You know the drill. Make them too bold, you’ll end up batting .000. Make them too easy, you’ll get called out for not being bold enough. I’ve always strived to find a happy medium and considering my past results (nearly always getting two to three right), I think I have. Since most of my fellow RotoGraphers have already posted their own bold predictions, I tried to discuss players not already included on previous lists. So as much as I like Ramon Laureano, I don’t need to reiterate Paul Sporer’s bold prediction of a 25 homer and 40 steal season. Here we go…
1. Brandon Lowe hits 25 homers
With seemingly 25 legitimate infield and outfield options in Tampa Bay, Lowe figured to open the season in the minors. The best we originally could have hoped for was a mid-season promotion. But a blistering 1.151 spring training OPS, plus a six-year, $24 million contract extension signed less than a week ago, has likely changed his playing time outlook. The spring performance, combined with his 2018 minor league breakout and respectable MLB debut, may very well win him a near every day, strong side of a platoon job. Said in more clear terms, he should garner most of the playing time against right-handed starters, bouncing around the diamond. The Rays opting to extend his contract with only 148 plate appearances to his name says a whole lot about their confidence in his 2018 breakout being real.
It was a rather small sample, but he posted an 18.8% HR/FB rate during his Rays debut, and that was fully supported by an 18.3% xHR/FB rate. He actually posted a below average pull fly ball percentage, so there’s additional upside if he can up that this season. Additional upside could come from a jump in fly ball rate, as his 34.8% MLB mark was the lowest of his professional career. He’ll need to cut down on his whiffs though, or he’s at risk of posting a sky high strikeout rate.
2. Chris Archer finishes as a top 10 starting pitcher
Once upon a time, Archer was one of the first 10 starters off the board. That is no longer the case, as this year he has been the 32nd starter selected in NFBC drafts since the beginning of the month. It’s not surprising, of course, as he has posted three straight 4.00+ ERAs, including a career worst mark last season. But, he’s now in the best situation of his career, as he looks forward to his first full season in the National League pitching half his games in a favorable home park.
PNC Park sports one of the lowest home run factors in baseball, even lower than the friendly Tropicana Field. That’s important, because one of Archer’s sudden bugaboos the last three seasons has been the longball. Prior to 2016, his worst HR/FB rate was just 11.7%. Since 2016, he has posted marks of 14.1% twice and as high as 16.2%. The new park should help reverse the trend of inflated rates. Besides the park, moving to the National League is usually good for strikeout rates because of the pitcher in the lineup instead of the designated hitter. This is as good a chance as any for Archer to push his strikeout rate back up to 29%.
The Pirates defense isn’t supposed to be anything special, but did Archer suddenly lose his ability to suppress hits on balls in play? From 2013 to 2016, he posted one absurdly low BABIP of .253, then followed it with super stable marks between .295 and .296. But in 2017 and 2018, he posted marks of .325 and .338. What happened? We quickly note that his Hard% and LD% did rise, but why? Was it just randomness or Archer’s turn to adjust, given that he’s essentially a two-pitch pitcher?
I’m betting that a full season in an even more pitcher friendly park and the National League will be enough to return Archer to the elite pitcher we once thought he was.
3. Franchy Cordero is the most valuable Padres outfielder
Wil Myers gets the veteran respect and Franmil Reyes all the sleeper buzz. But Franchy is where my heart is. Opening day is only a couple of days away, and yet we still don’t know exactly how the Padres outfield playing time is going to shake out. But I think Franchy has a clearer path to playing time than Franmil since he’s a lefty and can play center field. Franmil is essentially the same human as Hunter Renfroe, and Renfroe has hit 26 homers two seasons in a row, whereas Franmil is still an unknown quantity, so I can see the two battling for at-bats all season, rather than Franmil winning the job out of spring.
All that’s standing in front of Franchy is Manuel Margot. Yes, Margot plays better defense, but he also posted a weak .288 wOBA last year. Franchy possesses massive power and also excellent speed. In fact, he’s not that much different than Myers, who’s likely to be Franchy’s biggest competition for leading in fantasy value in that outfield.
4. Diego Castillo records the most Rays saves
The Rays frown upon traditional roles. Composed of a roster of interchangeable parts and platoons on offense, “openers” from the bullpen, and no formal closer, there’s profit to be had as a result. Though nothing has been announced, the consensus is that Jose Alvarado will serve as the Rays closer. I disagree. Last year, there were numerous opportunities for the Rays to make Alvarado the de facto closer, but instead, Sergio Romo earned most of the chances. Was it because Romo is right-handed and Alvarado a southpaw? Traditionally, teams were hesitant to make one of their few left-handed relievers their closer. Or was it because the team didn’t want to thrust the young and inexperienced Alvarado into the mythical closer role? Whatever the reason, Alvarado was never anointed the guy last year, so I think there’s a strong possibility he isn’t this year either.
While I’m a fan of his skills and acknowledge that he will certainly record saves this year, perhaps even reach double digits, I’m speculating on the fire-balling Castillo instead. He also owns the underlying skills and the repertoire you would expect from your closer, featuring a high 90s fastball and lethal slider. Just as importantly, he handled left-handed hitters just as well as righties, allowing a .236 wOBA to the former and .256 to the latter (with similar xFIP marks as well). Bet on the right-hander here.
5. Chris Owings hits 10 homers and steals 20 bases
It’s official — nobody has a clue what the Royals are doing. Yesterday, they released Brian Goodwin, who appeared to be the last man standing in the starting right field battle. Previously, contenders Jorge Bonifacio and Brett Phillips were optioned to the minors, which leaves Owings, and perhaps expected DH Jorge Soler, as the answer there. Given that the team just purchased the contract of Lucas Duda, it’s in the realm of possibility that he opens as the starting DH, moving Soler to right. But Soler is poor defensively, which is what pushed him into the DH role to begin with. So the better guess is that regardless of what the opening day lineup looks like, Owings is going to see a lot of time in the Royals lineup.
We know the Royals like to run, and they have little choice since it’s one of the worst home run parks in baseball. Either manufacture runs, or get blanked far more often than you’d like. Owings has good speed and has swiped as many as 21 bases in a season. He has also been an excellent basestealer, succeeding 84% of the time. On the power front, Owings has shown flashes at times, but has just one double digit HR/FB rate to his name. The good news is his xHR/FB rate actually jumped to a career high last year, even though his actual mark tumbled back to pre-2017 levels. Kauffman Stadium isn’t an easy place to hit homers, but reaching 10 dingers shouldn’t be extraordinarily difficult if the playing time is there.
A pair of injuries in the Yankees rotation has potentially opened an opportunity for both German and Loaisiga to earn some starts in April. Both are top Yankees pitching prospects, both feature mid-90s fastball, both favor their curves as their favorite secondary pitch, and both also utilize a changeup as their third pitch. Geez, are these two the same pitcher or what?! Both also posted ERAs above 5.00 with the Yankees last season, making some forget the elite stuff they possess.
The major difference between the two is Loaisiga has posted minuscule walk rates in the minors and has been slapped with a 50/55 Command grade, while German has generally posted average walk rates in the minors and was graded at 40/45 in the Command department. Command expectations aside, it’s clear that the pair owns electric stuff and whether it comes from more starts than expected, or an extended time dominating from the bullpen, these two have the potential to strike out over 200 batters. The ERA should be rather easy as both posted SIERA marks well below 4.00 last season and just need some better fortune to turn the skills into results.
Since March 10, when Guerrero strained his oblique, these are the pairs’ NFBC ADPs:
Clearly, even after the injury and the subsequent reassignment to minor league camp, the market still loves Guerrero and thinks of Franco as nothing more than a late round corner infield option. You know my thoughts on Guerrero and his draft day cost, so I won’t rehash them, but rather summarize them thusly — his performance and his performance at that age makes him as much of a lock as locks could get to become a future all-star, but with all the risks that come with rookies, plus his young age (20 years old!), and no telling when he’ll actually be called up, I think the price is crazy. Plus, he’s not exactly a basestealer, though all projection systems expect him to chip in a couple. So you’re paying for the batting average, the most volatile stat, and his power.
Franco, on the other hand, has had his chance and has been a disappointment so far after more than 2,000 plate appearances. The expectation that he’ll open the season hitting eighth won’t help this prediction come true. But we all know lineups are fluid and good hitting could move him up to sixth, without accounting for the possibility of injuries.
What I like about Franco is he has always posted strong strikeout rates, much better than what you would expect given his pedestrian contact rates. That’s because he swings often, which has the side effect of keeping his walk rate below the league average. What the strong strikeout rate does do is give him real home run and batting average upside. A small jump in both HR/FB rate and FB% could push his home run total up to 30, while all he would need is a league average BABIP and he would be flirting with .300. Hmmm, that upside kinda sounds like what Guerrero owners are hoping for, eh?!
What do these seemingly random blah starting pitchers have in common? All have enjoyed a surge in fastball velocity this spring. We know that there’s a strong positive correlation between fastball velocity and strikeout rate, so it follows that better velocity should result in more strikeouts. Projection systems don’t care about spring stats and certainly aren’t monitoring changes in velocity.
So let’s get some numbers in here, find out what Steamer’s strikeout rate projections for these pitchers are, and what the pitchers need to clear to give me a win on this prediction.
For Giolito, he was once one of the top pitching prospects in the game, but things haven’t exactly worked out for him through 240 innings. His velocity has dipped well below he was said to sit in the minors, so the spike so far in spring could finally be about rediscovering that lost oomph. If so, he could prove to be the perfect post-hype prospect buy and could dramatically exceed even the minimum required strikeout rate I need for this prediction to come true.
Perez has been a forgotten man, but he has been turning heads this spring after tweaking his delivery and working with the Twins new pitching coach. He has a much longer way to go than the other two in transforming into a usable mixed league starter, as his career high strikeout rate is a meager 16.9%. But hey, that just gives him all the more upside!
There is far more outside of a pitcher’s control that drives his results than for hitters. All three of these pitchers were monsters in 2018, striking out over 200 batters and posting strong, or elite, ERA and WHIP marks.
However, did you realize that Bauer’s ERA was a full run below his SIERA, Snell’s nearly a run and a half below, and Clevinger’s almost a run below? Sure, even Bauer and Snell’s far less impressive SIERA marks were still fantastic, but those required strikeout rates over 30%. That represented a spike over 2017 for Bauer and a massive surge for Snell. Bauer beat the SIERA Gods thanks to a suppressed HR/FB rate, way below what he had posted previously, and a career high LOB%. Snell did it thanks to an absurd BABIP ranking second lowest in baseball and an insane LOB% that led baseball. In fact, that LOB% was the highest among qualified pitcher since 1977!
Clevinger’s 3.86 SIERA was quite ordinary and if he posted an ERA matching that mark, he wouldn’t be nearly as enticing to fantasy owners. He did it by posting marginally better than league average marks in all the luck metrics. But 355 innings isn’t nearly enough to determine that he’s a consistent BABIP, HR/FB, or LOB% beater.
All three of these pitchers possess obvious strikeout stuff, but have struggled with control at times. It’s the control that’s the risk here, as a step back could result in more baserunners, leading to a higher WHIP at the very least. It could be difficult to squeeze into the top 20 with a WHIP well above 1.20.
Everything went right for this trio last year, and even if the underlying skills remain similar (a tall order to begin with), their ERA and WHIP marks are still highly likely to jump. If Bauer and Snell can’t hold onto their strikeout rate gains and their and Clevinger’s control regresses, you have your path to fantasy earnings outside the top 20.
10. Zack Greinke posts his highest ERA since 2005
For some context here and to guide what this prediction actually means, Greinke posted a 5.80 ERA in 2005. I’m saying it won’t be as bad, but it will surge to the highest mark he has ever posted since that year. This means his ERA must finish above the 4.37 mark he posted in 2016.
There is a pretty easy explanation here and once again, we’re back to fastball velocity. Last year, his fastball averaged exactly 90 MPH, continuing an ominous trend from his MLB debut. Amazingly, except for two pairs of seasons in which his velocity was stable, it has declined every single season. There has to be a bottom at some point, right? Well, the early signs suggest that bottom won’t be coming this year.
If we flip back to Jeff Zimmerman’s Google doc on velocities (link above), you will see that in three spring outings, his velocity hasn’t averaged more than 88.8 MPH and it was just 87.8 MPH during the last outing listed on the doc. That’s baaaaaaaaaaad.
Of course, his velocity hit a career low last year and it seemingly had no effect on his performance. His changeup, slider, and curve all generated mid-teen SwStk% marks, which is impressive. It describes a pitcher who could survive with a decrease in velocity. But reaching sub-90 MPH is the danger zone, and we can’t be sure his secondary offerings will remain so effective. We all know what happened to Felix Hernandez, and he featured the same three double digit SwStk% secondary offerings as Greinke.
Mike Podhorzer is the 2015 Fantasy Sports Writers Association Baseball Writer of the Year. He produces player projections using his own forecasting system and is the author of the eBook Projecting X 2.0: How to Forecast Baseball Player Performance, which teaches you how to project players yourself. His projections helped him win the inaugural 2013 Tout Wars mixed draft league. Follow Mike on Twitter @MikePodhorzer and contact him via email.