The other day, my wife asked me what my next column was going to be about, and I told her it would be my annual Bold Predictions piece. She wanted to contribute a prediction, and when I asked her what it would be, I realized it would be the perfect addition to this column.
So the first-ever Bold Prediction for Mary Beth Melchior is this: J.T. Realmuto will break the all-time single-season record for home runs for a catcher.
Now that is bold. Even if the Phillies’ new backstop doubles his career-high total from his final season with the Marlins, he will fall three home runs short of Johnny Bench’s record of 45 homers. So, yes, it’s bold, but not unthinkable, as Christian Yelich did double his home run output from his last season in Miami to his first season in Milwaukee. Like his former teammate, Realmuto will get the benefit of a homer-friendly home park, and he is far more of a flyball hitter than Yelich is.
Still, I’m just not buying it. And just to make things a little uncomfortable at home all season long, I’m going to back Realmuto’s rival for fantasy catcher supremacy for my first bold prediction of 2019.
1. Gary Sanchez will set the major league single-season record for home runs by a catcher.
Sanchez had been bothered by his left shoulder, not only during his miserable 2018 season, but in 2017 as well. Having had offseason surgery to remove tissue from the shoulder, as well as distancing himself from last season’s groin injury, Sanchez may be able to pick up where he left off in 2016. He hit his 20 home runs in a small sample of 229 plate appearances that year, but he backed it up with a 97.8 mph average exit velocity on flyballs and line drives (per Statcast) — outpacing both Khris Davis and Giancarlo Stanton. If he stays healthy and returns to that pace, Sanchez could have a 48-homer season.
2. Max Kepler will hit 30 home runs.
The Twins outfielder should have made all sorts of progress as a power hitter last season. He lowered his strikeout rate, increased his flyball rate by nearly seven percentage points and added 1.5 mph to his average exit velocity on flies and liners. Yet his total of 20 homers was only one greater than his mark from 2017 (even though he made 43 more plate appearances), and he posted an ISO in the .180s for the third straight year.
I don’t even feel like this prediction is all that bold. Last month, I wrote about how hitters who have a high average launch angle on flyballs tend to regress the following season, and that can lead to more power. Kepler was a part of that high launch angle group, and his indicators were generally suggesting he was far better than a 20-homer hitter last year. This season, he will show that he is.
3. Anibal Sanchez will finish with the second-lowest ERA in the Nationals’ rotation.
I don’t expect Sanchez to finish with a sub-3.00 ERA for a second straight season, so Max Scherzer will be safe as the Nationals’ ERA leader, at least among starters. However, I don’t have any reason to think he will regress all that much, and with an ERA in the lower 3.00s, he should rank ahead of Stephen Strasburg and Patrick Corbin.
It’s easy to discount Sanchez’s 2.83 ERA with the Braves last season, as he stranded 79.4 percent of his runners and allowed a puny .255 BABIP. Both marks should move towards the norm, but it’s worth noting that Sanchez was one of the best pitchers last season in terms of inducing soft contact. The 77.9 mph average exit velocity he allowed on grounders was the lowest for any pitcher who allowed at least 350 batted balls. A low average exit velocity on ground balls correlates with a low BABIP, and it also correlates with itself on a year-to-year basis. He just may be a legit low BABIP pitcher now.
4. Mark Melancon will be the Giants’ closer from wire-to-wire.
This one is more of a hunch. It just seems odd that the Giants would have Melancon compete with Will Smith for the closer’s job this spring after the latter’s strong performance last season. He has allowed six runs (four earned) in his first 3.2 innings of Cactus League play, but if he finishes strong, I would expect that he will win the role. Perhaps the Giants don’t want to pay Melancon $14 million this season to be a set-up reliever.
If the last two months of 2018 were any indication, Melancon should pitch well enough to keep the closer’s job once he is given it. He stumbled a bit in the final 10 days, but overall, he did a better job of inducing grounders (56.3 percent GB%) and throwing strikes (41.9 percent Zone%).
5. Garrett Hampson will be the Rockies’ everyday second baseman, and with regular playing time, he will steal 30 bases and finish as a top 15 second baseman in Roto value.
I need to credit my colleague Jeff Zimmerman with an assist on this one. Jeff recently did a study of players who did not hit slow fastballs well. Ryan McMahon figured prominently on that list, compiling a 17.7 percent SwStr% rate on slow fastballs in 2018. With McMahon providing Hampson with his main competition for the Rockies’ second base job, I don’t see him hitting well enough to establish himself as a regular, even if he is provided that opportunity coming out of spring training.
With regular playing for most of the season, Hampson should have little problem accumulating 30 or more steals (ZIPS actually has him projected for 32). Even if he batted .270 (as compared to ZIPS’ projected .281), he should sneak in as a top 15 second baseman at season’s end.
Stewart has been getting almost no love from fantasy owners, ranking barely inside the top 350 in FantasyPros ADP. In leagues that use batting average as a category, it’s somewhat understandable, as owners could be skeptical of the 18.1 percent strikeout rate Stewart compiled in his brief major league debut last September. Given that he should hover around the 20-homer mark and doesn’t figure to be a stolen base threat, there are better options for owners in standard 12-team mixed leagues.
However, a walk rate in the vicinity of 11 percent is a reasonable expectation, as is an OBP around .350. Whether Stewart hits near the top of the Tigers’ order or the middle, he will have opportunities to produce runs. While he probably won’t rival Winker’s OBP, he has shown more home run power and has fewer potential roadblocks to consistent playing time.
6a. I will not make a single Christin Stewart Twilight pun for the entire season.
7. Ryan Pressly will lead the Astros with 20 saves.
Roberto Osuna is being drafted as if he is a near-elite closer, but can we be so sure that he is? Let’s compare three mystery relievers and see if that doesn’t change our perspective.
|Pitcher||O-Swing%||Z-Swing%||Z-Contact%||EV FB/LD (mph)|
All three relievers allow a lot of swings. The O-Swing% helps to lower each pitcher’s walk rate, but the high rate of swings in the strike zone limits called strikes and, in turn, strikeouts. Pitcher C was the best at getting chases on bad pitches last season, but he was also the worst at limiting hard-hit airborne contact.
Osuna is Pitcher C. Victor Arano and Ken Giles are Pitchers A and B, respectively. There is nothing especially wrong with either of them, but Giles was already eschewed as the Astros’ closer (though it was after a particularly rough stretch) and it’s hard to imagine that they would hand the job to Arano, if he were on the roster.
In short, Osuna has a profile that could make him vulnerable to an extended downturn, and it’s not as if A.J. Hinch doesn’t have several good alternatives to turn to. Pressly is the best of them, and if he gets an opportunity midseason to take over the closer’s role, I don’t think he lets it go.
8. Brad Miller will bat .260 and hit 20 home runs as the Dodgers’ super-utility player.
I really don’t know how or where Miller will find his playing time, but he has a few things working in his favor. He is versatile, and he has hit for good power in each of the last three season, exceeding 94 mph in average exit velocity on flies and liners. Miller will now have a home venue that is good for left-handed power and an organization that has turned around the careers of Justin Turner, Chris Taylor and Max Muncy.
I still have two more bold predictions, but these require me to go a little more in-depth with analysis. I will follow up on these in my next post.
Al Melchior has been writing about Fantasy baseball and sim games since 2000, and his work has appeared at CBSSports.com, BaseballHQ, Ron Shandler's Baseball Forecaster and FanRagSports. He has also participated in Tout Wars' mixed auction league since 2013. You can follow Al on Twitter @almelchiorbb and find more of his work at almelchior.com.