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2019 ZiPS Projections: Three Up and Three Down

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There’s no way Dan Vogelbach hits his median ZiPS projection, right?

Seattle Mariners v Houston Astros Photo by Bob Levey/Getty Images

Last week, FanGraphs and Dan Szymborski released the 2019 ZiPS projections for the Seattle Mariners. Examining projections like these might not be as exciting during a rebuilding year, but there’s still a few nuggets to be gleaned from the data.

Normally, I’d take these projections and the Steamer projections that have been out for months and build a rough win projection out of each of them. In 2019, that might be a depressing endeavor. Besides, I have an interesting idea for making that win projection much more interesting—I just have to wait for the rest of the ZiPS projections to be released. Until then, I figured I’d discuss six players who may outperform or underperform their ZiPS projection.

Three up

Domingo Santana
Projection: 112 wRC+; 1.5 zWAR

Because of the roster crunch he faced in Milwaukee, Domingo Santana never got the chance to show that his breakout year in 2017 was repeatable. He got off to a slow start in April of last year and eventually spent a couple of months in Triple-A during the season. ZiPS sees those struggles last year—and his proclivity for extreme strikeout rates—and projects a moderate, if underwhelming, bounce-back campaign. His projected strikeout rate alone defies belief—37.6% would match the highest mark of his career, set all the way back in 2010 in Single-A. A strikeout rate matching his major league average would bump his batting average over .250 and his wOBA up over .340. That would go a long way toward beating his projected 1.5 zWAR.

Marco Gonzales
Projection: 4.00 FIP; 1.4 zWAR

Because there’s no custom field to indicate when a pitcher suffers a serious injury, or when he makes significant changes to his pitch arsenal, or when he is finally healthy after that injury, a computer will take all the available data and spit out a projection based on what it knows. Of course, we know that Marco Gonzales might be finally fully healthy for the first time in his career and he made substantial adjustments to his repertoire and pitch mix last season. The result was a breakout year that the ZiPS computer takes with a grain of salt. All the basic parts are there—an average-ish strikeout rate, an excellent walk rate, and a decent ability to keep the ball in the park—but I happen to think Gonzales’s ceiling is a bit higher.

Erik Swanson
Projection: 4.51 FIP; 0.7 zWAR

Projecting prospects making their major league debuts is often a fool’s errand. Translating minor league performance to a major league context isn’t too complex but actually making that transition on the field is often much harder than a projection system can account for. In his first taste of Triple-A last year, Erik Swanson impressed to the tune of a 5.57 strikeout-to-walk ratio, the fourth highest among all Triple-A starters with a similar number of innings pitched at the level. ZiPS sees a small portion of that success carrying over to the majors, but pairs it with a massive home run rate. Swanson had never shown a weakness to the long ball until he started throwing his fastball up in the strike zone in Triple-A. But with that excellent fastball and the command to go along with it, I think he’s ready to make the leap to the big leagues without suffering through a major hiccup.

Three down

Dan Vogelbach
Projection: 120 wRC+; 1.9 zWAR

ZiPS believes Dan Vogelbach will be the third-best hitter on the roster in 2019. Unfortunately, some combination of Ryon Healy, Edwin Encarnacion, and Jay Bruce might block him from getting the chance to prove whether that’s true or not. It’s quite a lofty projection and it’s based on some equally lofty minor league numbers. But Vogelbach hasn’t shown the ability to fully translate those skills to the major leagues, and it really feels like the Mariners aren’t interested in giving him a chance to prove himself. Still, as good as he’s been in the minor leagues, I just can’t see an offensive player 20% better than league average in there. Maybe it’s his struggles to make consistent contact against major league pitching, or the difficulty translating his raw power into in-game at-bats. Either way, I’m a bit disappointed we probably won’t be able to see him prove me (and the front office) wrong.

Kyle Seager
Projection: 104 wRC+; 2.4 zWAR

It’s never okay to kick someone while they’re down, but Kyle Seager’s days of mashing feel like they were ages ago. Ever since posting a career year in 2016, he’s been in a downward spiral, made all the worse by the increased number of defensive shifts he sees each year. He hit rock bottom last year, posting an 84 wRC+ after averaging 117 over the past six seasons. To his credit, ZiPS projects a bit of a bounce-back season for him, obviously calling on that long history of success. Unfortunately, I don’t see anything in his batted ball profile or deteriorating plate discipline that tells me he can reach that same level of success again. I have a hard time seeing his bat provide anything more than league average production in the future.

Shawn Armstrong
Projection: 3.42 FIP; 1.0 zWAR

There have been a lot of changes this offseason, but no position group has seen more change than the bullpen. The top-5 relievers from last year per fWAR have all been traded away or released. Shawn Armstrong is one of the few remaining who posted positive value last year—and he did it in just 15 innings. ZiPS sees Armstrong as the best of the pile of arms collected so far. I actually think he’ll end up being one of the better relievers on the team by the end of the year, but his projection seems a little too good. He’s never been able to translate his gaudy minor league strikeout rates to the majors, and he’s always struggled with his control until September of last season. I don’t think his performance down the stretch was him turning a corner, it feels more like a flash in the pan.