The biggest wild cards on the 2023 Yankees (according to ZiPS)

Feb 2, 2023 - 7:30 PM
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Vincent Carchietta-USA TODAY Sports

I hate to break it to you, but we’re still a few weeks away from pitchers and catchers reporting to Arizona and Florida. There’s also little transaction activity as most roster spots around the league have been filled. To pass the time, I recently revisited this year’s ZiPS projections for the rest of the AL East to see what the Yankees would be up against in 2023. Now, let’s look within and explore in a little more depth what ZiPS has to say about the team.

Projection systems like ZiPS come to their conclusions by simulating thousands and thousands of seasons based on probabilities generated by previous results and ranking the outcomes. When you see a projection line, that’s usually the median outcome. But it means we don’t have to boil things down to a single “projection” if we don’t want to — we can look at some of the better and worse scenarios for each player conjured up by the computer. In this case, we’re going to look at the difference between 80th (good) and 20th (bad) percentile projections for each player on the Yankees to get a feel for who might be the biggest wild cards on the team in the forthcoming season.

Aaron Judge having the biggest gap among hitters is no surprise. We know he has one of the two of three highest ceilings of any hitter in the game, but given how difficult it is to actually play at that level, the raw difference in the spread of results is far less important than the fact that ZiPS pretty much can’t conjure a scenario in which Judge is worth less than 5 WAR. Volpe at the top of the list makes sense too — young players with his minor league track record are as liable to burst onto the scene as ready-made All-Stars as they are to be total nothingburgers, which would still be a completely reasonable result.

Gleyber Torres and DJ LeMahieu also have splits on the higher side, but they track well with their recent records. We saw Gleyber hit what was probably somewhere near his 20th percentile outcome in 2020-21, when he averaged roughly 1.4 WAR per 150 games, after seeing him play the previous two seasons at a 3 to 3.5-win pace. The most likely outcome is somewhere in between, like 2021’s 2.7 WAR, but there’s room for a higher high than your typical infielder. At 34, LeMahieu is at a critical juncture in his career at which age can begin eating at his health and skillset at any time. He may very well still be a 5 WAR player if it doesn’t, but if it does, the results could evaporate quickly.

Giancarlo Stanton is a similar boat. Maxing out near 3.3 WAR might feel disappointing for Stanton, but it’s worth remembering how much WAR punishes playing DH — if he reaches 3.3 WAR, it’s going to be made out of a lot of big hits. The Yankees aren’t paying Stanton to rack up WAR, they’re paying Stanton to mash the baseball. Big power hitters are famously fickle, though, and if age begins to make its descent, he’ll probably drop to replacement level sooner rather than later, unfortunately.

Everyone else of note is pretty much in the blob. One additional takeaway may be that, contrary to what I’ve suggested recently, ZiPS doesn’t see many scenarios where Isiah Kiner-Falefa or Aaron Hicks are worth a roster spot. Anyway, let’s look at some of the pitchers:

To some degree, the dynamic we saw with Aaron Judge of elite talent naturally carrying high variance can also be applied to Cole and Rodón. The latter now has two consecutive years of elite production and relative health on his side, but even though ZiPS more heavily weights recent seasons, it’s probably not quite enough to convince the system that he’s simply not the same pitcher he was prior to 2021. Pitchers are also often more inconsistent than hitters year-to-year, and the high levels of variation combined with injury risk means elite pitchers are typically projected with lower floors than elite hitters.

Frankie Montas’ volatility wasn’t a secret even before news broke of his season-opening IL stint. While we know his talent isn’t a mirage — it’s hard to fake the results he got in 2019 and 2021 — and it’s also clear that he’s a replacement-level pitcher when he doesn’t have it all working, and ZiPS reflected that. Needless to say, he looks closer to his 20th percentile outcome than he does to his upper limits.

It’s all about context, y’all. Nestor Cortes has the same degree of variance as Montas, but even if things go wrong, he’s still probably justifying his rotation spot in any case. ZiPS in particular is a big fan of his work, and seems to buy his newfound ability to strike batters out and run league-average-or-better home run rates despite allowing plenty of fly balls. It doesn’t give Montas the same benefit of the doubt.

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There’s not a lot to be said about reliever projections, but Jonathan Loáisiga is going to be good regardless. And even the best projection system can’t see the dramatic change that pitchers like Clay Holmes and Michael King have made in short periods of time; The results of years prior are probably going to weigh too heavily.

Other notes? It’s interesting that ZiPS can see a world in which Clayton Beeter plays a not-insubstantial role on the Yankees pitching staff in 2023, though it’s more likely he’ll simply be a non-factor. The appearance of Triple-A rotation members Mitch Spence and Matt Krook isn’t worth much, but it’s also good to know that the deep depth options still have ceilings of MLB-caliber pitchers. The same can’t be said for, say, the White Sox.

There’s not too much remarkable about the rest of the blob.

Pitchers are more volatile than hitters, so projection systems are much more conservative with them. You’re more or less never going to see Aaron Judge’s 7 WAR median projection tied to a pitcher. That being said, the Yankees have a higher floor than most teams. There are plenty of wild cards, but on the whole, it’s hard to say they’re not in pretty good shape entering the 2023 season.

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