Four Bold(ish) Predictions for the National League by Ben Clemens March 18, 2021 Hot takes are famously a huge part of the sports industrial complex, but here at FanGraphs, we’re not very good at them. I took a crack at some American League bold predictions yesterday, but honestly, they were pretty bland. Picking the relative fortunes of a bunch of good-but-not-great teams? Boring. A top prospect might be Rookie of the Year? Boring. Today, I’m going a little further. If the last takes were jalapeños with some seeds removed, these are serrano peppers. I said I’d be ecstatic hitting half of my predictions from yesterday; today I’d be pleased with one in the first three (the fourth one is relatively unadventurous). As always, these aren’t my median predictions, merely corner cases that I think are being undervalued. Will they happen? Probably not. But they could, and I don’t think people are giving them enough credence. Onward! Carson Kelly Will Be an All-Star Kelly was bad in 2020; he batted only 129 times, but a .221/.264/.385 line is pretty awful. The peripherals weren’t quite so ugly, but they weren’t good; his walk rate plummeted and his chase rate and swinging strike rate both went up. Doesn’t sound like an All-Star to me. On the other hand, it was only 129 plate appearances. Almost anything can happen in that short of a timeframe. Behind the plate, he was his normal self; he’s not the best framer in the league, but he’s an above-average defensive catcher by pretty much any evaluation of his skills. More importantly, I think there’s plenty left in the bat. In 2019, Kelly pulled his line drives and fly balls 30.4% of the time, roughly average. In his abbreviated 2020, that ticked up to 36.4%, and while it was only 55 batted balls, pulling more air contact is a good way to turn his hit tool into extra-base power. He didn’t turn those pulls into barrels, but if he could — admittedly a tall order — he could go from a bad hitter to a threat quickly. This homer from spring training wasn’t even smashed; it’s just easier to hit a homer when you’re pulling the ball: I’m creating a Frankenstein’s monster of statistics here, but he’s showed all the tools at various points. We know he can take a walk, he’s shown a solid feel to hit throughout the minors, and he ran an average barrel rate in 2019 to go along with his enviable fly ball metrics in 2020. If you’re willing to squint and only look at the upsides, he’s the total package. Also working in Kelly’s favor: the NL isn’t particularly deep at catcher. J.T. Realmuto and Will Smith are bona fide stars, but that’s kind of it; Willson Contreras heads the next tier, which in my eyes also contains Buster Posey, Austin Nola, Travis d’Arnaud, and maybe Kelly. You can throw Yadier Molina in there if you want to; I’m skeptical he has it in him at this point. There’s no one overwhelming in that group, and if Kelly takes a step forward from his 2019 numbers, that will likely be All-Star worthy, though likely as a reserve — even I’m not willing to predict him as a starter. Juan Soto Will Have a 200 wRC+ Since Barry Bonds retired, no one has topped a 200 wRC+ in a full season. Bryce Harper came closest in his spectacular 2015, and Soto managed it for 47 games last year. There’s nothing special about the number 200, but it’s a nice round target, and if Soto puts everything together this season, he could make a run at a truly historic offensive season. This isn’t anything like Kelly’s case, where hitting my lofty prediction involves stapling together several heretofore uncombined skills. Soto just hit .351/.490/.695. He didn’t even do it with some absurd BABIP, though he probably won’t continue to turn 36% of his fly balls into home runs. Even that was supported by a gargantuan 18.3% barrel rate, the fifth-best mark in baseball. The next step for Soto is further cleaning up his batted ball quality. He doesn’t hit a ton of pop ups, but there’s always room to improve there; Joey Votto exists, and peak Votto feels like a fair comp for Soto’s otherworldly combination of power and discipline. One way to look at this is launch angle consistency. It’s a tricky stat to use year-to-year, because switching from radar to cameras changed the baseline, as Alex Chamberlain covered last year. Think of it this way, though: in 2018, Soto’s launch angle standard deviation was 1.5 degrees worse than league average. In 2019, it was one degree worse than average. In 2020, it was average, despite ticking up by 2.5 degrees — the cameras pick up additional batted balls, and that increased standard deviation across the board. If this trend continues — and Soto is only 22, so expecting improvement feels reasonable — Soto could increase his contact quality even further. Do I think his results on contact will be better than they were in 2020? Not necessarily, even if he improves his consistency — there’s room to hit it better but get slightly unlucky. But they don’t have to be — he put up a 201 wRC+ in 2020. All he has to do is sustain it for a full year, a feat that, again, no one since Bonds has managed. It’s a measure of how great Soto is that I had to stop and make sure this was a bold enough prediction. I’m satisfied, though; if Soto has an offensive season for the ages, rather than merely a characteristically excellent one, I think that counts as a win for this arbitrary exercise. Kolten Wong Will Out-wRC+ Keston Hiura Hiura went from being one of the best hitting prospects in the minors to being one of the best hitters in the majors in 2019. His carrying tool is his laser-beam-spraying bat, so much so that Milwaukee feels fine playing him at first base to keep him in the lineup. Wong latched on with the Brewers because of his sterling glove, but his bat (and contract) led the Cardinals to move on from him in the first place. He’s arguably the best defensive second baseman in the game; he’s been worth 3 WAR per 600 plate appearances in his career despite a 96 wRC+. In 2021, I think that Wong will improve slightly on offense. He walked more and struck out less in 2020, boosting his already-excellent plate discipline numbers, and though he managed only a 92 wRC+ due to a complete power outage, his .350 OBP was characteristically solid. Now, he’s hitting homers off of Clayton Kershaw: You shouldn’t expect Wong to keep hitting bombs off of Hall of Fame lefties because that’s not his game. But you also shouldn’t expect another .061 ISO; that was a career-low mark, and Miller Park suits his power quite well. It plays short to right field — it’s perpetually at the top of lefty home run park factors — and Wong’s home runs are almost always dead pulled: For all my talk about Wong, though, this prediction is really about Hiura. Wong is an interesting offensive player, but I think his ceiling is capped; at this point, we have enough data to have a good idea of what he is. Hiura, on the other hand, remains a black box, and his two seasons have produced wildly different results. In 2019, Hiura was a line drive machine. He parlayed those line drives into 19 home runs and 23 doubles in half a season, as well as a ludicrous .402 BABIP. That premium contact quality made up for his biggest weakness, a strikeout rate that could best be described as gruesome. 30.7% strikeouts isn’t disqualifying, but if you strike out that much, you better smash the ball to make up for it. In 2020, Hiura couldn’t maintain his premium results on contact. He kept his enviable barrel rate, but everything else fell apart. He hit fewer line drives and more grounders. He pulled more of those grounders, which depressed his BABIP. His intermediate contact — hard-hit but not barreled — fell off; he hit 39.6% of his batted balls 95 mph or harder, down from 48.1% in 2019. In addition, his contact rate fell to a scary level. Do you know what it looks like to make contact on 59.4% of your swings? It looks like the lowest contact rate among qualified hitters, worse than Miguel Sanó and Luis Robert, just to name two free swingers off the top of my head. The culprit? Pitches over the heart of the plate, where his whiff rate climbed from 21.8% to 35.8%, the worst mark in baseball by more than five percentage points. What does this all mean? Frankly, I have no idea. That’s hole-in-the-bat level ineptitude, and while Hiura’s swing has always been violent, this is something else entirely. You can’t swing through more than a third of pitches down the middle and be an above-average hitter, regardless of what you do when you happen to run into one. Do I think this will continue? I’m not sure what to think. Hiura’s game simply won’t work if he keeps missing so often, but I worry that some of the whiffs come from his timing mechanism, a lingering leg lift that looks, to my amateur eyes, like it might slow his swing down too much: Regardless of what the culprit is, Hiura doesn’t appear to have completely solved it. He’s striking out in more than a third of his spring training plate appearances. Projection systems wouldn’t even call this a bold claim; our Depth Charts has Wong only seven points of wRC+ behind Hiura, though other projection systems think the gap is wider. Forget the projections, though; it’s downright outrageous for the glove-first second baseman to out-hit the slugger who he displaced in the field this offseason. Yu Darvish Will Win the Cy Young This one isn’t even bold. Darvish is one of the best five pitchers in the NL. After the other three predictions, though, I was craving something easier, and Darvish is a fun Cy Young candidate without being the overwhelming favorite. The obvious choice for pitching hardware is Jacob deGrom, because come on: he’s the best pitcher. That’s not exactly a smoking-hot take, though, even if he’s not very likely to win overall; everyone is unlikely to win a major award, because of how probability works. I wouldn’t feel right calling an article bold predictions and then saying deGrom will be good. Instead, I’m going with Darvish. What needs to happen for him to finally break through and add a trophy to his electrifying resume? I’d argue that the main thing he needs is a playoff team and a break from deGrom’s dominion as the best pitcher in baseball. Sure, Trevor Bauer won the award last year, but there’s a reason deGrom is the betting favorite and the best-projected pitcher by nearly a full win. That’s easier said than done, but Darvish has another path to the top: he could simply out-pitch deGrom. To do that, he’d need to pick up his strikeout pace — a 31.3% strikeout rate isn’t bad, but it’s unlikely to be enough to win the Cy Young given the tough slate of competition. Surprisingly, none of Darvish’s pitches (aside from his slow curve, which he used sparingly) were true swing-and-miss weapons in 2020. The highest whiff-per-swing rate on any of them was 33.3% on his splitter, with his slider close behind at 30%. Those pitches have missed more bats in the past, though, and they certainly could again in 2021. The bigger problem when it comes to strikeouts is also Darvish’s greatest strength: his vast repertoire of pitches. Here, courtesy of Baseball Savant, are the pitches he threw in 0-2, 1-2, and 2-2 counts last year — two-strike counts where wasting one wouldn’t turn into a walk: It’s really cool to see such a diverse arsenal, but it’s not hard to imagine an uptick in success if he mothballed some of the fastballs for secondary pitches. Pitching doesn’t happen in a vacuum, and batters’ expectations play a big role in results. But it’s hard for me to imagine that fewer sinkers and more sliders is going to result in fewer strikeouts in this situation, so I’m all for him trying it. Mostly, this pick was an easy way out. I had three legitimately bold hitting predictions I liked, and I wanted to finish the article with a pitching prediction and in a reasonable amount of time. Also, I wanted to pick Darvish to win an award! He’s a ton of fun, and he’s been one of the most electrifying pitchers in baseball for years without taking home any hardware. This one is less a bold prediction than a somewhat likely thing that I hope happens.