Category: Bold Predictions

Revisiting my bold preseason predictions

This just in, folks: Corey Kluber leads all MLB pitchers in wins above replacement (WAR). The great thing about running your own website is you have full discretion to toot your own horn when you please. As much as I find it tacky to do so, I made bold predictions for a reason: to see if my projections are actually worth a damn. I just wish I had time to make more; I should have started early in the offseason as I ran out of time the longer the academic year has worn on. (I’m a graduate student, so publishing to this website is not always the most optimal use of my time. According to societal expectations, at least — I think it’s a great use of my time!)

Anyway, let’s revisit my bold predictions to discuss a) their accuracy thus far, and b) why they have (or have not) been accurate. Here they are, in chronological order:

Tyson Ross will be a top-45 starting pitcher

Ross is ranked 31st of all starters, according to ESPN’s Player Rater. Instead of rehashing details, you can read the linked article to see why I glowed about Ross this offseason and have chosen him as a streamer several times already this year (before he gained more recognition and, consequently, more ownership). That he qualifies as a reliever in ESPN leagues is a huge plus as well. I readily admit it’s not insane for a random names to rank highly in the player rater; just check out the names around Ross’, including Alfredo Simon, Josh Beckett, Aaron Harang and Collin McHugh. Unlike the names I mentioned, though, I think Ross has the natural ability to stay there, given his strikeout propensity that limit the damage done by walks (which, by the way, is a problem nowhere near as bad as Shelby Miller‘s — I guess six wins will mask his atrociously bad WHIP that will blow up in his face sooner rather than later.) Ross is still available in 21 percent of ESPN leagues, so if he’s out there, you should grab him. Just don’t expect him to keep winning as often in front of that terrible San Diego offense.

Brad Miller will be a top-5-to-7 shortstop

As terribly as this prediction has turned out — Miller is batting .151/.230/.247 with 3 HR and 3 SB — I do not regret making it. Miller has struck out in 28 percent of his plate appearances, which is way, way worse than he ever was in Triple-A or even last year, when he struck out 17 percent of the time. It pains me deeply that The Triple Machine hasn’t hit a triple. Have I given up on him this year? Honestly, yes. His batting average on balls in play is grossly unlucky right now, but even regression to the mean won’t fix what his strikeout tendency has broken. But I still like him as a sleeper for next year, or even as a late bloomer this year. If he can demonstrate an improvement in his plate discipline as the year wears on, I will give him another chance. It upsets me, though, that he had such a hot spring. It fuels the fire of analysts who criticize spring training stats as unreliable. I agree, to an extent, but Miller’s spring stats were an extension of his 2013 season — albeit an extension inflated by some good luck. It’s worth emphasizing here that strikeouts really aren’t luck-based, so to say the his spring training was lucky is an ignorant dismissal.

Corey Kluber is this year’s Hisashi Iwakuma (aka big breakout candidate)

There’s one thing I, at least, can privately appreciate about my bold predictions: I abided by all of them in every single I’m in, unless someone happened to grab a pitcher before me. Ultimately, in four leagues, I grabbed Ross and Miller in four of them, and Kluber in three — and in the fourth one, I promptly traded Jayson Werth and Tyson Ross (who I drafted in the last round) for Norichika Aoki and Corey Kluber (this is a points league, so Aoki carries some value for his lack of K’s and contact approach). Did I win the trade? Who knows — I traded one guy I liked for another I liked more. Point is, I actually rolled with my bold predictions. Might as well eat my words, right? (Is that how that saying goes?)

I got Kluber in the equivalent of the last round in every draft and for $1 in my primary keeper auction league. Yes, I’m bragging. But, more importantly, this isn’t a revelation to me. I knew Kluber would be good based on last year’s peripherals, as did a host of other people on FanGraphs (namely, Carson Cistulli and the Corey Kluber Society). But a lot of people didn’t see it coming, which is crazy to me, and it makes me question what it really takes to become a paid professional “fantasy expert.” Tristan H. Cockcroft ranked Kluber 58th of starting pitchers this preseason, which is better than I expected, but look at some of the names above him: Matt Garza? Justin Masterson? Zack Wheeler? For a guy who invests so much in seeing an improvement in skills, Wheeler has been, for his entire career, buying up billboards to plaster them with slogans such as I HAVE CONTROL ISSUES. Kluber is essentially the antithesis of Wheeler. And, yet, who has the smaller track record? Ridiculous… (In Eric Karabell’s defense, he said pitching is so deep this year that owners may not be able to draft Kluber, which was a roundabout way of indicating he liked him, at least somewhat, heading into draft day.)

Anyway, I’m clearly on a rant, and I need to get this train back on the rails. Kluber is somehow not 100-percent owned at this point — he’s 99.9-percent owned, but hey, at least I’m not lying — yet he’s striking out everyone and their mothers. I don’t know if he continues to strike out 10 per nine innings (10.28 K/9), but the percentage of swinging strikes he has produced has jumped 1.4 percent, placing in the top 1o in the category, behind Max Scherzer and ahead of Madison Bumgarner. This is all a long-winded way of saying he could, and perhaps should, be a 200-K guy this year. In that sense, maybe he’s not a buy-low guy, but his lack of name recognition and his .350 BABIP makes him a prime candidate to be exactly that. A handful of rankings have him in the 35-to-40 range; even then, I can give you a case to trade perhaps a dozen names ahead of him for Kluber, including Gio Gonzalez, Matt Cain and, yes, maybe even Justin Verlander (who, at this point, is still owned in most leagues simply because of name recognition and past performance; and while I understand the importance of past performance, do not let yourself be blinded by nostalgia).

Dan Haren will strike out fewer than 7 batters per nine innings

This one is random, but hey, it’s legit: Haren has only a 6.89 K/9 right now. You can read the linked post to find out way. I may rip him a little too hard — his control still makes him a fairly solid starter — but he’s more of a Kyle Lohse these days than, well, a Corey Kluber. Lohse is serviceable, but he’s not elite, and Haren should be able to net you an extra win or two along the way in front of a lethal Dodgers offense.

OK, that’s it. I’m 3-for-4 in my bold predictions so far this year, which is a pretty good day at the plate, so I’ll take it.

Also, the academic year is winding down, and once it winds down completely, Need a Streamer will ramp up with more content. Stay tuned, and thanks for reading.

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Bold Prediction #4: Dan Haren will strike out fewer than 7 K/9

Bold Prediction #3: Corey Kluber is this year’s Hisashi Iwakuma
Bold Prediction #2: Brad Miller will be a top-5 shortstop
Bold Prediction #1: Tyson Ross will be a top-45 starter (until he reaches his innings cap)

I’ve heard it through the grapevine: maybe Washington Nationals starter Dan Haren is due for a bounce-back season. In his defense, he recovered from the second-worst WHIP of his career, and his strikeout rate leaped back up to classic Haren at his peak. The problem lay in his propensity to give up home runs at an alarming rate. A blip on the radar, right? Eh…

First, the too-many-homers thing has been a problem for two years now, and it hasn’t really gotten better. Second, batters’ contact rate against Haren was the highest of his career last year. And in 2012? It was the second-worst. It’s an alarming trend, indicating that batters are squaring up his pitches better than ever before. It reinforces both the notion that home runs may continue to plague him as well as the following: last year’s strikeout rate was a fluke.

I have previously discussed the strong correlation between strikeouts per nine innings (K/9) and contact/swinging-strike rates. In it, I mentioned Haren in particular, whose PITCHf/x data predicted a strikeout rate closer to 7 K/9 than 8 — and it made sense, given his decreasing strikeouts (7.25 K/9 in 2011, 7.23 K/9 in 2012, 7.07 xK/9 in 2013) and increasing contact rates against him by hitters (79.3% in 2011, 80.9% in 2012, 81.0% in 2013).

Maybe Haren will recover and start missing more bats, but projections calling for a K/9 in the high 7’s is disconcerting to me. I’ll be bold and take the proverbial under: Haren is fully in decline, and his strikeout rate will reflect it in 2014.

Bold prediction #3: Corey Kluber is this year’s Hisashi Iwakuma

Bold Prediction #2: Brad Miller will be a top-5 shortstop
Bold Prediction #1: Tyson Ross will be a top-45 starter (until he reaches his innings cap)

The Corey Kluber Society, fronted by Carson Cistulli of FanGraphs, is, frankly, hilarious. The format of the post is great, and if you haven’t read it before, you should here.

But there’s a more important reason to read about (and “join”) the Society. Kluber is not only a legitimate fantasy starting pitcher but also a very good one. His breakout last year was muted by a couple of bad starts, but he is a perfect comp to a 2012 Hisashi Iwakuma on the verge.

I will list a variety of statistics in which Kluber excelled. Then I will let you know whom he outperformed in each category for all pitchers with at least 140 innings pitched (1o7 total).

K/9: 8.31 (26th overall)
Better than: Cole Hamels, Julio Teheran, Adam Wainwright, Mat Latos, Mike Minor

K/BB: 4.12 (11th overall)
Better than: Hamels, Jordan Zimmermann, Teheran, Anibal Sanchez, Homer Bailey

BAbip: .329 (6th worst)

Swinging strike rate: 10.4% (22nd overall)
Better than: Zack Greinke, Latos, Iwakuma, Scott Kazmir, Jose Fernandez

Contact rate: 76.8% (16th overall)
Better than: Kris Medlen, Jeff Samardzija, Bailey, Greinke, Fernandez

xFIP-: 78 (11th overall)
Better than: Max Scherzer, Fernandez, David Price, Iwakuma, Stephen Strasburg

Yowza. Those are some seriously stellar numbers. What’s the deal? Unfortunately for Kluber, he suffered a brutal outing or two, causing his WHIP and ERA to be inflated for most of the year and allowing him to fly under the radar. Chalk it up to bad luck, considering Kluber’s 6th-worst BAbip, better than only Joe Saunders, Dallas Keuchel and other names one wishes not to be associated with.

This sounds vaguely familiar. A high-control guy with a solid strikeout rate out of the bullpen? Does the name Hisashi Iwakuma ring a bell? It should, because he has already been mentioned several times in the last 300 words. Anyway, I rode the Iwakuma (and Bailey) wave through the end of 2012. Instead of going with my gut and drafting Iwakuma in the last round of my shallow draft in 2013, I opted for Marco Estrada — not a terrible pick, but clearly not the right gamble to take. It’s actually the moment upon which I reflected and realized that I should really just take my own advice. Because given Dan Haren‘s peripherals, why would anyone have trusted him over Bailey last year? Ridiculous. (FYI, I will rip on Haren in a forthcoming bold prediction, just to be clear that I’m not ripping on him because he gave up a million home runs last year.)

But I digress. Iwakuma was good in 2012, but his 7.25 K/9, 2.35 K/BB and 1.28 WHIP were all rather pedestrian. But sometimes you need to rely on your eyes more than the numbers, and anyone who watched Iwakuma saw flashes of brilliance. 2013 may have been more than we anticipated, which brings me to my point:

Kluber already has the makings of a great pitcher, and his peripherals indicate that none of it was a fluke. My official prediction: Corey Kluber will be a top-40 starting pitcher.

Bold Prediction #2: Brad Miller will be a top-5 (or maybe top-7) shortstop

Bold Prediction #1: Tyson Ross will be a top-45 starter (until he reaches his innings cap)

I’ve expressed my love glands all over Brad “The Triple Machine” Miller, as I’ve affectionately deemed him, in the past. It ought not to come as a surprise that I really like Miller. I project him to finish seventh among all shortstops, but for the sake of being really bold, I predict Miller will be a top-5 shortstop.

Before we get into what he did last year, let me introduce you to the minor-league Brad Miller. He hit .334/.409/.516 with 27 home runs and 30 stolen bases in just under 1,000 plate appearances. For the less-than-mathematically-savvy, that’s about 14 home runs and 15 stolen bases per 500 plate appearances, or about 80 percent of a major league season. He hit 10 triples (yes, yes, yessssss) and absolutely roped, per his triple slash line.

Now, back to the current incarnation of The Triple Machine. Because he debuted mid-season, let us extrapolate his 2013 stats for a full 162 games:

.265/.318/.418, 87 runs, 77 RBI, 17 home runs, 11 stolen bases, and… 13 triples.

Man, I love those triples. Now I know you’re wondering: Where does his nickname come from? Why am I so hung up on his triples? I’m really glad you asked!!!!!

From an intuitive standpoint, his innate ability to somehow hit a lot of triples indicates 1) he’s got legs, even though he doesn’t always use them to steal bases; and 2) because he doesn’t have Billy Hamilton‘s legs, he smacks line drives and has the power to shoot it into the gaps and fly into third.

A look at the top 50 triples hitters of the past five years yields peculiar results: Their collective BAbip (batting average on balls in play) clocks in at about 15 points above the average player’s BAbip. This can likely be explained by their speed, translating into an inherent ability to leg out more ground balls. As you further truncate the list, the spread gets wider: the t0p-3o average BAbip is about 20 points higher, and almost 25 points higher for the top 10. Meanwhile, Miller hit the most triples per plate appearance of all MLB players — in a sense, ultimately making him the No. 1 triples hitter for 2013. (Starling Marte, who stole more than 40 bases, squeaked in behind him.)

What I’m getting at is Miller’s BAbip last year was .294, but it’s very reasonable it could approach .325 — above the league average, but “average” for guys who hit lots of triples — and do it annually. (It’s also worth noting his .388 BAbip in the minors.) I think he’s primed for a spike in batting average, and his ability to reach base more will further pad his counting stats. This is all before considering any improvements to his plate discipline, which is already pretty good for his age (15.5% K, 7.2% BB).

Miller has the perfect combination of above-average speed and above-average power to notch double digits in home runs and stolen bases on an annual basis — not exactly a common occurrence up the middle — with the possibility of future 20 HR/20 SB seasons, territory reserved right now for only Ian Desmond and a healthy Hanley Ramirez. Even if he never reaches his ceiling, his ability to threaten a .300 batting average every year will make up for it.

Oh, and if you’re asking yourself, “Has The Triple Machine already hit two home runs and one triple in only 23 spring training at-bats?” The answer is yes. Yes he has. Now get on board, friends.

Bold Prediction #1: Tyson Ross will be a top-45 starter

Update, 3/18/14: Word on the street is Tyson Ross’ innings will be capped this year. I have amended my prediction accordingly.

Here’s the deal. I know most people outside of San Diego don’t know who Padres pitcher Tyson Ross is. Thus, it would be a bold enough prediction for me to say he’ll be a top-60 starter. Truthfully, I think he’ll be a top-30 starter. So, for the sake of splitting the difference, I did exactly that.

BOLD PREDICTIONS FOR 2014, #1: Tyson Ross will be a top-45 starting pitcher.*
*At the moment he is shut down for the season.

Ross, 27, debuted with the Athletics four years ago and has never once been fantasy relevant. Ross got stiffed in the wins category in 2013, going 3-8 through 16 starts for the mediocre-but-not-terrible San Diego Padres despite posting a 3.17 ERA and 1.15 WHIP. Many failed to notice so, again, he was hardly fantasy relevant. But that’s only according to the masses. In the case of Ross, the masses were wrong.

For starters, his 2013 ERA and WHIP would be 100-percent helpful in the context of any league, and his peripherals indicate his performance was legitimate. The BAbip may regress a bit, but the home runs allowed and runners stranded are about league average.

For Ross, though, his most important statistic is his strikeout rate: 119 K’s in 125 innings (8.6 K/9). Admittedly, it’s nothing to phone home about. Of pitchers with at least 100 innings, Ross ranks 25th on a strikeout-per-inning basis. However, Ross allowed the seventh-lowest contact rate and recorded the ninth-best percentage of swinging strikes of the lot. Contact rates and swinging strikes are (very) highly correlated with total strikeouts, and understandably so.

Thus, Ross’ strikeouts were not a fluke — at least, they weren’t in 2013 — despite recording a meager 5.7 K/9 through 70-plus innings in 2012. What gives?

The slider gives. Ross’ was the third-most valuable of all sliders thrown as measured by FanGraphs’ pitch value metric “wSL,” or “slider runs above average.” Only Yu Darvish and Francisco Liriano extracted more value from their sliders throughout the year than Ross. (I wrote about Justin Masterson’s slider a while back — it was fourth-most effective.) Even on a weighted basis, Ross threw the third-best slider per 100 pitches, behind only Randall Delgado‘s (which benefits from a small sample size) and Jose Fernandez‘s famous wipeout pitch. Moreover, Ross’ relied more heavily on his slider this year than in any other, throwing it in one-third of all pitches, up about five percent from his career frequency.

Something must have clicked for Ross, because his slider humiliated batters in 2013. Although it does happen occasionally, I have no reason to expect Ross will suddenly lose his touch. If he can come close to repeating his 2013 performance, his 2014 will look a lot like Patrick Corbin‘s 2013, but with a better strikeout rate. Corbin finished 2013 as the No. 23 starting pitcher. That’s upside on which I’m willing to gamble.

So there you have it, folks. This segment will recur throughout the offseason and will culminate before Opening Day, so stay tuned for more bold predictions!