Revisiting Karl de Vries’ 2015 Bold Predictions by Karl de Vries October 9, 2015 Reviewing one’s bold predictions is like opening that tupperware container that’s been forgotten at the back of your refrigerator for some time: you hope the contents might still be edible, but in actuality, you’re about to see something you wish you hadn’t, and the smell isn’t too good, either. Here we go. As a heads up, the rankings below rely on ESPN’s Player Rater. The Bold Prediction: Travis d’Arnaud is this year’s Devin Mesoraco, finishing among the top five catchers. The Harsh Reality: D’Arnaud finishes 18th. The Excuse: D’Arnaud, in one of the less shocking stories of 2015, gets hurt. This one was asking for trouble, as I suggested a best-case scenario of 25 homers, 80 RBIs and a .270 average for the oft-injured Mets’ catcher, which would have established him as one of the league’s best backstops and mirrored the way Mesoraco broke out in 2014. It wasn’t on a lark: I was adamant that d’Arnaud’s big second half in 2014 was legitimate, and he basically justified my faith in his offensive ability this year, slashing .268/.340/.485 and enjoying significant boosts in his HR/FB% and GB/FB rate. But two significant injuries — a fractured finger in April and a hyperextended elbow in a play at the plate in June — limited him to just 268 plate appearances. My Mets fan bias aside, I’m always going to be a fan of d’Arnaud and the pop he provides at catcher, and a full season from him could easily yield the kind of production I was hoping for in March. (And hey, if you want to extrapolate, he was basically on pace to reach those figures in the roughly half-season he stayed on the field.) But as he approaches his age-27 season next year, it seems fair to say that, yes, d’Arnaud does seem to get injured more often than the average catcher, making him a high-risk, high-reward option behind the dish next spring. The Bold Prediction: A.J. Burnett returns to mixed-league relevance as a top 50 starter. The Harsh Reality: Burnett finishes 65th. The Excuse: The retiring right-hander breaks down in the second half. If anything, this prediction looked too conservative in the first half of the season, when Burnett was pitching like a front-line fantasy starter, putting together a 2.82 FIP and 7-3 record. The logic here was sound: Burnett, having gone 8-18 and leading the league in walks allowed and runs scored in 2014, was fully recovered from a hernia that had been nagging him. He was also returning to Pittsburgh, where he worked with pitching coach Ray Searage and had been so successful in 2012 and 2013. But much of the gamble here was that Burnett, 38, would continue to be the workhorse who had made at least 30 starts a season since 2007, and a flexor strain in his right elbow led to a rough July and a five-week stint on the DL. It was still a fitting conclusion to an excellent career — Burnett ended up generating 2.8 WAR over 26 starts — but although Burnett did return to fantasy relevance for much of 2015, he failed to break the top-50 threshold. The Bold Prediction: Jay Bruce finishes outside the top 40 outfielders, again. The Harsh Reality: Bruce finishes 44th, fulfilling this prediction. The Excuse: Bruce’s miserable .294 OBP sinks his fantasy value. Let’s get one thing clear: Bruce’s season was a vast improvement over his 2014, when he put up an awful 78 wRC+ and was arguably the biggest bust in fantasy. This year, Bruce improved his walk and strikeout rates after years of decline, saw his FB% jump back to his career norm and posted the best SwStr% of his career. He finished with 26 homers and 87 RBIs, numbers that, while not matching the productivity of 2011-2013, came quite close and reminded us that Bruce’s value didn’t completely disappear after his nightmarish 2014 campaign. But the .226 batting average — more than 30 points below his pre-2014 career mark — erased much of his fantasy usefulness this season. Ironically, data compiled by our Jeff Zimmerman found that Bruce’s BABIP against the shift was significantly higher than when he wasn’t being shifted against (.276 to .195), nearly mirroring last year’s results. But his batted ball distance of 285 feet was still well below his career average, and in the second half, Bruce’s batting average all but disappeared as his GB/FB ratio crept up and the line drives dried up. Bruce’s season was hardly an “embarrassment,” and in many ways it came as a relief and proof that the 28-year-old slugger can still aid fantasy owners in mixed leagues. But it wasn’t up to the par he had established earlier this decade. The Bold Prediction: Joakim Soria triples Joe Nathan’s save output in Detroit. The Harsh Reality: Soria saves 23 games for the Tigers while Nathan notches just one. The Excuse: Nathan gets hurt, as predicted. Hey! Two in a row! This was one of the lower-hanging fruits among my 10 predictions, as I was convinced that the 40-year-old Nathan was breaking down while Soria had just enjoyed a bounceback 2014 season. I said Soria could take over the ninth inning by the end of April, but that prediction was a bit off, too: he took over in the first week of April after Nathan underwent Tommy John surgery. Soria fit right in as the Tigers’ closer: he saved 23 games in 26 opportunities, posted excellent strikeout-walk numbers and brought some much-needed solidity to a bullpen that ranked among the majors’ worst. Unfortunately for his fantasy owners, the Tigers unloaded him to the Pirates at the deadline to serve as Mark Melancon’s caddy, but he remained very effective in his first time around the National League. At age 31 and without a contract for next year, Soria’s value at present is unclear, but he posted the highest fastball velocity of his career over the most innings he’s pitched since 2007. Look for him to snag another closer’s job somewhere and be a sneaky low-cost option on draft day next year. The Bold Prediction: Mike Zunino hits at least .250 and smashes 30 homers. The Harsh Reality: Zunino hits .174 with just 11 home runs. The Excuse: Zunino remains overmatched at the plate. Here is where my predictions go from mediocre to downright terrible. I was hoping that having a full season under his belt would give Zunino the experience to help patch up his approach at the plate. That didn’t happen. Zunino struck out a ridiculous 34.2% of the time, the highest strikeout rate among hitters with more than 350 plate appearances this year and, somewhat unbelievably, a worse mark than his 2014. He actually did cut down on his swing rate and stopped chasing pitches out of the strike zone by a significant margin, but suffice to say, 2015 was a disaster, ending with him being demoted to the minors at the beginning of September to work on his swing. The power didn’t work out so well either: he lost 10 feet off his average batted ball distance, resulting in a sharp drop in his HR/FB%. Zunino won’t turn 25 until March, and Lloyd McClendon says he’s still the number one catcher on the team for next year, but suffice to say, there won’t be a whole lot of reasons to believe Zunino is ready to suddenly emerge as a monster fantasy option behind the dish. The Bold Prediction: Juan Lagares swipes 25 bases, hits .280 and becomes a top 40 outfielder. The Harsh Reality: Lagares swipes seven bases, hits .259 and finishes 98th. The Excuse: Lagares’ BABIP falls back down to earth. Yikes. Lagares had a nearly all-star caliber season last year, as his defense was so good he managed to put up 4 WAR despite being a roughly average offensive player. But not only did the defense take a significant step back this year, his bat did as well. Much of my prediction was riding on Lagares translating his speed into batted ball luck — he managed to hit .281 last year on the strength of a .341 BABIP — which simply didn’t happen this year. What was already an abysmal walk rate declined even further this year, sinking his OBP to .289, and Curtis Granderson established himself as a very effective leadoff hitter for the Mets from the beginning of the season, eliminating any opportunity for Lagares to thrive atop the Mets’ order and steal bases at the frequency he did toward the end of 2014. By midseason, his stock had fallen so much that the Mets tried to get one center fielder (Carlos Gomez) at the deadline, and when they acquired Yoenis Cespedes instead, they moved the left fielder to center so they could bench Lagares in favor of rookie Michael Conforto. To make matters worse, he has a ligament tear in his right elbow, which could require Tommy John surgery one day. Lagares has a contract through 2019, and he’s obviously an accomplished outfielder who has significant value as a major league player. But he has no full-time role on the Mets right now and has no business leading off, and he’ll be a forgotten man on draft boards next spring. The Bold Prediction: Brandon Phillips’ career swoon continues as he finishes with less value than Joe Panik. The Harsh Reality: Phillips finishes third among second basemen, Panik 22nd. The Excuse: Phillips has his best offensive season in three years while Panik’s 2015 is shortened by a back injury. Panik established his major league bona fides during the Giants’ 2014 stretch run and continued to blossom when he was on the field this year, slashing .312/.378/.455 and putting up a 138 wRC+. Those numbers are very good, except he was limited to 100 games due to a lower back problem that vaporized his second half. Phillips, meanwhile, may have produced just a 96 wRC+ due in large part to a .395 slugging percentage, but he managed to hit .294, smash 12 home runs, score 69 times and drive in 70. Biggest headline: he stole 23 bases, his most since 2009. He played in 148 games the season after a torn ligament in his thumb cost him a quarter of his 2014, and proved that at age 34, he’s still capable of being a well-rounded fantasy asset at the keystone sack. The Bold Prediction: Ian Kennedy earns 4+ WAR and finishes as the most valuable Padres starter. The Harsh Reality: Kennedy earns .8 WAR and ranks behind James Shields and Tyson Ross in value. The Excuse: Kennedy coughs up too many home runs. This was probably my reachiest prediction, and yeah, it exploded on the launchpad. For what it’s worth, Kennedy, who finished 76th among starters, was more valuable than Andrew Cashner on ESPN, whose value was hurt by a 6-16 record and a mediocre ERA. But James Shields (46th) and Tyson Ross (33rd) both turned in solid seasons, and although Kennedy maintained last year’s excellent strikeout rate, he nearly led baseball with 31 home runs allowed — including 19 at Petco Park, which is hard to believe — and missed time in April due to a hamstring strain. I still like Kennedy, who in 2014 contributed across the board despite being available for cheap, and a 17.2% HR/FB rate has nowhere to go but down, regardless of which team he plays for in 2016. But let’s face it: this is the fourth season out of the last six in which he’s allowed 26 or more home runs, preventing him from breaking into true frontline fantasy status despite back-to-back seasons of strikeout-per-inning results. The Bold Prediction: Brandon Belt will outperform Albert Pujols among first basemen. The Harsh Reality: Pujols finishes 12th, Belt finishes 15th. The Excuse: Prince Albert continues to provide production fit for a king. This is the second year in a row I’ve tried to make this prediction work. Unlike 2014, when Belt was sidelined by a series of bizarre and unfortunate injuries, he was mostly healthy this year, though a head injury toward the end of the season helped limit him to 556 plate appearances. But you can’t argue with an .834 OPS, even if Belt continues to strike out at an alarming rate. This prediction, however, was predicated on him breaking out as a top-line first baseman, or, put another way, joining the tier of Pujols, whose 40 longballs were his most since 2010. A .244 average is an obvious sign of concern, and a 15.9% line drive rate suggests his .217 BABIP wasn’t exactly a fluke. For a guy who will be 36 on opening day, it’s reasonable, if not depressing, to acknowledge that Pujols is declining. But 2015 did nothing to change his status as a legitimate fantasy bopper. The Bold Prediction: Alex Rodriguez outearns Todd Frazier at the hot corner. The Harsh Reality: Frazier finishes seventh, Rodriguez 11th. The Excuse: Rodriguez had an excellent comeback year, but just wasn’t good enough to beat Frazier. This was my personal favorite among my predictions, and although it’s a miss, this one went to the last rounds. For the second year in a row, Frazier’s value evaporated in the second half, as he managed a .664 OPS. But he still hit 10 home runs, finishing with 35 of them to go with 89 RBIs. Unfortunately, the average tumbled nearly 20 points from last year and a drop in his walk rate resulted in a measly .309 OBP. His production barely eked out Rodriguez’s, who finished with virtually the same batting average, home runs and RBIs as Frazier, though he was far more successful in getting on base. The difference was Frazier swiped 13 bases compared to Rodriguez’s four. Frazier may have largely replicated his 2014 season against my doubts, but my faith in Rodriguez was certainly justified, as it’s fair to say he matched any best-case scenario people had for the 40-year-old. *** Strictly speaking, I’m looking at a .200 average this season, though a charitable person might assign partial credit to my belief that Burnett would return to mixed-league relevance, and I came awfully close on my Belt/Pujols and Frazier/Rodriguez predictions. But I remind myself that this is the fantasy version of baseball, and what better time to think big than in March. Now comes the long winter and the chance, once again, to dream about the upcoming season.