Apologies for publishing this more than a week after Opening Day. Life gets in the way sometimes.
I had grand plans to make a prediction for each defensive position (two for pitchers — one starter, one reliever). Turns out I won’t even make the standard 10 predictions. Again, apologies. As opposed to waiting any longer, I’m moving forward with my favorites and letting the others decay on the cutting room floor.
Here’s how my post, had it been published on time, would’ve started:
For me, making bold predictions is not about being bold just to be bold. It’s about abiding by The ProcessTM — albeit sometimes by grasping at sabermetric straws — and using it to extract value where the market insists there is none (i.e., identify the market’s largest inefficiencies). Works vice versa, too. It also takes a little bit of balance to not make the predictions too bold so I don’t stand a chance to get any correct, but I also don’t want them to be too easily attainable, either.
In the past, The ProcessTM has led me to prophetic predictions about Jose Ramirez and Austin Barnes. It has also led me to humiliating defeats, like predicting a Giancarlo Stanton bust preceding one of the more memorable seasons in recent history. Such is the nature of bold predictions; you must wear your victories loudly and proudly, but also own your mistakes. Above all, bold predictions should be teachable moments, not pissing contests.
FYI: I concocted these predictions prior to Opening Day, first week of the season be damned.
1) Garrett Cooper is a top-20 first baseman.
While most analysts lamented Justin Bour’s failure to escape his current hell, this particular analyst lamented Cooper’s inability to find daylight in a lineup that’s pretty terrible… except at first base. This prediction banks on a small sample — 320 plate appearances at Triple-A — but it’s a small sample during which Cooper doubled his career Minor League isolated power (.287 ISO) by steepening his launch angle and tapping into the raw power his 230-pound, 6-foot-6 frame implies. Moreover, Cooper didn’t sacrifice contact to achieve these gains, in fact improving his contact rate and walking more often. It all culminated in a 30-homer pace and really good plate discipline for a guy with a career .305 MiLB batting average.
The Marlins tested Cooper in the outfield during spring training, and 72% of his 18 defensive innings have been spent in right field. Unfortunately, 18 innings isn’t many for a team that has 10 games under its belt. Yes, Cooper is on the disabled list, so this prediction has already taken a step in the wrong direction. Still, Cooper should return to the lineup a regular outfielder, having little trouble prying reps from the hands of Derek Dietrich and Cameron Maybin (not to mention seeing time at first base on Bour’s off days), despite what the Depth Charts claim. Cooper finished the preseason as the 74th first baseman off the board in National Fantasy Baseball Championship (NFBC) drafts.
2) Matt Chapman becomes the Matt to own in Oakland and out-earns Matt Olson.
Let me ensure I went on the record regarding my love for Matt Chapman (and this exact prediction) well before the season started:
hard-hitting investigative journalism while i think about how matt chapman might have a better year than matt olson
— Alex Chamberlain (@DolphHauldhagen) December 8, 2017
I don’t consider myself a hardcore prospector, but it has become apparent to me Chapman’s fans are fans. Chapman had himself a decent half-season with the A’s last year, but Olson’s outrageous 68-homer pace overshadowed Chapman’s reasonable 26-homer pace, making it almost yawn-worthy. Truth is, Chapman might have more power than Olson, having hit for a higher ISO throughout the minors thanks to consistently higher rates of fly balls (FB%) and home runs per fly ball (HR/FB). The power came with a price: strikeout percentages routinely in the high-20s/low-30s plus low BABIPs. But the power — really, the whole offensive profile — looks Diet Joey Galloesque in both its inputs and its outcomes (not as explosive nor as extreme). Still, drafted as the NFBC’s 24th third baseman and at the back of the top-300 overall, it was worth gambling on Chapman’s projected 31/7/.226 line if you were a fan of Olson’s projected 35/2/.236 line more than 10 rounds earlier (in 15-team leagues).
3) Derek Fisher out-earns Domingo Santana.
This is not an indictment of Santana — I made my thoughts on Santana known last June. It’s more a compliment to Fisher, whose Minor League track record reminds me strongly of Santana’s accomplishments to date: strikeouts, walks, power, and, most notably, a low fly ball rate (i.e., a shallow launch angle) for a power hitter. Few active, relevant Minor League hitters have sported better HR/FB so consistently — the aforementioned Chapman, maybe, and not too many others. In 166 plate appearances last year, Fisher stayed true to form, hitting home runs on more than 25% of fly balls but also hitting fly balls barely 20% of the time.
Fisher’s career line drive rate (LD%) doesn’t hold a candle to Santana’s, but Fisher sports better contact skills from which a superior strikeout rate should arise and offset the anticipated BABIP deficit. With 25ish plate appearances through 11 games, it’s evident the Astros like Fisher enough to keep deploying him, despite how stacked their depth chart is. It remains to be seen what happens when Yuli Gurriel returns — Marwin Gonzalez should shift back to left field, which will crowd Fisher out of meaningful playing time — but there’s a fairly high probability Gonzalez doesn’t come close to repeating his 4.0-WAR, age-28 breakout.
4) Madison Bumgarner, once he returns from the disabled list, is not a top-20 starter on a per-start basis.
Bumgarner getting injured again really put a damper on this prediction. Obviously, MadBum will not make good on his promise as a top-5 or -6 starting pitcher this season. It’ll also be easy to dismiss a poor season once he returns, chalking it up to being rusty, coming back from injury, etc.
My concern with Bumgarner, which I articulated in the caption/capsule on his player page, manifested well before the hand injury. After falling off his dirt bike and injuring his throwing arm shoulder, he returned and pitched well enough to dispel any grave concerns about lingering ill effects to his shoulder. His peripherals, however, told another story: his fastball, once above-average by swinging strike rate (SwStr%), was actually below-average in 2017. The whiff rate did improve slowly throughout the season, suggesting he was returning to form, but it never came close to vintage Bumgarner numbers. Absent the whiffs, the pitch incurred a .340 ISO in the final two months of the season — something he had never allowed in any full calendar month as a starter, let alone in two straight.
It’s possible Bumgarner’s shoulder is better almost a year removed from the incident. But in the two-and-a-half months following his DL stint, his fastball was garbage, and his fastball is a fairly substantial part of his repertoire. A fractured finger on his throwing hand only further muddies the waters. It’s kind of a grand claim, but I guess that’s why I’m here: I’m officially bearish on Bumgarner in not only the short-term but also the long-term.
5) Miles Mikolas out-earns Luke Weaver.
This prediction was inspired almost exclusively by this Tweet by NEIFI, which absolutely fascinated me:
Congrats, Cardinals. Per NEIFI, Mikolas handily outperforms Jake Arrieta over next three seasons. Massive bargain, fantastic bet to be the most underrated FA of 2017 class.
— NEIFI Analytics (@NEIFIco) December 5, 2017
Despite being relatively risk-averse, I have been bullish on international imports (and, uh, re-exports?) the last half-decade. I could’ve made this prediction about Mikolas and Jake Arrieta, straight up, but it would’ve been derivative. Instead, I substituted in Luke Weaver, everyone’s favorite budding breakout.
I reviewed Mikolas here and Weaver here and, later, here. If you don’t click through, here’s a summary: I’m impressed by the command Mikolas exhibited in Japan, and I’m less impressed by Weaver outperforming everything he ever did in the Minor Leagues riding a heavy dose of called strikes. It’s a repeatable skill — Aaron Nola and Kyle Hendricks are the contemporary kings of it — but in the end, neither of Weaver’s swinging strike and called strike tendencies are particularly strong.
Weaver wouldn’t be the first pitcher to outperform his peripherals for a prolonged duration. He also wouldn’t be the first pitcher to continue to do so, becoming baseball’s next modern unicorn. The odds are stacked against him, though, and I’m always playing the odds. I compared Mikolas favorably to Kenta Maeda, who sports career 25.5% strikeout and 6.5% walk rates, while I pegged Weaver for something closer to 21% and 7%, respectively. The former was the NFBC’s 106th pitcher off the board; the latter, 39th, and almost 12 rounds more expensive.
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As always, I’m curious to know what people think of the boldness. Not bold enough? Too bold? Just right? I feel like I’ve just about nailed it in recent years. Not sure how I feel about these — maybe they’re bold, but I feel pretty confident in them, so they don’t seem that bold to me. That said, the average draft position (ADP) data suggests they’re adequately bold, so… OK!