In retrospect, perhaps last year’s predictions were a little too bold. Going 0-for-10 will humble you like that. But for every “Austin Nola is a fantasy superstar,” there were helpful nuggets that if you don’t take too literally were probably helpful. Fantasy players were probably satisfied with Giancarlo Stanton, or Kris Bryant, both of whom I was high on in last year’s edition.
The goal is to identify a few players or league-wide trends that I’m higher or lower on than conventional wisdom. Many of these will fail spectacularly (“James Hoyt is Miami’s most valuable reliever”), but hopefully, we’ll hit on two or three here legitimately.
ADPs are based on NFBC’s average draft positions as of March 10. I’m comparing player seasons (e.g., “more valuable” or “best catcher”) on Razzball’s 2022 player rating to evaluate my hits/misses.
1. Mike Trout is Back (as a top-3 player)
Mike Trout’s average draft position currently sits at 15, which, I get to some degree. He hasn’t eclipsed 140 games played since 2016. At some point, great as Trout is, one has to wonder if he’ll get back to a full season of playing time, especially at age 30. Of course, Trout only played in 36 games last year with a somewhat perplexing (at least to outsiders) calf injury that nagged all season long and kept him seemingly just out of action for the whole year. It’s that time off that I’m banking this prediction on. Trout was raking when he went down with his injury, and a near-entire season of rest should have him feeling good. After shortened or opted-out seasons in 2020, players like Joey Votto and Buster Posey had their best seasons in years, and I’m betting here that rest does Trout some good, who, when healthy, really hasn’t shown much in the way of slowing down.
2. Amed Rosario goes .275/20/20
I wrote recently about Amed Rosario‘s revamped pull and fly-ball heavy approach in the second half of 2021, so this is a bet that continues. The risk here is flyballers often sacrifice BABIP (and therefore batting average) in the name of hitting the ball in the air and hard more, so Rosario will have to find the right balance. But last year he hit more doubles and home runs in the second half in 40 fewer PA, so this feels like an approach that might stick.
3. Fewer than five pitchers record 15 wins or more
Last season I was a bit too ambitious predicting that zero pitchers would reach the fifteen win mark; after all, there has never been a full MLB season in which fewer than eleven pitchers won 15 games or more. Consider this a prediction that capitalizes on my sentiment from a year ago but is a bit more achievable. After all, MLB set a record last year with only five pitchers reaching the 15 win mark. I believe those factors are still in play, if not moreso, and wins will continue to be at a premium. For fantasy baseball purposes, I’m adding extra weight to pitchers on good teams, fading excellent pitchers on bad teams a bit more, and much more interested in positional flexibility with pitchers who can vulture some wins.
4. Cody Bellinger and Christian Yelich finish with less than 30 home runs… combined
While there’s no prediction on this list I’d be happier to get wrong, history is against both players. Basically, there have been no players in MLB history to be as good as Yelich and Bellinger were from 2018-19 who later were as bad in 2021 that later bounced back to their previous levels. A few have been close, but none as young as Yelich or Bellinger struggled and came all the way back. Each had injuries that would explain much of their performances over the past couple of years, but that’s not exactly great news either. Again, I’m hoping to be wrong on this and wish both players full, productive, and successful seasons, but the historic precedent is troubling. As a result, I’m fading both players hard in drafts.
5. Strikeouts are back, baby!
The league-wide strikeout rate increased for 15 straight years: each year from 2006-2020. Suddenly, in 2021 it dropped. That trend will reverse again in 2022, and strikeouts will again tick back up. Why? Pitchers will continue to adjust to the “sticky stuff” crackdown—either legally through grips, pitch mixes, or a pre-tacked ball (whether they know it is or not will be up to MLB), or illegally. The early weeks of the season are likely to see the pitchers a bit ahead of hitters with a shortened spring training, which should also contribute to a slightly elevated strikeout rate in the first month or so.
6. Carlos Rodón wins the NL Cy Young
I absolutely love this signing for the Giants. The Giants (+27 outs above average) field a much better defense than Rodón’s previous team, the White Sox (-10 OAA), and play in an extreme pitcher-friendly park. All that after Rodón was a top-10 starting pitcher in fantasy by Razzball’s player rater in 2021. He’s currently being drafted as the 46th pitcher off the board, and Vegas odds for him to win Cy Young as of March 10 were +2500 (or 25-1). Health is the main concern, along with a warranted dose of skepticism of a one-year career best. But strikeouts and walks stabilize pretty quickly, and it appears Rodón figured out something in those departments, posting career bests in each rate. I think he’s a top-1o pitcher again.
7. Ke’Bryan Hayes breaks out
Hayes was a popular breakout pick in 2021 after a short MLB debut that saw him hit five homers and slash .376/.442/.682 in 24 games in 2020. Unfortunately, a wrist injury seemed to nag at Hayes all season, as he managed just six homers in less than 100 games with a batting average and on-base percentage worse than he’s posted at any age, at any level in his career so far. The plate discipline is still there, and he flashed some of his 80th-percentile speed with nine stolen bases in that short 2021. Hayes’ ADP is still around 140, so he’s being drafted with his potential in mind, and wrist injuries are tricky for a hitter, but I’ll side with his minor league track record and call him a top-five third baseman.
8. The Blue Jays win the AL
Maybe not as bold of a prediction as the rest (PECOTA projects the Blue Jays to win their division, albeit in a competitive one before AL East teams had started to add to their rosters in earnest), but I want to use this space to talk about the unbelievable advantage the Blue Jays hold going into the season and its relevance for fantasy purposes.
First, let’s get out of the way that everyone who is able should get vaccinated against COVID-19. The vaccine is safe and effective. It doesn’t feel great to analyze baseball in terms of literal life-or-death consequences, but at the same time, Canada’s vaccine requirement for athletes entering the country will have an impact on the on-field performance.
Canada is requiring athletes entering the country to be vaccinated. For the NBA, that number is around 95%. As of late last year, around 84% of MLB’s players were vaccinated. If that holds true for the upcoming season, teams visiting Toronto will on average be down four major league players before they even step on the field. Even assuming (and hoping) the players’ vaccination rate rises, a loss of two otherwise major-league, healthy players would be a strain for any team.
As a result, the Blue Jays, who are already quite good, could possibly be facing lesser competition than the rest of the AL, and their hitters and pitchers may get a slight performance bump than would otherwise be expected from a full opponent roster.
Let’s hope the great play of the Blue Jays is the story of the season, and not a consistently depleted visiting team roster.
9. Joey Gallo is a top-20 fantasy player in OBP leagues
Gallo has never hit fewer than 38 homers in a season in which he’s had at least 500 PA. A full year with what should be a pretty good Yankees lineup will contribute to higher RBI and run numbers than he’s used to. A 40/100/100 season with a .350 OBP isn’t out of the question for Gallo, and last year he was the 35th best player in OBP leagues.
10. Robbie Grossman out-earns Jarred Kelenic
I like Jarred Kelenic, but he’s currently being drafted nearly 50 spots ahead of Grossman at the moment. Imagine, for a moment, Kelenic finishes with this line for the season:
That would outpace the most optimistic Kelenic projections by quite a bit, and fantasy managers should be happy they rostered Kelenic in that instance. Those numbers above are what Robbie Grossman has averaged per 600 plate appearances for the past two seasons. Sure, that’s cheating a bit in terms of both a shortened 2020 season and cherry-picking the past two seasons after Grossman has unlocked a swing change, but prospect growth isn’t always linear. In a dynasty league, these two are closer but for this year only I would take the player who has basically done it the past two seasons.
(Photo by Icon Sportswire) Adapted by Shawn Palmer (@PalmerDesigns_ on Twitter)