Let’s go bold with fantasy baseball predictions that are more likely to happen than advertised given my reading of the numbers.
Clayton Kershaw makes 33 starts, which at last year’s rate is about 214 innings — coincidentally enough to tie for the lead in 2017. The composite projection is 184 innings, which is about 28-29 starts. No one is projecting Kershaw for 200 innings. Yet research that Jeff Zimmerman cites posits that Kershaw is not more likely to get hurt than anyone else. The question is whether Kershaw’s back injury from 2016 counts as “chronic.” Well, it hasn’t resurfaced. Last year, he had a back strain, not the herniated disc that sidelined him in 2016. Kershaw could have had surgery for the herniated disc and recovered in an offseason, but he chose not to, so we can assume the issue has resolved with conservative treatment. If that disc is no longer a problem, why completely discount the possibility Kershaw can pitch a full season?
Jed Lowrie hits 20 homers. Last year he hit 49 doubles and 14 homers. His isolated slugging was .171, exactly the MLB average, and at the league average rate of a HR per 27.1 ABs, that’s 21 homers. Yes, that’s twice as good as his prior career rate. But his well-hit rate was .202 — elite (average is .155), according to Inside Edge. And according to Fangraphs, his groundball rate went from 42.5 percent to 29.4 percent, which I believe was the biggest drop in baseball. So Lowrie, 21st last year in flyball rate, is the hit-trajectory poster boy, and yet somehow we always hear about hit trajectory but never hear about Lowrie, who may be the poor man’s Daniel Murphy.
Ryan McMahon is this year’s Cody Bellinger. He’s not as good of a prospect, but gets to hit at Coors. The playing time may be sporadic but MLB.com has McMahon as the starting first baseman with Ian Desmond and Geraldo Parra in a platoon in left (as it should be). Even if McMahon’s a part-timer to start, or heaven forbid in the minors, he will either hit his way into the lineup or Desmond or Parra will hit their way out of it by May 1. Manager Bud Black has never had a primary starter under age 24 in his managerial career and only a handful were even 24; McMahon is 23. McMahon had one bad minor league year but that was the season the Hartford Yard Goats (a real name) played all their games on the road. McMahon, like Bellinger, also runs a little — 11 for 14 in steals last year.
Sean Newcomb is a top-30 starter. Yes, K’s are inflated now. But Newcomb’s 9.7 per nine innings as a rookie is impressive — 10th highest K/9 for a lefty rookie with at least 15 starts in history. Even discounting for ERA, Newcomb’s bat-missing is reasonably historic and no one is making you pay for that fact. Newcomb had 11.2 percent swinging strikes and that’s 34th for pitchers with at least 100 innings, according to Fangraphs. His hard contact rate was ninth best. He needs to cut down his walks from about 5.0 per nine to 3.5. That’s a heavy lift but it’s happened before. He walked five in 15.1 innings this spring — progress.
Zack Cozart hits 30 homers. He’s been a better hitter than people think and especially his power. His isolated slugging has gone from .079 to .202 (just 214 PAs) to .173 (508 PAs) to .251 last year, when he smacked 24 homers in barely over 500 PAs. Last year, his walk rate also doubled to 12.2 percent, resulting in 62 free passes against just 78 K’s. Like Lowrie, Cozart hit fly balls (33rd highest rate in baseball), maximizing his power. Park effects will be negligible as his old digs in Cincy played very similarly to the Angels park for power to left field, where Cozart hits the vast majority of his longballs.
Jose Martinez and Tommy Pham crash back to earth. Martinez had a .766 career OPS in 11 minor league seasons. Pham’s was .759 for 12 minor-league seasons. Cardinal magic dust is very powerful but tends to lose potency in a year — witness Aledmys Diaz. I don’t believe in late-blooming rookies because of facts. Looking at what happened the year after the other best rookie seasons at age 28-plus with at least 300 plate appearances measured by adjusted on-base plus slugging percentage, Martinez (123 last year where league average is exactly 100) projects for an 87 OPS+. And even though he wasn’t a rookie, the same model projects Pham for a 102 OPS+ (144 last year). This in line with their minor league and major league careers (prior to 2017), respectively.
Edubray Ramos (Phillies) and Joe Jimenez (Tigers) are closers by midseason. Ramos throws 57.3 percent sliders, according to Fangraphs. Last year, the only other relievers over 50 percent were Sergio Romo, Andrew Miller, Delin Betances, Pat Neshek, Tyler Lyons and Anthony Swarzak. The slider is such a good pitch that their ERAs ranged from 1.44 to 3.56, with an average of 2.44. Ramos basically did that after the All-Star Break last year (26.2 innings, 2.70 ERA, 37 Ks and six BBs). Current Phillies closer Hector Neris had a FIP last year approaching four. The Tigers have an even shakier closer in Shane Greene, who had just 8.6 percent swinging strikes. Yes, Jimenez was pounded last year (12.32 ERA) but even then he had 11.8 percent swinging strikes. This spring, Jimenez, who was groomed as a closer in the minors, has 15 Ks in nine frames.
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