Along with the rest of the BP staff, I’ve submitted my pre-season predictions for division standings and end-of-season award winners. I tend to stay in the neighborhood of likely outcomes for these picks, resulting in easy answers such as “Mike Trout for AL MVP” or “Tigers win the AL Central,” but I’m more intrigued by the long-shot stories that emerge once the season starts.
With those surprises in mind, I’m going out on a limb to pick the players whose paths will diverge from expectations in the upcoming season. Since this is Raising Aces, we'll focus on scenarios involving big-league pitchers, starting with more plausible predictions before getting a bit bolder.
David Price will pitch the whole season with the Rays, culminating in another American League Cy Young Award
I picked Price as the runner-up when we ran our staff predictions, and the recent neck injury to Yu Darvish opens the door for Price to break on through to his second award for top AL pitcher. His performance last season after returning from a triceps injury was incredible, as he attained a new level of strike zone command. He dropped a chunk of velocity in 2013, though his average velo of 94.2 mph still ranked among the upper echelon of AL starters, and a return to full health will likely result in an uptick in that department. Combine nastier stuff with his newfound command—assuming the two aren’t mutually exclusive—and you have the recipe for a dominant pitcher who will reward the Rays’ decision not to trade him.
Stephen Strasburg will pitch 200 innings and notch 200 strikeouts for the first time
Strasburg has been on the cusp of the 200-K threshold in consecutive seasons, and I expect him to post a better strikeout rate than last season as the Nats let go of the leash on his workload. Strasburg dealt with a delivery setback in 2013, as his once-solid posture gave way to heavy spine-tilt, but he could ascend to the throne that was once reserved for him if he can correct his mechanics this season. His addition of a slider will only add to opposing hitters’ confusion, though Strasburg could probably crack these thresholds while sticking with the elite three-pitch mix that has defined his career to date.
On the Left: 2010 | On the Right: 2013
Tony Cingrani’s deception won’t last
Cingrani’s 28.6 percent K rate would be unsustainable for nearly any non-reliever, and a simple combination of regression and increased workload would bring his ratios back into balance, but I expect him to tumble further below expectations. Cingrani relies heavily on mechanical deception to get away with his 82 percent usage of a 91-93 mph fastball, benefiting from a delivery that obscures the ball from the batter's view until very late in the motion, but he’ll lose the element of surprise as teams get multiple looks and hitters register the location of his release point, forcing him to readjust.
One Giant Leap for a Man
Matt Moore posts the peripheral stats to support last season's traditional metrics
Many analsts are jumping off of the Moore bandwagon after his consecutive seasons of disappointing pitch command, including an 11.8 percent walk rate in 2013 that made his 3.29 ERA look fluky. His biggest weakness is fastball location, an issue that’s become more glaring as his heater has dropped velocity, but the lefty could be a mechanical tweak away from discovering a more consistent release point.
One can point to Moore’s unconventional setup on the third-base side of the rubber and suggest that he needs to shift his starting location, especially considering his tendency to miss inside to right-handed batters. But due to his closed stride, the technique is necessary to get him lined up with the plate at release point, and the starting position allows him to finish with the drag-foot near the imaginary centerline that runs from rubber to home plate.
I’d recommend that Moore slightly open his starting angle on the rubber, turning his hips a tick toward the right-hand batter's box, and combine that adjusted angle with a slight lateral move toward the center of the rubber. The combined technique would allow him to line up the gears of rotation while minimizing the closed stride-angle, allowing Moore to get square to his target and take a more efficient path to the plate, all while preserving his mechanical signature. This could help him improve both his fastball command and his ability to bury off-speed and breaking stuff directly under the zone instead of continuing to over-rotate those pitches to the glove side.
Nathan Eovaldi ups his strikeout-to-walk ratio by 50 percent
Eovaldi has never cleared a 2.0 K:BB, but I'm betting on his nearing (or possibly clearing) the 3.0 threshold this season. Upping the K rate should be a breeze for the pitcher who threw the hardest average fastball among starters last season, coming in at an even 97.0 mph. The 24-year-old had a modest K rate of 17.3 percent in 2013, a mark that was actually the highest of his career, but his slider is already a potent whiff-inducing machine. Eovaldi's curve has been less effective, and last season he lacked a reliable changeup, but the right-hander worked on el cambio over the winter and plans to unleash his new weapon more often in 2014.
Strikeouts are only half the equation, but Eovaldi also has the mechanical baselines to slash his walk rate; he received a B grade for his delivery in the 2014 Starting Pitcher Guide, with plus marks in three of the six subjects on his mechanics report card. Somewhat shockingly, his highest scores were in the stability department, including 60 balance and 70 posture (his power marks each earned a 55). The only weak link in his chain was a 45 grade for consistency, but his strong foundation and excellent mechanical underpinnings portend significant improvement. The icing on the cake is Eovaldi's ability to alter his arm angle without sacrificing posture, which could add to the confusion for opposing batters this season.
Don't Go Chasing Waterfalls
Brian Wilson's beard will not be feared
Wilson's late-season comeback has fueled optimism that he can form a formidable one-two punch with Kenley Jansen at the end of the Dodger bullpen, but his statistically successful cameo masked some concerning trends. Wilson regained much of his velocity from his pre-surgery days (though he fell short of his peak), but his lack of confidence in his heat was apparent in a nearly 70 percent usage rate of his 88-91 mph cutter. Also damning was Wilson's reluctance to pitch inside to opposing batters who hit from both sides of the plate. Wilson might alter his strategy this season with the injury further behind him, but a disappointing performance awaits if he continues to follow such a predictable pattern.
Alex Wood will spin out of control
After all of the injuries to Braves pitchers this spring, the team will be counting heavily on Wood to eat innings and pitch effectively as he transitions to a full-time role in the starting rotation, and his 0.45 spring ERA with a tidy 16-to-2 K-to-walk ratio has raised hopes that he is up to the task. However, I just can't buy into his chaotic delivery, even after watching Wood nail targets with ease despite a tornado motion that earned him the nickname of “Taz.” A delivery that imbalanced should not be sustainable, and though it’s been fun to watch him defy the laws of biomechanics, my gut instinct is yelling that when he falls, he’ll fall hard.
Breaking Bad is Good
Ian Kennedy has a performance spike in San Diego
This prediction might seem obvious at first glance, given the transition from Chase Field to Petco Park, but there is another element at work. Kennedy has an incredible delivery when he's on, but he periodically loses his timing, and he lacks the stuff to overcome any deficit in his pitch command. IPK will be much closer to his hometown of Long Beach this season, and my prediction is that he will have fewer struggles thanks to his proximity to his old pitching coach, Tom House, who lives about 20 minutes up the freeway from Petco. House's knowledge of what makes Kennedy tick, along with the depth of their mutual rapport, could go a long way toward helping Kennedy rediscover his ideal delivery. Accusations of personal bias aside, I foresee shades ofs’ his 2011 season, with Kennedy forming a formidable duo with Andrew Cashner atop the Padre rotation.
Tyler Skaggs re-emerges to bolster the club that drafted him
I’ve given Skaggs plenty of flak in the past about his delivery, because his motion was once focused on exploiting angles at the expense of mechanical efficiency. In his debut season of 2012, he used a markedly closed stride combined with egregious spine-tilt to find an arm slot that made him look like he was reaching for the rafters in order to deliver the ball. Those manipulations, along with modest momentum, gave him an extremely shallow release point, particularly on the breaking ball, which he had a tendency to release very early in the arm path. It all added up to 20-grade release distance, which made him vulnerable to advanced hitters.
The southpaw made some modest improvements last season, including slight adjustments to his balance and posture that allowed him to up the release-distance grade to a 30 in this year's SP Guide. But the overall score, which was based on his 2013 mechanics, still registered as a D+ for the second straight year. He was traded back to the Angels in the offseason, and his mechanical tweaks this spring have been astonishingly impressive.
The most notable change is the influx of power in Skaggs' delivery, beginning with plus momentum that chases a bold initial move with an impressive burst of speed as he transitions out of maximum leg lift. His torque has also improved dramatically; the hip-whip strategy of 2012 has been replaced by an earlier trigger of hip rotation combined with a stronger delay of trunk rotation, multiplying the degrees of separation that he generates between hips and shoulders. The result: a fastball that averaged 90.2 mph in the show last season has escalated to 93.6 mph this spring.
Skaggs’ torque is aided by his improved momentum thanks to a timing pattern that allows him to line up the gears of rotation, and it should be easier for him to repeat that motion with practice and time. He still has some spine-tilt, but the lean is not nearly as worrisome as it was two years prior. Finally, Skaggs is releasing pitches much later in the rotational sequence, allowing him to achieve a deeper release point and giving batters less of a chance to identify the pitch out of his hand, even on the breaking ball.
There are still improvements to be made, and the small-sample caveats of spring training apply, but Skaggs has transformed himself from a pitcher I feared would never reach ceiling into one who could soon make an impact in the majors. The Angels could certainly use the help, and the development team deserves credit for helping Skaggs regain his mojo. Most of all, Skaggs deserves credit for listening to his coaches and showing both the willingness and the aptitude to make major adjustments. Cases like this exemplify the fact that player evaluation at any point in time is nothing more than a snapshot of the development process.