ZiPS' Movers and Shakers: The Hitters

With a only month and change of the 2017 season in the history books, it's still difficult to get a sense of whose performance is real and whose is not. Last year, on May 8th, Jeremy Hazelbaker was the proud owner of a 155 wRC+. He ended the season with a 101 mark. This season, Aaron Judge and Aaron Hicks have 221 and 209 wRC+s, respectively. We know that they won't end with indexes that high, but it certainly feels like they've improved or turned a corner. So the question is: how much better are they than we actually anticipated before the season?

At this point, one could proclaim that Judge or Hicks are now All-Star outfielders, but it would be hard to contextualize what that truly means. Further, an All-Star outfielder could mean one thing to one person whereas another would definite it differently. Really, it makes for better casual debate than anything else. That said, updated projection systems can give us a firmer idea of how much a player's talent level has improved given the new information obtained up to this date. I wouldn't recommend chatting up your friend about how Judge's projection has changed since prior to the season, but it does give us a more precise idea of how much better or worse a player is compared to a little over a month ago. Without further do, below are ZiPS preseason (Pre) and rest of season (RoS) wOBA projections for all Yankees hitters that have been in the majors this season.

Via Fangraphs

Via Fangraphs

None of the changes are surprising. Hicks, Judge, and Castro have all been spectacular and thus have moved the needle the most. Bird, Higashioka (albeit in limited time), and Carter have been the offense's worst performers and have seen dents in their outlooks. For reference, league average wOBA is .316 right now and was .318 last season.

My favorite rest of season projection is that of Aaron Judge. ZiPS forecasts 440 more plate appearances for the Yankees' right fielder, and of those, 29 will end in home runs. Should that come true, Judge would end the year with 42 home runs! The fact that such an amount is a distinct possibility is hard to fathom even with his hot start at the plate. Only one other rookie has ever surpassed the 40 home run mark:

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That would be pretty good company, huh? Judge is also the Yankees best projected hitter going forward, overtaking Chris Carter (!) who had that title prior to the season. Clearly, ZiPS is the high person on Carter.

Speaking of Carter, ZiPS is still pretty optimistic about his output despite his putrid start. The model still expects 29 long balls and a well above average .342 wOBA out of the first baseman the rest of the way. It's kind of hard to believe that's coming from Carter, who's struggled in sporadic playing time. Perhaps ZiPS' estimate will come to fruition as Carter gets back in the swing of things as a regular with Bird on the shelf.

ZiPS wasn't all that optimistic about Bird entering 2017, and is feeling rather down about what's left of his season. As the model's biggest wOBA dropper, Bird wouldn't even be the regular first baseman when healthy if ZiPS was the manager. Bird was behind Carter in the pecking order before the season began, but that's another story. All that said, ZiPS is not aware that Bird's April could have been the product of his banged up ankle. We can't be certain that's the reason for his terrible month, either, but we do know that ZiPS isn't accounting for it whatsoever. Bird's start does worry me, but not as much as the projection seems to indicate. I want to see how he does when his ankle is at full strength.

Moving back to the outfield, let's talk about ZiPS' biggest gainer, the switch-hitting Aaron Hicks. Before the season, he was clearly the behind Judge, Brett Gardner, and Jacoby Ellsbury. Now, after his torrid start, he's surpassed Ellsbury offensively. The funny thing is that this is at no fault of Ellsbury, who's been hitting quite well himself (125 wRC+). It's just that Hicks, 27, has posted a ridiculous 209 wRC+ and appears to be in the midst of a breakout. Considering his performance and his future outlook, it's essential that Hicks gets regular playing time in some sort of outfield rotation between him, Ellsbury, and Gardner. Nobody of that three really deserves the short end of the stick to this point, but it likely should be Ellsbury.

Considering how cautious everyone should be about evaluating players on small sample sizes, it's pretty impressive to see how much certain players have moved this early in the season per ZiPS, especially because the model takes sample size into account. Many of the players haven't moved too much in the early going despite strong starts because it's still early (i.e. Chase Headley). However, for players like Judge and Hicks to receive a boost of more than .020 projected wOBA in a little over a month of playing time is incredible. In fact, there's only one player in baseball whose projected wOBA has improved more than Hicks and Judge: Washington's Ryan Zimmerman. His upswing? An absurd .048 wOBA, from .299 to .347. A 253 wRC+ will do that.

I don't want these updated projections to come across as gospel and are exactly what the Yankees' position players will do going forward. My goal in presenting them was to give a better understanding of how much better or worse we should feel about any given player's outlook the rest of the way. Later this week, I'll take a look at ZiPS' updated projections for the pitching staff and compare it to the preseason outlook. For the time being, below are links to ZiPS projections available on Fangraphs. Please note that the the rest of season ones are updated daily, so they may not precisely reflect what I've shown above.

ZiPS Preseason Projections (Yankees)

ZiPS Rest of Season Projections (Yankees)