As the countdown to Opening Day trickles ever-so-close to the holiday to top all holidays, the Baseballholic in me is compelled to predict what will happen in the 2016 baseball season. Most of the predictions will turn out to be wrong, which is a tribute to the volatility inherent in a sport that we spend way too much time trying to predict (not that it will stop me from trying). We release our BP staff predictions for the season on Monday, and those who want a sneak peak can tune into the latest Baseballholics podcast to see who I have tabbed for this year's awards and division winners.
The prognostication doesn't end there. In a reprise of an article that I wrote in the preseason of 2014, here are some bold (and not-so-bold) predictions for the 2016 season that are specific to the men who call the pitching mound their home.
Low Hanging Fruit
King Felix will be back to his usual self in 2016, will finish top 5 in CY for fifth time in his career
This prediction might be obvious to anyone that read my Two Trains article that featured Hernandez and Dallas Keuchel, but I think that Felix will be just fine this season. Statistically, he has been off-kilter a touch before, and his stats from '15 look almost identical to his numbers from 2011. Back in '11, he was coming off back-to-back seasons of top-two finishes for the AL CY, but he missed the vote completely that year, only to vault back into the top four the next season. There's no doubting that his stats were down last season, with a K rate that fell yet a walk rate that rose, in addition to the highest rate of home runs in his career. But the home run explosion was essentially confined to a handful of disaster starts which conspired to destroy what had been a very strong '15 season. Even with the statistical struggles, King Felix finished eighth last season in the voting for AL Cy. His much-rumored velocity loss is a mirage; his average fastball (weighted average of sink and four-seam from Brooks Baseball) over the past four seasons has been:
2012: 92.6 mph
2013: 92.5 mph
2014: 93.2 mph
2015: 92.4 mph
His stuff is fine, his mechanics are still solid, and we have seen this before only for Felix to bounce back and be one of the top pitchers in the league. So I expect more of the same in 2016, culminating in a top-5 finish for the AL Cy that would be the fifth of his career.
Comparing relievers to starters in total strikeouts is typically a laugh-worthy exercise due to the difference in expected innings, and that issue would only seem to be more glaring when considering that the reliever in question – Aroldis Chapman – will miss the Yankees first 30 games this season as he serves a suspension. That said, Chapman has struck out triple-digit batters for four consecutive seasons despite never having pitched more than 72 frames in any single campaign, and that includes his 106 K's in 54.0 innings from 2014, a season in which Chapman missed the first six weeks as he healed from a broken face. He has struck out more than 16 batters per nine innings over the past four years combined, never sitting lower than 15.7 K/9 in an individual season. Despite the abbreviated workload, I expect Chapman to break 100 strikeouts for the fifth season in a row.
Weaver, on the other hand, is at a career crossroads. His fastball had already fallen into dangerous territory, fueling Jamie Moyer jokes and leading to Weaver's worst season as a professional, one that included just 90 strikeouts in 159.0 innings pitched. Weaver has struggled to crack even 80 mph on the radar gun this spring and his career might be in jeopardy; even if he gets another 175 frames, there's no guarantee that he'll be able to crack 100 strikeouts. Throw in the possibility that his innings are cut short, and I think that Chapman could top the K count despite pitching less than half as many innings.
One Giant Leap for a Man
Stephen Strasburg will lead the NL in strikeouts
The easy money would be to bank on Clayton Kershaw or Max Scherzer to clear the most strikeouts in the league, but I'm going to go out on a limb and say that 2016 belongs to Stephen Strasburg. He's in the last year of his contract with the Nats, and though agent Scott Boras is infamous in going to the mat to protect his pitcher clients, including having a hand in the 2012 benching to limit his innings, both sides will have incentive for Strasburg to have his most productive season yet. The Nats will take off any reigns with Strasburg to get the most possible value out of their investment, and the Strasburg/Boras camp will want to show prospective buyers that he can handle a major workload (as he did in 2014). Strasburg has battled his delivery at times, but he has struck out double-digit batters per nine innings in three of the last four seasons. This is the year that he logs 230 innings, strikes out 275 batters and looks to cash in big via free agency.
Don't Go Chasing Waterfalls
This might seem like an odd prediction given that Greinke is fresh off the lowest ERA in decades, with a 1.66 mark for the 2015 season that never rose above 2.00 at any point during the campaign, and that he hasn't allowed more than a hit per inning since 2005 (though he did come very close, just missing a hit-per-frame in 2007, '08 and '10). If his ERA does rise above 3.00, it would be the first time that has happened to Greinke since 2012, so that 's not exactly a gimme, either. There are a couple of warning flags here, however, and there's a non-zero chance that Greinke craters in the first year of his lucrative new contract with the Diamondbacks. Expected regression aside, Greinke is moving into one of the league's friendliest venues for run-scoring, as the Arizona ballpark finished sixth in the majors for run-scoring among right-handed batters, and it ranked sixth for lefties. Arizona is friendly to runs in general, but not via the home run, and in fact it was the fourth-toughest place for right-handed bats to go yard last season (it was neutral for lefties). Throw in the loss of fly-catcher Ender Inciarte, and the Diamondbacks defense is expected to be a shade worse this season, forming another brick in the wall of Greinke's downfall in 2016.
Breaking Bad is Good
Carlos Rodon will shave at least full BB/9 off of his walk rate
Rodon walked too many batters in 2015, there's no debating that. He gave away 71 free passes in 139.3 frames, or 4.6 BB/9, and his affinity for walks led to a 1.443 WHIP. Things is, Rodon has every excuse imaginable for that high walk rate. Young players often post alarmingly-high walk rates, due to the combination of ramping up the delivery (and thus losing timing) on the biggest stage as well as trying to stay away from the most potent bats on the planet. In this sense, a young player who is getting his first taste of the show is expected to have a few more walks than normal, and the issue is magnified when the hurler comes with Rodon's pedigree (chosen fourth overall in the 2014 draft) and complete lack of minor-league experience (just 34.3 innings in the minors before being thrown into the fire). So in a vacuum, I would expect Rodon's walk rate to plunge from the astronomical heights of last season to something closer to the league average, but in this case we're dealing with a pitcher who also has a very stable delivery, with excellent balance and solid posture which act to pave the way for an easier development path in terms of repeating his release point. Swirl together the worn-off novelty, the solid mechanics and the stuff to intimidate, and I think that Rodon has the potential to zoom right past the league average in walks while still striking out a batter per inning.
Jordan Zimmermann will lop a half-run off his ERA
On the surface, this wouldn't seem like such an outlandish prediction, given that Zimm allowed a composite ERA of 3.00 (on the nose) in 770 innings from 2011-2014, which would make good on the projection following a season in which he posted a 3.66 ERA in his last season for the Nationals. However, PECOTA sees Zimmermann's performance going in the other direction, projecting him for a 3.90 ERA in 2016 while he plays his first season in the tougher league. Furthermore, PECOTA sees home runs as continuing to be a major problem for Zimm; after a 2015 season in which he allowed more than 0.8 HR/9 for the first full season of his career, the PECOTA projection is for more than a home run per nine in each of the next two seasons, fueling the higher ERA. This is where I disagree with the projection, as Zimmermann is moving from a relatively neutral ballpark to one that was one of the toughest places to hit a home run last season, as Detroit had the fourth-lowest park factor for home runs by left-handed batters and the sixth-lowest for right-handed hitters. My guess is that the ballpark will help to mask some of the league-specific increases that are likely to hit his ratios, and when all is said and done that his numbers adhere more closely to his career numbers than last season's aberration.