A year ago, I got it. I understood the reasons to slow-play A.J. Pollock. Now I don’t. Or, maybe I do. Let’s see…

Pollock had come up in 2013 and was kind of decent. Make no mistake, he didn’t light the world on fire with his .269/.332/.409 line but it was his first full season in the majors and that’s completely respectable. The signs were encouraging enough for the organization to choose to deal Adam Eaton to the White Sox, along with Tyler Skaggs going to the Angels, to get back Mark Trumbo. We all know how that turned out. But the Diamondbacks had settled on their center fielder and it was going to be all-Pollock going forward.

At the time, that came as a bit of a surprise. Adam Eaton was thought of as Rookie of the Year candidate who had some staying power between his speed, defense and ability to get on base. The bat was light, but rest of the tools were there. Pollock, on the other hand, seemed to receive very modest grades from scouts as a “safe” college pick back in 2009 out of Notre Dame. His game was more solid than good as he possessed fringe-to-average tool grades across the board. These types of players are admittedly easy to miss on given that there’s no loud tool to bet on and help carry the player. Instead, you’re hoping that all of the tools hold up and don’t regress much at the highest level. And the part that really can’t be accounted for is how well the player will adapt to major league competition. Sure there are indicators, but there is just no guarantee with any of them. We could go on forever about the guys who looked like they “couldn’t miss” only to wash out entirely. That knife cuts both ways.

Fast-forward to 2014 and A.J. Pollock was an absolute monster for for the first two months of the season. A pitch from Johnny Cueto broke his hand in late May putting the brakes on a strong showing. Pollock was able to return in September and played well once again, although there was clearly some rust. Oh well, that’s baseball and sometimes things happen.

Heading into 2015, there was reason to believe that Pollock wouldn’t repeat his 2014 success at the plate. First and foremost, he was aided by a BABIP that just didn’t look repeatable (.344). The sample was powerful, but the sample was also small. Anyone can have a hot two months, right? When the 2015 player projections came out and Pollock was was labeled as a more-or-less league average player, you could at least make the argument that those forecasts weren’t wildly wrong. Here was a guy who had an okay rookie campaign, two good months, an injury, then an okay month. He wasn’t a highly-rated prospect and was never expected to be anything more than a league-average player anyways.

Then 2015 happened. Pollock went on to be an All-Star and produced the highest WAR of any center fielder not named Mike Trout. And Pollock did it in every way imaginable. He hit for average, he got on base, he hit for power, he stole bases and played a fantastic defensive center field. Remember the tool projections? Fringe-to-average across the board? Well, some of the tools have played up while the others have remained steady and Pollock has clearly grown in his approach to the game. Some of that couldn’t be projected, especially the player-maturity aspect of it. He had no truly bad months, stayed healthy and was clearly one of the best outfielders in the game.

His career stats, for what they’re worth (click to enlarge):

Pollock Career

We see steady growth for Pollock in basically every area of his game as he’s progressed through is career. The walks have gone up. The strikeouts have come down. The power has materialized as he’s reached his prime. Even the “unrealistic BABIP” of 2014 was nearly matched in 2015. I’ll be the first to say that when I see a BABIP in the .340’s I tend to expect some regression. But Pollock backed it up in a full campaign in 2015 and even if it were to fall a little more, he’d still be incredibly productive. Paired with the defense and base running, there’s every reason to think he can be worth 4.5-5 wins in 2016.

But the projections don’t seem agree (click to enlarge):

Pollock Projection

Steamer projects a drop in offense that makes Pollock little more than league average at the plate. It forecasts a big dip in power and simply isn’t buying the improved plate discipline. He comes in near 4 wins, that’s going to be in large part due to his defense given what they’ve projected offensively.

ZiPS seems to like Pollock significantly more and expects his power to stay closer to where it has been over the last two seasons. The only real wart is that they’ve projected him for only 125-ish games. For a player who’s only injuries have been somewhat incidental in nature, it’s bearish to project such a shortage of plate appearances. Still, this is a small nuance and nothing to get too worked up about. ZiPS seems to be buying Pollock much more than Steamer and…

PECOTA, which just came out today. Here we see Pollock’s lowest projection. His BABIP is thought to drop by 30 points, while the walk rate goes down by a percentage and the strikeouts raise by two. The power projection through PECOTA is the lowest of the three and he’s barely more than a league average bat in this system’s eyes.

So let’s try to square all of this up. First ask yourself this: how likely is it that A.J. Pollock has an identical season to last year at the plate? I’m going to go out on a limb and suggest that last season will probably be A.J. Pollock’s finest. He may not get any better than this and repeating a down-ballot MVP caliber season is probably not going to happen. Some regression should be accounted for if we’re being smart here. Pollock is right at that point where he’s entered his physical prime and can hopefully sustain it for about three more seasons. Should he remain somewhat close to the player we saw last season, we’ll all consider ourselves lucky.

But to regress Pollock back to within 7 or 8 percentage points of league average seems, frankly, absurd. He’s better than that and we know it. And it’s here that we have to remember the parameters that we’re operating within. While Pollock has three seasons under his belt, we have to recall that one of them was just alright and the other was significantly shortened by injury. The nature of the injury doesn’t matter here – it’s simply the fact that it robbed the system(s) of data to use in making future projections. And when we put it into that context, we can see that there’s one okay season, one great season and a couple of up and down months in between to be analyzed here. This isn’t Miguel Cabrera and 12-plus years worth of performances to project – this is a guy who got his feet wet, got hurt, then got good and we’re supposed to draw hard conclusions off of that. That’s a lot harder to do with any kind of mathematical certainty than anyone wants to admit.

And here’s where I think the eye test can become undervalued. Projections are just part of the game. They’re not the whole story. But they are incredibly good at doing what they do, for the most part. In certain circumstances, however, we have to use our eyes and our judgement to adjust our expectations because a computer can’t do that on a player-by-player basis. The projection systems set rigid standards and apply all player to those standards. We’d never do that in real life, and while the metrics are indeed valuable (even in Pollock’s case), we need to think critically and apply our own knowledge to the process.

A.J. Pollock is better than a 2.5-win player. I think we’re all aware of that. Even with some regression, as we should expect, Pollock can still be a near-elite center fielder in baseball. These projections don’t change that. But by understanding what they’re working with, we can more easily reason with them. And just because we can reason with them does not mean we have to accept them. Every model has deficiencies and A.J. Pollock is a prime example. It’s up to us to make the necessary adjustments.

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9 Responses to Projections Still Don’t Like A.J. Pollock, and That’s Okay

  1. Larry Person says:

    PECOTA doesn’t like A.J., the D’backs or the reigning World Series Champion Kansas City Royals. They pick the Royals (with the same team that won the WS last year) to finish with a losing record, in last place in the AL Central! I’m content with that. We’re in good, no great company. All of the ratings systems are really in their infancy and have a long ways to go to be truly predictive. Numbers were really meant to describe the past, not predict the future. PECOTA, et al, need refinement, major refinement, before any of us should get the least bit worked up about their inaccurate projections. BTW the Royals were predicted to finish out of the playoffs and with a losing record last year! Sounds to me like the 2016 D’backs!

  2. Anonymous says:

    Yeah you cant project broken bones.

    • Dave-Phoenix says:

      I agree. The low game projection by ZiPS and PECOTA is a prediction that Pollock will get injured again this year, because he got hurt in 2014.

  3. Dave-Phoenix says:

    Choosing Pollock over Eaton was a smart move. Trading Eaton and Skaggs for Trumbo was the bonehead part, one that ultimately led to KT (and probably Gibson) getting fired.

  4. […] Projections Still Don’t Like A.J. Pollock, and That’s Okay […]

  5. Anonymous says:

    Trumbo going to be a surprise this year.

  6. Anonymous says:

    Only if he plays him in the field.

  7. […] why don’t they rate better? I more or less tackled this idea when it comes to A.J. Pollock last week, right before I did the same with Shelby Miller. Projections are projections and we’re all tired […]

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