This is my first bold predictions piece.
It’s not that I’ve never wanted to write one. It’s not that I have an inherent problem with bold prediction pieces (though I do think they’re often taken too seriously). If I’m being honest: I was intimidated.
Nick Pollack is one of the kindest, most genuine and selfless people I’ve ever had the pleasure of working with. But when it comes to bold predictions? He’s a madman. A despot. The customer who sends his soup back because he wants it so hot that Frodo and Sam could’ve just skipped their trip to Mordor and placed it in his bisque. I can’t tell you how many times I’ve brought Nick a “bold” prediction only to have him look me in the eye and with a bone-chilling stillness intently whisper: “… Bolder.”
As Nick frequently espouses, “If you’re getting bold predictions right, you’re doing it wrong.”
So here we go. Hope I’m wrong.
1. No RP gets more than 40 saves
A few weeks ago, I wrote an article about how the relief pitcher landscape is changing. More relievers got at least one save in 2018 than at any other time in the sport/s history. This is not an outlier either: The sport has been trending this way for the past couple years. The percentage of saves a team’s leading reliever got has decreased over the past 10 years from 77% to 58%. Last year, only three relievers got 90% or more of a team’s saves: Edwin Diaz, Craig Kimbrel, and Felipe Vazquez. With each passing year, more front offices are moving away from having a “proven closer” opting instead to put the ball in the hand of the best reliever for that moment. Let’s look at how many 40-plus relievers there have been in the past six seasons.
|Year||# of 40+ SV RPs|
What shocks me the most about the above isn’t that the number has been cut in half over six seasons but the fact that of the three relievers who earned 40-plus saves in 2017, 0 earned 40-plus saves in 2018. So just because you did it one year gives you no guarantees you’ll do it the next. I’m looking at you Diaz!
2. Strahm’s jersey outsells Machado’s in August
Manny Machado is arguably the most popular sports star in San Diego right now. His signing justifiably threw Padres Twitter into a furor. While I don’t think that excitement will abate over the course of the 2019 season, I think a new hero will emerge, one Nick has been waiting to emerge for two years now: Matt Strahm.
By now, you’ve certainly read the hype about the Padres best-kept starting pitching secret. If the Padres are going to make a push for the Wild Card or — dare I say it — the division, it won’t be because of an offense we already expect to perform, it will be because someone in their rotation stepped up and worked their way to a sub-3 ERA and a lot of strikeouts. When that happens and the Padres name is on commentators lips come August, the people of San Diego will be walking around that city with one name on their back: STRAHM.
3. The Rays go to the ALCS
I have a little bit of a crush on the Tampa Bay Rays. If the Baltimore Orioles are my longtime fling, the Rays are that movie star I think is really attractive but am too afraid to admit to my wife that I like. The Rays are my Olivia Munn.
To me, the path to the ALCS is not that crazy for the Rays. They won 90 games last year and actually got better this offseason. They added Charlie Morton, Avisail Garcia, Mike Zunino, and Yandy Diaz. While some of those adds are a bit more impactful than others, I trust last year’s should’ve-been-manager-of-the-year Kevin Cash to utilize each of them to the best of their ability, just like he did with the bullpen. While I don’t see the Rays winning the division, I do see them beating out the Twins for the second Wild Card. At that point, they have to play either the Yankees or the Red Sox (whichever of those two teams doesn’t win the division wins the first Wild Card spot in my opinion).
The Rays have something the last two wild card losers don’t: a Cy Young winner. I think Snell can go toe-to-toe with any other pitcher on the bump. While their offense may not appear as sexy as the Yankees or Red Sox, it is still very good. Last year, the Rays finished ninth in wOBA, sixth in wRC+, third in batting average and third in OBP. Garcia could help cover any regression Joey Wendle experiences while Zunino could help them add more pop, and Yandy Diaz could be a great bench bat. Let’s say that after that presumed WC victory, the Rays draw the Indians. Sure, the Indians have more starting pitching depth, but the Rays still have Snell and Morton, a better bullpen and a better offense.
Doesn’t seem to crazy now does it?
4. Padres finish top 5 in HR
With the big addition of Machado, the San Diego Padres got a lot more web gems, RBI and taters. Machado has eclipsed 30-plus home runs in each of his past four seasons and — barring injury — I don’t see any reason that can’t happen again. This is a big addition for an organization that finished 24th in the long ball last year, and I’m sure Machado alone will make sure they finish ahead of last year’s total.
The curiously quaffed third baseman isn’t alone in the lineup, however. In fact, he’s surrounded by power. A lot of power. Let’s take a look at four other bats projected to either start or platoon for the Padres and what their overall Raw Power grade is:
|Name of Player||Raw Power Grade|
|Fernando Tatis Jr||70|
That … is a lot of raw power. While there will likely be few days in which all four of those bats are in the lineup, as it stands right now, Hunter Renfroe, Franchy Cordero, and Fernando Tatis Jr. are all starting against righties. So now we’re taking the guy who led the team in home runs with 26 in Renfroe, giving him a 30-plus home run guy in Machado, three other 70-grade raw power guys, Wil Myers and more, and you’re looking at a lot more than the 162 home runsthe Padres put up in 2018.
“BuT pEtcO Is A piTcHeR fRiENdLy PaRK.”
Well actually, according to Eno Sarris’s fantastic article, Petco is an above average HR/HD park. It gives up a bit more home runs than Guaranteed Rate does and slightly fewer than Citi Field. Plus, few parks are holding this tater:
Bold Prediction #4: The Padres finish top 5 in HR
Franmil Reyes’s 3 run tater to center. pic.twitter.com/WG4l7bOYXq
— Alex Fast (@AlexFast8) March 26, 2019
5. Braves finish 4th in the division
It’s not that I don’t believe in the Braves offense; I really do. I think Freddie Freeman is a criminally underrated (from a media perspective) superstar. Ronald Acuna Jr. is so fun to watch. I’m currently wearing my Orioles Nick Markakis shirsey.
However, there are two things that stick out to me like a sore thumb: the Braves’ divisional record and their rotation.
Let’s start with the rotation. There are so many question marks: Will Foltynewicz’s elbow be able to hold up all season and — if it does — will he be able to stave off the regression his 3.77 SIERA, .251 BABIP and career low 9.6% HR/FB rate suggest? Will his slider be as effective, or will teams pick up on it and stop chasing it out of the zone? Will Kevin Gausman find consistency with his split-finger, and will it start playing well with his slider? Will his 14% HR/FB rate keep his ERA hovering near 4? I’m a believer in Bryse Wilson and Kyle Wright, but I’d be lying to you if I didn’t say there was volatility there — volatility that could easily be exacerbated by the newly tooled Phillies and Mets or still potent Nats offense.
Which brings me to my other point: Last year, the Braves won 49 games against their NL East opponents. That was tied with the Indians for the second-highest inner-division wins total (Red Sox were first with 52). A rotation filled with question marks plus a division that has taken steps forward offensively may not add up the way the Atlanta faithful want it to.
6. Xander Bogaerts is a top 3 SS
Last season, I wrote a piece about how Xander Bogaerts was having a career year. This year, I think he takes another step forward.
Over the course of the 2018 season, Bogaerts grew more patient at the plate and drastically improved the kind of contact that he was making with the fastball. He ended the year with a 9.8 barrel rate, a 90.5 average exit velocity, a .490 xSLG and a .374 wOBA (good enough to be in the top 9% of the league).
Derek Carty sent out this incredibly apt tweet last week saying that just because a player’s exit velocity went up from one year to the next does not mean it will continue on that trajectory: “Exit velocity and Hard % are prone to noise and variance like any other stat.”
I couldn’t agree more with that. However, I think Bogaerts is different. The 1.3 barrel rate he put up in 2017 was a result of the wrist injury that zapped his power and completely changed how he approached at-bats. If you throw out that year, you could make the case that his barrel rate may represent some middle ground between the 5.3% in 2016 and 9.8% of last year.
To me, that negates the changes Bogaerts made at the plate. In 2018, he stopped lunging at pitches in an attempt to make one-handed contact. He began standing up taller and “syncing up his legs, hips, and hands to create power.” At the end of the day, the path to Bogaerts being a top three shortstop is going to come from more RBI, runs, and home runs. It’s not difficult to see a path where he gets more RBI and runs; he does after all hit high in the order on one of the best offenses in baseball.
What about the home runs? No player made more strides than he did in terms of hard-drive rate in 2018. I think that the changes he made in 2018 make the hard-drive rates stick around, and I think he hits 28-plus home runs.
7. Willians Astudillo doesn’t strike out until June
For those who have read my writing before or seen my tweets, you likely know that I have a bit of an unhealthy obsession with Willians Astudillo. I want to clarify one thing: This love is sincere. I don’t love him facetiously or because other people love him. He’s sort of like “Africa” by Toto. Yes, it’s funny to love that song; yes, Weezer covered it and the music video is cheesy and it’s always on at the local grocery store, but at the end of the day, that’s a damn good song. Astudillo is my “Africa.”
I love him because he looks like he’s having the time of his life every time he’s out there. I love him because he is zigging while an entire sport is zagging. I love him because it’s actually possible he doesn’t strike out until June!
You know how many times Astudillo struck out in spring training? Zero. More than 50 plate appearances and zero strikeouts. This summer, he had 236 plate appearances in the Venezuelan Winter League and struck out a grand total of four times. In the 3,238 plate appearances Astudillo has had over his nine-year minor, foreign, and major league career, he has struck out 99 times (and walked 115). He made contact at a 92% clip last year, which was the highest in all of baseball with a minimum of 90 plate appearances. Of course, with every plate appearance Astudillo gets, the chances of a strikeout go up, but remember, he won’t be playing every day. He’ll likely be coming off the bench for quite some time.
If he just gets 150 plate appearances between now and June, is zero strikeouts that crazy for a guy with fewer than 100 career strikeouts?
8. Michael Pineda finishes top 10 in K/9
I’ve done my best this spring to watch as many starting pitching performances as possible. Maybe it’s because the Twins seemed to have televised a lot of their games or maybe it’s because I have a week spot for guys I feel the general population has forgotten about (Jeff Samardzija comes to mind), but for some reason, I found myself watching a lot of Michael Pineda‘s spring training starts.
I saw a few things: I saw a portlier Pineda. I saw a Pineda who still may struggle a bit with the long ball. Most importantly though, I saw this:
Pineda’s 4th K of the day was my favorite pitch sequence of his:
CH low and away
SL down and in
SL down and in
Don’t let the stat line fool you, this was a nice day for Pineda. pic.twitter.com/yNq7H7mWpw
— Alex Fast (@AlexFast8) March 15, 2019
Pineda’s spring training wraps up in the most Pineda way possible:
2 HR but 7 K. pic.twitter.com/YajlZ6JHuU
— Alex Fast (@AlexFast8) March 26, 2019
Pineda’s 2nd K:
94 heater at the knees
94 heater at the knees
88 CH below the knees. pic.twitter.com/wnZA6TZfmg
— Alex Fast (@AlexFast8) March 15, 2019
Of the 20 strikeouts that Pineda wracked up this spring training, I saw more than half of them, and I really liked what I saw. He was able to command his heater well, his changeup was down (for the most part), and his slider was making hitters look silly. Arguably most important though: His velocity was there. Pineda was sitting at 94 mph this spring and at times was even sitting 95. That velo and arsenal in a division that had the team with the highest strikeout rate in baseball last year (White Sox), and we could be seeing a lot of whiffs from Pineda in 2019.
9. Dylan Bundy has a sub-3 2nd half ERA
Dylan Bundy was one of if not THE worst pitcher in baseball last year. He took steps back in virtually every category imaginable. His fastball gave up 20 home runs last year. TWENTY! Trevor Bauer gave up nine home runs the entire season!
Bundy’s floor last year was like the Tower of Terror for fantasy baseball owners.
I understand all of that. Believe, I watched it first hand.
But: Bundy has the tools to be a successful pitcher. In 2016, his changeup posted elite zone-rate numbers, and in 2017, his slider was a fantastic strikeout piece. While I don’t think he’s ever been able to use his curveball effectively, it does show glimmers of being a very effective piece as well.
We’ve seen stretches where Bundy has been able to put it all together and be more than effective; the issue has always been he’s so inconsistent. If only there was an analytics department to help him set things straight. OH WAIT! For the first time in Bundy’s career, he will have a more than one-person analytics department helping him out, and they’ve already begun:
The new analytics department is going to help Bundy right the ship. It may take him a minute, but I think we could see a nice second half out of him.
10. Hunter Strickland is 2019’s Shane Greene
Shane Greene finished top 10 in saves last year with 32. He did so despite a 5.12 ERA, a 4.61 FIP and a 23.3% strikeout rate that was 94th among qualified relievers. Let’s also not forget that Greene closed for the Tigers, who finished with a 64-98 record. I would be surprised to see Greene crack the top 10 this year because I think Hunter Strickland is going to take his place.
Strickland’s stuff was not great last year – hence all the wall punching. He finished 2018 with a career-high 3.97 ERA an awful 4.42 FIP and a career low 18.4% strikeout rate. His fastball took some big steps back in swinging-strike rate and got hit around more than usual. That aside, I don’t think Strickland’s stuff is that bad, and I’d be surprised to see his four-seamer post another negative pVAL after three consecutive years of being above 8.
Let’s not forget too that when it comes to the closer role, it’s not just about the skills: It’s also about job security. With names such asCory Gearrin, Dan Altavilla and Zac Rosscup behind him, I think it’s safe to say that Strickland has a pretty long leash. Much like Greene, Strickland plays for a ball club that’s not going to win a ton of games, but also like Greene, Strickland has the job security to assure that he gets the lion’s share of the opportunities that come his way.
While I don’t see Strickland returning to the days of his sub-3 ERA — some of those outs from his second save in Japan were very loud — he has the skills and the job security to get 30-plus saves and finish in the top 10.
(Photo by Lawrence Iles/Icon Sportswire)