2021 Pod Projections: Zach Plesac

The Pod Projection process sharing continues! The 2021 forecasts are now available and include nearly 600 player lines. As usual, I’ll dive into my projection methodology (detailed in Projecting X 2.0) by sharing my process on several hitters and pitchers.

2021 Pod Projection Index
Ha-seong Kim
Trent Grisham

Our first pitcher honored with a 2021 Pod Projection post is 26-year-old Indians starting pitcher, Zach Plesac. He enjoyed a strong surface-level debut in 2019 with a usable 3.81 ERA, but a poor 5.13 SIERA suggested weaker future results without a dramatic skills improvement. Luckily for him and his owners, his skills did improve dramatically in 2020, and combined with some good fortune, drove his ERA down below 3.00. A strikeout rate surge, paired with pinpoint control and microscopic walk rate led to his SIERA declining by 1.72 runs, which is pretty huge.

Now, fantasy owners, at least in the NFBC, can’t figure out how to value him. While his ADP from drafts beginning on Feb 1 sits at 74.73, he has been selected as early as 27th (woah) and as late as 125th (a bargain?). Outside of Dinelson Lamet, whose variance is significantly larger for obvious reasons, Plesac’s Min/Max Pick gap is the largest among pitchers drafted inside the top 100 players. So what should fantasy owners expect from Plesac in 2021? Let’s investigate.

Games Started | IP: 28 | 168

Figure a typical workload for a starting pitcher slotted second in the rotation, with a slight reduction due to the shortened 2020 season that might bring everyone’s GS total down a notch. My IP projection is assuming Plesac averages 6.0 innings per start. In 2019, he only averaged 5.5 IP/GS, while he averaged 6.9 in 2020. Over his short career, this averages out to 5.9 IP/GS. As you’ll see in my full projection, I am not projecting an ERA anywhere close to his 2020 mark, so more runs allowed is going to get him pulled from games more quickly. On the other hand, a lower walk rate than in 2019 means I’m still expecting him to remain in games slightly longer than his career average.

K%: 24.2%

Plesac’s strikeout rate surged in 2020 to a mark more in line with his 2019 Triple-A spike. He threw his slider and changeup more frequently at the expense of his four-seamer, which is usually a good plan for any pitcher to improve his strikeout rate. Not only were these two non-fastballs thrown more often, but they induced a significantly higher rate of whiffs as well. And all this despite a decline in fastball velocity. My latest xK% equation suggests Plesac did outperform by about a percentage point (27.7% actual vs 26.8% expected), but the takeaway really should be that the strikeout surge was legit.

That said, it was only 55.1 innings, and we can’t completely ignore Plesac’s sub-20% strikeout rate during his 2019 MLB debut, or his mediocre marks before reaching Triple-A in 2019. So my projection gives him majority credit for truly transforming into a better strikeout artist, but acknowledges that the sample is small and his weaker history reduces our confidence of this new 2020 level sticking.

BB%: 6.7%

It’s true, Plesac’s control was elite in 2020, as his xBB% fell to just 3.5%, mostly validating his actual 2.9% mark. He accomplished this by not only throwing more strikes, but also avoiding 3-0 counts. In fact, he posted the lowest 3-0% of any starting pitcher with at least 50 innings going back to 2015. When I see such extreme performance, I immediately assume it won’t last. While he’s posted good walk rates over the majority of his minor league career, it’s just really hard to consistently avoid the base on balls to such a degree in the Majors. Further adding to the likelihood of a jump in walk rate is the projected decline in strikeout rate, as some of those lost strikeouts are going to become walks. Since we only have 171 MLB innings to evaluate, that means regressing his walk rate closer to league average, which ends up just below his career mark.

GB%/LD%/FB%: 38.5% / 21.5% / 40.0%

This essentially matches his career average distribution, with a slightly higher tilt toward fly balls since that’s what he showed most recently in 2020. In the minors, he has posted a FB% above 40% at half his stops, while the other marks were between 38.3% and 39.3%, so it’s pretty clear that he’s a more fly ball heavy pitcher compared with the rest of the league. Even a change in pitch mix in 2020 barely changed his distribution.

HR/FB%: 14.5%

Progressive Field is slightly favorable for home runs, while American League starting pitchers have allowed a HR/FB rate of 15.8% and 15.5% in 2020 and 2019, respectively. However, there’s a meaningful negative correlation between FB% and HR/FB rate, whereby the pitchers allowing the highest fly ball rates have posted lower HR/FB rates, and vice versa. So Plesac is projected to continue allowing a slightly lower than league average mark. Note that I haven’t made any adjustments related to the new ball as the effects are all guesses right now, and it could affect each player differently, which is near impossible to predict.

BABIP: .285

Over two partial seasons, Plesac has been a beast at limiting hits on balls in play. His career BABIP now stands at just .246, which is a level that’s mighty difficult to sustain. Does he perhaps own a BABIP suppressing skill? Sure, anything is possible, but it takes a loooooong time, 2,000 balls in play to be exact, for the metric to stablize. Right now, he’s only at 459, which is less than a quarter of the way to stabilization.

Has he even been deserving of a .246 BABIP to begin with, ignoring whether or not the skills driving the low BABIP are repeatable? Statcast screams NO! His xBABIP over his first two seasons are far above his actual marks and his career xBABIP stands at .312, versus his actual .246. That’s an enormous difference. In just 171 innings and 459 balls in play, BABIP could oftentimes bounce around to places never dreamed of, thanks to randomness and luck, good or bad.

That said, I don’t want to blindly just regress his BABIP all the way to league average, which has ranged from .288 in 2020 to as high as .300 over the past five seasons. As a mild fly ball pitcher, he should allow a lower BABIP since flies fall for hits far less often than grounders. In addition, he has posted strong BABIP marks in the minors as well. So put it all together, and you get a slightly better than league average forecast.

Below is my final projected pitching line, along with the other systems for comparison:

Zach Plesac 2021 Projections
Pod 168 11 3.91 1.20 168 9.0 2.5 1.47 24.2% 6.7% 21.5% 38.5% 40.0% 0.285
THE BAT 150 9 4.07 1.21 140 8.4 2.6 1.38 0.289
ATC 165 10 4.15 1.21 156 8.5 2.2 1.46 0.298
FGDC 150 9 4.61 1.31 133 8.0 2.7 1.54 0.303
Steamer 158 9 4.72 1.33 140 8.0 2.6 1.68 20.5% 6.8% 20.6% 41.0% 38.4% 0.292
ZiPS 148.7 9 4.48 1.28 132 8.0 2.7 1.39 0.302

Initially as I was perusing NFBC ADP to decide which starting pitcher to discuss, I considered Plesac. I checked my projection, saw the 3.91 ERA, and figured I was more bearish than every other system and you would all criticize my forecast for being too negative. I was almost going to find another pitcher, but decided to look at the other projections first before moving on. To my utter shock, not only was I not more bearish, I was actually a Plesac uber-bull and had no idea!

The Pod optimism appears to stem from two metrics — strikeout rate and BABIP. Since I’m the only manual projection system of the bunch, I have the luxury of reviewing a pitcher’s repertoire and changes to it, which might explain performance variance from one season to the next. While I can’t be 100% sure that this is the case, I don’t believe any of the other systems are aware of Plesac’s pitch mix change, which clearly was the biggest driver of his strikeout rate spike. I know at the very least, Steamer uses fastball velocity, and since that declined a bit, Steamer is actually projecting his strikeout rate (K%, not K/9) to drop from his career average. The projection systems are weighing his 2019 MLB and minor league strikeout rate marks far more heavily than I am and so I end up the high projector on the totem pole.

I’m not sure exactly how the other systems project BABIP. Is it simply a weighting of previous season BABIPs with some age-adjustment factor? Or are batted ball type distributions (GB%, FB%, etc) and/or Statcast data incorporated? Whatever the case, only Derek Carty’s THE BAT and my projection calls for a sub-.290 BABIP, while ZiPS is above .300. We’re actually all over the map here, which makes sense as the systems try to deal with a young pitcher who has posted an insanely low BABIP over his first 171 innings.

So is Plesac properly valued at his 74.73 ADP, as the 26th starting pitcher off the board in NFBC leagues? Amazingly, my LABR values rank him 25th among starting pitchers, so it appears the market is right on board with my projection. Buyers at this price need to hope he comes close to my forecast, as opposed to the ugly Steamer and ZiPS lines, or that will be quite the waste of a top five round pick!

Mike Podhorzer is the 2015 Fantasy Sports Writers Association Baseball Writer of the Year. He produces player projections using his own forecasting system and is the author of the eBook Projecting X 2.0: How to Forecast Baseball Player Performance, which teaches you how to project players yourself. His projections helped him win the inaugural 2013 Tout Wars mixed draft league. Follow Mike on Twitter @MikePodhorzer and contact him via email.

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3 years ago

You should include the Nick Pollack Pitcherlist projections as another manual projection