Ariel Cohen’s 2019 Bold Predictions

Opening day is finally here!

Draft season is now ending. It is time for our fantasy teams to finally start accumulating statistics (Japan series aside). After the long winter, the excitement of a new season has finally reached its pinnacle.

Now it is time to share my 2019 bold predictions with you. The ATC Projections helped shape some of these. Others come from my own personal analysis on the player, or team situation. The rest arise from blind optimism or the crossing of my fingers. These are all possibilities that could happen, that I feel will happen if things break just right.

I always feel the need to clarify this next point. These are bold predictions, not crazy predictions. I am not going to predict that Dee Gordon will lead the majors in homers, nor that Khris Davis will contend for the AL batting title. That ilk of prediction cannot and will not happen.

With the following, I aim to be bold. These are possibilities which aren’t likely but could very well happen. I never (nor should you) draft a fantasy team based on any one or all of these predictions. Yet, these are all achievable upsides for 2019.

These bold predictions all lie roughly in the 70th to 90th range of percentile possible outcomes. The idea is to possibly get some 10-30% of these predictions right. Hopefully more.

A couple of weeks ago, I was assisting my esteemed colleague Jeff Zimmerman in an NFBC main event draft in New York. At some point in the middle of the serpentine selection process, fellow Tout Chris Liss decided to select 8 straight pitchers. During the ensuing break, I egged him on to select a 9th in a row – citing that baseball is a game of nines. And so, he did. For the final 9 selections of our draft, we too played the same game in selecting nine straight pitchers.

In honor of the holy baseball number nine, I’ll go with 9 bold predictions for 2019.

#1: Matt Barnes will finish as a top 5 saves leader in 2019

The Red Sox are good. Actually, they are VERY good. After winning the World Series, FanGraphs currently has them projected to win 94 games in 2019. Clay Davenport has the Red Sox projected for 93 wins in the coming year. PECOTA has them down for a 90-win season. It isn’t a stretch to say that the Red Sox are due to contend for another AL East title.

In 2018, about half of all major league games were “saved.” That is, a save statistic was recorded for 50% of team wins, on average.  As a percent of all games won, it is true that the top baseball teams do not save as many of their wins than their bottom counterparts. However, since the top teams win more games – they also save more games.

Below are MLB win and save statistics from 2018:

2018 Team Win and Save Statistics
2018 Team W AVG SV AVG SV/W
Top 10 96.3 46.0 47.8%
Mid 10 82.8 43.1 52.1%
Bottom 10 64.0 35.3 55.2%

The point is that identifying the pitcher ticketed for the closer role on a top team will potentially yield you a large number of saves on your fantasy team.

This bold prediction is predicated on the Red Sox being very good (not so bold), but also on Matt Barnes winning the closer role, and keeping it for the full season. Given that Barnes is the 24th relief pitcher being selected in drafts this year, this prediction qualifies as bold.

Matt Barnes has a huge strikeout rate. His K/9 in 2018 was 14! He was even better in the 2nd half as his strikeout rate rose to 16 K/9. His underlying skills back that up – with a ’18 swinging strike rate of 15% (18% in the 2nd half alone). His average fastball velocity last season was 97 MPH, which is near elite.

Barnes doesn’t get a good enough look by fantasy owners, because his ERA in the 2nd half last season was 5.00, and of course, he didn’t get to save any games with Craig Kimbrel in town. But Matt’s BABIP last season was .321, which is high – and in the 2H it was over .450! He was hugely unlucky.

Barnes is an underrated player who can, and I believe will hold down the closer roll for the Sox. If he does, he will finish as a top 5 saves source for the season.

#2: Michael Conforto will hit 40 HRs

It is no secret that I am a Mets fan, but this prediction has little to do with my affinity for the New York National League club.

In late 2017, Conforto suffered a devastating shoulder injury, that required surgery. At that point in time, it looked like Conforto could miss almost half of 2018 or more. Michael made an early return to the lineup on April 5, 2018 – where he went 1 for 4 with a homerun!

However, it is possible that Conforto wasn’t at full strength for the majority of the season.

Michael Conforto 2018 Statistics By Month
Month G AB HR BA SLG
April 20 63 1 0.222 0.317
May 25 90 5 0.256 0.444
June 26 91 4 0.198 0.374
July 24 77 4 0.247 0.455
August 30 110 5 0.236 0.409
Sept/Oct 28 112 9 0.286 0.616
SOURCE: Baseball-Reference

After the HR is his first game, Conforto didn’t hit another homerun for the rest of April. In each subsequent month, he hit 4-5 homeruns with a mediocre batting average. Then in September …. It clicked! Conforto mashed close to double-digit homers with a .286 BA to close the season.

Conforto this Spring has looked solid. He hit five round trippers, while posting a .258 BA and knocking in 15 runs. He has struck out 17 times while only walking thrice – so he won’t post a fantastic batting average, but the power is real. Last season, he had a 19.7% HR/FB ratio, but I think he can beat that as he did with a 27.3% mark back in 2017.

ATC has him projected for 32 HRs, and even THE BAT has Conforto projected for 30. It isn’t likely that he will hit 7+ homers a month to reach 40, but that’s what makes this prediction bold.

#3: Eddie Rosario will out earn Christian Yelich

My love for Eddie Rosario continues this Spring. After boldly predicting that Rosario would be a top 15 OF in ’18, I will once again stare down that same well in 2019.

Take a look at Rosario’s first half of last season. In 401 plate appearance, Rosario hit 19 HRs, stole 6 bases, scored 64 runs, knocked in 60 all while batting a lofty .311. Those are not only top 15 OF figures, but they are top 15 overall hitters too. In May & June of ’18, Rosario posted over a 1.000 OPS in each month.

Injuries then happened. Rosario had shoulder issues and hurt his quadriceps later in the season. But Rosario is healthy now. In spring training, he hit .326 with 4 HRs and 14 RBIs. He doesn’t walk much, but his swing is locked in once again.

As for Christian Yelich, the reigning National League MVP – I believe that regression is coming.

Christian Yelich Batted Ball Metrics
Season BABIP GB% FB% HR/FB
2013 0.380 63.20% 13.80% 16.70%
2014 0.356 61.00% 17.80% 11.50%
2015 0.370 62.50% 15.00% 12.50%
2016 0.356 56.50% 20.00% 23.60%
2017 0.336 55.40% 25.20% 15.30%
2018 0.373 51.80% 23.50% 35.00%

Yelich traditionally hits for a high BABIP, but .373 is unsustainable even for him. It does look like Yelich has shifted his ground balls to fly balls over the past few seasons – but a 35% HR/FB ratio is out-of-this-world, and not repeatable. If you simply cut that HR/FB rate down to his previous highest ratio of 24%, that knocks out about a third of his homers – which is roughly what ATC and the other projection systems are expecting.

There is no doubt that Yelich, the reigning National League’s Most Valuable Player is now firmly elite – but don’t expect anything close to what he produced last season.

I wouldn’t consider taking Rosario over Yelich in any draft in 2019 – but a touch of over-correction for Yelich, and a touch of skills growth for Rosario – will put them pretty close in fantasy value.

#4: Max Fried will be the Braves’ most valuable starting pitcher

Looking at NFBC ADPs for drafts since March 15th, I would say that I am covered on the bold front.

Atlanta Braves Starting Pitchers – Average Draft Position
Player ADP
Mike Foltynewicz 157
Kevin Gausman 256
Julio Teheran 267
Sean Newcomb 272
Touki Toussaint 370
Kyle Wright 478
Mike Soroka 619
Max Fried 638
SOURCE: NFBC

Max Fried recently won a spot in the Braves rotation over some other quality starting pitchers, including besting out Touki Toussaint.

This Spring, Fried compiled a sparkling 2.08 ERA, 1.15 WHIP with 18 Ks, and only a .219 batted against average (BAA) in 17.1 IP. Last season, in just over 33 innings he struck out 44 batters (a K/9 of 11.8), yielding an ERA of 2.94. His FIP and xFIP was decent at 3.67 and 3.24, respectively. Max’s swinging strike was at 13% last year, which is excellent.

Fried’s walks are a bit concerning but aren’t alarming. If his command can take the next step – his fantasy value will soar. Until then, he still has a high groundball rate to go along with his excellent strikeout rate – so his floor will be quite high.

With no healthy Braves starter taken before pick 250 (Folty isn’t healthy), and with Fried starting in the rotation from Day #1 – I can absolutely see Max Fried as one of the best Braves in 2019.

#5: The Cincinnati Reds will make the playoffs

This prediction is also a favorite of my drafting partner and fellow podcast-mate, Reuven Guy (@mlbinjuryguru).

The Reds this year have completely re-vamped their starting pitching staff. According to Roster Resource the rotation is:

Cincinnati Reds – Projected Starting Pitcher Rotation
SOURCE: Roster Resource

Castillo compiled a 2.63 ERA and a 1.01 WHIP in the second half of last season. That’s two terrific second halves in a row. He may be able to take the next step to acedom [is that a word?].

Cincinnati Reds – 2019 Spring Training
Player IP K BB
Sonny Gray 10.0 11 0
Tanner Roark 21.1 25 6
Anthony DeSclafani 23.2 20 6
Tyler Mahle 14.1 16 2
SOURCE: MLB.com

As for the rest of the staff, above are their Spring training strikeout and walk figures, which all seem superior. Tanner Roark has had a nice Spring with 25 Ks, with just 6 BBs (1.03 WHIP), and a .205 BAA. Desclafani was akin to Roark this Spring with a 20:6 K/BB ratio, posting a 3.04 ERA, 1.14 WHIP and .233 BAA. Mahle looked quite decent, and Gray didn’t walk a batter in 10 IP, with only one run given up. There is something very interesting to this rotation this year …

Their bullpen is largely intact from last season, led by closer Raisel Iglesias.

The Reds have also added a number of key bats in the off-season, most notably – Yasiel Puig and Matt Kemp. Additionally, they added Jose Iglesias for defense.

The Reds have a number of rookies or upside players on their team. Jesse Winker is a high batting average player with excellent contact. He has a touch of pop, which will make him an ideal leadoff batter. Nick Senzel, the high-profile rookie will be up on the big-league club in a few short weeks. Scooter Gennett (although injured) was a possible middle of the lineup player … and hopefully will be able to give the club some magic down the stretch after he recovers. Yasiel Puig is a 5-tool player, who will bat in the heart of the lineup. Jose Peraza, is an undervalued player that will lengthen the lineup (previously discussed here). Of course, there are also very productive veterans such as Joey Votto and Eugenio Suarez to round out the troop. A bounce back year for Votto would be enormous.

Like the Oakland Athletic teams from recent history, I see a team that has few holes. The Reds have a high minimum individual player WAR at each position. To borrow some fantasy terms – it isn’t a Stars and Scrubs team – it is a Spread the Risk team. Though this team isn’t positioned to win 90+ games, it may sneak into the playoffs with a mid-80s win total, and a pinch of luck.

On the FanGraphs playoff odds page, the Reds are given a 16.3% chance to make the playoffs – right in the 10-30% wheelhouse that I mentioned up top. With a hot start to the season, and with an NL Central team without a clear favorite – you may be surprised to see the Reds in a pennant race down the stretch.

#6: Taylor Rogers finishes this season as the closer for the Twins

Another closer bold prediction!

I grabbed Taylor Rogers in round 25 of the Tout Wars Draft & Hold League. In the previous round, I had just grabbed Blake Parker … so this was an attempt to draft a large portion of the 2019 Minnesota saves (and I believe that the Twins will win the AL Central this year).

Rogers is possibly the highest skilled arm in the entire Twins bullpen. Had he not been born a southpaw, he’d likely already have landed the stopper gig. Last season, Rogers compiled 75 Ks in just 68.1 IP – a K/9 of about 10. He ended the season with a 2.63 ERA and an 0.95 WHIP. His first pitch strike rate was at 64%, he had a swinging strike rate of 12%, which rose to 13% in the second half. His average fastball velocity has been on the rise, ending up last season at 94 MPH. Speaking of this 2H – His ERA was 1.24 and his WHIP was just 0.66 … and he even was called upon for 2 saves.

I would imagine that Minnesota would be using Rogers mostly in the 8th inning, or in high leverage situations to start the season. But Blake Parker has warts, and Trevor May has had health issues in the past. If those two front line options don’t work out … Rogers could be called on to finish games.

#7: Josh Bell finishes a top 10 first baseman

As mentioned on a TGFBI Beat the Shift Podcast, Josh Bell was one of the greatest bargains relative to his market price for hitters this draft season according to the ATC projections. His NFBC ADP in March was 259, the 26th best first baseman. This qualifies as bold.

2018 wasn’t kind to Bell. He had the traditional “sophomore slump” after a brilliant 26 HR / 90 RBI rookie campaign in 2017.

Even though Bell had increased his flyball rate from 31% to 33% season to season, his homerun totals significantly ticked down mostly due to an unlucky HR/FB rate. In 2017, it was at 19%, but it cut by more than half last season to 9%. If that bounces back, he should have no issues getting back to 20-25 HRs.

I call Josh Bell a “Low Variance projection.” What I mean by that term – is that projections systems do not differ all that much from each other. In running the ATC projections – I look at a number of different projections for players, and sometimes they differ greatly. Not for Bell. If anything, a few projections jump him upwards. The projection systems all agree on ~18-19 HRs, mid to upper 70s RBIs, low to mid 70s runs, and a solid .350+ OBP. Valuations all place him earning right around $10 in a 15 team 5×5 league, but he went for just $2-4 in auctions.

Low variance projected players tend to be great places to mine for profit at the fantasy draft table, especially when they differ widely from market pricing. It’s low risk profit in my eye.

The first base pool this year is not as deep as usually. If we exclude a few multi-positional eligible players at 1B such as Gallo, Bellinger, Profar, Desmond and Muncy – ATC puts Bell at about the top 10-15 first baseman threshold. If Bell has any semblance of 2017, he will get squarely into the top 10.

#8: Zach Eflin out earns teammate Nick Pivetta

Nick Pivetta has been getting a lot of attention in the fantasy baseball world this offseason. However, I believe that Nick’s teammate, Zach Eflin, deserves more. Pivetta’s NFBC ADP in March was 143, while Eflin’s was 294. This prediction should be bold enough.

Zach Eflin had a fantastic first half of the season last year, which most people forgot. In 77 IP, Eflin threw for a 3.56 ERA, 1.21 WHIP, and 70 Ks (8.2 K/9). This wasn’t even lucky, as his BABIP was in the .320s.

Eflin’s skills set has been on the rise for the past few seasons. His first pitch strike has risen from 62% to 64% to 65% from 2016 to 2017 to 2018. His average fastball velocity went from 92 to 93 to 94 during that span. Last season, his swinging strike rate blossomed from 7% to 11%, up from 2017.

Even though Eflin had a disappointing second half last year (5.43 ERA), his skills remained intact … and he even increased his ground ball rate. He had horrible bad luck, where his HR/FB rate nearly tripled. Eflin will impress in 2019.

That isn’t to say that Pivetta won’t also be a fantastic pitcher this coming season. With a 13% swinging strike rate, a 63% first pitch strike, a K/9 of over 10 – Pivetta has all of the elements to be a successful major league pitcher for the Phillies and is also a sneaky fantasy pick this season.

I like Eflin better than Pivetta – and thus the bold prediction. Both are having a nice spring, but Eflin’s a touch better.

#9: Kole Calhoun finishes a top 35 outfielder.

What a ride for Calhoun in 2018.

Kole Calhoun – 2018 Statistics By Month
Month AB HR R BA
March/April 99 1 10 0.172
May 74 0 4 0.108
June 37 2 6 0.243
July 87 10 20 0.322
August 106 4 21 0.274
Sept/Oct 88 2 10 0.125
SOURCE: Baseball-Reference

After being shuttled down to AAA in the middle of the season, Calhoun came up again to the majors scorching. It is possible that he had an undisclosed injury, or that he simply needed to work on his swing, etc. Whatever the reason may be, the demotion seemed to have paid off.

In the second half of the season, Kole hit 16 HRs, 10 of which came in July alone! His awful full season batting average of .208 was somewhat fueled by a very low .241 BABIP.

It was not too long ago, that Calhoun was scoring a consistent 80-90 runs a season. Recency bias! Just a few short years ago, Calhoun hit 26 HRs, a total that he can repeat – and which he showed is within reach during his second half of 2018. With a touch of BABIP luck, he could jump to a .265+ BA. This Spring, Calhoun hit .327. It is a small sample size of course, and Spring training is just Spring training – but it is in the right direction!

Batting in front of Mike Trout sounds like the best possible place to be in order to score a ton of runs and to get good pitches to hit. If Calhoun can take what he learned in AAA and sustain that for a full season, he will be back to major fantasy relevance.

[As an aside, Ian Happ was sent down to AAA to start the season. Keep a lookout for him when he comes back.]

#10 – Extra Innings: Khris Davis hits exactly .246

A bonus bold prediction! This one is just for fun.

Well … after 4 straight seasons of Davis hitting exactly .247, I expect Davis to regress to his 5-year average of .246 (he hit .244 way back in 2014). The ATC projection for Davis is a .246 batting average to go along with 42 homeruns.

Davis is a very low risk fantasy player – you almost exactly know what you are going to be buying … and that is worth quite a lot at the draft table.

Of course, this bold prediction is an impossible one. Statistically speaking, players who are true .247 BA (or whatever) talents, can’t be expected to hit for exactly the same figure to the thousands of a decimal. There is far too much variability even after 600+ plate appearances. But hey, this is fun – and I’ll look pretty darn good if I nail it on the head.

_

Hopefully, I’ll win it in extra innings!

I tried to give more “positive” bold predictions this year, and less of the “will not be a top X …” ilk. That makes it tougher for me to strike the predictions as successes, but I think that is better for you, the reader – you’ll get more out of these.

This concludes the off-season and thank you for reading! Follow me this season on Twitter at @ATCNY, and of course right here at FanGraphs. Good luck to everyone this year in your leagues and enjoy the 2019 baseball season!

We hoped you liked reading Ariel Cohen’s 2019 Bold Predictions by Ariel Cohen!

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Ariel was a finalist for two 2018 FSWA Awards - Baseball Article of the Year, and Baseball Writer of the Year. Ariel is the creator of the ATC (Average Total Cost) Projection System. Ariel also writes for CBS Sports and Sportsline, and is the host of the Great Fantasy Baseball Invitational - Beat the Shift Podcast. Ariel and his fantasy partner, Reuven Guy, have used the ATC system projections to finish in the money in several NFBC, RTSports, Doubt Wars and other national leagues, racking up several division titles. Ariel is a member of the inaugural Tout Wars Drat & Hold League. Ariel Cohen is a fellow of the Casualty Actuarial Society (CAS) and the Society of Actuaries (SOA). He is a Vice President of Risk Management for a large international insurance and reinsurance company. Follow Ariel on Twitter at @ATCNY.

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WARonEverything
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WARonEverything

Seems you put a lot more emphasis on spring numbers than most….