Projection systems are, of course, based in large part on past performance, and Trout’s is nearly unparalleled in baseball history. Going back to his American League Rookie of the Year campaign in 2012, Trout’s 75.0 WAR is roughly 50% higher than his closest challenger (Max Scherzer, 50.4).
So Trout is on top, but what else do the projections have to say? While they tend to be conservative by nature, they still have some tantalizing tidbits to share.
Sticking with ZiPS, here are five projections that stand out heading into the 2021 season. (Projections are current as of Friday).
Juan Soto is amazing (and an RBI machine)
ZiPS sees very little difference between Soto’s raw numbers and Trout’s.
Soto: 640 PA, .305/.420/.595 (1.015 OPS), 37 HR, 105 BB
Trout: 593 PA, .283/.420/.600 (1.020 OPS), 39 HR, 104 BB
That slightly undersells Trout’s advantage in park-adjusted wRC+ (164 to 154), but even so, Soto is a clear second in MLB in that category. There shouldn’t be anything controversial about that evaluation, of course. Soto just posted an absurd 201 wRC+ in 2020 -- albeit while playing just 47 games in a shortened season -- and almost nobody in baseball history has hit better through the age of 21. He’s on a Hall of Fame track, and earned a Ted Williams comp for good measure.
And then there’s this: Soto is projected to lead the Majors with a whopping 141 RBIs, or 15 more than free agent Marcell Ozuna and 18 more than the Dodgers’ Cody Bellinger. That’s a gaudy number. No player has cracked 135 RBIs since 2013, and the last players to drive in 141 were Prince Fielder and Ryan Howard in 2009. In what’s certainly a related matter, ZiPS has Nationals leadoff man Trea Turner batting .297/.355/.513, while finishing fourth in the Majors in steals (38) and runs scored (108).
Ronald Acuña Jr. is the HR king
Just 15 players in baseball history have launched more homers through their age-22 season than Acuña (81), who may have jumped into the top three on that list had there been a 162-game schedule in 2020. Acuña already has a 41-homer campaign under his belt (2019), and the sky appears to be the limit.
Given all that, it’s not a shock that ZiPS sees Acuña (43) outdueling fellow National League East slugger Pete Alonso (41) for the Major League home run crown in 2021 -- while also finishing third to Trout and Soto in OPS (.958). But Acuña’s age makes the projection a notable one nonetheless, as leading the Majors in big flies does not tend to be a young man’s game. Not since Juan González in 1992 and ‘93 has a player finished with at least a share of the MLB home run lead in his age-23 season or earlier. In fact, the 28 solo or co-champions since 1994 have had an average age of 29.5, with Alonso (24 in 2019) the youngest.
Lucas Giolito, ace of aces
Following his enormous breakout in 2019, the White Sox right-hander maintained those gains in ‘20, but the best may be yet to come. ZiPS sees Giolito finishing seventh in the Majors in innings (180), tied for first in wins (16), second in strikeouts (248) and second in ERA (3.00). Put it all together, and his 5.8 WAR leads all MLB pitchers, albeit by fairly insignificant decimals over Gerrit Cole, Shane Bieber and Jacob deGrom.
At FanGraphs, ZiPS developer Dan Szymborski dug into why Giolito looks like a leading AL Cy Young Award contender in 2021. Among the reasons: He’s only 26, and ZiPS thinks that his 33.7% strikeout rate in 2020, which already put him among the MLB leaders, should have been even higher.
Don’t worry about Gleyber Torres
All he did in his first two MLB seasons with the Yankees was make two All-Star teams and post a 123 wRC+ while bashing 62 homers as a 21- and 22-year-old middle infielder. In that context, it seems silly to be concerned about a performance dip that came in just 42 games during a shortened season (106 wRC+, three homers), especially since Torres hit a combined .309/.434/.531 in September and in the postseason after returning from a hamstring injury. (As MLB.com’s Mike Petriello noted, Torres’ wRC+ would jump to a more characteristic 128 if you included the playoffs).
ZiPS sees Torres not only recovering, but also enjoying his best season to date, with career highs in OBP (.364), wRC+ (133) and WAR (4.4). That output would tie Torres with fellow shortstop Fernando Tatis Jr. as the 13th-most productive position player in the Majors.
Austin Adams looks like a bullpen sleeper
San Diego’s starting rotation has added Yu Darvish, Blake Snell and Joe Musgrove and now features five of the top 50 projected pitchers (Mike Clevinger would make it six, but he’s out for the year after having Tommy John surgery). A.J. Preller has not been nearly as active in the bullpen, with Kirby Yates leaving for Toronto and Trevor Rosenthal still a free agent. But maybe that’s for a good reason.
Not only does San Diego still have Drew Pomeranz and Emilio Pagán, but Adams looks like a potentially dominant arm. (To be clear, this is Austin L. Adams, the 29-year-old right-handed pitcher who has appeared for the Nationals, Mariners and Padres since 2017, and not Austin D. Adams, the 34-year-old righty who has appeared for Cleveland, the Twins and the Tigers since ‘14). Acquired by San Diego from Seattle in last August’s Austin Nola trade, this Adams barely pitched in the shortened 2020 season, after tearing his ACL in September ‘19. But he flashed big-time promise before that, riding a devastating slider to one of MLB’s top whiff rates and strikeout rates.
ZiPS is quite bullish on Adams for 2021. Although it conservatively projects him for 41 1/3 innings, Adams ranks fifth in K/9 rate (14.4) and 11th in ERA (3.05), despite a lofty BB/9 rate (5.7). Given that he has thrown just 42 big league innings in his career, Adams has a lot to prove, but if healthy he could prove to be a key bullpen piece for one of MLB’s most talented teams.