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Wetmore’s 5 thoughts: Do Twins have a future batting champ on their hands? [2020 ZiPS projections]

MINNEAPOLIS — New Twins hitting coach Edgar Varela was going through a quick introduction inside the visitor’s clubhouse over the weekend when he was enveloped in a bear hug that he didn’t see coming. Luis Arráez snuck up on the new coach, wrapped his arms around him and picked him up off the ground, showing at once his strength and his goofier side that we in the public didn’t see much during a breakout campaign for the mild-mannered rookie.

If you’re a Twins fan, though, you’re probably hoping you see more of the same from Arráez this year, in the form of contact, on-base percentage, and hits by the dozen.

This column presents 5 fascinating takeaways from the recently released ZiPS projections for the 2020 Twins, using the projection model developed and refined by Dan Szymborski. [Read the whole post here, and please heed the author’s warning to take the projections exactly as they are intended.]

1. Luis Arráez could win a batting title. 

This statement is either a hot take or an obvious observation, depending on your perspective. But I’m point it out for a simple reason. It’s one thing to look at this on our own, or through a Twins lens, and find a path to him having a high batting average — he’s got great strike zone control, he makes contact with the best of them, he seems ever composed, and he hit .334 during a pennant race as a 22-year-old rookie, all while having played just 3 games above Double-A at the time of his first call to the bigs.

All of that is impressive. And especially the contact. (No qualified hitter made more contact than the Twins’ rookie second baseman, according to FanGraphs.) But what I’m saying in this column is that it’s fascinated is that a blind projection system thinks of Arráez as a potential batting champ.

Another projection system, Steamer, spits out a .312 batting average for Arráez. The ZiPS model projects him to hit .309 in the Majors this year. Several stars with high batting averages last year, for context, all forecast to be lower than that. D.J. LeMahieu is projected to hit .293 (ZiPS); Christian Yelich, .302; and new Angel Anthony Rendon, .276.

Here’s an excerpt from the creator of ZiPS, and author of a recent post on the Twins at FanGraphs.com:

I’m very happy to see that ZiPS … has become a true disciple of Luis Arraez. His 2019 projection of .268/.309/.354 was more than respectable for a player who only had a couple months of Double-A experience and who was on the edges of prospect status. Arraez blew through that quickly, hitting .344/.409/.401 in the minors and .334/.399/.439 in 92 major league games. … [I] know it’s likely that ZiPS is projecting Arraez to lead the league in batting average, but so be it; I don’t put my thumb on the scale.

Statistically, his No. 1 player comparison is Dustin Pedroia, for what it’s worth.

2. Miguel Sanó will lead the Twins in home runs.

Five different players in the Twins’ lineup smashed at least 30 home runs last season en route to a single-season MLB home run record as a team. That mark (307) still looks like an incredibly lofty total, as does their total runs scored (939). Then again, they just added Josh Donaldson, so who knows how many big flies they’ll hit or how many runs they’ll score this summer.

To make room for Donaldson at third base, Sanó will move across the diamond and become the primary first baseman. This post on ZiPS doesn’t provide an opinion on his glove at first base. But it does, at a minimum, give you one of those backhanded scouting assessments of his defense, the old baseball one-liner: As a first baseman, he’ll hit a lot of home runs.

And that’s a safe bet, if he stay healthy and on the field all year. The projection thinks that each of the the other big boppers will take a step back from their 30-plus-homer seasons, and Sanó will be the lone man left to clear 30.

We should point out here that, similar to Arraez’s batting average, the home run totals are not designed to peg what’s the highest possible outcome. They’re designed to be conservative, use statistical comps, and reserve further judgement or input of opinion. What is the most likely median outcome for Player X? To help answer that, “ZiPS assembles a cohort of fairly similar players across history for player comparisons… Non-statistical factors include age, position, handedness, and, to a lesser extent, height and weight compared to the average height and weight of the era…”

Anyway, based on his recent track record and a lot of other factors — and, I assume, no input about the aerodynamics of the actual baseball! — the 2020 ZiPS prediction says that Sanó will lead the Twins, with 35 homers.

3. We think a lot about the upside of top prospects; the projection system seems to ‘think’ more about the risk/downside.

As the author of the FanGraphs post wrote it, the system still like Royce Lewis, but it also accounts for the possibility that Lewis becomes, in his words, “a total bust.”

“While ZiPS still sees Royce Lewis ending up with more career WAR than Nick Gordon, that gap is much narrower than scouts’ perceptions of the two middle infielders would suggest.”

Now, I should point out that as a person who talks and writes about the Twins as part of my living, I don’t agree with that. The difference being, I’ll allow my opinion to be colored by people in the industry that I trust, with the Twins and outside the organization, who feel that Lewis is going to be a star. There are down spells in his numbers, and those are sometimes brushed away by a couple different explanations. I believe he’s earned some benefit of the doubt. As a fan, I imagine that you must like the fact that youngster was a top pick, looks really athletic, has tinkered with mechanics, seems to fit the ‘leader’ mold, handled multiple positions, and has gone on impressive hot stretches – the most recent of which won him Fall League MVP in the AFL.

He’s also three years younger than Gordon. I get what the model is suggesting — Gordon is ‘safer,’ perhaps, in that he has a lower ceiling but a higher floor. I’m pretty sure most fans would still favor Lewis, and I think if we were to input some opinion into the data, I’d like to shade a little higher for Lewis than his batting stats to date might suggest.

 

4. Speaking of Nick Gordon, he has the most interesting player comp in the Twins’ system. 

The historical player most similar to the Twins’ infield prospect, Nick Gordon is a fun one:

Ron Gardenhire.

5. So, trade a top prospect for pitching?

The author, Szymborski, says YOU BET!

I’m not Szymborski and I don’t want to speak for him. But I’ll guess that he’s probably talking about the relative levels and depth of talent on the pitching and hitting sides, mixed with the Twins’ current competitiveness as a borderline World Series team in 2020. Prospects are awesome! And if they hit they deliver a ton of value, no doubt. But it’s also hard to argue with the fact pointed out by many fans to me all the time: Most 20-year-olds don’t contribute to a World Series club. With a one-year view of the club, the only logical conclusion would be to trade prospects (future value) for the chance to win right now.

“If they can land a real difference-maker on the mound,” Szymborski writes, “with a package centered around [Royce] Lewis or Alex Kirilloff, I would pull that trigger in an instant.”

Balance the relative risk/reward however you’d like. From the Twins’ perspective, I don’t expect them to move Kirilloff or Royce Lewis, and I don’t know exactly how far that list extends.

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