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Digging into ZiPS player comps: core hitters

Toronto Blue Jays v New York Yankees Photo by Focus on Sport/Getty Images

When Dan Szymborsi’s 2021 ZiPS projections came out for the Blue Jays back in November, one of the interesting things in addition to the actual forecasts themselves is the #1 player comp. In particular, especially for some of the younger players, some of the comps really stuck out to me for various reasons. I thought I’d dig into them a little deeper, starting with some of the more prominent position players. I’ll follow-up with the pitchers and few more of the hitters in a second part.

Bo Bichette — Lou Boudreau

We start with a whale of a comp, as Boudreau was a Hall of Fame shortstop who accumulated over 60 WAR in the 1940s. Boudreau had a pretty short career (7,025 PA) and of course it was a completely different era, but this stands out as a very optimistic outlook for Bichette.

That said, I’m a little skeptical of the comparison. While Boudreau was a very good hitter, a lot of that value (>200 defensive/position runs) is on the defensive side. Even if he sticks at short, Bichette isn’t going to do that. But it breaks down even more on the offensive side. Even by the standard of the era, Boudreau was a contact hitter who almost never struck out (4.4% career, about half of the league average). He was a gap hitter with average power, who walked a fair bit and got on base. Bichette’s profile by contrast is power-oriented, hunting pitches to square up and accepting some strikeouts while not walking much.

Looking over a list of high end shortstops in the modern integrated era, better offensive comps strike me as Hanley Ramirez or a poor man’s Nomar Garciaparra who strikes out more. Interestingly, like Boudreau both these players had short primes.

Cavan Biggio — Lou Whitaker

This is an eye popping comp, as Sweet Lou very much deserves a spot in Cooperstown and will hopefully assume his rightful place sooner than later. Over 19 seasons, he posted 70+ WAR (and 40+ WAA, well above the HOF standard). Needless to say, even adjusting that Whitaker posted almost 1700 PA and 10 WAR before age-24 (when Biggio debuted), this would be an utterly fantastic outcome for Biggio’s career.

Profile wise, the similarities are high walk rates that manifest in high OBPs and decent pop relative to league (Biggio’s .190 ISO significantly exceeds Whitaker’s career .150 ISO in absolute terms). A big difference is that Whitaker struck out well below average (81% of league) whereas Biggio thus far has struck out 14% more. Whitaker was also a standout defender who won three Gold Gloves; Biggio’s unlikely to replicate that. But again, even a very poor man’s Whitaker would make for a tremendous player and career.

Vladimir Guerrero Jr. — Paul Konerko

Given the expectations, Vladdy ending up having Konerko’s career would probably be considered a disappointment with “only” 24 fWAR/28 bWAR. While he wasn’t consistently one of the premier sluggers in baseball, Konerko was a very good hitter for a long time, posting a 124 wRC+ over 8,514 PA from 1999-2012 after he broke in as a full-time regular. Even for a player tapped as a generational talent, you’d probably take that ahead of time.

In additional to the defensive/positional value basis, this comp is likely based on Konerko breaking in at a very young age and getting a half season at age 22. Even then, he only became a regular at age 23, so Guerrero is actually still well ahead of him. A notable aspect of Konerko’s career is that it took him time to really tap into power: his ISO was .198 from 1999-2003, .231 from 2004-12.

It remains to be seen if and/or when Vlad will be able to do that, but the elite contact ability (strikeout rate more than 30% better than league) at such a young age and how hard he hits the ball make me optimistic enough that’s I’d actually take the over on Konerko as a hitter. At least in terms of productivity if not durability and longevity, of career, few players do as well as Konerko did in that department.

Teoscar Hernandez — Bob Allison

Unlike the above, Allison didn’t really ring a bell, and players who have breakouts tend to confound career level comparisons. It’s an interesting comparison, as Allison was a decent hitters after breaking in as a regular in his mid-20s, before having a breakout age-27 season in 1962 in posting a 133 wRC+.

He fllowed that up two outstanding years in 1963-64 (155 wRC+, 13 WAR) followed by another fours years as a quality regular. Even a less extreme version of this, where he simply consolidates his last ~500 PA in 2019-20 would represent a great outcome for Teoscar. A major difference is that Allison only struck out 17% of the time compared to over 30%, but apples to apples it’s a lot closer (36% more than MLB average to 44%). Allison also walked a lot more. Overall, I’ll take the under — but that still leaves a lot of room for Tesocar for be an offensive force over the next half decade.

Lourdes Gurriel Jr. — Rico Carty

This comp for two reasons, the first being that Carty not only played in Toronto (and was acquired four separate times), becoming one of the first fan favourites in 1978, effectively th swan song of his career. The Beeg Mon actually had a really great career, posting a 132 wRC+ and 30+ WAR over 17 seasons. Needless to say, that would be an excellent career trajectory for Gurriel (or almost anyone).

What makes a particularly interesting is the juxtaposition between the bullish career comp, while being relatively restrained on his 2021 outlook. ZiPS is projecting a 113 OPS+ and 1.8 WAR in 504 PA, which is...fine. But expecting a lowish-end regular production in his age-27 season, which should be his prime, is not the type of player who ends up with Carty’s career.

The parallel is Carty was a bat-first outfielder who got a later start, only becoming a regular at age-24. But while their contact profiles were similar, Carty’s plate metrics were much superior to Gurriel’s profile. He walked about 20% more than league average while striking out 20% less, whereas Gurriel doesn’t walk much while striking out at an average clip. Ironically, Dante Bichette strikes me a better offensive comp, or even George Bell. More recently, someone like Corey Dickerson.

Randal Grichuk — Chet Lemon

This one I really don’t get, even as someone who views Grichuk’s ability as underappreciated at this point. He’s a decent, low end regular in the outfielder, which is exactly how ZiPS projects him. But Lemon was really, really good, with three 5-win seasons before age 25. His worst season before age-30 is basically Grichuk’s best. Baseball-Reference’s suggestion of Jose Cruz Jr. as Grichuk’s most similar through age-28 actually strikes me as perfectly on point.

Overall, the common theme here is the player comps seem very rosy as opposed to being the purely closest comparison to a similar point in a player’s career, which should mean some comps thast end up quite disappointing. I’d more reasonably view them as very good to ideal career outcomes rather than a 50th percentile type true comparison.