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2021 Bill James Handbook Cubs projections

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You’re not going to like these projections — but you will like the book!

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The Bill James Handbook for 2021 is filled with the statistics you need to get you through the winter — all the numbers for the current players, plus leaders in both traditional and “Bill James” categories in both leagues.

James also has several essays in this year’s book on the Hall of Fame, in particular asking the question: “Will the team you root for have an eventual Hall of Famer on their roster in 2021?” It might not seem so, but James writes, “It is extremely likely — at least 3-to-1 likely, probably 4-to-1 likely — that the answer to that question is ‘Yes’.” He says “73 percent of all teams do,” and explains this might not be a Hall of Famer “in his prime, not even necessarily a player who is there the whole season.”

It’s an interesting analysis and especially cogent if you recall that the 1966 Cubs, who lost 103 games, had no fewer than five Hall of Famers on the roster at one time or another — Fergie Jenkins, Ernie Banks, Ron Santo, Billy Williams and Robin Roberts. The latter, who was mostly known for a long, successful career with the Phillies, wrapped his career with 11 appearances (nine starts) for that awful ‘66 team, and they were mostly forgettable (6.14 ERA). I have a vague memory of watching him pitch on TV a time or two and Jack Brickhouse waxing positive about how great Roberts was — or had been, anyway, 15 years earlier.

The essays in this book are always interesting and worth reading — this year they also have “In Memoriam” articles for Bob Gibson, Tom Seaver, Lou Brock, Whitey Ford and Al Kaline, Hall of Famers who passed away in 2020.

James begins his essay on projections by acknowledging that the pandemic-shortened 2020 season “wrecked” all the projections for this year, save a couple they got right by accident. James continues:

We not only had a lot of bad projections last year [meaning 2020], but we’ll probably have a lot of bad projections for 2021, also — even assuming that a full slate of games is played. Minor leagues not playing in 2020, a certain number of players sitting out the 2020 season, projecting changes in player skills based on smaller sample sizes; it has to affect the accuracy of our projections for the 2021 season.

He also notes:

It is my opinion ... which I have not validated by research ... but it is my opinion that when there is a major interruption in the schedule, it is often related to a substantial changing of the guard in major league talent. In other words 1981 was a major schedule interruption. I think if you compare 1980 and 1982, compare the lists of dominant players, you would find a somewhat larger-than-normal transition. I don’t know if that is true or not.

I haven’t done any research in this area either (though it might be fun!), but it’s my feeling that’s also true. How many games did you watch in 2020 when you thought, “Who the heck is that guy?” It seemed as if many teams were sending out parades of rookie pitchers, somewhat less so position players. Per baseball-reference, 212 players made their MLB debut in 2020, whereas in 2019, 261 players played in MLB for the first time in a much longer season. It’s quite possible that many of the 212 debut players will be the stars of 2021 and beyond.

To go back to the 1981 strike year, 145 players debuted in 1980 and 146 in 1981, a season one-third shorter. Quite a few star players made their debuts in 1981, including Cal Ripken Jr., Ryne Sandberg, Brett Butler, Gary Gaetti and Kent Hrbek, names that would dominate the 1980s. So anecdotally at least, James might be right.

But what you’re here for is Cubs projections, so without further ado, here they are.

2021 Bill James Handbook Cubs hitter projections

Player G AB R H 2B 3B HR RBI SB CS BA OBP SLG OPS
Player G AB R H 2B 3B HR RBI SB CS BA OBP SLG OPS
Albert Almora Jr. 115 287 36 74 14 1 6 28 1 1 .258 .299 .376 .675
Javier Baez 151 571 85 146 33 4 28 88 11 4 .256 .299 .475 .774
David Bote 120 314 40 75 14 1 13 48 4 2 .239 .331 .414 .745
Kris Bryant 141 529 94 139 32 3 26 76 3 2 .263 .366 .482 .850
Victor Caratini 114 320 36 84 17 1 8 41 1 1 .263 .341 .397 .738
Willson Contreras 139 493 69 126 27 2 20 72 2 2 .256 .348 .440 .788
Ian Happ 132 438 64 114 26 2 24 64 5 3 .260 .356 .493 .849
Jason Heyward 146 499 71 126 24 4 14 60 5 2 .253 .341 .401 .742
Nico Hoerner 134 456 69 119 25 3 6 54 9 3 .261 .329 .368 .697
Cameron Maybin 100 269 37 67 14 1 6 28 9 3 .249 .329 .375 .704
Anthony Rizzo 154 543 83 151 31 2 27 94 6 3 .278 .388 .492 .880
Kyle Schwarber 137 416 65 97 19 1 26 64 2 1 .233 .341 .471 .812

Well. These numbers are not encouraging. They continue to show low batting averages, though some players have good OBPs. James does call for a rebound to near-”normal” levels for Kris Bryant and Anthony Rizzo and another solid year from Ian Happ. I would have included Billy Hamilton in this, just for grins, but the James book did not include him in their projections.

Here are the pitchers:

2021 Bill James Handbook Cubs pitcher projections

Pitcher G GS IP H HR BB SO W L SV ERA
Pitcher G GS IP H HR BB SO W L SV ERA
Jason Adam 36 0 38 28 5 20 48 2 2 0 3.76
Adbert Alzolay 21 21 111 97 14 58 134 7 6 0 4.06
Tyler Chatwood 14 14 72 67 8 45 69 4 4 0 4.76
Yu Darvish 32 32 189 160 28 55 226 12 9 0 3.63
Kyle Hendricks 32 32 194 188 24 37 155 12 10 0 3.93
Craig Kimbrel 57 0 56 35 8 28 90 4 2 8 3.28
Jon Lester 32 32 181 204 28 58 148 9 11 0 4.77
Alec Mills 30 30 157 166 24 52 133 8 9 0 4.59
Kyle Ryan 58 0 52 53 8 25 44 2 3 0 4.94
Ryan Tepera 45 0 46 38 6 21 52 3 2 0 3.97
Duane Underwood Jr. 45 0 47 51 6 20 48 2 3 0 4.60
Rowan Wick 51 0 50 42 4 22 55 3 2 0 3.70
Dan Winkler 37 0 39 33 5 21 39 2 2 0 4.28

Yikes, that looks bad. I included Tyler Chatwood and Jon Lester just for reference, and I would have included Jose Quintana, but again, the book did not list a projection for him.

Honestly, I think James’ method for Yu Darvish and Kyle Hendricks way overstates their ERAs. Darvish has had an ERA in the low 2’s since the middle of 2019 — so why is it almost 3.50 here? Hendricks has a 3.12 career ERA and was at 2.88 in the shortened 60-game season — why is his almost 4.00?

The number of saves for Craig Kimbrel above is not a misprint. The book indeed has him with just eight, largely because his 2019 season was shortened (13 saves) and he had just two in 2020. He threw just 36 innings combined in 2019-20 after having thrown at least 59 for each of the eight seasons previous to ‘19. However, the 3.28 ERA doesn’t really match what he’s posted with the Cubs the last two years (6.00). James has, in the past, noted that there are some issues with pitcher projections that he hasn’t been able to tweak well enough, and you see some of that here.

That said, the Cubs clearly need some pitching help. There’s no one dominant in that bullpen, and also I would have included Brailyn Marquez, but the book did not list a projection for him.

Anyway, a lot of that is just for fun and to start discussions, which I hope you will have here. The book is always worth picking up, just to keep you in baseball-reading shape over the winter. You can order one here.