Nick Gerli’s 10 Bold Predictions for 2019
These projections will run the gamut among individual players, teams, and league trends. Let’s get into it, shall we?
1. German Marquez finishes top three in NL Cy Young voting
German Marquez’s 2018 second-half was one of the best pitcher half-seasons in recent memory, with the recently turned 24-year-old Colorado Rockies hurler posting a 2.47 ERA / 2.42 FIP / 2.28xFIP in 113 innings from June 30th onward. Marquez’s upper-echelon run-prevention estimators were backed up by an elite 28.3% K-BB and 15.4% swinging strike rate. One of the biggest changes Marquez made from the first to second half was getting ahead more in counts, which allowed his elite curveball and slider to befuddle hitters with two strikes. Marquez seems to have sustained these improvements through 2019 spring training, striking out an impressive nine hitters through three innings in a March 9th start against Cleveland. The elephant in the room for Marquez is Coors Field; however, Marquez mitigated the negatives of his home park in the second half by striking out hitters at 30%+ clip and keeping the ball on the ground at a 50% rate. Assuming a healthy 2019, I expect Marquez to post an ERA in the 3.00 range with 275 strikeouts—figures that will challenge Jacob deGrom and Max Scherzer for NL pitching supremacy.
2. Luke Voit is a top-five fantasy first baseman
Paul Goldschmidt, Freddie Freeman, Joey Votto, and…Luke Voit? You heard it here first. Voit’s conclusion to 2018 has become the stuff of legend. In case you’ve been under a rock, starting on August 15th, the burly first baseman produced 217 wRC+ and 1.186 OPS, second only to reigning NL MVP Christian Yelich in that six-week span. Voit backed up the video-game-like box score numbers by claiming the MLB lead in both barrels per plate appearance and xwOBA. Many are rightfully skeptical of drafting a player based on a hot month or two, even if his performance was backed up by the Statcast data. Yet Voit didn’t simply come out of nowhere. He is the owner of a career 136 wRC+ in the minor leagues, but never got a chance to earn everyday at-bats in St. Louis with Matt Carpenter and Jose Martinez locking down first base. In 2018, his late-July trade to the New York Yankees was the best thing that could have happened to him; Voit is currently in a position battle with Greg Bird for the starting first-base nod heading into 2019—a battle that Voit looks poised to win. Voit is currently the 26th first baseman off the board according to FantasyPros, which is a laughably low mark for a player primed to dominate his position this season.
3. The Toronto Blue Jays make the playoffs
Woah nelly, this is starting to get off the rails! But hear me out for a second. The Toronto Blue Jays, by virtue of being a young team in rebuild mode, have a lot variance hiding behind their 76-win projection on FanGraphs. It’s quite possible that Randal Grichuk continues his second-half 2018 surge and becomes a staple 35-home-run bat. Brandon Drury, cured of migraine and vision issues, will get significant reps at second and third to start the year and will finally have a chance to show off the swing he rebuilt with JD Martinez’s hitting coach over the 2017-18 offseason. Top prospects Vladimir Guerrero Jr. and Danny Jansen will play a majority of the season as starters and could hit double-digit WAR between them in a best-case scenario. And while Bo Bichette will start the season in AAA, I suspect Blue Jays management will be open to calling him up mid-season if he and the team are performing better than expected. But Toronto will likely have a good offense no matter what. Their ultimate success in 2019 will come down to whether or not Marcus Stroman, Aaron Sanchez, and Ken Giles can tap into their 2016 selves. Matt Shoemaker and Clay Buchholz were sneaky adds to round out the rotation as well. A lot would need to go right for Toronto to claim the second AL Wild Card spot; however, I can see it happening.
4. Buster Posey is the number one fantasy catcher
Few players have seen their fantasy stock decrease as much year-to-year as San Francisco Giants backstop Buster Posey. The nearly 32-year-old catcher posted a mere five home runs through an injury-riddled 2018 season, simultaneously earning career-low marks in batting average (.284) and slugging percentage (.382). As a result, Posey, previously a consensus top-50 to 60 overall pick, owns a current ADP near 130. That’s far too low, as Posey’s down 2018 was mainly the result of a torn right hip labrum that negated his hitting ability from late May onward. Posey had corrective surgery on his hip in the offseason and, despite a slow start at the plate in spring training, is impressing his teammates by shouldering a full catching load earlier than expected. Posey is one of the best hitters of this generation and the fact that he was still able to post the second-best batting average of any catcher in 2018 on a bum right hip is a testament to that. I think a return to the .295/.370/.450 batting line he’s been known for is a good possibility, which will make him the best fantasy catcher in standard fantasy formats.
5. Only seven relievers earn 30+ saves
My Pitcher List colleague Alex Fast wrote a great article last month on how the composition of saves is shifting among relievers. The key takeaway is that teams are spreading save opportunities among more relievers than ever before, slowly but surely ditching the notion that the best relief pitcher must solely throw in the ninth. Sure enough, back in 2009, there were 16 relievers with at least 30 saves, with 13 of them earning 35+. But last year there were a mere 11 relievers with 30 or more saves, and only six who eclipsed 35. This trend will continue going forward, as teams become more flexible on the usage of their best relievers throughout different parts of the game. Raisel Iglesias, who amassed 30 saves last year, is already set to operate in more of a fireman role this season. Rumors are that Jose Leclerc, who was previously a good bet to earn 30 to 40 saves in 2019, might do the same. Craig Kimbrel, arguably the best reliever of all-time and previously a near-lock for 40 saves per season, is still unsigned, and I suspect part of the reason is that the lock-down ninth-inning role he wants might not be available. 2019 will mark another step forward in the more uniform distribution of saves among relievers, resulting in only seven pitchers earning 30 or more.
6. Matt Carpenter has a career-worst wRC+
St. Louis Cardinals first/third baseman Matt Carpenter has been one of baseball’s most underrated players for years, but in 2018 he grabbed headlines with an impressive 36-home-run, 111-run season. Now fantasy owners are finally buying in, reflected by his 62 average ADP on FantasyPros. However, I would not touch Carpenter at that level, especially in AVG leagues. As I wrote in an article last month, Carpenter has a very one-dimensional approach at the plate that is geared around pulling fastballs in the air. He’s very good at this skill; however, he’s equally bad at hitting breaking pitches—often whiffing on them or grounding them into the shift. This type of split isn’t totally uncommon for a lefty power hitter. But the fact that pitchers, in this day and age of advanced scouting and analytics, still groove fastballs to Carpenter at a well above-average rate is quite uncommon. I suspect that 2019 will be the year that pitchers begin to wise up to Carpenter’s tendencies and start treating him differently from the standard, slap-hitting leadoff hitter. Fewer fastballs in the middle of the plate and more breaking pitches down-and-in will result in Carpenter posting the worst wRC+ of his career, lower than the 117 mark he posted in 2014.
7. The Colorado Rockies’ starting rotation will finish with a top-five ERA
Building off my bullishness on Marquez, I believe the Colorado Rockies’ pitching rotation as a whole is poised to defy the odds created by their home ballpark and finish with a top-five ERA in 2019 (they finished 18th last season and 16th in 2017). The staff will be headlined by Marquez; however, 27-year-old Jon Gray, in camp with 15 to 20 pounds of added muscle and a subsequently livelier fastball, is poised for a big bounce-back season. Consensus ace Kyle Freeland pitched to a sterling 2.85 ERA last year and finished fourth in NL Cy Young voting, but projections systems are forecasting a rude awakening in 2019 when his LOB rate and BABIP correct. While I’m not the biggest Freeland fan, I think there’s plenty of room for the 25-year-old to grow as a pitcher and reports out of spring training have his fastball with a couple of extra ticks in velocity. Pitcher List’s Michael Augustine wrote a great piece in January on the adjustments Freeland can make to take his game to the next level. The rotation is rounded out by 29-year-old lefty Tyler Anderson, who has posted back-to-back seasons with a 12% swinging strike rate, and one of 24-year-old Antonio Senzatela, 26-year-old Jeff Hoffman, or 29-year-old Chad Bettis. Every arm in their rotation is under 30 years old and each has the ability to take a step forward in 2019. I suspect several of them will take that step and will help propel their rotation ERA to the 3.50 range necessary to finish as a top-five staff.
8. Only 10 pitchers earn 20 quality starts
A quality start is measured as an outing where a pitcher goes at least six innings and holds the opposition to three or fewer earned runs. In 2011, there were 43 pitchers that achieved a quality start at least 20 times. Last season, that number was whittled all the way down to 16! Consistent with the trends evidenced with saves, teams are becoming less concerned with ensuring that starters last long enough to earn a win (five innings) or quality start (six innings). The interesting thing about this phenomenon is that the league’s upper echelon of pitchers still earn the same amount of quality starts, in the 25 to 28 range. The drop off occurs with the second tier of starters that teams are more willing to pull in favor of bullpen arms. The net effect for fantasy owners is that stud hurlers like Max Scherzer, Justin Verlander, and Jacob deGrom are more valuable as their ability to pitch deep into games becomes increasingly scarce. Starters with lower strikeout totals like Freeland and Dallas Keuchel, who are better able to limit pitch counts and subsequently cross the six-inning threshold, also become more valuable. I suspect that these trends continue and that only 10 starters earn 20 quality starts in 2019.
9. Yasiel Puig is a top-five fantasy outfielder
Few players are as enigmatic and frustrating as newly minted Cincinnati Reds outfielder Yasiel Puig. The 28-year-old Cuban import looked like one of the most valuable young players in baseball after a combined 153 wRC+ in his first two seasons in 2013 and 2014. But injuries, attitude issues, and overall inconsistency plagued him in the four seasons that followed. Now with a fresh start and an everyday spot in hitter-friendly Cincinnati, Puig is poised to deliver on the potential he showed early in his career. While Puig battled some injuries in 2018, the biggest drag on his counting stats was a Los Angeles Dodgers team intent on batting him in the bottom third of the lineup and benching him against righties late in the season. Despite the playing-time issues, Puig’s 23 home runs and 15 steals across 444 plate appearances in 2018 prorate to an impressive 33 homers and 21 steals over a full season’s worth of hacks. I think a 30 HR / 20 SB line with a .280/.350/.500 triple slash is well within reach for Puig in 2019—Ronald Acuna-type production with a price tag in the ninth round rather than the first. Think I’m out to lunch? Compare THE BAT, ATC, Depth Charts, and Steamer projections systems between the two. You’ll need to squint to spot the difference.
10. Myles Straw finishes as the MLB stolen base leader
Few players, in the MLB or MiLB, possess the elite speed of Houston Astros outfielder Myles Straw. Straw swiped 70 bases between AA and AAA last season in only 79 attempts, good for an 89% success rate. While high-80% success rates aren’t unheard of, they are exceedingly rare when a player runs as much as Straw does, since the opposing pitcher and catcher are expecting him to steal and can prepare for it. Straw’s 29.7 ft/second sprint speed in his brief 2018 MLB call-up put him at the 98th percentile of player speed, roughly in-line with Mallex Smith. But how is Straw going to get the playing time? George Springer, Michael Brantley, and Josh Reddick are locked in as everyday outfielders, while top prospect Kyle Tucker is knocking on the door. Straw is currently in a battle with Tony Kemp for the final bench spot on the big league team—a competition that I think Straw has a shot at winning given his superior defensive abilities. If all goes well, I suspect Straw will begin the season as an occasional starter and nearly everyday pinch runner. From there, the injury-prone trio of Springer, Brantley, or Reddick could give Straw a window into more consistent at-bats and a shot at 50 steals by season’s end.
(Photo by Adam Davis/Icon Sportswire)