Over at the fantasy blog, they’ll be publishing their annual bold predictions soon. Those posts, as usual, will cater to the roto side of things. They’re fun to write. And, even though I’m no longer editing RotoGraphs anymore, I’d like to continue the tradition. So I’ve decided to do a version that’s aimed more at the real game.
Let’s stretch our imagination and make some predictions that are a little bit sane (they should be rooted in reality to some extent), but also a little bit insane (since the insane happens in baseball every year anyway). Back when I did this for fantasy, I hit 3-for-10 most years. Doubt I do it again, for some reason.
What follows are my 10 bold predictions for 2017.
1. Dylan Bundy will be the ace he was always supposed to be.
Once picked fourth overall and pegged as the future ace of the Orioles, Bundy had a terrible time in the minor leagues. Over five years, he managed only 111 innings between injuries. There was Tommy John, of course, but lat strains, shoulder-calcification issues and between-start bouts of elbow soreness have dogged him throughout, as well. At least he was good while he was in, with an ERA in the low twos and great rates to support those results.
The other benefit was that he learned a lot while he was struggling. He learned that he shouldn’t cock his wrist behind him when he brought up the ball, and improved his arm path as a result. He ditched the cutter and learned a changeup that’s above average in terms of movement, velocity differential, and results. He learned to throw his high-spin four-seamer high in the zone.
Last year, Bundy was already pretty good, with an above-average strikeout minus walk rate (K-BB%) and a swinging-strike rate that would have placed in the top 20 among starters had he qualified. The problem last year was that he fell apart the third time through the order, probably due to stamina issues in a season that saw him surpass 100 innings for the first time since 2012.
A few more innings, better results the third time through the order, that changeup and high riding fastball, and maybe even the cutter coming back this year — that’s a recipe to leap to the top of a bottom-third starting rotation at least. Which, given his story, would be triumphant.
2. The Rockies will finally have the pitching to make the postseason.
At the top of the rotation, the Rockies may have one of their best pitchers ever this year. Jon Gray was already pretty good (15th in K-BB% last year), and then he learned how to throw his slider two ways, and then he started throwing the curveball more, and now he has a new changeup grip. He’s exciting as a young ace with velocity, an elite slider, and the makeup to continue striving for a better, more complete arsenal.
But this is more about the lesser-known names behind Gray. Tyler Anderson doesn’t have a ton of pitches, but his cutter/four-seam/change combo has proven itself to be major-league worthy at least. Chad Bettis only has average velocity, but his four-pitch combo has kept hitters off balance enough to call him a viable starter, as well. Tyler Chatwood may only have the two fastballs and a slider, but he throws the curve sometimes, and his sinker is all world. All three are adept at getting ground balls, and the rotation just put up their second-best rate since they started tracking that number.
Even better is the fact that they’ve finally put together a decent group beyond that top four. Jeff Hoffman and German Marquez were just ranked the third- and fourth-best prospects in the organization and given 55 future-value ratings by Eric Longenhagen, suggesting they could become above-average regulars. Both pitched in the major last year and are joined by erstwhile Denver starters Chris Rusin and Jordan Lyles. All in all, the group looks like the sixth-best in the league for depth.
Oh, and they’ll all play up just a little because the Rockies could have the best pitch-framing catcher tandem in their history.
3. Carlos Correa will be the best shortstop in baseball.
Last year, Correa was the fifth-best shortstop in baseball judged by wins above replacement. He hit a decent but not spectacular .274/.361/.451 with decent but not spectacular defense (-3 UZR and DRS) and came in behind Corey Seager, Manny Machado, Francisco Lindor, and Brandon Crawford. Let’s boost the 22-year-old Astro above those guys this year, can we?
For one, Machado may not play a ton of shortstop this year, not if J.J. Hardy is healthy. Let’s say he plays at least three-quarters of his games at third, which would make him an awkward pick as a better shortstop than Correa. Crawford was just ahead of Correa and is headed into his first season after turning 30. Not too tough to push Correa up to third just by repeating his season.
But there’s the fact that he’s so young. By any measure, he’s pre-peak by a year or two at least. Also, he underperformed his batted balls as predicted by his launch angle and exit velocity. Andrew Perpetua has designed xStats, or expected numbers based on batted-ball aspects, and Correa “should have” hit .291/.375/.497. Then add in the fact that Correa played through injury and that playing through injury has been shown to depress projections too much, and you’ve got a guy with all the tools, an established baseline, and a chance at a healthy season. All he’ll need to be number one is a little luck on the defensive side.
4. Jharel Cotton will win the AL’s Rookie of the Year award.
Not everyone loved Cotton on the way up. John Sickels had him eleventh on the Dodgers last year, Baseball Prospectus tenth, and Baseball America ninth. Most had then and now teammate Grant Holmes above him. But I’m excited about Cotton on a front of the rotation level.
Some felt that Cotton didn’t have swing-and-miss stuff. His 12.5% swinging-strike rate last year — amassed over 441 pitches — would have placed among top 10 if he qualified. His minor-league strikeout rates have been fantastic for a while now. Some felt he didn’t have the velocity. He averaged 92.2 mph on the fastball last year, almost exactly average for a right-handed starter. Some felt he didn’t have enough pitches. Last year, Cotton was 12th in Arsenal Score, a stat created by Alex Chamberlain to measure each pitcher by the outcomes on their individual pitches. The cutter seems legit, as hard as cutters are to study this way.
It always takes some luck to win an individual award like this, but Cotton is in a great place for that sort of thing. If he’s had trouble with anything, it’s been balls in play, and his home stadium is so cold that it will help him in that respect. He threw 165 innings last year, so there’s not going to be a big innings restriction on him. And he’ll start with a changeup that has the biggest velocity differential among starters, just ahead of Scott Kazmir. That’s a good place to start.
5. The Red Sox will have the best record in baseball.
They’re projected to be the third-best team in the sport, and there’s little disagreement between the projection systems on our site about the Sawx, so maybe this isn’t very bold. But I’ll take the under on the Cubs averaging 189 innings from their top five starters next year, which will test their non-elite starting-pitching depth. The Red Sox didn’t look to have better depth, but they added a young Chris Sale, and only averaged 167 innings from their starter, so I’m betting on some luck there.
Also, the Cubs just put in one of the better defensive years we’ve seen, and were number one last year in defensive value. Even though they have a young core, more Kyle Schwarber in left field, Willson Contreras behind the plate, Jon Jay in center, and an older Ben Zobrist provide a few places they could decline. On the other hand, the Red Sox defense fits the bill when it comes to other great two-year defensive turnarounds in history, and the projections may be missing some glove growth from youngsters like Xander Bogaerts and Andrew Benintendi.
6. Kendrys Morales will set a career high in home runs.
Poor Morales. Not only did he suffer a major injury in the middle of his career doing something that every player successfully does without injuring themselves, but he’s never called a hitter’s park home. At least when it comes to home runs, his home parks have averaged 5% worse than league average. He’s going to one that will average 6% more than league average in that regard. Oh, and with $33 million over the next three years. Not so poor Morales.
There’s also the fact that he wasn’t that bad last year. He hit .263/.327/.468 with 30 home runs in today’s juiced-ball era, and his launch angle and exit velocity suggest he could have hit .285/.343/.532 instead. Even at 33, he’s probably still good enough to get up there and try to wallop the ball four times a game. He only has to hit five more homers this year than last year to make this prediction true, too.
7. The Tigers will make the playoffs.
Right now, the Tigers are projected to be a .500 team and end up out of the playoffs. The Blue Jays are projected into the first Wild Card slot, and then there are three teams — the Angels, Mariners, and Rangers — tied for the second spot. Then come the Rays. Then come the Tigers. So it’s bold enough to say they’ll be better than four teams that are projected to beat them, I guess.
My reasoning for this is probably specious, but it’s interesting to note that even the projections disagree about the Tigers in a big way, which means that they may be more volatile than the average team. That’s fine, I understand this is just a narrative string on which I’m pulling. But the Tigers have had trouble with bullpens and starting-pitching depth in the past, and I think they’ll be better in those two places this year.
They’re projected to have about the seventh-best starting pitching depth in the big leagues this coming year. Mike Pelfrey, Anibal Sanchez, and Shane Greene are actually a decent trio when you’ve got them slotted in after your front five. And, given his new changeup, I like Michael Fulmer to repeat. Given his new slider and healthy-looking approach, I like Daniel Norris to break out. That’s three really good starters, two question marks, and some depth — I’d take that if I were the Tigers, with their offense.
As for the bullpen? They’re not projected to be good, but Francisco Rodriguez has been doing this for so long, it feels like he can do it forever. Justin Wilson was a huge pickup. Mark Lowe needs to get healthy, but even if he doesn’t, Bruce Rondon finally showed what he can do and earned some trust back last year. That bunch could surprise — and if they’re in it, this team will trade for a reliever.
8. A ton of pitchers will be traded at the deadline.
Last year, the trade deadline featured Rich Hill, Francisco Liriano, Matt Moore, Wade Miley, Drew Pomeranz and Ivan Nova. That’s a decent amount. But it came ahead of a terrible crop of free-agent pitchers this past offseason. Given that two of the six who were traded were prospective free agents (and two more were a year away), and teams are reluctant to give up cost-controlled assets these days, those facts seem interrelated.
We’re about to see a strong free-agent class after this upcoming season, headlined by Jake Arrieta, Yu Darvish, and Michael Pineda. If you don’t think those three teams will be in the position to sell, consider the depth starters who will be free agents at year’s close: Tyler Chatwood, Alex Cobb, Jaime Garcia, Jeremy Hellickson, John Lackey, Francisco Liriano, Lance Lynn, Chris Tillman, and the entire Padres rotation. There’s more, even. And that list? That list has teams on it that will be willing to trade away their expiring asset.
9. The Reds will find their ace in Brandon Finnegan.
You have to call this bold because the Reds have had real trouble in this regard. Tony Cingrani, Raisel Iglesias, Michael Lorenzen, and Robert Stephenson have all recently come up short on expectations, for one reason or the other. Cody Reed is having trouble despite fantastic stuff.
Maybe it’ll just take time for them to find some more, but in the meantime, their ace is going to be Brandon Finnegan. With an ERA near four last year and a projection for worse coming, most would probably still pick the high-floor Anthony DeSclafani and be done with it.
Here’s why Finnegan is worth swinging for the fences, though. His above-average velocity four-seamer (for a lefty) has good ride (+2/3 inch) that sets up everything else. His slider has always been his best pitch, and gets good results. And, after learning a new grip from Dan Straily, Finnegan’s changeup was the most improved change of the second half. That change helped his four-seamer gain a ton of whiffs, too, so Finnegan could find himself fiddling with that fastball mix and getting even more out of his stuff than he did when he finished the season white-hot and left the league in his wake.
10. We’ll see a record number of breaking balls, higher launch angle.
We’ve only had two years of Statcast data in the public, but between the two years, the average launch angle went up a tad. Due to (perhaps) coaching, hitters aired the ball out more if you look at individuals, or at the league as a whole, as Bill Petti did on my request:
On the other side of the ball, we saw a record number of breaking balls last season. It was fairly obvious in the postseason, but it had been happening all year.
These facts are intertwined. You want to match the plane of the incoming ball, and if the ball coming in is a breaking ball, you’ll want a steeper angle with your bat. That’s something we’ve heard from Josh Donaldson and Adrian Beltre at least. And it’s something we’ll hear more, as teams shrug off the injury risk associated with breaking balls because most of the research is cloudy and some of it suggests that it’s fastballs that may be riskier. As hitters attempt to hit more homers, they’ll try to match the plane of those incoming breaking balls.
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