If March is bold prediction season and October is bold prediction review season, then somewhere in between is bold prediction check-in season.
As always: you don’t care about this introduction, just the midway results. But, also, as always: I try to use bold predictions as an exercise in using hard data (and a little bit of blind faith) to make actionable recommendations for leveraging market inefficiencies to your advantage. While it’s fun to predict Christian Yelich might hit 60 home runs (he might!!!), it doesn’t change your opinion about him very much, whereas a bold prediction about, say, my little king Jeff McNeil might have encouraged you to draft him ahead of his lowly average draft position (ADP) of 298th overall (34th among second basemen), per National Fantasy Baseball Championship (NFBC).
Unlike past seasons, I actually remember some of the bold predictions I made, which makes me excited to review them. At the end of each prediction, I’ll assess the percentage probability of it hitting come October. Let’s dig in.
1) Mike Tauchman is a top-60 outfielder.
I have to take the ‘L’ on this prediction, although I’ll never, ever, ever take an ‘L’ on Tauchman himself. As many things that could break right with this prediction did. Two days after I published my predictions, the Rockies (a team who clearly did not care to give Tauchman a chance) was traded to the Yankees (a team drowning in quality outfielders). It was about a good a move as a lefty masher could desire from a production standpoint but effectively a wash in terms of playing time potential.
Amazingly, Aaron Judge, Giancarlo Stanton, and Aaron Hicks all hit the Injured List (IL). Tauchman hit a one-outer and stumbled upon full-time playing time for a brief but beautiful moment. Ultimately, he failed to take advantage of his opportunity, hitting a paltry .208/.300/.387 (82 wRC+). The bright side: His plate discipline — namely, a 10.7% swinging strike rate (SwStr%), 23.8% chase rate (O-Swing%) and 82.8% zone contact rate (Z-Contact%) — suggests his 31.7% strikeout rate (K%) was unlucky. Using the same methodology outlined in this post about hitter strikeout rate underperformers, Tauchman’s deserved strikeout rate was almost 10 percentage points lower (21.8%). That’s 12 additional plate appearances — a full 10% of his chances this year — in which he would have done anything but strike out, the worst possible outcome.
That silver lining helps me rest easy. Anything can happen in 120 PA. Unfortunately for Tauchman, he ran into a brutal run of luck with his most substantial opportunity. It happens. One can only hope he, one day, will have another chance to prove himself.
Odds: < 1%
2) Jeff McNeil is a top-10 second baseman.
Oh, hell yeah. I guessed McNeil would hit 17 home runs, steal 10 bases, and bat .300. He’s sitting pretty with seven homers, three steals, and an absurd .349 batting average. This man is in complete control of the strike zone — and has been worth more than 5.0 wins above replacement (WAR) in less than a season’s worth of games played in his career. I fell in love with McNeil last summer, before his call-up (brag). Had I been writing the Peripheral Prospects series last year, he would have been its marquee name (aside from Tauchman, of course).
He might not quite reach 17 home runs this year, although he’s currently on pace for 14, maybe 15, if you account for the 12 games he missed given a brief IL stint. He also might not quite reach 10 stolen bases. However, he has made eight attempts on the season (his first four were failures); if he simply keeps that pace but converts them at a league-average rate, he could end the season with roughly nine steals. That works!
In the grand scheme of things, the homers and steals are gravy in light of how absolutely critical McNeil has been in keeping many a fantasy team’s batting average afloat. His hit tool is insane, and while he’s probably not a true-talent .389 batting average on balls in play (BABIP) guy, the main projection systems are in consensus on his projected low-.290s batting average rest-of-season.
3) Willians Astudillo is a top-3 catcher.
Part of this prediction hinged on Astudillo proving himself indispensable to the Twins. During a season in which that entire lineup has done nothing but mash, La Tortuga, even at his hottest, was no lock for the lineup. More unfortunate, however, is his season has been punctuated, now, by a second IL stint. Moreover, his early success has fizzled pretty dramatically.
Part of this prediction also hinged on the catcher landscape remaining utterly futile. In fairness to myself, the landscape remains a mess, with James McCann, Christian Vazquez, Mitch Garver, and Josh Phegley littering ESPN’s top-10. However, it seems like every catcher and his mother is raking this year. Astudillo simply hasn’t kept pace.
I still like Astudillo as a legitimate mixed-league catcher. I guessed he might hit .300 with 15 home runs. Through 239 career PA, he boasts six home runs at a .301 average — which, for the mathematically disinclined, is almost precisely a 15-.300 pace prorated to 600 PA. Welp, there’s always 2020.
Odds: < 1%
4) Domingo German is the Yankees’ 2nd-most valuable starting pitcher.
That Luis Severino got injured before I fired off this prediction into the digital stratosphere seemed to make it less bold. Doing battle with James Paxton, Masahiro Tanaka, CC Sabathia, J.A. Happ, and, at the time, Jon Lasagna (Jonathan Loaisiga) is marginally less-daunting without Severino.
Bold predictions always look less bold in hindsight, but consider how the bulk of the Yankee rotation ranked for fantasy purposes last year (per Razzball):
- 9. Severino
- 16. Happ
- 34. Tanaka
- 64. Sabathia
And in 2017:
- 8. Severino
- 40. Tanaka
- 44. Sabathia
- 51. Happ
For all intents and purposes, I was betting that German would be, at worst, a top-40 starting pitcher. Even despite a lengthy IL stint, he still ranks 26th per Razzball and 30th per ESPN — and 1st among Yankee starters. Yes, even ahead of Paxton, whose 4.09 ERA weighs him down.
Sure, German’s value is buoyed immensely by nine wins in a mere 12 games started. However, his peripherals point to a budding frontline starter: 26.4% strikeouts, 6.1% walks, a 14.1% swinging strike rate (13th-best among 110 starters with at least 70 innings pitched), and solid ERA estimators, considering the current run-scoring environment. His 4.03 FIP, 3.79 xFIP, and 3.86 SIERA rank 48th, 25th, and 22nd, respectively — and his whiff aptitude suggests more strikeouts could come, assuming good health.
5) Austin Barnes is a top-5 catcher.
This is just a bad prediction. It was probably bad idea to make two catcher-related predictions in the first place (come on, Alex). It seems as though Barnes’ trinity of modest plate discipline, power, and speed could turn him into a Lite version of J.T. Realmuto. Fast of the matter is, through 773 career PA, he sports a meager .285 BABIP and a 21.6% strikeout rate that’s oddly high relative to his 6.2% swinging strike rate.
His high strikeout and walk rates are related to passivity more so than any kind of superior contact skills. In other words, his 6.1% whiff rate oversells his true rather pedestrian 80.9% contact rate (Contact%), which is why it’s important to consider the entire plate discipline profile. Even Tauchman’s contact rate is better.
Anyway, Barnes, now 29, is hardly liable to run any more than before, which wasn’t very often to begin with. Even the lion’s share of playing time in Los Angeles couldn’t boost Barnes’ value. I wave the white flag. I move on.
Odds: < 1%
6) Madison Bumgarner is not a top-200 player.
Depending who you ask (i.e., Razzball or ESPN), this is either kind of close (170th, per Razzball as of July 3) or not all that close (roughly 123rd). Let’s start with what Bumgarner has done well. His 11.8% swinging strike rate is almost 3 percentage points higher than last year’s mark, boosting his strikeout rate more than 5 percentage points. That’s a big deal! His xFIP has improved from 4.32 to 3.99; his SIERA, from 4.42 to 3.99. Ironically, it’s his 4.02 ERA that’s betraying him now, mirroring his ERA estimators rather than vastly underperforming them like it did in 2017 and 2018.
This prediction hinged on Bumgarner’s should not being fully healthy. It looked wrecked after 2017, so much so that I wrote in his 2018 caption (on his player page) that his fastball was in trouble. I’d like to think that I led the charge for the Bumgarner is Broken Brigade (BBB) with the receipts to prove it. Thing is, his shoulder very well may be healthy now, or at least healthier. See, below, the velocity and spin rate for his two-seamer and cutter on a rolling 250-pitch basis:
While the velocity isn’t fully back, the spin rate has certainly seen a healthy bump. I don’t know if that’s the key component here, but it stands to reason Bumgarner has benefited from it. Interestingly, Bumgarner has all but abandoned his four-seamer, formerly his primary offering. I imagine he became attuned to its lack of effectiveness post-injury and, thus, leaned more heavily into his two-seamer and developed a cutter, the latter of which is pretty decent and sufficiently, albeit not fully, fills the void left by his four-seamer. At this point, Bumgarner’s biggest obstacle is health, not skill decline as I once expected.
7) Kenta Maeda out-earns teammate and (alleged) budding ace Walker Buehler.
For starters, I like Maeda. A lot. For enders, I wasn’t sure if Buehler was the real deal. Obviously, he had the pedigree and the performance. The fastball was legit. I was concerned, though, about what seemed to be a lack of effective secondary offerings, with his best single-pitch swinging strike rate at just 15.1% on his slider. While each of his main four pitches had expected weighted on-base averages (xwOBA) well below .300 — in other words, well above average — I wasn’t sure that kind of contact management would stick.
Stick, it did. Buehler’s worst pitch in 2019 (among those he throws at least 10% of the time) is his cutter, at .293 xwOBA. And that slider? Its whiff rate is up to a robust 19.1%. Frankly, I found it hard to trust Buehler based on last year’s small sample. I mean, I thought he was good — he was great — but there were cracks in the armor that suggested he might wilt. With a wide distribution of outcomes, I erred with the bears rather than the bulls. The bulls won this one… and, being risk-averse, I’m OK with that. Pitching has been atrocious this year, but I’ve found my gems.
As for Maeda, he experienced one of the worst months his career before getting back on track, which has burdened him. His 3.76 ERA is rock-solid, all things considered, and his 14.2% swinging strike rate suggests his 24.7% strikeout rate is underperforming by a potentially significant margin. His ERA estimators (4.21 FIP, 4.37 xFIP, 4.34 SIERA) aren’t exactly a sight for sore eyes, but more strikeouts will help drive down those metrics. And, ideally, the Dodgers can’t afford to do without his quality innings.
8) Kirby Yates is a top-2 closer.
Oh, hell yeah again! This is the quintessential bold-prediction-by-hard-data, which I laid out in vivid detail in my original post. To summarize: Yates, sized up by just about any metric imaginable, was an elite reliever. I banked on sustained elite performance being more reliable than single-season flashes in the pan.
Unless you’ve been living under a rock, you know how this goes: Yates has 30 saves and 60 strikeouts to just nine walks in 39 innings and change, and minuscule ratios (1.15 ERA and 0.79 WHIP). He’s 1st, outright, among relievers per both ESPN and Razzball, neck-and-neck with Josh Hader and Brad Hand. I admit Hader might be even better than Yates, with the benefit of bulk innings and stupid-good strikeout ability on his side. Hand has been dominant as well, although he has four wins (to Yates’ zero) helping bolster his value.
Whether or not Yates ends up a top-2 closer for real, I’m exceedingly happy with this prediction. Given the nightmare the closer landscape has been, Yates was the safe mid-round bet I hoped he’d be.
9) Jake Lamb and Jung Ho Kang are both top-12 third basemen.
I’ll warn you now: the last two predictions are neither good nor exciting, at least for 2019. I’m clutching to past versions of Lamb and Kang that, honestly, may never show up again. Lamb has been injured for almost all of 2019, having played in just 10 games as of my writing this, so it’s not like there’s much to judge him on.
I’m reluctant to call a guy a platoon bat based on 400 PA against a certain handedness. Lamb’s 45 wRC+ against lefties never struck me as overly problematic as I assured myself of small samples, but in hindsight I don’t think I pondered his issues too critically. In looking at platoon splits, I focus on plate discipline and power — neither of which Lamb possesses versus lefties. He mashes righties, though — I mean, that’s good. But the fact of the matter is the Diamondbacks can find more value in Eduardo Escobar, who is now Very Good<supTM, as well as nearly identical value in the likes of Christian Walker and Kevin Cron. Lamb’s days as a regular contributor are numbered.
Same with Kang. I wanted to give him and his tumultuous last couple of years the benefit of the doubt. To his credit, his .227 isolated power (ISO) shows he’s still got the pop. And it stands to reason his .182 BABIP is hardly a reflection of his true-talent level. But he’s very clearly rusty, with severe, legitimately insurmountable contact-rate deficits. Even if the BABIP trends in the correct direction, Kang needs to simply put the bat on the ball again. With the scrappy middle infield duo of Adam Frazier and Kevin Newman as well as the Pirates’ future at the hot corner (Colin Moran), Kang’s day are, too, numbered.
10) Nathaniel Lowe is the American League Rookie of the Year.
Let’s revisit this one next year. I thought the Rays would give Lowe more of a shot. Turns out the other Lowe (Brandon) has been the primary beneficiary among Tampa Bay top prospects. Ji-Man Choi has held his own at first base; with 19 home runs and a .265/.354/.459 slash line in his last 500 PA, he hasn’t been quite the minus I expected (in fact, exactly the opposite, his 121 wRC+ in that span well above league-average).
Oh well. Lowe, just 23, has a maybe long, maybe fruitful career ahead of him. In the meantime, he’ll continue to torch Minor League pitching, patiently awaiting his turn.