Star zWARs: Some True Hope

The 2017 season will not end with the Padres hoisting a World Series title trophy. They’re going to be bad, as pretty much everyone agrees. But that doesn’t mean good things won’t happen (aside from possibly earning the rights to select the top player in the draft).

One shitty fact about Padres teams in the past decade was their consistent, predictable below-averageness. When the team enters the season with predictable below-average talent like Yonder Alonso and Will Venable, with basically no chance at experiencing a random excellent season from a young player, it accentuates the down years with a giant dose of boredom. That drives hardcore fans away as much as the losing chases away the bandwagoners.

This year should be different, though. Yes, they will be terrible because of their complete lack of… an entire rotation… but they will actually have a number of offensive pieces with wildly varying projections, making the season interesting to the hardcore fan. I will be watching. Whether they win 60 or 68 games doesn’t matter too much (except for draft positioning) so long as there are tangible improvements to their long-term plan. One of those improvements would be a significant break-out season from one of their young offensive pieces.

When ZIPS creator Dan Szymborski creates his yearly projections, he also creates alternate outcomes for each player, including their 10th (bad) or 90th (great) percentile outcomes. You rarely see these published on Fangraphs, but people do use them for additional analysis or as inputs to computer simulation games. Though this spreadsheet isn’t yet public, Dan agreed to provide me with the 90th percentile outcomes for a handful of interesting Padres players.

While a 90th percentile outcome, by definition occurring just 10% of the time, seems pie-in-the-sky for an individual player, it is actually fairly likely that one young Padre does hit their 90th percentile projection. In fact, the odds that at least one of Renfroe, Margot, Jankowski, Hedges, Myers, Schimpf, Spangenberg, or Perdomo hits their 90th percentile projection is 57%. The odds more than one hit it is 19%. (If we lowered our threshold to the 80th percentile – just fudge the zWAR numbers presented below down a little – there’s an 83% chance of at least one and a 49% chance of more than one.)

With that in mind, let’s take a look at what type of player the Padres would have going forward if they win that practical coin flip.

Austin Hedges

Player Projected zWAR 90th zWAR PA (IP)
Austin Hedges 2.0 3.1 368

That 3.1 WAR should be impressive enough, but note that this is still over just 368 plate appearances. The playing time projection makes sense since catchers don’t often get a lot of plate appearances, there’s really no reason for the Padres to demand so much out of Hedges in what should be a developmental season, and he did miss all May last year with an injury.

For the sake of the argument, though, if Hedges gets 500 plate appearances, his 90th percentile pro-rates to 4.0 zWAR. To put that into context, it’d tie for the 6th best season from a catcher over 2014-2016, behind 2014 & 2015 Buster Posey, 2014 & 2016 Jonathan Lucroy, and 2014 Yan Gomes. Catchers aren’t generally worth 4+ WAR in a season, so this 90th percentile outcome is promising.

Even if we don’t prorate, the 3.1 WAR would rank 11th since 2014, and more than half a win above what Derek Norris delivered the Padres in his pretty good 2015 season.

Wil Myers

Player Projected zWAR 90th zWAR PA (IP)
Wil Myers 3.4 5.5 621

Hello superstar.

In the past ten years, the Padres have only had two seasons from an offensive player that were higher than 5.5 WAR: Chase Headley’s monster (fluky) 2012 and Adrian Gonzalez’s 2009. Going back another decade (all the way to 1997) finds only four new offensive seasons better than this potential Myers outcome: ’98 Greg Vaughn, ’01 Phil Nevin, ’04 Mark Loretta, and ’05 Brian Giles.

In other words, there’s a chance that Wil Myers has an historically good season for the Padres. While it probably wouldn’t include 50+ homeruns or a run at the batting title at second-base, Myers’ possible across-the-board contributions would be just as impressive.

Oh, and do you know what Anthony Rizzo has averaged over the past three years? 5.5 WAR.

Manny Margot

Player Projected zWAR 90th zWAR PA (IP)
Manny Margot 2.6 3.9 581

Manny is already loved by the ZIPS projection system, receiving a 2.6 projection in 2017. This is actually higher than number one prospect Andrew Benintendi’s 2.2 projection, despite Margot being several months younger.

But a 4 win centerfielder at age 22? In the past decade, only a limited number of outfielders have had a season that good at this young of an age: Trout, Harper, both Uptons, Heyward, Betts, Yelich, and Stanton.

In fact, this would be the greatest season by a position player 22 or younger in franchise history, tying Roberto Alomar’s 1988 season.


Player Projected zWAR 90th zWAR PA (IP)
Ryan Schimpf 2.0 3.6 466
Cory Spangenberg 1.1 2.1 262

Please tell me that’s a real German word for “chance of a clusterfuck before Urias arrives”. Sounds about right.

Okay, so Schimpf isn’t all that young. He’s actually in his prime at 29, but could make himself into either a great trade piece or someone whose contributions might still be useful when the Padres are good again. Since he also has a limited track record, leading to more variance in projecting his value, I figured he’d have a pretty high ceiling. Looks like he does.

A season like this from a second baseman at the age of 29 would put Schimpf on the “who’s who” list of second basemen. In the past 20 years, it includes Utley, Cano, Kinsler, Dozier, Polanco, Roberts, Kipnis, Offerman, Kent, Durham, Lansing, Phillips, Castillo, and Zobrist. While many of those names would have had higher projections for subsequent seasons, based on a longer track record, it would put Schimpf squarely in the “will contribute towards the 2019 Padres” conversation or “give us some top prospects for him” discussions. Pretty sweet outcome for someone the Padres signed to a minor league contract last December.

Spangenberg, on the other hand, was the second baseman of the future before Gyorko arrived. Now he’s almost just the dude there until Urias arrives. But I – and it looks like ZIPS, too – still think Spangenberg can be a big part of the future.

His ZIPS 90th percentile projection pro-rates to roughly 4 WAR over a full season. That’s a cornerstone middle infielder. The problem is that the projection system thinks 262 plate appearances is the most accurate projection, probably because he hasn’t played a full season since 2013. If Spang can stay healthy for 2017, there’s a chance he finishes his age 26 season as the most valuable piece the Padres possess.

Jankowski vs. Renfroe

Player Projected zWAR 90th zWAR PA (IP)
Travis Jankowski 1.6 2.5 404
Hunter Renfroe 1.5 3.1 586

At first glance, these stat lines appear to suggest that Renfroe is a more boom-or-bust player than Jankowski, given his higher ceiling but lower floor. However, this is a mathematical error, since the number of plate appearances for each player is not equivalent.

If you pro-rate Jankowski to Renfroe’s plate appearance projection, his zWARs rise to 2.3 and 3.6. In both cases, Jankowski is significantly better than Renfroe.

Perhaps nothing encapsulates the scouting versus analytics debate than the dilemma the Padres may face here. Renfroe was a high first round pick, still appears in top prospect lists, hits highlight moonshots, and even won the PCL MVP award last year. Jankowski, on the other hand, has consistent, projectable speed, defense, and on-base skills. They couldn’t be more different.

And as much as I want to side with the scouts, given the Padres historical lack of homegrown power, I just can’t get past Renfroe’s terrible walk rate. If his 3.9% rate in AAA last year doesn’t change at the MLB level, it would mean he’s the 141st best of 146 qualified batters. The only guys who rank lower are middle infielders.

But despite those qualms, both Renfroe and Jankowski have tangible “good player” 90th percentile projections. Together with Margot, there’s a 27% chance that one of them breaks out for a 3+ WAR season. And almost a 3% chance that two of them do.

Luis Perdomo

Player Projected zWAR 90th zWAR PA (IP)
Luis Perdomo -0.6 1.5 (133)

This is another scouting versus stats example. Perdomo was selected in the Rule 5 draft because of his scouting report, the Padres invested innings in him last year because they believed in his stuff, and he actually looked good for a few months at the end of the year.

That said, he was completely brutal in April. And it could just be random that his good months followed the awful one. Combined, he put up a 5.71 ERA with a 1.59 WHIP, good enough to call himself “replacement level”.

We could continue to trick ourselves into believing he’s not all that bad or we could come to grips with the fact that he’s statistically bad, but young and talented enough that that 1.6 WAR 90th percentile projection seems attainable. (Over 200 innings, that’s 2.4 WAR.)

Of all the guys on this list, Perdomo may be the name that accelerates the … ahem … rebuild faster than anyone else. While the Padres don’t have many more bats on the way just yet, they may have enough to do something in the not insanely long future if they get some quick pitching help. Perdomo would reduce the number of guys out of the Quantrill, Espinoza, and other 2016 Fort Wayne arms grouping that we need to succeed by one. It would still make 2018 and 2019 mere pipe dreams, but ones that don’t get you laughed out of the discussion.


3 responses to “Star zWARs: Some True Hope

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