Bold Predictions for 2017
October 20, 2017

 

Part 1

 

Real men wrestle bears smeared in bacon fat (the bears, not the men Ė that would be crazy), swim with sharks during a feeding frenzy, eat box jellyfish on toast and climb snow-capped mountains naked. They also draft their fantasy baseball teams in November and make their predictions in the fall, not the spring. Anyone can make a prediction about the upcoming baseball season in the spring; by then everything is so obvious (not really). So seeing as how I draft my team in November and, well, do none of the other things, I am obligated to make my predictions for 2017 now in order to maintain my man club membership (have to do two from the list). So without further adieu:

 

Brandon Belt is a lock to hit 25 homers next year, and a very good bet to hit 30.

It probably seems crazy to predict that a 29-year old player who has never even hit 20 homers is going to suddenly hit 30 but Belt has been trending for an explosion in offense for quite a while. Heís just been derailed by injuries and Bruce Bochyís insistence on hitting him down in the line-up as well as forfeiting around 100 of his ABs per season so that Buster Posey can play first. Some of those showed signs of ending in 2016 with a move to batting second and the rest should be completely gone by early 2017, especially if he gets out to a strong start.

Belt has displayed an isolated power of around .200 for three straight years. Guys who were around .200 ISO this year were Kendrys Morales (30 homers), Carlos Gonzalez (25), Corey Seager (26), Wil Myers (28), Bryce Harper (24), Marcus Semien (27), Ian Kinsler (28) and George Springer (29). The power has been there, just not the opportunities and thus the results. Belt was also among the top 50 hitters in barreling the ball (squaring it up on the fat part of the bat) per plate appearance (6.6%), which was the same as Yeonnis Cespedes (31) and better than Kyle Seager (30).

The average distance of the balls he hit was 244 ft, which was good for top 20 and equal to that of Ryan Howard (25 homers in 362 PAs) and Miguel Cabrera (38). His groundball-to-flyball rate has been dropping the last three years and was the lowest in the majors among qualifiers, lower than Chris Carter (41) and Kris Bryant (38). And on top of all that his walk rate improved by 57% and his strikeout rate improved by 15%.

The reason he didnít hit 30 this year was because his HR/FB rate dropped to 9%. Itís been as high as 18% in his career but has fluctuated wildly, in part due to injuries. However, if you give him an average rate of 15% HR/FB and apply it to this yearís results, the 182 flyballs he did hit translates to 27 homers. And heís trending toward more.

 

Justin Upton will win the AL MVP

Like many hitters, Upton had a rough time making the adjustment switching leagues. His walk rates were at all time low and his strikeout rates were at an all-time high through the first month. In addition, he was batting in an unfamiliar spot in the line-up, which might have limited his opportunities to be aggressive at the plate. Adding to the burden were circumstances that eventually led to bereavement leave in July for both Justin and his brother. Details are still not widely known but it was described as a loss in his family. Whatever it was, itís certainly understandable that it may have affected his performance, especially if had been due to something that had been a concern for a while, like an illness. After mid July, Uptonís performance began to pick up and in August and September there was strong evidence that he was all the way back to the player Detroit thought they were getting, and then some. Ironically, the inflated BABIP that camouflaged how truly awful his struggles were early in the season were depressed over the last two months, disguising how truly impressive his last two months were.

So where does the MVP talk come in? Players who hit around Miguel Cabrera tend to get much better. Victor Martinez was always a good hitter but became a great one when he arrived in Detroit. Magglio Ordonez won a batting title and posted his best season at age 33 after coming to Detroit despite leaving a hitterís paradise in Chicago. JD Martinez was a non-tender from Houston who became one of the most feared power hitters. All of those guys came to the Tigers as lifetime ALers. Upton had to transition from the NL which took some time but he appeared to have settled in down the stretch when there were few who were in his class. Heís always had the talent but had been prone to wild bouts of streakiness. Heís learning how to be consistent from one of the best hitters ever. The last time he finished a season on such a strong note was 2012 when he was 24. He came back the next season and hit 12 homers with a .298/.402/.734 batting line during the first month. Of course he followed that up with his usual ups and downs but one would hope that heís much more mature and much more driven now. He also has additional incentive: he was at the plate with a chance to tie and possibly win the game when the Tigerís season and their playoff aspirations ended. That bitter pill should drive him to work even harder this off-season. I expect weíll see a more focused Upton in 2017. With a few months like his September, that would put him squarely in the running for MVP.

 

Michael Saunders is the real deal

Some will look at his fade down the stretch and think he was a flash in the pan. Itís not unreasonable to think there was some fatigue involved as last year was his first season back after missing all of 2015 due to knee surgery. Also, as much as his first half excellence was driven by a high BABIP (.377), his second half was driven by the bad (.221). The reality is somewhere in the middle and over the course of a full season his performance next season should look very similar to this yearís. Looking back at the scouting reports when he was just coming up, many projected his swing and athletic ability to produce several 25/25 seasons during his career so the power was not at all unexpected. Iím sure he and the Jays were concerned about his knees so they might have held him back from running this year. Now that he has a full season of relatively good health under his belt, that might not be the case next year.

Where he ends up playing could be a significant factor as well. Heís a free agent and would probably like to stay in his native Canada, but if that doesnít work out and he ends up with a team that embraces the running game, he will be two years away from the surgery and he did steal more than 20 bases in a season three times in his professional career, the last coming with the Mariners in 2012. Parks where he has hit especially well are in Baltimore (1.132 OPS in 93 PAs) and Minnesota (1.079 in 62 PAs), both of whom might be looking for outfield upgrades. For his career heís hit best in retractable roof stadiums (.802 OPS in 304 PAs) so that might play in his favor as well in places like Arizona or Milwaukee as both of those teams were unafraid to run in 2016.

 

Brad Miller will not finish 2017 as a regular

What I find most interesting about Brad Millerís year was that in November of 2015 he was traded away from the Mariners because he was not a very good defensive player at shortstop and the Rays were a team whose success had largely been built on pitching and defense. They played him at shortstop anyway and he stayed there for a good part of the season until they finally decided too many groundballs were getting through, at which time they began to cycle through retreads like Alexei Ramirez. What kept him in the line-up was that he kept hitting homers all season. The primary factor driving that home run burst was a 100% spike in his HR/FB rate from a consistent career rate of 10% to more than 20% in 2016. Those kinds of spikes rarely plateau at the new level. What makes his home run rate even less sustainable is that the percentage of softly hit balls spiked more than 5%, which is massive. Yes, his hard hit balls spiked as well but that leaves medium hit balls falling by almost 10%. These kinds of things tend to even out. On the flip side, the statcast data indicates that he hits the ball as hard as many of the premier home run hitters in the game so the home run power might be real. But thatís the only dimension he has and the Rays have the much cheaper Jake Bauers waiting in the wings. His walk rate and strikeout rates are both going in the wrong direction, as is his swinging strike rate and contact rate. In short, he sold out this year so he could hit more homers Ė which he definitely did Ė but in the process made himself a one-dimensional hitter. Becoming one-dimensional is rarely a recipe for long term success as a hitter. For a guy who doesnít play defense that well at any position, that doesnít bode well for his future as a regular.

 

Iíll post Part 2 of my predictions in 2 weeksÖ it takes time to make crazy seem rational. Until then, enjoy the rest of the postseason, Halloween and whatever else is happening. Namaste!