After seeing Atlanta celebrate their World Series ring, I decided to try to look back at my season for reasons to celebrate. It didn’t go well. But read on as I immortalize my shame and celebrate my victories from my 2021 Bold Predictions and hopefully learn not to make the same mistakes I did. For reference, I am using ATC for the pitcher projections mentioned in the article and THE BAT X for hitter projections.
1. Jeff Hoffman Leads the Reds in Saves
Projected: 78 IP, 4 W, 0 SV, 79 K, 5.16 ERA, 1.41 WHIP
Actual: 73 IP, 3 W, 0 SV, 79 K, 4.56 ERA, 1.58 WHIP
This take was based on a feeling that Amir Garrett, who was being drafted as the number 1 closer for the Reds, wouldn’t be used as a straight closer and, if he was, he wouldn’t have success. Closers with L/R splits as strong as Garrett’s rarely stick in the ninth. This inkling was correct, but I couldn’t have predicted the preseason injuries that came to Tejay Antone and Michael Lorenzen which forced Hoffman into the starting rotation to begin the year. He did end up in the bullpen in the second half and showed some potential there sporting a 32% K-rate and 3.54 ERA in 28 IP as a reliever. However, home runs continued to plague him and he never found his way into any kind of high leverage situation.
In hindsight, while I couldn’t have foreseen the injuries, I should have foreseen the home run problems. It’s true that Hoffman was leaving Coors, but one could argue that the second-worst ballpark in the league for him would be the Great American Ball Park. Both his HR-rate (Road: 1.21 vs Home: 1.66) and opponent slugging percentage (Road: .387 vs Home: .468) were both worse at home despite his strikeout-to-walk ratio (Road: 2.42 vs Home: 1.27) indicating he had better control there. Historically, his home run rate at Coors wasn’t tangibly different from his rate on the road, so it was wishful thinking to believe that the long ball wouldn’t be a problem. Even though this was a miss, I can take solace in two things. First, I sensed that something was wrong with the Reds bullpen construction and ended up being right about that. Second, nobody expected anything from Hoffman and that’s what we got. If you followed my predictions to the letter, you just used a roster spot on him for a few weeks and then moved on to the next opportunity.
Verdict: MISS, 0-1
2. Trey Mancini and Anthony Santander Combine for 70 HRs and 180 RBI
Projected combined: 56 HR, 153 RBI
Actual combined: 39 HR, 121 RBI
Well, this didn’t work out. Mancini was close to his projections but came nowhere close to putting up his share of the 35/90 as I’d predicted he and Santander would average. Mancini was looking really good for the first half, but his power faded down the stretch. After July 31st, Mancini hit just two home runs in 193 plate appearances. Despite that cold stretch for Mancini, it was Santander who really failed to live up to expectations. After being projected to hit 30 bombs, he delivered only 18. Injuries limited him yet again as he barely surpassed 400 at-bats. He did tease us with a solid month of August where he hit eight homers and drove in 13 RBIs with a .309/.350/.617 triple slash. In fact, as a lesson for next year, maybe we should all pick up Santander just for August. He’s hit 24 of his 50 career homers and has a career OPS of .892 in the month compared to .744 overall. Something to consider if you need a second-half boost.
This was more of a feel-good pick, so I’m not surprised it didn’t hit. It makes sense that Mancini faded a bit in the second half considering what he went through. He showed that he is still a good hitter in the first half, so he might be a solid sleeper pick next year if people judge him too much on his second half without knowing the context. Santander, I fear, is going to be one of those guys who flashes potential throughout his career, but never really puts it together. That’s three straight years that he’s had a solid month or two, but has been unable to put together any kind of consistency. Injuries continue to hamper him to the point that it’s something you’ll have to factor into your draft price as well. Look, next year is his age 27 season. If the Orioles bring him back (he’s arbitration-eligible) and he’s in line for full-time at-bats again, I’d have a hard time not picking him up in leagues with deep benches or putting him on my watch list in leagues with short benches. If we could only convince him that every month is August…
Verdict: MISS, 0-2
3. The Blue Jays Finish Ten Games Below .500 With a Bottom-5 Runs Allowed Per Game
Projected: 85-77, 9th in AL in RA/G (PECOTA preseason projections)
Actual: 91-71, 4th in AL in RA/G
The Blue Jays were shocking this season to me for two reasons. First, they really got the absolute best out of their starters. Who would have had the guts to say that Robbie Ray would put up a Cy Young caliber year AND Steven Matz would put up a career-high in WAR AND Hyun-Jin Ryu would throw nearly 170 innings? Not only did all those things happen, but Alek Manoah came out of nowhere to be a blossoming ace and they traded for José Berríos and got 12 starts out of him down the stretch. If you had told me before the year that all those things would happen, I’d say that this is a team that’s competing for a World Series appearance. The next shocking thing is that, despite all of this, they still managed to miss the playoffs. It came down to August, in my opinion. This is when the team was as close to full strength as they’d be all year (given that George Springer was basically banged up all year) after the addition of Berríos and they managed to go just 16-14 with series losses to both the Tigers and post-firesale Nationals. They could and should have won 20 games that month and it cost them a playoff berth.
I was again way off here. Most projection systems had the Jays in the mid-to-high 80s in terms of a win total and that just seemed really high with a pitching staff whose ace had longevity concerns and whose other projected starters all had ERAs over five the previous season. However, projection systems are always based on a range of expected outcomes and that offense was always going to keep them from losing too many games. The potential the Blue Jays had for a 95+ win season if they did figure out their pitching was perhaps a good argument for why an 85-win projection was too low. But in a year where pitching depth was so tested in most organizations across the league, can you blame me for questioning the potential of a team with very questionable pitching depth as of the preseason?
Verdict: MISS, 0-3
4. Tyler Mahle Finishes With a K Rate Over 30%, a BB Rate Under 10%, an ERA Under 3.50, and IP Over 160
Projected: 150 IP, 8 W, 163 K, 4.36 ERA, 1.28 WHIP
Actual: 180 IP, 13 W, 210 K, 3,75 ERA, 1.23 WHIP (27.7 K%, 8.4 BB%)
I can work with this one! Mahle hit my walk rate and innings targets but missed my ERA target by 0.25 runs and my strikeout rate target by 2.3%. Overall, though, his performance was much better than his draft price and his preseason projected value, so I’ll take this as a moral victory. If you, like me, had a lot of Mahle shares this year, it worked out quite well for you especially if you picked up early on his massive home/road split.
Projection systems weren’t really sure what to do with Mahle because that slider was so new and because he had never thrown more than 130 innings in a season. They ended up mostly splitting the difference between his 2019 and 2020, mostly ignoring the true skill increase we saw evidence of. While the slider didn’t really progress as we wanted it to, Mahle was able to ride his great fastball to a bunch of strikeouts and a full season of success. It’s an example of a situation where it makes sense to question projection systems. They take into account things like luck, park factors, and previous performance extremely well. Any argument with the projection system on these grounds is not a sound one. However, if there’s a new pitch, increased velocity, or change in pitch mix, they don’t take this into account except through the performance of the pitcher. In the shortened season, we saw several examples of this kind of situation where projection systems didn’t have enough data to be able to fully account for development pitchers had made and were therefore too low on some pitchers with new pitches or pitch mixes. However, this can also happen in a full season with in-season adjustments. Look at the velocity bump we saw from Luis Garcia in the World Series, for example. Projection systems won’t take that into account, but seeing that reflected in Spring Training could make him an interesting option to jump ADP on. Looking forward, we should understand what is and is not included in these projection systems to identify where the opportunities are.
Verdict: MISS, 0-4
5. The Phillies’ Best Starter in Fantasy is Zach Eflin
Projected: 156 IP, 10 W, 154 K, 4.23 ERA, 1.27 WHIP
Actual: 105 IP, 4 W, 99 K, 4.19 ERA, 1.25 WHIP
Speaking of guys I thought would outperform their projections because of a change in pitch mix, welcome to the wall of shame, Zach Eflin… Yes, an injury shortened his season, but I can’t really hide behind that. Even if he stayed healthy all year, he was likely looking at a season pretty much in line with his initial projections. The curveball just didn’t stick around like we needed it to and, at this point, we can’t trust it ever will. Without it, we’ll likely never see him get back to the 28.6% strikeout rate he flashed in the shortened season which could propel him into fantasy stardom.
On the bright side for Eflin, his slider generated a swinging strike rate of 14.4%, up from his career number of 11.4%. While opponents slugged .607 against the pitch this year, the xSLG of .352 indicates that the slider performed quite a bit better than the surface numbers led on and could be a good weapon for him moving forward. However, he also inexplicably started throwing his mediocre changeup against righties again and velocity on his sinker was down to 92.4 mph from 93.7 mph in both the 2019 and 2020 seasons. A few things would need to develop for Eflin over the offseason to make the jump to the next level. I’m hoping it all happens for him, but I’ll likely be watching from afar at the beginning of next season.
Verdict: MISS, 0-5
6. Carter Kieboom Finishes With a Triple Slash of .280/.380/.480
Projected: 340 AB, .237 AVG, .317 OBP, .371 SLG
Actual: 217 AB, .207 AVG, .301 OBP, .318 SLG
Ouch. This was a homer pick, but I could have told you it was going to be wrong after just his first few Spring Training plate appearances. The guy seemed lost at the plate for most of the season. He did tease us with a competent .250/.348/.469 August, but he fell right back off a cliff in September. There’s not much else to say here. If he ever finds fantasy relevance, it will be a great story.
Verdict: MISS, 0-6
7. Jorge Polanco is a Top-5 Fantasy 2B
Projected: 73 R, 18 HR, 65 RBI, 7 SB, .272 AVG
Actual: 97 R, 33 HR, 98 RBI, 11 SB, .269 AVG (4th-rated 2B in 5×5 leagues)
Ladies and gentlemen, we got ’em. Finally a correct pick! The ankle injury clearly hampered Polanco mightily in 2020 as we now have two full-season data points supporting his power breakout and his ability to slug .480+ consistently. Going forward, you might see the argument about lineup protection going against Polanco with the expected departure of Josh Donaldson, but Alex Kirilloff and Trevor Larnach, should they continue to develop as expected, could certainly fill that void.
Polanco initially fell on draft boards because an injury-riddled 2020 made people doubt his 2019 breakout. His right ankle was the main culprit and he underwent offseason ankle surgery which took him a couple of months to adjust to. The key stat to look at was his power numbers from each side of the plate. Historically, Polanco generates most of his power when hitting as a lefty, but in 2020, he slugged just .318 as a lefty compared to a .513 slugging percentage as a lefty in 2019. His power numbers as a righty remained fairly consistent across the two years, which told me that he was likely just uncomfortable landing on that right ankle. His slugging while left-handed shot back up to .508 in 2021 and that fueled his breakout.
Lots of managers also weren’t factoring in the move to second base in their draft price. Most sites had him listed as only a shortstop at this time and wouldn’t add his second base eligibility until ten games into the season. Going into the year, it seemed to me like second base would be the much more valuable position to have. However, the league also added Trea Turner, Marcus Semien, and Javier Baez to the ranks of 2B-eligible players greatly bolstering the top of the position. It’s still not as deep as shortstop, but fantasy managers still have many more top-notch options at second to choose from. With 26 starts at short this year, Polanco will maintain dual eligibility throughout the next season and I could see managers choosing to use him at either spot depending on their roster construction.
Verdict: HIT, 1-6
8. Nolan Arenado Surpasses His Career-Best wRC+ of 133
Projected: 83 R, 33 HR, 96 RBI, 2 SB, .263 AVG
Actual: 81 R, 34 HR, 105 RBI, 2 SB, .255 AVG
Repeat after me, Eric. I don’t know park factors better than THE BAT X. I don’t know park factors better than THE BAT X. I DON’T KNOW PARK FACTORS BETTER THAN THE BAT X. I know I tried to get around that by focusing on a park-adjusted number, but I was still trying to outsmart the projection systems. Arenado ended up meeting expectations in St. Louis, but not exceeding them. The projection systems were right on the money with this one so, even though he didn’t hurt you if you drafted him at his ADP, I can’t claim any kind of victory on this, moral or otherwise.
Speaking of his ADP, if projection systems were right on the money, we’d expect his ADP to be as well, right? Not so fast. His ADP was generally in the 30s and, judging by both projection and result, Rafael Devers was the much better pick at 3rd base in that range. Devers was projected to provide $19.73 of value compared to $16.28 from Arenado and ended up providing $29.93 compared to $16.88 from Arenado. This tells me that Arenado was still benefiting from some kind of name recognition bump for having recently gone in the first or second round for the previous 5+ years. Will we see something like that with Trevor Story next year? It’s possible. The smart managers will place their faith in projection systems like THE BAT X to know how a new lineup and ballpark will affect Story’s numbers and will use them to calculate where to draft him rather than relying on name recognition.
Verdict: MISS, 1-7
9. J.B. Wendelken is the A’s Closer by the All-Star Break and He Provides Top-10 Value the Rest of the Way
Projected: 66 IP, 3 W, 1 SV, 72 K, 3.62 ERA, 1.28 WHIP
Actual: 43 IP, 4 W, 2 SV, 39 K, 4.37 ERA, 1.53 WHIP
Well, the silver lining here is that I again successfully sniffed out a guy who was being drafted as a potential closer that I didn’t like. Although, closers are the most volatile position in fantasy, so predicting that one will fail is hardly a bold prediction. At the time, it was unsure how much time, if any, Trevor Rosenthal would miss, but Jake Diekman was being drafted as the heir apparent. Wendelken was hurt early in the year, but again that likely didn’t substantially change the course of his season. He was still likely looking at a mediocre year.
The key stat here for me is the walk rate. It is very, very rare for a successful closer to have a walk rate over 10%. Josh Hader is the rare exception to that rule, but his delivery is not one that anybody can just go out and copy. Alex Reyes looked like he was going to be able to buck that trend due to his ability to strike guys out at a high rate and avoid the long ball, but things completely unraveled for him down the stretch and he, too, fell victim to the curse of the walk rate. Don’t. Draft. Closers. With. Walk. Rates. Over. 10. Percent.
Verdict: MISS, 1-8
10. A Highly Regarded Left-Handed OF Prospect for the Twins is in the Conversation for AL Rookie of the Year and His Name is Not Alex Kirilloff
Projections (for Trevor Larnach): 19 AB, 2 R, 1 HR, 2 RBI, 0 SB, .246 AVG
Actual: 260 AB, 29 R, 7 HR, 28 RBI, 1 SB, .223 AVG
Just about everything went wrong for the Twins this year (except Jorge Polanco) and Larnach’s debut was another example in a long line of disappointing performances. He got his shot but was unable to shake the strikeout issues that, at times, plagued him in the minors. These problems got worse as teams learned his weaknesses and his K-rate climbed from 26.2% in May to 41.2 % in August. He struck out nearly equally against lefties and righties, but his power came nearly exclusively against righties as fifteen of his nineteen extra-base hits on the year were against righties. His power is also nearly completely on fastballs and to the pull side. This all tells me that he still has some major holes in his approach that he’ll need to work out before being a serviceable player. Alex Kirilloff, on the contrary, was able to have success both against lefties and against offspeed pitches while avoiding the strikeout spike which tells me that he, at this point in his development, has a much more advanced approach at the plate. I wouldn’t be surprised if Larnach starts next season in the minors, but Kirilloff is going to be one of my favorite breakout candidates going into Spring.
Verdict: MISS, 1-9
Trust the projections
They’re very good.
Know what is and isn’t included in those projections
If you want to jump ADP for a guy, there are logical reasons and illogical reasons. Good reasons: a pitcher has a late-season velocity bump, a pitcher shows a new pitch or pitch mix in Spring Training that looks effective, a batter is coming off an injury. Bad reasons: The team’s lineup is better, a pitcher is moving to a better ballpark, they had bad luck last year. It’s not that those reasons can’t explain improved performance, they’re just already included in projection systems (although not all of them use Statcast data). There is, however, one more good reason to jump fade ADP on a guy…..
ADP isn’t always logical.
Arenado, based on his preseason projections, had no business being picked over Devers. Don’t fall into the same trap with Story. Name recognition is not a fantasy category, but know that we’re subconsciously more attracted to names that we’ve seen many times before. Plan your draft, avoid the pitfalls.
Don’t draft closers with extreme L/R splits or who have walk rates over 10%
Again, there are exceptions like Josh Hader and Aroldis Chapman who break this rule and I’ll admit that 10% is a mostly arbitrary number. Many of you may disagree with this. You may say that it’s a changing game and walks don’t matter as much anymore. However, of the top 25 in saves since 2018, just three have walk rates over 10%. The aforementioned rule-breaking Chapman, Craig Kimbrel, and Wade Davis. The latter two have been far from models of consistency. Going back to splits, it’s more a virtue of the fact that guys with strong splits can rarely become full-time closers. Those players are generally looking at platoons at best. As an example, look at a guy like Tyler Rogers. Dominant against lefties, but just OK against righties, so the Giants went with Jake McGee for most of the year. A guy with heavy splits can’t survive in the ninth when teams are more willing to burn their bench to get the best possible matchup.
Photos Wikipedia Common/Icon Sportswire | Adapted by Doug Carlin (@Bdougals on Twitter)