Wednesday, April 07, 2010

Desmond and Projected Disappointments

I received a somewhat strongly-worded but still worthy mailbag question the other day that I'd like to address in today's entry:

"Regarding your forecast for Ian Desmond, I think you're nuts.  Guzman can't physically play shortstop anymore and the Nationals have nothing else to lose by giving Desmond the at bats.  I think you're way low on his ABs and production.  I'd recommend researching Guzman's shoulder issue a bit more, as you'll find he can't make the throws anymore."

Now readers know that it's very rare for me in recent years to give publication space to questions that come across this way as it just encourages a harsher tone (usually comments that call me 'nuts' never even make it to my pre-screened inbox) but this one happened to make it through and despite the way it's phrased, I think the concerns raised are good ones that are worth discussing.

The first clarification that's needed is the one that we had already published in the notes included with the opening day projections, just in case some readers missed it:

"We are aware that Washington has named Ian Desmond the starting shortstop. A close look at our forecast will reveal that we're not forecasting him to hit well enough over the long run to hold down the job for the whole season (our current forecast is for a batting average around .240). The same could be said in the American League for Oakland's Cliff Pennington, currrently projected to hit in the low .230s. If they outperform our ability forecasts, both of these players will likely exceed our projected playing time as the two are tied together."

I think the reader already understood this and the contentious issue here seems to be that even if Desmond performs as projected, the reader believes that he will continue to get playing time regardless.

On this note, I want to clarify further even beyond the remark listed in the projection notes.  It's important to understand this in terms of all the forecasts and not just Desmond's.  Just because we forecast a player to hit only .240 doesn't mean he will hit exactly .240.  In other words, it's entirely believable to me that Desmond could hit .241, as projected, and still keep his job beyond the 231 at bats we're forecasting.  Rather, there's a range of possible performances being accounted for here and if .241 is the average outcome, if you could imagine playing the season a billion times, there's a wide range of possible outcomes. 

In other words, a player projected to hit .241 has a decent chance to be hitting .220 or even .200 after 200+ at bats.  If that happens, no matter how good he is projected to be or how much Washington or any team would want him to learn, he will not keep his big league starting job.  In fact, if he's hitting .150 after 60 at bats, he will lose his job extremely early.  Albert Pujols couldn't lose his job that early.  Ian Desmond could.   Distinguishing between those types of players is part of the challenge the forecaster faces and one of his most important tasks.  To address the reader's comment, there actually is something to be lost by playing such a player after he struggles so miserably as you can ruin him permanently as he attempts to overcompensate for his struggles by constantly grasping for any change that will make him ready quicker.

The second part of the reader's email suggesting I should research Guzman's shoulder more was a bit strongly-worded in that it implied that somehow I don't follow aging or injury concerns closely.  But let's go ahead and get into that.  Just over a week ago, the Washington Post carried an article that interviewed Jim Riggleman about the decision to go with Desmond over Guzman at shortstop.  In the article, which you can read here, Riggleman was quoted as saying that Guzman's shoulder was not a factor in the decision and then went on to say of Desmond that "...he may not be playing good in May, so Guzman may be our shortstop.  To open the season, we're going to give Dessie a shot there to hold that position down.  We hope that works."  There are a lot of reasons Riggleman might insist Guzman can still play shortstop, perhaps to maintain his trade value, but this didn't read to me like a manager unwilling to go with Guzman if the Desmond experiment doesn't work out.

Our Guzman forecast isn't exactly lights out either. The moment Desmond moved ahead of Guzman in mid-spring, we downgraded Guzman significantly until he ultimately landed at just over 400 at bats in our opening day set. This isn't all coming at shortstop and Guzman will be fighting early for utility at bats and pinch-hitting appearances.

Just as important to understand here is that setting aside Guzman for a moment, teams find someone else to play if their top prospect rookie doesn't work out.  It doesn't have to be Guzman.  It can be a player claimed off waivers in May.  It can be someone else who breaks through early in the year in the minors.  It's not about whether there are viable options when it comes to not ruining a prospect.  They get someone else to play there if the prospect doesn't pan out.

So, if Desmond does have one of those 10-20% type outcomes that lands him in the lower .200s, he will lose his starting job and someone else will be playing shortstop in June or July.  Now Desmond may not end up disappointing and as I say, it's possible that if he lands precisely on our forecasted ability, that he keeps his job.  But if our forecast is at or near the midpoint of expectations, as we often describe it, there's a lot of room on that "under" mark of our forecast to end up having Desmond back in the minors.

Today's entry really isn't about one player.  It's about the idea that when we consider projected playing time, that forecasted current ability is very much tied to the forecast.  As I often say, if we prove to be outright wrong about a player's ability, particularly underestimating a prospect's readiness for the majors, then we will definitely be wrong about his playing time.

On that note, as for whether we're underestimating Desmond specifically, yes he had a strong spring (.318, 1 HR, 13 R, 15 RBI, 6 SB in 68 AB) and a very good 2009 minor league campaign but as recently as 2008, he hit just .251 at Double-A and the year before that, .264 at High-A and the year before that, .244 at that level.  The great unknown here is how much weight to put into what is more recent versus overall.  He's still relatively young (24) but for now, looking beyond last year's strong Triple-A performance in 55 games, here's how he's done in his career so far at each level:

AA .252 in 614 AB
High-A .255 in in 1,042 AB
A and Low-A .247 in 308 AB
Rookie Ball .236 in 229 AB

It's the above numbers that have us concerned as none are even reduced to account for the inferior quality of competition at each level.  In making our forecast, we have accounted for that plus the effects his experience should have on his improvement, his more recent strong performances and so on.

In short, I wanted to highlight Desmond today as just one example of many.  Clearly, so much of our projected performance is directly tied to whether we prove right about a player's unreadiness for the majors and I completely understand the frustration of readers who want to see us go along with what they expect from a player.  A player may very well end up being exactly what the reader imagines and I have no problem conceding that.  In other words, if Desmond is hitting .270 in June, we are going to be wrong about our forecasted at bats unless he gets hurt.

In fact, while I want our projections to be as accurate as possible, I really do root for up and coming prospects as I always enjoy seeing the next generation of players break through.  I'll be the first to admit that especially with players with such limited big league data, there will be a high percentage that we're plain wrong about.  Whether Desmond specifically proves to be one of those isn't the issue here.  It's that I wanted to offer reassurance that we do consider everything possible when putting together a forecast and we're not simply ignoring the apparent plans of each team or the health status of each player when we seemingly go against consensus projections.