Bold Predictions for the 2017 MLB Season
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Starring Bryce Harper, and more!Rich Schultz/Getty Images
The baseball season is 162 games long, and so much that happens within each game is determined by luck. As a result, even the safest predictions for a given season can easily go awry.
So who wants to get really crazy and make some bold predictions for the 2017 MLB season?
Ahead is a total of 15 predictions, split into three different tiers: five for individual pitchers, five for individual hitters and five for teams. As for what qualifies these as “bold,” let’s say that all of them are more likely to not come true than they are to come true.
But since each prediction has rational roots…maybe they will?
Getting a cryptic sort of vibe? Good. That means this is already working. Now read on.
Dallas Keuchel Won’t Recapture His 2015 Form
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Dallas Keuchel has a good excuse for going from a 2.48 ERA in 2015 to a 4.45 ERA in 2016. He told Ted Berg of USA Today that he was pitching through shoulder soreness that has since cleared up.
“I feel like a brand new guy,” said the Houston Astros ace.
A healthy shoulder could return the 1.3 miles per hour that Keuchel lost off his fastball last season. That, in turn, could help his strikeout, walk and ground-ball rates rebound.
What Keuchel will be harder pressed to fix, however, is the book on him. He got away with not attacking the strike zone in 2015, holding hitters to an American League-best .292 slugging percentage when they went fishing. Hitters were on to him last year, expanding the zone less often and forcing him to throw strikes.
If that approach carries over into 2017, Keuchel’s improved health will only take him so far. He’ll be good, but not Cy Young good.
Jon Gray Will Become the Rarest of Breeds: A Rocky Mountain Ace
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And now for a young pitcher who’s ready to come into his glory days.
Lost in the 4.61 ERA that Jon Gray put up last year are some exciting steps forward. The Colorado Rockies right-hander ranked ninth among starters with his 9.9 strikeouts per nine innings and got harder to hit over time.
Gray had an 11.0 K/9 after August last year. He was averaging 95 mph on his fastball and continuing to feed hitters a heavy dose of his superb slider.
But as Patrick Saunders of the Denver Post covered, the real key was Gray’s curveball. He got comfortable with it toward the end of the year, and it showed. He allowed only three hits and punched out 11 with it.
The Rockies were hoping for an ace when they picked Gray at No. 3 in 2013. Now that he has two plus breaking balls to go with his heat, even Coors Field shouldn’t stop him from delivering in 2017.
Rich Hill Will Be MLB’s ERA Leader*
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The safe pick to lead baseball in ERA this year is Clayton Kershaw. Instead, how about the other star left-hander in the Los Angeles Dodgers rotation?
With his 2.00 ERA, Rich Hill is the only starter even within sight of Kershaw’s 1.96 ERA since 2015. The catch is that this is over just 139.1 innings. Which also explains the asterisk up there. The 37-year-old likely won’t finish with enough innings to qualify for the ERA title.
Hill’s ability to maintain a super-low ERA, however, must not be doubted.
The lefty goes right at hitters, pounding the zone at one of the most extreme rates in the league. He also gets extreme spin on his fastball and curveball, which makes both pitches tough to pick up.
With this approach, he’s become established as an elite strikeout artist who also misses the barrel of the bat better than any starter. On a pitch-to-pitch basis, he might be filthier even than Kershaw.
Yu Darvish Will Top 300 Strikeouts
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Speaking of Kershaw, his 2015 season proves it’s not impossible for a modern starter to eclipse 300 strikeouts. All it takes is a huge strikeout rate and enough innings.
Yu Darvish can certainly handle the former. The Texas Rangers ace has an 11.3 K/9 since 2012, best of any qualified starter. And he showed no ill effects in his return from Tommy John surgery last year, using improved velocity and a deep-as-ever arsenal to whiff 11.8 batters per nine innings.
Ah, but the innings. It took Kershaw 232.2 innings (with an 11.6 K/9) to top 300 strikeouts. That’s 23 more than Darvish has ever pitched.
However, it helps that he’s now two years removed from his surgery. It also helps that he’s a sturdy 6’5″ and 220 pounds. And what helps the most is that he’s trending in the right direction with his pitch efficiency.
Plus, the dude has a megadeal to secure. Can’t hurt.
Marcus Stroman Will Win the AL Cy Young
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Sometimes, a guy just has to double-down on a bold prediction he’s already made. Hence this slide about Marcus Stroman.
Anyone who’s watched the young Toronto Blue Jays right-hander in the World Baseball Classic has gotten a microcosm of his career to this point: moments of brilliance interrupted by calamity. In a word, the big picture is frustrating.
But if ever there was a pitcher worth having patience in, it’s Stroman.
His deep arsenal of electric pitches and plus command have always given him ace potential. And despite a 4.37 overall ERA, he made a big step forward that resulted in a 3.68 ERA after the All-Star break last year. He became less predictable, relying less on his sinker and using his four-seamer to change eye levels.
If Stroman builds on that in 2017, he can absolutely rise to the top of the AL Cy Young race.
Andrew Benintendi Will Win the AL Batting Title
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One guy who’ll give Stroman fits, however, is Boston Red Sox rookie and near-future batting champion Andrew Benintendi.
The numbers leave little doubt that the guy can rake. He was a .312 hitter in the minors before he got the call to The Show and then hit .295 in 34 games when he got there.
The left fielder is gifted with a hit tool that MLB.com considers the best of any prospect, remarking that he has a “pure left-handed swing and advanced ability to recognize pitches and manage the strike zone.”
In chasing only 25.2 percent of the pitches he saw outside the zone and hitting 25.0 percent of his batted balls for line drives, these abilities were on display in the majors last year. And now Benintendi is bigger and stronger, which will make it easier for him to smack doubles off the Green Monster.
With apologies to Miguel Cabrera and Jose Altuve, there’s a new sheriff coming to town.
Christian Yelich Will Top 30 Home Runs
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Impressed with how Christian Yelich has looked in the World Baseball Classic? Psh. That’s nothing compared to what’s coming.
With a .293 career average, the young Miami Marlins star has proved he can hit. What he’s struggled to do is hit for power, which could make the career-high 21 homers he hit last year seem suspicious.
Yelich’s raw power, however, is legit. Over the last two seasons, he’s hit fly balls and lines drives at the same speed that Mark Trumbo and Jose Bautista have hit theirs. He may be slender, but he packs a wallop.
His iffy power track record has more to do with the shape of his swing. Since 2013, 60.3 percent of his batted balls have been on the ground. But his GB% ticked down last year and hit a nadir at 53.8 in the second half.
If he keeps that up, his raw power should easily take him from 21 homers to over 30 homers.
Bryce Harper Will Be Back with a Vengeance
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The bummer for Yelich is that Bryce Harper will be looming too large in the NL East for anyone to notice him.
At this point, believing in Harper requires a leap of faith. The young Washington Nationals star had a great rookie season in 2012 and an epic MVP season in 2015. But in between have been bouts with injury and ineffectiveness that raise questions about his consistency.
What he’s doing this spring can’t be ignored, though. Even more encouraging than his 1.324 OPS and six homers is how he’s looked. After his approach, swing and, apparently, health deteriorated in 2016, the eye test says that all three have already rebounded.
“He just seems more focused, more determined,” Nationals skipper Dusty Baker told Jorge Castillo of the Washington Post, adding, “It looks like the old, young Bryce, so to speak.”
Darn right. And in watching Harper do his thing, suddenly that leap of faith isn’t so daunting.
Andrew McCutchen Won’t Be Back with a Vengeance
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And then there’s the significantly larger leap of faith for believing in Andrew McCutchen’s turnaround.
Credit where it’s due, the Pittsburgh Pirates veteran is motivated to put his horrid 2016 season behind him.
“I’m going to have a monster year, whether it’s in Pittsburgh or somewhere else,” McCutchen told Bob Nightengale of USA Today.
One difference between Harper and McCutchen, however, is that one is 24 and the other is 30. And where Harper at least remained decent in 2016, McCutchen was a sub-replacement-level player with real red flags.
For one, he continued a trend of striking out more than he used to. For two, he didn’t hit the ball as hard. And while he gets a slight pass for what bad positioning did to his defense, it could be on him that his—new Statcast stat alert!—catch probabilities were down almost across the board from 2015.
In short, the former MVP’s decline looks too real.
Kris Bryant Will Become Even Better
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To be sure, asking Kris Bryant to get even better is asking a lot.
The Chicago Cubs superstar is coming off a year in which he had a .939 OPS with 39 homers and strong baserunning and defense. His National League MVP was well earned.
There was one thing Bryant didn’t do well, though: hit to the opposite field. And he knows it, telling Mark Gonzales of the Chicago Tribune that he wants to get better.
Bryant doesn’t have to do this. If his experiment is slow to produce results, he could abandon it and simply remain as good as he already was.
But the experiment shouldn’t fail. Bryant has a track record of hard hitting to the opposite field, and his slugging difficulties against outside pitches are a real incentive to recapture that.
Once that’s done, there will be no more nits left to pick in his game.
The Milwaukee Brewers Will Be a Surprise Contender
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The Milwaukee Brewers won’t play in October this year, but they’re going to come closer than everyone expects.
Despite 89 losses, the Brewers had their share of positive signs in 2016. Mostly on offense. Ryan Braun had his best season in years. Keon Broxton and Jonathan Villar emerged as rising young stars. Hernan Perez quietly established himself as a multi-talented super utility player.
More positives are coming for Milwaukee’s lineup. The club made worthwhile upside plays on Eric Thames, Travis Shaw and Jett Bandy. Former top prospect Orlando Arcia has the talent to be a star two-way shortstop.
The key will getting something on the mound from pitchers other than Junior Guerra and Zach Davies. If Jimmy Nelson, Wily Peralta or Matt Garza don’t answer the call, perhaps top prospect Josh Hader will.
At the least, these are individual parts worth knowing. But don’t be surprised when they combine to form a strong whole in 2017.
The New York Mets Will Miss the Playoffs
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Baseball Prospectus’ PECOTA system has the New York Mets projected to win the NL East. It’s not going to like this.
In fairness, it’s hard to not see the Mets’ upside. Led by Noah Syndergaard and Jacob deGrom, their pitching staff is loaded. Led by Yoenis Cespedes and Curtis Granderson, their lineup is none too shabby in its own right.
However, it’s also easy to see the Mets’ volatility.
Their lineup should be woefully inefficient on defense again, and the bats may not account for that this time. Age- and health-related questions loom large at third, short, second, first and catcher.
Things aren’t much more solid on the mound, where deGrom, Steven Matz and Matt Harvey are coming off surgeries. Jeurys Familia, one of the league’s most unhittable closers, is facing a suspension.
There’s just too much here that can go wrong. And you know what they say about things that can go wrong.
The Los Angeles Angels Will Make the Playoffs
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The Los Angeles Angels also have plenty of volatility. But unlike the Mets, they have solid safety blankets.
One is the best baseball player in the world. Mike Trout just won his second MVP in 2016 and in the process kept his career WAR at a level never before seen from a player his age. So, he’s good.
And now there’s more depth around Trout in the Angels’ lineup. Cameron Maybin is a good top-of-the-lineup hitter. Luis Valbuena has become a righty-killer. Danny Espinosa has power and speed.
These guys can also field their positions, and fellow new addition Martin Maldonada can frame strikes. As Corinne Landrey of FanGraphs wrote, their additions were a targeted effort to improve the club’s run prevention.
All the Angels need is for their pitching to cooperate. If (knock wood) Matt Shoemaker, Garrett Richards and Tyler Skaggs stay healthy, it will. Lo and behold, the Angels will emerge victoriously from what’s sure to be a crowded AL Wild Card race.
The Seattle Mariners Will Win the AL West
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The Angels will take a Wild Card spot, but they’ll envy the Seattle Mariners and their AL West title.
The PECOTA projections rate the Mariners as an underdog next to the Astros. Yet the Mariners must not be counted out because there are some things we know they’re going to be good at.
One is scoring runs. The Mariners ranked third in the AL in runs last year, and their lineup now has 2016 All-Star Jean Segura and minor league slugger Mitch Haniger.
The Mariners should also play better outfield defense. Theirs was terrible last year. Center fielder Leonys Martin is now flanked by a center fielder in left (Jarrod Dyson) and a center fielder in right (Haniger).
What the Mariners will need is pitching. For that, Felix Hernandez and Hisashi Iwakuma must live up to their track records, and James Paxton and Drew Smyly must live up to their respective talent levels. Sounds doable.
If it all comes together, this is a 95-win team.
Neither the Cubs nor the Indians Will Return to the World Series
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The Cubs and the Cleveland Indians were the last two teams left standing in 2016. And going into 2017, they’re arguably the best teams in their leagues.
But don’t print those World Series tickets just yet.
It’s not impossible to play in back-to-back World Series. The Philadelphia Phillies, Texas Rangers and Kansas City Royals have all done it just in the last decade. Yet that’s not proof that bouncing back from such a long, grueling season is easy. And their precedent may be no help to the Cubs or Indians.
The Cubs are light on starting pitching depth beyond their top five. With Jon Lester, Jake Arrieta and John Lackey all over 30 and coming off heavy workloads in 2016, that’s risky.
For Cleveland, Corey Kluber, Andrew Miller and Cody Allen worked even harder last season. And already, it’s possible to ask whether Carlos Carrasco and Danny Salazar will pick up the slack if they’re needed.
Both clubs also now have targets on their backs and worthy challengers gunning for them. They’re ripe to be brought down.
Data courtesy of Baseball Reference, FanGraphs, Brooks Baseball, Baseball Savant and Baseball Prospectus.