It’s Opening Day 2.0, so in what is becoming an annual tradition, let’s talk about some things I believe about what we’re going to see this year. These aren’t things I can definitively back up with evidence, but they are things that I think could be proven true as the year goes on. You can take them with all the necessary grains of salt, but as we head towards 2016, here are the five things that I believe for this year.
Pitching has dominated the sport for the last half decade, as velocities were going up at the same time as the strike zone was growing, making life difficult for the players trying to generate runs on a nightly basis. The rise in velocity isn’t going anywhere, but it seems that MLB may have put the brakes on the strike zone’s growth, and now a remarkable crop of young hitters could turn the game back towards somewhat higher run environments.
We saw the arrival of the new wave of franchise hitters last year: Kris Bryant, Carlos Correa, Francisco Lindor, and Miguel Sano all made their big league debuts, showing early success in the big leagues and providing a tantalizing taste of what they might be able to do if given a full season’s worth of at-bats. This year’s rookie class isn’t going to be as strong, but the sheer quantity of young hitting talent that has reached the big leagues in the past few years may be setting the stage for an offensive revival.
As Jeff Sullivan noted in The 2016 Hardball Times Annual, and Ben Lindbergh and Rob Arthur wrote last week, the second half of 2015 saw a significant spike in home run rate, even though no one really knows why. One possible reason; the young hitters who have flooded the game the last few years are starting to reach their peaks.
Last year, we saw Bryce Harper and Manny Machado turn into offensive monsters, but there are a host of other talented young players who haven’t yet hit like they could hit. Xander Bogaerts, Marcell Ozuna, and Rougned Odor all have serious breakout potential, for instance. And if enough players like this mature into higher levels of offensive abilities, we could see offense rising around the league. While the crop of young pitching is also terrific, I think we’re going to see the hitters take back some of the ground that run prevention has gained over the last few years.
Over the last few years, Mookie has gone from a pet prospect of the statnerds to a staple of the Red Sox lineup, but 2016 could be the year that Betts becomes an accepted part of the game’s inner circle. The disastrous Red Sox performances over the last two years have overshadowed Betts’ arrival, but with a stronger supporting cast and a chance to contend for a division title, don’t be too surprised if Mookie Betts becomes one of the faces of baseball this summer.
We saw the early stages of his potential superstardom in the final four months of last season, when he hit .315/.361/.525 over his final 429 plate appearances. While maintaining elite contact rates, Betts showed that he can drive the ball consistently, and that power may allow him to develop into an all-around offensive threat.
Remember, Betts was extremely selective in the minor leagues, running walk rates equal to his strikeout rates, but he hasn’t walked as much in the big leagues, as pitchers have chosen to challenge the diminutive youngster instead of pitching around him. With Betts showing he can punish pitches over the plate, I’d expect the scouting report on him to adjust, and Betts walk rate could surge this year. If he continues to hit the mistakes he sees while also seeing a significant spike in his walk rate, Betts may be capable of a .300/.400/.500 kind of season. Toss in his defensive and baserunning value, and Betts could emerge as the best non-Trout outfielder in the American League.
In last week’s Staff Predictions, I initially tabbed Mookie as my selection for AL MVP before changing to Carlos Correa at the last minute, mostly because I’m more confident in Houston’s ability to win the AL West than Boston’s ability to win the AL East. But if the Red Sox experience the revival that our forecasts are projecting, I won’t be too surprised if the emergence of Mookie Betts as a superstar is one of the primary narratives of the year.
In that Staff Predictions post referenced above, I listed Boston, Detroit, Houston, Washington, Chicago, and Los Angeles as my division winners for 2016; of that group, the Dodgers would be the only repeat winners from last year. And I wouldn’t be surprised if some of the teams with the best records in baseball a year ago ended up missing the postseason entirely this year.
The Cardinals won 100 games last year, but might only be the sixth or seventh best team in the National League this season, as the league is as top-heavy as any in recent history. With so many of the best NL teams loading up for postseason runs, teams like the Cardinals could find themselves on the outside looking in even though they remain a very talented team. The Giants, likewise, have a very good roster — and it’s an even year! — but the NL Wild Card race is going to be brutal, and they’ll have to jump over a few teams that could easily win it all if they make it to the postseason tournament.
Over in the AL, the Blue Jays, Royals, and Rangers are coming off terrific seasons, but all look vulnerable to me; the Jays position players are terrific but aging, and their rotation is full of question marks. They could be great again, and I do think they’ll at least be in the Wild Card mix, but it’s tough for me to see the Jays being the best team in the American League for the second straight year. The Royals and Rangers both relied heavily on sequencing to run up their win totals a year ago, and with talented opponents in their divisions, I expect both to take steps back this year, allowing for the emergence of new young breakout teams in the AL Central and AL West.
It’s not that people don’t realize that Chris Sale is an excellent pitcher. He’s been an All-Star for four straight years, and has finished in the top six in Cy Young voting in each of those seasons as well. Sale isn’t some under-the-radar star or anything. But whether it’s because the White Sox haven’t been any good, because everyone expects him to break down at any minute, or because he had the misfortune to be born around the same time as Clayton Kershaw, Sale hasn’t really gotten the recognition for just how great he really is.
This year, though, the White Sox could actually be a contender, and if they make a postseason run, it will likely be the time when everyone acknowledges that Chris Sale is the best pitcher in the American League, and it isn’t particularly close. There are some other great pitchers in the AL, certainly, and I love watching David Price, Chris Archer, Corey Kluber, Dallas Keuchel, and Felix Hernandez as much as anyone, but when you look at how they all stack up, Sale really does stand apart from the pack.
Since Sale moved back into the rotation in 2012, he ranks 1st in the AL in ERA- (72), 1st in FIP- (71), and 1st in xFIP- (73). And the scary part is that he’s getting better. His strikeout rates, by season, since going back to starting full time: 25%, 26%, 30%, 32%. Last year, Sale ran a 64 xFIP-, which is almost Kershaw-esque. Kershaw is remarkable because he not only dominates the strike zone but limits hard contact as well, which Sale doesn’t do as well, but if it weren’t for our generation’s Sandy Koufax over there in LA, we’d be talking about Sale as the best pitcher in baseball.
I’m not entirely sold on the White Sox as contenders this year, but for Sale’s sake, I hope they at least make a run. He deserves the spotlight and the recognition that go along with being as good as he actually is. With some better teammates in place, I think this will finally be the summer that baseball acknowledges Chris Sale as the true ace of the American League.
With MLB hiring Daren Willman over the winter, and deputizing him to continue providing Statcast data to the public, I think he and Mike Petriello will help us all discover something that we didn’t previously know about baseball. Mike’s been writing some excellent stuff for MLB.com since
they stole him away from us gave him a well-deserved job, and their access to the full Statcast dataset is allowing them to explore new areas not previously available for analysis.
For instance, this piece on defensive positioning of center fielders scratches the surface of something that could help explain why some players who grade out well by scouts don’t have their defensive reputations supported by the number of balls they actually get to. Being able to quantify how many feet from the wall a player stands on average may give us an idea of why a guy like Kevin Kiermaier grades out so well relative to someone like Anthony Gose, who might have comparable physical tools but hasn’t been as effective to date.
Or maybe it won’t have anything to do with fielding. Maybe it will be something about how quickly a player is able to get up to speed on a ball in the gap, or how a pitcher’s ability to spin a specific pitch in a certain way is a good predictor of future dominance if they move to the bullpen. I don’t know what the breakthrough will be, but given the amount of data that the smart people over at MLBAM are making available, I think someone in the public realm will figure something important out this year. And I can’t wait to see what it’s going to be.
Dave is the Managing Editor of FanGraphs.