Last year was my first foray into bold predictions, and despite my low rate of actual success, several of my predictions produced some positive fantasy advice. The latter is really the more important rubric, but for vanity’s sake, this year I strive for two actual successes.
1. Jake Arrieta will finish top-five in the NL in ERA
Arrieta turned new mechanics into a breakout 2014 season that featured a 2.53 ERA that was supported by his 2.26 FIP and a 2.73 xFIP, but projections are more pessimistic of Arrieta because of his short track record of success. Steamer likes him for a 3.57 ERA in 2015 and ZiPS has him at 3.67. I think his ERA will be closer to last season’s, but this isn’t a referendum on the state of his mechanics. Instead, I expect Arrieta to dramatically benefit from the change in his catcher from Welington Castillo to Miguel Montero.
The Castillo-for-Montero swap was not exactly a Padres-level blockbuster, but it should have a major but subtle impact on the Cubs’ staff. Over the last two seasons, Castillo has cost his team 10 runs per season with poor framing according to Baseball Info Solutions’ Strike Zone Runs Saved metric. In contrast, Montero saved his pitchers 15 runs with his framing in 2014. That 25-run spread might only become a three-run difference for one starter like Arrieta, but shave three runs of his 2014 season and his 2.53 ERA would have been cut to 2.36.
Meanwhile, teammate Jon Lester will not share Arrieta’s benefit. His personal catcher David Ross followed him from the Red Sox to the Cubs, and Ross is an exceptional framer in any case. His 20 Strike Zone Runs Saved in 1,833.1 innings over the last five seasons puts him on an elite per-inning pace.
2. Drew Hutchison will be a top-20 fantasy starter
The Marcus Stroman injury was devastating to the Blue Jays and to baseball fans, but he was not the team’s only hope for ace-like production. Many of my RotoGraphs colleagues expect Hutchison to see his ERA drop from 4.48, which it was in 2014, to closer to his 3.85 FIP and 3.82 xFIP. I think it could drop even further thanks to the team’s addition of Russell Martin.
Like Montero on the Cubs, Martin represents a massive upgrade in terms of pitch framing. In 2014, the Jays’ primary catcher, Dioner Navarro, cost his pitchers 17 runs with poor framing, which was the worst total in baseball. In contrast, Martin saved the Pirates eight runs with his framing, and that was actually his five-season low since Baseball Info Solutions first calculates Strike Zone Runs Saved back in 2010. Look for Jays’ starters to enjoy a 25-run swing similar to Cubs’ starters. With already exceptional 9.0 strikeouts and 2.9 walks per nine rates, Hutchison could be the closest thing to this year’s Corey Kluber.
3. Chase Headley will lead all third basemen with a .295 batting average.
In 2014, Headley set a career low with a .243 batting average, but his batted ball distribution was similar to previous seasons and, in fact, his line drive rate was higher than it had ever been.
I’m pretty sure that .301 BABIP was simply bad luck, and it was really bad luck specifically from the first half. Check out his half-splits:
Not coincidentally, those splits closely mirror Headley’s time spent in San Diego before his trade and in New York after his trade. Regression to the mean alone should bump Headley’s batting average back to the mid-.260s range, but the park improvement from PETCO to Yankee Stadium is substantial. The 2015 Bill James Handbook lists PETCO as the worst park for batting average in baseball (92 AVG Index) while Yankee Stadium is close to neutral (101 AVG Index).
4. James Shields will have an ERA over 4.00.
Speaking of PETCO, Shields will play his first season in the pitcher-friendly park in 2015. But whatever improvements Shields will see because of an improvement in ballpark and a jump from the AL to the NL, I think the downgrade in his defensive support will counteract it all and then some.
Shields has had an incredible run of excellent defensive support (as measured by Defensive Runs Saved) dating back to his days in Tampa Bay:
|Season||Team||Team OF DRS||Team Total DRS||ERA|
The Padres will probably show the biggest drop in defensive quality from 2014 to 2015, so the newcomer Shields will likely not be the only pitcher to suffer. However, Tyson Ross is more insulated from their decline in defense in the outfield, specifically, since he is an extreme groundball pitcher (57.0 percent GB% in 2014).
5. Adam LaRoche will lead the AL with 33 home runs
The AL qualifier is just so I can duck Giancarlo Stanton, but a league-leading home run projection still seems bold for a player who has averaged just 26 home runs per season over the last three seasons. For me, LaRoche’s potential power spike would be the result of his improvement in ballpark. Nationals Park does not have the reputation of many of the pitcher-friendliest confines in baseball like PETCO or Safeco, but it has been particular death to left-handed power. According to the Bill James Handbook, Nationals Park allowed 20 percent fewer home runs to left-handed hitters from 2012-2014 than an average park. In contrast, U.S. Cellular Field in Chicago has allowed 13 percent more home runs to left-handed hitters over that period.
6. Jed Lowrie will hit 20 home runs and finish as a top-five fantasy shortstop
It’s not quite as extreme as the prediction for LaRoche, but Lowrie has much farther to climb from just six home runs in 2014 despite 566 plate appearances. Still, that was a year removed from a 16-homer season, also in cavernous O.co Coliseum in Oakland, which has allowed 15 percent fewer home runs to hitters than an average park over the last three seasons. Meanwhile, the last time Lowrie played in Houston (110 HR Index) in 2012, he hit 16 home runs in just 387 plate appearances.
The Braves’ just optioned second base prospect Jose Peraza to Triple-A, and it’s a bit difficult to know when he’ll make it back up. The Braves probably aren’t in the mix this season, so service time considerations could rule the day. Of course, Peraza is also likely ready to contribute. ZiPS projects him for 1.0 WAR over 538 plate appearances this year on the strength of his excellent glove. He may fall short of that playing time projection and he may struggle to reach base at even a .300 clip, but Peraza stole 25 bases in just 195 plate appearances in Double-A last season and stole 60 bases across two levels. He had the highest speed score among the top 100 prospects in the minors.
While we wait for Peraza to reach the majors, Jace Peterson should be an adequate speed fill-in. He has not shown gaudy stolen base numbers since he stole 42 bags in High-A, but ZiPS projects him for 24 stolen bases over 507 plate appearances. The sooner Peraza makes it up, the more likely this prediction hits, but even at a 50/50 playing time split, Peterson and Peraza could threaten 50 stolen bases.
This one is a lower degree of difficulty in the non-Billy Hamilton division, and it isn’t quite as perfect as the Peterson-Peraza combination because Bonifacio could still find playing time in the outfield with Johnson in the majors. Still, I expect Bonifacio to earn substantial playing time at second base in the short term assuming Johnson doesn’t simply win the job out of spring training. The other option in the mix is prospect Carlos Sanchez, who showed major plate discipline issues in 2014 with a 2.9 percent walk rate and 24.0 percent strikeout rate. He was more disciplined over many more at-bats in the minors, but despite a reputation as the better defensive option, Johnson’s speed should help bridge that gap with range. More importantly for fantasy owners, Johnson peaked at 61 stolen bases at his longest stint at a level in the minors, and ZiPS projects him for 31 steals in 544 plate appearances this season.
The sneaky part of the Dee Gordon and Dan Haren for Andrew Heaney trade is Chris Hatcher, a former catcher prospect who may provide the Dodgers with a temporary solution at closer while Kenley Jansen misses the early part of the season. Hatcher’s 9.6 strikeouts and 1.9 walks per nine in 56 innings for the Marlins last season were exceptional, but that strikeout potential and command was relatively new for the 30-year-old, which is not a huge surprise for a conversion project. He does not have the big fastball that Doolittle does, but his slider and changeup are excellent pitches and helped him avoid platoon splits, a must for potential closers.
10. No really, this is the year that Jason Heyward hits 30 home runs
My .295/.415/.540 with 30 home runs and 25 stolen bases prediction from last season proved to be quite a ways off, specifically in the power department, but I refuse to believe that the 25-year-old Heyward cannot rediscover the power he showed with 27 home runs in his 22-year-old 2012 season. Mike Petriello broke down Heyward’s assertion that hitting early in the order in Atlanta contributed to his inability to hit for power, but whether or not it is true, I think it will help Heyward to start over in St. Louis where he will likely hit second behind Matt Carpenter and hopefully not be yo-yoed around in the batting order seeing how his quotes indicate that it makes him uncomfortable.
Scott Spratt is a fantasy sports writer for FanGraphs and Pro Football Focus. He is a Sloan Sports Conference Research Paper Competition and FSWA award winner. Feel free to ask him questions on Twitter – @Scott_Spratt