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Nick Dika’s Bold Predictions for 2019

Ah yes. Predictions. While they might not always be accurate, they sure are fun to make. So comin’ in hot just ahead of opening day in Japan are my boldest ideas about what will happen during the 2019 baseball season.

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2018’s Worst Outfield Defenses and What They Mean for Pitchers in 2019

2018 saw some ugly outfield defense. If DRS isn’t your thing, the teams that posted baseball’s worst outfield DRS numbers ranked towards the very bottom of the league in Statcast’s Outs Above Average (OAA) and Baseball Prospectus’ Fly Ball Efficiency statistics as well. By any measure, these are some of baseball’s weakest outfield defenders.

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Can Austin Barnes Still Breakout?

This time last year, Austin Barnes looked poised for a potential breakout after he slashed .289/.408/.486 with a 142 wRC+ in 263 plate appearances during the 2017 season. Unfortunately for the Dodgers, Barnes took a step backwards in 2018. His strikeout rate jumped from 16.4%, all the way up to 28.2%, and his slash line fell to a near-unplayable .205/.329/.290.

With incumbent Yasmani Grandal now in Milwaukee, Barnes has a more direct path to playing time. The 29-year-old will begin 2019 in a platoon with fellow righty, Russell Martin. Its possible that Barnes could inherit the lion’s share of the playing time if Martin gets hurt or continues to see his offensive production decline with age. With only 574 major league plate appearances across four seasons, it remains to be seen if Barnes is the starting-caliber hitter he was in 2017 or the glove-first backup of 2018.

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What Went Wrong: Joey Votto

2018 was undoubtedly a disappointing season for Joey Votto. After pairing his high average, high OBP production with the second highest home run total of his career (36) in 2017, Votto saw his full-season home run total drop below 20 for the first time. And it wasn’t just the home runs that disappeared. Votto posted the lowest slugging percentage (.419) and ISO (.135) of his career.

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Half Season Heroes: Lourdes Gurriel Jr.

Lourdes Gurriel Jr.’s 2018 was a season of extremes. After being called up on April 20th, he struggled in his first taste of major league action – slashing .206/.229/.309 with a 43 wRC+ in 70 plate appearances before being sent to triple-A, Buffalo. After being re-called in July, Gurriel went on an absolute tear – slashing .423/.438/.648 with a 200 wRC+. Unsurprisingly, his BABIP was .456 during the month of July. Incredibly, Gurriel walked only once during his epic hot streak (and missed a week in the middle of the month with a concussion). On July 29th, Gurriel sprained his left ankle and spent most of August on the disabled list. Upon his return, he struggled once again, posting a .226/.270/.368 slash line with 4 home runs and a 69 wRC+.

Overall, the 25-year-old rookie finished 2018 hitting .281/.309/.446 with 11 home runs and a 103 wRC+ in 263 plate appearances.

Based on his rookie season, Gurriel looks to be a player that does some things very well and some things very poorly.

Lourdes hits the ball hard. Per Baseball Savant, his average exit velocity (90.3 mph) is well above the league mean. 45.6 percent of his batted balls were struck at over 95 mph – a mark that puts him inside the top ten percent in baseball (minimum 250 at bats) and ahead of players like Paul Goldschmidt, Anthony Rendon, Bryce Harper and Matt Carpenter. Gurriel makes little soft contact (15.5 percent) and is very good at avoiding infield fly balls (3.2 percent).

Gurriel also displayed more power in 2018 – hitting 18 home runs over three levels (AA, AAA and MLB) after hitting just 5 in 2017 – both truncated seasons, as he missed significant time with injuries.

One reason that Gurriel is able to make so much hard contact is his ability to hit the fastball. Gurriel slugged .575 with 7 home runs and a .400 wOBA against fastballs and cutters this season. His ability to handle the fastball is likely part of the reason Gurriel is so aggressive – he swung at 37.8 percent of first pitches in his rookie season.

While Gurriel is able to crush fastballs, he struggles against offspeed and breaking pitches.

Lourdes Gurriel Jr. vs. Pitch Types
AVG SLG Whiff%
Fastball 0.328 0.541 14.3
Breaking 0.232 0.329 35.1
Offspeed 0.244 0.400 43.2

In addition to not being able to handle anything with a wrinkle, Gurriel’s plate approach will likely have to improve if he’s going to see success as a major league hitter. He rarely walks – his 3.4% walk rate was seventh worst among all players with at least 250 plate appearances. His minor league numbers were not much better – he posted a .297 OBP over two seasons in the Blue Jays’ organization.

Since 2000, only eight players have produced a wRC+ of 110 or higher with a walk rate below 4 percent and a strikeout rate above 20 percent. Of those eight players, no one has posted at least a 110 wRC+ more than once. Even in 2018, the Javier Baez plate approach is the exception rather than the rule.

Low Walk, High Strikeout Seasons Since 2000
Season Name Tm BB% K% AVG OBP SLG wRC+
2002 Alfonso Soriano NYY 3.10% 21.19% 0.300 0.332 0.547 131
2010 John Buck TOR 3.66% 25.40% 0.281 0.314 0.489 114
2011 Reed Johnson CHC 1.88% 23.68% 0.309 0.348 0.467 121
2012 Michael Morse WSN 3.72% 22.56% 0.291 0.321 0.470 113
2014 Delmon Young BAL 3.92% 20.00% 0.302 0.337 0.442 120
2014 C.J. Cron LAA 3.95% 24.11% 0.256 0.289 0.450 112
2015 Jonathan Schoop BAL 2.80% 24.61% 0.279 0.306 0.482 113
2018 Adalberto Mondesi KCR 3.78% 26.46% 0.276 0.306 0.498 114

It is worth remembering that Gurriel Jr. is still only 25. He posted a .362 OBP in six years of play in the Cuban National Series and was able to keep his strikeout rate below 17 percent until he reached triple-A partway through his 2018 season. If his power growth is real, he could posses the upside of someone like Miguel Andujar with slightly less home run potential.

Gurriel is eligible at second base and shortstop, and as of right now, will enter the 2019 season competing for at-bats in the Blue Jays’ middle infield. Everything the team has said suggests they want to give Gurriel an opportunity to establish himself, but even after the trade of Aledmys Diaz, he could still be battling for playing time with Troy Tulowitzki, Brandon Drury, Devon Travis and (possibly) Richard Urena. The Jays also have one of baseball’s best prospects in shortstop Bo Bichette, who could be factoring into the playing time mix sooner rather than later as well.

Lourdes Gurriel Jr. will need to work on his plate discipline and learn to hit something other than a fastball if he’s going to see sustained success in the majors. But with his ability to hit the ball hard and indications in his minor league numbers that improvements are possible, Gurriel is an intriguing player heading into 2019. Just make sure to keep a close eye out for skills improvement and a path to playing time.

Breakout Breakdown: Mike Foltynewicz

One reason the Atlanta Braves surprised the baseball world and won the National League East was the strength of the team’s starting pitching. Sean Newcomb turned in a 2 WAR/3.90 ERA season; Anibal Sanchez reinvented himself at age-34; and several youngsters (Michael Soroka, Touki Toussaint) were effective in limited action. But without Mike Foltynewicz’ stellar season, the Braves may not have turned into NL East champs ahead of schedule in 2018.

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Why We Missed: Manny Machado

After a poor first half in 2017, Manny Machado finished with the lowest full-season batting average (.259) and on-base percentage (.310) of his career. He slugged under .500 for the first time since 2014. But with a strong second half and some very bad batted ball luck (.259 BABIP despite a top 2 percent hard hit rate according to Statcast), Machado was still being drafted in the top-20 in 2018, with an ADP of 17.3.

Given Machado was selected so early, to say that we missed on him may not be the most accurate statement. But 2018’s playoff villain is certainly a player that provided added value despite his lofty draft position; and one worthy of discussion.

This season, Machado’s .905 OPS was good for eleventh best among qualified hitters. His 37 home runs tied for ninth and his 107 RBIs tied for eighth in baseball. Machado ranked as the eleventh best hitter on the ESPN player rater. The multi-eligible Machado was the fifth best shortstop (with Alex Bregman nipping at his heels) and the third highest ranked third baseman. The free-agent-to-be has once again cemented himself as a late first or early second round pick in 2019 – he was picked as high as sixth in Justin Mason’s 2 Early Mock Drafts with an ADP of 11.6.

So what went right for Machado in 2018 that went wrong in 2017? Machado uncharacteristically struggled with four-seam fastballs – hitting only .242 against the pitch. Machado hit .356 against four-seam fastballs in 2016 and rebounded to hit .337 against them in 2018 – suggesting it was likely random variance (and again, batted ball luck) more than an inability to handle the pitch.

Machado also decided to steal a few more bases in 2018. After stealing nine in 2017 (and zero in 2016), Machado was fourteen for sixteen in stolen base attempts this season. As the pool of stolen bases continues to shrink, Machado’s fourteen steals are more valuable than ever – only three top twenty hitters (Paul Goldschmidt, J.D. Martinez and Nolan Arenado) stole under ten bases. If Machado decides against running in 2019 and beyond, he could see his value drop once again. Something that is admittedly hard to predict given Machado seems to start and stop running at will.

One confusing trend that lingered in 2018 was Machado’s home and road splits. Machado slashed .329/.415/.622 with a 179 wRC+ at home compared to .272/.325/.468 and 106 wRC+ on the road.

Mike Petriello dove into Machado’s home/road splits last season and discovered that despite differences in his numbers, Machado was still hitting the ball hard on the road. He mentions how Machado was able to post stronger road numbers in 2015 and 2016 – evidence that his home/road splits are confusing but not part of a larger trend to be particularly concerned about.

Petriello’s observations appear to be holding true in 2018.

Manny Machado 2018 Home/Road Splits
Slash wRC+ wOBA xWOBA Hard Hit%
Home .360/.448/.691 203 0.471 0.420 33.8%
Away .274/.329/.468 108 0.330 0.349 38.6%
Home .280/.364/.523 144 0.370 0.388 45.9%
Away .269/.322/.468 105 0.328 0.325 40.6%
Home .295/.353/.533 137 0.376 0.386 34.3%
Away .271/.319/.443 104 0.324 0.341 34.5%

He has seen some good luck in his actual verses expected wOBA at home and some bad luck on the road, but not enough that would account for his actual home/road splits.

In 2018 Machado continued to hit better at home – even when his home park wasn’t hitter-friendly. Dodger Stadium’s run suppressing environment didn’t seemed to affect Machado after his trade to Los Angeles. Machado posted an .887 OPS in 121 PA’s in Los Angeles this season compared to a .790 OPS on the road with the Dodgers.

His hard hit data shows some fluctuation, albeit not enough to suggest there is a clear issue at play. Machado posted a higher hard hit percentage in road games with Baltimore this season and a lower hard hit rate on the road while playing with LA. His career his hard hit percentage is almost identical on the road verses at home. Nothing in his batted ball distribution suggests he should be producing different results, either.

While Baltimore was a good place for Machado to hit, so were some of the parks he visited most frequently on the road. At Fenway Park and Yankee Stadium, Machado has slashed .289/.329/.473 with a 116 wRC+ over 416 plate appearances. He has hit 16 home runs and posted a 12.1 percent HR/FB rate – slightly below the league average rate of 12.7 percent. If you expand to include Texas and Toronto (a park more conducive to home runs than overall run scoring) his slash line is .268/.319/.450 with 24 homers and a 107 wRC+ in 726 PAs.

If Machado’s splits could be attributed to playing his home games in Baltimore, his success should have translated into other hitter-friendly ballparks in the American League; and not Dodger Stadium.

Manny Machado’s home/road splits continue confuse. He hits the ball hard and consistently enough that we shouldn’t see this much difference. He even seems to struggle (relative to his home production) in hitter’s parks on the road. It’s possible Machado hits fewer home runs next year if he signs with a team that plays in a pitcher-friendly ballpark. Or he might continue to hit well at home and struggle on the road. Machado’s ability to outperform his road production in Dodger Stadium and struggle at Yankee Stadium and Fenway Park would suggest either is possible.

Machado is a great hitter and even in a worst-case scenario should return top-30 value next season. He just seems to have a strange way of getting there.

What Went Wrong: Carlos Correa

In a world where almost everything requires nuance and subtlety (or at least it should), once in a while we are treated to a relatively simple explanation. In 2018, Carlos Correa’s side and back injuries were very likely the cause of his poor performance and reduced offensive production.

After a 2017 season that saw Correa post a .315/.391/.550 line with 24 home runs, he saw his overall production dip to .239/.323/.405 with 15 home runs in 468 PAs.

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Teams Providing the Least 2018 Fantasy Value: Pitchers Edition

With the season coming to a close, now is a good time to look back to see which MLB teams provided fantasy owners with the most valuable pitching resources this season.

This chart looks at players currently ranked in the top-50 at starting pitcher and top-25 at relief pitcher in both CBS (points) and ESPN (roto) rankings – broken down by team. If you’re curious about which players ranked where, a detailed breakdown of the ranks are found here. If a player was eligible at both starting pitcher and relief pitcher, they were only included once, and if a player was ranked in the top 50/25 in one format, but not the other, they were not included. If a player was traded, the team which they pitched a greater number of innings was given credit.

Fantasy Value By Team
American League National League
Team Pitchers Ranked Team Pitchers Ranked
Indians 5 Mets 4
Red Sox 4 Dodgers 4
Yankees 3 Pirates 3
Mariners 3 Rockies 3
Astros 3 Brewers 3
Rangers 2 Cardinals 3
A’s 2 Nationals 2
Twins 1 Cubs 2
Tigers 1 D-Backs 2
Rays 1 Braves 1
Blue Jays 1 Phillies 1
White Sox 0 Reds 1
Royals 0 Padres 1
Orioles 0 Marlins 0
Angels 0 Giants 0

As was the case with the most valuable fantasy hitters, baseball’s better teams feature more pitching contributors than rebuilding and non-contending ones.

This didn’t stop the 73-84 Mets from contributing three starters and one reliever to the ranks. While Jacob deGrom, Noah Syndergaard and Jeurys Familia were expected to pay fantasy dividends, Zack Wheeler (19 at CBS and 23 at ESPN) was one of fantasy’s biggest surprises in 2018. Wheeler posted a 3.31 ERA (3.24 FIP) and 179 strikeouts in 182.1 innings for the Mets this season. Most notably, Wheeler cut his walk rate– down to 2.79 BB/9 after posting a career rate of 3.57 BB/9. A change that Mets’ manager Mickey Callaway attributes to Wheeler attacking the strike zone more aggressively early in the count. Wheeler’s pedigree and approach changes will make him an interesting player heading into 2019 drafts.

The Mariners and fantasy owners enjoyed surprise seasons from Wade LeBlanc and Marco Gonzales. Neither Gonzales or LeBlanc generate a ton of K’s, but both pitchers limit walks and kept their ERA’s under 4.15 – good enough to rank towards the bottom of the top-50 in both points and roto formats at starting pitcher.

With more teams electing to take a committee approach to closing, the top relief pitchers featured several non/part-time closers in ESPN formats. Josh Hader, Adam Ottavino and David Robertson all rank in the top-25 at ESPN despite few saves to boost their value – Ottavino and Robertson have 11 saves between the two of them and Hader has 11 to his name. Relievers that spent the majority of their season closing – Shane Greene and Brad Boxberger, both of whom collected over 30 saves each, missed the top-25.

In Atlanta, only Mike Foltynewicz placed in the top-50 at both sites. Braves’ starters Sean Newcomb, Julio Teheran and Kevin Gausman all ranked in the top-50 in the CBS game. Anibal Sanchez, who has enjoyed a resurgent season at age-34, ranked 38th at ESPN and 60th at CBS. Sanchez’ FIP is three quarters of a run higher than his ERA (2.96) but still sits at a respectable 3.67. Sanchez has been able to limit home runs in 2018 (1.03 HR/9) and with homers down throughout baseball, the gopher balls that derailed his 2015-17 seasons may not be a problem for him moving forward, either.

The Cardinals enjoyed productive fantasy seasons from Miles Mikolas, Jack Flaherty and the now deposed closer, Bud Norris. A healthy Carlos Martinez or Alex Reyes and a rebound from Luke Weaver could mean even more fantasy value from the St. Louis staff in 2019.

On the offensive side of the game, only three teams failed to produce a fantasy hitter in the top-12 at any position. Only four teams contributed just one. When it comes to pitchers, the talent is more heavily concentrated at the top. Six teams failed to produce a fantasy starter or reliever on the list and eight more produced only one.

The Chicago White Sox might be the most promising of these teams. Some of their young pitchers – Lucas Giolito, Reynaldo Lopez and Carlos Rodon could take a step forward and provide fantasy value next season. Top prospect Michael Kopech will be sidelined for 2019 while he recovers from Tommy John surgery but could be an impact pitcher upon his return. Dylan Cease is another highly touted White Sox pitching prospect that looked good during his ten starts at double-A this summer. In addition to Kopech and Cease, Alec Hansen (91), Zack Burdi (111) and Dane Dunning (113) all place in the FanGraphs Top 131 prospect list.

Unfortunately for some of the worst performing teams, there doesn’t appear to be immediate help on the way. The Orioles, Royals and Giants don’t have a single pitching prospect ranked on the FanGraphs list. A rebound season from Madison Bumgarner or consistency from Dylan Bundy (stop me if you’ve heard this before) could be sources of fantasy value in 2019.

The Blue Jays (Nate Pearson), Angels (Griffin Canning) and Twins (Stephen Gonsalves) have only one prospect each on the list. Shohei Ohtani will likely miss 2019 (at least as a pitcher) but could be elite upon his return to the mound in Anaheim. Kyle Gibson, who just missed ranking this season, could place if he is able to repeat his performance. A rebound from Marcus Stroman or Aaron Sanchez is not out of the question, but also far from a sure thing given their recent performance and recurring finger problems.

Pitching can be tough to predict, but based on the 2018 results, there may be some teams that you want to steer clear of when drafting your 2019 fantasy pitching staff.

Bullpen Report: September 25, 2018

With the Brewers up 6-4 in St. Louis, Corey Knebel took the ball in a save situation for the first time since mid-August. Knebel has been lights out since returning from triple-A on September 2nd. The Brewers’ righty has racked up 24 strikeouts while allowing only 2 hits and 0 runs in 12.1 innings. Knebel struck out the side (around a hit batter) to earn his sixteenth save of the season.

Jeremy Jeffress was not sitting in the bullpen last night and was unavailable due to neck spasms. Jeffress is considered day-to-day right now and Knebel could be in line for saves this week if Jeffress misses more than just tonight. Joakim Soria pitched the eighth inning with a one-run lead.

The Yankees continue to run a firm committee in the ninth inning. With three left-handed hitters due up, Aaron Boone turned to Zach Britton to hold a 4-1 lead against the Rays. Britton ended up facing two right-handed pinch hitters (Carlos Gomez and C.J. Cron) but struck out all three. Cron however, reached on a passed ball and Britton induced a Jake Bauers pop up to end it.

Aroldis Chapman, who continues to work his way back from a knee injury, struck out two and walked one while pitching the seventh inning. Dellin Betances, who collected the save on Saturday night, pitched a clean eighth.

Amongst a chorus of (well deserved) boos before every pitch, Roberto Osuna earned a save against his former team on Monday night. After running a committee with Hector Rendon when Osuna was first reinstated from the suspended list, A.J. Hinch has used Osuna as the primary closer since the beginning of September. Osuna has collected 7 saves while allowing 4 hits (1HR) in 8.2 September innings.

With Keone Kela shut down for the season in order to manage his workload, Richard Rodriguez pitched the eighth inning with the Pirates up 4-1 against the Cubs. Rodriguez, who surrendered an infield hit and struck out two batters, hasn’t allowed a run since August 14th and has enjoyed a strong 2018 campaign. Rodriguez has posted a 31.8 percent strikeout rate against only a 6.7 percent walk rate to go along with a 2.43 ERA (2.61 FIP). He might not be the first pitcher in line for saves either this year or next, but he could be the source of elite rate stats with top-10 closer potential if he is able to secure an opportunity.

Cody Allen made his first appearance since September 15th when he pitched a clean ninth inning against the White Sox on Monday night. Allen has been throwing outside of game situations in an effort to work on mechanical tweaks and manage his workload, something he’s done in years past as well. Allen collected two strikeouts and Andrew Miller pitched the eighth.

Ty Buttrey blew his second save in four days on Monday night. Ronald Guzman hit a double off the top of the center field wall and Elvis Andrus singled him home. Given Mike Scioscia’s bullpen management, Blake Parker or Justin Anderson could get the next save chance.

Quick Hits: Several closers pitched in non-save situations on Monday. Blake Treinen extended his scoreless appearance streak on Monday when he pitched a clean ninth against the Mariners. Jose Leclerc faced the heart of the Angels’ order in the bottom of the tenth (0H, 1BB) in Anaheim with the Angels and Rangers tied 4-4.

Kirby Yates got the last out of the game after Bryan Mitchell pitched 8.2 innings of shutout ball against the Giants and collected the save for his efforts. Felipe Vazquez closed out a 5-1 Pirates victory.