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Toolshed: Prospects who beat projections

Seager, Sanchez, Fulmer among rookies exceeding MLB expectations
September 28, 2016

Last offseason, we wrote a series of columns using FanGraphs' Steamer600 projections to look at how prospects would fare over a full season in the Majors, if given the chance. These projections used factors such as age, performance and level of competition, among others, to determine the numbers a position player would put up over 600 plate appearances, a catcher over 450 plate appearances, a starting pitcher over 200 innings and a reliever over 65 innings. 

Well, if we're going to discuss them them before the season, it's only right to look at how they held up as the season comes to close. 

With a few exceptions, the players discussed here didn't play a full season in the Majors in 2016 but do have a healthy enough sample size to draw some conclusions. Because of this, we've based most of our analysis on rate stats such as ERA, slash-line numbers and K/9 rather than counting stats like homers, wins or steals. We start with those who performed better than Steamer expected, and we'll get to those rookies who met or fell below projections later in the week. (Note: WAR stats are from FanGraphs.)

Corey Seager: We open with the Majors' best rookie and one of the few players here who exceeded the allotted plate appearances in the projections. Steamer believed the 22-year-old, who hit .293 with an .894 OPS at two levels in 2015, could be a solid young shortstop with a .265/.315/.423 line, 17 homers and a 2.9 WAR, if given the chance to play a full season. Nothing overly flashy, but certainly impressive for a rookie his age. Instead, Seager has blown that out of the water, hitting .312/.370/.520 with 26 homers. His 7.6 WAR is tied for third with Mookie Betts among all position players, behind only Mike Trout (9.2) and Kris Bryant (8.4). Seager was considered the best prospect in the game at the start of the season, and he's already met his potential.

Gary Sanchez: It shouldn't be a surprise that the slugger who has tied the Major League record as the quickest to 20 homers (at 51 games) would beat preseason projections. That said, we and Steamer were quite high on Sanchez entering the year. The 23-year-old backstop was coming off a season in which he had slashed .274/.330/.485 with 18 homers in 93 games at Triple-A and Double-A and, though it may not have figured into the projections, had a stellar campaign in the Arizona Fall League. Steamer pitted Sanchez to be the Yanks' most impactful rookie with a projected .249/.299/.427 line, 96 wRC+, 17 homers and 2.5 WAR over 450 plate appearances. Of course, he's demolished that with a .316/.390/.701 line, 185 wRC+, 20 homers and 3.2 WAR in just 213 plate appearances. Sanchez always had above-average power, and many expected him to be a 20-homer player at some point. But this has been a case of a slugger forcing us to rethink just how high his ceiling could be. (Of course, no one is saying Sanchez will be the next Mike Trout, but a future with multiple All-Star appearances and Silver Slugger awards look much more of a possibility than it did a mere two months ago.) Despite only getting called up Aug. 3, Sanchez has a very real case for American League Rookie of the Year with his only major competition being ... 

Michael Fulmer: Acquired from the Mets at least year's deadline for Yoenis Cespedes, Fulmer entered his first season with the Tigers as the potential shining star in an otherwise weak system. The 6-foot-3 right-hander was the Eastern League Pitcher of the Year in 2015, thanks to a 2.14 ERA and 116 strikeouts in 117 2/3 innings at two spots in the circuit. But having yet to play above Double-A, he received an OK projection from Steamer of a 4.30 ERA, 4.33 FIP, 7.0 K/9 and 1.9 WAR over 200 innings. Those would be fine for a back-end starter on a middling team. Houston's Mike Fiers (4.48 ERA, 4.43 FIP, 7.2 K/9, 1.8 WAR over 168 2./3 innings) might be as close as we can get to those actual numbers. Instead, Fulmer proved to be one of Detroit's best starters as they chase a Wild Card spot. He has posted a 2.95 ERA, 3.75 FIP, 7.5 K/9 and 2.9 WAR over 155 2/3 innings following an early-season call-up, making him the second most valuable Tigers pitcher behind only Justin Verlander (4.9 WAR). One way Fulmer has been able to beat the projections is by keeping the ball in the yard. Steamer believed he'd allow 1.1 HR/9, but the actual number has been 0.9. Combine that with a good groundball rate and a .224 average-against, and Fulmer has his own case for some hardware, if he can hold off the charging Sanchez in the final week.

Trevor Story: The Rockies shortstop looked like a National League Rookie of the Year competitor until a torn ligament in his left thumb put him on the shelf in early August. Story hit .272/.341/.567 with 27 homers and eight steals in 97 games before the injury, however, which helped him put together a 2.8 WAR. Despite finishing 185 plate appearances below the 600 mark Steamer used, the 23-year-old still managed to more than double his projected value of 1.3 WAR while hitting more homers (16) and producing a better line (.239/.307/.416). The one area he didn't beat expectations was on the bases. After swiping 22 bags in 2015 and getting a projection of 15 steals from Steamer, Story managed only eight thefts in 13 attempts with the Rockies. 

David Dahl: Staying on the same club, Dahl picked up the baton from Story as the Rockies' next big productive rookie upon making his debut in late July. The 22-year-old outfielder has hit .315/.356/.502 with seven homers and five steals over 216 plate appearances, producing a 1.1 WAR along the way. Steamer wasn't a big believer, however, projecting him at just a .262/.291/.406 line with 14 homers in his 600 plate appearances. Of course, that was when Dahl's freshest stats were a .278/.304/.417 line at Double-A in a 2015 season that was shortened by a ruptured and removed spleen. Dahl showed major improvements at Triple-A and Double-A before getting the call this year, particularly in the power department as he hit a career-best 18 homers in just 92 games. In case you're worried Dahl's numbers are inflated by his home environs in Colorado, consider the fact that Steamer projected his wRC+ (a catch-all stat that factors in hitting environments) to be 71, and his actual wRC+ has been 111.

Trea Turner: We made the case back in January that Turner should be the Nationals' starting shortstop. As it turned out, we were just advocating for the wrong position. The 23-year-old has become Washington's everyday center fielder and part-time fill-in for Daniel Murphy at second base after being promoted for good on July 8 and has also been an offensive force with a better performance at the plate than previously thought possible, at least in the short term. Turner has been worth 3.2 WAR, thanks to a .340/.362/.560 line with 12 homers and 29 stolen bases in 304 plate appearances. That power increase is perhaps the biggest surprise as he hit 19 homers over 1,192 plate appearances in the Minors. Steamer had Turner pegged for 10 long balls over 600 plate appearances at the start of the season to pair with a .282/.325/.398 line that he's cleared quite comfortably.

Alex Bregman: This is perhaps the most cautionary tale about Steamer. Bregman was the lowest projected contributor among top 30 Astros prospects when we laid them out back in early February. His projected .215/.257/.284 line with five homers and 15 steals corresponded with just a 46 wRC+ (where 100 is considered average) and a -1.3 WAR, which would make him well-below replacement level. The reason for the low projection? The 2015 No. 2 overall pick had played only 66 games in the pros, and while he had done well (.294/.366/.415, four homers, 13 steals at Class A and Class A Advanced), he hadn't quite gotten enough time to get a surefire projection nor had he dominated in the way that Steamer would smile upon over such a small sample, especially when you consider half that time was spent in the hitter-friendly California League. Of course, Bregman broke out in a big way, hitting .306/.406/.580 with an astonishing 20 homers over 80 games at Double-A and Triple-A to start 2016 and carried that improved form to the Majors, where (after some initial struggles) he's been worth 1.0 WAR with a .264/.315/.482 line and eight homers in 213 plate appearances. If you're wondering where the projection systems went wrong on a player considered the game's top prospect by the middle of the summer, know that (a) Steamer didn't have to much go off and (b) he hadn't performed at this level anywhere yet.

Others who have beat projections: Andrew Benintendi (Red Sox), Blake Snell (Rays), Alex Reyes (Cardinals), Willson Contreras (Cubs), Max Kepler (Twins), Tyler Naquin (Indians), Robert Gsellman (Mets)

Sam Dykstra is a reporter for Follow and interact with him on Twitter, @SamDykstraMiLB.