Mike Podhorzer’s 2021 Bold Predictions

It’s bold predictions time! Last Thursday, I shared my bold hitter league leaders, and then yesterday my bold pitcher league leaders. While those picks should add some insight, they are more for fun given the loooooong odds of getting even one of them right. On the other hand, I expected to hit on several of my bold predictions, aiming for at least two to three correct calls. Let’s dive right in.

All Six of the Following Pitchers Will Beat their Steamer Projected K% Marks:

K% Beaters
Player Steamer Projected K%
Andrew Heaney 24.4%
Dylan Bundy 22.3%
Mike Minor 20.4%
Justin Dunn 20.1%
Sean Manaea 20.1%
Casey Mize 19.0%

What does this group have in common? Either a Statcast-confirmed or reported (based on articles/tweets) jump in fastball velocity during Spring Training.

Andrew Heaney’s fastball has never averaged over 93 MPH and yet he has still posted a strikeout rate of at least 24% every season since 2016 (yeah yeah, tiny tiny sample size that year). Now Statcast is showing us his velocity is up 1.6 MPH, which should make his curveball and changeup even more whiffy.

I thought I was pretty down on Dylan Bundy heading into the season, but had no idea my projections were still significantly better than the rest of the systems. I guess that’s why I still managed to roster him in two of four leagues! My concern stemmed from a decline in velocity last year that was closing in on the danger zone (sub-90 MPH), but Statcast confirms he has been averaging over 92 MPH with his four-seamer, compared to just 90 last year. That’s huge and should allow him to easily beat Steamer’s projected K%, which is forecasting his lowest mark since 2017.

After enjoying a velocity surge in 2017, Mike Minor’s velocity has dropped closer and closer toward his 2010-2014 levels since, and tied with his career low last season. It didn’t affect his strikeout rate last year, but it’s no surprise that the velocity loss is causing Steamer to project his lowest strikeout rate since 2014. While I doubt he’ll get his velocity all the way back to its peak, a return to 92-93 MPH would be a big help and stave off that expected strikeout rate regression.

Justin Dunn hasn’t been able to find the plate this Spring and might not even make the team, let alone the rotation. So his appearance here doesn’t mean I automatically think he’ll be good. But his velocity has seemingly really surged and he’s shown some strong strikeout rates in the minors. Steamer’s projection isn’t a very high bar to climb over.

After debuting in 2016 with an average fastball velocity of 93.3 MPH, Sean Manaea has seen the pitch’s speed steadily decline below 91 MPH. So far, it sounds like he might be reversing that trend, and it therefore shouldn’t be very difficult for him to beat Steamer’s projection, which would be the second lowest mark of his career.

Top prospect Casey Mize was quite disappointing in his 2020 debut over seven starts, and his minor league track record didn’t provide for a lot of hope of a strong strikeout rate. However, his sinker fastball is up over two miles per hour compared to last year, so perhaps now Mize will become the strikeout pitcher his top prospect status required.

Hunter Renfroe Bats .260 and Knocks 35 Homers

Where does a hitter go when he has struggled with BABIP throughout his career. Boston, of course! Fenway Park is one of the best BABIP-boosting home parks in baseball thanks to the Green Monster. Renfroe’s career BABIP is just .254, so there’s ample room for upside to reach that .260 batting average. While Fenway is nothing special for right-handed homers, it’s still better than Tropicana Field. Last, dd you realize that Renfroe’s career high at-bat total is just 445? If he remained healthy all season and didn’t get benched during a slump, he’ll easily finish with a new career high, which should make notching 35 dongs a reasonable bet.

Trevor Bauer Posts an ERA over 4.00

Man, talk about recency bias! All it took was 11 starts of 1.73 ERA ball and suddenly Bauer is the fourth starting pitcher off the board in NFBC leagues over the last week. Sure, he was pretty awesome over those 73 innings, posting a 2.94 SIERA, which was a career best. However, has everyone forgotten his entire inconsistent career? He sports a career 3.90 ERA because he’s only posted a sub-4.00 ERA twice, and one of those seasons was just a third (last year). Last year, his fastball velocity was down and his SwStk% was in line with his previous two seasons, and yet his strikeout rate skyrocketed to a career best. According to my xK% equation, he outperformed by 4.6%, which is pretty significant. Obviously, an xK% above 30% is still elite, but can he do it again if his fastball remains below a 94 MPH average?

Next, Bauer’s walk rate was easily a career low, and while control does tend to improve with age, he owns a career 9.0% mark, so it would be silly to think that 73 innings tells us a whole lot about his current true talent control skills. Last, he has become an extreme fly ball pitcher and has struggled with home runs at times. Obviously, this new ball might really help fly ballers like Bauer, but it could also lead to more doubles and triples, totally offsetting the fewer homers.

Bottom line is that while I’m certainly not projecting an ERA over 4.00, I think the odds of it happening are far higher than owners believe, given his draft day cost.

Franchy Cordero Hits 25 Homers and Steals 10 Bases

Just. Stay. Healthy! Since 2017, Cordero has recorded just 315 plate appearances. That obviously doesn’t bode well for his chances of getting the PAs necessary to come close to these targets. To make matters worse, he tested positive for COVID-19, but is back on the field now and expected to be ready for opening day. Cordero owns immense power, so it’s sad we’ve barely gotten to see it on display. Adding to the fantasy excitement is that he steals bases too. One of the keys to his season besides keeping his strikeouts in check is posting a respectable FB%. It sits at just 30.1% for his career, which will make it difficult to break through the 20 homers barrier given the strikeouts.

Steven Matz Outearns Hyun-Jin Ryu

Somehow, some way, Ryu has become a bonafide SIERA beater. His Statcast calculated xBABIP marks don’t show any sort of BABIP suppression skills, while his HR/FB rates have remained in double digits each season since 2016. So how is he outperforming? It’s the LOB%! It’s sat above 80% for four straight seasons, which is just crazy given his pedestrian strikeout rates and league average marks in other places. So Ryu, especially at his price, never comes anywhere close to my roster, as I prefer to buy strong skills, rather than gamble on his LOB% remaining so elevated.

On the other hand, Steven Matz endured a nightmare 2020, posting an unbelievable 9.68 ERA over 30.2 innings. The baffling thing is he did that while throwing his fastball at a career best velocity, and posting the highest strikeout rate and SwStk% mark of his career. What happened was all three luck metrics conspired against him. The good news is that Statcast confirms he has maintained last year’s velocity spike, so I’m bullish his luck will neutralize and then he’s not much different than Ryu.

Sam Hilliard Hits 25 Homers and Steals 15 Bases

Will the Rockies bury another young player or let Sam Hilliard play and just see what they have? Sure, he has strike out often, but he has also shown a tantalizing combo of power and speed. At Triple-A in 2019, he hit 35 homers with 22 steals. Can you imagine how excited we would be about a Rockies prospect coming off that kind of minor league season?! And yet, we can’t be confident Hilliard will even start every day, or start against left-handers.

Julio Teheran Earns Positive AL-Only Value

Teheran belonged in the velocity surger table above, but I decided to separate him instead for his own bold prediction. Years ago, it would have been silly to think him earning positive mono league value was bold. Now? Every projection system is forecasting an ERA well above 5.00 and negative value earned in AL-Only leagues. Of course, the systems only know about his frightening velocity trend, which ended with an 89.6 MPH (88.7 MPH according to Statcast) average last year. Now, his velocity has been up 2.8 MPH, looking closer to where it sat during his 2016 and 2017 seasons. That’s a significant spike. It’s worth remembering that before last year, he hasn’t posted an ERA higher than 4.49 over any reasonable sample. He’s another SIERA beater, and he’s done it with a suppressed BABIP, which he may need again to get this prediction right. There’s a lot that needs to go right here, but the velocity rebound is the first step. Don’t forget, he’s still only 30 years old.

C.J. Cron Outearns Vladimir Guerrero Jr.

Once again, fantasy owners have decided to completely cut into their profit potential by paying a hefty price (41 NFBC ADP over the last week) for Guerrero Jr. on the hopes and dreams this is the year he enjoys that massive breakout we’ve expected from the former top prospect. The baffling thing is that Guerrero is going just ahead of Jose Abreu, who has already done what fantasy owners are hoping the former will do! Can I see a scenario in which Guerrero earns his ADP or better? Of course! But I’m sure as heck not going to pay for that upside scenario. With no stolen base potential, he essentially needs to hit 30 homers and bat near .300. You must put a lot of stock into just 33 balls in play so far in Spring that has produced slightly more fly balls than grounders to think a batted ball profile change is imminent. He’ll need that change to sniff 30 homers, unless he pushes that HR/FB rate above 20%, which is always possible.

Cron, on the other hand, is going 151st overall, even though Coors Field as his new home park seemingly gives him the same category potential as Guerrero. And hey, Cron has actually hit 30 homers before! Coors field reduces strikeouts and increases BABIP, which could be enough to push Cron’s batting average close to Guerrero’s. By season’s end, the two stat lines shouldn’t look very different, assuming Cron remains healthy and bats in the middle of the Rockies lineup.

Mitch Keller Posts a Lower ERA than Lance Lynn

Like Teheran, Keller was an eighth Spring velocity surger that I pulled out, as betting on eight pitchers to beat their Steamer projected K% marks seemed immensely difficult. So here we have another battle between a high cost player and a low cost player. As I have in the previous battles, I’ll begin with the high-priced option. Like Ryu and Teheran, Lynn has made a living of beating his SIERA, thanks to a career single digit HR/FB rate. At age 33 and limited usage of anything not under the fastball bucket, he makes for a super risky proposition in my eyes. The skills have always been so-so, so you’re betting that HR/FB rate suppression continues, which is never something I would bet on.

Keller has now endured a pair of bizarre seasons to open his career. During his 2019 debut he averaged 95.5 MPH with his fastball, which led to a strong strikeout rate. Unfortunately, an insane BABIP and low LOB% meant his SIERA was nearly half his actual ERA! So he was an obvious sleeper heading into 2020. Instead, his fastball velocity dipped and skills collapsed, but now the luck pendulum swung in the opposite direction and this time his SIERA was more than double his ERA. In Spring so far, his fastball has been up 1.7 MPH, which puts him back to his 2019 level and returns him to the former prospect with upside perch he may have dropped from last year. The lack of a National League DH this year, while the AL still has one, gives Keller another advantage over Lynn.

Andrew Vaughn is Demoted to the Minors by End of June

I have to admit, I am absolutely shocked by the hype and expectations heaped upon the top prospect. The Eloy Jimenez injury means that Vaughn is now likely to open the season in the Majors. Yet, he hasn’t even seen a pitch above the High-A level! I’m already skeptical about hitters who jump straight from Double-A to the Majors, so you could imagine my pessimism going from High-A to the Majors.

Researchers — how often has this happened for a hitter? How did they perform in their first taste of MLB action? Did they remain in the Majors or were they demoted back to the minors soon after? I remember Albert Pujols swiftly jumped to the Majors and we all know how that turned out, but he did hit Triple-A, though for only 15 plate appearances. He also destroyed minor league pitching.

I have nothing against Vaughn as a prospect and potential future star. He brings rare elite contact ability, plus strong plate patience, for a youngster, with the promise of future power. However, he hasn’t actually shown any power during his short time in the minors in 2019, so what makes anyone think the power will manifest this year in the Majors after the minor league season was canceled last year? Aside from his lackluster power, he has posted weak BABIP marks in the minors. While BABIP doesn’t translate 1:1 to the Majors, minor league BABIP does correlate with MLB BABIP. It’s obviously a tiny sample and he was just 21 years old, but Vaughn’s BABIPs so far suggest he’ll have trouble converting balls in play into hits.

Last, With Jimenez out, Vaughn might open the season as the team’s starting left fielder, even though he has only played first base professionally. If I’m not too optimistic yet about his bat, he would need to be excellent defensively to justify keeping him in the Majors. Playing an entirely new position doesn’t give me hope that is going to happen. Since the White Sox figure to be in the thick of the playoff race, I don’t know if they will be patient with Vaughn if he’s not hitting and/or butchering his left field chances. That means a trip to the minors to get the upper minors experience he hasn’t received yet.

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.

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3 years ago

Ryu is an absolute beast with men on base. The stretch must be a comfort zone. He shuts it down and I think that has a lot to do with keeping his LOB very high among other indicator metrics.

Lunch Anglemember
3 years ago

He HAS been better with the bases empty, by a bit, yes. For his career: 3.39 FIP with bases empty, 3.16 with men on, mostly attributable to a lower HR rate with men on. His K% and BB% are both better with the bases empty. Do you think preventing HRs with men on is a repeatable skill? Or has Ryu just been a bit fortunate with the timing of the HRs he allows?

3 years ago
Reply to  Lunch Angle

If you compare other pitchers out of the stretch you will find that the production is typically terrible. In this instance, relative results matter more. Ryu has been very good in that regard. As to whether that is stable? No idea. Timing maybe. But often what separates elite aces from regular pitchers is how good they are at limiting HR with baserunners.

Looking at the datasets has told me there are some things to note. Pitchers pitching dominating the windup can post even better numbers than aces, but what separates the two is the work out of the stretch. Ryu seems to be one of those guys that have better success than most pitchers.

3 years ago
Reply to  Lunch Angle

It’s more like it makes me wonder why he doesn’t just pitch out of the stretch all the time.

3 years ago

Well, pitching significantly better out of the stretch isn’t completely unprecedented. See: Trevor Rosenthal. Maybe Ryu should try what Rosenthal did and switch to stretch pitching exclusively.

3 years ago
Reply to  Lanidrac

Carrasco also