Last week, I reviewed FanGraphs' Fan Projections for NL East Starting Pitchers. According to the fans, the Braves' rotation will be the best in the division--about 2 games better than the Phillies'. This week, I am going to analyze the fan projections for the Infielders in the division. I'll be looking at fielding as well as hitting.
The infield is clearly one of the strengths of the NL East, particularly the left side of the infield. Chase Utley and Hanley Ramirez are without a doubt 2 of the top 5 position players in all of baseball, and Ryan Zimmerman, David Wright, and Jose Reyes aren't far behind. The division is so strong at shortstop that Yunel Escobar, who has the 6th-highest projected WAR of any SS in baseball, is only the 4th-highest-rated SS in this division (though he's neck-and-neck with Jimmy Rollins).
So who do the fans think has the best Infield in the division? For the answer to that question, and of course lots of nifty graphs, read on.
The Best Infield in the NL East Will Be...
Unlike the starting rotations in the division, the infields are more or less set for each team; there are a couple position battles, but we pretty much know who will be playing (if not how much they will play). Even the first couple guys off the bench look fairly set for each team. I looked at the fan projections for each infielder who is likely to make his team's opening day roster (that means no Logan Morrison for Florida). For ease of comparison, I limited each team to 6 players for this analysis--a starter at each of the 4 IF positions, plus a backup corner infielder and a backup middle infielder. If there was more than 1 player at one of the backup positions, I left out the one with the lower projected WAR*, though this had little effect on the totals.
* WAR (Wins Above Replacement player) combines all aspects of a position player's game--hitting, baserunning, and fielding--which explains why Placido Polanco has nearly the same projected value as Adam Dunn.
So, who has the best infield in the division? I summed up all the WAR values from each team's 6-man infield, and these are the results:
Thanks in large part to Chase Utley's league-leading 8.0 projected WAR, the Phillies come out on top. The Mets are a distant second, followed closely by the Braves, with the Marlins and Nationals bringing up the rear. It should be noted, though, that the Nationals' 14 WAR figure is not bad at all (though I'd hate to see their infield without Zimmerman); the NL East is just full of good infields.
The next part of this graph that jumps out at me is the poor bench production that the Phillies and Marlins are projected to get. This is especially concerning for them because each has so much value tied up in 1 player--an injury to Utley or Ramirez would be devastating. On the other hand, the Braves have a couple decent bench guys (and no superstars), making the drop-off in case of injury much less severe.
Overall, as with the starting rotation projections, these seem fairly reasonable to me. I do have some bones to pick with a few of the individual projections (more on them later), but the totals are about right. I'd probably flip-flop the Braves and Mets, but that's really about it.
I will reiterate my warning from the last post: a lot can change during the season, between injuries, trades, surprise performances, and call-ups. This is not a prediction; it is only a projection based on how things look right now. I could see any of these teams ending the year with the best infield WAR, particularly if Utley falls short of his monstrous projection.
Below, I examine the projections for each team in more detail.
For each IF in the sample, I list the # of votes cast for that player, plus his projected plate appearances (PA), batting average (AVG), on-base (OBP), slugging (SLG), walk rate (BB%; the percentage of PAs that end in a walk), and strikeout rate (K%; the percentage of at-bats that end in a strikeout). I also included each player's projected home runs (HR), stolen bases (SB), Ultimate Zone Rating (UZR; a measure of how many runs a player saves/costs his team compared to an average fielder), and WAR.
A few caveats:
- Remember, there's a lot of wiggle room in these numbers, since they aren't, y'know, real.
- WAR depends largely on playing time, so check each player's PAs if you think their WAR is a bit low. If that player stays healthier than the fans project, he will eclipse his WAR projection even if he doesn't play any better. This is particularly applicable to guys like Troy Glaus.
- Also, you should keep in mind that the projections with fewer votes are more likely to be outliers than those with more votes, so if a player has fewer than 15 votes, take his projections with a grain of salt.
As with last week, we'll go in alphabetical order by location, starting with the Braves.
|Corner IF||Eric Hinske||28||372||.247||.343||.396||11.8%||25.6%||11||3||0.4||1.1|
|Middle IF||Omar Infante||22||365||.281||.333||.355||7.4%||13.3%||2||5||0.4||0.9|
Overall, these numbers imply that the fans think the Braves have added about 3 wins from their infielders (they got roughly 13 WAR from these positions in 2009). The fans project a loss of about a win from the Kotchman/LaRoche combo to Glaus, and a gain of about two wins by replacing Greg Norton with Eric Hinske. Most of the rest of the projected gain comes from a projected bounce-back year from Chipper Jones, which makes sense but is hardly a guarantee. Chipper is definitely the biggest potential source of downside in the Braves infield.
As for upside, there are several places to look... The fans think that Yunel Escobar will do almost exactly what he did last year, which to me seems a bit conservative. At his age, he could just as easily break out with a 5.5-6.0 WAR season. I'd project his slugging and HR numbers, in particular, to improve. Prado is projected to lose almost 40 points of SLG off last year's number; I don't see any reason why that should be the case--he did slug .461 in more limited PAs in 2008, too. Then there's Glaus. I think there's a very good chance that this projection understates both his power numbers and his health. I would project Glaus for 600-ish PAs, about 30 HRs and a SLG near .500 (his career mark is .497). I can understand the fans' skepticism with Troy, but he's only 33, he is healthy by all accounts, and if he stays healthy, he will definitely hit more than 22 homers--and possibly far more.
As for the defense, all of the UZR projections seem reasonable. The Braves' entire infield seems average to me with the glove, except for Chipper, who is a bit below average (though Escobar has the potential to be above average).
All in all, my optimistic projection would add about 2 WAR to the fans' projection. I'd put Escobar at around 5 WAR, Prado at 3.5, and Glaus at 3.0, with the others staying where they are. Even if I wanted to be pessimistic (especially with Chipper), I don't see how I could project our infield to be worse than last year's.
I combined the projections from the Braves' 6 infielders and compared those numbers to the projected league-average numbers. The graph below gives you a sense of how the Braves compare to the averages in 5 categories: batting average (AVG), isolated power (ISO; slugging minus batting average), walk rate (BB%), strikeout rate (K%), and UZR*.
* Well, a modified form of UZR... Since UZR can be negative, and negative numbers mess up the percentages, I converted all the UZRs to positive numbers by finding the difference between a player's UZR and the UZR that the worst projected defender, Brad Hawpe, would put up in the same amount of playing time. The resulting stat, which I call "UZR Above Brad Hawpe," or "UZR (ABH)", is ridiculous, of course--but it does allow me to convert defensive skill to a % value, so whatever. To give you an idea of what the numbers look like, the projected league average UZR (ABH) is 18.9 per 600 PAs. The Braves were slightly below average at 17.5 UZR (ABH).
To read the graph, keep in mind that closer to the center is always worse and closer to the edges is always better. In other words, the bigger the shaded area, the better. The percentages given are relative to the league average. The Braves' infield rates as "+12%" in the K% category--this means that they project to strike out 12% less often that the league average, not 12% more.
This graph really gives you a good sense of the Braves' infielders' strengths and weaknesses. On the down side, they don't hit for great power and they aren't great with the glove (though they aren't terrible in either area). On the plus side, they hit for a good average, walk a ton, and don't strike out very often. Add in the fact that there's some upside in the power area--Prado, Escobar, and Glaus could all outslug their projections by quite a bit--and this is a potentially excellent infield.
|Corner IF||Wes Helms||7||367||.257||.311||.335||6.5%||24.2%||4||0||0.0||0.1|
|Middle IF||Emilio Bonifacio||20||449||.254||.306||.319||7.1%||21.8%||1||22||-0.9||0.0|
The Marlins' 1B situation has to be a bit troubling for them. Supposedly, there is an open competition between Sanchez and hot prospect Logan Morrison to win the job, but I just don't think either is ready to be even an average hitter just yet.
Perhaps that's why the Marlins are rumored to have offered a minor-league deal to Hank Blalock, though really he won't be that much of a help--he'd add about 0.5 WAR compared to Wes Helms. (I've included Blalock's numbers in the table above for reference, but they were not used in any of the graphs.) Edit: Apparently Blalock has signed with the Rays, so no dice here for the Marlins. Looks like they'll have to put up with Sanchez until Morrison is ready, whenever that is.
The hitting projections seem right on to me. I might pick Uggla to do a bit worse and Ramirez to do a bit better, but that's minor. The biggest discrepancy I see in these numbers is actually Jorge Cantu's UZR figure. I think the voters must not have considered that he's moving to 3B (where he's terrible) from 1B (where he's actually not bad). I covered this issue in my Troy Glaus defense post a while back. Given his age and track record at 3B, I'd project Cantu to put up something more like a -14.5 UZR, not -4.5. That'd knock a whole win off his WAR mark.
Here's the Marlins' graph:
As you can see, this is a fairly average-hitting infield overall. The Marlins' infielders seem to be willing to sacrifice a few strikeouts for an uptick in power, which is reasonable. The problem with this infield is that it stinks defensively. Uggla is bad, and nobody else can really make up for that. And, of course, their UZR figure is liable to be even worse, thanks to Cantu's aforementioned position switch. If I were Josh Johnson, I'd be furious about this; it's not out of the realm of possibility that poor infield defense could cost him the Cy Young.
|Corner IF||Fernando Tatis||14||378||.279||.345||.420||7.9%||18.4%||9||5||1.1||1.6|
|Middle IF||Alex Cora||21||271||.256||.327||.344||7.7%||11.6%||2||5||-2.2||0.1|
Ah, the Mets. You've got to love them. A few stars and a bunch of scrubs. If their stars stay healthy and play to their potential (like the fans think), their infield will be in decent shape. But if not, watch out; this could get ugly again. All of these projections are fine if you assume Reyes and Wright will be back to normal in 2010. But that seems a bit too optimistic to me, given the Mets' dysfunctionality. Personally, I would have a hard time projecting Wright to hit 24 HRs a year after hitting 10, or projecting Reyes to get 666 PAs given the questions about his hamstring and his thyroid. I'd subtract 0.5-1.0 WAR from each of their projections to be safe.
One note about the 1B projection. Supposedly, the Mets are having an open competition between Murphy and Mike Jacobs (either one will likely split time with Tatis, which makes sense). Mets fans had better hope that Murphy wins that clash of the titans, for Jacobs is just terrible--a projected -0.7 WAR. In a well-run organization, Jacobs would be nothing more than catastrophe insurance in case several guys get hurt, so I didn't include him in the table above... But with the Mets, you never know.
The defensive projections seem fine; Castillo is a butcher and the others are decent (though Wright is so inconsistent in the field, he's hard to project). My only question is whether Murphy is a plus defender. When I saw him at 1B last year, he looked awful (though that's a small sample, obviously, and he looked even worse in the outfield).
Now for the Mets' infield graph:
The Mets' graph is a lot like the Braves, except more extreme (in fact, it looks more like a triangle than a pentagon). They project to hit for less power (and it could be even worse if Wright doesn't get his HR stroke back) but also to strike out less. Their defense projects to be a bit worse, but their batting average a bit better. I guess that's what happens when Luis Castillo gets 571 PAs--no power, bad defense, few strikeouts, a decent average, and a lot of walks.
|Corner IF||Greg Dobbs||13||377||.274||.323||.362||6.9%||17.1%||6||3||-1.6||0.5|
|Middle IF||Juan Castro||7||190||.232||.269||.298||4.7%||19.3%||2||1||3.0||-0.4|
It's all too easy when looking at the Phillies' numbers to focus on their offense, but I'd like to point out how excellent they are defensively. All their starters are projected to have positive UZRs, and several are projected to be excellent with the glove, especially Utley. Based on these projections, the Phillies will add nearly 3 wins compared to the average team with their infield defense alone. That is, obviously, excellent.
As for the hitting, they have 3 good hitters on the infield and not much else. Polanco is OK, mainly because his excellent strikeout rate allows him to hit for a good average. Rollins is probably overrated in general, and particularly in these projections, but he's a good player. I don't think he's going to be 4.5 WAR good next year--I think last year's suckitude portends a permanent decline--but I'd probably peg him for 3.5 to 4.0 WAR. Howard's numbers seem about right, though hitters like him tend not to age very well. As for Utley, well, he's awesome. I don't doubt that he could, and probably will, put up a roughly 8.0 WAR season. The only problem is that with that high of a projection, there's really nowhere to go but down. He could put up an excellent, 6 WAR season and still be a disappointment. And Phils fans had better pray that he doesn't get hurt, given that their bench guys aren't that great (I guess if that happened, they'd move Polanco to 2B and play Dobbs at 3B, which would be okay for a week or two, but not for longer).
Here's the Phillies' infield graph:
Obviously, the UZR number is out of this world, but I find it interesting that the Phillies manage to hit for a ton of power without striking out that much. How is that +10% K rate possible with Ryan Howard, you ask? Well, Rollins and especially Polanco have excellent K rates that more than counteract Howard's poor one. Rollins and Polanco giveth in K rate, but they taketh away in walk rate. Clearly, both those guys just really like putting the ball in play.
Finally, the Nats.
|Corner IF||Mike Morse||11||243||.269||.329||.442||6.6%||26.0%||5||1||-0.6||0.4|
|Middle IF||Christian Guzman||29||571||.288||.318||.388||3.9%||12.4%||6||5||-3.0||1.1|
According to the fans, the Nationals will roughly split the middle-infield positions between Kennedy, Desmond, and Guzman. As you can see, giving Guzman the lions share of the PAs is not a wise plan (look at that walk rate--it's downright Frenchian). I think the wise choice would be to play Desmond full-time at short and let Kennedy and Guzman fight for scraps at 2B. Desmond is already the best of the 3, and he could be much, much better.
The hitting projections seem about right--I might put Desmond a bit higher, but that's about it. The fielding projections, too, are reasonable. It is interesting to note that of the 7 players listed, only 1 has a positive UZR projection. Though that 1, Ryan Zimmerman, is a gold-glove-caliber guy. It's also funny how Zimmerman's great glove almost counteracts Dunn's terrible one. If the Big Donkey can somehow manage to become a mediocre first baseman, the Nats infield defense might not be that bad. Of course, he's just as likely to put up a -25 UZR as a -5.
Here's the Nats' infield graph:
This is an average-hitting infield that stinks defensively. If Zimmerman gets hurt, though, that will hurt them a lot in both areas. Any hopes that the Nats have of being respectable this year fall on him. I think he'll be fine, but I still wouldn't bet on Washington winning more than 75 games no matter what--their pitching is just not good enough.
The fans at FanGraphs tell us that the Phillies have easily the best infield in the NL East. On paper, that is certainly true. In reality, anything might happen. I think it is likely that some team at least challenges them for infield supremacy this year--I just can't say who it will be. My guess would be the Braves--I see the most upside there--but then, I might just be a delusional homer.
By the way, here are the WAR standings when you combine the figures from the starting pitchers and the infielders:
Thanks for reading, everyone. I know these posts have been long; hopefully they've been informative. I look forward to hearing your input about how the Braves' infield stacks up to the rest of the division.