Wednesday, March 29, 2017

10 Bold Predictions, Blue Jay Style

Look at all that hardware

With the season being less than a week away, now is the perfect time to make bold proclamations that are almost assuredly not going to be correct. With some of these, I will attempt to give some form of (statistical) rhyme or reason with each one. These are typically aimed toward fantasy baseball players, but I'll try to stick to general things that I feel could happen in the coming season. No real order here, just random thoughts heading into the season. I'll try not to be too pessimistic.

1. Marcus Stroman builds on his WBC MVP/Championship and accumulates 5 WAR
Going mostly based on the eye-test, Stro-Show looked great in the WBC. The key to his success is hiding the ball, keeping it down in the zone, and generating a ton of ground balls while inducing whiffs with his nasty slider. He has a ton more swing-and-miss potential with his 6-pitch arsenal, and he can easily take a step forward and strike out more batters this year.

Stroman had a strange 2016. He had an eight-start stretch in June/July of last year that had some, uhh, let's just say established writers, calling for him to get sent to Buffalo, yet still managed to lead the staff in innings and put up a 3 win season. His first half ERA was 5.33 in the first half, and he really wasn't striking anyone out.

Marcus Stroman lost an important development year, at age 24, due to an ACL tear. This led to an up and down age 25 season. Typically when you look for breakout pitchers, you'd like to see some success at the MLB level in the 23-27 age range. Last year his xFIP was almost a full run below his ERA, which leads me to believe with better luck and less inherited runners scoring -the Jesse Chavez effect- he will fully breakout in 2017.

The key to this prediction coming to fruition is increasing the strikeouts. Paul Sporer wrote an in-depth piece for RotoGraphs highlighting why he thinks the strikeout rate could improve. To summarize, in the first half of 2016 his strikeout rate was 16%, in the second half it was 23%. I'd encourage you to read the piece, but essentially he turned to his cutter and slider as his out pitch, and threw less fastballs. Early in counts he throw his fastball higher in the zone, which goes against what you would expect. His cutter was the pitch with the biggest improvement in the second half, but his slider is filthy and generates whiff's at a 16% rate in his career. The chart below illustrates that the cutter resembled the slider in terms of swing and miss percentage in the second half of last year.

Adding the cutter as an out pitch to pair with the slider should lead to an uptick in strikeouts. More strikeouts leads to a lower FIP. A lower FIP means higher WAR. Higher WAR means prediction one just came true, and we are witnessing Marcus Stroman take the next step as a pitcher.

2. Melvin Upton Jr. re-joins the 20/20 club, tops 2 WAR
This feels weird to say as a bold prediction, because he had 20 HR and 20 SB just last year, yet he is the source of a lot of negativity over the off-season and during the Spring. He hasn't topped 2 wins since 2012, so I'm reaching a bit here, but that's why they call them bold predictions.

When I look at the line-up, and the moving parts in the organization, I feel that the best use of our resources is to essentially give Upton every day playing time. Carrera is passable as a fourth outfielder, but there's nothing that indicates he should fill the strong side of a platoon other than traditional lefty/righty way of thinking. Steve Pearce is significantly worse in the outfield than Upton. I feel confident in saying that without even looking into any metrics or watching Pearce play much in the field. I think the time that Pearce will see will be mostly at 1B or DH. I'm clearly in the minority with Pearce, but I view him as a platoon guy and will until he shows that he can stay healthy and surpass 400 at-bats in his career.

Getting back to Upton, the key to this prediction coming true is playing time. He'll strikeout a ton and won't hit for average, but I find it hard to critique a player who can provide power and speed from the bottom of your order at a bargain price. Gibby should get creative with Upton and Pillar in the bottom of the order. With none of the traditional power bats behind them, there is less of a fear of running into outs, so he should be able to give them the green light to run, while playing a little hit-and-run to pressure the defense and create offense.

3. J.A. Happ, he of the infamous twitter account, wins half as many games this year as he did last
Safe to say that not too many people projected J.A. Happ as a 20 game winner going into the season last year. Wins are a weird statistic that looks good on a baseball card, yet generates a ton of eye-rolling in the saber community. They are difficult to project and aren't really an indication of the pitchers true skill level, so I'm not trying to take too much away from Happ here.

10, 5, 11, 11, 20. Those are J.A. Happ's win totals the past five years. One of these things is not like the other. Happ can win 10 games and still provide tremendous value to the Jays rotation as an inning eating 3rd/4th starter type. That's essentially what he signed for on the market, dollar wise, and his excellent return season is already making the deal look like a bargain,

Another way this prediction can come true is injuries, and we should hope this doesn't happen. He's the closest thing we have to a lock for 200 innings, and with the lack of rotation depth past the starting five, we'll need Happ around to provide reliable innings over the year.

4. Sean Reid-Foley makes at least one start for the Blue Jays before the all-star break
Rotation depth, you say? Casey Lawrence, Mat Latos, Mike Bolsinger, Connor Greene, Ryan Borucki. That's who FanGraph's projected to fill innings out past the first five starters. There's not a single one I would want to see for any type of extended period of time.

Admittedly, this prediction is far-fetched. Shapiro and Atkins have expressed their desire to not rush prospects up through the system quickly, especially young pitchers. He doesn't turn 22 until it's time for September call-ups, so the reasonable prediction wouldn't have him up until then. Let's not talk about why he won't get called up, but rather why he would.

Reid-Foley is the Jays #2 ranked prospect landed on Baseball America's 2017 Top 100 list, slotting in at 75th. He's got a plus fastball that sits in the high 90's with a 6'4, 220 frame. He's essentially had double digit K/9 rates all through A ball, though he did run into struggles in Dunedin his first go around in 2015. His walk rates are still a little too high to fully buy into him as an MLB option at this point, and he'll have work on keeping the walks down while keeping the elite strikeout rates up. Doesn't that sound like another former Jays top prospect who moved quickly through the ranks? He has all the tools to develop into a quality MLB starter, and is right up there with Vladdy Jr. amd Lourdes Gurriel Jr. as the Jays most valuable prospect.

It's looking like he will start the season in New Hampshire and look to make the jump through the high minor levels. If he's pitching well and the need for a start is required, they might look to reward him with an early MLB debut.

This feels like a good time to leave a glimpse of what he could bring.

5. Justin Smoak has less than 200 AB's in a Jays uniform, is not on the team in August
This may be more of a 'wishful thinking' type of prediction, but the writing appears to be on the wall for Smoak's time in Toronto. The leash on Smoak's playing time is only getting shorter and shorter with every last flail at sliders in the dirt.

I'm no batted ball profile expert, but I can't seem to find anything externally available that leads to any potential reason for optimism. Heading into his age 30 season, I can't come up with a reason for why he should exceed any of his projections, which aren't projecting him for much. This hinges on Pearce's ability to stay healthy, and what external options become available, but Ross Atkins will recognize at some point that first base is one of the easiest places on the roster to upgrade, and will make a move to do so. Smoak may get into some games as a defensive replacement, which will help lower his at-bat total. I could see him being lifted for a pinch hitter in certain situations.

6. Kendrys Morales sets career highs in HR, RBI, starts over 40 games at 1B, steals 0 bases
One of the off-season moves I've been coming around on more and more as time passes is the signing of Kendrys Morales. While being skeptical at first, after seeing his batted ball profiles and hard hit rates and paired with the park factor upgrade, Morales is in line for a big year so long as he stays healthy and in the line-up.

Morales' career high in HR and RBI both came in 2009 with the Angels, where he accumulated 3.7 WAR and logged over 1200 innings at first (putting up 8 DRS and 5.6 UZR as well). That was a much younger, healthier, and assuredly faster version of the player, but I'm optimistic that he could replicate the numbers, at least offensively. Interestingly enough, 2009 was also the last time Morales stole a base.

The contract could sting a bit in a year or too, but hopefully the bat comes through enough that it won't matter by then. All of his value is tied up in the bat, so let's see him slot into the middle of the order and produce.

7. Kevin Pillar posts a BB% rate over 5%
I love watching Kevin Pillar play center field. His progression from an all bat corner-outfielder destined to be a career quad A guy, to a legitimately valuable defensive wizard that's a top controllable asset is one of the greatest, unexpected transformations I can remember. But this isn't a Smasher post, so let's get to the numbers.

Kevin Pillar hasn't posted a BB% rate over 5 since back in the minors. One thing you can say about him is that he won't be cheated in the box. Only 15 qualified hitters last year posted a BB% rate under 5%, so the fact that this is a bold prediction is ridiculous in itself. But here we are, with Pillar trying to do something he's never done before at the major league level. For fun, take a look at his plate discipline numbers and compare them to Dexter Fowler's. KP's WAR the past two years? 4.3, 3.2. Fowler's? 3.3, 4.7. You can't make this stuff up.

Here's a quote from the Toronto Sun as pitchers and catchers were reporting:

“I’m really looking forward to working on certain things at spring training,” he said. “I think that’s the luxury you’re afforded when your job’s a little more secure, you don’t have to go out there and hit .300-.400 to make a team. I can go out there and really work on what I feel that I need to work on — just going up there and hunt pitches, sit on pitches, narrowing my strike zone and hopefully it’s going to lead to more consistent hard contact and an increased number of walks.” has his Spring slash line at .340/.411/.911, so there appears to be some preliminary results. 

8. Somebody not on the opening day roster makes a significant contribution
This is the most ridiculous, open ended statement on here- but I'm starting to run out of ideas. My thought process behind this leads directly to Dalton Pompey or Lourdes Gurriel Jr. coming up and playing the outfield, which also hinders my previous Melvin Upton 20/20 prediction.

The other way this can come true is via trade, and I think there are two clear areas you could make a major splash: first base and in the bullpen. My dream target for the Jays to acquire is Nate Jones from the White Sox, but it could cost a decent amount in prospect currency. I just read this interesting 2015 Eno Sarris article about the original gamble on signing Nate Jones, and it paid off. He's under team control until 2018 with 3 (!!) option years to bring control to 2021. One more late-inning fireballer would tip the needle to move the group from a middle of the pack bullpen to one that more resembles a serious contender. 

I'm more on board with the internal outfield options than most, but if you wanted to go the acquire-an-outfielder route, you have the roster flexibility to run either a working platoon on one of the corners or moving Joey into the 1B/DH mix. Speaking of Joey.....

9. Jose Bautista's 2017 will be closer to his 2014 season (6.3 WAR) than 2016 (1.4)
This one is actually not very bold, as splitting the difference here would mean that I'm predicting Bautista accumulates 3.8 WAR or above. The only time that hasn't happened in the last four was in 2016, where he had the worst statistical season (by WAR) since he was a member of the Pittsburgh Pirates. Some may say it's the age decline, but I'm not buying it. The eye test is telling me that he's raking early on in Spring and WBC, and my heart is telling me that Bautista is motivated to have a big year. The first homestand I'm attending is in April vs the Orioles and I can't wait for that rivalry to be renewed. Add in Dan Duquette's comments about Jose and Baltimore's own Lunchbox Hero, Mark Trumbo, and I think that's enough motivation Bautista needs to fill the stat sheet with stats, and the left field bleachers with baseballs.

10. Troy Tulowitzki produces more WAR than David Price
Not going very bold here, because so long as Tulowitzki stays healthy he should have a solid year. A solid year from Tulowitzki will be all it takes to make this prediction come true, as it's sounding likely that Price will have to get shut down to start the year. I'm skeptical of any pitchers losing velocity (as he did late in 2016) paired with the amount of innings he's got logged on his arm. For Price's sake, I hope he can get back on the mound soon. For Boston? Fuck Boston.

As for Tulo, the multiple 5 WAR seasons he put up as a Rockie are behind him, but he should settle in nicely as a 3 to 4 win player with a slight uptick on offensive production from last year. He's a treat to watch at short and his competitive drive and leadership can sometimes be understated. I think his impact is huge on Devon Travis' continued development.

I've always been a huge Troy Tulowitzki fan and legitimately thought we were going to win the World Series in 2015 after adding him and David Price. Remember that? That was a fun time in Jays land, and there are definitely reasons to be optimistic in 2017. I wrote an entire bold prediction post without mentioning MVP Josh Donaldson and the reigning AL ERA leader in Aaron Sanchez. There's nothing really to predict that would be bold with those two, other than negative predictions and I was staying clear of those. 

Opening Day is around the corner, and it can't get here soon enough.