2018 Season Preview Part 1: Bold Predictions

by Matthew de Marte – March 24th, 2018

As promised, I have compiled a list of bold predictions for the 2018 season! As someone who places a ton of faith in numbers and generally stays away from emotional hot takes and predictions, I tried to have numerical backings for all of my predictions. Baseball has proven year after year to be extremely difficult to predict, and while overall we can make fairly reasonable assumptions, trends like increased K%, average fastball velocity, and HR% will continue to trend upward. It is extremely difficult to make accurate predictions for individual players, especially when predicting seasons that are vast improvements or regressions from their career norms. Nevertheless, I took a shot at making some predictions for the 2018 season. Some of these predictions I truly believe will happen, and others are a little bolder. Enjoy!

  1. Ronald Acuña is a Better Hitter than 2017 Cody Bellinger

With the way Rookies have performed in recent years, some of you may not think this is something the Braves phenom will have trouble doing. Bellinger had a whopping .933 OPS, 138 wRC+ and an NL rookie record of 39 home runs. Acuña will play the 2018 season as a 20-year-old. There are only three 20-year-old rookies in baseball history to top the OPS Bellinger put up: Ted Williams, Mike Trout, and Frank Robinson. So, Acuña would be in good company if he’s able to perform the way he’s capable. It will take an incredibly dominant campaign by Acuña to accomplish this feat, and with the trend of rookies coming up the past few years and becoming instant stars, I would not be surprised if the Braves’ outfielder is the newest sensation to take the game by storm. After an incredibly dominant spring, Acuña will be the latest Rookie phenom to take Major League Baseball by storm.

2. Shohei Ohtani Finishes in the Top 5 of American League Cy Young Voting

The expectations for Ohtani are sky high coming into the 2018 season. In my opinion, the 23-year-old two-way star is the most anticipated international signing ever. Although there is concern over his elbow, most pitchers with his velocity would have something funky come up in an MRI. Throwing as hard as he does simply is not a natural movement, so the Japanese sensation has some injury risk. The Angels plan to use a six-man rotation to protect Ohtani and ease his transition over from Japan where he started once a week. Therefore, this prediction is even bolder since Ohtani will not see nearly as many innings as he would in a regular rotation. The steamer currently projects Ohtani to be worth 3.0 WAR over 148.0 innings, but I feel strongly that he will best these numbers. While he may not throw enough innings to win the Cy Young, if he can throw 170+ innings with an uppers 90’s fastball and an array of nasty off-speed pitches, I see no reason why he can not outperform these projections by the decent amount. Although Ohtani has struggled mightily this spring, I don’t see reason why he can’t perform in games that actually count. I believe in his three plus-plus offerings, that should make Ohtani an immediate superstar. Ohtani has all the tools to be a Cy Young caliber guy, so why shouldn’t he be one of the best pitchers in the American League?

  1. Josh Donaldson Hits 50 home runs

Last year, after dealing with injuries, Donaldson was limited to 113 games and 496 PA. Although he was somewhat under the radar, Donaldson still put up a robust .396 wOBA with 33 home runs. With everyone talking about Bryce Harper and Manny Machado as the big fish in next year’s free agent class, people may be forgetting about the 2015 AL MVP. Donaldson has defied expectations to become one of the best players in baseball, so why doubt that he can take his power to another level? “The Bringer of Rain” put up career highs in both FB% (42.3%) and HR/FB% (25.6%), making this claim especially bold because it will most likely regress. Nevertheless, Donaldson has shown in his ascension to superstardom that there should not be a limit placed on his ceiling, and I think he just might raise it to new heights in 2018.

  1. Javier Baez Becomes a Star

It is difficult to classify what level of performance specifically defines a star in Major League Baseball. For the ultra-talented middle infielder, I would say a season in which he reaches 5.0 WAR would push him into the stratosphere of superstardom. Baez has posted WAR’s of 2.7 and 2.2 respectively the past two seasons, and I think there is reason to believe he could improve upon those numbers. First, he is an all-world defender at second base, and although the advanced metrics did not rate him as highly in 2017 as they did in 2016, I see no reason why he does not return to play at a Gold Glove level at second. In 2017, Baez made strides forward offensively. Although, it would be nice to see him walk more and improve his OBP. He had just a .317 OBP and 5.9 BB% in 2017 (though 15 of his 30 walks were IBB). If Baez can figure out how to walk a little more and his power continues to trend up like it did in 2017 where he slugged .480, which is up from .423 in 2016 his production would increase tremendously. Baez has always had incredible raw power, and if that continues to translate more to games, we could be looking at a Gold Glove second basemen who crushes 35 home runs a year. If he wants to get to this level, Baez needs to be more selective at the plate and continue to be aggressive in the zone, something easier said than done. Baez has all the potential in the world to become a star, and I think in 2018 the potential becomes a reality.

  1. Luis Castillo Gives the Reds an Ace to Build Around

For those of you who do not pay much attention to the Reds pitching because of how historically bad they have been the past two years, I do not blame you. However, there is a beacon of hope. If anyone, besides those who regularly watch NL central baseball, watched Luis Castillo throw last year, you saw that the Reds have an arm to be excited about. The 25-year-old showed flashes of brilliance during his Rookie year with an electric fastball that averaged 97.47 MPH, good enough for second in baseball among pitchers who threw at least 80 innings. Castillo wasn’t just a flamethrower, but the man really pitched well. In 89.1 IP Castillo had a 3.12 ERA, 3.74 FIP, 27.3 K%, 1.07 WHIP, and a .198 BAA. His 3.22 BB/9 ranked just below the league average for starting pitchers of 3.13, and his 58.8 GB% ranked 7th in baseball among pitchers who threw at least 80 innings. I do not know about you, but to me, this profile adds up to Castillo being a budding star for the Reds’ rotation. Castillo is projected by Steamer to be worth 2.6 WAR in 2018 in 144 IP. That projection is just about even with the 2.6 WAR in 141 IP Rich Hill is projected for. If Castillo stays healthy, I believe he will best both these numbers. A pitcher who has the ability to miss bats and get ground balls at such a rate does not come around often. In 2017, Castillo had a 27.3% K% and a 58.8% GB%. Since GB% has been tracked in 2002 Castillo is in rare air. Among pitchers who have thrown at least 80 innings in a season here is the list of pitchers to match or best both rates from Castillo’s 2017 season.

Year Player K% GB%
2007 Heath Bell 28.1 % 58.8 %
2017 Luis Castillo 27.3 % 58.8 %

That is it. No starting pitcher has ever possessed the ability to strike batters out and get ground balls like Castillo did in his Rookie campaign. Look at where Castillo stands in a plot with other individual seasons in which a pitcher has thrown at least 80 innings and has a 25% K% since 2002. The highlighted points are him and 2007 Heath Bell.

If Castillo can repeat his success getting strikeouts and ground balls, the Reds should have a true ace in him.

  1. Juan Lagares is at Least a League Average Hitter

All of the predictions I have made have indicated players reaching levels of superstardom. However, not every Major League player can be a superstar, and some need massive improvements to become average or quality Major League hitters, fielders, or pitchers. Juan Lagares has always been known as a defense-first center fielder who won a Gold Glove in 2014. Offensively, he has struggled in his career. In 2014, he set a career-high OPS of .703. I will define a league average hitter as a 100 wRC+. Although Lagares surpassed that mark with a 101 wRC+ in 2014, the league landscape has shifted tremendously since then. In 2014, the league average OPS was .700, in 2017 it was .750. In these terms, league-wide offensive production has risen 7.1% in the past three years. So, Lagares will definitely have to have a career-best offensive campaign to achieve this feat. There is nothing in Lagares’ statistical profile that leads me to think this way, but there is something in Lagares’ offseason training that has. Look at who Lagares has been working with this offseason.

For those of you who do not know who Craig Wallenbrock is, he is one of the godfathers of the flyball revolution. Wallenbrock works alongside Robert Van Scoyoc in California. Recent hitters who have worked with the duo are Chris Taylor, J.D. Martinez, Ryan Braun, and Paul Konerko, to name a few. If history repeats itself, Lagares could be the next Wallenbrock client to make great strides offensively. I am personally a huge believer in the flyball revolution and love the coaches at the forefront of it, which is why I predict and hope to see Lagares improve immensely as a hitter.

  1. Matt Olson is the American League Silver Slugger at First Base

For those familiar with  Matt Olson, this may not sound unreasonable at all. Especially to A’s fans, but with only 59 career games under his belt, the young slugger tore apart American League pitching. Here is how he performed in just 216 PA last year.

Avg. OBP Slg. wOBA wRC+ HR K% BB% BABIP WAR
.259 .352 .651 .411 162 24 27.8% 10.2% .238 2.0

Among American League first basemen, the highest OPS last year was .906, wOBA was .377, and wRC+ was 138. All three of these numbers belonged to Jose Abreu. Olson blew all of these marks out of the water by a long shot, and there is reason to believe that he could be an elite level hitter and that this was not a fluke. His statcast profile is just as impressive. 9.7% of his plate appearances resulted in a barrel, good for 6th in baseball among players with at least 30 batted ball events. He tied with Nelson Cruz for ninth in baseball with 47.3% of his batted balls going 95+ MPH. His xwOBA was .373. While it is nearly 40 points below his actual wOBA, the mark was still good enough for 25th in baseball sandwiched in between Corey Seager and Matt Carpenter. Even more surprising is his .238 BABIP! That is insanely low for a player with this level of production. All of this leads to me thinking Matt Olson could be the real deal in Oakland.

  1. Tim Lincecum Has a Sub 4.00 ERA

You didn’t think I was going to be making bold predictions and leave one of my favorite pitchers of all time off this list, did you? I know Lincecum hasn’t had an ERA below 4.00 since 2011, and he hasn’t really had a good Major League season since then, but this article is titled bold predictions for a reason, so why not go big? Tim has been working at Driveline for a while now and all reports say his velocity is back in the low 90’s. Not to mention, he is jacked. As a reliever, maybe Timmy can channel some of the form that made him one of the premier pitchers in baseball for a period of time. I don’t really have any statistical or analytical evidence for this claim other than pitchers who go to Driveline generally get better. I think most baseball fans are fans of Tim Lincecum, so here’s to hoping he can become a productive Major League pitcher again after being out of the game in 2017.

  1. The Yankees Bullpen has Five Pitchers With at Least a 35% K%

Last year, the Yankees’ bullpen set a record for bullpens with a 29.1% K% including five pitchers who had a K% of over 30%. Their bullpen is so good that it is being hyped (and for good reason) to potentially be the best in baseball history. I love pitchers who throw hard and considering some members of the bullpen actually had down years for their own standards, I am buying high on this group of flamethrowers. The following table shows the five relievers the Yankees had with over a 30% K% in 2017 and their projected K% by Steamer for the 2018 season.

Year Aroldis Chapman Dellin Betances David Robertson Chad Green Tommy Kahnle
2017 32.9% 38.3% 38.6% 41.0% 31.3%
2018 35.9% 35.9% 28.9% 30.9% 30.0%

Three out of the five guys in this group will have to outperform their projections to make this feat achievable. However, I think they have a serious chance of reaching it. Strikeouts will most likely rise again this year and the staple of power arms in the Yankees’ bullpen should strikeout a ton of guys. If Chapman bounces back, Kahnle continues to improve, Betances strikes guys out like he normally has and Green and Robertson strike guys out like they did last year, this could be a record-setting bullpen.

  1. Jon Gray is a 5 WAR Pitcher

The Rockies’ ace has posted back-to-back stellar campaigns where he has amassed 3.6 and 3.2 fWAR respectively. The 3.2 WAR Gray compiled in 2017 was also in just 110.1 innings. If he throws the 190.0 innings, which he is projected to in 2018, and retains his 2017 quality, there is a good chance he reaches this mark. The Rockies have only had two seasons in franchise history where a pitcher surpassed the 5.0 WAR mark and that was Ubaldo Jimenez in 2009-2010. The hard-throwing righty already possesses the two best K% in Rockies single-season history, has a solid 7.6% BB% for his career, and has never allowed more than one HR/9 in a season. Gray already gets ground balls at a better than league average rate. That is huge for a pitcher to avoid giving up airballs that can fly through the thin air over the fence and into the spacious gaps of Coors Field. He also doesn’t get hit very hard, with an average exit velocity of 85.2 MPH. This ranked 22nd among 159 pitchers in 2017 to allow at least 250 balls in play. What is even more promising is among the 196 pitchers in 2017 to allow at least 100 combined line drives and fly balls, Gray’s average exit velocity against these types of batted balls was 90.1 MPH, good for 7th in baseball. If Gray can limit hard contact and airballs combined with his power stuff that will miss bats, he could have the potential to reach a milestone rarely seen in Colorado!

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