I’m taking a break from March Madness to bring you the madness of me thinking I can get some of my bold predictions right this year.
1. Nick Pivetta will be a top-40 starting pitcher
The Jake Arrieta signing will make it that much more difficult for Nick Pivetta to secure a rotation spot, but that just makes him a more attractive sleeper to my mind. Pivetta had bad results in 2017. Look no further than his 6.02 ERA, seventh-worst among starters with 100 or more innings. But Pivetta’s peripheral stats weren’t bad, and as 1 of just 34 starters with more than a strikeout per inning, he has the chance to be very valuable in fantasy.
Most of what went wrong for Pivetta last year was bad luck. His 18.2 percent home run per fly ball rate was high, and his 67.1 percent strand rate was low. Meanwhile, Pivetta’s .332 overall BABIP was carried by a league-worst .327 BABIP on groundballs. League average is just .241.
We’ve learned enough to know that pitcher BABIP is the result of more than just luck. But Pivetta’s 24.8 percent groundball hard-hit rate is not unusually high. Expected groundball BABIP based solely on hard-hit rate would predict Pivetta to come in at .249, 78 points lower than what it really was. That’s the difference between the 144 hits Pivetta actually gave up and 131 hits he maybe should have given up.
And while Pivetta’s defensive support in the infield in 2017 was poor, things are looking up for the Phillies in 2018. They switched out one of the worst defensive first basemen in Tommy Joseph with one of the best in Carlos Santana—don’t let the poor defensive reputation Santana developed as a catcher fool you—and should add three prospects to their infield mix over the course of the season who likely are better defenders than the players they would replace. J.P. Crawford, in particular, looks like a plus defender. He has saved 6 runs in a little less than 200 innings in the majors split between shortstop, second base, and third base.
2017 Defensive Runs Saved
I expect Pivetta to win a spot in the rotation, throw 175 innings, and strike out at least that many batters with a sub-4.00 ERA.
2. Garrett Richards will lead the AL in ERA
Speaking of infield defense, the Angels look pretty incredible. Over the last four years, their trio of Andrelton Simmons, Ian Kinsler, and Zack Cozart rank 1st, 3rd, and 9th among players at the four infield positions in Defensive Runs Saved, and Cozart will likely play up more now that he’s moved down the spectrum to third base. That should benefit all of the Angels’ starters, but perhaps none more so than groundball enthusiast (career 52.8 percent groundball rate) Garrett Richards. The biggest question with Richards is and likely always will be health. He’s thrown just 62.1 total innings the last two seasons because of arm injuries. But Richards enters the 2018 season healthy, has added a curveball to an already-deep repertoire of plus pitches, and has Cubs-level defensive support in the infield behind him. Take a chance that he throws 160 innings because he may produce like the best starter in the league on a per-inning basis.
3. Eric Hosmer will hit 30 home runs
Eric Hosmer has hit more groundballs than fly balls each of the last six seasons, and he won’t need to change his approach at the plate to have success with his new team. I don’t think he’ll need to change it to hit more home runs than the 25 he hit each of the last two seasons, either. Both perception and a quick glance at ballpark indices suggest that Petco is an extreme, pitcher-friendly park, but prior to 2017 and after they moved their outfield fences in 2013, that really wasn’t the case.
Those are the unregressed, yearly indices from ESPN, and so they are subject to a lot of variability. However, even a simple, straight average of the home run indices from Petco and from Hosmer’s old park, Kauffman, show the former to allow about 9 percent fewer home runs than a typical park since the fences moved and the latter to allow about 18 percent fewer home runs over the same time frame. Petco will be an upgrade for Hosmer’s fantasy potential.
The template for my favorite fantasy sleepers tends to be an excellent minor league track record followed by a really poor MLB debut in not very many games. That was Jose Berrios heading into last season. He routinely struck out 9 batters and walked less than 3 batters per nine in the high minors but saw his strikeout-to-walk rate crater to 1.4 in 58.1 innings in 2016. Lucas Giolito has been that stretched over more time from 2016-17 but not too many more major league innings, 66.2. Jeff Sullivan recently detailed how Giolito has lowered his arm slot and is seeing improved velocity and lots of swings and misses this spring. He should enjoy a breakout season, and his ADP outside the top-60 starters does not reflect it.
Collin McHugh is really overqualified to be a reliever. Since 2014, he is ranked 27th of the 116 starters with at least 400 innings with a 3.60 FIP, tied with Danny Salazar and just ahead of Justin Verlander (3.65) and Masahiro Tanaka (3.75). In many fantasy formats, McHugh’s role as the team’s long reliever will destroy his fantasy value. But in leagues like Ottoneu where strikeouts, ratios, and innings are more important for relievers than saves and holds, McHugh has a chance to become a relief ace. He was striking out nearly a batter per inning as a starter, and pitchers like Bradley have shown that a move to the bullpen frequently leads to extra velocity and strikeouts. I expect McHugh to produce a similar stat line to teammate Chris Devenski, but Devenski is owned in 89 percent of Ottoneu leagues for an average price of nearly $6 while McHugh is owned in just 46 percent of leagues for less than $4 on average.
This is another one where your fantasy mileage may vary, but with the league moving more and more toward the three true outcomes, every stolen base can help in deeper formats. Byron Buxton has arrived and has Granite blocked for the foreseeable future in center field, but Granite’s excellent speed and defense makes him a great fit as the Twins’ fourth outfielder. That really isn’t the case for Robbie Grossman, who is a bat-only player who the team may want to use at DH if Miguel Sano ends up missing time. Meanwhile, if Granite makes it onto the team’s bench, then he will become one of the most dangerous pinch runner threats in baseball. He stole 56 bases in his longest minor league stop in Double-A. As a fourth outfielder and pinch-runner, Granite could easily steal 30 bases in less than 250 plate appearances.
Ok, that’s an exaggeration, obviously. But my general thought is that, while talented, players like Jay Bruce and Juan Lagares aren’t going to prevent Brandon Nimmo from recording 450 plate appearances if Nimmo continues to perform offensively—and that would especially hold if Lagares ends up traded before the start of the season. His 450 plate appearances aren’t going to turn into 39 home runs like they did for Bellinger, but Nimmo could offer an intriguing fantasy line with double-digit home runs and steals and a lot of runs if the Mets bat him at the top of the lineup against right-handed starters.
8. Nick Delmonico will be a top-250 player
There are 15 batters with at least 100 plate appearances, a BB/K rate above 0.70, and an ISO over .200 the last two seasons. Ranked by plate appearances, they are Mookie Betts, Joey Votto, Edwin Encarnacion, Anthony Rizzo, Carlos Santana, Jose Ramirez, Anthony Rendon, Josh Donaldson, Mike Trout, Matt Carpenter, Bryce Harper, Adrian Beltre, David Ortiz, Rhys Hoskins, and Nicky Delmonico. Everyone but Ortiz, Hoskins, and Delmonico also reached 1,000 plate appearances, and so it’s very reasonable to question whether Demonico can sustain that level of excellence. But Demonico showed excellent plate discipline and moderate power in the high minors. I could see him hitting 25 home runs with a .260/.360/.460 slash sort of like Eugenio Suarez or Josh Bell as a mostly-everyday DH and outfielder for the White Sox. That seems like a top-250 player to me, but he’s barely a top-500 player in ADP.
9. Colin Moran will be a top-20 third baseman
Joe Musgrove was reported as the headline return piece in the Gerrit Cole trade, but Colin Moran is my pick to have the biggest fantasy impact. Moran hit for meager power in the minors before he changed his swing plane in 2017 and suddenly hit 18 home runs in just 338 plate appearances in Triple-A. He’ll have a chance to hit 20 in a full season as the Pirates’ third baseman. If he can also hit .280 to help make up for his lack of steals, then he can break into the top-20 at the position.
10. Kirby Yates will be ranked as a top-10 reliever for 2019 by the end of 2018
I’ve tried and failed to predict which closers will lose jobs, when, and to whom enough times before to not want to try again. But I did want some way to express how positive I am on Kirby Yates’ fantasy future. Yates has been an effective reliever since his debut in 2014, but a new change-up helped ratchet up his strikeout rate to nearly 14 batters per nine in 2017. That was top-five among relievers with at least 50 innings. Brad Hand just signed a three-year extension and is plenty good to close for the Padres, but he is left-handed and has allowed a .328 wOBA in his career to right-handed hitters, 76 points higher than what he has allowed to lefties. Yates has the opposite career splits, and as long as managers stick to the script that a closer pitches to every batter in the ninth while setup men are deployed to best take advantage of platoon matchups, then the closer job is easier for right-handers.
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