Josh Shepardson’s 10 Bold Predictions

Making bold predictions is one of my favorite activities in advance of an upcoming baseball season. It allows me — and the other writers partaking in the bold predictions series — to identify the bandwagons we’re on (or perhaps even driving). While now is the time of fluffy stories about players being in the best shape of their lives and poised for career years, not all is rainbows and butterflies. Below, you’ll find a few not so friendly bold predictions, too.

1) Miguel Sano will be a top-30 ranked player overall.
My man crush on Miguel Sano is strong. He flashed his upside belting 18 homers with a .269 batting average in 335 plate appearances with exquisite control of the strike zone (15.8% walk rate). The pitchfork carrying regression crowd will point to his .396 BABIP as being unsustainable. They’re correct, he’s not going to maintain a nearly .400 BABIP, but he will continue to post high BABIP marks. Sano totaled more than 240 plate appearances in five minor league stops (I’m counting Double-A in 2013 and 2015 as two different stops) and sported a BABIP of .307 or higher three times including a .315 BABIP in his last taste of the minors (286 plate appearances in Double-A in 2015). His batted ball profile supports a high BABIP as well. Last year, his 43.2% hard-hit ball rate ranked second only to Giancarlo Stanton among batters who totaled a minimum of 300 plate appearances. Furthermore, he also ranked second to Stanton among batters with a minimum of 100 at-bats in average FB/LD exit velocity (99.80 mph), according to Baseball Savant. He smokes the ball.

Sano should help offset some BABIP regression by pairing down his 35.5% strikeout rate. In his first stop at the Double-A level in 2013, he struck out in 29.3% of his plate appearances (276 plate appearances). After a lost year in 2014, he whittled his strikeout rate down to 23.8% in 286 plate appearances when repeating the level last season. The Show is a different animal than the majors, but the fact he’s showcased the ability to adjust in the upper minors is promising.

Digging into his plate discipline numbers paints the picture of a player can make huge gains in the strikeout rate department. Among hitters who totaled a minimum of 300 plate appearances, no one’s O-Contact% was lower than Sano’s (33.8%). In fact, the next closest player — Chris Carter — bested him by more than 10% (45.0% for Carter). By sheer luck, he should make marked improvements to his O-Contact%, and it’s not as if the young slugger was overly aggressive outside the strike zone. On the contrary, his 25.8% O-Swing% was tied for the 43rd lowest among hitters with a minimum of 300 plate appearances in 2015. Sano’s 76.3% Z-Contact% was no great shakes (86.7% was the league average last year), but it wasn’t truly dreadful. To add further perspective, Sano’s Z-Contact% was better than Kris Bryant‘s (75.8%) and George Springer’s (73.0%). Bryant and Springer posted strikeout rates of 30.6% and 24.2%, respectively, and Bryant posted a .275 batting average and Springer sported a .276 batting average. I believe Sano belts 35-plus homers with more than 180 runs and RBI combined and an average that’s a tick above .270. Add it all up, and you’ve got a special talent.

2) The Indians and Mets will account for six top-20 starting pitchers.
Projecting any of the six pitchers I expect to finish within the top 20 at starting pitcher wouldn’t be bold if done so in isolation, but given the rate of attrition of pitchers, collectively it qualifies as bold — in my opinion. Among pitchers who tallied a minimum of 150 innings, four in the top eight pitched for the Indians or Mets (Carlos Carrasco, Corey Kluber, Noah Syndergaard and Jacob deGrom) and two more cracked the top 17 (Danny Salazar and Matt Harvey). Harvey was the lowest ranked pitcher in the group ranking 17th with a 24.9% strikeout rate. The rest of the sextet’s statistical profile was jaw dropping, too, and all six ranked within the top 36 in FIP with five ranking within the top 21. This is a supremely talented group of pitchers, and as a nifty fallback, Steven Matz is a long-shot option to pick up the slack if one of these guys suffers an injury or falters. Matz turned in a 3.61 FIP, 22.8% strikeout rate and 1.23 WHIP in a half-dozen starts for the Mets last year.

3) David Ortiz will be a top-50 ranked player overall in his swan-song season.
It seems like forever ago many folks (myself included) were calling for the demise of Big Papi. He hit just .238 with a 100 wRC+ in 2009 and looked like he might be shot. In the six seasons since then he’s totaled a .288 batting average and 145 wRC+. Whoops, looks like cries of the sky falling on David Ortiz were premature. He’s aged like a fine wine and belted 37 homers with 108 RBI and a .273 batting average in 2015. Unlike many sluggers, Ortiz has great bat-to-ball skills and struck out in just 15.5% of his plate appearances last year. Ortiz struggled against southpaws last season (.231 batting average and 84 wRC+), but he’s just a year removed from hitting .275 with a 141 wRC+. If he can turn back the clock against lefties one more time this year, that could propel him to my lofty-ish projection since he’s remained great against righties.

4) Sonny Gray finishes the year ranked outside the top-50 starting pitchers.
Let me start by saying I’m not bothered by Sonny Gray beating his ERA estimators thus far in his career. He’s not the first person whose ERA bests his FIP, xFIP and SIERA. As a whole, his 2015 numbers are strong and indicate growth as a pitcher. Broken down into halves, though, there are serious red flags that go beyond the nosedive in production.

However, starting with the production, his ERA jumped from 2.04 in the first half to 3.74 in the second half. The stark inflation of his ERA lined up with his ERA estimators rising (2.69 FIP and 3.40 xFIP in the first half and 4.57 FIP and 4.10 xFIP in the second half). His strikeout rate dropped from 22.4% to 17.5% in the second half and his walk rate rose from 6.2% to 8.3%. I might be willing to write his poor second half off as parsing the data too small and arbitrarily using halves to measure his performance if not for some scary numbers within his PITCHf/x data.

In 2013, Gray’s velocity increased each month in the majors. In 2014, his fourseam fastball and sinker velocity peaked in June, according to Brooks Baseball, and remained within one mph of his peak velo in July and August before dipping below 94 mph on average for both fastballs in September. Last year, though, his fouseam fastball topped out averaging 95.06 mph in May and his sinker topped out that month as well at 94.94 mph on average. His velocity on both fastballs dropped every month and bottomed out at a 92.85 mph average velocity on his fourseam fastball and 92.82 mph average on his sinker in September. The separation in velocity between his fastballs and changeup was less than five mph the last two months of the year. The velocity changes coincided with a steady decline in his slider usage as well. He threw his slider 22.39% of the time in May and the usage dropped every month after. He used his slider less than 20% of the time the last three months of the year and threw it a meager 8.89% of the time in September. His curveball usage bounced all over the map month to month, and it’s not nearly as effective a bat-missing pitch as the slider, anyway. Gray’s slider featured a 24.41% whiff rate in 2015 while his curve netted a career low 9.07% whiff rate, per Brooks Baseball. Maybe Gray wore down during the dog days of summer, but his huge slide in velocity and decreased usage of his best put-away pitch will assure that I don’t own him on any fantasy rosters this year.

5) Clay Buchholz finishes the year ranked inside the top-40 starting pitchers.
I’ll keep this short and sweet with the Clay Buchholz-gush fest and direct you to check out this piece I wrote on March 11th. The cliff notes version of the linked article is that Buchholz struggles to stay healthy (189.1 innings career high in 2012 and just three years surpassing 170 innings), but he made substantial skills gains last year that included posting the highest SwStr% (10.6%) in a year in which he reached double-digit starts and a new low mark in walk rate (4.9%). Buchholz’s 3.26 ERA in 18 starts was supported by glowing ERA estimators (2.68 FIP, 3.30 xFIP and 3.35 SIERA). He changed his changeup — as colleague Eno Sarris noted last May — and its motion now mirrors his sinker. The change is a filthy pitch that induced a 22.18% whiff rate and 52.17% ground ball rate last season. In addition to throwing the changeup differently, he also threw harder in 2015 than he had since 2011, and he cut back on his fourseam fastball usage in favor of using his sinker more frequently. Predictably, he coaxed more worm burners last season (48.3%) than in 2014 (46.6%). If he can reach or exceed the 170.1 innings he totaled in 2014 with his new pitch mix and skills gains, that should be good enough to yield a hit on this prediction.

6) Stephen Vogt ranks outside the top-20 catchers.
Stephen Vogt’s big first half in 2015 resulted in earning an All-Star Game nod, but it was followed by a putrid second half. Down the stretch, he hit just four homers with a .217 average in 182 plate appearances. His walk rate dropped from 12.5% in the first half to 8.2% in the second half and coincided with a slight uptick in strikeout rate from 18.8% to 19.2%. The left-handed hitting backstop hit 14 of his homers in the first half, and he simply didn’t hit with the same authority in the second half. His hard-hit ball rate dropped from 29.5% to 22.7%, and he wasn’t able to pull the ball as frequently (45.5% in the first half and 38.6% in the second half). As a hitter who plays in a pitcher-friendly home ballpark and is well below average against lefties (.125 ISO and 76 wRC+ for his career), there’s a ton of pressure on him hitting righties hard to post strong fantasy numbers. Making matters even worse for Vogt, after playing 25 games (20 starts) at first base in 2015, he’s unlikely to see much — if any — time there this year with the off-season addition of Yonder Alonso. Josh Phegley earned a higher defensive grade behind the plate than Vogt last year, and Phegley also bested Vogt in per-game pitch framing value, according to StatCorner. Vogt’s going to have to hit much better than he did in the second half if he hopes to avoid falling into a timeshare behind the plate that extends beyond a strict platoon shielding him from southpaws.

7) Marcus Semien finishes the year with at least 18 homers, at least 15 steals and at least 80 runs.
Put down your torches and pitchforks, A’s fans. I don’t hate everyone on your favorite team. As a full-time starter in his first year with the A’s last year, Marcus Semien hit 15 homers with 11 stolen bases and 65 runs in 601 plate appearances. This prediction doesn’t feel all that bold, and it is probably my most tepid take in this piece. That said, Semien eclipsing 80 runs will require a move up in the order. Last season, he totaled just 213 plate appearances hitting higher than sixth in the order. Those plate appearances did come from the table-setter spots (35 hitting leadoff and 178 hitting second). Manager Bob Melvin — wisely — shot him up the order when the club faced southpaws. The shortstop recorded a .372 OBP against left-handed pitchers last year and even his .344 OBP in his career against lefties would play well from the two-hole.

His 81 wRC+ against right-handed pitchers last year was identical to his mark against them in 2014, but it masks some gains he made. Semien reduced his strikeout rate against righties from 28.5% in 2014 to 24.5% last year while also bumping up his hard-hit ball rate from 24.8% to 29.9%. Semien’s career-high hard-hit ball rate against righties was paired with a career-low .289 BABIP against them. If he’s able to carry over his improvements against right-handed pitchers from last year to this year, his BABIP should improve, and with it, his batting average should improve. Previously, he showcased a knack for working free passes against right-handed pitchers (9.7% in 2014), but that rate dropped last year (7.1%). I’m optimistic that he’ll not only improve his batting average against right-handed pitchers in 2016, but I’m also optimistic he’ll earn a few more ball-fours against them this season. Semien recorded more plate appearances hitting ninth last year than in any other lineup spot, and I don’t believe that will be the case this season.

8) Lucas Giolito will be to 2016 what Noah Syndergaard was to 2015.
Syndergaard pitched more than 200 innings in the upper minors before his debut in the majors, and Lucas Giolito’s pitched just 47.1 innings at the Double-A level. With that in mind, this might be a bit of a pipe dream. These are bold predictions, though, and Giolito’s pedigree is dreamy. Baseball America ranks him as the second best pitching prospect and fifth best prospect overall in the game, and Baseball Prospectus and MLB.com’s MLB Pipeline ranks him as the top pitching prospect and third best prospect overall. If that’s not enough to whet your appetite for his eventual ascension to the majors, perhaps this ̶p̶i̶t̶c̶h̶i̶n̶g̶ ̶p̶o̶r̶n̶ educational film will do the trick.

The young righty shoved to the tune of a 1.96 FIP and 29.5% strikeout rate at the High-A level in 13 appearances (11 starts) last season before a promotion to Double-A. In his first taste of the upper minors, he rattled off a 3.18 FIP and 22.3% strikeout rate in eight starts. His stuff is elite — obviously — as his high ranking on prospect lists suggests, and with the Nationals fancying themselves contenders, Giolito could provide their rotation a shot in the arm a guy like Tanner Roark and isn’t capable of. I’m banking on the carrot of a big league promotion bringing the best out of Giolito in the minors and the temptation of adding him to the parent club ultimately resulting in a call up prior to the All-Star Break.

9) Aaron Hicks will turn in a 20/20 season.
Aaron Hicks was popped with the 14th pick in the 2008 MLB Amateur Draft, and it’s taken a bit for him to turn his tools into usable baseball skills. Last year, he set new bests across the board without fully tapping into his upside. In 390 plate appearances and 97 games played, he swatted 11 homers and stole 13 bases in 16 stolen base attempts. At first blush, this prediction probably doesn’t appear bold. However, the Twins dealt him to the Yankees, and he’s positioned as the fourth outfielder. Alex Rodriguez’s resurgence in 2015 has him firmly cemented in the designated hitter role, and that leaves Carlos Beltran stuck in the outfield — even though he hasn’t been an asset in the field since 2008. The switch-hitting veteran turns 39-years-old in late April, and his 108 wRC+ in two years with the Yankees doesn’t leave much room for slippage before he’ll feel the superior fielding — and younger switch-hitting — Hicks breathing down his neck for playing time. Injuries to any of New York’s outfielders or A-Rod would open the door to extra playing time, but it’s possible Hicks forces the issue for extra playing time while filling the 2015 Chris Young role.

Young was chiefly used against lefties last season and played in 140 games while totaling 356 plate appearances, and Hicks should open the year with that role carved out for himself with a .175 ISO, .354 wOBA and 125 wRC+ in 261 plate appearances against lefties in the majors. Hicks will need to push his 2016 plate appearance total over 500 to hit this bold prediction, but — as I noted — there are multiple avenues available to Hicks receiving more playing time than he opens the year projected to receive. Moving from playing home games in Minnesota to playing them in New York is a net gain for his power potential. Target Field has a left-handed batter park factor of 96 for homers and a right-handed batter park factor of 100 for homers, according to the three-year rolling averages used at StatCorner. Yankee Stadium has a left-handed batter park factor of 138 for homers and a right-handed park factor of 122 for homers. He does move from a team that attempted to steal 108 times to one that attempted to steal just 88 times. Although, it’s possible that’s a product of the players Joe Girardi had as his disposal. In 2014, the Yankees ripped off 138 stolen base attempts. Hicks tools and upside are worth a late-round investment.

10) Dylan Bundy will make at least five starts and total 75-plus — solid — innings for the O’s.
I really want Dylan Bundy to succeed. It’s always a shame when injuries derail a promising career, and the 23-year-old pitcher is in danger of that being the case for him. Bundy reached his single-season high in innings pitched in his professional debut in 2012. He pitched 105.1 innings across four professional levels that season. Bundy battled elbow soreness in 2013, but it wasn’t determined he’d require Tommy John surgery until late June. He pitched zero innings that year and totaled only 41.1 innings in 2014. Injuries continued to hamper him last season and he totaled just 24 innings (22 at the Double-A level and two in the Arizona Fall League). Now that he’s out of options, the Orioles can’t demote him to the minors without exposing him to waivers. The O’s are stuck in a tricky developmental situation needing to build his innings up while keeping him on the big league roster with fewer than 40 innings pitched in the upper minors. Bundy has reportedly regained his pre-Tommy John velocity, and that’s a good starting point. I don’t have any tangible reasons to make this prediction, but I’m a sucker for a feel-good story and a young player persevering through injuries.

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You can follow Josh on Twitter @bchad50.

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baltic wolf
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baltic wolf

Well, as an Orioles fan I too am a “sucker for a feel-good story” and am hopeful that this is the year that Bundy can finally stay healthy. If he can then those numbers should be easily attainable and it will warm the hearts of Baltimore fans everywhere as we look forward to 2017.

But regarding bold prediction #2: is that really a bold prediction? Everybody knows that the top three pitchers for both the Mets and the Indians are very good. Obviously, anybody who pitches for a living is an injury risk and I guess perhaps that’s why it’s bold, but it doesn’t seem like going out on a limb otherwise.

Stay bold! BTW: will this finally be the end of Semien bold predictions? I’m getting mighty nervous about this. The fantasy baseball gods love to smite those who are feeling smug about drafting a RG favorite.