Zuckerman recently had a couple columns where he looked at player projections and the comments showed that people still don't quite understand how these things work.
The whole point of these fancy (and less fancy in the case of Marcel) projections is that they do a better job OVERALL than just some schlub guessing at the MLB next year. That's pretty much a given at this point. But we're talking projecting out hundreds of players and looking how far off you were on all combined. It does not mean they get every single person right or even close. It can never be that.
In some very specific areas it'll fall short. It can't predict break out seasons or surprise failures. It's not all that great projecting rookies. And coming back from injury is also a difficult and obviously an injury mid-season can't be predicted.
The latter two have a ton of variability. The first one literally comes out of nowhere. How can you project something that has no backing? "Oh I felt it coming" maybe, but like astrologers, you tend to remember the one feeling you got right and dismiss the 10 you didn't. Thing is, ask any of the people who do these projections and they'll admit this. They know the areas where they can't do a good job. All they are saying is that they do a better job projecting across the league than a person's guess.
For fun I took a look at the projections from 2012 to see how they compared to the results and see if anything can be learned.
SS Ian Desmond .292 / .335 / .511 .362 OBA
James - .268/.317/.394
ZiPS - .256 / .304 / .378
Marcel - .303 OBA
Comments - Break-out season. NO ONE saw it coming. If you say you did you are either probably lying or you've been saying "Ian will break out this year" every year for the last three and finally got it right.
2B Danny Espinosa .247 / .315 / .402 .313
James - .248/.329/.445
ZiPS - .229 / .309 / .400
Marcel - .329
Comments - A mixed bag, Zips underestimated the average, James overestimated the power, but combine them all and they pretty much have it right.
3B Ryan Zimmerman .282 / .346 / .478 .352
James - .291/.363/.486
ZiPS - .283 / .354 / .476
Comments - Zimmerman is who he is and everyone knows it. Interesting to note his OBP was lower in real life than across the board.
LF Michael Morse .291 / .321 / .470 .340
ZiPS - .273 / .331 / .475
Marcel - .363
Comments - The only one who really underperformed compared to projections. His power was well down but as we know it was injury based.
1B Adam LaRoche .271 / .343 / .510 .361
ZiPS - .238 / .317 / .405
Marcel - .317
Comments - WAY overperformed but how can you be surprised. When LaRoche last played he was injured and TERRIBLE. No one thought he'd come back with close to his best year ever. I mean he hadn't hit with this power since 2006. That doesn't usually happen.
RF Jayson Werth .300 / .387 / .440 .362
ZiPS - .245 / .342 / .418
Marcel - .341
Comments - again an injury situation and again you can't blame the predictions. a 33 year old coming off an injury riddled year where he hit terribly wouldn't normally bounce all the way back. Werth did. But in an interesting way. It was ALL average-based. Usually its power that stays as you age and that's what the projections reflect.
C Wilson Ramos .265 / .354 / .398 .326
ZiPS - .266 / .338 / .453
Marcel - .333
Comments - given injury and limited at bats it's hard to say these were off in any significant way. Looks like Ramos was getting on base more but hitting for less power than projected.
CF Roger Bernadina .291 / .372 / .405 .341
ZiPS - .240 / .302 / .374
Marcel - .303 OBA
Comments - another breakout-esque year.
Stephen Strasburg 159 IP, 3.16 ERA
James -76, 2.78
ZiPS - 76, 2.85
Marcel -79, 3.02
Comments - big flaw in projections is IP in Tommy John comebacks. There aren't many and the IP varies wildly so you kind of have to ignore that. Otherwise not terribly off in my opinion.
Gio Gonzalez 199, 2.89
James -209, 3.89
ZiPS - 195, 3.55
Marcel -180, 3.60
Comments - break out year. If you weren't KC in my comments you didn't see accross the board improvement coming.
Jordan Zimmermann 195, 2.94
James -175, 3.46
ZiPS - 121, 3.65
Marcel -144, 3.56
Comments - here the one I think you want to fault projections the most. They default to regression (you'll do the same as you did before) over progression (you are learning and improving) The numbers ZNN put up in 2009 and 2010 were pretty bad. High 4.00s ERA. Now if it was just an average it would have been probably closer to 4.00 ERA in projections, but they do weight the most recent year heavier and factor in that at his age he could be peaking. Even then though you see it couldn't reach 2011. I think most Nats fans, while maybe not putting ZNN under 3.00, would have pegged him for a repeat performance (around 3.20 -a and yes I know the faults with ERA just bear with it for this exercise).
Edwin Jackson 189, 4.03
James -206, 3.98
ZiPS - 200, 3.79
Marcel - 180, 3.95
Comments - pretty close I think. Zips maybe liked him too much.
So what did we learn? The things where projections were way off were where we know they can fail, either surprise break-outs (Desmond, Bernie, Gonzo), injury comebacks (Werth, Laroche), or young players (ZNN). I think we have to ignore the first two and hope the Nats get what they want, a breakout from Danny and Ramos all the way back from injury. (Of course they are projecting Ramos all the way back so the surprise there is likely an underperformance) Are there any young players where the projections by design, might be selling short?
Yes. Desmond and Bryce. I'm kind of inclined to agree with the Desmond projections of a slight regression. Unlike ZNN he didn't have a couple partial seasons behind him. Ian's played a lot. But if you want to give him numbers close to last year, I think you can justify it. As for Bryce I'm pretty sure if you ask any of the projection people they would say Bryce will out do what they put out there (Then why put it out there? It's about sticking with a system. The minute you put feeling in there, no matter how strong, you start to add a lot of bias to the system. So you take your lumps on guys like Bryce that you are 95% sure are going to do better than what your system says). Everyone else stick with what they project.
Pitching wise Detwiler is the place to go for another ZNN performance. But understand that's a lot less likely for Ross than it was for ZNN. Det's 2012 was not as good as ZNNs 2011, and his starter ERA was actually close to 3.60. If he's truly learning he may only repeat that or beat it by a little. Going under 3.40 just doesn't seem likely to me. Ignore the IP with Strasburg and ZNN and put in what you think. With ZNN, given a full 2 seasons now in the books, his projections should be more spot on (if they look high it's because he got lucky a bit last year - we can get into that if you want). Haren is a total wild card.
I'm not sure were the projections will be wildly underestimating the Nats this year other than Bryce. They don't have guys coming back from terrible injury plagued seasons, there's only a handful of players that are young enough or haven't played enough to break out (Danny... Span, maybe) and you can't just say that'll happen. I guess they could be selling both Detwiler and Desmond a little short like they did ZNN in 2012, but there was better reasons for ZNN to repeat his performance than Detwiler or Desmond. Mostly I think these projections are going to work out to be pretty accurate.
But that's ok. You still have a pitching staff where your Top 3 guys are at least in the Top 15 in the NL. You still have an offense with no holes 1-7. It's still a division winning team they are projecting.