We are just a week away from the start of 2017 season, which means it is time for my annual bold predictions column. Before we proceed with my bold claims for the upcoming season, let’s rewind the clock and look at how I did with my bold claims from a year ago:
- Dansby Swanson is not ranked among the top 20 SS in WAR ….. Nailed it.
Christian Yelich finishes in the top 3 in NL MVP voting … Yelich didn’t receive a single MVP vote … swing and miss.
3. Corey Seager ranks second in WAR … at his own Thanksgiving table … Kyle Seager posted a 3.5 WAR, Corey posted a 5.7 WAR … swing and miss.
- The Seattle Mariners end the longest playoff drought in professional sports … swing and miss.
The San Diego Padres lose 110 games … swing and miss.
The New York Yankees win 90+ games … nailed it.
St. Louis Cardinals will miss the playoffs again … nailed it.
8. Billy Hamilton steals more bases than any player in the last thirty years … swing and miss.
- Edwin Diaz has more Ks than any SP for the San Diego Padres … swing and miss.
10. The Houston Astros will win their first World Series … nailed it.
The final tally on my 2017 predictions is four “nailed-its” and six “swing-and-misse”s (although I feel like correctly choosing the World Series winner should be worth two). Not bad for bold predictions.
As we pivot towards the 2018 season, I feel obliged to include the usual caveat about bold predictions: I am not saying that I expect these things to happen, I am saying that I could reasonably see them happening. So without further adieu, here are my bold predictions for the 2018 season.
- Cody Bellinger posts an OPS below .800
I kick off my bold predictions column with by far my boldest prediction. After Cody Bellinger set a National League rookie record with 39 bombs in 2017, I think he will experience a huge sophomore slump in 2018. While Bellinger’s power is prodigious, his max effort, extreme uppercut swing is filled with holes and leads to a lot of swing-and-misses.Bellinger had outstanding exit velocity on balls in the air in 2017, especially on those hit between 19 and 26 degrees. He averaged 99 mph on balls hit between those two angles. These are the most valuable batted balls in the game, so that will generate large numbers of extra-base hits and home runs. However, generally speaking, these types of batted balls aren’t very stable from one year to the next so you could see this exit velocity plunge in 2018 simply due to random variation. As a result, you could see a dip in power numbers across the board. In other words: Bellinger is due for regression.
Additionally, Bellinger was exposed in the playoffs as the rookie slugger struck out close to 40% of the time. Pitchers regularly attacked Bellinger high in the zone to counteract his hefty uppercut. Expect pitchers to continue with that strategy in 2018, forcing him to adjust. Bellinger’s glove will keep him on the field, but he will likely have to battle through prolonged slumps this coming summer.
- Kyle Schwarber hits 45 home runs.
I am not sure if you have seen pictures of Kyle Schwarber this Spring and even if you have, it is likely that you didn’t recognize him. The formerly hefty slugger, whose extra baggage around his midsection has made him a defensive liability thus far in his MLB career, has lost nearly 30 pounds and looks as svelte and athletic as ever. Take a look for yourself.
Below is a picture of Schwarber from a year ago:
Compare the picture above to what he looks like now:
While Schwarber’s newfound dedication to fitness is certainly a cause to be optimistic, the reasons for a potential 45 home run season go far beyond Schwarber getting his weight under control. Schwarber’s struggles last season were well documented, but despite performing well under expectations, the powerful left-handed outfielder still slugged 30 home runs in just 129 games. Moreover, he hit 17 of those 30 bombs in his final 61 games. Even at his worst, Schwarber’s 162 game pace put him at 37 homers, and that’s with an 82 wRC+ in the first half. While he has yet to prove he can be productive enough against left-handed pitching to stick in the lineup against elite southpaws, his improved defensive performance gives me reason to believe that he will reach a career high in games played in 2018, health willing.
Schwarber clearly turned a corner after a brief stint in the minor leagues last season and he did everything he could this offseason to assure that the momentum he built will be carried into the 2018 season.
- Madison Bumgarner and Noah Syndergaard finish 1st and 2nd in both Cy Young and Comeback Player of the Year voting.
Both Madison Bumgarner and Noah Syndergaard had injury-shortened seasons in 2017 due in large part to poor decision making. For Bumgarner, it was the boneheaded decision to get on a dirt bike, which ultimately resulted in an injury to his throwing shoulder. For Syndergaard, it was the ill-advised decision to bulk up in the offseason and then take the mound three days after being scratched with a sore biceps (the Mets training staff deserves ample blame for this as well).Both pitchers have learned from their mistakes and are back with a vengeance this spring. Bumgarner has put any questions surrounding his decreased velocity to rest by regularly hitting 93 mph on the radar gun and mowing through hitters with ease in Cactus League play. Widely regarded as the ultimate teammate, there is no question that Mad Bum is eager to do everything he can to make up for his mistakes last season.
This spring Syndergaard has once again shown why he is a once-in-a-generation talent. “Thor” has been clocked as high as 103 mph in Grapefruit League action and has featured his signature wipeout slider that can reach as high as 95 mph. While this prediction is largely anecdotal based on Spring Training reports, I believe both pitchers have enough talent to make it come true.
It is hard not to get excited about Syndergaard after watching this clip:
- Mitch Haniger leads Mariners’ position players in WAR.
Mitch Haniger is far from a household name for most casual baseball fans, but he quietly put together a 2.5 WAR season in just over a half season’s worth of plate appearances in 2017. For comparison, let’s take a quick look the Mariners position player WAR leaderboard from 2017.
Player WAR Games Played Nelson Cruz 3.8 155 Kyle Seager 3.5 154 Robinson Cano 3.2 150 Jean Segura 2.9 125 Mitch Haniger 2.5 96
If Haniger would have played 146 games (the average of the four players above him), he would have posted a 3.9 WAR, slightly edging out Nelson Cruz for the top spot. With Mariners outfielders dropping left and right this spring, Haniger will have a pathway to playing every day in 2018, health permitting.
This prediction has as much to do with Haniger’s star potential as it does with the potential decline of the players above him. Nelson Cruz is 38 years old and needs to replicate his 39 home runs and 118 RBIs if he wants to reach a similar WAR, seeing how he is a designated hitter and doesn’t produce anything in the field. Robinson Cano is entering his age 35 season and saw his WAR drop from 5.7 to 3.5 from 2016 to 2017. There is no reason to think that Jean Segura and Kyle Seager won’t replicate their production from a year ago, but that is part of what makes this prediction bold.
- The Oakland A’s win more games than the San Francisco Giants.
As a Giants fan, this prediction is excruciatingly hard to write, but I believe there is a legitimate chance of it happening. The Giants revamped their roster this offseason by trading for Evan Longoria and Andrew McCutchen and signing free agents Austin Jackson and Tony Watson. These additions coupled with positive regression from Brandon Crawford, Brandon Belt, Joe Panik, and Hunter Pence, and a full season from Madison Bumgarner, form the basis for a projected 19 win improvement for the Giants in 2018. While projection systems are largely writing off the 2017 seasons of Belt / Crawford / Pence / Cueto as off years, what happens if 2017 was just the beginning of the end for these aging veterans? If the Giants get off to a terrible start this season, GM Brian Sabean will have no choice but to face reality and start trading off some of his veterans, which could result in an even more unwatchable second half to the season.
The A’s are the antithesis of the Giants in pretty much every way. Their roster is filled with young guys with high ceilings, including Matt Chapman and Matt Olson, who could form one of the best corner infield tandems in the league (more on those two later). Moving Khris Davis out of left field and into a more suitable designated hitter role will improve the team’s defense and the possible emergence of top prospect Franklin Barreto could solidify a middle infield that may already be in good hands with Jed Lowrie and Marcus Semien. The club’s pitching is young and thus unpredictable, but if Sean Manaea lives up to his potential and A.J. Puk is called up midseason, their rotation could surprise some people.
Admittedly this prediction is more predicated on the Giants falling apart than it is on the A’s winning any more than 84ish games, but if the ball bounces right for the A’s and the Giants veterans continue to show signs of father time, the best team in the Bay Area may just be Oakland in 2018.
- Shohei Ohtani has a batting average below .250 and an ERA over 4.50.
With fastballs that regularly get into the triple digits and home runs that soar upwards of 450 feet, there is no denying that Shohei Ohtani is supremely talented. Furthermore, I believe that Ohtani will have a very successful MLB career. With all of that said, I think people are underestimating just how hard it is to be both a successful MLB pitcher and hitter simultaneously. After all, there is a reason that nobody has done it since the Babe Ruth stopped pitching close to a century ago.Ohtani is trying to do something that nobody has ever done in the modern era, and he trying to do it at just 23 years old. While Ohtani was capable of being both a successful hitter and pitcher in Japan, he is facing much better competition both at the plate and on the mound now and there are sure to be some adjustments, especially with the media frenzy that surrounds him on a daily basis.
There are going to be some bumps in the road for the “Japanese Babe Ruth”, and if Spring Training is any indication of things to come, he may experience more struggles than anticipated. So far in the Cactus League, Ohtani has posted an OPS under .300 and an ERA of 16.20. He should probably start the season in the Minor Leagues, but for a number of reasons, that probably won’t happen. This means that Ohtani will have to iron out his flaws at the Major League level, with everybody in the baseball world closely monitoring his every move. While the talent is there, I cannot stress enough how difficult the transition to a new country, the adjustment to better competition, and the constant media attention must be for Ohtani.
- The Nationals win 50 more games than the Marlins.
On the surface, this prediction probably doesn’t seem that bold. The Nationals are the runaway favorites to win the National League East while the Marlins are as surefire a candidate to land the number one pick as any team in recent memory. Taking all of that into account, consider just how hard it is for two teams in the same division to be separated by 50 games. This would require the Nationals reaching the top end of their projections and the Marlins being even worse than anticipated. This would mean the Marlins lose close to 110 games while the Nationals win almost as many. Now that this 50 game gap is put into context, let me explain my reasoning.
Last season, Marlins positions players combined for 26 wins above replacement, with 16.2 of those wins coming from Giancarlo Stanton, Marcell Ozuna, and Christian Yelich. For those of you living under a rock, all three of those players were traded away this offseason. That is 62% percent of position player WAR being dealt away. Of course, there are guys taking their places, so it is not as if the Marlins will get zero WAR from their replacements … right? Wrong. In fact, according to Fangraphs projections the Marlins outfield projects to post exactly zero wins above replacement in 2018, with journeyman outfielder Cameron Maybin leading the group with a projected 1.1 WAR.
The pitching staff does not project to be much better as Dan Straily leads the team with a projected WAR of 1.0 (that is not accounting for the fact that Straily looks like he is going to start this season on the DL). Combine a complete lack of talent on the major league roster with a farm system that lacks any realistic reinforcements, and you get a team totally bereft of hope.
The Marlins projected leader in WAR is standout catcher J.T. Realmuto, who is slated for 2.5 wins above replacement in 2018. The problem is he probably won’t make it through the season with the team as new owner Derek Jeter will almost certainly trade the franchise catcher at some point this season. I recognize that I have focused more on how bad the Marlins are rather than focus on how good the Nationals are so I will sum up the enormous disparity between the two clubs with one stat.
If we exclude J.T. Realmuto (who we have established likely won’t be a Marlin for long), the Nationals have 13 players who are projected to post a higher WAR than the highest projected Marlin. Take a moment for that to set in.
As if you needed more evidence to support this claim, consider the following graph showing how the strength of schedule will impact various teams’ projections:
This graph shows the win adjustments relative to each team’s current projections based on their strength of schedule. The Nationals are benefiting the most from a relatively soft schedule, with nearly three wins added to their projection, while the Marlins are hurt the most.
- Adam Eaton leads the National League in runs.
Before a season-ending knee injury last season, Adam Eaton was on pace to score 169 runs. Granted, he was injured in late April so that pace would not have actually materialized, but it did serve as an indicator of his run-scoring potential. Adam Eaton is slated to hit leadoff in front of Trea Turner, Bryce Harper, Daniel Murphy Ryan Zimmerman, and Anthony Rendon this season. Not only does Eaton boast a career on-base percentage of .358, he has also seen his walk rate improve every season since entering the league in 2012.
Health is obviously a concern for a player who is coming off a torn ACL, but all reports from Spring Training indicate that the fleet-footed right fielder looks as spry as ever. The Nationals are projected to have the best offense in the National League in 2018 and with Eaton fully healthy, we can expect him to cross home plate close to 120 times.
- Four teams will win 100 games
Only three times in MLB history have three teams eclipsed the 100 win mark, with one of those seasons being just a year ago. As we enter the age of super teams (and conversely more teams rebuilding than ever before), I believe this will be the year where four different teams reach the century mark in the win column.The Astros, Yankees, Indians, Dodgers, Nationals, Cubs, and Red Sox all won at least 91 games a season ago, with the Indians, Astros, and Dodgers all winning 100.
In the American League, the Indians are coming off a season in which they won 103 games and boasted one of the best rotations in MLB history, not to mention that they play in the worst division in baseball. The Astros are coming off a 101 win season and added a potential ace to their rotation in Gerrit Cole. The Bronx bombers might break the MLB single-season record in home runs with the addition of 2017 MVP Giancarlo Stanton and the Red Sox plugged their biggest hole by bringing in J.D. Martinez.
In the National League, the Cubs just added Yu Darvish to an incredibly deep rotation and possess tons of young, talented, and versatile position players. The Nationals won 97 games a year ago and didn’t have leadoff hitter Adam Eaton for almost the whole season and played without Bryce Harper for most of the final two months. And lastly, the Dodgers are, well, they’re the Dodgers.
- Matt Chapman and Matt Olson combine for 70 home runs.
Matt Olson’s hit 47 home runs last season between Triple-A Nashville and Oakland, but whether it was being overshadowed by other prominent breakout rookies such as Aaron Judge, Cody Bellinger, and Rhys Hoskins or it was simply playing in Oakland, the powerful first baseman’s historic start to his career largely went under the radar. If you extrapolate Olson’s numbers to a 162 game average, the hulking lefty slugger would have clubbed upwards of 60 home runs. I am not saying Olson will hit anywhere near that number as his 41.4% HR /FB ratio screams regression, but 40 home runs is certainly not out of the realm of possibility.
Across the diamond from Olson is Matt Chapman, an elite defensive third baseman with near-equal power potential. Similar to Olson, Chapman’s home run total was bolstered by a high HR/FB ratio, but in today’s day and age, nearly every hitter is seeing more of his flyballs turn to home runs. Between Nashville and Oakland last season, Chapman hit 30 home runs in just 465 at-bats. Fangraphs currently has Chapman projected for 562 at-bats. Taking that number and projecting his home run total based on last year’s pace puts him at 37 home runs. Health is always a concern for any player, but with Chapman’s Gold Glove-caliber defense keeping him in the lineup on a daily basis, I believe the 562 at-bat projection might be a little light.
Just for fun, here is a look at both Matt’s light tower power.
Well, there you have it. Just 365 days until we can reflect on this together and see how times I struck out on these bold predictions (it won’t be nearly as many times as Bellinger K’s in 2018).
(Let the record show I am predicting the Yankees to win the World Series this year. Predicting the Yankees to win the World Series is anything but bold, but I want to be able to say I called it a year from now).