I wanted to save my bold predictions for right before the season began. It’s a good thing, too, as I was going to predict that Nick Senzel would outperform Scooter Gennett. I had so many good reasons too. Alas, Scooter scooted off the field with a groin strain and won’t return for eight to 12 weeks. Anyway, with some delay, I’ve given myself the best chance to ensure my bold predictions are insulated from injury.
Nick Pollack has instructed that our predictions should be bold enough that they shouldn’t come true. Some of mine are more plausible than others, but I’ve generally strived for bold. Without further ado, here are my bold predictions for 2019.
1. German Marquez will win the NL Cy Young Award
My love for German Marquez is no secret.
Perhaps this prediction is a little less bold than the others as Marquez basically performed like a Cy Young contender down the stretch last year. Still, everyone should know how good he really was for his final 17 starts of the year:
Yes, you’re reading that correctly. That’s not a 28.3 K%, it’s a 28.3 K-BB%. I also included Marquez’s BABIP, HR/FB%, and LOB% to show that he wasn’t getting lucky during this stretch. In addition, seven of those 17 starts were in Coors Field, while two were away at the Dodgers, two at the Diamondbacks, one at the Astros, and one at the Brewers. Not exactly an easy schedule. With the ability to pair two excellent breakers low in the zone and an upper 90s four-seamer up the ladder, Marquez is following the Blake Snell blueprint to a Cy Young, and it shows in the results.
I’ve seen a lot of bold predictions knocking Marquez out of the top 30 starting pitchers. Obviously, the Coors monster looms large. And I’ve heard negativity around the guy’s fastball. But why look for reasons to hate one of the only pitchers in the MLB who has shown he can contend with the Sales, DeGroms, and Scherzers of the world? Particularly one who’s only 24 years old.
In the end, this is a bold prediction anyway. So don’t @ me.
2. Chris Iannetta will be a top-10 catcher
I’m doubling down on my Rockies bold predictions. Sure, the catcher position is a wasteland, so some guys with a pulse inevitably end up in the top 10. But Chris Iannetta is a complete afterthought being taken as the 27th catcher off the board in NFBC drafts. This prediction is further complicated by the fact that Iannetta will be splitting time behind the plate with Tony Wolters, so he might simply be unable to amass enough plate appearances for this bold prediction to come to fruition.
On the bright side, in 2017, Iannetta hit .254 with 17 home runs in just 316 plate appearances. With full playing time, he could be immensely valuable. Iannetta’s falling down draft boards because in 2018 he hit .224 with 11 homers, which doesn’t even move the needle at the catcher position. His HR/FB% dropped from 21.5% to 13.1%.
With mostly just the confidence of the Rockies’ pitchers keeping him in the lineup, Iannetta needs to find his stride at the plate to fight off Wolters. My hope is that Iannetta’s bat breaks out again, earning him more regular playing time.
Why do I think that might happen? Here’s a list of all the catchers with an average launch angle over 10 degrees and FB/LD exit velocity of 96-plus mph: Gary Sanchez, Mike Zunino, and Iannetta. For some reason, his Brls/BBE rate of 9.3% wasn’t commensurate with his raw power, tendency to elevate, and the fact that he plays in Coors. As for his batting average, it won’t be great, but it will be better than Zunino’s and hopefully in the .240s given his LD tendencies. A .240 average with 20 homers might just be enough to push Iannetta into the top 10 catchers.
If Iannetta can play himself into a full-time role by regaining that power, maybe he can be a top-10 catcher. Maybe.
3. The Marlins will be top 5 in the NL by ERA
Go big or go home, right? Seeing as the Marlins were 13th-worst in ERA last season in the NL and are projected for last in the NL East with a 63-99 record, this one should be a piece of cake. But now they’ve got an improved rotation, with high-ceiling prospects Jose Urena, Pablo Lopez, Caleb Smith, Trevor Richards, and Sandy Alcantara. In the days since I began drafting this, they actually displaced the lifeless corpses of Wei-Yin Chen and Dan Straily. Props to the Marlins brass for going bold.
With that in mind, the Marlins’ rotation could potentially leapfrog the surprisingly modest rotations of the Braves, Giants, and Brewers, volatile rotations of the Diamondbacks and Pirates, young but unproven rotations of the Phillies and Rockies, and aging Cubs’ rotation. The atrocious Marlins’ rotation was already better than the Padres and Reds last season. That would place them just after the Dodgers, Cardinals, Mets, and Nationals.
In any event, as Nick has repeatedly cautioned us, these predictions are meant to be bold … not accurate.
Believe it or not, this one actually happened last season. Mike Trout and Mookie Betts amassed 9.8 and 10.4 fWAR, respectively, in 2018. The position players of the White Sox, Padres, Tigers, Giants, and Orioles all disappointed more than these two individuals:
|8.3 fWAR||8.0 fWAR||7.5 fWAR||6.5 fWAR||1.8 fWAR|
Given this recent precedent, it may not seem so bold. But of all players in 2017, only Aaron Judge had more fWAR (8.2) than any single team’s offense, which was the lowly Padres. In 2016, while a bunch of players had more fWAR than the 3.3 put up by the Athletics, only Trout’s 9.7 fWAR was higher than another team. Thus, it’s pretty bold to predict two players will outperform the lineups of five teams.
One could imagine Betts and Trout outdoing the Tigers, Giants, and Orioles once again. But the Padres and White Sox lineups have greatly improved. My best guess is the Marlins, Blue Jays, or Royals could join those other clubs to get bested by Betts and Trout. But the stars will have to align for this one to come true, and you know what they say: lightning never strikes twice.
5. The Cubs will finish last in the NL Central
I’ve never been much of a fan of the Cubbies. In 2016, I believed they got lucky with what felt like a good but not great lineup and a bevy of pitchers outperforming their ERA indicators. Still, please don’t give me a million reasons why the 2016 Cubs were historic. I want to talk about 2019.
Fangraphs currently projects the Cubs to finish in first place in the NL Central with 87 wins.
My bold prediction, however, is the regression monster hits free-swinging Javier Baez smack in the face. Anthony Rizzo is not the player he used to be. He posted a 2.9 fWAR last year and is turning 30 this season. Kris Bryant needs to redeem himself and put this lineup on his back otherwise the Cubs will be in a freefall. Addison Russell, Jason Heyward, Wilson Contreras, and Albert Almora Jr. were all extremely mediocre last season, posting 2.0 fWAR or less. That leaves just … Kyle Schwarber (who I actually kind of like) and Ben Zobrist (who can’t keep this up forever).
The Cubs’ pitching staff would be excellent in 2015, but I’m not so sure today. Jose Quintana, Yu Darvish, Jon Lester, and Cole Hamels are all older than 30. Kyle Hendricks is 29. They’re not only therefore susceptible to injury but also decline. Some of them (namely Quintana, Lester, and Hamels) are already showing signs of skills regression. If everything goes right, this could be a top-5 rotation in the NL with a bunch of sturdy mid-3 ERA pitchers, but if everything goes wrong, then it could be one of the worst.
Finally, Fangraphs projects each of the Reds, Brewers, Pirates, and Cardinals to have at least 77 wins this season. I don’t really expect the Reds or Pirates to win the division. But these things are fickle, and star power is far less concentrated in this division than in others. There is definitely a world in which a couple of series don’t go the Cubs’ way, making their record more closely resemble the Reds or Pirates.
6. Rhys Hoskins won’t be a top-30 outfielder
I will have no shares of Rhys Hoskins this season. Many will disagree with me, but I think what Hoskins gives you is available in the last round of a draft.
First, let’s break down the numbers. With a full season of plate appearances in 2018, Hoskins hit .246 with 34 homers, 89 runs, 96 RBI, and 5 stolen bases. That’s nearly identical to Travis Shaw‘s 2018 season, but at least Shaw has second base eligibility. Frankly it’s fine but not really moving the needle enough to compensate for the lack of stolen bases and the low batting average. xStats wasn’t forgiving either, giving Hoskins 29.4 xHRs and a .250 xAVG. The reason is that xStats is based on Statcast batted-ball data, and Hoskins only had a 94.3 mph FB/LD exit velocity, 324-foot average FB distance, and 11.4 Brls/BBE%. These are strong predictors of raw power, and while they were all above average, they weren’t what you expect for a premier slugger.
I’m not surprised, then, that Hoskins’ xStats were uninspiring and his HR/FB% fell to 16%, which again is above average but not well above average. It matched his Statcast peripherals. That won’t improve unless he starts hitting the ball harder. Hoskins also pulls the ball 50% of the time and hits 51.7% fly balls with a below average complement of line drives, all of which is bad for BABIP and the reason his batting average fell. He probably struck out more than he should have given the 7.9 swinging-strike rate and 22.7% strikeout rate, but don’t be surprised if his batting average still sits around .250 to .260.
Maybe Hoskins achieves a .255 average and 30 homers, but that much is cuspy for a top-30 outfielder, and there are a lot of late-round outfielders capable of putting up similar numbers (e.g., Schwarber, Stephen Piscotty, Jackie Bradley Jr., Franmil Reyes, Hunter Renfroe, Teoscar Hernandez, Randal Grichuk, Daniel Palka, Tyler O’Neill, etc.). You can quibble with me over each of those players as they have their warts, but Hoskins just doesn’t strike me as terribly different just because he has a discerning eye at the plate and a good lineup around him. At the end of the day, it’s usually not the 30-home run .250-average guys who win leagues when that talent is ubiquitous.
7. None of last year’s breakout rookies will return value at their cost
First, let’s stipulate who I’m referring to: Gleyber Torres, Miguel Andujar, Juan Soto, Ronald Acuna, Walker Buehler, and Jack Flaherty. Excluding Shohei Ohtani (as it would be unfair to include him here), these are the 2018 rookies that really helped fantasy owners and are also going in the top 100 in NFBC drafts.
There’s a reason each guy might be a letdown in 2019. For Torres, it’s below-average power indicators that suggest impending regression. It’s the same for Andujar. I wrote more about them here, but without much speed for Andujar or batting average for Torres, I can imagine both disappointing and falling outside of the top 100 next season.
It gets a little more challenging with the other two hitters. Soto should also regress in the power department. Not because he doesn’t hit the ball hard: His 97.4 mph FB/LD exit velocity is tops in the league. Instead, Soto puts far too many balls on the ground and far too few in the air (1.87 GB/FB rate). Hence the 18 xHRs to his actual 22. And with a poor 17.5% line-drive rate, it’s unsurprising that his .292 average exceeded his .274 xAVG. Of course, he’s just 20 years old, and I love the fact that he’s got excellent plate discipline. But it’s an open question whether Soto can repeat his torrid 2018 pace and return third-round value.
Acuna similarly outperformed his xHR and xAVG, particularly the latter (.276 xAVG to his actual .293 average). He also will bat cleanup this season, which might sap his stolen base total. In 301 leadoff plate appearances last season, he stole 14 bases. In 186 nonleadoff plate appearances, Acuna stole two bases. I expect he’ll be excellent this season nonetheless, just maybe not on the 60 combined home runs and stolen bases, .290 average pace he maintained last season. He could disappoint the lofty expectations placed upon him.
Flaherty and Buehler are easier. I see skills regression for the former, lacking a third effective offering and struggling to go deep into games. Nick said it best in his starting pitcher rankings:
Since 2014, Flaherty is one of only four pitchers with 150-plus innings pitched to have managed to hold a walk rate north of 9.5%, carry a 25% strikeout rate, and boast an ERA lower than 3.50: Francisco Liriano (2014), Tyson Ross (2015), and Robbie Ray (2017)
As for Buehler, there are two complicating factors. First and foremost is innings. I don’t expect the Dodgers to push Buehler past 160 regular season innings when he pitched only 137 last year (a career-high) and then some in the playoffs. This is already a team that is known to manipulate the injured list to keep guys fresh, and they have to monitor Buehler’s workload for another expected playoff run. Beyond this, it’s possible he just pitches to his 3.31 SIERA instead of his 2.62 ERA. Pitching 160 innings with a 3.31 ERA and 180 strikeouts (9.9 K/9) is great but not really worth a fourth-round pick.
Voit hit the ball “hard” more frequently than JD Martinez, Khris Davis, and Giancarlo Stanton. He hit his FB/LD harder than Franmil Reyes, Miguel Sano, Mike Trout, and Paul Goldschmidt. And he barreled the ball with greater frequency than any other hitter in the league.
Like Voit, the metrics support Muncy’s breakout. He’s not as strong as Voit because he doesn’t hit his FB/LD as hard (79th overall for those with 50 BBEs), but he still surprisingly hits them harder than Marcell Ozuna, Nolan Arenado, and Matt Carpenter. He also hits the ball hard (39th overall) more often than Wil Myers, Eugenio Suarez, and Bryce Harper. Besides, only 11 players in the league bested his barrel rate (one of whom was Voit).
Both guys had high fly-ball and pull rates. Muncy in particular had an extremely high Hard% on pulled fly balls of 78.79%. With a full complement of plate appearances, I expect these guys to each mash more than 30 homers. Voit also strikes me as a high BABIP hitter given his abundance of low and high drives, and xStats thinks Muncy got unlucky in the batting average department (.275 xAVG to .263 actual average).
For my bold prediction, they would need to leapfrog all but three of Goldschmidt, Freddie Freeman, Hoskins, Rizzo, Cody Bellinger, Carpenter, Jesus Aguilar, and Joey Gallo. It’s, of course, a stretch but not impossible. I actually think Voit and Muncy have more raw power than all of those guys not named Gallo. Whether they get their plate appearances and follow up on their breakouts will be key.
9. No Met will hit more than 25 home runs
This might be my boldest prediction yet. Last season, only one Met actually hit more than 25 homers: Michael Conforto. This season, the revamped team boasts new second baseman Robinson Cano, catcher Wilson Ramos, and first baseman Pete Alonso, among others. Each one of them is certainly capable of hitting 25 home runs. The thing is, Cano is on the wrong side of 35, Ramos is injury-prone and has never hit more than 22 homers, and Alonso is unproven and could strike himself out of a job as Dominic Smith keeps the pressure on.
Sure, Conforto did it last year, but he too is injury-prone. He also is relatively unproven and may slump again as he did in 2016. Brandon Nimmo, while an on-base machine, is no Yoenis Cespedes, and Cespedes himself will not play enough this season (if at all) to hit 25 dongs. Of course, valid and persuasive arguments could be made for any of these players to hit 25 home runs. But I’m going for broke.
One could say it’s not bold to predict a fourth-round player outperforms a second-rounder, but there are three reasons why I think it’s bold. First, Adalberto Mondesi has an extremely limited track record of success in the MLB. He showed 291 plate appearances of excellence in 2018, with 209 plate appearances of fantasy uselessness in 2016-17. Second, the fact that he plays on one of the worst teams in baseball will, no doubt, sap his run and RBI totals. Mondesi hits after Martin Maldonado and Billy Hamilton and before Whit Merrifield and Alex Gordon, while Javier Baez hits after Bryant and Rizzo and before Schwarber and Contreras. Third, Baez hits in a better park for power than Mondesi.
Here are some interesting facts about Mondesi: His FB/LD exit velocity of 94.6 mph ranks 78th-best among all players with 100 batted-ball events. His 10.4 Brls/BBE% ranks 71st-best. His 332-foot average fly ball distance ranks 59th-best. Admittedly, Baez beats him in all three of those categories, but the point is Mondesi can at least potentially hit 20 homers to Baez’s 30. In addition, both players have absolutely atrocious plate discipline. Baez has nevertheless shown the ability to maintain decent batting averages, while Mondesi is more unproven.
But the primary difference between the two players that drives this bold prediction is speed. Stealing bases is a matter of (1) choice, (2) opportunity, and (3) speed.
- As to choice, Baez’s stolen base rate was 3.26% (21 stolen bases/645 plate appearances) while Mondesi’s was a whopping 11% (32 stolen bases/291 plate appearances), which was the best in the league among all players with at least 250 plate appearances by nearly 4 percentage points.
- For opportunity, you have to be on a team willing to let you run, and you have to get on first base. Of course, Mondesi’s .306 OBP is barely passable and may hold back his stolen base attempts. That said, he still stole 32 bases with that OBP, his success rate was 82.1%, and the Royals stole the sixth-most bases in the league. Opportunity appears to be going nowhere so long as Mondesi’s bat keeps him in the lineup.
- Speed is the easiest of the three requirements. Mondesi is tied for the 10th-fastest sprint speed in baseball (29.9 ft/sec).
Should Mondesi steal 50-plus bases, even if he hits fewer home runs, maintains a lower batting average, and provides fewer runs and RBI, he might outperform Baez.
Photo by Leslie Plaza Johnson/Icon Sportswire