SSTN Not The Weekly Mailbag: ZiPS and Anthony Volpe
By Andy Singer
January 13, 2023
While this may be the usual slot for the SSTN Weekly Mailbag, I think that it is okay to take a breather on occasion to discuss topics in the Yankee Universe that are timely and significant. I think this is one of those times, particularly during the slow part of the offseason. Keep the great questions coming to SSTNReadermail@gmail.com, as we'll get back to our regularly scheduled programming next week.
For this week, I wanted to stop and take a fast look at something that really caught my eye in Fangraphs' 2023 ZiPS Projections for the New York Yankees. Dan Szymborski's projection system is among the best in the business, and I've anxiously awaited the Yankees' turn as Szymborski reveals his projections team-by-team. At a high-level, there isn't a ton that should surprise people who have been paying attention. The rotation projects to be among the best in the Majors, with 6 legitimate MLB-caliber starters and a multi-headed monster in the top slots; the bullpen projects to be above-average, but could use either another arm from the outside or one of the kids down on the farm; and while position players as a whole will produce excellent overall value, Aaron Judge could use some help.
It's on the position player side of things where things get interesting. Aaron Judge, of course, stands out with a projection for 7.5 WAR in 643 plate appearances as his 50th percentile projections. As would be expected, there is a steep drop-off thereafter, with DJ LeMahieu and Harrison Bader filling out the top-3 in 50th percentile WAR projection, with both projected to produce above-average-to-elite level defense and above-average offense. The name that comes next in the projection is what fascinates me in the 50th percentile projection WAR ranking: Anthony Volpe.
Before I go any further, I want to perform an exercise with admittedly limited data. Below are statistics from 3 shortstops. Which one would you prefer for the Yankees in 2023? I am intentionally excluding WAR to make it more challenging.
Player A: .261/.314/.327, 3.6 DEF
Player B: .234/.318/.407, 1 DEF
Player C: .221/.267/.379, 14.5 DEF
Player A makes some contact, but has zero pop, doesn't take enough walks, and is solid defensively. Player B might not make as much contact as Player A, but definitely works at-bats with an OBP 84 points higher than his batting average and displays far more pop with a .173 ISO along with solid defense. Player C has some pop, but is awful offensively in every other way, but he is a defensive wizard.
The Yankees need to find offense anywhere they can get it to support Aaron Judge and make the lineup deeper. We all love defensive wizards at SS, but as long as the defense at that position is acceptable, I think we'd all agree that finding more offense is paramount in 2023, right? Given that fact, I take Player B without giving it a second thought.
Player A is IKF in 2022; Player C is Jorge Mateo in 2022; Player B is Anthony Volpe's 50th percentile projection from ZiPS. Both have taken their turn as guys many like(d) as stopgap solutions at SS, and it's pretty clear that neither match even Volpe's modest projection. ZiPS projects Volpe to 3.1 WAR in 592 plate appearances in his 50th percentile projection in 2023. That's a better projection in total value than Gleyber Torres, Giancarlo Stanton, or Anthony Rizzo in 2023.
But let's get really crazy! What if Volpe proves everyone wrong (like he did to this writer by becoming one of the best prospects in the sport when I didn't even rank him in my Top-15 Yankee Prospects in 2020) as he's done throughout his minor league career? ZiPS' 80th percentile projections for Volpe in 2023 are worth salivating over: .262/.341/.463, 120 OPS+, 4.4 WAR. That would make him one of the top-10 shortstops in the sport in his rookie season, in all likelihood.
I highlight these projections for a number of reasons. For one, it's to show that the media hype surrounding Volpe isn't just the usual bluster over Yankee prospects: independent statistical models love the kid too. I also bring it to the table to show what Volpe could bring to the Yankee offense. If I told you the Yankees have a player with the potential to make contact and hit for some pop while playing a decent shortstop and stealing 30+ bags, you'd sign up for that right now, right? Anthony Volpe is that guy, if not in April, then in the first half of the season for sure, which can make the offense much more formidable in October.
Don't think Volpe is a realistic option on Opening Day? Tell that to the Astros, who started Jeremy Pena this year at SS despite having almost identical experience to Volpe in the upper minors. I think Volpe is that guy, and the projection systems agree. Anthony Volpe might just be part of the cure for the Yankees' offense in 2023.