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: Jake Arrieta will win the Cy Young Award again.
After a legendary season where he posted a ridiculous 1.77 ERA and an absurd 0.41 ERA in his last 12 regular season starts, the cries of regression were inevitable and understandable. A strand rate of 80 percent combined with a .246 BABIP did give the impression that there is some room for slippage in Arrieta’s overall numbers. No one sensible would dispute this idea. However, the pitcher that you are left with for 2016 is still pretty damn special.
Since the start of the 2014 season, Arrieta has posted a 2.31 DRA. The only pitcher in baseball with a better mark (among ERA qualifiers) is Clayton Kershaw. This isn’t a pitcher who put up fluky numbers over the course of half a season; this is a dude who has been shoving for over 400 innings. His stuff is legit, and his approach pushes him to elite status.
I am all for diving into the numbers, slicing and dicing, and questioning everything when it comes to outlier performances. But Arrieta works off of a hard, nasty breaking ball, maximizes his heater by jumping off of the rubber a little bit earlier than he used to with the Orioles, and throwing that sharp sinker of his in unpredictable counts. Add to this a conditioning program that is one of the best in baseball and you have pitcher who not only is on top of his game but intends to stay there. As early as 2014, I identified Arrieta as a pitcher who potentially had “no hit stuff” every time he walked out to the mound. He still does. Furthermore, if he continues to utilize the changeup that Rian Watt identified as part of his arsenal, Arrieta could be even nastier in 2016.
Is it possible that a bad outing or two pushes Arrieta up to a 2.70 ERA and out of Cy Young contention? Certainly. But outside of Clayton Kershaw, there isn’t a better bet in the National League to put up elite numbers. Yes, I am aware of Noah Syndergaard’s work.
I Firmly Believe: Adonis Garcia will hit.
In NFBC fantasy drafts, Garcia was an afterthought. His average draft ranking of 435 put Garcia outside of the range of active roster selections in 15-team mixed leagues, making him the equivalent of the final pick in the 29th round. The experts in LABR and both Tout Wars mixed leagues agreed, passing on Garcia entirely, even in the six-man reserve rounds. I wasn’t exactly betting the farm on him, but I did put my money where my mouth is in NL Tout Wars, pushing him to seven dollars. Players like Garcia are difficult to predict. PECOTA didn’t know what to make of Garcia’s 2015, pegging him for a .259/.297/.391 line across 458 plate appearances with 11 home runs, five stolen bases and a .254 TAv.
The power that Garcia showed in 2015 hasn’t arrived yet this year, but his overall numbers and swing profile show some encouraging signs that last year was less a small sample size fluke and more the arrival of a capable hitter. Before I go any further, let’s not oversell what Adonis Garcia is in fantasy. He isn’t someone you want in your lineup in a 12-team mixed league, unless you have a weird week where the Braves are facing mostly southpaws. In deeper mixed, Garcia has the potential to hit 15-20 home runs, even though the power thus far hasn’t shown up in the early results (one home run in 48 plate appearances).
The approach is what has impressed me so far. Garcia has seen his walk rate spike to ten percent this season, and he is doing a more adept job of taking what the pitchers are giving him than he has at any point throughout his career. No one expected Garcia to hit home runs at the prodigious pace he did in 2015. The shift from mistake hitter to a more well-rounded bat is evident, and I believe that Garcia’s early gains will carry over throughout the rest of the 2016 campaign.
I Firmly Believe: The Phillies rotation is real, and it’s spectacular.
The Philadelphia Phillies have been the national media’s punching bag for so long that it’s hard to believe that the Fightin’ Phils could possibly do anything right. But while it’s foolhardy to expect the Phillies to have three legitimate aces, there is an excellent chance that Vincent Velasquez, Aaron Nola, and Jerad Eickhoff are going to exceed expectations and be a solid fantasy investment in all but the shallowest formats. Nola is the guy everyone knew about going into the season but somehow underestimated anyway. As a former college product he has polish, but this isn’t just some fungible arm who is going to put up 180 workmanlike innings. He is going to have outings like he did against the Nationals, but as he matures the mistakes will diminish.
Velasquez is the pitcher everyone is getting excited about, and after his signature performance against the Padres it is not difficult to see why. The raw stuff was always there, but with the Astros Velasquez seemed like an unfinished product: an unchiseled piece of granite yet to be cobbled into a masterpiece. The speculation after the Phillies swapped Ken Giles out for Velasquez and multitudes was that in a worst case scenario Double-V could be the elite closer that Giles was in the second half of 2015. The Phillies obviously saw more than this, and worked diligently with Velasquez this spring to improve his off-speed offerings. There were one or two March outings where Velasquez threw an extremely high percentage of curve balls in an effort to refine the pitch. He looked uncomfortable the first time I saw him doing this, then looked more and more at ease as he went along. Velasquez doesn’t need a world class off-speed pitch with that fastball of his; he just needs enough to keep hitters off balance for when he’s ready to pour in the heat. So far, mission accomplished.
The biggest surprise of the trio has been Eickhoff, although if you’re an avid reader of Baseball Prospectus you were hep to Eickhoff as early as 2014, when our own Kate Morrison wrote about Eickhoff’s promise and potential as a starting pitcher. Eickhoff came to Philadelphia in 2015 working primarily off of a slider. He has returned to utilizing a ridiculous curve ball that deserves all of the hyperbolic praise that it gets. Eickhoff’s fastball isn’t a dominant, blow-them-away kind of pitch, but with two off-speed offerings he can throw for quality strikes, it doesn’t need to be.
All three pitchers are going take their lumps, but all three are likely to exceed the expectations that fantasy experts had for them entering 2016. If you are in a mixed league and any of these pitchers is sitting on the wire, it’s worth at least considering each of them as a viable streaming option. —Mike Gianella
I Firmly Believe: This will be the year the Rick Porcello apologists have been waiting for.
After another strong outing last night, the former top prospect, bust, post-hype sleeper, and post-post-hype sleeper has 24 strikeouts in three starts. That’s a good change for him, and the one that matters. After all, Porcello has been very good at preventing free baserunners (5.7 percent career walk rate) and above average at keeping the ball on the ground (51.2 percent career groundball rate).
So what’s the missing piece? It’s not coming down with a sudden and incurable case of Joe Kelly’s great stuff. In fact, Porcello isn’t even missing more bats than he did last year when he had a 20 percent strikeout rate. The answer could lie somewhere between his command and his battery mate. The living Porcello makes (and is making even moreso this year) is on the low and arm-side corner with his sinker—and whether that pitch is a strike or not is the difference between the Porcello that lives on the waiver wire and the one who is an every week starter. Of course, whether it’s of his own doing or the impeccable framing of new catcher Christian Vazquez doesn’t particularly matter, unless Vazquez doesn’t hit enough to play. Though with the amount his defense has been lauded in Boston over the last week, that’s a long ways off at worst.
On the other hand, it hasn’t all been coming up aces for Porcello, who has also given up five homers through three starts. However, despite a tick up last year, there’s little in his profile to suggest that he’s all of a sudden going to start giving up dingers at a rate more than triple his career average. And even if there’s a real tick up, the continued lack of walks, increase in missed bats and improved defense behind him will all work together to keep his ERA from getting too out of hand while his WHIP stays relatively pristine. With 15-17 wins a real possibility given the offense at his back, Porcello should not be unowned in any leagues now, and may have seen the waiver wire for the last time in a while.
I Firmly Believe: Miguel Sano will endure the dreaded sophomore slump.
This honestly doesn’t feel particularly bold, as I talked about this a bit in the off-season, but we can now revisit some of the rationale with some idea of how his playing time is shaking out in Minnesota. Let’s start off by stating the obvious: Miguel Sano is not an outfielder in any sort of natural sense. He’s an outfielder the way that Pierce Brosnan was James Bond; everyone wants it to work, and yet you watch it and you scratch your head that people who are paid good money to make good decisions deemed this a good idea.
In fantasy, Sano playing the outfield is not a direct valuation tie, but it falls into the theme that players can take a defensive transition with them to the plate. And that’s never a good thing. The Twins’ future poster-laden slugger hasn’t gotten off to a great start this year at the plate, hitting .216/.333/.314 in 60 plate appearances. He only has three extra-base hits. It was easy to envision Sano contending for 40 homers this year, and he certainly looks the part of a player who can handle that expectation. Unfortunately for him, he’s being asked to do something that he’s never been asked to do before and that he’s not particularly qualified to do. Sure, the arm is great, but that’s a small piece of what makes an outfielder. The odds of him overcoming his defensive limitations and making contact strides at the plate are lower than many think, and expectations should be tempered. Of course, a Joe Mauer injury or Byung-ho Park demotion might put him right back at DH and more in his comfort zone, so all is certainly not lost. It just might be taking a circuitous route.
I Firmly Believe: Forget the first start, Steven Matz will be a top-20 starter.
The incredible thing about baseball is that there’s always something interesting to be gleaned from watching it. No matter how much you know or think you know about the game, there are always opportunities for learning and enhanced detail. Judging the first start of Matz’s season at face value, it looks truly awful and a sign that a popular step-forward starter heading into the season may not be all he’s cracked up to be. But one bad inning does not a bad draft pick make—and let’s be clear, it was simply one bad inning. Matz did not have his typical control or command, which really was not terribly surprising given that he hadn’t pitched in 10 days, but getting squeezed worsened it. He threw a lot of strikes after two consecutive walks to start the inning, allowed a few ground balls that found holes before returning to the meat of the lineup and a Giancarlo Stanton home run left him headed for the showers. Of course, he’s not the first person to experience that one.
We all know what happened next. He went out and dominated an Indians lineup with the DH, racking up nine strikeouts over seven scoreless. It’s going to take a long time for his ERA to look anything other than dry heave inducing, but this is a place where the clever owner can take advantage. The only issue here is that Matz is very unlikely to have a full workload in 2016; instead it will be similar to Matt Harvey’s from 2015, where he ends up throwing around 175-180 innings given full health. The same Harvey who also finished as the 10th-best starting pitcher in mixed leagues. Even with the reduced inning count, Matz can still strikeout 190-200 batters with an ERA under 3.00 (yes, even including the first start) and a WHIP near 1.10. —Bret Sayre