February 26, 2014
The Lineup Card
Nine Players We Expect to Improve in 2014
1. Phil Hughes
The first problem is something Hughes has been struggling with for a while. In 2013, Hughes finished near the bottom among starters in “put-away percentage,” which is the PITCHf/x leaderboard term for whiff rate with two strikes. The looping knuckle curveball he has had since high school never became a weapon, so Hughes has leaned on, at various times, a cutter, a changeup, and now his slider. He even experimented with a splitter late last year. I imagine we’ll see continued mixing and matching in two-strike counts as he searches for whiffs.
The latter problem was especially acute because his home park has a tiny right field, and it should get better in 2014. To quote from this year’s BP annual, “On the road, Hughes was an above-average starter; at home, he gave up two homers per nine innings and posted a 6.32 ERA.” Not only will Hughes benefit from the deeper fences in Minnesota this year, he will also be lucky to face a division where the other four teams hit 130 fewer home runs than his AL East opponents did last year.
What Hughes really needs to do is find mechanical consistency to reach his potential. Still, Minnesota will give him a better environment to work out the kinks than the New York spotlight/bandbox did. —Dan Rozenson
2. Matt Cain
3. Dustin Pedroia
The reason is improved health that should lead to improved power. Last season Pedroia played the entire season minus a few plate appearances with a broken tendon in his finger that he sustained on opening day. This made gripping a bat more difficult and hurt his ability to pull the ball with power. He slugged .415, 40 points off his career slugging percentage. His isolated power was at its lowest point since his rookie season of 2006. He had surgery on the tendon and is back to good health. Baring another unfortunate dive or perhaps getting run over by a parade of clowns, his slugging percentage should improve.
Over his career, his on-base ability has remained relatively constant. Outside of 2012, most seasons he has finished in the .370 range. It would be reasonable to expect something similar next season, but PECOTA projects an on-base of .359. That would be the second lowest of his career in any full season. I’ll take the over on that as well.
As for fielding, who knows what the fielding stats will say. FRAA has Pedroia all over the board (the last four seasons have been -7.2, 1.9, -10.5, and 4.4). Defensive Runs Saved and Total Zone (both at Baseball Reference) have Pedroia as an above-average second baseman throughout his career and that better meets the eye test for me. As to whether Pedroia will be a plus-10 or a plus-two or whatever, I don’t know, but if you take him to be an above-average defensive second baseman, then his defense isn’t likely to greatly regress next season.
The end result is an improved slugging percentage, and about the same level of fielding and on-base ability that we’ve seen from Pedroia over the years. Sure, he could get hurt again, he could take steps back in unexpected places (and that’s likely what PECOTA is hedging against), sure he could get run over by a parade of clowns, but to me at least, none of those things are likely. Dustin Pedroia will be better next season. Clown permitting. —Matthew Kory
4. Wilson Betemit
5. CC Sabathia
My clairvoyance notwithstanding, Sabathia actually does seem a good bet to improve: PECOTA projects him to be a 2.9-win player this year, a full 2.1 wins better than he was a year ago. Still not great for a guy in line to make $23 million, but in a division race that figures to be a dogfight from Opening Day, the Yankees will take any boost they can get.
Of course, there are the very genuine concerns about Sabathia’s durability, considering the sustained drops in fastball velocity he’s suffered the last two seasons. His spiking walk rates aren’t very comforting, either. In fact, a number of Sabathia’s peripherals last year hit career worsts, resulting in his unsightly 4.78 ERA. For a pitcher who will turn 34 midseason, none of these signs are very encouraging, to say the least.
So why am I picking Sabathia to rebound this season? Well, for starters, some of these trends have cropped up at other times in his career, too. Per PITCHf/x Pitch Values, Sabathia’s fastball has been sub-par for both of the past two seasons, but that didn’t stop him from posting a 4-win season in 2012. And in 2010, Sabathia’s walk rate was even higher than it was last year, which suggests that an inexorable rise into Edinson Volquez territory is no guarantee. It’s also worth noting that his K/9 rate was exactly the same in 2010 as it was in 2013. Sabathia has dealt with these difficulties before—albeit not all in the same season—and has still found ways to make his innings useful.
Power pitchers rarely see a sudden resurgence of their, well, “powers” in their mid-thirties, and I seriously doubt Sabathia will be the magic exception. If he can adapt to his diminishing abilities, though—and benefit from better fortune on batted balls—then another season of 200-plus solidly effective innings is in the cards. The baseball media may be ready to hand the reigns of ace-hood to Masahiro Tanaka, but I’m not convinced ol’ man CC has given them up just yet. —Nick Bacarella
6. Jason Heyward
7. Brett Lawrie
What makes me optimistic here is that Lawrie has flashed top-shelf production before. His reckless approach to the game has impeded his progress, but Lawrie only turned 24 in January. He still has plenty of time to mature, both in the batter's box and in general, and to learn to make the most of his baseball skills. Hitting the ball in the air more often, for example, could enable Lawrie to take advantage of his raw power—a skill that Robinson Cano needed roughly as many big-league plate appearances to acquire as Lawrie has had to date.
Lawrie is an excellent defensive third baseman and a talented pure hitter, for whom a little more maturity and discipline could go a long way. PECOTA projects a return to 3.8-win production in 509 trips to the box. I'll go a step further: A healthy season with a power surge to 18-20 homers results in Lawrie's first foray into 5.0-6.0 WARP production. —Daniel Rathman
8. Ryan Howard
First, he’s healthy. Even last year during the first half when he was nominally healthy, all the way back from the crippling injury on the last out of the 2011 playoffs, he wasn’t exactly healthy. His injury report at BP lists four instances of knee soreness in his two healthy months. Knees don’t tend to get better, but the Phillies hope that by shutting him down and repairing the meniscus, it’s a healthier Howard.
Also, there would be artificial improvement. You can hear a much better discussion on the Phillies season preview episode of Effectively Wild with Bill Baer and Matt Gelb, but one must hope that Ryne Sandberg, who never overlapped with an active Howard last year, is more willing to platoon him than Charlie Manuel was. It sort of began last year with Howard’s percentage of plate appearances against left-handed pitching reaching its lowest level since his Rookie of the Year season, when he was spared some lefties in favor of the less than RoY-caliber Tomas Perez and Ramon Martinez.
Now it’s a matter of whether Sandberg will replace him with right-handed hitters John Mayberry Jr. and/or Darin Ruf. PECOTA projects an improvement from 0.7 WARP to 1.2 WARP, and most of that is just playing time. If healthy and if used properly, he can still do more. —Zachary Levine
9. Anthony Rendon