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How did Tigers hitters compare to their ZiPS projections in 2018?

A handful of Tigers beat out their projected numbers last season.

MLB: Kansas City Royals at Detroit Tigers Raj Mehta-USA TODAY Sports

As we wait for the beginning of the 2019 MLB season, it makes sense to take a look back at the season past, as rough as it might have been. The Detroit Tigers entered 2018 with low expectations as a whole, but certain individuals were projected to have favorable years. Rather than looking at numbers alone, projections provide valuable context for a player’s end-of-season stats.

Many projection systems exist, but ZiPS is one that does a good job at estimating fWAR for the season ahead. While there are always deltas between projection and reality, ZiPS provides a good baseline for what to expect going into the season. Unsurprisingly, the overall projections were not too high on the 2018 Tigers, but a few players stood out in particular.

This post takes a look at Tigers batters that notched at least 100 at bats last season and compares how they performed compared to their preseason projections. A subsequent post will do the same for the pitching staff.

2018 Tigers Batters ZiPS

Name ZiPS fWAR Delta
Name ZiPS fWAR Delta
Niko Goodrum -1.2 1.1 2.3
Jose Iglesias 1.1 2.5 1.4
JaCoby Jones 0.2 1.2 1.0
Jeimer Candelario 1.7 2.5 0.8
Nicholas Castellanos 2.3 3.0 0.7
Leonys Martin 1.7 2.3 0.6
Jim Adduci -1.0 -0.5 0.5
Victor Reyes -0.9 -1.0 -0.1
Grayson Greiner 0.6 0.0 -0.6
John Hicks 0.7 0.0 -0.7
Mikie Mahtook 0.7 -0.2 -0.9
Dixon Machado 0.8 -0.1 -0.9
Ronny Rodriguez 0.2 -1.0 -1.2
Miguel Cabrera 2.0 0.7 -1.3
James McCann 1.6 -0.1 -1.7
Dawel Lugo 1.5 -0.4 -1.9
Victor Martinez 0.3 -1.7 -2.0

Exceeding expectations

Few players entered 2018 with lower expectations than Niko Goodrum. ZiPS projected just .221/.271/.351 and 61 wRC+ for the versatile defender, which would see him spending most of his time on the bench and near the bottom of the batting order. Of course, this is not how the season played out at all for the charismatic Goodrum, as he logged 103 wRC+ and 16 home runs during the year.

ZiPS projected a -1.2 fWAR for Goodrum, which was completely justified. After his 1.1 fWAR output in 2018, he should see his 2019 closer to 1.0 fWAR than zero, and definitely nothing in the negatives.

Goodrum was easily the biggest over-performer in Detroit last season, but a couple of his peers were pleasant surprises at well. Jose Iglesias (+1.4) and JaCoby Jones (+1.0) were the other big movers, as both plus-defenders were better than expected at the plate.

Iglesias entered last season coming off two poor offensive years in a row, with 74 wRC+ in 2016 and 73 wRC+ in 2017. ZiPS bought into this trend, projecting 75 wRC+ in 2018. The crafty shortstop had a surprisingly improved year with the bat, doubling his steal output (15), bumping up his batting average by 14 points (.269), and posting a career-high ISO (.120). He was also helped by his always solid defense (8.2 UZR).

Expectations were minimal for Jones, who was projected for just 0.2 fWAR last season. After his limited time with the Tigers in 2016 and 2017, this was probably fair, as the young outfielder struggled mightily at the plate. His 2018 season did provide a marked improvement, even though his batting average sat at .207.

A 70 wRC+ is not great, but it does show some promise going forward. Much of his 1.2 fWAR, however, came from his outstanding defense. At 21 DRS and 12.3 UZR, Jones was one of the best outfielders in 2018. Defense alone cannot carry fWAR, but ZiPS should be a little more positive on Jones for 2019.

Falling short

The Tigers who fell shortest compared to their projections in 2018 were not too surprising. Victor Martinez was not expected to do much, with ZiPS projecting 92 wRC+ and 0.7 fWAR. The aging designated hitter fell woefully short of these figures, mustering just 75 wRC+ and -1.7 fWAR. Everyone knew his time was coming to a close... except maybe for the computers.

James McCann and Dawel Lugo entered the season as the fixth- and sixth-highest projected Tigers batters per ZiPS, but neither went on to post a positive fWAR. For McCann, last season was the downturn of his career yo-yo, with his 2015-2018 wRC+ numbers bouncing from 84, 64, 95, and 58. His .220 average was the lowest of his career, and he dropped down to eight homers after consecutive seasons of double-digits.

Lugo’s projections were a little surprising for a rookie. He was quite productive in Double-A in 2017, but a jump to the majors is obviously steep. As a result, he did not get anywhere near his modest 85 wRC+ projection. The fan base is cooling on the second baseman, and Lugo will have to do much better than 57 wRC+ and -0.4 fWAR this season to keep his spot in Detroit.

While ZiPS may not be the perfect measure of predicting players’ future successes, it can be a solid temperature gauge at the very least. The value in this exercise is less about finding the shortcomings of projection systems and instead recognizing which players surprised us the most. Even though ZiPS has a track record of being fairly accurate, there will always be some outliers.