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What do early projections say about the 2024 Astros?

A look at preliminary ZIPS projections for the Astros

MLB: ALCS-Texas Rangers at Houston Astros
Yordan Alvarez scores in ALCS game 6. He is again projected as the Astros’ top batting threat.
Troy Taormina-USA TODAY Sports

Fangraphs has begun releasing ZIPS 2024 projections for each team. The Astros 2024 projections were released last week. At this point, the projections are preliminary, since teams have not yet completed their off-season player acquistions.

Team composition may change in the coming months, but these projections give us a good starting point for estimating how teams will perform in 2024. At this point, ZIPS is fairly bullish on the Astros. Dan Symborski, the developer of ZIPS, writes:

I think the Braves will have a better projection when all is said and done, but the Astros will likely be the favorite in the AL West, despite the Rangers, and should project safely north of 90 wins unless something goes seriously wrong this winter.

An examination of the ZIPS’ WAR (wins above replacement) totals for the team appears to confirm the “safely north of 90 wins” prediction. Summing player WAR numbers is not the best way to predict Win-Loss records (just ask the Padres whose 2023 WAR totals were far above the team’s actual Win-Loss results). That’s why Fangraphs and ZIPS will use simulations of thousands of games to convert player performance into probabilistic wins and losses. But player WAR numbers, combined with expected playing time, can provide a check on the reasonableness of team W/L predictions.

Adding up the Astros’ WAR estimated by ZIPS indicates roughly 96 wins. This estimate is comprised of 17 WAR for pitchers, 31.3 WAR for position players, and 48 wins for a team composed of replacement level players. Of course, injuries are one of the most critical factors that can confound team WAR projections. The Astros’ 2023 season provides a case study for the impact of player injuries on W/L percentages. Hopefully, the 2024 Astros can avoid losing key players for weeks or months at a time.

The list of Astros’ player projections is more lengthy than I have shown in this article. You will need to read the Fangraphs article referenced above to see all of the projections.

POSITION PLAYER PROJECTIONS

One of the more difficult tasks for projection systems is determining whether a player’s good season is a break out or just an aberration and evaluating whether a player will rebound from a bad season. By comparing projections to the previous season, we can see how much “regression” is expected for a given player. Below, I compare the average of ZIPS and Steamer projections of w/RC+ or OPS+ with the previous season’ wRC+.

Average Regression % for wRC+ or OPS+

Notably, two players with big offensive seasons, Diaz and McCormick, are projected to experience some regression, but still are expected to produce good results. Jose Altuve’s injury shortened 2023 season produced wRC+ results well above his career average, and the projection systems foresee regression in the direction of his career results. Jose Abreu is projected to produce significant improvement on his terrible 2023 results, with a bottom line close to league average for first basemen.

Jose Abreu was one of the big misses in last year’s pre-season ZIPS projections, with expectations of a 115 OPS+. However, after mid-season, the ZIPS rest-of-season projections for Abreu were pretty close to actual second half results. ZIPS projected OPS+ of 107 for ROS, and Abreu’s second half OPS+ was 104.

ZIPS also sees some potential offensive improvement by Julks, Meyers, and Singleton.

PITCHING PROJECTIONS

I will focus on the ZIPS projections which are notably more optimistic than Steamer with respect to the starting pitchers. Valdez, the ace, is projected to show modest improvement, and Verlander and McCullers (whenever he returns) are projected to complete a solid 1-2-3 punch, with ERAs below 4. Beyond that, Symborski suggests that the team will shuffle around enough “interesting” pitchers to fill holes in the lower part of the rotation. Interestingly, Javier and Brown are projected to be very similar starting pitchers in 2024. This goes beyond their identical 4.06 ERAs and includes similar peripherals. For both young starters, the regression is expected to move in the direction of more effective results, compared to 2023.

Both ZIPS and Steamer view the Astros’ bullpen as a fairly mediocre outfit, according to Symborski. The top three relievers, Abreu, Pressly, and Graveman (assuming he recovers from shoulder issues) are projected to be good—although (not surprisingly) Abreu’s ERA is expected to regress from “great” to “very good.” However, the outlook isn’t great beyond that. Montero’s regression is expected to be in the direction of improved results, but the bottom line projected ERA remains lackluster. ZIPS views Ronel Blanco as a viable arm in the bullpen (projected ERA in the mid-3’s as a reliever), but by and large the projections seem to confirm that the Astros need to acquire bullpen help.

The chart below shows expected positive or negative regression compared to 2023.

ZIPS ERA Projection vs. 2023 ERA

Although I haven’t shown the projections for Neris and Stanek, it’s worth noting that all three reliever free agents are expected to regress in the direction of worse results in 2024. Assuming that Neris will be the most expensive of the bunch, Maton may be the best candidate to be re-signed, given that his ERA probably is acceptable at a relatively low cost.

DEPTH

If the projection reflects a shortfall, it is in the area of depth, which appears very thin. ZIPS views Corey Julks as the best offensive threat (96 OPS+) from the minor leagues—-and he isn’t exactly a “prospect.” Turning to the AAA prospects, Loperfido is the only one is shouting distance of acceptable (86 OPS+). In general, most of the 2024 ML offensive projections for upper level prospects are fairly bad. (They are shown in the fangraphs article referenced previously.)

ZIPS is a bit more comfortable projecting some contributions from AAA pitchers. None of the projections are above average, but guys like Arrighetti, Kouba, and Gordon are projected to post ERAs in the 4.4-ish range, which should be adequate for an occasional spot start. Bielak again looks like the top spot starter candidate, with a low 4’s ERA.

Symborski notes that the Astros’ biggest issues are reserved for after 2024, since the projections do not point to any obvious future position player starters in the upper minors.