10 Players I’m Excited to Watch in 2018

As somewhat of an ode to the will-be-missed Mr. Swydan, I want take a page out of Paul’s book to highlight a number of players I’m excited to watch in 2018 (this is part one).

Freddie Freeman

Having fun with some random comparisons, Justin Smoak finished a terrific 2017 with a career-high .371 wOBA (.270/.355/.529).  Freddie Freeman also finished the summer with a .371 wOBA (.291/.378/.513)…after spending six weeks on the DL with a broken wrist.  Before that DL stint, Freeman was arguably the best hitter in baseball, slashing .341/.461/.748 (.485 wOBA) over the first six weeks of the season.  He was essentially unstoppable during that stretch, and at the age of 28, armed with one of the most consistent batted ball profiles in the game and a full season of health (plus 3B eligibility in some leagues), Freeman has all the ingredients for a truly special season in 2018.

Bold predictions are usually published in the midst of spring training, but I’ll let the cat out of the bag early and not only claim Freeman as my 2018 NL MVP, but also go all in on the Atlanta lefty becoming the first 1B since Albert Pujols to reach at least 8.0 WAR (.327/.443/.658 in 2009).

Also, Andrew’s October write up (Freeman vs. Trout) is a must-read.

Joey Gallo

Speaking of big lefty sluggers, it’s hard not to root for Joey Gallo when you see him do things like this. From a fantasy perspective, however, it is hard to swallow a .209 batting average and almost 200 strikeouts (196), and those warts make Gallo one of the more polarizing players inside the baseball community. Thus, it’s impossible to evaluate Gallo without mentioning his extreme risk/reward profile.  But what often gets overlooked is what I like best about Gallo at this point in his brief career: his ability to adjust. For starters, Gallo improved across the board in the 2nd half last year (139 wRC+ vs. 111 wRC+), including an uptick in his walk rate that also came with a decrease in his strikeout rate (from 38.5% to 34.9%).  He showed similar ability in the minor leagues, improving upon each of his repeated stints in both AA (.464 wOBA and 33.6% K%) and AAA (.387 wOBA and 34.5% K%). Steamer also projects some gains in Gallo’s strikeout rate (from 36.8% to 34.6%), BABIP (from .250 to .286) and average (to .228), though to be fair these improvements come with a projected decrease in ISO (from. 327 to .286, still good for third in baseball behind Giancarlo Stanton and Mike Trout).

In 2014 Kiley wrote the following in his scouting report of Gallo:

Scouts think he’ll be able to make enough contact to be a big league regular due to his ability to make adjustments and his coachability.

And from Baseball America’s 2015 report:

Gallo’s swing-and-miss tendencies still make him a high-risk player, but the remarkable improvement and tantalizing upside make him a potential MVP candidate if everything clicks into place.

Regardless of what Gallo becomes, it’s a joy to watch him hit a baseball into space. But at just 24 years old, it’s important to remember he’s not a finished product.  Development is exciting to watch, too.

Roberto Osuna

I covered Osuna earlier this winter, but I’m still floored that he’s just 23 years old.  I’ve been trying to buy him everywhere this off-season because I still don’t think his perceived value has caught up to his actual skill (his SwStr% has increased three straight seasons, and his new cutter has now made him a home run suppressing ground ball machine).  If he repeats his 2017 season or comes close to it, Osuna will finally be classified as one of the (historically) elite closers in the game, right along side Kenley Jansen and Craig Kimbrel.

Aaron Nola

Another pitcher who has increased his SwStr% three years running, Nola is one of my favorite pitchers in the game to watch, and it’s possible 2018 is his true breakout if he can finally reach the 200 inning threshold.  In 2017 there were just two starting pitchers that combined at least a 50% ground ball rate with a K/9 rate of 10.0 or higher (Luis Severino and Jimmy Nelson).  Nola missed both marks by a hair (9.86 K/9 and 49.8% GB%) over 168 terrific innings, but he nailed both in the 2nd half (87 IP) while simultaneously reducing his walk rate. Nola has the best curveball in the game (batters have just a .203 wOBA lifetime against this), but the great news (in addition to his improving command of just about every pitch) is that his fastball is becoming faster and better too.  If all these things come together in Philadelphia this summer, you could be looking at a dark horse Cy Young candidate.

Jorge Polanco

In his pre-season player profile last year I wrote the following of Polanco:

Polanco doesn’t have a lot of power, but he actually led all MLB shortstops in line drive percentage (30%), and already shows he can pull the ball effectively (41%), so it wouldn’t be surprising to see just enough pop in 2017 to make Polanco a cheap middle infield source of slightly above average power/speed (think 20 HR+SB).

The switch-hitting Polanco made good on that analysis, combining for 26 HR + SB and a .253/.313/.410 line in 133 games.  What I didn’t expect was that he’d accomplish almost all of it in just half a season, hitting 10 of his 13 home runs in August/September and swiping 7 bases in that timeframe in six less games. Polanco’s effort to change his approach clearly paid off, (.293/.359/.511), and he’s young enough (just 24) that it’s not unreasonable to expect many of those gains to stick around for 2018.

Polanco finished the 2017 season with career marks in contact rate (86.5%), swinging strike rate (5.8%), and hard hit rate (27.7%).  I’m excited to see what might be next for this MIN post-hype prospect.

Part 2

Trey is a 20+ year fantasy veteran and an early adopter of Ottoneu fantasy sports. He currently administers the Ottoneu community, a network of ~1,200 fantasy baseball and football fans talking sports daily. More resources here: http://community.ottoneu.com

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Seeing Josh Tomlin on that quality of pitch leaderboard for curveballs just angers me. He never throws the damn thing when it’ll actually help him.