Alex Chamberlain’s Five Bold Predictions for 2020

These hallowed pages have borne (bore? beared? how am I even a writer?) witness to many bold predictions — some good, most bad. Last year’s hits and near-hits include Kirby Yates, Jeff McNeil, Mike Tauchman, and Domingo German; previous hits include Jose Ramirez, Madison Bumgarner (not being an ace), Matt Chapman, and Miles Mikolas, among others, as well as other near-hits not worth repeating.

Sometimes, bold predictions aren’t entirely so. I try to make my predictions legitimately bold (bordering on impossible), actionable, and strategic. It’s not helpful for someone to boldly predict Giancarlo Stanton will hit 25 homers in a 60-game season, however fun a prediction that may be.

It’s (less than) half a season, so you get half the predictions, although I’ll include some less-bold low-hanging fruit at the end, for posterity.

1) Josh Rojas is a top-60 outfielder.

My favorite peripheral prospect last year, Rojas put together one of the high minors’ best offensive performances last year, slashing .332/.418/.606 (160 wRC+) with excellent plate discipline (14.6% strikeouts to 11.9% walks) and plus speed (7.4 Spd score). In just 105 games, he compiled 23 homers and 33 steals (on 44 attempts). I hope you understand why that might be appealing.

His performance earned enough attention to be included in the trade that shipped Zack Greinke from the Diamondbacks to the Astros at the trade deadline. He now lacks a full-time role, but anything can happen this year in light of the pandemic. He could carve out a super-utility role, spelling full-time players during this 60-game sprint in both the outfield and infield, and invariably be the first in line in case of injury or illness.

He made nothing of his first 157 plate appearances last year, but that doesn’t dampen my spirits. He has five-tool potential; he just needs the daylight to display them. Moreover, my top fringe prospect crushes — Jose Ramirez, Jeff McNeil, Mike Tauchman — have all found ways to make me proud. I expect nothing else from my little king, Rojas. He is basically free in all drafts, per National Fantasy Baseball Championship (NFBC) average draft position (ADP) since July 1 (139th among outfielders and 711th overall in 186 drafts).

2) Trent Grisham is a top-30 outfielder.

Not far behind Rojas is Grisham, who, in just 97 games between Double-A and Triple-A last year, slashed .300/.407/.603 (166 wRC+) with 26 homers and 12 steals (on 17 attempts) and nearly as many walks as strikeouts (16.3% K, 15.2% BB). A former first-round pick, and not necessarily late to bloom, either, it appears Grisham’s bat grip change has helped him realize what could be massive potential.

The Padres, for all their riches of outfield prospects (both real and fringe), made a point of targeting Grisham and acquiring him from the Brewers. For all intents and purposes, he’s their starting center fielder, and while there are rumblings he might be platooned with Edward Olivares, who is interesting (and extremely Padres-esque) in his own right, I think the job is Grisham’s to lose, not share.

Having stolen 37 bases as recently as 2017, Grisham is a dark horse candidate to join a small group of players who record double-digit homers and steals this year. Moreover, his NFBC ADP 86th among outfielders and 290th overall. (His stock has risen solidly since the pre-pandemic days, when it was fell a round or two outside the top-300.)

3) Cameron Maybin is a top-45 outfielder.

Another outfielder? Why not! Rumor has it the Yankees went out of their way to target Maybin last offseason and, upon acquiring him, told him to let loose: swing hard, and the results will come. (The Yankees have done absurdly well extracting value from seemingly nowhere the last couple of years, ICYMI.)

Swing hard, he did: Maybin overshadowed my boy Tauchman after the latter hit the Injured List, compiling 11 homers and nine steals in just 269 plate appearances. Maybin’s strikeout rate (K%) spiked roughly 7 percentage points, but he also recorded the highest isolated power (.209 ISO), fly ball rate (39.4% FB), and, most importantly, weighted runs created (127 wRC+) of his career — all while showing off his trademark speed.

Maybin now resides in Detroit, where he faces virtually no competition for reps in center field. That means he could see a full 60-game slate at the position. And that means he has an opportunity to replicate his 2019 season one-for-one, threatening at another double-digit power-speed season. (Has a pattern emerged yet?)

As for his .365 batting average on balls in play (BABIP), it’s possible he over-performed. However, given his speed and contact quality, it’s not outside the realm of possibility that a .330 benchmark is bankable. That might only make him a .260 hitter, but I’ll gladly take a 10-10-.260 performance the 104th outfielder off the board (580th overall), per NFBC ADP.

4) Austin Allen is a top-15 catcher.

Wooooooah there, pal. Austin Allen? The Austin Allen? The one who is Sean Murphy’s backup in Oakland, having been just informed he’s not even on the season-opening roster?

Look, pal. Murph looks good. Eric Longenhagen slapped a 50-grade future value (FV) on him, which is no small deal for a 3rd-round catching prospect. He slashed .308/.386/.625 (136 wRC+) with 10 home runs in just 140 plate appearances at Triple-A last year. He figures to be the Athletics’ full-time backstop.

Hear me out. Allen has compiled the following slash lines the last three years:

2017: .283/.353/.497 (127 wRC+) with 22 HR in 516 PA
2018: .290/.351/.506 (130 wRC+) with 22 HR in 498 PA
2019: .330/.379/.663 (143 wRC+) with 21 HR in 298(!) PA

His plate discipline leaves something to be desired, but that’s a bat that doesn’t slouch. He is probably more patient than Salvador Perez, but I imagine a Perezian line from Allen should he receive full-time reps. Also — let this not go unnoticed — he actually outperformed Murphy last year over more plate appearances? Not to mention he already mashed similarly the two years prior? Question mark?

Lastly, Allen has the platoon advantage — and I think that’s what’s most interesting here, beyond the statistical accolades. Should Murphy struggle, Allen might share time with him — and time-shares usually follow a hard platoon split (although catchers face different unspoken rules, sometimes, based on their defensive acumen). It’s not guaranteed that Murphy struggles, but isn’t not guaranteed, either.

As the 40th catcher off the board (695th overall), Allen is cheap-as-free with 10-homer potential in a 60-game season. Obviously, he won’t reach that if he’s not a starter from the get-go. But with playing time potentially so sporadic this year, he could squeeze out just enough value in part-time duty to be mixed league-relevant.

5) Jose Altuve finishes outside the top-15 second basemen and top-100 overall.

Altuve hasn’t finished outside the top-70 since 2013 and has been the consensus #1 second baseman dating back to 2015. He no longer holds that title — Gleyber Torres, Ozzie Albies, and Ketel Marte have narrowly crowded him out of the top spot — and I have this hunch that he never re-earns it.

It’s easy to see the faintest bit of writing on the wall. Most egregiously, he failed to steal double-digit bases for the first time since 2011, when he played only 57 games. (He actually stole more bases in those 57 games than he did in 124 last year.) He hit below .300 for the first time since 2014 thanks to a career-low BABIP. His swinging strike rate (SwStr%) rose to 9.0%, 3 percentage points higher than his career rate prior to 2019.

And you might say, well, that’s because he was injured. And that was true. And you might say, well, he also swung out of his shoes, which is why he set personal records in home runs (31) and isolated power (.252). That’s also true.

But the convergence of these unfamiliar traits — the declining speed, the eagerness to swing out of his shoes, a juiced ball, and a friendly home park that may have helped him significantly more than a neutral context — makes me uneasy, especially when I look at his Statcast metrics.

For a guy who cranked 30+ homers for the first time, his average exit velocity, both overall and on fly balls/line drives, barely budged from the prior year. Moreover, his launch angle actually decline slightly, resulting in slightly more grounders but, more importantly, far more pop-ups and far fewer line drives.

I don’t know if it’s the cause or the effect, but his launch angle tightness — the variance around his launch angle — was very consistent from 2015 through 2018, hovering between 26° to 27°. However, it ballooned to 30.5° last year. No one with more than 500+ plate appearances was worse than him. That’s… not good! He was up there north of Rougned Odor/Byron Buxton territory.

Again, it’s unclear what’s a cause or an effect. And it’s unclear this is a fixable issue, although, hey, it probably is, at least for someone as talented as Altuve. But if it isn’t, and he doesn’t, this could be the slow beginning of his end, at least in terms of him being considering among the game’s elite. Melodramatic? Perhaps. But was I being melodramatic when I thought Bumgarner’s fastball was broken and that he, too, might not longer be elite? Who’s to say.

Five More Less-Bold Predictions

The following predictions and neither bold nor concrete, by design. They might be bold, to an extent, but not for my standards, and definitely not based on my observations of discussions in the wider Twitter-based fantasy baseball community. Somewhat ironically, these are all pitchers, whereas my five primary bold predictions were all hitters. Not intentional! Just the way the cookie crumbles.

These pitchers will all take the lauded Next StepTM:

  1. Zac Gallen (NFBC ADP: SP31, P43, 120 overall). It seems like, every year, there’s at least one pitcher who is a fairly obvious candidate to break out. Before 2017, it was Aaron Nola, James Paxton, and Robbie Ray. Before 2018, it was, to lesser extents, Blake Snell, Patrick Corbin, Germán Márquez… Last year, it was Shane Bieber and, to those who lent credence to his velo spike in the spring, Lucas Giolito. This year, Gallen seems to me the most obvious candidate to step up from potential mid-rotation arm to SP2 or better in 2021.
  2. Julio Urías (NFBC ADP: SP32, P45, 121 overall). Urías’ fastball notched a 12.1% swinging strike rate, 18th best of 106 four-seamers thrown at least 750 times last year. About a third of the superior 17 came from relievers while the remainder were comprised of the likes of Gerrit Cole, Justin Verlander, Charlie Morton, Blake Snell, Mike Clevinger, Max Scherzer, and Jacob deGrom. Toss in a slider that limits hard contact and a change-up with a whiff rate north of 21% (19th of 136 thrown at least 200 times), and it becomes abundantly clear the seeds for his long-awaited breakout have finally been sown.
  3. Robbie Ray (NFBC ADP: SP39, P57, 145 overall). This tweet from Lance Brozdowski of sums it up. This one is more of a wild card, but the fact that Ray achieved glowing results in spring/summer while his mechanics appear visibly cleaner suggests to me he could take steps forward in terms of both control and contact quality allowed.
  4. Joe Musgrove (NFBC ADP: SP56, P78, 198 overall). Ben Clemens noticed Musgrove’s velocity bump from late last year, which carried over to this spring/summer. If Musgrove has at least an above-average fastball to pair with two already-excellent secondaries, then we may finally enjoy the Musgrove breakout some of us longed for the last year or two.
  5. Dylan Bundy (NFBC ADP: SP57, P80, 209 overall). Trigger warning: outside of pinpoint command, Bundy’s peripherals mirror Shane Bieber’s. (It’s OK to roll your eyes here.) Unfortunately, Bundy, despite flashes of promise, has suffered from a brutal home park and extremely poor pitch framers (something from which Bieber has historically benefited to no small degree). Maybe a move to a neutral ballpark with league-average-or-better backstops (Max Stassi was elite last year!) and different coaching will boost his outcomes — maybe not immensely, but enough to make him serviceable, if not consistently usable, in mixed leagues as opposed to a dangerous streamer. Heck, maybe he actually breaks out. I won’t hold my breath, but I’m cautiously optimistic, having scooped up a couple of speculative shares on the cheap. Regardless, his situation has undoubtedly improved.

Currently investigating the relationship between pitcher effectiveness and beard density. Two-time FSWA award winner, including 2018 Baseball Writer of the Year, and 5-time award finalist. Featured in Lindy's Sports' Fantasy Baseball magazine (2018, 2019). Tout Wars competitor. Biased toward a nicely rolled baseball pant.

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