Looking Back at Preseason WOW Projections

Looking Back at Preseason WOW Projections

Last January, I provided projections for three versions of the 2018 Atlanta Braves. One was called the Realistic Model. It stayed very true to the conservative projections the Steamer system at Fangraphs provided. The second was an Optimistic Model which took the projections and looked at more of a best-case scenario. Finally, I took the Realistic Model Projection and added talent to the team in hopes of building a playoff contender despite the conservative projections expected. I’m not going to care too much about the latter today because it included moves that never happened.

It was a thought exercise. I wanted to know how close the team was to competing in 2018 on paper. Obviously, nothing is won on paper as the Washington Nationals well know. The goal was to get to 44 fWAR. Why? Because testing has proved that a replacement team – a team that finishes with 0.0 fWAR – will end up with around 46 wins. Each fWAR, or win, equals one actual win added to the total. If you start with 46 wins and add 44 fWAR, you should be around 90 wins and in most years, that’s a playoff team. At least, that’s the theoretical principle and it makes for some fun preseason projections.

Ultimately, the Realistic Model – the one that stayed true to an extent to the Steamer projection – suggested the 2018 Braves would finish with 31.6 fWAR, or a 77-to-78 win total. My Optimistic Model predicted a 53.2 fWAR finish or 99-win team. My feeling was, “I do believe the answer is somewhere between the two, but much closer to the Realistic model.” I’m quite happy to say that the Realistic Model looks far too conservative in hindsight.

With just over a month left this season, let’s take a look at where the Braves stand compared to my projections and see if the theoretical 44 fWAR is attainable. I’ll look at position-by-position with both the Realistic Model (RM) and the Optimistic Model (OM).

Catcher

2017 – 5.1 fWAR
RM – 3 fWAR
OM – 5 fWAR
Actual – 2.0 fWAR

While I hold an outside chance of being vindicated for my Realistic Model projection, the Braves catching tandem of Tyler Flowers and Kurt Suzuki have not quite lived up to expectations after the position hit 31 home runs in 2017 with a 5.1 fWAR. The BABIP for the position is a miserable .266, which has certainly neutered offensive production. The drop from a .201 ISO to a .135 mark hasn’t helped either. Both Suzuki and Flowers flourished in 2017 with a .372 wOBA and .358 wOBA respectively. Both have wOBA’s near .320 now. There’s a chance both catchers will be with a new team in 2019.

First Base

2017 – 5.6 fWAR
RM – 4.5 fWAR
OM – 6 fWAR
Actual – 5.0 fWAR

Well, this one has worked out pretty well. Freddie Freeman has stayed healthy, logging all but 14 innings while starting every game this year. This may come as a surprise, but when Freddie Freeman is healthy, he does Freddie Freeman things like show everyone he is an MVP candidate. He currently ranks ninth in baseball in wOBA.

Second Base

2017 – 3.4 fWAR
RM – 2.6 fWAR
OM – 4.5 fWAR
Actual – 3.2 fWAR

Before his recent struggles, Ozzie Albies looked on pace for a 4-win season. It’s still possible and he’s doubled what Brandon Phillips did in nearly the same playing time last year. Of course, we can focus on some of the negatives with Albies, but consider that, at the age of 21, Albies has 3.2 fWAR through 122 games. That’s pretty incredible regardless of his second-half troubles.

Shortstop

2017 – 1.0 fWAR
RM – 1.5 fWAR
OM – 3.2 fWAR
Actual – 1.4 fWAR

Dansby Swanson has been better in every facet of his game compared to 2017, when he finished with a -0.1 fWAR. Defensively, he has been stout and at the plate, he’s added nearly 20 points to his wOBA and wRC+. Of course, he’s also been a negative at the plate regardless of his improvements. That said, he’s been better in August than he was in July. Still not great, but he was 2017-bad in July. If he can continue to post a wOBA around .300 with a wRC+ near 90, he’ll retain a lot of value when you take into account his defense. That said, it looks like the Optimistic Model way overshot this.

Third Base

2017 – 0.7 fWAR
RM – 2.0 fWAR
OM – 3.0 fWAR
Actual – 1.9 fWAR

After doing his best to drag up the 2017 totals after weak numbers from Adonis Garcia and Rio Ruiz, Johan Camargo has done a solid job at third base this season. His .344 wOBA ranks fourth on the team and, with his plus defense at third base, he’s sitting at 2.3 fWAR for the season. The cumulative third base grade is hurt by Ryan Flaherty and Jose Bautista, but Camargo is on pace to become just the second Braves third baseman to finish with a two-win season since Chipper Jones retired.

Left Field*

2017 – -1.3 fWAR
RM – 2 fWAR
OM – 5 fWAR
Actual – 3.8 fWAR

Had Ronald Acuña Jr. stayed healthy, making a run at that 5-win season I predicted in the Optimistic Model would have easily happened. Instead, it’s still a hard-to-reach possibility. Nevertheless, this is a huge turnaround. In terms of playing time, here is the following fWAR’s for the group that made up the 2017 cadre of performers: -0.5, -0.5, -0.3, 0.7, 0.0, -0.6, -0.1, 0.0. That first number was from Matt Kemp and the only positive fWAR came from Lane Adams. This season, Preston Tucker was solid early before fading to a 0.1 fWAR. Acuña Jr. has 2.7 fWAR by himself and even Charlie Culberson has added a win to the total. The last time the Braves got near this kind value from left field was in 2014 when Justin Upton had a near 4-win season. Upton had a .363 wOBA and 133 wRC+ that season. Acuña Jr. has a .391 wOBA and 147 wRC+.

Center Field

2017 – 3.0 fWAR
RM – 3.0 fWAR
OM – 4.0 fWAR
Actual – 1.6 fWAR

Well…I didn’t see this one coming. Hard to project a greater than 30-point drop in wOBA. Impossible to project a player who had averaged close to 3-wins since becoming an everyday starter to slump to half of that with just over a month remaining in the season. Inciarte’s struggles are well known and documented. He’s even lost some playing time since the arrival of Adam Duvall. He still provides a ton of defensive value, though contrary to what some smaller selected sample sizes may say, he hasn’t bounced back this month (77 wRC+). Which makes it even more confusing why he was pushed up in the order. He did have a solid game last night, though.

Right Field*

2017 – 0.7 fWAR
RM – 1.0 fWAR
OM – 2.0 fWAR
Actual – 3.3 fWAR

* – I projected Nick Markakis to move to left field, which of course didn’t happen. As a result, I’m using Markakis and Co.’s projection in left field and I shifted Acuna Jr. and Co.’s projection to left field.

If you pretend that you saw this coming, I’m calling you a liar. Projecting a win from the Nick Markakis-led spot in the order was actually expecting some improvement. A projected two wins was truly being optimistic about things. But three wins? I couldn’t even force myself to be that hopeful before the season. But Markakis has had a resurgent 2018 season, passing his fWAR total of the previous two seasons combined.

Starting Rotation

2017 – 8.7 fWAR
RM – 10 fWAR
OM – 16.3 fWAR
Actual – 8.9 fWAR

Well, I was a bit too hopeful here, though my Realistic Model may still win out. While this year’s rotation is much-improved over the previous three years, it didn’t take the massive step forward I had hoped for. However, as I mentioned on Twitter, one amazing thing about this staff is the strikeout rate. While data doesn’t exist for every season (specifically exact batters faced data), Braves starters have reached a 20% strikeout rate just four times with a franchise-best 20.6% in 2014. This year, they are sitting at 23.1%. Now, this is pointless if I don’t mention that the strikeout rates are booming league-wise. Nevertheless, that’s a four-point increase in the span of one year. While the 16.3 fWAR projection was very pie-in-the-sky, it’s easy to see how it’ll be reachable in 2019 with full-time arrivals of Mike Soroka, Bryse Wilson, Touki Toussaint, and Kyle Wright.

Bullpen

2017 – 1.1 fWAR
RM – 2.0 fWAR
OM – 4.2 fWAR
Actual – 3.3 fWAR

Much like the rotation, the bullpen is better than it’s been during the rebuild, but it’s still with its share of problems. That said, with the additions of Chad Sobotka, Brad Brach, and Jonny Venters have stabilized a unit that suffered huge WAR losses with Sam Freeman, Jose Ramirez, Lucas Sims, and Peter Moylan struggling. If Arodys Vizcaino and/or Shane Carle return, it will make the pen that much deeper. The dream of a 4-win season seems far-fetched, but the pen should finish with a FIP under 4 – something it failed to do in two of the last three seasons.

To sum up…

Once again, the Realistic Model produced a projection of 31.6 fWAR while the Optimistic Model lived up to its name with a 53.2 fWAR projection. That leaves us with the actual total of this season. Remember that for a 0.0 fWAR team, 46 wins are already factored in. The 2018 Atlanta Braves currently have 21.6 fWAR from the hitters and 12.2 fWAR from the pitchers, a total of 33.8 fWAR. That’s already beat the Realistic Model projection.

But, the Braves are also short on the projected win total (79 or 80 wins projected vs. 72 currently). This is largely due to the idea that our projection is built on theoretical win totals versus real-world totals.

Before we finish up, let’s take that fWAR total and project it, at its current rate, over 162 games. That would give us a projected total fWAR of about 43 fWAR. That’s pretty close to our goal of 44 fWAR – or 90 wins. Now, again, that doesn’t mean the record will absolutely match up. What we are looking for is a collection of players and their different value totals to get us to 44 fWAR to improve the chances the Braves make the playoffs. Those chances, by the way, are already excellent. With 35 games remaining, should the team finish a game under .500, they will finish with 89 wins.

5 Comments

Excellent article. Points up exactly where this team is and where it may be going. I recall, in my original response where I ultimately came to 25 fWAR for the offense and 16 fWAR for the pitching, that I thought some players (especially Freddie and the younger up-and-comers) were more likely to hit the optimistic projections while others may fall short. I, obviously, did not project the fall-off for both Flowzuki and Inciarte, but we did talk about some regression for Flowzuki. I also recall being suspicious of any projected “breakout” for Dansby although I did expect him to hit about 1.5 fWAR. I also think that, going forward, we will need more than 3 fWAR from 3B.

I still think the bullpen can hit 4 fWAR and did at the time although how they’re getting there is a total shock. The deadline moves AA made to shore it up were brilliant (including non-deadline move Carle who I thought at the time was just AAAA fodder). Injuries have hurt but, hopefully, the players will recover and rejoin the team soon (i.e. Viz and Carle).

The rotation has been so much better than previous years that it’s hard to realize that it still needs to improve. With the recent additions (Gausman and callups), the Braves are positioned to do better than just projecting the performance to this point up to the end of the season. This is the absolute key to getting to the postseason. The six-man rotation including starts from Fried, Touki, and Bryse and 5 days rest for our regular starters has the potential to get to that 12 fWAR I thought would be the minimum necessary to get to the playoffs.

One other thing that needs to be mentioned (not sure how it’s been factored into your projections) is the unexpected additional value created by Culberson. I think, for simplicity, you projected the bench contribution as 0 fWAR, but I have to believe that Charlie and others (including Flaherty and Tucker) have moved that above zero. Duvall will eventually help. Rounding out the bench with Reed and, hopefully, a LH bat within the next week may make that part of the team better, too. We haven’t had many good pinch hits since Tucker stopped hitting 3-run HRs. It’d be nice to see again.

Overall, I think a straight projection from current is underselling the team because we have eliminated underperforming assets from earlier in the year and added better performing ones. The future curve should point up slightly more. And, really, we are only around 1 fWAR from the required projected number to probably make the playoffs.

Further, this analysis points to exactly what will need to be done in the offseason – replicate Markakis’ production without Markakis (needing more HRs), get a top notch catcher, continue to improve at 3B, fully introduce more young arms into the rotation, and continue to strengthen the bullpen.

One thing I should point out about the pitching staff is – and this is something I’m going to expand on in another article – Fangraphs shorts them because it’s looking at the theoretical over the reality. For example, the Braves rank fifth in the majors in ERA at 3.51 from their starting rotation, but 11th in FIP and 13th in FIP. That’s because only a handful of staffs are walking more hitters. What the Braves starters do well at is run prevention and that’s not only because of their pitching. I mentioned the strikeouts and that’s part of the success – people who K rarely reach base and almost never score. But as I’ve written about before, the Braves defense is extra special. Guys like Kevin Gausman are pitching better individually, but are also getting a big lift from the defense. It’s why the Phillies are fourth in FIP, but 8th in ERA.

This was what Alex Anthopoulos wanted when he came on and mirrors in many ways what Schuerholz did when he came to Atlanta. Supplement a young-and-improving staff with an excellent defense. I think it’s one big reason the Braves have “over-acheived” according to fWAR. Keep ’em off base and you can pitch through a lot of imperfections. This is only going to get better as the quality of the arms improve.

P.S. – Yeah, Culberson had a preseason projection at about 0.0 fWAR and has contributed a full win. That kind of contributions cannot be overlooked. When you are not only hitting the optimistic approach but exceeding it, that goes a long way to overcoming downer type seasons.

Yeah, I don”t know what he”s talking about there. Hatcher was DFA”d like three weeks ago after being demoted from setup man to 7th reliever in April. Buchter and Petit have both been good Petit was good, but has kinda fallen apart recently leading to his meh fWAR, Buchter has been a major FIP outperformer for his career and during this season. The story here, though, is that Trivino and Treinen have been two of the top ~seven RPs in baseball (at least looking at pure run prevention and innings pitched). The A”s compensated for having four usable relievers (three, really, since Buchter missed two months) by pitching Trivino and Treinen multiple innings in virtually every close game. That”s why the Kelley, Familia, and Rodney acquisitions were priorities: they were running those two into the ground. Especially Trivino, who has already pitched 65.1 innings this year in his rookie season.

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