2021 Bold Hitter League Leaders by Mike Podhorzer March 25, 2021 Every season, in addition to posting my standard bold predictions (which I’ll publish next week), I up the ante with my bold league leaders. If you thought nailing a bold prediction was tough, the bold league leaders are even more difficult! Just getting one right is worthy of celebration. Because these are bold, I automatically disqualify players I don’t personally believe would be considered bold or is already projected to finish top five in the category. So I challenge myself and it typically causes me to bat .000, though I actually have hit on a couple over the years. This is more for fun and dreaming of what could be, rather than any serious attempt at being right. Naturally, I use my Pod Projections to identify players with that 80th-90th percentile upside to vault to the top of the category mountains. Today, I’ll start with the bold hitting league leaders in each of the five categories, split up by league. Next Monday I’ll move on to the pitchers. American League Batting Average – David Fletcher Coming off a .319 batting average, Fletcher doesn’t seem so bold, but ATC is only projecting a .283 mark this year, and they are actually the most bullish of all the forecasts! They key for Fletcher is his low strikeout rate fueled by his microscopic SwStk%. He simply rarely swings and misses. Putting more balls into play is a path to a high batting average. Last year, he posted a career high .348 BABIP, but the projections aren’t buying it. ATC is the high forecast at just .310, meaning all of them are projecting BABIP marks well below his career average? Why? With a batted ball profile heavy on line drives and a willingness to go the opposite way, he’s deserving of an above league average BABIP, giving him major batting average upside compared to the projections. Home Runs – Eddie Rosario Right now, Rosario owns the ultimate combination for home run upside — a strong strikeout rate, with four straight sub-20% seasons, including his last two below 15%, plus lots and lots of fly balls. His FB% has been over 40% the past three years. All that’s left now is dreaming on a HR/FB rate spike in his new home ballpark. A mid-teens mark has been perfectly acceptable given his strikeout rate and fly ball ways, as it has resulted in mid-20s and low-30s home run totals. But now he moves from a park that sported a 97 left-handed home run factor in 2020 to one that sported a 104 factor. That’s a meaningful swing. Since his HR/FB rate is currently not that much higher than the league average, it leaves ample room for upside, as opposed to a hitter who already posts mid-20% marks that you wonder how much better things could possibly get. Just a jump to the 20% range would allow him to sniff 40 homers and battle for the league lead. RBI – Xander Bogaerts Bogaerts shouldn’t be considered bold here, but considering he’s projected to finish in a tie for 11th in RBI, he qualifies for this list. I always look to expected cleanup hitters for the RBI title, as they typically have the most opportunities to drive in runners. Bogaerts is going to bat behind some pretty solid OBP guys, and J.D. Martinez’s power decline is actually good, as it means fewer times the bases are cleared when Bogaerts gets to the plate! Runs – Whit Merrifield For RBI, the strategy is to pick a cleanup hitter. For runs scored, it’s a leadoff hitter. With Andrew Benintendi and Carlos Santana now in the fold, an improved lineup should lead to more run scoring opportunities. Merrifield gets on base and has the power to drive himself in more than a dozen times. Stolen Bases – Nick Madrigal Picking anyone here is so silly when the projected leader is forecasted for nearly doubles the steals as the second ranked guy! Still, I think Madrigal is a good “if it’s not Adalberto Mondesi, then who?” answer. Madrigal’s calling card is his unbelievable contact skills, as his strikeout rate and SwStk% marks in the minors may make some people do a double take thinking there must be a mistake. Because of all those balls in play, plus his decent plate patience, he’s got some serious OBP upside. He stole 35 bases during 2019, and although he’s not one of the fastest in the league, he should be on base enough to attempt a good number of steals. National League Batting Average – Christian Yelich You would have laughed at me if Yelich was my bold batting average league leader heading into 2020, as he was coming off two seasons of .320+ marks. Then 2020 happened, and the combination of a strikeout rate spike and BABIP collapse pushed his batting average down to a shocking .205. And now, the projections are all scared to ignore 2020 and project a stronger rebound. Notice how his SwStk% actually declined from 2019, and yet his strikeout rate skyrocketed? He didn’t suddenly get all whiffy. That should give you the confidence to mostly ignore last season’s actual strikeout rate and project a return to his normal level. Home Runs – C.J. Cron Ever season, I cross my fingers that some power hitter is going to sign with or get traded to the Rockies, just to see what kind of an effect Coors Field ends up having on him. This year, we get to see Cron, who isn’t exactly the thrilling guy I usually hope for, but he’ll do. Not only does Coors increase HR/FB rate, but it also reduces strikeouts. The biggest question is how much he’ll come the plate, as he’s only cleared 500 PAs once, and that was only 560 PAs. If he plays 150 games or so, I think a mid-30s to even flirting with 40 homers is a good possibility. RBI – Keston Hiura Hiura is in the ultimate situation to shock in RBI. He owns massive power, so he’ll knock himself in often and whoever happens to be on base. Plus, he’s hitting behind a trio of strong OBP guys. Obviously, strikeouts have been a major issue and he’ll frustrate by striking out with the bases loaded and missing out on a juicy run scoring opportunity. But all those strikeouts also offer a path for upside, as hitters improve their contact skills all the time. If we already know he has strikeout problems and still projects as a strong RBI guy, imagine if he improved that strikeout rate! Runs – Trent Grisham Grisham is going to lead off for one of the strongest offenses in the NL. That’s the first step to leading the league in runs. Next, he walks often, so his OBP will be solid even if his batting average doesn’t get him on base nearly as much as you would hope. Last, he has power, so will be knocking himself in 20+ times. He just needs to remain healthy and stay in the lineup against left-handers. Stolen Bases – Victor Robles Robles is the most obvious guy here that technically qualifies as bold given his eighth ranked ATC stolen base forecast. Entering Spring Training, he figured to bat near the bottom of the order. However, a solid showing so far has catapulted him to the top of the Nationals lineup. Why does that matter for steals? Two reasons — that’s an additional 100 plate appearances and it kills the risk he’s on base in front of the pitcher and doesn’t want to make the last out trying to steal, making the pitcher lead off the following inning. Remember also that he swiped 28 bases in 2019 and that was with just a .326 OBP. I’m not projecting anything better, nor are the projection systems, but any type of offensive breakout that includes a reduction in strikeout rate, increased walk rate, a higher BABIP, or a combination of the three, is going to lead to a much higher OBP and far more stolen base opportunities. Obviously, this is true for literally every hitter. But Robles’ marks in these three metrics are meh or worse and he’s just 23, so there are still (hopefully) years and years of potential growth ahead of him.