If it feels incredibly early to start thinking about 2021 projections, that’s because it is. Last year, we started this series in January. This year, we get an early start merely as a result of the ZiPS projections for the Yankees last week. It just so happens that the Yankees were on the early end of FanGraphs’ release schedule this time around. Of course, the roster will change by spring training. Still, that doesn’t mean we can’t peek at how things stand right now.
The graphic adds up to +49 WAR. That’s a 97 to 99 win team, keeping in mind that a replacement level club is said to win between 48 and 50 games. Adding up the WAR is incredibly dumb far more often than not, and I must say that calling the current Yankees club a near-100 win team seems like a stretch. That’s without DJ LeMahieu, Masahiro Tanaka, and James Paxton, after all. I guess it speaks to this team’s high-end talent.
Similar to last year, I’m going to call out some notable projections. Ones that I think sell the player short, ones that are too aggressive for my taste, ones that feel just right, and some surprises. Let’s get to it:
Betting the over
Hitter: Gio Urshela has hit .310/.358/.523 (133 OPS+) with 27 homers in 650 plate appearances since joining the Yankees. ZiPS, however, doesn’t seem quite ready to fully buy in on the 29 year-old third baseman. The system projects a triple-slash of .283/.331/.459 (110 OPS+) and 18 homers in 508 plate appearances. A good offensive projection, but I presume that ZiPS is scarred by Urshela’s pre-Yankees offensive performance. Urshela might regress a little bit, but there’s nothing that indicates him taking as big of a step back as ZiPS estimates. Not only have Urshela’s results been good, but he’s made mechnical adjustments and is a Statcast darling. This is an easy over for me.
ZiPS comfortably puts the Yankees over the 100-win threshold, as it should. The Yankees are stacked, folks. Let’s take a closer look at some of the more intriguing projections the system has in store.
Betting the over
Hitter: Like I did with Steamer, I could easily pick DJ LeMahieu again (ZiPS has a 108 OPS+ projection). But, let’s mix it up here to avoid repetitiveness. I’m going bolder this time. Gio Urshela already has a respectable forecast, but I think he’ll do better than the 105 OPS+ and 2.2 WAR ZiPS calls for. Urshela’s exit velocity, hard hit percentage, and xwOBA all were comfortably above average last year which led to a 133 OPS+. Now, I don’t expect a repeat of 2019, but something like a 115 OPS+ seems within reach.
Pitcher: ZiPS pegs Zack Britton for a 3.48 ERA and 3.63 FIP in 51 2/3 innings. A fine projection, but I think Britton can beat it easily. Zack really came on in the second half of last season and I think we can expect more of that in 2020. Take a look at the splits from a year ago:
1st half: 2.43 ERA and 4.21 FIP, 17.2 percent strikeout rate
2nd half: 1.11 ERA and 3.01 FIP, 28.7 percent strikeout rate
Betting the under
Hitter: This was a hard one. I don’t think there’s any obvious pick here, so I’m going a little more granular. ZiPS projects Gleyber Torres to hit 41 home runs, but I think he falls short of that. I know he hit 38 last year, so 41 may be in reach, but I am more comfortable pegging Torres in the 25-30 home run range. Which is still great! I just can’t see him hitting more homers per plate appearance (one every 15.1 PAs) than Aaron Judge (one every 15.8 PAs), which is what ZiPS indicates.
Pitcher: I have no choice but to do a repeat here. I thought Steamer was too high on JA Happ, but ZiPS is even more optimistic. It expects 138 innings of 4.43 ERA and 4.40 FIP performance, which seems too good to be true. I’ll gladly sign up for a 101 ERA+ from the fifth starter, but I just can’t envision it.
Hitter: Gary Sánchez’s projection feels about right. ZiPS gives The Kraken a .244/.323/.524 (121 OPS+) batting line with 32 homers and 2.6 WAR in 467 plate appearances. Only Giancarlo Stanton (43 in 567) is projected to hit homers at a higher per PA rate than Gary. That said, I could absolutely see a monster season that beats the forecast, but this is a pretty darn good outlook nonetheless.
Pitcher: ZiPS projects a 4.34 ERA and 4.30 FIP for Masashiro Tanaka in 168 innings. Considering that Tanaka hasn’t posted a FIP below 4.01 since 2016, this seems like a reasonable expectation. In any event, we know the season doesn’t really get going until the calendar says October for Tanaka. We can reasonably expect a sub-2.00 ERA come fall.
Hitter: ZiPS has Mike Tauchman at 2.5 WAR, or sixth-best out of the Yankees’ position players. It loves his defense and thinks he’ll hit aplenty (.263/.335/.437, 105 OPS+). I think the offensive projection is reasonable, but the way ZiPS loves Tauchman’s glove caught me off guard. Dan Szymborski, the proprietor of ZiPS, did note that the system has loved his fielding since he was in the minors. Statcast has him in the 95th percentile in outs above average, so maybe this shouldn’t come as a total surprise. But essentially, per ZiPS, the big takeaway here is that Tauchman should play over Brett Gardner, which I didn’t anticipate.
Pitcher: It’s not really one guy, but rather, how the non-late inning relievers stack up per ZiPS. See below:
If the Yankees are going to carry an eight man bullpen, that means three of the five above can be in the majors along with Aroldis Chapman, Zack Britton, Chad Green, Adam Ottavino, and Tommy Kahnle. It’s pretty obvious that Cessa should be the odd-man out, right? And that Heller absolutely deserves a spot, too. I didn’t expect that to be so cut and dry. I figured everyone would be a bit more closely bunched together.
Hitter: It has to be Gleyber’s projection, right? I know I already wrote about betting the under on his home run total, but still. .287/.348/.557 (136 OPS+), 41 home runs, and 4.6 WAR is a thing of beauty for the 23 year-old shortstop.
Pitcher: One of my favorite things about the ZiPS release are the comps the system spits out. For the Yankees, the pitcher comps are simply fantastic. ZiPS equates Gerrit Cole to prime Greg Maddux, Luis Severino to Roy Halladay, and James Paxton to Andy Pettitte. And then there’s the bullpen. Aroldis Chapman was comped to Billy Wagner, Chad Green to Rollie Fingers, and Adam Ottavino to Jeff Nelson.