For most baseball fans, the offseason is about planning for the future — and hoping their team will do better in the coming year than the one that just ended. There’s a lot of hope involved as well as a dash of magical thinking.
FanGraphs’ Dan Szymborski, too, looks ahead though he does this by working his way through every MLB team using his ZiPS projection system to forecast a team’s coming season.
“At its core, however,” Szymborski writes, “it’s still doing two primary tasks: estimating what the baseline expectation for a player is at the moment I hit the button, and then estimating where that player may be going using large cohorts of relatively similar players.” Szymborski gives a detailed explanation here, and he provides his 2023 accuracy update here.
It’s a widely respected system. As MLB.com observes, “Obviously, no one is claiming that every ZiPS prediction will come true, but it is widely regarded as one of the most accurate predictors in the industry.” It’s also a way for fans to get a sense of where their team may be headed.
Last season, ZiPS projected the Rockies would not be good, and ZiPS was right though the pre-season comparison became a bit skewed by player injuries (e.g., Germán Márquez, Antonio Senzatela, Brendan Rodgers, and Sean Bouchard).
It also underestimated just how good Nolan Jones would be and expected too much of Ryan McMahon. However, it projected Ezequiel Tovar perfectly (1.6 fWAR).
ZiPS provides a good starting point because the model contains a great deal of data, and there are some intriguing insights to tease out. Let’s start with the position players and then consider the pitching staff.
Here are a few key takeaways:
- Nolan Jones remains dominant (though less dominant than he was in 2023) — This year, ZiPS projects Jones will be the Rockies most valuable player, worth 3.1 FWAR/121 OPS+. Since he finished 2023 with 3.7 fWAR, the model envisions a slight regression.
- ZiPS continues to be bullish on Ryan McMahon — Last season, ZiPS projected McMahon would be the Rockies’ MVP and worth 2.2 fWAR. Instead, he finished the season with a disappointing 1.2 fWAR. Look for him to be worth 2.3 fWAR/93 OPS+ in 2024, according to ZiPS.
- Ezequiel Tovar will continue to get better — This comes as no surprise to Rockies fans who saw steady improvement from the young shortstop during the course of 2023. In 2024, ZiPS projects Tovar will be worth 2.2 fWAR/87 OPS+, the third most-valuable player on the Rockies’ roster.
- Veterans Kris Bryant and Charlie Blackmon are projected to continue their decline — In 2023, Bryant was projected to be worth 1.7 fWAR; instead, he finished the season worth -1.2 fWAR. (Yes, this is a terrible contract.) ZiPS is more conservative looking to 2024, projecting he’ll be worth 0.6 fWAR with an improved 108 OPS+. As for Blackmon, he overperformed his 2023 projection (-0.2 fWAR projected; 0.8 fWAR earned). Going forward, ZiPS sees Blackmon as having a modest 0.3 fWAR/96 OPS+. Given that Bryant and Blackmon are the Rockies’ most expensive contracts, if ZiPs is correct, this would mark a poor return on investment.
- Elias Díaz and Brenton Doyle are projected to have a 2024 much like their 2023 (0.0 fWAR/86 OPS+ and 0.9 fWAR/71 OPS+ respectively).
Much of this makes sense though it’s worth remembering that Doyle made adjustments to his swing at the end of the season and showed some offensive improvement. The Rockies are depending on him to become more offensively effective, and this is one part of the Rockies’ offense that ZiPS may have underestimated.
Similarly, if Elehuris Montero is given regular playing time (projected 0.5 fWAR/95 OPS+), he should exceed that of 2024. Like Doyle, Montero made some late-season swing adjustments.
The future, to be blunt, looks grim. This makes sense given that the Rockies will be missing Germán Márquez and Antonio Senzatela for most, if not all, of the season.
In the meantime, the Rockies have added Cal Quantrill (projected 1.3 fWAR/96 ERA+) and Dakota Hudson (projected 1.2 fWAR/93 ERA+). While not remarkable, it would mark an improvement over some of the starting pitchers the Rockies used in 2023.
- Kyle Freeland is projected to be worth 1.1 fWAR/91 ERA+. Last year, ZiPS projected 1.6, and he finished the season worth 1.2 fWAR. So, Freeland is who he is — as ZiPS sees it.
- Ryan Feltner presents a curious case. He missed most of 2023 with a skull fracture and finished the season worth 0.9 fWAR. ZiPS projects him to have the same value in 2024. In this, ZiPS perhaps underestimates one of the better pitchers in the Rockies starting rotation. Look for him to exceed this.
- Austin Gomber is projected to finish with 0.9 fWAR/89 ERA+, a decline from his 1.1 fWAR 2023 projection. (He ended 2023 worth 0.9 fWAR.)
In short, this is a lackluster rotation. But given the trauma suffered by the rotation in 2023, coupled with the fact that this is a rebuilding team, this seems like a fair estimate.
The Rockies 2023 bullpen was not good, finishing the season with a league-worst 5.41 ERA. It’s worth pointing out they were solid in the first half of the season before becoming too worn down to be successful in the second half. (Plus, the Rockies were test driving a number of young arms.)
Although the pen’s collective ERA was not good, two pitchers, Jake Bird and Justin Lawrence had very good seasons. ZiPS missed this in 2023 (Bird was projected to have a 0.4 fWAR and finished the season with a 1.3 fWAR; similarly, Lawrence improved over a projected 0.3 fWAR, finishing the season with 1.2 fWAR.) ZiPS still doesn’t see it, giving Bird a 0.4 fWAR/100 ERA+ (again) and Lawrence 0.5 fWAR/104 ERA+.
ZiPS also does not project a return to form for Daniel Bard (-0.1 fWAR/87 ERA+).
Granted, relievers are weird, but it’s reasonable to think these young pitchers will have solid seasons. A collective bullpen fWAR of 1.1 seems low.
ZiPS projects the Rockies will finish 2024 with 64-68 wins, which is about right.
The 2024 Rockies will not be good, but they should also be less bad than the 2023 team. That they would have another 100-loss season seems unlikely. Believe it or not, the 2024 team is shaping up to be a better team than they were in 2023.
And if the Rockies continue to let the kids play, they should prove an interesting team to keep an eye on.