningly quick hands and a potential plus hit tool. I kept looking at results and not process, and Marte’s success in high-profile events like the Futures Game and then again in the majors highlight why that’s not always helpful with 21-22 year olds. Marte won admirers in the organization with his defense, but the development of his bat enabled him to make the transition from AAA to MLB seamlessly – he even improved his walk rate, something I would’ve bet plenty of money against. Marte is flat out *better* than I thought he’d be.
And yet, for 2016, Marte’s projected batting line is somewhat worse than Chris Taylor’s. Taylor too was supposed to be a glove-first SS, but impressed early on with a good batting eye and more gap power than expected. Taylor took a step forward with a huge spring in Tacoma in 2014 and hit reasonably well (though not as good as Marte) in his first call-up that year. But as a classic “high floor” prospect, what are we – and the projection systems – supposed to do with his 2015? In frighteningly Zunino-esque fashion, Taylor’s bat collapsed in 2015: in the big leagues, his K% shot up, his walk rate dropped, and he hit the ball without any authority. Even in Tacoma, he showed signs that he wasn’t going to be repeating his 2014 success; after a solid April and a call-up in May, he collapsed in June – as if taking his Seattle struggles with him. He looked like a different hitter in August, however, with an ISO around .150 and an even K:BB ratio.
So, what means more? Which developmental path correlates to major league success? Marte’s smooth trajectory from toolsy youngster to successful SS? Or Taylor’s inconsistent but occasionally excellent performance record, highlighted by a good walk rate and an age closer to the standard big league peak? Look at a 5 or 10 year forecast, and I’m sure pretty much all of them would favor Marte. But for 2016, looking only at the bat, Taylor “wins” by Steamer, Davenport, CAIRO and PECOTA. PECOTA is particularly bearish on Marte’s OBP, forecasting him for a .288 mark. In fact, Marte’s 80th percentile forecast for OBP is equal to Taylor’s *40th* percentile mark. Personally, I don’t see that big a gap, but it’s kind of concerning nonetheless. Steamer’s .312 mark for Marte is much closer to Taylor’s .320 figure, and the fans (being fans, of course) are much more optimistic about Marte.
The guy we haven’t discussed is the one Jerry Dipoto brought in specifically as Marte insurance: former Rangers/Brewers farmhand Luis Sardinas. Sardinas was once a fairly well thought-of prospect, but his bat hasn’t really developed, and he’s acquired the utility-infielder tag, despite his age – he’s only 22, and will turn 23 in May. Still, for another “high ceiling” guy, he collapsed as hard as Taylor did in 2015, and he didn’t have Taylor’s 2014 to fall back on. Sardinas put up a wRC+ of *17* last year in the bigs, and 81 in the PCL. His forecast is better, because it has to be, but an improved line of .241/.274/.304 doesn’t inspire a lot of confidence. This is one of the true battles of the spring – the right to be the primary back-up to Marte. To the projections, this is a total no-brainer. I’m not sure the M’s see it that way. Scott Servais presumably worked with Sardinas in the Rangers system a few years back, and may see something in him that he thinks he (and Andy McKay) can work with.
Taylor, too, was something of a developmental project. When rosters expanded last September, Taylor joined Mike Zunino not in Seattle, but in Peoria to work on a swing overhaul. Of course, that process seems like it would’ve been impacted by the coaching reshuffle that occurred not long after Taylor arrived in Arizona; the primary instructor was supposed to be Rainiers batting coach Cory Snyder, but Snyder was let go in October. That said, he was already working on adjusted mechanics when the new regime’s “hitting summit” in early January. Taylor – slowed by a broken wrist in the spring and an awful batting line in May/June – may have been getting conflicting information from a series of coaches (though the presence of Edgar Martinez ameliorates this risk a bit). That’s something no projection system can account for, obviously.
New starting CF Leonys Martin’s 2015 went about as well as Chris Taylor’s, and for similar reasons. Martin battled wrist injuries that kept him out for a few games in early May, then a broken hamate bone in August (after being demoted to AAA). Did Martin try to come back too soon from the wrist injury? Did one or both injuries conspire to destroy his batting line? Or is Martin a glove-first player who’ll always be vulnerable to any decline in BABIP? The M’s are betting on the former, obviously, as they’ve installed him as the starting CF despite projections of a sub-.300 OBP from the soon-to-be-28 year old. As with Taylor, though, the previous years offer some hope.
After a moderately encouraging full season in 2013, he improved in 2014, batting .274/.325/.364. It’s not much, especially in Arlington, but paired with outstanding CF defense, that’s a more than acceptable line. In 2015, though, Martin collapsed to a slash line of .219/.264/.313, fueled by a BABIP of just .270. His K% crept above the league average while his BB% dropped further from the mean. In any system that weights more recent performance higher than older data, Martin looks pretty bad. We know some of that performance drop may be injury related, but we don’t know how much, and Martin’s skillset is probably not built to maintain solid OBPs, especially without a sky-high BABIP (his BABIP was .336 when he posted that .325 OBP in 2014).
Boog Powell, on the other hand, is all about taking pitches. The ex-Rays farmhand moved to Seattle in the Brad Miller/Nate Karns deal, and has never posted a walk rate below 10% in the minors. BABIP problems of his own knocked his average down, and Powell’s power is non-existent, so his walk rate is doing all the work in any projection of his utility. But it’s doing a lot of work: every projection system sees him outhitting Martin next year. Powell’s projected OBP of around .327 easily beats Martin’s, as no system forecasts an OBP over .300. Now, this OBP gap doesn’t mean Powell should be given the job. The M’s brought in Martin mostly for his defense in CF, and that gap may be much larger than the gap in offensive performance (especially given Martin’s SLG% advantage). Still, if the M’s want depth that won’t kill the team the way the catching spot did last year, Powell makes some sense. He’s gone through the hitting summit mentioned above, and he, perhaps more than any other M’s prospect, “controls the zone,” so he figures to get some opportunities.
How many opportunities depends on a number of things, not least of which is the newest Mariner, Cuban National Team CF, Guillermo Heredia. The M’s inked Heredia to a one-year, $500,000 deal that may indicate a long-awaited return to rationality in the international market. Just last week, the guys at NEIFI posted a great piece on the bonkers valuations* teams were slapping on Cuban prospects and the incentives the international bonus pool system that helped that happen. After guys like Leonys Martin came over and received modest salaries, the post-Puig Cubans starting getting massive contracts from teams who admitted they were more projects and needed work: Yasmany Tomas’s nearly $70 million deal a bit over a year ago seemed to be the high water mark. Whereas guys like Cespedes, Martin, Jose Abreu and now Yuliesky Gurriel were obvious stars, Tomas seemed like a project. In MLB, he still seemed like a project.
There have been several “project” types who’ve come over in recent years, from Daniel Carbonell (whom the Giants signed for more than the M’s signed Heredia) and Roberto Baldoquin at the low end to Rusney Castillo and Yoan Moncada. Heredia does not appear to have Castillo/Moncada upside with the bat, but it’s worth pointing out that he outhit Carbonell in the Cuban leagues pretty consistently, too. The best thing you see in Heredia’s stat line is his solid OBP, driven by an excellent batting eye. The problem here is that the Cuban league – as a whole – produces more walks than Ks. It’s the anti-MLB in this regard, and thus it means nothing to see a Cuban player with more walks than K’s. On the flip side, it is a major warning sign if you see a Cuban player WITHOUT such a ratio. Carbonell and Baldoquin had more Ks than walks in Cuba, and put up worrying K rates and very few walks in the Cal League this year. Even Gourriel, one of the crown jewels of the Cuban league, and someone MLB teams have been following for more than a decade, saw his K:BB ratio collapse in his (otherwise successful) stint in Japan: after a few years in Cuba with twice as many walks than Ks, NPB pitchers induced nearly 3X more Ks than walks.
Heredia won’t put up a great K:BB line. He probably won’t hit for much power. But as a relative youngster with solid bat to ball skills, he can probably do enough to play, though I’d imagine he may still need some seasoning in the minor leagues the way Martin did (and Martin was the much, much, much better bat out of Cuba). Heredia’s defense and age will get him a shot, and the contract’s so small that this is a clear no-risk, medium reward kind of move. I haven’t seen many projections of Heredia, but I think it’s clear that Powell would have the edge for now. The M’s have a lot more depth at CF than they did a few months ago, however, and being able to confidently say they won’t need to give Chris Taylor an OF glove and throw him to the wolves in CF is a big step up from where we were in 2015.
* That blog post compares what Cuban prospects like Yoan Moncada and now Lazarito Armenteros have received/may receive with the record bonuses of Dominican/Venezuelan players, but of course, the same market restrictions and distortions apply in the DR too. The current record bonus for Nomar Mazara came in the last year before the bonus pools were instituted, and Texas decided to adjust to the new system by blowing a ton of money in the last year there were no penalties for doing so – they gave Mazara and Ronald Guzman unheard-of amounts that year, and scouting opinion was predictably divided on those two. Many compare the bonuses 16-year olds like Mazara get to college and US High school draft picks, but of course that’s measuring them against a system that’s designed to deflate bonuses. The league has imposed a series of restrictions on payment for amateurs, but whenever teams see a loophole, they pour plenty of money into it. Maybe that’s irrational, or maybe it’s just a signal of how well these restrictions are working in re-directing spending away from the draft/international bonuses and towards MLB free agents.