“Predict something that probably won’t happen!”
That is somehow harder than it sounds. I doubt this is the first Pitcher List Bold Prediction article that you have read, but if it is, keep in mind that these are meant to be really, really bold. Like, less-than-10%-chance-of-happening bold. So, with that in mind, let’s jump in!
1. Enrique Hernández Finishes Top 10 in MVP Voting
Yup, we are starting really bold!
Enrique Hernández finally got full-time playing time in 2021 and, naturally, that led to career highs in many counting stats (H, R, BB, 2B, etc.). What I found more interesting, however, was that a more consistent role seemed to bring out the best of Hernández in other ways. He posted his best K% (18.4%) and BB% (10.4%) since 2018, both noticeably better than the league average. His 8.4% Brl% and 90.8 average EV were career highs and his .380 xwOBACON was his best by far since 2015 (.384).
Being better than league-average in those important statistics is great, but doesn’t all of a sudden mean he will become an MVP candidate. To get there, he would need to maintain his elite fielding. He was much better in CF (9 OAA, 7th among all CF) for the Red Sox than he was at 2B (-4 OAA). Unfortunately, it is looking like he will be at 2B more often than CF. There is still a lot of off-season to play out in terms of potential Red Sox signings, though, and Hernández will more likely bounce around the field like he usually does rather than stay at any set position anyway. The versatility would more than likely help his case for MVP votes.
Then, and perhaps most importantly for this prediction, there’s the spot in the lineup in which he will be hitting. Barring an unforeseen signing or a Jarren Duran breakout, Hernández figures to be the leadoff hitter for a fantastic Red Sox offense for the majority of the season. When you package all of that together – a player in his prime, staring down the barrel of potentially his first ~650 PA season (with Rafael Devers hitting behind him for most of those), coming off his best season ever, and fulfilling whatever fielding role his team asks – you can begin to see the potential case for Hernández if everything goes right. And, that is without mentioning the absolutely bananas 2021 postseason he had!
2. Nick Senzel Goes 20/20
For this to happen, Nick Senzel would have to stay on the field. Betting on his health is probably the boldest part of this prediction. Nevertheless, Senzel is talented enough to put up 20 HR and 20 SB even with an IL stint or two, so long as they are not his typical prolonged absences (he had 12 HR and 14 SB in just 414 PA during his rookie campaign).
The 26-year-old, former #2 overall pick’s main competition for playing time is TJ Friedl. In almost 2,000 MiLB PA, Friedl has a .781 OPS with virtually no power. It is safe to assume that the Reds would love for Senzel to seize the CF job and run with it.
Apparently, Senzel’s knee was bothering him all of last season before he finally saw multiple doctors who found and presumably addressed excess fluid in his knee. Knowing that was the case, could all of this time off have helped Senzel finally heal up and allow him to enter 2022 as a new man? I hope so. The potential he showed his rookie season and in the minors (.890 OPS in 1069 PA) is extremely tantalizing.
For what it is worth, projection systems are not too kind to Senzel. ATC is the highest system on Senzel in terms of PA, and they are projecting for only 317 PA. That would not be enough to get him to 20/20, so I am banking on Senzel finally being healthy. If he is healthy, though, I am confident he will produce for fantasy managers. With a current ADP of 425 in NFBC Draft Champions drafts, he is essentially free and full of upside.
3. Ryan Mountcastle Finishes Outside the Top 20 1B
Right now, Ryan Mountcastle is being drafted as the seventh 1B off the board (ADP of 113, NFBC DC). On the surface, it makes sense. Mountcastle has hit extremely well since coming into the majors. He had a 139 wRC+ in the shortened 2020 season and followed that up with a 33 HR 2021 campaign. Success at the plate wasn’t something foreign to Mountcastle, either. In over 2,200 MiLB PA, he hit .295. Mountcastle can hit.
I am not as high on him as others, however, for a multitude of reasons. His K% ballooned in 2021 to 27.5% (it was 21.4% in 2020) and his BB% dropped about a percentage point from 7.9% to 7.0%. While those were both worse than league average, his HR/FB rate did not make me feel much better. He posted a 20.4% HR/FB% when the league average was just 13.6%. This helps explain his 33 HR (he only hit more than 18 HR once in the minor leagues – 25 HR in 2019) because his average EV was only in the 45th percentile, according to Statcast.
Another potentially concerning – depending on how you look at it – change in Mountcastle’s profile in 2021 was that his GB% dipped significantly and his FB% went up just as drastically:
Fly balls are obviously good for power but bad for batting average. If these trends continue – increased K%, increased FB%, mediocre aEV – then I see a real bottoming out of the potential for Mountcastle’s batting average. That would be surprising given that BA was supposed to be a strength for him, but could certainly happen. If it does, and Mountcastle’s HR/FB% regresses back to league average (don’t forget – the fences have moved back in Camden!), then what does Mountcastle have? It isn’t a good lineup, he won’t be hitting for average, and he won’t be hitting for significant pop. Outside of the top 20 might be a little aggressive but with names like Luke Voit and Spencer Torkelson lurking outside of the top 20 currently in terms of ADP, it isn’t hard to imagine a world in which they enter the top 20 and Mountcastle gets bounced.
4. Justin Verlander Wins the AL Cy Young Award at 39 Years Old
The last pitch Justin Verlander threw was on July 24, 2020. After giving up a single to Shed Long Jr. and striking out Evan White, Verlander got Kyle Seager to ground into a double play. We haven’t seen Verlander on the mound in a game since.
The last time we saw Verlander in a full-season, back in 2019, he finished that season not only as the American League Cy Young, but also as the #1 overall player in standard roto leagues on ESPN’s player rater. He was awesome.
With each passing Tommy John Surgery, we gather more and more information about how well pitchers can bounce back from it. Clearly, based on what we have seen, TJS is not a death sentence for the careers of pitchers. Pitchers often come back effective, sometimes even more effective than they were before the surgery. In Verlander’s case, it looks like some parts of his game are already returning, namely his velocity.
Heard 15-20 teams were in to see Justin Verlander’s workout today in Florida. Threw about 25 pitches. Clocked in at 94-97 mph. He is among the most fascinating potential free agents. Can still take the $18.4M qualifying offer from the #Astros, but strong chance he tests market.
— Joel Sherman (@Joelsherman1) November 8, 2021
It isn’t just my confidence in him to bounce back that makes me think he will win the award, though. It is also the field of American League pitchers. Gerrit Cole is definitely his biggest competition, but after that, there are a lot of question marks. Even Cole himself had a seriously up-and-down 2021 that some attribute to his hamstring injury, others to his use of banned substances. The rest of the predictable contenders will likely be names like Shane Bieber, Chris Sale, and Robbie Ray. Ray, the reigning Cy Young winner, will be getting used to a new organization and had some concerning underlying numbers (LOB% of over 90%, career-low BABIP, etc.). Sale and Bieber are coming off of arm injuries themselves (TJS for Sale, shoulder injury for Bieber). While there are certainly other elite arms like Shohei Ohtani and Lucas Giolito, the field does not appear to be as competitive on paper for Cy Young as the NL does. Despite having not thrown a pitch in a game in almost two years, Verlander could win this thing.
5. Gary Sánchez Finishes as a Top 5 Catcher in Standard Roto Leagues
I have to give a lot of credit to my co-host on Keep or Kut, Chad Young, for this particular prediction. Chad pointed out that Mike Zunino finished fifth among catchers on the Razzball Player Rater in 2021. As a top-five catcher, Zunino’s 5×5 line was: 64 R / 32 HR / 62 RBI / 0 SB / .216 BA. That was a top-five catcher!
There is no question in my mind that Sánchez could squeak out a similar line, and that was Chad’s point. Heck, he has done better than that in the past with fewer PAs. However, what makes this prediction unlikely are really two issues: the rest of the field and Sánchez’s job security.
I find it highly unlikely that Sánchez would finish above Salvador Pérez, J.T. Realmuto, or Will Smith. Those three finished as the top three catchers last season, in that order, and I expect to see them at the top again. That only leaves two spots open in the top five. Yasmani Grandal probably would have finished top five if he wasn’t battling an injury for a large portion of the season and with the designated hitter coming to the National League, that should result in increased PA for solid hitting catchers like Willson Contreras. There is also a rising crop of young catchers, such as Adley Rutschman and Keibert Ruiz, who figure to be in the mix for top ten finishes at catcher. That could make it difficult for Sánchez to keep up with the field.
The other issue is playing time. Sánchez is not a good catcher. He has a strong arm but he is an atrocious framer. It wouldn’t be surprising to see Kyle Higashioka, for the second-consecutive season, set a career-high in PAs and eat away at Sánchez’s playing time.
So, while those two obstacles are in the way – the field and playing time – I still think Sánchez has top-five catcher ability in that bat. In many, many ways he was far better than he was in the shortened 2020. His xBA climbed from .173 to .228, still bad but substantially better. His K% dropped back to about his career average (27.5% in ’21) and his BB% climbed two percentage points to 11.8%. Most important to Sánchez’s fantasy value, though, is his power. With a 13.7% Brl%, Sánchez showed that he can still be elite on contact. I think he is a pretty decent C2 for a fantasy team with top-five upside. We’ll see if he gets there.
6. Josh Bell Leads MLB in RBI
The Washington Nationals don’t come to mind when thinking about the league’s best offenses, and they shouldn’t. However, Josh Bell might be hitting in the best spot to hit in all of baseball: right behind Juan Soto. Soto posted an insane .465 OBP in 2021 and Steamer projects him for a .453 OBP in 2022. Assuming Soto and Bell stay healthy and Soto comes close to that projection (neither really feel like crazy assumptions at the moment), then Bell figures to have a substantial amount of PA with men on base. Opportunity is the most important ingredient for a high RBI total, and Bell should have plenty of it. He was also dynamite in the second half of the season, posting a .887 OPS and 136 wRC+. What could stop him from fulfilling this prediction is the simple fact that the rest of the Nationals lineup looks pretty bad, so there probably won’t be as much turnover as other lineups and thus less opportunity. It is also a division loaded with great starting pitching. But, hey, this was supposed to be bold!
7. Aaron Judge Earns the Triple Crown in the American League
It isn’t hard to imagine Aaron Judge leading the American League in HR and RBI (he almost did that his rookie season but was five RBI shy of Nelson Cruz). The real long-shot here would be Judge taking home the batting title, in addition to being the HR and RBI king. But really, that shouldn’t be shocking to anyone if it happens. Judge slashed his K% to a career-low 25% in 2021 (it has gone down for three consecutive seasons now) and finished in the top 2% of MLB in xBA. His .332 BABIP may look high, but that was actually noticeably below his .346 career BABIP. Even still, he hit for a career-high .287 batting average.
Judge is a phenomenal hitter and the Yankees lineup boasts OBP beasts such as DJ LeMahieu, Giancarlo Stanton, and Joey Gallo, who should help get the lineup to turn over a lot, boosting Judge’s PA total. You may think he hits too many fly balls to ever compete for a batting title, but he actually hits the ball so hard that in 2021 he hit .358 on fly balls (compared to .238 on grounders). Asking a two-hole hitter to lead the league in RBI is a tall order, but Judge could definitely do it, and I have zero doubts about his ability to lead MLB in HR.
8. Andrés Giménez Leads Baseball in Stolen Bases
Andrés Giménez was the main piece returned to the Guardians in exchange for their franchise player at the time, Francisco Lindor. At just 22 years old, he failed to do much to impress in his first season in Cleveland. He didn’t stand out in his 210 PAs with the big league club (.633 OPS) and spent a large portion of the season at Triple-A. With César Hernández out of town, though, Giménez has an open path to everyday big-league at-bats. After Hernández was traded to the White Sox on July 29, Giménez was called up a little over a week later on August 8, and proceeded to play in most of the Guardians’ remaining games that season. Currently, Roster Resource has him as the strong side of a platoon at 2B. We’ll see if that sticks, but I assume the Guardians hope Giménez will grab consistent playing time and elevate himself from platoon status.
If he is able to wrestle every day at-bats, I think Giménez has a shot to lead MLB in stolen bases. The bottom of Cleveland’s lineup, where Giménez figures to be hitting, is nothing to write home about. It is quite tough to look at, frankly. This may lead to lots of stolen base opportunities for Giménez in an effort by the Guardians to stay out of double-plays or set the top of the order up with someone in scoring position. Giménez had 93rd percentile sprint speed in 2021 and was a perfect 11-for-11 in stolen base attempts, despite just 210 PAs. Throughout his major league career, he has 19 stolen bases and was only caught stealing once. This mix of speed, opportunity, and success rate is the exact mix needed to lead baseball in stolen bases. While other base-stealing stalwarts are getting older (Whit Merrifield, Starling Marte, etc.), Giménez’s career is just getting started. It is time for him to take the SB crown.
9. Clint Frazier Finishes 2022 as a Top 200 Overall Player
Frazier is entering his age 27 season and should be hitting his prime. He is free from New York, where he clearly wasn’t happy or getting consistent playing time, and may not even have to play the field if the Cubs decide to DH him mostly-full-time. That should only help him as he was a disaster in the field in New York, and I think the pressure there was just too much for him. The fifth overall pick from 2013’s draft may never hit that high ceiling that many thought he had as he was coming up through the Guardians’ system, but a fresh start in Chicago where the expectations aren’t high for him, or the team, actually gives me some hope.
The strong on-base ability is still there (15.1% BB% over the last two seasons) and there isn’t much competition for the DH spot as it currently stands. The Cubs lineup isn’t great, but if Frazier can get ~550 PAs, I could see a 25 HR, decent RBI total, 5 SB, .250 average, with the potential of being better if a few things go his way in terms of BABIP and HR/FB%. Clearly, this bold prediction is buying in on that “potential of being better,” but I wouldn’t be surprised if Frazier ends up being a late bloomer and becomes a fan favorite in Chicago.
10. The Milwaukee Brewers Win the World Series
The Brewers won the NL Central in 2021 with a comfortable 5.0 game cushion over the St. Louis Cardinals. Unfortunately, they were bounced in the first round, 3-1, by the eventual champion Atlanta Braves. I think things might break differently, in a good way, for Milwaukee this year.
Their division looks pretty easy. St. Louis should still be good, but the Cubs, Pirates, and Reds are all rebuilding. That should at least get them back to the playoffs. From there, they have arguably the best rotation in baseball, anchored by the reigning Cy Young in Corbin Burnes. Their offense last year was ultimately their downfall as they got shutout in both Game 2 and Game 3 of the NLDS. So, they went out and traded Jackie Bradley Jr. (35 wRC+… yes you read that correctly) for Hunter Renfroe (114 wRC+). That upgrade alone should pay dividends. Christian Yelich has had a full off-season to hopefully get his knee and back in order, and we all know how well Willy Adames performed once he got traded to Milwaukee.
They’ve now been in the playoffs a few times, their rotation is elite, the backend of their bullpen is as good as it gets, and their offense has improved. I think something is brewing in Milwaukee, and I wouldn’t be surprised if this is their year.
Photos Icon Sportswire Adapted by Doug Carlin (@Bdougals on Twitter)