Boom or Bust? Evaluating Individual Upside and Downside, Pt. I

There is something about a 65 degree day in February that I don’t think people who live in warm climates can possibly fully appreciate. It’s the signal of so many things: spring, blooms, warmth and of course what I yearn for most: baseball. It’s impossible to be angry on a day like today. There is simply so much beauty in the possibilities the unusual warmth represents.

That is the backdrop to this piece, as I sit with the window open and write. For three consecutive hours last night, I spiraled down the brilliantly captivating rabbit-hole of PECOTA’s percentile projections. The players are so young, the possibilities endless, the numbers dizzying. You should most certainly try it yourself next time you have some hours to spare. The percentile feature alone is worth of a Baseball Prospectus premium membership, and it’s just one small part of the benefits.

The research, moreover, allowed me to evaluate the best-case and worst-case scenario for this team’s players. Because of the extreme youth of its offense, it seems that there are a huge range of possible outcomes, and so this is very much worth talking about. Undoubtedly, this reality is part of what makes this season so exciting. Let’s take a look at the key offensive contributors, and my friend Catherine Garcia will follow-up with an analysis of the starting rotation later this week.

Kris Bryant

90th percentile: 650 PA, 102 R, 163 H, 31 2B, 3 3B, 37 HR, 111 RBI, 80 BB, 188 SO, 13 SB, 4 CS, .296 AVG, .394 OBP, .566 SLG, .340 TAv, 66.3 VORP, 1.0 FRAA, 7.3 WARP

What has to go right?

Health is the first thing that has to go perfectly in this scenario, considering it credits Bryant with 650 plate appearances. However, because that is true of nearly every player on this list (save Javier Baez), I am going to refrain from mentioning it for everyone. On the field, the biggest thing Bryant has to do is improve his ability to hit on the road. The majority of people believe this was a sample-size fluke, but I am not so sure. Improving against left-handed pitching is the next area of improvement needed to reach this ceiling, and that is an area I fully expect to improve, as Bryant has noted offseason swing changes to flatten his swing, in an effort to lessen his league-leading loft. When reviewing his zone profiles against lefties, it is clear they attacked him in an opposite manner as compared to right-handed pitchers:

It seems this could have a hand in Bryant’s decision to flatten out his swing, as lefties found success by getting in on his hands. However, righties did not, and I fully expect to see the reverse-split platoon numbers correct themselves closer to even this year. Just how much he improves against them likely determines how close he comes to achieving this projection.

Consider something, for a moment: this top-end projection still has Bryant striking out 188 times, just a small improvement from last season’s 199. The 7.3 WARP projection would likely make him a top-three MVP candidate, whether the strikeouts remain or not. It seems possible to me that with his swing changes, he may actually cut them down more than that, perhaps down around 165. If that happens, and he maintains a high BABIP (.378 last year), is a .410 OBP season out of the question? I personally don’t think it’s unreasonable. Further, if he actually does slug .566, I believe opposing pitchers will walk him more than 80 times (considering he walked 77 times last year while slugging .488), as one of Bryant’s biggest strengths is forcing pitchers to throw him something to hit. If each of these considerations come true, he could threaten the vaunted 8-WARP season.

10th percentile: 550 PA, 71 R, 112 H, 21 2B, 2 3B, 26 HR, 78 RBI, 55 BB, 179 SO, 9 SB, 3 CS, .233 AVG, .320 OBP, .446 SLG, .276 TAv, 21.8 VORP, 1.0 FRAA, 2.5 WARP

What could go wrong? 

When I initially looked at this stat line, it immediately reminded of another line, that of Anthony Rizzo’s age-23 season. Upon comparing the two, the similarities are pretty striking. Rizzo’s actual slash line of .233/.323/.419 and TAv of .264 are all similar, with PECOTA giving Bryant’s worst-case a slightly more optimistic view in the power department. Rizzo’s 2.3 WARP was in large part to being credited with 13.9 FRAA, the only time in his career he’s been considered an outstanding defensive player, while Bryant’s 2.5 is almost entirely attributable to offense in this model.

It is a testament to Bryant that his doomsday projections still have him as an above-average player, but when I look at this line, none of it seems all that far-fetched. What if lefties continue to fool him? Could righties adopt a more similar approach of getting in on his hands, rather than constantly working him away? He’s still being credited with 26 home runs, which seems awfully optimistic considering that’s the exact number he hit last year. What if his homers drop to 20, and his BABIP drops to .325, as defenses respect his speed more? This seems obviously pessimistic, but it didn’t take much reflection to acknowledge that this scenario is certainly plausible.

Anthony Rizzo

90th percentile: 691 PA, 102 R, 172 H, 37 2B, 2 3B, 35 HR, 111 RBI, 77 BB, 125 SO, 11 SB, 5 CS, .291 AVG, .384 OBP, .539 SLG, .328 TAv, 52.0 VORP, 3.0 FRAA, 6.0 WARP

What has to go right?

Considering this projection credits him with fewer walks, a lower OBP, fewer stolen bases, more strikeouts and an identical TAv to what he actually achieved last year, it would seem very little needs to change for him to reach his ceiling. For that reason, I find this projection to be a bit tepid, as Rizzo is a player of uncommon self-scrutiny at the plate. Beyond that, he’s just 26-years-old, and his patient profile should age well.

I can see a scenario where Rizzo hits the 35 home runs shown above, but also draws close to 100 walks. If that’s the case, you’d see an OBP around .400 and a .TAv more in the .335 range. An improvement in the quality of his contact is the main factor that could be improved, as his soft contact percentage has risen from 10.1 percent in 2012, to 17.8 last season. If he can lower his soft-contact rate while edging up his walks and power as suggested, you’re looking at a 7-WARP player, and another MVP candidate.

10th percentile:  607 PA, 76 R, 126 H, 27 2B, 1 3B, 26 HR, 83 RBI, 57 BB, 121 SO, 8 SB, 4 CS, .237 AVG, .321 OBP, .440 SLG, .274 TAv, 13.9 VORP, 2.0 FRAA, 1.8 WARP

What could go wrong?

Does this look familiar? It should, because you just read almost an identical line to Bryant’s low-end projection. The only notable difference is in WARP, where Rizzo is being dinged for playing first base. The biggest difference is that I don’t buy this one, not even one little bit. He simply covers the plate too well against both righties and lefties, and his weaknesses are almost entirely offset by strengths created by said weakness. This scenario has his strikeout rate ballooning from the 15 percent it was last year, to nearly 20 percent. There is almost no chance that will happen.

So, could his soft-contact problem become exacerbated enough to be a real issue? Yes, it probably could. It is something he needs to take a hard look at improving, though my belief is that this issue is mostly a function of covering the plate so thoroughly, and also because he cuts down his swing with two strikes. As I mentioned above, one weakness—his soft contact—is offset by the strength of putting the ball in play and getting on base frequently. This is just one more reason why Rizzo is the cornerstone of this team, and a franchise player in every sense.

Ben Zobrist

90th percentile: 683 PA, 93 R, 172 H, 41 2B, 4 3B, 17 HR, 75 RBI, 85 BB, 98 SO, 9 SB, 5 CS, .292 AVG, .381 OBP, .460 SLG, .304 TAv, 50.9 VORP, 1.0 FRAA, 5.6 WARP

What has to go right?

Now this is pretty intriguing. Despite Zobrist being 34-years-old, PECOTA is buying his upside, big time. That .381 OBP projection is .026 higher than his career average, it’s also something he hasn’t achieved since 2009. 17 home runs? Not since 2012. 172 hits? Never. Yep, never. Even with his tremendous approach, the 85 walks seem far-fetched, as he hasn’t done that since 2012, either. All-in-all, I’ll be stunned if Zobrist approaches any of these numbers, let alone all of them. I’ll be thrilled if he has a 4-WARP season at second base, and even that won’t come close to approaching this projection.

The league knows what Zobrist is trying to achieve, and he knows exactly how they will try and attack him. Given health, you can take between three and four WARP to the bank, but something approaching six wins seems highly improbable.

10th percentile: 601 PA, 70 R, 125 H, 30 2B, 3 3B, 12 HR, 55 RBI, 62 BB, 95 SO, 7 SB, 4 CS, .235 AVG, .316 OBP, .375 SLG, .252 TAv, 14.1 VORP, 1.0 FRAA, 1.6 WARP

What could go wrong?

Plain and simply, health, or lack thereof. He appears to be fully recovered from the torn meniscus he suffered last season, and if that’s true the .319 OBP listed simply isn’t going to happen, given that his career-low over a full season is .339, and that was way back in 2008. Zobrist doesn’t rely on tremendous athleticism, but instead a consistent approach and simple, fluid swing. He doesn’t strikeout often, and continues to improve this area of his game, dropping his strikeout percentage to a career-low 10.5 percent last season. He is the picture of consistency—which was a big part of his appeal in free agency—and is as sure of a bet as anyone to fall somewhere between the 30th and 70th percentiles.

Jorge Soler

90th percentile: 557 PA, 74 R, 144 H, 31 2B, 3 3B, 23 HR, 79 RBI, 51 BB, 138 SO, 4 SB, 1 CS, .289 AVG, .356 OBP, .501 SLG, .305 TAv, 33.0 VORP, -10.0 FRAA, 2.6 WARP

What has to go right?

Well, well, well, it would seem I have a visitor on my pessimistic little island in regards to Soler. Every one of those offensive stats seem plausible to me, given what we saw in the playoffs last year. However, even if he reaches these impressive and unlikely plateaus, PECOTA still sees him as just an average player due to his disastrous lack of ability to adequately defend right field. I fully believe there will be moments that Soler carries the team offensively, as his talent at the plate is not in question. 23 homers; Sign me up! Drawing 50 walks; definitely a possibility given his control of the zone. .500 slugging; maybe, if he can learn to hit the changeup and slider, while doing a better job of laying off pitches below the zone. Reports are floating around that Soler has shed weight in an attempt to improve his athleticism and defense, and the presence of Jason Heyward could certainly help in his defensive growth. However, PECOTA—being the whizzing, cold, dead number-cruncher that it is—doesn’t understand this, and thus isn’t buying it. The possibility of Jorge Soler collecting 3.5 WARP or greater rests solely in his ability to improve his defense, as his offense is fully capable of being a significant part of this team.

10th percentile: 449 PA, 47 R, 89 H, 19 2B, 2 3B, 14 HR, 51 RBI, 51 BB, 125 SO, 2 SB, 1 CS, .217 AVG, .274 OBP, .377 SLG, .235 TAv, -4.0 VORP, -8.0 FRAA, -1.3 WARP

What could go wrong? 

Quite a lot, apparently. What you’re seeing is the downside of a player that only meaningfully contributes in one area of the game. This represents a nightmare scenario for the Cubs, one in which their right fielder cannot correct his inability to lay off breaking and off-speed pitches beneath the zone, thus failing to correct his troubling swinging-strike percentage. Soler’s lack of versatility and inability to contribute in other areas are the leading factors that cause his downside to be as scary as the negative WARP figure you see above. The first half of this season is critical for Soler and the Cubs, as his value—both to the team and on the trade market—is likely to either explode because of a dominant presence at the plate and incremental improvements in the field, or be diminished to nearly nothing because of an inability to make adjustments and unplayable defense.

 Jason Heyward

90th percentile: 672 PA, 100 R, 170 H, 33 2B, 4 3B, 23 HR, 81 RBI, 74 BB, 113 SO, 20 SB, 5 CS, .290 AVG, .373 OBP, .477 SLG, .307 TAv, 51.5 VORP, -7.0 FRAA, 4.8 WARP

What has to go right?

The first thing that should jump out at you here is that his upper-echelon WARP projection is still well below his totals from the last two seasons (6.2 and 5.9, respectfully). This is completely due to PECOTA strongly disliking his ability to handle his imminent position change to center field, projecting his FRAA at -7, compared to the 18.1 runs he was credited with saving in right field last year. This is the area I most strongly disagree with in this projection model, as virtually everyone I’ve spoken with believes he can be league-average or better in center. If you flip that -7 FRAA into an equally positive number, you’re right back to the 6-win player we’re accustomed to seeing.

On the offensive side, the .373 on-base percentage would be yet another incremental gain as a result of his greatly increased ability to put the ball in play. The power projection is reminiscent of his 2012 season, when he launched 27 homers and slugged .479. Heyward is certainly capable of producing those numbers again, but it may require a slight reversal of his latest approach. Part of his improvement in his contact rate and swinging-strike percentage has come at the expense of hard contact, as his 28.9 rate in 2015 is down significantly from his career high tally of 34.5 percent in 2012. His medium contact stayed consistent at 48 percent, which means unfortunately the missing percentage can be found directly in his soft-contact rate (22.4 in 2015 to 16.7 in 2012).

10th percentile: 588 PA, 75 R, 123 H, 24 2B, 3 3B, 17 HR, 59 RBI, 53 BB, 110 SO, 15 SB, 4 CS, .233 AVG, .308 OBP, .384 SLG, .253 TAv, 14.0 VORP, -7.0 FRAA, 0.8 WARP

What could go wrong? 

This one is fairly easy, as it is essentially a replica of his sophomore season in 2011. Heyward battled injuries and suffered from a .260 BABIP, nearly 50 points beneath his career BABIP of .309. The criticism he faces offensively is often because of a “complicated” swing, which is probably warranted and would likely be part of the causation if a season such as this unfolded. Interestingly, even this scenario has him still hitting 17 home runs, which would be the most he’d had since his career-best 27 in 2012. Again, the negative defensive value almost certainly won’t happen no matter where he plays, so even his downside is likely that of a two-win player. A huge part of Heyward’s value is the limited-downside nature of his game because of the value he brings in every facet.

Kyle Schwarber

90th percentile: 650 PA, 99 R, 158 H, 26 2B, 3 3B, 38 HR, 111 RBI, 87 BB, 167 SO, 5 SB, 3 CS, .286 AVG, .388 OBP, .551 SLG, .330 TAv, 65.0 VORP, -7.0 FRAA, 6.4 WARP

What has to go right?

I hope you were sitting down when you read that. Despite being considered a liability in the field (to the same 7-run tune as Heyward in center, ahem), PECOTA still believes there is a possible scenario where Schwarber slugs so much that he threatens seven wins and forces himself into MVP considerations. Now, I know what you’re thinking, so I’ll just leave this here:

After letting the afterglow of that moment wash over you, it’s important to remember that Schwarber was awful against left-handed pitching last year, the above example notwithstanding. The sample size was just 56 at-bats, but in those at-bats The Hulk managed an OPS of just .481, a full 76 points less than just his slugging percentage against righties. Take a look at the zone profile below:

Schwarber’s weakest area of the zone is low and away, and lefties were able to locate there with considerably more frequency than righties were. This is a pitch he’ll either have to learn to lay off of, or take a more nuanced two-strike approach in a similar way as Rizzo does. Again, bear in mind that the sample-size is preciously small, and Schwarber will have plenty of chances to adjust to the way major-league pitching attacks him. Take one last look at the above stat line, PECOTA doesn’t even know about the scoreboard, and yet it still believes Schwarber has a chance to lead the team in home runs this year.

10th percentile: 538 PA, 65 R, 102 H, 17 2B, 2 3B, 24 HR, 74 RBI, 57 BB, 158 SO, 3 SB, 2 CS, .216 AVG, .304 OBP, .415 SLG, .258 TAv, 16.2 VORP, -5.0 FRAA, 1.2 WARP

What could go wrong? 

This line looks like a fairly typical “sophomore slump”, as there is still plenty of power, but his batting average and on-base percentage weighs down his overall value. We’ve already touched on some of the challenges he could face—namely left-handed pitching—but beyond that there aren’t many holes here. This conclusion would almost certainly have to be the result of right-handed pitching finding and exploiting holes in his long swing (likely low and away, as suggested), and Schwarber lacking the ability to adjust back. However, PECOTA projects just a 4 percent collapse rate, giving very little credence to the lower end of the scale. It also should be noted that even this projection leaves him as a positive-win player, likely because of his absurd power profile and proficient baserunning skills.

Miguel Montero

90th percentile: 519 PA, 62 R, 123 H, 22 2B, 1 3B, 16 HR, 66 RBI, 61 BB, 106 SO, 1 SB, 1 CS, .276 AVG, .369 OBP, .436 SLG, .292 TAv, 31.3 VORP, 12.0 FRAA, 4.7 WARP

What has to go right?

PECOTA’s belief in the continued upside of Montero’s bat caught me a bit by surprise, as these are fairly aggressive marks for the 32-year-old Montero. However, my suprise was likely misplaced, as he collected 3.9 WARP just last season while tallying similar offensive numbers to the stat line above. The biggest area of improvement here would be in on-base percentage, where the always-patient Montero would have to find 12 additional walks from his total of 49 last season. With Willson Contreras knocking on the door in Triple-A, the motivation will be strong for Montero to maintain his excellent contributions, and with health I believe we’ll see another fine season out of the veteran backstop.

10th percentile:  425 PA, 41 R, 79 H, 14 2B, 0 3B, 10 HR, 45 RBI, 40 BB, 98 SO, 1 SB, 1 CS, .213 AVG, .294 OBP, .336 SLG, .233 TAv, 1.0 VORP, 9.0 FRAA, 1.1 WARP

What could go wrong? 

For any catcher, the first and biggest factor of a successful season is health. That is especially true for one who will play most of this season at 33 years old, as Montero will in 2016. As with Zobrist, there is little to be discovered by or about Miggy, and if this prediction happens to come true, it’s almost certainly because Father Time finally came to claim what is rightfully his. The most interesting side effect of this scenario would be how quickly Cubs management pulled the plug and made the call to Contreras at Triple-A.

Addison Russell

90th percentile: 585 PA, 73 R, 144 H, 31 2B, 3 3B, 20 HR, 78 RBI, 49 BB, 147 SO, 7 SB, 4 CS, .273 AVG, .339 OBP, .456 SLG, .286 TAv, 35.7 VORP, -3.0 FRAA, 3.6 WARP

What has to go right?

Does absolutely anything about this projection jump out to you as unreasonable? If anything, I think this is more along the lines of my expectation for Russell this year, rather than a 90th percentile forecast. He tends to get a little lost among the Rizzo, Bryant, Heyward and Schwarber talk, but it wouldn’t shock me if by the end of this season, Russell has forced himself into the conversation of being the best player on this team. It’s so easily forgotten that he played last year at just 21-years-old, and how much projection is still left in his bat. As he settles in at the plate, a Manny Machado-like breakout wouldn’t shock me, with something along the lines of 35 doubles, 22 home runs, and an on-base percentage in the mid-.300’s.

Beyond what I believe he can do offensively, Russell has an opportunity to build on the many incredible defensive things he did last year. My colleague Matthew Trueblood laid out an excellent explanation of why projection systems have mixed emotions on his defensive efforts, but I believe after this year there won’t be any doubt left about his capability in the field. Combine the Gold Glove-caliber defense with the possibility of an offensive line as suggested above, and you have a down-the-ballot dark horse candidate for MVP … if everything breaks right.

10th percentile: 485 PA, 48 R, 93 H, 20 2B, 2 3B, 13 HR, 49 RBI, 31 BB, 136 SO, 5 SB, 2 CS, .207 AVG, .263 OBP, .345 SLG, .222 TAv, -0.8 VORP, -2.0 FRAA, -0.3 WARP

What could go wrong? 

This would be a stunning outcome from my point of view, and something I believe has little chance of happening. Russell finished 2015 with a strong August and September, quieting doubts about his offensive game that surfaced in June and July. Trueblood also noted in his piece that Joe Maddon didn’t do him many favors by hitting him in the ninth spot in the order all year, as he often faced a specialized reliever instead of a tired starter on his third time through the order. I suspect we’ll see Maddon shuffle the bottom of the order a bit more this year, partly in an attempt to give Russell a bit more of a fair shot at success.

Javier Baez

90th percentile: 325 PA, 49 R, 82 H, 16 2B, 1 3B, 18 HR, 50 RBI, 20 BB, 98 SO, 10 SB, 4 CS, .275 AVG, .330 OBP, .518 SLG, .301 TAv, 24.0 VORP, 0.0 FRAA, 2.6 WARP

What has to go right?

My original intention was just to include the starters in this piece, but I found Baez’s projections so interesting, I simply couldn’t leave him out. PECOTA loves the upside of Baez, and this high-end forecast has him collecting 35 extra-base hits in just 325 plate appearances. Theo Epstein spoke recently about Baez’s role, suggesting he’ll be the primary backup at second, short, third and center. More than occasionally spelling the starter at one of those positions, what that actually means is that Baez will often be starting at one of those positions because of injury, or simply as guys are given regular days of rest. The point being, he is going to get a lot of playing time, and that is just fine by me. What if he’s given 450-500 plate appearances? Does 25 home runs sound unfathomable? What about 20 stolen bases? Perhaps as much as 3.5-4 WARP? None of this sounds unreasonable to me—not even a little—and this projection lends credibility to that belief.

In his 2015 season recap, I detailed the changes he had made that led to the success he found late in the season. These changes need to continue to take hold, and if they do we could see something very special out of Javy this season.

10th percentile: 201 PA, 23 R, 37 H, 7 2B, 1 3B, 8 HR, 23 RBI, 9 BB, 69 SO, 5 SB, 2 CS, .198 AVG, .242 OBP, .371 SLG, .221 TAv, -0.9 VORP, 0.0 FRAA, -0.1 WARP

What could go wrong? 

Pretty much everything could go wrong for Javy. His ceiling is as bright as almost anyone, and his floor is as a versatile late-inning defensive replacement. He is the classic boom-or-bust player, offset only slightly by his athleticism and versatility. The changes he made last season were effective, but it remains to be seen whether he can carry these forward for a full season.

Editor’s Note: Look for Part II, courtesy of Cat Garcia, later this week!

Lead photo courtesy Rick Scuteri—USA Today Sports.

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6 comments on “Boom or Bust? Evaluating Individual Upside and Downside, Pt. I”


Fantastic piece and excellent idea for looking at expected range of player outcomes.

Isaac Bennett

Thanks very much for the kind words. Glad you enjoyed reading it. Come back for Part two from Cat Garcia later this week!


Great article. In reference to Rizzo’s soft contact rate, as you noted, this is surely a product of his sizable choking up with two strikes. At least by pure observation, it seems like his ability to foul off quality two strike pitches probably feeds into the amount of walks he is able to draw. I would be curious to see the risks/benefits of a more aggressive two strike approach, with the average/slugging benefits versus a possible drop-off in OBP.

Isaac Bennett

Thanks – yes, I completely agree. I think evaluating the differences in how an approach would change the bottom-line result would be highly speculative. However, I think Bryant provides a decent example of the opposite approach (thus, maybe higher SLG, lower OBP and more K’s). Take note that even Bryant said his approach might change a bit (at least with a more level swing, less loft…I would also guess a slightly cut down two strike approach).

J Mcgowan

This is probably one of my favorite articles of the offseason i’ve read…very cool. Dreaming about the upside, being aware of the downside, and realizing that something in-between the two is still pretty damn good. Well done.

Isaac Bennett

Thanks Jesse, I appreciate the feedback.

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