2019 Bold Predictions, Reviewed

October 11, 2019
 
It is the time of year when baseball writers look back on their preseason predictions and review all the things they got wrong about the coming season.
 
I enjoy making these annual predictions and checking on them, but I don’t pretend that they have any relevance for the upcoming season. I don’t spend much time trying to get them right: I’m mostly just making guesses about players that interest me. I’d hazard that’s what most of these columns are: fun little efforts at imagining a cloudy future.
 
I was thinking about this the other day, and I had something of an epiphany. While these kinds of predictions don’t tell us anything significant about the baseball season to come, and they probably shouldn’t be taken seriously as evidence of which writers you should pay attention to and which ones you should ignore, these predictions have the potential to tell us a great deal about how the person making them thinks about the game.
 
And these articles have the capacity, too, to reveal gaps and prejudices in one’s thinking; the errors they are habitually make and the obsessions they cannot shake.
 
So that’s what this review is about. I’m going to skip telling you whether I was right or wrong, and instead attempt a deeper dive towards what I was thinking, and what it might mean.
 
1. Victor Robles will be this year’s Ronald Acuna.
 
In projecting the future of players, I have always preferred offensive players who have a diverse range of skills, and Victor Robles is – like Acuna – a player who can do a lot of different things pretty well. He’s a good defensive player. He’s fast. He’s hit effectively at every level in the minors, showing good power and a more generalized ability to be a decent offensive player. He doesn’t have a troublesome strikeout rate. His walk rate, at least in the minors was perfectly serviceable.
 
What I like about players like Robles…and he merits further discussion in another space…is that you can look at his minor league track record and see multiple path forward for success. He could become a Carl Crawford-type player and turn into an elite, speed-first player…a top of the order guy who sometimes sneaks in a bunt and annoys the opposing starter every time he reaches first. Or he could come into his power and figure out the strike zone a bit and turn into Carlos Beltran. He could do that and be a little less than Carlos Beltran: Victor Robles could have a Chris Young-type career: a perennial 20-20 guy whose skills don’t ever develop to an elite level, but who is nevertheless a net positive for a team.
 
There are a lot of interesting potential outcomes for Robles’ career, and my favoring him reflects a very obvious and safe bias for players with multiple talents. This reflects a thinking that is neither new nor particularly interesting.
 
2. Jakob Junis is a pitcher you don’t know now, but will know by season’s end.
 
I have taken a little bit of a break from writing about baseball. Partially, that break has come because I’ve been focused on other things, and partially it’s happened because I felt that I’d gotten in a kind of rut with writing about baseball, and I wanted to take time off to think about how to write about the game in a different way than I have written about it previously.
 
That thinking is guiding this article, at least a little bit: I didn’t want to write an article telling you that Jacob Junis had a crappy year: you either know that already or you can look it up, or you don’t care. What does it matter?
 
What I want to understand is why I was so interested in Junis last year. What is it that fascinated me about him?
 
It was his decision, late in 2018, to just stop walking batters. During his last seven starts, Junis walked three hitters over 44.2 innings, and I hoped that he had turned a corner and decided to just do that in 2019: just not walk hitters.
 
That is obviously a naïve expectation for what is a complex, multi-faceted event: a pitcher cannot just decided to not walk batters, because if it were purely in their control all of them would have decided to do that, and Moneyball would be a very different book and movie.
 
That said, there are underlying thoughts to Junis’ performance that made me curious about his 2019 season. I am not a professional pitcher, of course, but I have always imagined that control and velocity exist in relation to one another: that is, the harder you throw, the more difficult it is to control a pitch. There is a third axis, which is the number of types of pitches you throw: it is, I expect, tougher to master four pitches than it is to master one or two.
 
That’s a simplification, but I’ve wondered why more pitchers don’t experiment with approaches that are less velocity-centered, and more control-centered. Mariano made a career with one pitch, after all, and Warren Spahn’s late career was mostly built on upsetting a hitter’s timing. Why don’t we see modern pitchers going outside the box a little more frequently?
 
I know there are many different answers to that question, all of which open new layers and avenues for thinking. What excited me about Junis was that he seemed to have figured something out at the end of 2018, and I was curious to see what it was.
 
And I should have known better. One of the notes out of spring training was that Junis had gained a few ticks on his fastball. Not surprisingly, what he gained in that department he lost in the control side of the paradigm, and the end-result was a lackluster season.
 
3. Yasiel Puig will receive some MVP votes.
4. Billy Hamilton will finally break out and steal 75 bases.
 
I am going to combine these two because they reflect a parallel bias, which is my belief that some players, through the vagaries of fate, just end up on the wrong goddamned team at the start of their careers, and those vagaries can severely limit their careers.
 
I like Yasiel Puig. Understanding the counter-opinions about him, I very much enjoy players who a) can do amazing things on a baseball field, and b) play with a lot of enthusiasm.
 
I never felt that Puig was a great fit with the culture of the Dodgers or the city of Los Angeles, and I hoped that under the lesser lights of Cincinnati he’d enjoy a breakout performance. He didn’t, of course.
 
As for Billy Hamilton: I have an almost ridiculous love for him, because I miss stolen bases and like the way that speed has the capacity to disrupt the game. I like Hamilton, too, because his career really is a miracle of sorts: here is a man who learned how to hit left-handed in Double-A, and how to play centerfield in the majors, whose been at least somewhat productive in the first effort, and extremely excellent at the second one. I like to root for underdogs, for idiosyncratic players, and Hamilton has felt, throughout his career, as both.
 
Because I root for him, I’ve been a longtime critic of the many decisions the Reds have made about Hamilton, and I was excited to see what a team like the Royals – a team with a decent track record of turning track stars into All-Stars - would do with Hamilton. The result was more of the same. It’s unlikely that Hamilton will ever hit enough to justify a starting position.
 
Is this a problematic bias? Probably, it is. I love to be astonished by what a player does on the field, and Hamilton and Puig are astonishing players: off the cuff, I can think of numerous things they’ve done on the baseball field that have made my jaw drop.
 
But having the capacity to score from third on an infield pop-up or throw a baseball 300 feet while flat-footed makes for compelling visuals, those instances don’t always make a career. It isn’t fair to pin the failures of each player to turn significant gifts into good careers on the franchise that signed them.
 
5. The best catcher in the NL will be a rookie in San Diego.
 
After a crummy first half, Francisco Mejia posted a triple-slash of .305/.355/.511 during the second half, which is a nice positive for a 23-year-old catcher in San Diego. I didn’t get this one right, but I’d probably run it back next year. I like catchers who can him, and Mejia can hit.
 
I will make another point, which is broader: all of these predictions except one are optimistic predictions, and the one negative prediction comes in at #8…it took me seven predictions to realize that I was anticipating a very rosy season.
 
I very much struggle to make negative predictions, a trait that I don’t fully understand. But this lends another interesting avenue for consideration: is my thinking clearer when I am being optimistic, or is it cleared when I am being pessimistic? If my natural inclination is towards the positive, does that cloud my judgements?
 
Maybe I will force myself to write exclusively negative predictions next year. Or maybe I’ll write ten positives and ten negatives and see what the outcomes reveal. Am I a better thinking playing to a default optimism, or is my thinking clearer when I force myself towards pessimism?
 
6. Brandon Nimmo will pace the NL in on-base percentage.
 
I said earlier that I like players with a wide base of skill sets. The coin-flip is that I also like players who have very narrow and somewhat obscure skill sets. Nimmo fits this later group: he is not fleet of foot nor gold of glove, and he doesn’t mash homeruns or chase batting titles. All he does is avoid making outs, a skill that is masked further by his home park in Queens.
 
He had an off year. I still like him: if I were a GM, I’d be calling the Mets and seeing what the price is.
 
7. Cody Bellinger will lead the NL in home runs.
 
This prediction looked not-very-bold before the season reached April: Bellinger swatted four homeruns during the Dodgers early-season series against Arizona and had an MVP-level season. 
 
But this prediction was a little bolder considering his 2018 sophomore campaign, which saw the LA outfielder’s homerun output slip from 39 to just 25, in more plate appearances.
 
The thinking for this is simple enough: my view is that any hitter who does exceptionally well at a young age will likely do better at some point down the track. Entering the season, I was high on Bellinger for the same reason I was high on the futures of Rafael Devers and Ozzie Albies: each of them had been extremely productive as very young players, and it is rare for someone who can play competitively at 20 or 21 years of age to not get better later on.
 
I think we’ve lost sight, at least a little, in the ways that baseball players tend to experience the game. A generation ago the notion of the sophomore slump was a part of the baseball lexicon: a mythology that was built around the very reasonable idea that a hitter having a strong rookie season might struggle the next year, as the league figures him out and starts passing along notes.
 
This is perhaps underappreciated right now. It shouldn’t surprise us when a good young hitter has a season of growing pains before figuring things out, and we should remain optimistic about their future.
 
That’s a long preamble to saying that Andrew Benintendi is still going to be great, folks.
 
8. Josh Donaldson will not bounce back.
 
I am skeptical about the sustainability of the current fixation on launch angle: I think it is a trend that is begging for a counter-trend to bottom it out, and because Donaldson is the poster boy for avoid ground balls like the plague, I decided to go with him. I hope the N.L. Comeback Player of the Year Award is a decent compensation for my skepticism.
 
And I remain skeptical. At some point baseball will put into play oblong balls or pitchers will re-remember how to upset a hitter’s timing, and the generation of players swinging for the moon will give way to another trend.
 
I also think I am still confusing Donaldson with the guy who played third before him and was (I think) traded for him…the guy with lots of arm tattoos and a great glove who played like he was on the run from the police after robbing a bank.
 
Brett Lawrie…I had to look it up. Lawrie is actually four years younger than Donaldson, which surprised me.
 
9. The Red Sox will repeat as 100-game winners. And they’ll lose the AL East.
 
I continue to ruminate on the Red Sox of last year, a team that seemed to win in every permutation that the game allowed. Someday I would like to really dive into that notion, and find out if that sense holds any truth, or if I’m just imagining something.

I thought the Red Sox were going to be a great team again, and they were merely good, and they ended up trailing a very great team (the Yankees) and a good one (Tampa Bay). I don’t know that there’s much to unpack here.
 
10. Andrew McCutchen will eclipse his single-season bests in at least two of these: homeruns, runs scored, and on-base percentage.
 
Hell, I’m not going to dive any deeper into this one than I really like McCutchen, and thought he was going to be hitting at the top of a very dynamic offense. His season numbers, adjusted to a full year, project to 27 HR, 119 runs scored, and a .378 on-base percentage.
 
 
David Fleming is a writer living in western Virginia. He welcomes comments, questions, and suggestions here. He very occasionally tweets at DavidFlemingJ1.
 
    
 
 

COMMENTS (7 Comments, most recent shown first)

klamb819
Assuming "w HF at" = "what" [Bcuz I, too, have fat fingers — not that I'm suggesting any correlation with excess weight :-) ]
10:48 PM Oct 16th
 
OldBackstop
Just to expand on w HF at 337 said below, when Nimmo came back, in 93 plate appearances he had an OBP of .440 and an OPS of .995.

That said....I would trade him if a good opportunity comes up. He is sort of a 5 "B-" tool player. I think JD Davis should be playing every day next year, we have Conforto and Davis and McNeil in the corners. Our opportunities to improve should be at third and in center. Nimmo may be worth more in a trade than as our 4/5 OFer. Plus he has that annoying Howdy Doody thank baby jesus attitude. Some Midwest fanbase would love him to pieces.
2:18 PM Oct 14th
 
OldBackstop
I always enjoy your articles, Dave.

I think it is more interesting to predict the top performances of a coming year than the poor ones. I can predict that Todd Frazier will have a fall off in production, and I'll probably be right, just due to Father Time. Also, if someone has a serious injury, you can't penalize your upside prediction (e.g.: Nimmo)

Puig, I think, spoiled the environment, or maybe shtt the bed, with his rookie jerkdom in LA. Bill, I recall, had raging upside predictions for him a few years ago. He is similar in my mind to Cespedes....cocky Cuban superstars with jaw dropping physical skills who will break your heart.

I really haven't followed Hamilton's career, but watching him with Atlanta against the Mets in September I was like "why didn't the Mets pick him up?" He seemed to gave a plus glove in center, plus plus speed of course, and I think he was batting .265 or something. Used mostly as a pinch runner, he had three steals in six games against the Mets, who have nobody like that. It made me ponder....what effect does someone like that, even if he doesn't get in the game, deliver from the bench? I know as soon as someone in the bottom of the order got on, I was thinking "Oh no, here comes Hamilton." Maybe it almost has the effect of having a big bat behind you...you will get good pitches, because a walk is a double and a bloop single to follow is a run.
2:07 PM Oct 14th
 
hotstatrat
My wild prediction last year was that the Tigers would lose 110 games. They only lost 98, but then took 114 losses this year.
11:39 AM Oct 12th
 
MarisFan61
(typo in those Castilla stats -- I didn't really mean that one of his batting averages was an E.R.A.)​
3:46 AM Oct 12th
 
MarisFan61
Love the looking at what lies underneath and within one's predictions. Real, real nice job.

And here's some more props.
Although you said, "It is the time of year when baseball writers look back on their preseason predictions and review all the things they got wrong about the coming season," I think actually most writers don't do it except to say what if anything they got right. :-)

A few stray things:
Here's another thing Victor Robles can do very well. I talked about in on Reader Posts. In the last inning of the N.L. Wild Card game, after the Milwaukee kid who was in right field because Yelich was out had given the Nats the lead by letting the hit get by him, there was a Brewer hit to center field and Robles played it in the most classic textbook way an outfielder can play a hit, in a way that seemed studiously exaggerated. It made me literally laugh out loud. It felt like he was making sure to do it in a 1000% guaranteed way because of what had just happened to the other team in right field. I don't think I had seen an outfielder field a ball like that in as long as I haven't seen a pitcher do an old-fashioned full wind-up (except for Paul Byrd), maybe ever.

Here's why I'm interested in Jacob Junis. You said a lot of what you love about players. I love all of those things too, and also statistical tidbits.
Junis's W's, the last three years: 9, 9, 9

The rest of these are just the last two years.
W-L the last two years: 9-12, 9-14
Innings the last two years: 177, 175
HR's allowed the last two years: 32, 31
K's the last two years: 164, 164

Not quite as good as those 2 years in a row of Vinny Castilla (40-113-3.04, 40-113-.304) but pretty good.

IMO your long-continued belief in Billy Hamilton is the only one of your predictions ever that wasn't either good or at least funny. :-)
But it was charming.

Even as a Yankee fan, I also thought after last year that these Red Sox would be great every year for a lot of years. I was almost giving up on anyone else winning the A.L. East for a fair while.


A writing comment: Something you did in this article that I don't recall you doing before and which I don't recall anyone else doing to such an extent on this site (except me) :-) is the italicizing. I appreciated it a lot. Perhaps some people have the skill of being able to convey all the right emphases without any such device, just with the words themselves, just as though they were talking, with all the right inflections somehow made clear, but I sure can't.
A hazard of doing the italic thing, though, is that sometimes we might get a little lost in it ourselves and we might give emphasis to a word that we'd never actually inflect if we were talking. I attribute it to the basic unnaturalness of the writing process as compared to speaking; at given moments the process can disrupt our being in touch. Often I look back at my copious italicizing and wonder, what was I thinking there?
I wonder if you might think that about one or two of the italicizations here. :-)
I think you might (maybe not!) -- but regardless, I appreciated it a lot, not just because it helped make everything clear but also because I just liked the fact of your doing it.
3:44 AM Oct 12th
 
337
Nimmo actually had a pretty good year, considering he was injured (and played through it disastrously) at the very start, then sat out most of the season. When he came back, healed, he got on base like crazy and hit for pretty good power. Basically he was hurt but still carries a hefty price tag for any GMs who want him.
2:40 AM Oct 12th
 
 
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