Bold Predictions are fascinatingly divisive. Simultaneously attempting to predict things so outlandish and brash that they qualify as “Bold”, while also having any chance of coming to fruition is a delicate balance. To me, Pitcher List’s fearless leader, Nick Pollack worded it well when he asked that predictions made should not actually come true.
When I started considering just how bananas the 60-game season is already going to be, this year feels like the level of fearlessness necessary needs to be even higher. After all, crazy things happen every year in small samples, and now the entire season is a small sample! Here are 10 undaunted takes that I believe could legitimately play out:
1. Josh Hader leads the Brewers in Wins, Saves, and Strikeouts. He also wins the NL Cy Young.
I know Alex Fast agrees with me that this one is possible. A relief pitcher has only won the Cy Young award one time since the turn of the century, and even Eric Gagne’s 2003 campaign that saw the closer win the honor was close to 20 years ago at this point. Over the past two decades, our understanding of player valuations and analytics has improved exponentially, and the perceived value of a traditional shutdown ninth-inning closer has evolved. There is occasional chatter for relievers to be considered for the award, the most recent example being Zack Britton’s 2016 season where he was 47-for-47 in converted saves, while notching a 0.54 ERA across 67 innings, but ultimately even that dominance only netted Britton a 4th place finish.
Josh Hader however is a unicorn though, and in the perfect storm that is 2020’s shortened season, he is primed to win the honors. Working in his multi-inning and high-leverage role, it’s entirely possible that Hader can both rack up a chunk of saves while also being the beneficiary of late-inning wins. With even true ace starters initially unlikely to pitch deep into games, and also unlikely to make more than 12-13 starts and chances for wins all season, it’s not hard to envision a scenario where Hader ends up ahead of Brandon Woodruff and among the league leaders in wins. Additionally, Hader’s ludicrous 16.4 K/9 makes it feasible that even if he only accounts for 35-40 innings that he could be not only ahead of the Brewers’ other pitchers, but also could be among the league leaders in total strikeouts.
It’s VERY possible Hader spits out an ERA+ around 200 while racking up a 7-0 record with an ERA around 2.00, 70+ strikeouts, and 10+ saves. I may or may not have a bet on Hader at 100-1 odds to win the NL Cy Young…
2. Rich Hill wins the AL Cy Young
This would be crazy, but how crazy really? Over the past few years, durability, not performance is the only thing that has slowed down Hill. In a short season, I’m willing to gamble that Hill draws a little good injury luck and beats up on the weak non-Twins lineups in the AL Central.
Between 2016-2018, Hill made at least 20 starts every year, and never pitched fewer than 110 innings, and even in his injury-shortened 2019 he pitched in 13 games. If he can reach that number this season, and continue to dominate on a per-inning basis the way he did in 2019, (2.45 ERA, 29.8% strikeout rate, 11.05 K/9), Hill should have a real chance at the award. He seemingly is healthy right now, and after completing 5.1 innings on 60 pitches back on July 12th, it seems realistic that he will have very few workload restrictions once the season starts.
The Arraez part of this prediction shouldn’t be THAT surprising, after all, he is projected by a number of projection systems including THE BAT and ATC to lead the majors in batting average. Anybody needs to catch breaks to manage to hit .400, but over a small sample it is doable, and Arraez’s great contact skills make him a candidate to do so. Arraez graded out in the 100% percentile(!) in both K% and Whiff % last season per Baseball Savant.
Cruz meanwhile, is also not quite the surprise he may seem like on the surface, despite being a 40-year-old designated hitter. Cruz finished 2019 with a .311 batting average buoyed a hot second half, where he hit .344 after the All-Star break. When broken down even further, Cruz really turned it on down the stretch, hitting .397 in August and .333 in September. If he catches a little BABIP-related luck and does his regular raking over the next two months, this is absolutely possible.
4. Dansby Swanson is a top-5 fantasy shortstop
The former number one overall draft pick from 2015 has built a reputation in the fantasy community of an unspectacular player, however, it is undeserved. Prior to his injury in 2019, Swanson was breaking out all over the place, mashing 17 homers, stealing seven bases, and hitting .270 over 87 games, while pacing for over 180 combined runs/RBI. When he returned, he was not himself and in Swanson’s final 114 PA he didn’t hit a single homer.
Now fully healthy, Swanson has the power/speed upside to push for a 30 homer/15 steal pace, which would challenge even the top tier of shortstops, all while continuing to score and drive in plenty of runs in a loaded Atlanta Braves lineup. Swanson making good on that promise, and a few of the top options at the position underperforming create a path where this is possible.
5. Trevor Bauer leads all pitchers in WAR
Trevor Bauer is weird. 2018’s phenomenal season appears to have been the outlier so far in his career, but even when he isn’t pitching to a sub-3.00 ERA, the unconventional Bauer is a good bet to pitch deep into his starts. He also has always been able to get strikeouts. Even with 2019’s well-noted struggles, Bauer finished with the third-highest total of innings, the fifth-most strikeouts in baseball, and a WAR of 3.3.
If Bauer performs at the higher end of his own range of outcomes and continues to be the pitcher who throws the highest number of pitches per start, he should be among the league leaders in a number of cumulative categories including WAR. If he actually convinces the Reds to let him pitch every fourth day, as he has been campaigning to do, he probably should even be one of the favorites to pace pitchers in cumulative stats.
Four players reach the 20-homer mark, with two in each league doing so. Harper needs no explanation, we’ve seen him do this before when he is hot, but the other three are mild surprises. Schwarber shouldn’t be, as he finished 2019 as the 18th-best hitter in baseball based on percentage of at-bats that ended in a barreled ball at an even 9.0%, as well as top-ten marks in both average exit velocity (93.5 mph), and max exit velocity (117.6 mph).
Khris Davis is a bet by me to return to normalcy. Davis paced all of baseball in homers over a multiple year span heading into 2019 and was well on his way to being a 40+ homer guy last season before an injury derailed his season.
Guerrero meanwhile, is a bet by me for the best prospect of the last decade or more to improve in his second season. Guerrero has already flashed massive power too, winning the 2019 Home Run Derby, and was responsible for the single hardest-hit ball all of last season, as his 118.9 mph drive led the league.
7. Non-starting pitchers record more “wins” than starting pitchers for the first time in MLB history
This arguably is the least bold of any call I have made, though it still qualifies since it has literally NEVER happened at any point. There are a few factors at play here that make me believe starting pitchers finish with fewer total wins than non-starters:
- As I mentioned in my Hader prediction, almost all starters aren’t going to be able to pitch as deep into games as they’d like, at least early on this year. If they can’t finish five frames, even good outings over the first few weeks won’t result in wins.
- I think managers are going to treat this a lot more like the postseason than a standard regular season in a number of ways, including being far more liberal in pulling starters in pressure spots for a high-leverage reliever. (And in close games that reliever stands to potentially factor into the win-loss equation)
- Teams will continue to increase their usage of the “Opener”, automatically making it impossible for the starter in those games to earn a win.
8. Two of the four worst teams in ZIPS’ projections finish over .500, and one of them makes the playoffs
The four teams projected by ZIPS to have the worst records are: (Baltimore Orioles (19-41), Seattle Mariners (22-38), Detroit Tigers (23-37), and Miami Marlins (24-36).
Consider this prediction to be me seeing the 60-game season not being long enough for variance to normalize. While it may not be crazy to think a surprise handful of wins could take a cellar-dweller to a borderline .500 team, the idea of one of these terrible teams being in the playoffs is bananas, I know.
If I was forced to pick one, I think Miami is the one who could legitimately run hot and finish in the wild-card race. They have a number of serviceable but boring bats in their everyday lineups like Brian Anderson, Jonathan Villar, Corey Dickerson, and Jesus Aguilar just to name a few, and some upside pitching in guys like Sandy Alcantra, Caleb Smith, and Pablo Lopez.
9. Neither the Yankees nor the Astros are division winners
The New York Yankees and Houston Astros were widely viewed in the offseason as the top teams in the AL. Neither one wins their own division though, as the Oakland Athletics win the AL West and the AL East is captured by the… Toronto Blue Jays.
My earlier mentions of Khris Davis and Vladamir Guererro Jr. breaking out foreshadow my picks here. The Athletics aren’t all that surprising, after all, they’ve been a contender most years, and made the postseason last year. They aren’t quite as impressive as Houston from top to bottom, but in a short slate, that doesn’t matter as much.
The AL East going to Toronto is a pretty shocking call. The Yankees are excellent, much like the Astros, but there is a lot of uncertainty around Aaron Judge and Giancarlo Stanton’s health. The Tampa Bay Rays are another very strong team in the AL East, and often are the team selected over the Yankees if anyone else in this division is, but I think in the short slate that both of these teams get bypassed by the Blue Jays.
Guerrero’s breakout coincides with steps forward by Bo Bichette, Lourdes Gurriel Jr., and Cavan Biggio, and Hyun-Jin Ryu leads a rotation that surpasses expectations, especially when (bonus non-bold prediction), Nate Pearson comes up after a week and dominates en route to winning AL ROY honors.
10. The Minnesota Twins finish with the best record in baseball and win the World Series
The Twins are the only one of the American League’s division favorites who actually win their division, and again, if Rich Hill wins the AL Cy Young and two Twins hit over .400, it shouldn’t be very surprising when they pace all of baseball in wins.
The more bold part of this is that after leading the entire league in wins, the Twins will actually carry the momentum through the postseason too. After failing to win a playoff series in 2019, the Twins have only improved their roster, and specifically with Hill and Kenta Maeda, have more quality starting pitching to turn to in a playoff series.
This year, they’ll run the gambit. You heard it here first when Josh Donaldson is named World Series MVP.
Photo by Icon Sportswire | Adapted by J.R. Caines (@JRCainesDesign on Twitter and @caines_design on Instagram)