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October 30, 2013

The Lineup Card

15 Things We Were Wrong About This Year

by Baseball Prospectus


1. The Cardinals Will Finish Fourth in the NL Central
It was spring training, and at the time, the Cardinals had a rotation of Adam Wainwright and a bunch of question marks, a giant hole at second base, no idea how they were going to get production out of shortstop (okay, so they never solved that one...), and even though it was clear that Allen Craig was something special, it's not like Matt Holliday and Carlos Beltran were getting any younger. They at least did have Oscar Taveras on the way. The Brewers had Ryan Braun and had just signed Kyle Lohse to pair with Yovani Gallardo and their supporting cast was younger. It wasn't that I thought that the Brewers were miles better than the Cards, but I figured "Why not?" and put the Brewers in third above the Cardinals. The Reds and Pirates were the talent to watch for in the Central. At least I sorta got the last part right. —Russell A. Carleton

2. Aaron Hicks: American League Rookie of the Year
A large portion of my reasoning when predicting Rookies of the Year is about sheer playing time. That’s why I shied away from Jurickson Profar. I thought Aaron Hicks would have a wide-open shot at a full-time starting job with the Twins, and he did; but he had two hits in his first 56 plate appearances. He recovered from the dreadful start, but Hicks still had not scraped the Mendoza Line when he went down with a hamstring strain on June 10. He came back in early July, spent exactly three days with an AVG over .200, and was sent down to Triple-A with a .192 mark on August 1. Hicks still has tools and youth, and there is plenty of life left in his prospect status, but 2013 was, needless to say, not his year. His chance at Rookie of the Year honors squandered, he’ll have to settle for an MVP Award down the road. —Adam Sobsey

3. Oscar Taveras: National League Rookie of the Year
Taveras was the top-ranked National League prospect entering the season, and the second-ranked prospect in the game per Jason ParksTop 101 Prospects list. With his potential for an elite offensive profile (think .320/.400/.525 in his prime), I spent all of 15 seconds tabbing him as the favorite for the 2013 Rookie of the Year Award—even with no particular spot on the major league roster, what’s the likelihood of Matt Holliday and Carlos Beltran staying healthy for an entire season? Taveras would get the call as soon as one of the vets pulled up lame, and the rest would be fodder for the history books.

It’s October now, and looking back at the 2013 season I see Holliday and Beltran each logged over 600 plate appearances, while Taveras did not suit up for St. Louis once. What’s more, even if opportunities had arisen for Taveras to take a spot on the Cardinals 25-man roster, it’s unlikely that he would have been called upon this summer, given his year-long tango with the disabled list (Taveras appeared in only 47 minor league games, piecing together just under 190 plate appearances through five months of scheduled play). This is about as wide a margin as one can miss by when talking ROY predictions. The silver lining? Taveras has his eligibility for next year’s award, and I am a glutton for punishment. Taveras in 2014! —Nick J. Faleris

4. The Padres Will Make the Playoffs
Two regrets here. One was picking the Padres to win a wild card. Two was NOT picking the Padres to win the division, because not only was I wrong, but I wasn't as ballsy as Joe Sheehan's prediction. All I have left is my health.

Somebody once asked me "Why San Diego?" and my only answer was "Because Baltimore." Somebody always surprises you and the Padres, with a good young core and some strong bullpen arms, didn't seem quite ready. At the time, nobody looked like they stood out in the NL West, which was true until the Dodgers finally did. And prior to LA's surge, as June ended, the Friars were just 2 ½ back in the standings. Then they proceeded to lose 10 in a row. At that moment, I tearfully crumpled up my hand-drawn design for a "SAN DIEGO PADRES 2013 WILD CARD CHAMPIONS" designer handbag and threw it into the trash. (It was camouflage.) —Matt Sussman

5. Wade Davis Will Bolster the Royals Rotation
I thought Wade Davis could settle into a no. 4 starter for the Royals behind the strength of a deepened arsenal and tweaked approach. So much for that. Davis saw his strikeout rate increase from his last go-around as a starter, but everything else went the wrong way. Once September rolled around, he was thrown into the bullpen and pitched well. He's got one more guaranteed year on his contract, so the Royals will have to decide whether they're willing to give him another go in the rotation or not in a hurry. —R.J. Anderson

6. The Blue Jays Will Win the American League East
If you told me they would write a book about the Blue Jays’ 2013 season, I wouldn’t have been at all surprised. I did pick them to win the AL East after all. They’d traded for a reigning Cy Young winner in R.A. Dickey and also added Jose Reyes, Mark Buehrle, Josh Johnson, and Melky Cabrera. Plus, a full season of Jose Bautista was going to be a big deal, too. And naturally, the Blue Jays did improve from their 73-89 standing in 2012. They won exactly one more game. The book, written by Shi Davidi of Sportsnet and John Lott of the National Post, is called Great Expectations: The Lost Toronto Blue Jays Season. —Zachary Levine

7. Carlos Gomez's Power Will Diminish From 2012
I make my home in Wisconsin, which means I spend my days working, playing, eating, arguing, and quaffing the occasional local microbrew surrounded by Brewers fans. So you can imagine what was in store for me after this exchange on Ben and Sam’s Effectively Wild podcast last spring:

Ken (while running through a list of players likely to regress in 2013): “I’m absolutely not a believer in Carlos Gomez in center field continuing to show the power that he showed last year that made him a fairly valuable player.”

Ben (attempting to keep incredulity from creeping into his voice): “Why are you so down on Gomez? I think both Sam and I have written a little bit about how he was a more valuable player than he had been before last season, but you are not a believer in that power.”

Ken (after stubbornly refusing to grab the lifesaver he was thrown and taking Gomez to task for his hacktastic approach): “I don’t think all the power is going to disappear; I just don’t think he’s going to hit 18 home runs; I think he’s going to hit 11, 12, 13.”

Wisconsinites are well-known extroverts (really, it’s true), so when Gomez proceeded to launch 12 bombs by the middle of June, I was bound to never hear the end of it. Not only did Gomez continue to swing the lumber all season and finish with 24 home runs, he managed to improve his walk rate from execrable to merely bad, with his continued power and Gold Glove defense in center making him one of the most valuable position players in the National League. Oops.

As a sop to those neighbors who now consider me a perfect reverse barometer, let me make your day with this prediction for 2014: I’m absolutely not a believer in Scooter Gennett’s bat. You’re welcome. —Ken Funck

8. The Red Sox Will Finish in Last Place
The AL East was a wild card entering 2013, and my take was that the division could finish in nearly any order due to the uncertainty entering the season. I picked the Red Sox to finish last in part because of the overall strength of the division, but also because they seemed to have the most questions. Jon Lester, Clay Buchholz, and John Lackey were all coming off of down or injury-marred years, and I wasn’t certain that either Shane Victorino or Mike Napoli would bounce back. Napoli’s injury in particular concerned me. David Ortiz and Dustin Pedroia seemed like a nice start to Boston’s core (and I did think Jacoby Ellsbury would bounce back), but this team didn’t seem to have enough to get out of the basement of a tough division, let alone win the division and get to the World Series. —Mike Gianella

9. Anthony Rizzo and Starlin Castro Will Break Out
In their opening game against the Pirates, the 2013 Cubs trotted out an intriguing lineup. The bottom half of their batting order was populated by low-ceiling journeymen and Welington Castillo, but the top half looked pretty, pretty, pretty, pretty good. Promising talents Starlin Castro and Anthony Rizzo looked poised to break out, and with the help of veterans Alfonso Soriano and David DeJesus, the Cubs’ hitters batting one through four looked to give opposing pitchers some fits.

Six months later, the veterans have been traded, and those young guns look decidedly less intimidating. After a strong half-season of baseball in 2012, Rizzo underwhelmed this year, posting a meager .742 OPS. To be fair, Rizzo did demonstrate a capable glove, and his counting stats were in order, as he hit 23 home runs and drove in 80. But for a player expected to carry his team for years to come, he has quite a bit of work ahead of him.

The real disappointment for these Cubs, though, is Castro. In the previous two seasons, Castro excelled at the plate despite his puny walk rate. This year, Castro's walk rate dropped even further, while his strikeout rate jumped from 14.5 percent in 2012 to 18.3 percent. Put simply, Castro couldn’t make contact, and when he did, he was lucky to find holes. Not surprisingly, his VORP cratered 31 points in the span of a year, turning one of baseball’s brightest players into another case of Cubs-induced misery.

With results like this, combined with the struggles of this year’s White Sox, it was hard to get excited about baseball in Chicago this season (although the Cubs' farm system has grown strong). Let’s go Blackhawks? —Nick Bacarella

10. Jeremy Hellickson Will Continue to Defy Sabermetrics
I took every opportunity to hype Jeremy Hellickson prior to the season, from extolling his avoidance of BUS rides to singing his virtues in the 2013 Starting Pitcher Guide and standing in his corner during the pitcher episodes of the Towers of Power Fantasy Hour. Helix had been a BABIP outlier whose lowish K rate and success with runners on base had garnered attention from the regression police for a couple of years, but I was steadfast in the notion that he would withstand the gravity of regression and maintain his perch as an exception to the generally accepted rules of sabermetrics.

I had long been impressed with his ability to command the baseball both in and out of the strike zone, and I preferred his mechanics from the stretch when compared to the windup, providing some reason to believe in his superior performance with men on base. Specifically, Hellickson had a slow delivery from the windup, but he increased momentum from the stretch while maintaining the same height of leg lift, a strategy that helped to add kinetic energy to the system and extended his stride, giving him a deeper release point when pitching from the stretch. He would occasionally mix in a slide step from the stretch, but he varied the strategy with men on base and more often deferred to a natural leg kick.

The 2013 season was an unmitigated disaster for Hellickson. The regression police celebrated as his BABIP rose above league average (for the first time in his career) and the right-hander was manhandled with runners on base (opposing batters hit .319/.363/.502). Superficial stats indicated that his control had not suffered, as Helix actually posted the lowest walk rate of his career, but the anecdotal evidence told a different story. The pitcher who had excelled at painting the edges of the strike zone and had refused to give in to hitter strengths was regularly catching too much plate with his pitches, resulting in hard-hit baseballs and crooked numbers on the scoreboard.

Such lack of command doomed a player without elite stuff, and most of his problems stemmed from his pitching from the stretch. It turns out that this was no mirage of regression, as Hellickson had blatantly altered his strategy with runners on base, choosing to use a slide step on every pitch out of the stretch position. Combining the slow momentum and the minimal leg lift gave Helix extremely shallow extension at release point, providing hitters with more time to react to his pitches, as both his perceived velocity and depth of movement on his pitches were adversely impacted. My personal distaste for the slide step has been firmly established, and Hellickson represents exhibit A in the case against the inefficient strategy. His pitch command suffered as a direct result of interference of timing that was induced by the slide step, and opposing batters teed off with an extended look at what he had to offer. While I remain intrigued by his upside, Helix will remain in the doghouse until he reverts back to the stretch strategy of the past. —Doug Thorburn

11. Vance Worley Will Fare Well in Minnesota
The Minnesota Twins thought they got themselves a huge bargain in the offseason when they got starting pitcher Vance Worley from the Phillies for outfielder Ben Revere. Worley was making the league minimum salary, but in 2011 and 2012 he combined for 3.1 WARP (4.1 fWAR) and won’t be an outright free agent until 2018.

In spring training, David Laurila conducted an interview with Worley. Worley described how his pitches act, how he tries to get hitters out, and how he developed his repertoire, among other things. A number of the things he said were testable with PITCHf/x and other advanced statistics, so I set about examining his claims. What I found was that the data completely supported everything he said in the interview.

I was so taken aback by this that I wrote about it a couple of days later and made a general pronouncement: “As a Twins fan, I’d be very confident when I hear Worley describe himself and his pitching style. This kind of self-awareness is impressive, and a sign that he may be able to make adjustments as he switches leagues and more fully develops as a pitcher.” Even after some early-season struggles, I doubled down on Worley and suggested his BABIP was artificially high and would cool down.

At the time I wrote the second piece, Worley’s ERA was 6.38. It only got worse after that, with his next five starts producing a grotesque 8.03. When he was mercifully sent down to AAA Rochester, his opponents’ slash line for the year was .381/.421/.577. His WHIP was 1.99. Far from being a fluke of early-season BABIP, Worley was simply no longer effective.

In Laurila’s interview, he mentioned the necessity of deception to get outs with his fringy stuff. Apparently that deception wore off once he got out of Philly. His strikeout rate plummeted from 18.1 percent to 10.7 percent, and his overall whiff/swing declined from 15.4 percent to 11.6 percent—the third lowest among starters this year. Simultaneously, his home run rate doubled.

What’s to blame? Some have suggested his sinker “flattening,” but PITCHf/x doesn’t support that. In fact, his sinker lost less effectiveness than any of this other pitches. His sinker increased 76 points in slugging, but his four-seamer gained 232! An interesting possibility is that given his reliance on called strikes, the poor pitch framing of Minnesota catcher Ryan Doumit robbed him of pitchers’ counts. Unlikely, but interesting.

Whatever the case, Worley made us both look bad this year. —Dan Rozenson

12. Jesus Montero Will Be the Third-Best Fantasy Catcher in the American League
“Jesus Montero will finish as the third-most productive Fantasy catcher in the AL, trailing only Joe Mauer and Mike Napoli,” is a sentence I wrote without irony before the season.

Despite his .260/.298/.386 campaign in 2012, I was willing to bet on Montero’s strong MiLB history and burgeoning power. But, much like the former Yankee prodigy did in 19.1% of his plate appearances, I swung and missed big-time on this prediction. Montero hit just .208/.264/.327 with the lowest ISO of his career in 110 PA, and was demoted to the minors in late May. The Mariners then moved Montero out from behind the plate—a decision that was probably overdue—yet Montero struggled in another 110 PA between rookie ball and Tripe-A. Finally, he became embroiled in the Biogenesis scandal and was suspended for 50 games.

A brief scan of Montero’s Brooks Baseball page tells you all you need to know about Montero now: he can’t hit fastballs, he can’t hit breaking balls and he’s way too aggressive against off-speed pitches.

Perhaps Montero wasn’t the third-best fantasy backstop in the AL, but he did hold that distinction within the Mariners organization. So I was close! —Ben Carsley

13. The Cubs Will Finish Ahead of the Pirates
Twenty-eight games. No matter how you look at it, it's still a huge number. If it were a hitting streak, it would have been the second longest in the majors this season, only one game behind Denard Span's 29-gamer in August and September. If it were a winning streak, it would be the longest in major-league history, breaking the 97-year-old mark set by the New York Giants of 26 games. Instead, 28 games is how far the Chicago Cubs finished behind the Pittsburgh Pirates this season after I picked them to finish ahead of the National League wild fard team in my preseason predictions.

The reasoning for this was two-fold. I thought that the Cubs could get star-level performances out of Anthony Rizzo (wrong) and Starlin Castro (super wrong), while receiving strong contributions from an improved rotation (wrong). On the other hand, I thought the Pirates would finish around .500, but lack the offense needed to contend (wrong) with their likely middle-of-the-road rotation (wrong). I thought Edwin Jackson would turn out to be a great signing and co-rotation anchor for the Cubs (wrong) with the already strong presence of Jeff Samardzija (wrong). This will undoubtedly be the last time I make a prediction that looks this dumb at the end of the season (super wrong). —Bret Sayre

14. A Slew of Predictions Gone Awry
Do I really have to narrow it down to just one? I picked the Angels to win the West, the Blue Jays to win a wild card spot, and the Red Sox to finish fourth in the East. I selected Josh Johnson to finish third in the Cy Young Award voting, Aaron Hicks to win Rookie of the Year—and that's just my American League picks. My most egregious one is clearly Boston, as I felt the Sox were an 84-86-win team. I thought better health and a better atmosphere were worth 17 or so wins, not 28, as they turned out to be. Clubhouse chemistry may be tough to quantify with numbers, but dismissing it as I did in March with Boston is a mistake I won't make this coming March when I'm asked to put in predictions again. I will be asked to do it again, right?

In all seriousness, the Josh Johnson pick is the one I regret making. It was somewhat a byproduct of going to Toronto, which, on paper, was a better situation than the one he came from. Johnson displayed above-average skills in many areas heading into 2013 and I felt the improved situation would help him in the baseball-card categories that voters look at, and that he would be capable of posting numbers along the lines of his 2009-2010 production. Given his history, it is not a complete surprise that he struggled to stay healthy, but it is surprising that he looked as awful as he did on the mound. His season numbers were a product of his complete inability to pitch out of the stretch, as batters pounded him with a .392/.446/.608 slash line with runners on base. He essentially allowed 1980 George Brett production to batters that faced him in those situations. I will go out on a limb and say the the will earn at least one Cy Young vote in whichever league he pitches in 2014. —Jason Collette

15. The Nationals Will be the Best Team in Baseball
The 2012 Nationals won 98 games and outscored their opponents by 137 runs, making it to Game Five of the NLDS with Stephen Strasburg tied behind their back. Over the winter, they raised their payroll and seemed to get even stronger, adding Denard Span, Rafael Soriano, and Dan Haren and losing only Edwin Jackson, Mike Morse, and spare parts from the 2012 squad. Between those moves, the expectation of a full season from a more mature Bryce Harper, and the removal of the reins from Strasburg, and the Nats entered the season looking like baseball's best bet for 100 wins.

Naturally, they won 86 instead, finishing 10 games behind the Braves and four out of the Wild Card despite a strong August and September. Harper got hurt, Danny Espinosa was awful, Adam LaRoche went back to being mediocre (at least I saw that coming), the bench was a black hole, and the pitching staff took a small step back. I expect the Nationals to bounce back in 2014, but you might not want to take that to the bank, considering my track record where Washington is concerned. —Ben Lindbergh

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