2016 was a flat out awesome year for Baseball. The game experienced an unprecedented, process driven, offensive resurgence. We saw captivating returns to glory from established stars like Justin Verlander, and Robinson Cano. 8 of the 10 best players, according to WAR, were youngsters under the age of 27. Including four sophomores in Kris Bryant, Mookie Betts, Corey Seager, and Francisco Lindor. The playoffs ushered in a potentially revolutionary approach to bullpen usage. And then, of course, the oldest narrative in baseball came to a glorious close in one of the most captivating game sevens in World Series history. It was a hell of a year. Here’s a few things that could make 2017 just as awesome as I review my ten bold predictions for the season ahead.
1. “RIP Bill” James Paxton wins AL Cy Young
The Pitcher List writing staff has an uninhibited obsession with James Paxton. You’ve heard about it on the podcast. You’ve read about it on the site in pieces like in Ian Post’s gif breakdown. Recently in our group chat prospect guru Nic Gardiner claimed Pax was worthy of a 6th round pick in our current 12 team H2H slow draft. Now I’m coming out of the Paxton Appreciation Closet and calling him this year’s AL Cy. It’s getting steamy in here. ICYMI, this is largely why we’re all stoked on King James (Oh, I’m sorry. Have I spoken too soon?)
These improvements are exactly what you would expect from someone who, as Jeff Sullivan pointed out, made last season’s largest leap in fastball velocity and strike percentage. Yet, despite the mechanical and statistical leaps Paxton posted an uninspiring 3.79 ERA and 1.31 WHIP in 2016.
You know what Paxton sucked at last year? Luck. His .347 BABIP ranked 2nd among pitchers who threw at least 120 innings and came in .49 points higher than the league average. Well, Jerry Dipoto went nuts this offseason trading to improve the defense. Out goes Ketel Marte with his ghastly -10.3 Ultimate Zone Rating at short stop, and in comes Jean Segura who posted a league average 0.6 UZR in his last full season at short in 2015. For a guy like Paxton, who allowed a high 90mph exit velocity on his grounders last year, a nearly 11 point improvement in the UZR of his short stop could have a huge impact on his BABIP, WHIP, IP/S, and ERA.
Paxton’s bad luck wasn’t exclusively tethered to his own balls in play either. His bullpen let him down. Paxton’s 66.3% Strand rate was the 8th worst among qualifiers, and the league averaged 72.9% last season. A full season from Edwin Diaz, over whom many of us are also salivating, will help, but the true test lies in recoveries from Steve Cishek, and Tony Zych. If they’re both healthy the Ms are looking at some enviable bullpen depth, as all three could be dominant and strand more inherited runners.
So his defense is better and his bullpen should be deeper, but you’re still not convinced Pax could top the likes of Verlander, Sale, and Kluber for AL CY are you? Well, consider that over 121 innings in the Majors last season Paxton was worth 3.5 Wins according to FanGraphs. For fun let’s assume Paxton pitched 171.2 in the Majors last year, as the projection systems are calling for him to do this year. If we Pro-rate his WAR from last year across those innings Paxton was a 5 Win pitcher. That would have ranked 4th in the AL. Porcello, Verlander, and Sale, all pitched to a 5.2 WAR. Kluber notched a 5.1 mark. It took all those guys at least 215 Innings to hit those marks. If Paxton can stay healthy MLB will have it’s very own King James, and 2017 shall be his coronation tour.
2. The Rockies Pitch themselves into the playoffs
It all starts with Jon Gray, who looks like he’s put together the ideal Coors busting arsenal. Gray had the high velo heater with above average rise and the devastating slider upon his call up last year. But, as the season wore on Gray deepened his arsenal. He upped his change and curve usage from 12.8% per start in the first three months to 21.6% in the last three. The fastball/slider combo helped him to a 3.07 xFIP and 27.1 K% at home, but he still posted a 4.30 ERA in Coors. Given the atmospheric conditions its unreasonable to expect him to perform much better at home. However, if Gray can more effectively execute his curve and change outside of Coors, where they’ll play better, he stands to make a significant improvement to his 4.91/4.14 ERA/xFIP split on the road last season. Nick has noted the improvements Gray made on those offerings. And, though caveats apply to the approach, a look at Gray’s arsenal using z-Scores yields very favorable results. 17th overall!
Beyond Jon Gray, and also appearing in the top 50 on that z-Score list, are both the capable Tyler Anderson, and emerging German Marquez. Like Gray, Anderson had far greater success at home during his first season in Coors posting a 3.00/3.56 ERA/xFIP split at Coors, with a 4.72/3.82 split everywhere else. If Anderson can pitch closer to his 3.82 xFIP in road starts from last year he gives the top of the rotation a solid 1-2 punch. Marquez’s sample size of 20 Innings last year is too small to bank anything on, but his inclusion on that arsenal list is at least encouraging. Not to mention the fact that prospect writers are somewhat bullish on his longterm impact. And then of course if Jeff Hoffman can pitch closer to his upside the staff deepens further. Plus the pitch framing of Tony Wolters should provide a boost for the whole staff.
We all know the Rockies can flat out rake, which they’ll do despite these early injuries to David Dahl and Ian Desmond. However, the organization seems to be making every possible move to maximize their staff for survival at high altitude. It’ll be the key to their success going forward, and at the very least Eno Sarris agrees!
3. Jerry Dipoto has traded the Mariners into an AL Wild Card game Win
Following the acquisitions of the Mariners this offseason was dizzying. Since the end of the World Series Mariners GM Jerry Dipoto made 9 trades involving more than 20 different players. Two of which were made within 77 minutes of each other and both involved Mallex Smith. The clear theme throughout all of these moves was improving a defense that ranked 23rd in UZR last year.
I mentioned the defensive impact Jean Segura should provide playing short earlier, but Dealin’ Dipoto didn’t stop the overhaul of the Ms defense there. Jerrod Dyson and Mitch Haniger were brought in to bolster the outfield as well. The athletic Haniger did mostly all of his work in Center last season posting a nice 5.5 UZR, albeit in a small sample. Dyson posted an even better 8.5 in 465 innings in Center and had an 16.7 UZR across all outfield spots last year. Both will replace below league average production from the Ms corner outfielders in 2016. When you consider that Leonys Martin, Kyle Seager, and Robinson Cano all posted +3 UZR’s at their respective positions last year it’s no stretch to imagine the Ms having a top 10 defense this season.
And then of course there’s the Ms offense. Jean Segura’s an equally significant upgrade over Ketel Marte at the plate too. Marte’s anemic .266 wOBA from 2016 pales in comparison to Segura’s .371. I expect regression from Segura as he moves into a more pitcher friendly environment at Safeco, and the AL West. Gone are the home games at Chase field, and road trips to Coors. Nonetheless Segura will hit in front of a trio of sluggers in Robinson Cano, Nelson Cruz, and Kyle Seager, who helped lead the Mariners to the 2nd highest team wRC+ in MLB last year.
Right now FanGraphs has the ‘Stros, Angels, and Mariners all tied for second place in the AL West with 83 Wins. The Ms finished with 86 wins last year and given the improvements Dipoto made this offseason that projection seems overly conservative, at least to me. If the ‘Pen improves per my earlier speculation, and they get something close to the Fans projections out of everyones favorite Vogelbach, I think Dealin’ Dipoto’s gonna have the Ms primed for a run at the Division Series come October.
4. Travis D’Arnaud stays healthy and finishes top 5 at Catcher on the ESPN player rater
I’ll come out with it now. I love only one thing in this world more than James Paxton, and that’s the New York Mets. So, yeah, this one involves a bit of wish-casting on my part. All that being said, while I’m painfully aware of Travis D’Arnaud’s detractors, there’s legitimate reason for hope this season.
D’Arnaud has always had that weird bat wrap thing going on where he sort of points the bat head towards the pitcher in his set up. It worked for him in the minors, and it’s often said the things that get you to the Show are the hardest to give up. Nonetheless, the bat wrap hasn’t really worked for TDA in the Majors outside of 2015. His struggles with it are outlined beautifully in this article. Well, here’s some good news.
That’s seconds before D’Arnaud launched a majestical solo tater off A.J. Ramos a few weeks ago in Florida. It’s not the perfect angle for us, but you can instantly notice the absence of the exaggerated bat wrap from D’Arnaud’s past. Reports are he’s worked extensively this offseason to compact his stroke and, more importantly, repeat it. At the time of this writing he’s 10/29 with two homers, two doubles, and a 3:1 K:BB ratio. So the work seems to be paying off.
Consistency is key for D’Arnaud, not only with the bat, but with his health. If this site was called the Disabled List, he’d be a perennial #1 boi in Nick’s rankings. But if you look at his medical history a majority of his injuries seem fluky. Sure, he had the hernia surgery in 2010, and the rotator cuff thing last year. The list after that? His torn PCL in 2012 was the result of breaking up a double play. In 2013 his foot was broken by a foul ball. His concussion in 2014 came from the back swing on this massive hack by Alfonso Soriano. 2015 was brutal as he broke his hand on a hit-by-pitch, and hyper extended his elbow on this collision at home. A lot of these feel like being in the wrong spot at the wrong time. Yes. You can make the argument that, as a catcher, D’Arnaud’s in the wrong spot all of the time. It’s not lost on me that he spends nine innings squatting behind a dish four or five days a week getting hard objects thrown at his face for six months a year. But studies have shown there’s actually no greater risk of DL time for catchers. We’re talking about D’Arnaud being out of place by inches here with these injuries.
If D’Arnaud can continually repeat his new approach at the plate, and pair that with some good luck in the health department, it’s no stretch to imagine a return to somewhere near his 2015 prowess. Given his narrative it’s easy to forget that D’Arnaud put up the third highest wRC+ among catchers with at least 260 PAs that year. I’m all aboard for 2017 and will be the crazy guy at Citi Field starting the “Je Suis D’Arnaud!” chants.
5. These two players finish outside the Top 15 Second Basemen
I’m being purposefully vague so I can do that thing where a writer takes the name off of some players and asks you to look at their stat lines. I’m after that “ah ha!”, gentle reader.
Player A is clearly the more desirable fantasy option right? Of course he his, but he’s also Player B…well, kind of. So you’re savvy and you saw that .5 of a homer in Player B’s column and figured something fishy was going on. There is. This table is a comparison of what Rougned Odor actually did last season and what Andrew Perpetua’s xStats suggest he should have done. So fine, I’m actually predicting just one player is outside the Top 15 second basemen. I’m super jazzed about xStats because it incorporates Stat Cast tools, like exit velocity and launch angle, which are quickly becoming integral when analyzing the value of a players batted balls. If you’re feeling spry check out this Eno Sarris piece discussing “ideal” batted balls. Getting back to Odor, let’s take a look at his balls last season in comparison with his previous years balls and see what the differences tell us. Yep. Balls.
The chart breaks down Odor’s batted balls into velocity and launch angle bands a la Andrew’s work in this recent RotoGraphs piece. The left two columns represent the angles and velocities of his balls in play and the right two columns represent the league average weighted on-base and distances for each specific band. The middle two columns show you the percentage of balls Odor hit in those bands and the differences from year to year. I’ve highlighted in blue areas where Odor improved in 2016, and in orange areas where he struggled. #LGM
Odor’s gains in the most valuable areas stand out. Given the average batted ball distance of Row 15 we might as well call that region Tater Town. Rows 10, 11, and 14 are extra base hit territory. However, while Odor strove to hit the ball harder at higher angles he suffered some notable erosion towards the bottom of his profile. Rows 1-3 are pop-ups and the weakest grounders; essentially automatic outs. Hitting more of those balls is obviously not good. More alarming to me is the erosion in rows 7 and 8, especially when you consider his current triple slash projections which I’ll get to in a bit. Those are some of the best ground balls you can hit. They’re not sexy, but they’re the kind of balls in play that help inflate BABIP.
This trade of power for average might seem totally ok on the surface. Certainly the results last year were positive for Odor and his owners as he pounded 33 taters. But are those results sustainable going into this season given his aggressive approach? Consider that Odor hit roughly 3% more “automatic” outs, 6% less BABIP friendly grounders, all while adding 4.6 points to his K% (the official automatic out). Odor’s current Steamer projected triple slash of .275/.314/.486 feels…um, aggressive. xStats has Odor pegged for a .250/.286/.436, and frankly, at the very least, I think we need to consider that his floor.
This is the last table. I promise!
Gimme Jonathan Schoop all day baby. Sure, Odor steals more bases but his roughly 66% conversion rate last season was substandard, and as we’ve seen, it’s not like he’ll be on base a lot to bump up his opportunities. Certainly the difference isn’t worth a 133.5 gap in draft pick, is it?
This is really a vehicle to talk about xStats, as I’m sure you’ve gathered by now. I’m a fervent believer in their emerging relevance. As Andrew himself has written there’s not a 100% correlation between xStats and what players actually do, but there’s enough accuracy in the model to use these tools to hone in on a player’s skills. Bonus prediction, xStats will be one of the most talked about new tools in fantasy analysis this year!
6. Christian Yelich finishes top 5 in NL MVP voting:
I’ve never been a big Yelich guy. He has pedigree as a former top prospect. He’s produced an excellent 122 wRC+ in his young career. His speed has been an asset on defense, and on the base paths. But, as Jeff Sullivan points out here, after Nori Aoki, Christian Yelich has led all of MLB in Ground Ball rate during his service time. As a result it’s been hard to expect much more from Yelich than single digit homers, a good average, and a handful of steals as a fantasy player. Then last year happened.
Yelich hit the ball in the air more. It resulted in the highest ISO of his career (.185), and 21 taters. Yet he still had a 56.5% Ground Ball rate. I remained turned off. But after listening to Ben Palmer gush about Yelich on the Pod a few weeks ago, I decided to give Yelich a deeper look.
Well, color me intrigued…(wooooof). Yes, like Odor, Yelich added 2.8% to the least valuable bands (rows 1&2), but you’ll also notice how infrequently Yelich hits balls at a greater than 36 degree angle throughout the chart. Then there’s the trading of his weakest grounders (rows 3 & 5) for harder ones. Then the goods, the huge gains in the power bands at the end of the chart (rows 14 &15). The chart not only validates Yelich’s power breakout from last season, it also reveals how skilled of a hitter he’s maturing into. Despite the movement into the higher value bands Yelich still manages to smoke his air balls in the right angles, and still hits a majority of his grounders really freaking hard. If you stopped reading at “smoke his air balls” I don’t at all blame you.
Yelich is young enough to believe in these changes, and to believe in their improvement going forward. He was 0.5 WAR away from the top 10 position players last year posting a 4.4 WAR. If Yelich makes further strides in this direction in 2017, as Jeff Sullivan suggested he should in the linked piece, he could be a legit MVP candidate.
7. The Diamondbacks are top 5 in Runs Scored:
It’s been well noted how un-sabermetrically savvy the D-Backs organization has been over the past few years. You can read about their reluctance to embrace the games modern concepts here, and here. You can also see a picture of recently fired GM Dave Stewart here:
Despite Stewart’s short comings the D-Backs did manage to score the tenth most runs in baseball last year. Moving up the Runs leader board might not seem like a stretch, especially with the return of A.J. Pollock, and the underrated David Peralta. But when you consider their injury histories, the departures of Jean Segura and “Beef” Wellington Castillo, and the risk that incoming GM Mike Hazen could fire the opening salvos of a rebuild at the trade deadline this season, I think it’s plenty bold.
Hazen fits the mold of the new GM. He’s untethered to baseballs traditions as a young, Ivy-league educated intellectual. Unfortunately for baseball, and society at large, the current mold lacks diversity, and Hazen is no exception. Nonetheless, Hazen spent time under Mark Shapiro in Cleveland, and was brought to Boston by Theo Epstein before Dave Dombrowski tabbed him as GM going into last year. With that track record it’s pretty much a lock to see the club raise their awareness to the analytical aspects of the game.
Should the club rebound after a dreadful 2016 Hazen could decide to keep the band together. If Hazen proves to be as savvy as his resume suggests, it’s no stretch to imagine him leveraging analytics to maximize the output of his everyday lineup. Given their performance last season, the ball park they call home, and what’s already in place, the D-Backs have a decent shot to finish among the league leaders in Runs this season.
8. Matt Harvey finishes outside the top 60 SP on the ESPN Player Rater:
Nick has talked about this on the Pod, but it’s worth repeating; The value of Matt Harvey’s four-seamer has driven his value as a starter. The performance of the pitch, and the velocity at which Harvey throws it, are directly related. When he blasted through the league in 2013 he had the 3rd fastest four seamer in baseball which helped drive the 15th best whiff per swing rate on the pitch. After Tommy John surgery cost him all of 2014 Harvey came into spring training of 2015 pumping 97 in his first outing. He had the 7th fastest heater, and 23rd best whiff per swing rate on the pitch that season, as he helped get the Mets to the World Series. For Matt Harvey, fast equals good.
After averaging 94.4 MPH on his heater, a loss of 2.5 MPH off his career average, and struggling mightily in the first months of last season Matt Harvey walked into Terry Collins office and said, “My shoulder’s dead. My arm is dead. There’s no energy in there…I couldn’t feel the ball.” Shortly after that conversation Matt Harvey had this done to correct the whole, “not feeling the ball” thing. As Mike Sonne points out here, while Harvey should be symptom free this season, velocity loss is not synonymous with Thoracic Outlet Syndrome. So it’s fair to be concerned that his fastball sat in the low-90s in his spring debut.
No doubt, Matt Harvey has time. Time to get back into his mechanics. Time to regain feel for his pitches. Time to see if his previous velocity is still in that talented right arm. All indications are that the Mets won’t rush him. But how much time will it take? The rest of Spring Training? April? The first half? And if the old gas is gone for good, how much time will Matt Harvey need to redefine his value as a starter? We may not know for some time what “slower” equals for Matt Harvey.
Mets fans are all too eager to insulate themselves from the prospect of failure by creating their own web of if’s, but’s, and maybe’s. I’m a Mets fan. We’re an anxious breed. Even more so these days as our brief candle of contention relies on the fickle flickering of shoulders and elbows. Yet, despite our overactive mental coping mechanisms there are credible reasons to be concerned that the Dark Knight is more likely the Dark Not. At least for now…
9. Pitchers continue to throw more high fastballs to battle higher launch angles:
We’re fully in it ya’ll. The drivers of the data revolution, like Stat Cast, are giving us a clearer picture of what the component parts of good and bad outcomes on a ball field look like. It was only a matter of time before the data was leveraged into how the game is played, and coached. In Eno’s bold predictions piece, which I linked earlier, he points out the a record number of breaking balls last season. The logic of matching the angle of the bat to better meet the trajectory of the incoming pitch makes sense. So, as Eno writes, we also saw hitters adjust with a steeper average launch angle across the league. However, we also saw an uptick in high fastballs.
The percentages reflect how gradual the increase was, but the raw numbers show us that we’re talking about thousands of more high fastballs.
It only makes sense that pitchers would adjust after seeing batter’s back shoulders dip while gearing up to hit more balls in the air. In the ever evolving cat and mouse game that is the core exchange of this glorious sport I’m betting we’ll see pitchers continue to pound the upper half with cheese in 2017.
10. Eric Hosmer and Nolan Arenado finally realize they were separated at birth:
Sorry boys. I’m afraid it’s true. Deeply, deeply true.