J-Rod's eye-popping projections for 2023

January 6th, 2023

How good do you think can be? And how fast can he get there?

If you answered "an MVP front-runner" and "right now," well, you agree with one of baseball's biggest projection models: Steamer.

The Steamer projections for 2023, which are available on FanGraphs here, see the 22-year-old Rodríguez as a top-three player overall in MLB next season. That's eye-opening.

The Mariners phenom is projected for 5.9 wins above replacement, which would make him the third-most valuable player in baseball, behind only the perennially great Juan Soto (projected 7.1 WAR) and Aaron Judge (6.9) on the heels of his historic 62-home-run season.

Steamer has Rodríguez finishing 2023 with 32 home runs and 25 stolen bases, making him one of four players projected for a 25-25 season along with Ronald Acuña Jr., Bobby Witt Jr. and Jazz Chisholm Jr. He's projected to be a top-10 hitter in the Majors with a 142 wRC+, and coupled with his baserunning ability and strong defense in center field, that vaults Rodríguez into "potential MVP" territory.

J-Rod is projected to be better than Mike Trout (5.6 WAR). He's projected to be better than Acuña (5.4) and Vladimir Guerrero Jr. (5.4). He's projected to be better than the players getting megadeals this offseason, like Carlos Correa (5.7), Trea Turner (4.7), Xander Bogaerts (4.5) and Rafael Devers (4.5).

Even for a reigning Rookie of the Year and budding young superstar, this kind of projection is rare. Rodríguez is an electric talent, surely, but he's played only one season in the big leagues, 132 games total.

Soto, for example, who now tops the projection charts as one of the best hitters of his generation, wasn't even among the top 20 player projections coming off his rookie season in 2018. Though he was the NL Rookie of the Year runner-up and posted a .292/.406/.517 slash line as a 19-year-old, Soto was projected for 4.3 WAR in 2019, tied for 21st in preseason projections. Acuña, who won the NL Rookie of the Year Award over Soto as a 20-year-old, was projected for 3.4 WAR, outside the top 25.

Or take Judge, who hit a rookie-record 52 home runs as a 25-year-old in 2017. He was projected at 3.9 WAR going into 2018, tied for 23rd. Cody Bellinger, who hit 39 home runs opposite Judge as a 21-year-old rookie in the NL, was projected for 2.5 WAR in '18.

In other words, even other immediate game-changer rookie outfielders don't always get the shine that Rodríguez is getting in the projections as a sophomore.

There are really only a few recent examples of young phenoms getting an MVP-level projection from Steamer going from Year 1 to Year 2.

A 21-year-old Wander Franco was projected to be a top-10 player in baseball in 2022 after his rookie season in '21. So was a 23-year-old Corey Seager in 2017 after his NL Rookie of the Year Award-winning 2016 season. Kris Bryant was projected to be a top-five player overall at age 24 in 2016 after winning the NL Rookie of the Year Award in '15 … before he exceeded even those projections by winning the NL MVP that year.

Rodríguez could absolutely follow Bryant's path to MVP candidacy in his second season. J-Rod is an even more dynamic all-around talent.

  • He ranked among the top 5% of Major Leaguers in with a 50.7% hard-hit rate and in the top 10% of Major Leaguers with a 13.1% barrel rate (how often he squared balls up with an ideal combination of exit velocity and launch angle), and he was also one of only 10 players to hit a homer 117 mph or harder. That backs up the home run and overall offensive projections.
  • He was one of the fastest players in baseball, ranking in the top 2% of the league with a 29.8 ft/sec average sprint speed (30-plus is elite). That backs up the stolen base projection.
  • He ranked fourth among center fielders with +9 outs above average and was one of only six outfielders to make four or more 5-star catches -- plays with a catch probability of 25% or lower. That backs up the defensive side of his projections.

Player projections are often conservative. Rodríguez's could be, too, in the sense that he could easily explode past being a 6 WAR player and into MVP territory. But they're anything but conservative when it comes to the echelon of stars Steamer is putting J-Rod in … and it's no accident that he's there.