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February 26, 2014

The Lineup Card

Nine Players We Expect to Improve in 2014

by Baseball Prospectus


1. Phil Hughes
Getting out of the Bronx should be a big help to Hughes, who has the ingredients to be a consistent middle-of-the-rotation starter but has never been able to put it all together. He’s a strike-thrower with a good fastball (when he spots it), has a plus slider he developed out of nowhere in mid-2012, and doesn’t walk many guys. His two main problems are putting guys away when he’s ahead in the count and giving up the long ball.

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
Cain had never posted a below-average ERA+ or allowed more than a home run per nine innings before last season. Those struggles were caused byuncharacteristically poor command that was contained to April. Consider the numbers. From May on Cain started 24 times and posted the following rates: 3.43 ERA, 2.8 K:BB, and 0.84 HR/9. His career rates entering 2013 were 3.27, 2.44, and 0.76. Ignoring the bad part of a player's season won't do, but Cain should be fine going forward because he was fine in 80 percent of his starts last year—even if his overall numbers don't suggest it. —R.J. Anderson

3. Dustin Pedroia
On the face of it, picking Dustin Pedroia for a list of players we think will improve this coming season is probably dumb. And maybe it is. Last season Pedroia was a four-win player by WARP, tied for the third-best season of his seven-year career. What’s more he’ll be 30 this season, traditionally not the time when a player gets better year-to-year. In fact, by the aging curves for defense and fielding, Pedroia is already past his peak. Yet, I think Pedroia will get better.

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
Some may call it cheating, but I call it seeing a man who went 0-for-10 with three strikeouts and a GIDP and saying, you know what, he's not that bad. He projects much better than that. At LEAST 2-for-10. Or if he starts 0-for-9, the Rays release him, Betemit reconsiders his baseball career, and he opens up a frozen yogurt shop. Everybody loves frozen yogurt. How's that for an improvement? A life improvement. —Matt Sussman

5. CC Sabathia
After singlehandedly railroading my fantasy team last year, CC Sabathia will soon become the first starting pitcher in history to post a sub-1.00 ERA in 40 starts while also striking out 500 batters. I’ve done the math, consulted various yogis (including Yogi himself), and, if anything, these are conservative estimates.

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
Heyward missed 49 games last season due to appendicitis and a broken jaw suffered from a HBP. For this, he's received the label of "injury prone" by many, despite missing only 60 games total between 2010 and 2012. Heyward's limited playing time contributed to a disappointing overall campaign in which he hit just .254/.349/.427 with 14 homers and two steals, but there's little reason to think he's regressed as severely as those numbers would indicate. Heyward owns a career BABIP of .303 and a career ISO of .184, yet registered marks of .281 and .173, respectively, in those categories last season. He fell from going 21-for-29 to 2-for-6 in stolen-base attempts last season as part of what seemed to be a team-wide base running malaise. And his walk rate fell nearly five whole points to 10.9, which is low both for his MLB and minor-league careers. In short, Heyward is a prime candidate for a major rebound in 2014 in what will only be his age-24 season. He's the same player who posted 6.7 WARP in 2012, and if he finishes in the top 10 for NL MVP voting in 2014, I won't be surprised. —Ben Carsley

7. Brett Lawrie
Last year was in some ways a lost season for Lawrie—an injury-riddled disappointment on the heels of a 3.8 WARP showing in his first full big-league campaign. Lawrie missed the first 13 games of the season with a strained ribcage muscle, then spent 41 more on the disabled list with a sprained ankle. He was healthy for most of the second half, but struggled to settle into a groove and sustain it, batting .346/.397/.495 in August, then just .243/.304/.311 in September.

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
I’m not going to spoil it for you, since getting to the Ryan Howard player comment was my favorite part so far in my reading of the 2014 BP Annual. But let’s just say, the company line is pretty anti-the 34-year-old platoon DH in the wrong league. Yet I will support Howard for this category for two reasons, none of which is allowed to be the reverse Plexiglas principle because it was last offseason that he was coming back from something so atrocious that he could only go up.

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.

Year

PA

PA vs. LHP

% vs. LHP

2005

348

63

18.1

2006

704

225

32.0

2007

648

246

38.0

2008

700

265

37.9

2009

703

252

35.8

2010

620

216

34.8

2011

644

185

28.7

2012

292

106

36.3

2013

317

87

27.4

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
Playing out of position and amidst concerns regarding his injury status, Anthony Rendon's 2013 was nonetheless one that established his value as a hitter with a good approach and a mature understanding of the strike zone to go with great plate coverage and bat speed. With his tumultuous rookie season under his belt and with a better defined defensive role coming into spring training, look for Rendon to take off in 2014 and continue to make hard contact all while playing a more assured second base defensively. While his power may not appear in 2014, Rendon will continue to make lots of contact in and out of the strikezone and continuing his development as a formidable bottom half of the lineup bat for the Nationals. —Stuart Wallace

18 comments have been left for this article.

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