It’s a good thing I waited until July to do my bold predictions. Giancarlo Stanton and Aaron Judge will combine for more than 100 home runs? Adalberto Mondesi will push 80 stolen bases? In a short, 60-game season, such predictions give bold a whole new meaning.
I’ll try to do my best to keep my predictions bold, just scaled to this abridged timeframe. Indeed, Nick Pollack has instructed that our predictions shouldn’t come true. Last year, two of my ten bold predictions came to fruition. Perhaps I wasn’t bold enough?
1. The Rangers’ Rotation Has the Most fWAR in the AL
You might read this prediction and think Cleveland or the Rays might have something to say about this, Dan. In that case, I remind you that these are bold predictions.
Besides, the Rangers boast several interesting starting pitchers. Did you realize that Lance Lynn generated 6.8 fWAR last year? He was behind only Gerrit Cole and Jacob deGrom among all starting pitchers, which means he was also ahead of Justin Verlander, Max Scherzer, Charlie Morton, Stephen Strasburg, etc.
Let’s not forget about Corey Kluber, who averaged 218 IP and 6.1 fWAR from 2014-18. For his part, Mike Minor amassed 4.1 fWAR in 2019. Kyle Gibson — seemingly a tweak away from fantasy relevance — had exactly 2.6 fWAR the last two seasons in a row. And even Jordan Lyles managed 1.6 fWAR in only 141 IP last year.
Significantly, the Rangers also seem ready to pitch deep into games at the start of the season. With potential in the back of the rotation and undeniable talent in the front, the Rangers just might surprise everyone this year.
2. Matthew Boyd is a Top-10 Starting Pitcher
It took a while for me to come around to Matthew Boyd. I think I was just bitter because I ignored the helium entering 2019 drafts and missed out everywhere. I felt that he hadn’t shown enough in 2018 for a 2019 flier. I jeered as he ceded home run after home run.
The underlying skills he exhibited in 2019, however, are difficult to ignore. Over a 30% strikeout rate? The eighth-best K-BB% among all qualified starters? Not to mention the 11th-best Forecasted Run Average among those with 100 IP (you can read more about FRA here). I’m all in.
Notably, Boyd had a home run problem last year. I expect his inflated 1.89 HR/9 will come down as he’s pitching in Comerica, which is one of the most difficult parks to convert barrels into home runs. Promisingly, Boyd also plans to further incorporate a curveball and changeup this year. He’ll hardly be able to buy a win, but I like to bet on the stuff. If he’s stretched out, I think Boyd can round into form and penetrate the top-10.
Did you know that Jason Castro had the 11th-best barrel rate among all hitters with 150 BBEs last season? Or the 22nd-best exit velocity on fly balls and line drives? Or the 32nd-best hard-hit rate? You probably didn’t, because he played in Mitch Garver‘s shadow for the Twins.
The guy absolutely rakes, and finally finds himself with a starting gig with the Angels. His competition for playing time is limited to just Max Stassi. And while he’s penciled in to hit last, that could change with elite power production. I have no doubt that he could surpass names like Wilson Ramos, Yadier Molina, and Omar Narvaez to sneak into the top 10.
Similarly, Tom Murphy puts good wood on the ball. While he wasn’t one of the best overall for many Statcast metrics, he was elite among catchers. For example, Murphy ranked eighth in barrel rate, eighth in exit velocity on flies and liners, and third in hard-hit rate. Murphy sneakily has more secure playing time with the Mariners than many other catchers and projects to bat cleanup. Don’t be surprised to find him in the top 10 next season.
Sure, these guys have their warts. Neither had a strikeout rate under 30% last year. But that’s what makes this prediction bold.
4. The Diamondbacks Win the NL West
Yes, the Dodgers have an absurdly stacked lineup that features Mookie Betts, Cody Bellinger, Justin Turner, Max Muncy, and Gavin Lux, among others. And yes, their rotation is similarly deep and talented. But with David Price opting out of the season, an early injury to Muncy, and several summer camp absences, an opening emerges for a contender. Plus, the narrative that the Dodgers are the only NL West powerhouse is getting tired.
Enter the Diamondbacks. This team has a surprising crop of talent both young and old. Consider veteran additions Starling Marte, Madison Bumgarner, Kole Calhoun, and Héctor Rondón to a team that already won 85 games last year. Consider also a rotation buoyed by a healthy Luke Weaver. And that’s to say nothing of the team’s existing talent in Ketel Marte, David Peralta, Robbie Ray, and Eduardo Escobar. Finally, the Diamondbacks have exciting young prospects, including Zac Gallen, Carson Kelly, and Kevin Cron (I’ve written about how promising Cron is here).
I disagree with FanGraphs that the Diamondbacks are currently a 31-29 team, and I think there’s even room for them to eke out the Division title. With little opportunity for the cream to rise to the top, anything can happen in a 60-game season.
5. Mookie Betts is the Home Run King
I alluded to this earlier, but certain parks are better than others at converting hitters’ barrels into home runs. Chief among the worst is Fenway Park, which was the most difficult venue for righties like Betts to cash in on their barrels. Undoubtedly, this stifled his home run potential the past several seasons.
That’s not to say he was some slouch in Fenway. Betts averaged 29 home runs over the last four years. Last year, he had a 71st-percentile barrel rate, 88th-percentile hard-hit rate, and 84th-percentile exit velocity. Of course, there are plenty of other hitters who have regularly produced over 30, 40, or occasionally even 50, home runs, with better peripherals to boot.
But now, Betts finds himself at Dodger Stadium, a neutral venue to left field. Fenway was also the fourth-worst venue for barrels hit to center, whereas Dodger Stadium was the best in baseball. This is a marked upgrade for home run hitting.
Betts might also get the most plate appearances of any hitter in the league. To that point, he projects to lead off for arguably the best lineup in baseball. And with an extremely low strikeout rate, he could bang out home runs just by putting a ton of pitches into play, a la Alex Bregman. You may not think of Betts as a power-first bat, but opportunity in this short season is key, especially when other sluggers competing with him for the title might miss games on the paternity list, as a result of injury, or due to COVID-19.
6. Mike Moustakas is the Best Second Baseman in Fantasy
Around 97th overall, Mike Moustakas is the 10th-highest-drafted second baseman according to NFBC ADP since the announcement of the 60-game season. To be sure, there are obstacles to this prediction coming to fruition; namely, Ketel Marte, Jose Altuve, and Gleyber Torres, among others.
This is not so much that I dislike those guys and the other highly regarded second basemen. Consider it a Moustakas hype post. Let’s start with the fact that ATC already projects Moustakas to tie Torres for the HR lead among second basemen with 12. That’s no surprise, either, in light of Moustakas’ 2019 spray chart overlayed on his new home field: Great American Ball Park.
Moustakas did hit an impressive 35 home runs last year, but many of those field outs and doubles at Miller Park might have been home runs at GABP. (Of course, bearing in mind that half of his games were not played at Miller Park and half will not be at GABP.)
What’s trickier to square with this bold prediction is Moustakas’s lack of speed and lackluster .254 AVG. Nevertheless, his .263 expected batting average was nine points higher, and he did hit .272 over 148 games in 2017 and .284 over 147 games in 2015, so you can’t rule him out as a four-category-contributor.
If all breaks right, Moustakas might just outperform the safer second basemen at the top of the rankings. Admittedly, I think this is my boldest prediction yet.
7. The Braves’ Outfield is the Best in Baseball
This prediction stems from a hot take that … didn’t land.
Suffice it to say, the comments weren’t kind.
But I do think there’s a world in which Marcell Ozuna, Ronald Acuña Jr., and newly acquired Yasiel Puig form the best outfield in baseball. All three of these guys can hit. Puig has peaked at a 123 wRC+, and Ozuna and Acuña have each produced a 143 wRC+ in their careers.
It really comes down to defense. Last year, according to UZR/150, Puig was worth -1.2 runs on defense, Acuña 2.9, and Ozuna 8.6. For context, Betts alone was worth 13.3 runs last year. Speaking of the Braves outfield defense:
Missed it by that much. pic.twitter.com/yQs026Axee
— MLB GIFS (@MLBGIFs) April 10, 2019
In all seriousness, however, with improved defense — and in Puig’s case, offense, given his meager 101 wRC+ last year — the Braves could contend with the Dodgers, Yankees, and other great outfields. Should Acuña’s defense improve, he might be an eight-win player, while Ozuna and Puig have both been five-win players in the past. With adjustments, those ceilings are attainable, and I’m willing to go bold for an exciting stable of young outfielders.
8. Kris Bryant is Not a Top-12 Third Baseman
Back in December — which feels like a lifetime ago — I was naively analyzing early ADP data and compared J.D. Davis favorably to Kris Bryant. The crux of my argument was twofold: that (1) Davis has outstanding peripherals and (2) Bryant does not.
I won’t recap the entire article here, but there are some salient points worth mentioning. First, Bryant’s exit velocity on flies and liners was 92.3 mph in 2019, good for just 265th-best among all hitters with at least 50 batted-ball events. Likewise, his hard-hit rate was 34.1%–298th-best in the league. The lack of raw power explains his middling 5.8 Brls/PA%, which is only slightly better than league average.
Second, Bryant hit far fewer ground balls and line drives than league average last year. He also had an above-average complement of fly balls and pop-ups. Further, he pulled the ball at a high rate. Based on this batted-ball profile, it’s clear he was trying to pull fly balls to hit home runs. It’s no wonder, then, that he managed a .246 xBA, a far cry from his actual .282 AVG.
I just don’t love his 2019 profile. I believe he was compensating for middling raw power by pulling fly balls. To me, he’ll have to luck into better than average power, and he’ll likely sacrifice AVG to do so. That’s why Bryant’s comps according to Statcast are so unimpressive:
Of course, Bryant could prove me wrong and go on a wonderful 60-game run where he hits .300 with 15 home runs. He has produced at a first-round pace in the past. In fact, he doesn’t even need to come close to that to foil this bold prediction, which gives him plenty of room for error. But I’m acutely aware of the warning signs and betting against it.
9. Sam Hilliard is a Top-20 Outfielder
I’ve also written about how much I like Sam Hilliard. I’m not into prospects and I don’t play dynasty, but I can spot talent in small samples. And in his brief cup of coffee last year, Hilliard impressed.
If you consider only those players under age-26 with fewer than 75 batted ball events in 2019 (i.e., those for whom most rate stats never stabilized), Hilliard has the best maximum exit velocity of them all. Hilliard smoked two doubles last year to top the list: one at 114.1 mph and another at 113.8 mph. To that point, as Rob Arthur has observed in connection with maximum exit velocity, “the hardest-hit batted ball a player strikes is enough on its own to predict whether a player will outperform their PECOTA projection.”
Hilliard has also been successful in the minors. With 42 HRs in 646 PAs between Triple-A and the majors in 2019, he exhibited elite raw power. He can run, too, stealing 24 bases last year. That kind of power and speed combination is rare in today’s game. His principal drawback is a lack of plate discipline, as he regularly ran strikeout rates north of 25%.
Yet, he also maintained elevated BABIPs in the Minors, and hitters have averaged a whopping .334 BABIP in Coors Field dating back to 2017. Note also that many hitters, such as Nolan Arenado, Trevor Story, and Charlie Blackmon, have regularly outperformed their expected batting averages and expected home run totals (based on exit velocity and barrel rate) likely due to playing in Colorado. All three hit at least 32 home runs last year, but none had a barrel rate over a mere 6.3%. That gives Hilliard a comfortable home ballpark cushion.
To be sure, he will have to compete for playing time and, although Roster Resource does pencil him in to start, he likely will be on a limited leash. But I love the potential here, and I could see him returning elite value despite being an afterthought in most drafts.
10. The Rays Win the World Series
As a Yankees fan, it pains me to write this. But as I thought through it more, teams that tend to dominate in smaller samples have excellent pitching. Take this with a grain of salt, but MLB.com’s Anthony Castrovince projects the Rays to have the second-best rotation in baseball.
The Rays boast all of Blake Snell, Charlie Morton, and Tyler Glasnow in their rotation. My theory makes sense, too, considering that one day’s starting pitcher has such an outsized effect on that game’s result. Consider the Nationals’ 2019 run. Facing Max Scherzer, Stephen Strasburg, or Patrick Corbin on back-to-back-to-back days in a five- or seven-game series is devastating.
Castrovince also projects the Rays to have the fourth-best bullpen in baseball. I would project it even higher. Nick Anderson had an absurd 34.9 K-BB% last year. Jose Alvarado and Diego Castillo both throw 99. And Chaz Roe can do this:
Chaz Roe, Ridiculous 80mph Slider. 😲 pic.twitter.com/2hXG3lwJgz
— Rob Friedman (@PitchingNinja) June 12, 2019
So, you’ve now had six innings of Morton and you’re facing some mix of Anderson, Castillo, Alvarado, and Roe. Good luck.
Plus, the lineup isn’t too shabby either. The Rays have breakout stars Austin Meadows and Brandon Lowe — the former a four-win player and the latter a 2.6-win player in just half a season. They recently acquired Hunter Renfroe and Yoshitomo Tsutsugo, and have arguably the best defensive center fielder in baseball: Kevin Kiermaier. The team has such great depth that Manuel Margot and post-hype prospects Nate Lowe and Brendan McKay aren’t even projected as starters.
As it stands, FanGraphs doesn’t even project the Rays to win their own division. But I’m boldly predicting that this is the year the Rays get their first World Series title.
Photo Credits – Murphy: George Walker/Icon Sportswire, Boyd: Frank Jansky/Icon Sportswire, Mookie: Ric Tapia/Icon Sportswire, Cody Glenn/Icon Sportswire, Lynn: John Bunch/Icon Sportswire | Adapted by Rick Orengo (@OneFiddyOne on Twitter and Instagram)