keyboard_arrow_uptop

Forecasting the future is notoriously difficult. Just ask PECOTA. One of the most compelling reasons we watch baseball is that it serves as a daily reminder that reality is infinitely complex and nothing is ever certain. Mike Trout’s greatness is the lone constant in the baseball universe. This week at Baseball Prospectus, we're giving a new look and feel to the bold predictions pieces that generally are written in the second half of March. Yes, those are written to help you with drafts, but those drafts are ancient history at this point. What we're aiming at here is what we still believe to be true after two weeks of games are in the books. So, call them bold predictions if you will, but these are some things that we believe.

I Firmly Believe: Stephen Strasburg and Noah Syndergaard’s sliders are the most significant PITCHf/x developments of the 2016 season…

I love PITCHf/x more than Brick Tamland loves lamp. If you spend a significant amount of time gazing at BP’s PITCHf/x leaderboards or peruse the player pages at Brooks Baseball, you’ll come across some interesting observations of your own. It’s a pair of intriguing developments, belonging to a burgeoning superstar, Noah Syndergaard, as well as the right-hander we all assumed would hold the title of “best pitcher in the game” by now, Stephen Strasburg, that I can’t get out of my head. Let’s start with Strasburg.

Lost in the wake of the Cy Young race between Clayton Kershaw, Zack Greinke and eventual winner Jake Arrieta, was Strasburg’s unbelievable performance once he overcame neck and oblique issues that plagued him for the better part of three months to begin last season. The numbers once he got healthy are staggering.

Year

GS

IP

ERA

K

BB

Post 6/23/15

13

82.0

1.76

110

12

2016

2

13.2

1.98

11

5

Here’s where it gets even scarier. The 27-year-old is now throwing a slider.

Even if he says he isn’t throwing one, he clearly is. The 89.34 mph terror has not only emerged out of nowhere, but the last thing opposing hitters want to worry about is yet another weapon in Strasburg’s arsenal going forward.

Now, let’s talk about Thor. If you haven’t seen it by now, here is the chart every major-league hitting coach has taped to the clubhouse door and labeled “public enemy number one” over the past two weeks.

At 92.50 mph, the 2016 incarnation of Thor’s slider is the fastest average velocity recorded in the PITCHf/x era, by nearly two full miles-per-hour. Over the past two seasons, his slider has recorded an obscene 58.82 percent whiffs-per-swing rate, another PITCHf/x record. It’s no surprise that Syndergaard has looked un-hittable in his first two starts to begin the season.

Year

GS

IP

ERA

K

BB

2015

24

150.0

3.24

166

31

2016

2

13.0

0.69

21

2

I won’t go so far as to proclaim that both right-handers will finish the year as top-five fantasy starters, but it’s clear that both of their arsenals are evolving, which is frightening news for opposing batters. At some point, Kershaw will abdicate his throne. It’s going to happen eventually. If you’re looking for the pitchers primed to ascend to those lofty heights in the future, I’m not sure how Strasburg and Syndergaard aren’t at the forefront of that conversation by the end of 2016.

I Firmly Believe: Nomar Mazara is a four-category fantasy superstar…

It’s far too simplistic to highlight a singular plate appearance over the course of a 162-game season as the definitive illustration of a hitter. However, in this case, this at-bat is designed to drive home the broader point that Mazara controls the strike zone like a seasoned veteran, even in two-strike counts. He carries himself with a calm, cool, and collected confidence well beyond his years.

Let’s set the scene. The count stood at two-and-two. The tying runs were in scoring position and there was nobody out. “The Big Chill” stared out at Orioles southpaw T.J. McFarland, who had limited left-handed batters to just a .263/.308/.376 slash line over the past four seasons, on Saturday night. Instead of being overwhelmed by the moment, he simply reached out and pulled a 79 mph slider, diving low and away (a perfect two-strike offering), to the right side. He then had the presence of mind to hustle out of the box to beat McFarland (who didn’t react immediately) to first base for a two-run infield single.

This wasn’t an isolated incident either. In his first seven games, the 20-year-old rookie has faced 15 two-strike counts and has twice as many hits (six) as strikeouts (three). Only 16 hitters have more hits in two-strike counts this season. Ironically it’s a veteran twice his age, David Ortiz, who leads the majors with nine. What really stands out about that cluster of 16 hitters is that Danny Valencia is the only one besides Mazara to accomplish the feat in fewer than 20 plate appearances. The only other rookie on that list is Tyler White. There’s a reason why the BP prospect team ranked Mazara as a top-five prospect coming into the year and I chose him as my AL Rookie of the Year winner in the BP staff picks earlier this month, the kid can just flat-out hit.

Granted Mazara hasn’t burst onto the scene with a flurry of home runs, like the opening chapter in the career of a certain Colorado shortstop, rather he’s displayed a skill set that is exponentially more sustainable and will ensure that he is an impact fantasy contributor the remainder of the year. Even when Shin-Soo Choo returns from the disabled list in a month, the Rangers will undoubtedly find a way to keep his bat in the lineup. He’s not going back down.

I Firmly Believe: It’s way too early to consider giving up on Rich Hill

He’s an outlier. An albatross. Call the 36-year-old southpaw whatever you want, but there’s no reason to give up on him after a pair of ugly outings (with a gem sandwiched in between) to open up the 2016 season. Despite relocating to one of the premier pitchers’ parks in the game during the offseason, Hill is getting labeled as a fluke by some fantasy owners and being discarded him to the waiver wire already. I’m not prepared to do that. Let’s take a step back and look strictly at the numbers.

Hill has racked up at least 10 strikeouts in four of his seven starts. Dating back to the start of the 2015 campaign, only 13 starters have recorded more 10-strikeout starts. Of that bakers dozen, Stephen Strasburg (25) and Noah Syndergaard (26) are the only ones to accomplish the feat in fewer than 30 starts. Once again, it bears repeating that Hill joined that elite company in just seven starts.

He’s managed to put up those eye-popping numbers because of the emergence of an elite fastball and curveball combination. They’re both still generating just as many swings and misses as a year ago, but the problem is that Hill has struggled with his command (3.5 BB/9) and he’s thrown a first pitch strike to only half of the 62 percent of the batters he’s faced this season, down from 61 percent last year. The command issues have led to more hitters sitting on his curveball when he needs to throw a strike. The Royals did exactly that in his last start. According to San Francisco Chronicle A’s beat writer Susan Slusser, six of Kansas City’s nine hits off Hill on Friday came on the curveball.

It’s going to come down to how Hill adjusts to how opposing hitters are approaching him and if his command improves. A slight improvement in command is all it will take for him to return to form. —George Bissell

I Firmly Believe: Eugenio Suarez is real and he’s spectacular

In our fantasy staff’s “bold predictions” piece from a few weeks ago, my love shown for Eugenio Suarez was unceremoniously upstaged by Dan Strafford’s endearment, as he picked Suarez to finish as a top-five shortstop. My line of thinking in pegging Suarez to outperform Seager was both a hedge against Seager stepping into the majors and performing as a top-five shortstop immediately (he was being taken 58th overall, fourth among SS) and (even more so) a strong belief in Suarez to outperform PECOTA’s projection of a .249/.311/.403 line in 558 plate appearances with 16 home runs and seven steals (.253 TAv) once it became crystal clear that he would indeed be the starting third baseman for the Reds this season, something I was unsure of when I wrote a player profile on Suarez in mid-February.

All Suarez has done to begin the season is hit for a robust .319/.373/.596 line in his first 51 plate appearances of the year, while primarily hitting second in the Reds order, ahead of Joey Votto. The 24-year-old clubbed four home runs (all coming at home) in his first six games, and has added two stolen bases in the team’s first 12 games, which surprisingly is one more than teammate Billy Hamilton has at this point. I’m further encouraged by Suarez cutting down on his strikeouts at the start of the year (23.6 percent in 2015 vs. 14.9 percent in 2016), as well as nearly doubling his walk rate (4.3 percent in 2015 to 8.5 percent in 2016) from his first season as a Red, and his .313 BABIP this season is 28 points lower than his mark from 2015.

With Suarez’s placement in the Cincinnati lineup, his ability to hit for both power and average, and his likelihood to add 8-10 steals with his legs, I believe in his ability to finish as a top-10 option as either a shortstop or a third baseman this season and view him as a dynamite trade target in dynasty leagues, as I think he is a strong candidate to find himself in the grouping just behind the elite (Machado, Bryant, Arenado, Donaldson, Kyle Seager) at third base by the end of the season.

I Firmly Believe: Mallex Smith will steal 50 or more bases this season, while hitting for a higher average and finishing with a higher OBP than Billy Hamilton

Ender Inciarte’s hamstring injury paved the way for Mallex Smith to crack the Braves lineup last week, and I don’t see him leaving it any time soon, even when Inciarte returns from injury. The results haven’t been pretty in Smith’s first seven major-league games, as he’s hit for a .130 AVG with a .231 OBP, but the important thing is that he’s started six of the team’s seven games (appearing as a pinch-runner while stealing a base in the game that he didn’t start) and he’s been running. Smith has attempted four steals in seven games, successfully swiping two bases, which leaves him just four off of Jose Altuve’s major-league-leading total of six to begin the year, despite having the fourth lowest on-base percentage among base stealers with more than one steal.

Smith may not be quite as fast as Billy Hamilton, but it’s pretty close, and there isn’t much doubt for me who is the (much) better hitter of the two. With both reaching the majors on what is likely a full-time basis in their age-23 seasons, Smith hit for a higher average (.295 to Hamilton’s .280 total) and reached base at a much higher clip (.380 to Hamilton’s .351 mark) than the Reds speedster did prior to reaching the majors. Smith pilfered bases at a 79 percent success rate compared to Hamilton’s 83 percent rate in the minors. Hamilton went on to finish 34th overall among hitters on ESPN’s Player Rater after his 2014 rookie campaign in which he hit for a .250 AVG (with a .292 OBP) and swiped 56 bases (in 79 attempts), while accruing 611 plate appearances. I like Smith to meet or exceed all of Hamilton’s rookie numbers in 2016—even if he doesn’t quite come to the plate as often as Hamilton did in 2014.

When Inciarte returns, I can’t see the Braves moving Smith exclusively to a fourth/fifth outfielder role—not with the other options in the outfield primarily being Drew Stubbs, Jeff Francoeur, and Kelly Johnson, and particularly not when the club views Smith as a top-of-the-order option when it opens its shiny-new ballpark in 2017. This is a team that gave Jace Peterson (and his lifetime .310 slugging percentage) multiple starts at a corner outfield spot over the weekend and doesn’t have any outfield hitting prospects of note at Triple-A Gwinnett. There will almost assuredly be plenty of playing time over the rest of the season for Smith. Outside of falling completely flat on his face with the bat over the next couple of months, the only other scenario that would likely keep Smith from attaining regular playing time would be a return to the lineup for Hector Olivera, a scenario I find highly unlikely. J.J. Jansons