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Van Burnett’s 2022 Bold Predictions

Some high ceilings come with age.

Fortune favors the bold. Scared money doesn’t make money. Whatever the wording, you get it. Like an Eugenio Suarez 2021 at-bat, these 10 predictions swing for the fences with a high likelihood of striking out. But if they hit, they could help you win your league.

I picked 10 to directly compete with my Wins Above Fantasy podcast Co-Host, Steve Gesuele’s picks. Whoever gets more right? Also gets some PL merch courtesy of the loser. He’s learning these terms as he reads this, but I think he agrees. Two disclaimers: any rankings-related prediction is for 5×5 judged by the Razzball player rater and the nature of these bold predictions is that they’re long shots. Let’s get into it!

 

1. Joey Votto Finishes as a Top 3 First Baseman

 

For context, he’s currently being drafted as 17th at the position — with an NFBC ADP of 150. So this would have him jumping almost every first-basemen not named Vladimir Guerrero Jr. or Freddie Freeman. And he’s 38 years old.

Here’s why it could happen. Votto’s wizardry in the batter’s box gave him a 15-year career flirting with Cooperstown. In 2020, he changed his stance for more power, even citing Baseball Savant and a drive to ramp up his barrel rates. No more crouching. He stood tall at the plate. And in 2021, he delivered exactly what he said he would.

Last season, Votto batted .266 with 36 homers and 99 RBI — in just 129 games. No player’s Hard Hit% climbed more than Votto from 2020 (38.2%) to 2021 (53.2%). His 44.3% Sweet Spot % led the entire league. The scary thing is — it could be better. Here are four reasons why.

  1. His 2021 expected stats. Votto’s xBA was eight points higher at .274 — and beneath his .563 SLG (6th best in the league), was a whopping .592 xSLG.
  2. More playing time. Votto missed almost all of May with a broken thumb. Add in the NL DH? Why wouldn’t Joey Votto play 90% of games as he has for the past five years? If anything, he’ll get more ABs because he takes fewer walks now.
  3. He’s getting better at this. We’re talking about one of the best ever “students of the game” who told us what he was going to do, did it, and is getting markedly better. Check the splits last year.
Joey Votto 2021 Splits
ABs AVG OPS Home Runs
Pre All-Star Break 218 .257 .810 11
Post All-Star Break 230 .274 1.057 25

Plus, he’s Joey Votto. I’m hammering “the over” on his age-fearing projections and going bold with a .265 AVG, 39 homers, 100 RBI, and 90 RBI. Votto finishes as a top 3 first basemen and makes us all sweat his 2023 ADP, as a 39-year-old monster.

 

2. Yasmani Grandal Finishes #1 at Catcher and Bats .265

 

He’s the fifth catcher off draft boards so, finishing first at the position isn’t bold enough. Enter his historic batting average struggles.

Yasmani Grandal’s Batting AVG Struggles

This season, I’m not just saying he’ll crack .250 — he’ll hit .265 and be the best catcher in fantasy.

In case you missed it, Yasmani Grandal had a memorable 2021. He started off dreadful at the dish, batting .188 in the first half of the season. Because of his ability to take a walk, his OBP at the time was 300 points higher than his average — which is simply unprecedented. But still bad at the plate.

Then he tore a tendon in his left knee. And if I can say so respectfully, it was somewhat of a blessing in disguise. In his rehab assignment in Charlotte, Grandal worked with a hitting coach who helped him find his swing. To paraphrase, he had been swinging with his upper body, hesitant to shift his weight due to the knee pain. He worked on keeping his shoulder closed and (as his knee healed) began swinging with full weight distribution from the ground up.

Grandal described how this helped him extend pitch counts, be more aggressive and tap into more contact and power. Here were the results from his return through the end of the season.

Yasmani Gandal 2021 Return from Injury

Small sample? Yes. Is Yasmani Grandal a .300 hitter? No. But I do believe he found a swing that can make him the top catcher in fantasy. Even with the dreadful first half, his season-long xBA was .259. His 21.7% strikeout rate was his best since 2015; only ten players in the league made bigger K% improvements. His rise in barrel rate was the 11th largest in the majors. All that, plus batting cleanup for the White Sox in a weak division? Gimme .265, 34 homers, 90, 90 for the top catcher in fantasy.

 

3. Jorge Soler Finishes a Top 50 Player & Top 15 Outfielder

 

Soler’s currently being drafted as the 52nd outfielder. No matter where he eventually signs, that will go up — but not to the top 15 in front of names like Tyler O’Neill, Randy Arozarena, and George Springer. Next year, that could be where he’s going. Despite a decent 27 bombs, his 2021 stat line looks disappointing thanks to a .227 average.

Of course, most will remember his 2021 World Series MVP, instead of the back of his baseball card. But even playoffs aside, there’s so much to be excited about Soler — as Justin Dunbar broke down very nicely. It seems a light switch turned on when he moved from the Royals to the Braves. More tangible, his BABIP luck and plate discipline led to a second-half breakout.

Jorge Soler’s Breakout with the Braves
ABs BABIP K% AVG HR ISO OPS
Royals 310 .228 27.1 .190 13 .177 .654
Braves 206 .280 18.3 .272 14 .257 .890

Despite the World Series MVP and a second-half breakout, his ADP is still 194. The fantasy community has a short-term memory. It was as recent as 2019 when Soler put together a colossal season, batting .265 with 48 homers, 117 RBI, and a .923 OPS.

There’s immense pop in that bat. If he can keep some of his plate discipline and contact gains, there’s no reason he can’t come close to the 2019 line and deliver top 50 overall value.

 

4. Blake Snell Returns to Acedom, Finishing a Top 10 SP

 

Snell disappointed managers who invested a mid 30s overall pick in 2021. It’s why his current ADP is 118. He threw just 128 innings, with a 4.20 ERA, and a 1.32 WHIP. The 30.9% strikeout rate was a bright spot.

Even brighter, was that Snell seemed to “figure it out” by the end of the season. He ditched his beloved changeup (that got pummeled to the tune of a .595 SLG), and went back to “the Blake Snell Blueprint” of high heat and breaking stuff low. He ramped up the usage of his elite slider (46% whiff rate vs. ~25% league average) from just 15% in June to 34% in September.

<a href=Blake Snell Pitch Mix Usage in 2021″ width=”734″ height=”413″ />

The results followed. Post All-Star Break, Snell donned a 3.24 ERA with a 1.05 WHIP — compared to 4.99 and 1.55 Pre All-Star Break. It was no accident. Look at his xWOBA drop from June through August when he leaned into the mix changes.

<a href=Blake Snell monthly xWOBA chart” width=”709″ height=”399″ />

Common sense has to set in. When Snell throws his best pitches, as he did the second half of the season, he’s an elite pitcher. Surely he carries these gains into 2022. And when he does, he jumps from being SP 44 in ADP to a top 10 arm next to names like Aaron Nola and Julio Urias.

 

5. Giancarlo Stanton Finishes a Top 10 Hitter with a 150 wRC+

 

Let’s contextualize that. Stanton’s 2017 MVP year (you know, 59 homers, 132 RBI) translated to a 158 wRC+, and his highest since then was 143 in the shortened 2020. That said, he’s being drafted as the 61st hitter off the board. I think, somehow, we now think Stanton is kind of boring. This is a mistake!

First of all, he played 139 games — a great sign after reworking his fitness routine. Next, his season-long line was tremendous: .273/.354/.516 with 35 homers, 97 RBI, and 64 runs. Two things stand out there. 64 runs? That seems extremely unlucky batting in the top four of a Yankees lineup.

All projections have him around 80 next year. Then there’s the .273 average which projections would argue is high (they have him around .255-.260). His .259 xBA in 2021 would agree. That said, xBA does not account for hit location. In other words, guys who spray the ball have untracked potential as it relates to xBA. Stanton was 23rd in the majors in hit % to the opposite field — his 29% was a career-best, by far.

Under the hood, it only gets better. Last year, Stanton’s solid hit rate was an incredible 11%. In his MVP season, it was 7.7%. His flyball rate was higher than that MVP year. By being more aggressive versus breaking pitches, he saw the second-lowest K% of his career. And best of all, his 56.3% hard-hit rate was not only the best of his career, it led the entire league. All that with a paltry 91st percentile barrel rate.

My bold take on boring Giancarlo Stanton: he’s a top 10 hitter by wRC+ — playing 145 games while batting .270, with 40 home runs, 105 RBI, and 85 runs.

 

6. Connor Joe Hits 30 Homers, Doubling His Projections

 

Late bloomer alert. 29-year-old Connor Joe should see his first full MLB season this year. Last year, he graduated from prospect status with the Rockies and posted a .285/.379/.469 clip in 63 games. That’s an .848 OPS. In just 28 games at AAA, he hit 9 homers with a .696 SLG and a 1.114 OPS.

There’s a lot to like here. He hits lefties and righties, both for power; that power goes to all fields. His xBA was .283 and his xSLG .467. The 12.3% walk rate and 19.4% walk rate are salivating for a player who hits the ball hard and — most importantly — bats half a season at Coors Field.

Had he qualified, his 39% hard-hit rate would have landed 24th in the league, just behind Juan Soto and right in front of names like J.D. Martinez, Freddie Freeman, and Pete Alonso. All that said, the sample was small and his power has wavered throughout the minors. Projections don’t buy the pop or the playing time, with most systems landing around 15 homers in 110 games with an ISO around 175/180. But check out his ISO in his last four minor league stretches:

Connor Joe’s Minor League ISO

Rockies nation is clamoring that the left field job is his to lose — and why wouldn’t it be? Not to mention NL DH potential. If he plays 150 games, with his plate skills, Coors field, and a power surge seemingly flying under the radar — I’ll take 30 bombs from this sleeper going at pick 341… assuming we get a full MLB season (knocks wood).

 

7. Hunter Renfroe Cracks the Top 50 in 5×5 Rankings

 

Currently going at ADP 167, Renfroe is the 45th outfielder off the board. Despite a move to Milwaukee where he should bat cleanup all year, it’s not the sexiest name around the fantasy community. But there’s reason to believe in a breakout.

For one, he sort of did it last year. In 144 games with the Red Sox, he quietly hit .259 with 31 homers, 89 runs, and 96 RBI. He’s always had true 30 homer pop, but the .259 average was a pleasant surprise for a guy who’s hovered around .235 since 2017. And those gains appear to be real, thanks to fewer strikeouts, better contact and improvements vs. right-handed pitching.

Year K% Contact% AVG vs. RHP xBA
2017 29.2% 68.8% .202 .220
2018 24.7% 70.9% .245 .237
2019 31.2% 71.4% .208 .219
2020 26.6% 71.3% .160 .191
2021 22.7% 77% .250 .259

Massive improvements across the board — not to mention only 5 players in the MLB improved their line drive rate more than Renfroe. I’m not saying he’s a lock to help with average. But if he can hit .260 again (and there’s room for more) — the pop is enough to take him the rest of the way. Those 31 homers last year came with a subdued 18% HR/FB rate.

Renfroe’s elite .501 SLG was backed by a .504 xSLG, =is 14.4% barrel rate was the best of his career and 88th percentile in the league, and I love the park factors in Milwaukee and the new division. While American Family Field (formerly Miller Park) hasn’t scored as power-friendly, that’s more related to the lights-out Brewers pitching. Check out this table for how his 2021 power would have looked different if all of his hits were in Milwaukee or other NL Central parks.

American Family Field Park and NL Central Factor

And don’t forget he’ll get to crush the Cubs and Pirates all season. Peak projections have Renfroe down for 34 homers. With the plate approach gains, proven power, and new division — I’ll roll with a bold stat line to get him in fantasy baseball’s top 50: .265, 38 homers, 105 RBI, and 92 runs.

 

8. Aaron Civale Leads the AL Central in Wins

 

With an ADP of 264, Civale’s the 73rd SP being taken in NFBC drafts. He was going in the late 100s last season, with plenty of industry buzz. 2021 draft-day investors were riding quite the wave until June when he sprained his middle finger. At that point, he had a 3.32 ERA with a 1.06 WHIP — and was the first pitcher in the MLB to record 10 wins (just 2 losses). He basically imploded in the second half, going 2-3 with a 5.74 ERA and a 1.31 WHIP. Now, it seems everyone’s forgotten Civale or has written him off. I’m holding out hope.

To rip the Band-Aid, his strikeout numbers will probably never be good. Put your expectations at 7 Ks per 9, and the rest is bonus. Beyond that, he’s interesting. His pitch mix depth resembles very few, and he throws each pitch pretty well.

That’s not a bad list to top. Some other things I like? He pitches deep into games. Despite returning from injury, Civale still managed 5.92 innings per start. That’s ahead of established studs like Frankie Montas (5.84), Aaron Nola (5.64), and Lucas Giolito (5.76), to name a few.

Speaking of Eno Sarris, when he discussed the seam-shifted wake phenomenon last year on the Rates and Barrels podcast, one pitcher he mentioned whose sinker had notable deception was Aaron Civale. Beyond that, Eno’s colleague Alex Chamberlain talked on our recent Wins Above Fantasy podcast about how he often uses his pitch-similarity tool to identify pitchers who have impressive comparisons (based on a myriad of mechanics, metrics, etc.).

Here were some notables for Mr. Civale’s arsenal.

NOTE: The closer to zero, the greater the similarity — and anything from 15-30 usually tops the list of similarities.

Civale Pitch Similarity Scores

Admittedly, I’m omitting some mediocre comparisons (like a Jordan Lyles here and there). But those names above suggest there’s some potential for each pitch. And when they’re all six coming at batters, you could imagine why Civale continues to outperform his peripherals.

I think he’s got some upside even in the strikeout department. His curveball flashes good (if not great) whiff rates. But for this bold prediction to come true, it’s less about the Ks. I just need a healthy season where Civale can throw 190 innings and with a little luck, collect more wins than any of the White Sox studs.

 

9. Jack Flaherty Finishes a Top 5 Starting Pitcher

 

I can’t quit him, guys. It’s a biased take as a Cardinals fan. But when he’s at his best — the talent is tantalizing. Elite slider with a bankable 45% whiff rate. A flat fastball with great extension and an above-average vertical approach angle. Then there’s the tunneling.

His industry hype has faded quite a bit, but let’s remember what Flaherty’s dealt with the past two years. 2020 was weird with Covid, and perhaps weirdest for the Cardinals, who faced a 17-day halt in the middle of their season. Then his pitch count was very limited; it was almost a lost season. Are we really judging a nine-start sample size with that happening in the middle?

In 2021, Flaherty had an oblique injury and a right shoulder strain. Those are two pretty tough variables to pitch around. How many guys struggle and we shrug, saying, “He was probably dealing with that injury.” Well, Flaherty dealt with two and still posted a 3.22 ERA with a 1.09 WHIP. The K% dropped to 26.4% — but I’m giving him a pass there with the injuries given what he’s shown us in the past.

So! The last injury-free, Covid-free season we saw of Flaherty, he threw 196 innings with 231 Ks, a 2.75 ERA and a .96 WHIP. Love the volume, strikeouts, and ERA. But let’s spend a rare moment looking at WHIP. Few thrive there more than Flaherty, as this chart ranks the best since 2019 (SPs with a minimum of 300 IPs).

WHIP Leaders Since 2019

Sure, he pitches half his games at Busch Stadium and all games with arguably the best defense in the league behind him. But none of that is changing. And yes, he relies on two pitches too much. But the blueprint is there: the less he leans on the four-seam and the more he uses the slider, sinker, and curveball — the closer he gets to that 14% swinging-strike rate (from 2019 and 2020) instead of the 11.6% from last year. It’s not hard to see him returning to the upper echelon of pitching. The sky’s the limit. He’s already touched it. And he’s still just 26 years old.

 

10. A Healthy Gerrit Cole Finishes Outside the Top 10 SPs

 

That’s a tough transition after seeing Cole as #2 on the above WHIP chart. This is a bold one, to be sure. But as much as anyone can be, I am worried about Gerrit Cole. Last year, few pitchers caused more panic from the spin-gate saga. And for good reason. His 0.64 HR/9 in April and May almost tripled to 1.82 in June and July. His spin rate recovered slightly, but it never really got back to his typical marks. On his go-to fastball, here’s a glance at his month-by-month spin rates over the years. One of these charts is not like the others.

Given that he throws his fastball almost 50% of the time, that scares me a bit. And I’m not loving how much it got barrelled up in the second half either. Note: the last two high points on this chart show a 27.8% and 15.6% barrel rate — league average is about 8.5% on fastballs.

Now, look at his splits before and after All-Star Break.

Gerrit Cole’s 2021 Splits
Innings Strikeouts ERA WHIP
Pre All-Star Break 114.0 147 2.68 .93
Post All-Star Break 67.1 96 4.14 1.28

 

Make no mistake — he’s an elite bat-misser no matter what. But after that rocky June/July, he never righted the ship for good. People will point to how sensational August was: a 0.51 ERA with a 0.96 WHIP. But that was just 17.2 innings against the Angels, A’s, and Twins. In September, he threw 33.1 innings with a 5.13 ERA and a 1.38 WHIP. And don’t forget the Wild Card game versus the Red Sox where he lasted two innings and coughed up 3 runs.

Don’t get me wrong. I think Cole should be fine. More than likely, he’ll be elite. But if you’re asking for a bold prediction? There’s enough doubt for me to project a mediocre season by his standards. It would probably look like Luis Castillo’s 2019 (Ks for days with good-not-great ratios). I’ll guess 182 Innings with 223 Ks, a 3.52 ERA, and a 1.11 WHIP.

 

Photos by Icon Sportswire | Adapted by Justin Redler (@reldernitsuj on Twitter)

Van Burnett

Van Burnett is a marketing creative director, Staff Writer at Pitcher List and co-host of the Wins Above Fantasy podcast. For his takes on baseball, the Avett Brothers or Chelsea Football Club, follow @van_verified on Twitter.

One response to “Van Burnett’s 2022 Bold Predictions”

  1. Steve Gesuele says:

    You’re on!

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