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Digging into PECOTA’s 2022 White Sox projections

After years of disagreement, Baseball Prospectus’ system extends White Sox fans a 94-win olive branch.

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MLB: ALDS-Chicago White Sox at Houston Astros
Will the White Sox be better in 2022? A very unlikely source says SÍ.
Troy Taormina-USA TODAY Sports

Call your sons, call your daughters! Call your friends, call your neighbors! Baseball Prospectus has released their annual PECOTA projections for the (length-undetermined) 2022 season, and for quite literally the first time ever, they have the White Sox as the clear-cut team to beat in the AL Central.

Let’s hope this edition of Nate Silver’s creation is more accurate than just about everything else that’s escaped from his brain since 2016.

The subheading up there is only slightly unserious. It’s a running joke by many who make them that the projection systems hate your favorite team, whoever it may be. Projections are inherently conservative, and a well-sourced, median estimate rarely predicts the sexy results fans love to dream on in the offseason. Still, PECOTA has been particularly unkind to the White Sox for much of its existence, largely because the White Sox have been spectacularly uninteresting even in the best of times for most of the past decade-and-a-half. Notwithstanding predictions made during the Bush administration with a now-antiquated formula, how many of these preseason estimates were that unfair, in retrospect?

2005: 80-82
2006: 82-80
2007: 73-89
2008: 77-85
2009: 73-89
2010: 79-83
2011: 82-80
2012: 78-84
2013: 77-85
2014: 75-87
2015: 78-84
2016: 82-80
2017: 76-86
2018: 72-90
2019: 74-88
2020: 31-29
2021: 83-79
2022: 94-68

If anything, PECOTA was very generous to the rebuilding White Sox. Perhaps they just didn’t believe the team would ever be burned down to its foundation.

Individual player projections are out too, though you’ll need a premium subscription to Baseball Prospectus to see those in detail. I’ve got you on the highlights, though.

Smash Hits

Yasmani Grandal (Median Projection: .867 OPS, 22 HR, 20.0% BB, 22.2% K 131 DRC+, 5.2 WARP)
If they haven’t already, it’s probably time Rick Hahn & friends begin entertaining (or clearing the budget for, if we’re being honest) the idea of a late-career extension for Grandal, who PECOTA views as the best catcher in baseball by a healthy margin. That 5.2 WARP (that’s the BP version of WAR) isn’t just the highest median projection of any catcher in the league, it’s the fifth-highest of any position player period, trailing only Mike Trout, Juan Soto, Fernando Tatís Jr. and Ronald Acuña Jr.

Grandal has never posted a batting average below .225 or above .247, and PECOTA doesn’t see that changing, so the Yaz-related complaints therein will probably persist nonetheless. But while his .520 slugging in 2021 was a career-best by almost 50 points, the system thinks there’s a good chance that level of power was legit, forecasting another SLG of .500 or better in more than 30% of its simulations on top of one of the game’s three- or four-best walk rates. If there’s any argument to be had over Grandal’s performance relative to his contract, you should probably find someone else to argue with this year.

Liam Hendriks (Median Projection: 53 13 IP, 2.22 ERA, 13.22 K/9, 1.87 BB/9, 1.2 WARP)
Not unlike Grandal, the numbers are all-in on another year of Hendriks as the clear-cut top reliever in the game, a stretch that arguably dates back to 2019. Much of Grandal’s value can be hidden to the naked eye, but it’s hard to fake the results that Hendriks gets, and barring injury or a velocity drop, we ought to get more of the same in 2022. Even his 10th-percentile projections, close to a worst-case scenario, are laughably good: Most pitchers could only dream of a 2.55 ERA, 70 DRA- (that’s 30% better than league average in Prospectus’s ERA-estimator, similar to FIP), and more than six-and-a-half strikeouts per walk.

“Barring injury or a velocity drop” is a loaded statement for pitchers, especially back-end flamethrowers, so it should all be taken with a healthy grain of salt. Still, as far as relievers go, Hendriks is still as good a bet as any, so if you find yourself fixating on his fluky and overstated home run issues last summer, take it upon yourself to fixate on something else.

MLB: Chicago White Sox at Kansas City Royals Jay Biggerstaff-USA TODAY Sports

Aaron Bummer (48 13 IP, 2.75 ERA, 11.33 K/9, 4.02 BB/9, 0.9 WARP)
The emergence of Aaron Bummer: Elite Reliever has finally begun to catch the attention of those outside White Sox fan and media ecosystems, but PECOTA thinks even we might not be appreciating what the team has in the 28-year-old lefty. His median outcomes are already among the best in baseball among relievers, making him one of 15 pitchers projected to approach 1.0 WARP without starting a game. Notably, even those median outcomes presume a BABIP in the .300 range, which certainly isn’t out of the question, given Tony La Russa’s antediluvian conception of shifting and infield defense. If the BABIP trends back down in the direction of the .233 Bummer posted between 2019 and 2020, though, then the numbers say there’s a good chance the Sox might have the best non-closing relief pitcher in the game even after dealing Craig Kimbrel.

Tempered Expectations

José Abreu (.815 OPS, 28 HR, 8.4% BB, 22.3% K, 115 DRC+, 2.3 WARP)
Don’t get me wrong, there’s little reason to be worried here. (There’s a whole section for that down below!) Abreu projects to be a similar hitter in 2022 as he was in 2021, just a year older. Although he’s lost a bit of pop with age, as all do, José compensated for it nicely last summer with a career-high 9.3% walk rate, and PECOTA sees him retaining some of those plate discipline gains heading into next year. That ought to keep his overall offense playing at a high level even as some of his physical skills decline, and if his skills don’t decline sharply, there might even be some more late-career All-Star bids to be found in Abreu’s future. Still, although I personally disagree, BP has never been a fan of his defense at first base; that being the case, Abreu probably has as much to lose between his 70th (125 DRC+) and 30th percentile (109 DRC+) outcomes as anybody else on the roster,

All that being said, a projection system is never going to be able to anticipate a smart player’s proactive adjustments. Given his reputation as an incredibly smart and dedicated hitter, we can probably peg Abreu’s odds at making a Paul Konerko-esque mid-30s reinvention — compensating for a loss in bat speed with improved pitch recognition and a more contact-oriented approach — as quite a bit higher than your standard slugging first baseman on the wrong side of the player aging curve. I won’t expect Abreu to be hitting third or fourth on a pennant-bound team, but I’ll believe in his descent to average when I see it.

MLB: ALDS-Houston Astros at Chicago White Sox Matt Marton-USA TODAY Sports

Luis Robert (.834 OPS, 22 HR, 6.4% BB, 24.5% K, 118 DRC+, 3.8 WARP)
“Tempered expectations” applies here in the most literal sense. La Pantera is still going to be really good. Really, really good. PECOTA, however, implores us to not quite get carried away by his month-and-a-half of setting the American League on fire to finish 2021. His median projection of a 118 DRC+ might seem low, but last year’s 157 wRC+ was only good for a 121 DRC+ in BP’s eyes and is almost certainly in line for regression no matter how you look at it.

His power, defense, and base-running will probably give Robert above-average value by themselves, but the projection systems are still terrified by his lack of plate discipline. PECOTA thinks he’ll hang on to most of the 12% improvement Robert made to his strikeout rate in 2021, but if he can’t beat the 6% walk rate it also has projected for him, his ceiling is lower than Sox fans will be happy hearing. That’s why in spite of his seemingly limitless potential, 27 other players have a higher 99th percentile projection (i.e., best-case scenario) in Prospectus’s WAR metric. Among the Top 100 best-case WARPs, only Byron Buxton (51st) and Salvador Perez (98th) are projected to walk less than Robert.

Granted, all of these projections are based on past performance, and the formula has fewer than 1,300 total major and minor league at-bats to work with. There’s a legitimate chance that Robert’s plate discipline continues to improve with more MLB reps and that his upside is being undersold here as a result. But still, tempered expectations: Until we start seeing more walks, Robert most likely slots into the George Springer/Aaron Judge/Kyle Tucker tier of star outfielders — incredibly valuable, but still a notch below the Soto/Tatís Jr./Acuña Jr. level of transcendence that many are hoping from him.

Lucas Giolito (181 13 IP, 3.76 ERA, 3.13 BB/9, 10.5 K/9, 2.0 WARP)
Yeah, in spite of the 94 wins, PECOTA is really coming for the favorites, isn’t it?

This one is pretty simple. Giolito knows he didn’t have particularly good command for much of 2021, and unless he figures that out, a lot of things need to break right for him to return to his 2019 form. His changeup and slider are good enough on their own that he’s probably going to rack up strikeouts and innings in any case, which is plenty valuable independent of anything else. Even so, Giolito’s ERA still might be fated to live in the mid- to high-threes unless he can limit walks and home runs better than he did at times last summer. His fastball is good enough but lacks overpowering velocity, and suffered slightly for spin and movement without sticky stuff. Hitting spots with the fastball is the crux of avoiding hard contact while also setting up the changeup and slider, and that’s just easier said than done when you’re 6´6´´ with fairly complex mechanics.

This is where it’s good to note where cumulative stats don’t tell the whole story. A 3.76 ERA might look like a disappointing projection, but it doesn’t mean Giolito won’t pitch like an ace. In all likelihood, he’ll have extended stretches where he does spot the fastball and puts up All-Star numbers. There will also be days where he doesn’t have it and gets tagged for six runs. It won’t take too much extra thought in terms of game management to limit the bad enough to beat this projection, even if he still falls short of ace-caliber.

MLB: ALDS-Chicago White Sox at Houston Astros Troy Taormina-USA TODAY Sports

We Are Optimistic!

Yoán Moncada (.808 OPS, 20 HR, 12.2% BB, 25.5% K, 113 DRC+, 2.9 WARP)
Forget all the sturm und drang produced by certain segments of the fanbase; along with Grandal and Robert, Moncada is the third of the team’s three position players that PECOTA is virtually certain will be, at very worst, league average. He’s slated for a DRC+ of 100 or better in roughly 90% of the system’s projections, which combines with above-average defense (that the eye test and other metrics say is probably undersold by BP’s Fielding Runs Above Average) to produce a player that’s more likely than not to challenge for an All-Star bid.

The most interesting part of Moncada’s projection? PECOTA predicts a return (with gusto) of his missing power numbers: A repeat of last year’s 14 homers and .412 slugging is in the bottom 10% of his simulated seasons. With his line drive-oriented, all-fields, switch-hitting approach, we probably shouldn’t expect a return to the 30-homer pace of 2019, but if Moncada is attacking the ball well enough to get back into the 20-25 range, I’d wager there’s a good chance he beats his median batting average projection and once again finds himself on the fringes of the MVP discussion.

Tim Anderson (.752 OPS, 17 HR, 4.7% BB, 22.2% K, 98 DRC+, 2.4 WARP)
There’s little to say about the team’s heartbeat that we don’t know already: Anderson’s lack of patience and singles and doubles-based approach makes his All-Star level production of recent years precarious, but this MO also has the effect of zagging where the rest of the league is zigging, and like most of you, I’m going to bet on Anderson beating the projections all the way up until he doesn’t. Don’t let that subpar DRC+ get you down, because he’s comfortably outhit his DRC+ in just about every year of his career.

Anderson’s median outcome is based on a projected .340 BABIP; if he once again manages to go higher than that — he’s cleared .370 in four out of six MLB seasons — we’re hopefully looking at a fourth straight year of a .300 batting average, 60+ extra base hits, and perhaps some more down-ballot MVP votes, particularly if he can hit the upper end of his home run projections and break 20 for the first time in his career.

Lance Lynn (184 23 IP, 3.43 ERA, 8.8 K/9, 2.81 BB/9, 2.5 WARP)
PECOTA treats Lynn as a known quantity this season, projecting him as more or less the exact same pitcher he’s been since reinventing himself as a member of the Yankees in 2019: Lots of innings, not too many walks, not too many homers, and enough bad contact to make up for what would be his lowest strikeout rate sine 2017. Age comes for us all, but barring a physical breakdown, there’s little reason to believe Lynn won’t once again be a model of reliability in 2022.

Red Flags

Andrew Vaughn (.743 OPS, 16 HR, 9.2% BB, 21% K, 99 DRC+, 0.4 WARP)
As someone with the words “Andrew Vaughn Is Too Good To Trade” attributed to them on this site, this one pains me. It really does. It’s worth remembering that Vaughn missed a full season of minor league reps in 2020, so PECOTA has almost no professional history to go on outside of a bumpy rookie season. Considering the only thing between the Pac-12 and that rookie season was 55 games at Single-A in 2019, it’s fair to speculate that it’s less relevant to projecting future performance than most top-prospect debuts.

Nonetheless, Vaughn’s lack of defensive and base-running skill makes it worrisome that the system has him hitting 10% better than league average less than a third of the time, and also sees exceeding his 2021 home run and slugging totals as a virtual toss-up. If Vaughn makes enough contact to maintain the plate discipline profile projected above, he’ll also probably do better than the power numbers projected above. But it’s still nerve-wracking. Two of the three players drafted after Vaughn are near the top of MLB prospect lists and are slated to arrive at the big leagues sometime in 2022 playing positions (right field and second base) of dire need for the White Sox. If Vaughn ends up closer to average than All-Star, it will be a tough miss for the team to swallow.

I still think he’s headed for a breakout 2022, but I might have underestimated the steepness of the adjustments Vaughn needs to make to get there.

Garrett Crochet (48 13 IP, 3.98 ERA, 4.4 BB/9, 10.5 K/9, 0.3 WARP)
Speaking of potentially crucial draft misses, what initially looked like a genius win-now move seems to be on the precipice of disaster. PECOTA pegging Crochet as an entirely unremarkable reliever isn’t the end of the world, but if that’s what he turns out to be, there are going to be a lot of bitter feelings as pitchers drafted shortly after him climb their way up prospect lists and the minor league ladder. If the 102 mph velocity with which Crochet burst onto the scene in 2020 is gone forever — and who this side of Aroldis Chapman has really ever held onto it for more than a flash? — it’s hard not to think the White Sox wouldn’t be best served trying to recoup some starting pitching depth by stretching their southpaw out in the minor leagues.

To be fair, Crochet wasn’t healthy for much of the 2021 season, he never quite found his slider, and managed to pitch well for most of the season in spite of it. But if a repeat of that 2.82 ERA is as unlikely as PECOTA seems to think it is, it may be worth taking a 20% chance he becomes a solid MLB starter over a 70% chance that he’s a working man’s Matt Thornton.

MLB: Game Two-Seattle Mariners at Chicago White Sox Kamil Krzaczynski-USA TODAY Sports

Adam Engel (.677 OPS, 8 HR, 6.3% BB, 25.3% K, 78 DRC+, 0.3 WARP)
Two years worth of flashing enough power and plate discipline to hint at a starter’s skill set aren’t fooling the projections, and PECOTA is the most bearish of them all, foreseeing a bat weak enough that it might not even justify the defensive and base-running value Engel brings to the table. It’s tough to say whether it’s justified or not: White Sox fans are naturally going to be excited at the 124 wRC+ he’s produced out of a platoon role over the last two years, and there’s something to be said for recency bias, because sometimes players really do “figure it out.” As a rule, though, most projections are going to put more weight on the 1,000-plus plate appearances at a 62 wRC+ from 2016-19 than on the most recent 239, and for good reason. It’s incredibly rare that someone can be that bad at hitting over a thousand trips to the plate and suddenly turn on the jets. It seems pretty unlikely that Engel’s final numbers from 2020-21 would have held up over double the playing time.

There are some reasons for hope: Improvements in batting eye and plate discipline are often hard for projection systems to pick up on, and if he maintains his 8% walk and 22% strikeout rates from last season over his median projection, his offense will probably play close enough to average that he can still be one of the more valuable fourth outfielders in the league. A starter, however, he still is.

Gavin Sheets (.720 OPS, 12 HR, 8.4% BB, 19.9% K, 89 DRC+, 0.3 WARP)
This time I’ll start with the “projection systems can’t see adjustments” caveat. As opposed to someone like Engel, who suddenly started hitting the cover off the ball without any radical (to the eye) adjustments, Sheets’ 2021 breakout was precipitated by a much-ballyhooed swing change that allowed him to start putting the ball in the air more and take advantage of his 6´5´´, 230-pound frame. As a result, it might very well be that PECOTA is underselling Sheets’ ability to get to his power.

The problem is that as a slow, defensively-limited corner bat, the offensive bar for being more than an average player is really high, and Sheets has yet to prove that he can do anything against left-handed pitching at the big-league level. His propensity for big hits in 2021 was exciting, and the fact that Sheets appears to be a genuine and all-too-rare success story from the White Sox player development operation makes us more invested in his success than we probably would be otherwise. If a few things break right, he’ll end up as the strong side of a corner platoon in the Matt Adams or Brandon Moss mold. Those kinds of players are valuable, but that’s a best-case scenario, and it’s probably wise to hold our horses accordingly.

MLB: ALDS-Houston Astros at Chicago White Sox Matt Marton-USA TODAY Sports

Too Good to Be True?

Dylan Cease (140 13 IP, 3.54 ERA, 10.8 K/9, 4.0 BB/9, 2.0 WARP)
Michael Kopech (103 IP, 2.97 ERA, 11.2 K/9, 3.5 BB/9, 1.7 WARP)
If the White Sox successfully coax 250 to 275 innings of ~3.20 ERA pitching from Cease and Kopech, they will go to the World Series.

Frankly, I’m not quite sure what to make of these predictions. Cease has become a popular breakout candidate this winter on the strength of analysts coming across his strikeout totals and Statcast sliders for the first time, but anybody who watched him rack up those strikeouts know the cost they came at. It’s hard for me to envision a scenario in which Cease sees his walks and strikeouts backslide from last season (when his BB and K/9 were 3.7 and 12.5, respectively) and still manages to allow fewer runs. If he manages to improve his command even a little bit and not routinely unravel with men on base, Cease will get Cy Young votes, and I’m still of the opinion that he’s one of the few pitchers in the game with Gerrit Cole-level upside in terms of stuff. But I remain skeptical that he’ll ever beat a high-threes ERA unless he also starts beating the walk and inning projections he has above.

As far as Kopech goes, there’s no doubt whatsoever that the ability is there, it’s just a matter of whether he’ll be able to do it while trying to get through a lineup three times for 20+ starts. Kopech’s mechanics are still quite pretty and I’m fairly confident his walk numbers will improve when he’s not throwing max-effort out of the bullpen, but there are still plenty of questions other: Will his curveball or changeup become a viable third pitch after going fastball-slider for most of 2021? How will his fastball play when he has to reduce velocity to throw 80 pitches instead of 20 or 30? How will the White Sox manage Kopech’s starts to avoid the late-season fatigue that overtook the rotation last August and September?

Getting these kind of cumulative numbers from Cease and Kopech seems well within the range of possibility, but given the precarity with which they both operate on an inning-by-inning level — getting a quality start of Lynn or Giolito might be a reasonable expectation on any given night, but planning on getting more than four innings out of the other two is a major risk — it feels like a little bit too much has to go right to take these projections without a large grain of salt.

Elephants in the Room

Carlos Rodón (124 23 IP, 3.07 ERA, 11.4 K/9, 3.0 BB/9, 2.3 WARP)
Dallas Keuchel is projected for more than two fewer WARP in 40 more innings pitched. Getting even 250 innings out of Cease and Kopech in total will likely be a success. Depth in the high minors consists of Jimmy Lambert, Jonathan Stiever, and whoever this year’s crop of Mike Wrights are. PECOTA thinks there was absolutely nothing fluky about Rodón’s 2021 performance, and while the light inning projection is understandable given his history, Rodón likely will garner Cy Young votes if he can blow past it. In short, the White Sox are in no position to lose out on this kind of depth, particularly if they have the incumbent advantage in signing him. Find a way to get it done: Adding production like this when it’s not strictly necessary is often the difference between a run-of-the-mill division winner (cough, 2021) and a 98+ win juggernaut.

MLB: St. Louis Cardinals at New York Mets Brad Penner-USA TODAY Sports

Michael Conforto (.803 OPS, 22 HR, 11.9% BB, 20.4% K, 115 DRC+, 2.8 WARP)
The White Sox are one of nine teams who have six or more position players with median projections of league-average hitting or better. The Astros also have six, while the Yankees have eight. Conforto is not the only solid offensive free agent available, but the fit is strong and the need to add more firepower is urgent. A 94-win projection can easily turn into a 90-win season, and making sure there are better bats than Engel and Sheets in the starting lineup is what the White Sox need to firmly push them into the upper echelon of American League competitors. The current projections are good, but other teams aren’t too far behind. The wins added by retaining or adding players of Rodón and Conforto’s caliber are difference-makers in a 162-game season.

Other Notes

Go figure, 4,000 words somehow isn’t enough to cover everyone; there’s plenty in these projections that’s noteworthy if not particularly fascinating. Dallas Keuchel (projection -0.1 WARP) is still brutal, and although Craig Kimbrel (3.02 ERA, 0.8 WARP) is likely still pretty good, I’d rather not have the Sox be the team to find out. PECOTA is wary of projecting another Silver Slugger year from Eloy Jiménez (108 DRC+), largely due to hesitation about the big man’s free-swinging ways, but the power will show up, and if his pitch recognition gets back to 2020 levels, he’ll be just fine in the middle of the order. Leury García (0.2 WARP) is still Leury García: perfectly fine as a supersub, but not a starter on a championship-caliber team. The system doesn’t particularly like the deal given to Kendall Graveman (0.3 WARP), but interestingly, it believes Matt Foster (104 DRA-) might be deserving of another shot at a bullpen role.

Here’s to another year of the window. All that’s left to do is wait and see when it starts — and when it ends.