Colorado Rockies vs. Los Angeles Dodgers

I love projections. Using empirically-derived weights, they reach back just far enough for data to give us a glimpse into the future. They ignore all the things that we hunger for on a daily level: swing changes, health, mindset, team cohesiveness. Just: what does this player’s past numbers say about his future?

I hate projections. They don’t care about any of the things we care about on a daily level. And if we were all going to play fantasy using the same set of projections, it would be mighty tough to trade players. Or draft players. Or do anything. The beauty is in between the numbers, where our intuition lives.

I use projections, and I also don’t. Of course this is the ‘real’ answer. Much like the debate about stats versus scouts in real baseball, no fantasy baseballer can ignore the day-to-day changes in a player’s profile, nor can they ignore the baseline set by projections. The truth is almost always in between.

One thing that affects projections mightily is poor performance due to injury. Not every player goes to the DL when they get a nick — just look at Dustin Pedroia, playing through a torn thumb ligament, and you’ll see this in action. If his power numbers are down, it’s for good reason. But his projections for next year may just see a down power year and project him for another. Who knows what he’ll do with a healthy thumb.

Jeff Zimmerman actually quantified this effect. In an article for 2012′s FanGraphs+ ($), he showed that players that played through injury outperformed their projected slugging percentages the year after. Here are the numbers:

Stat: Difference from projection
AVG: -0.001
OBP: 0.000
SLG: +0.013
ISO: +0.014

So this preseason, he identified a list of players that played through injury last season and could be expected to outperform their slugging percentages this year. That list is below, with their relevant current stats.

One thing to think about before you look: power takes a long time to stabilize (most numbers take more than half a season). You’ve seen players go on homer binge-and-purge cycles, and so you know that power numbers can lurch forward. And power tends to embiggen with the temperature, so everyone’s going to get more powerful as the season goes on. But the reason I mention this is: Unless there’s a big change in batted ball mix, or another injury, we don’t *know* what their current true-talent power looks like.

Which still makes this an interesting exercise. You still get to pick which hitters you think have a chance to improve their power numbers. (stats as of May 29th)

Justin Upton 212 14 0.267 0.308 0.295 28.0% 1.0 1.2 0.132
Troy Tulowitzki 188 10 0.327 0.338 0.261 18.9% 1.2 1.3 0.102
Howie Kendrick 215 7 0.305 0.342 0.150 20.0% 2.4 2.8 0.055
Evan Longoria 221 9 0.320 0.367 0.228 12.7% 0.7 0.9 0.021
Ryan Howard 190 6 0.258 0.339 0.174 13.0% 1.1 1.4 0.009
Dustin Pedroia 237 3 0.332 0.376 0.112 6.7% 2.2 1.3 -0.006
Pablo Sandoval 220 8 0.286 0.289 0.153 11.8% 1.1 1.2 -0.008
Joey Votto 243 9 0.354 0.426 0.200 23.1% 1.6 1.2 -0.013
Luke Scott 89 3 0.268 0.314 0.155 13.0% 0.7 1.0 -0.016
Jacoby Ellsbury 244 1 0.257 0.296 0.095 1.8% 1.8 1.4 -0.018
Carl Crawford 191 5 0.301 0.326 0.156 11.1% 1.5 2.0 -0.022
Trevor Plouffe 154 4 0.254 0.286 0.172 10.3% 1.0 0.9 -0.029
Ryan Zimmerman 158 3 0.285 0.356 0.131 9.7% 1.6 1.4 -0.062
Dustin Ackley 171 1 0.205 0.250 0.045 3.1% 2.2 1.3 -0.078
Mike Moustakas 163 4 0.178 0.182 0.130 5.9% 0.6 0.7 -0.105
Paul Konerko 189 5 0.235 0.255 0.118 7.9% 0.7 1.1 -0.133
Matt Kemp 207 2 0.255 0.351 0.085 4.4% 1.2 1.2 -0.199
Giancarlo Stanton 88 3 0.227 0.304 0.160 14.3% 1.1 0.9 -0.221
Cameron Maybin 37 0.091 0.107 0.030 0.0% 1.7 2.0 -0.229

It probably isn`t very “analystish” of me to just call the top five successes for this type of analysis, but they really fit the bill. Those guys all have good power when they are healthy, and were dealing with issues that were fixable. They fixed them, and now it’s smooth sailing. Coincidence that all of them are hitting more fly balls this year? it’s probably part of the picture, but especially with Troy Tulowitzki, you can’t tell me that health is a huge part of their success.

Why isn’t Joey Votto hitting for more power this year? He told me in the spring that his knee was fine, and that it was so very hard to watch his team in the postseason, and know he was just a singles-and-walks guy on that knee. Here’s another thing, though: he also said that he had never felt better than he did before he got hurt. So last year’s slugging numbers have a little bit of awesome in them too.

Mike Moustakas and Dustin Ackley are all kinds of broken. Hard to blame their struggles on health. More likely, you’ll want to reserve this sort of analysis for more established players so that you avoid pegging your hopes on future Ackleys and Moustakases.

Pablo Sandoval and Dustin Pedroia have had some ailments this year. So have Ryan Zimmerman and Giancarlo Stanton. And really, this is the biggest pitfall of the group. Because injury begets injury — at least with pitchers, the biggest determinant of future DL stints are past DL stints — it can be worrisome to bet on a previously injured player to outproduce their projections because of future good health. Maybe a couple of these guys are injury prone, maybe a couple of them aren’t. Which is which? Wasn’t Troy Tulowitzki injury prone before? Now he isn’t?

Betting on a player to be healthy in the future can be risky business. That probably means Justin Upton was the best bet of the crew — he didn’t cost a top-three round pick, but a healthy Justin Upton could return that kind of value. So if there’s a secret sauce, it’s this: try to find an established young-ish player (no Paul Konerkos or Mike Moustakeses please) who played through injury but isn’t injury prone.

You know what? That could still describe Jacoby Ellsbury…