It’s opening week! There is a ton of news flying around our favorite baseball sites like Pitcher List on injuries, playing time, prospects, summer camp performances, and more. Honestly, it’s a bit overwhelming. Even though the start of the season has been pushed back by nearly four months, I still feel like this week snuck up on us. For those of you feverishly trying to keep up like me, I’m going to keep this brief. Some of these bold predictions will prompt future Going Deep articles, so we’ll save some of the expanded analysis for those pieces. Alright, let’s start off with a bang!
Yu Darvish Is the Most Valuable Fantasy Pitcher in 2020
Hmm…picking the guy who dominated the second half of the 2019 season to the tune of a 2.76 ERA, .81 WHIP, and 118-7 strikeout to walk ratio over 81.2 innings pitched doesn’t sound too bold on the surface, does it? There’s still a lot of doubt around Yu Darvish’s ability to remain consistent—especially with this control.
Oh yeah, and those other guys who stand in his way of attaining the title of best fantasy pitcher this year. You may have heard of them—Gerrit Cole, Jacob deGrom, and Justin Verlander. And maybe you know their friends Jack Flaherty, Mike Clevinger, Max Scherzer, Shane Bieber, Walker Buehler, Stephen Strasburg, Clayton Kershaw, Luis Castillo, Trevor Bauer, Blake Snell, Tyler Glasnow, Charlie Morton, Lucas Giolito, and Jose Berrios (deep breath). That’s a list of 17 pitchers not named Yu Darvish who are equal or larger favorites to win a Cy Young award this year according to DraftKings Sportsbook. Darvish is fetching just 20-1 odds to win the NL Cy Young and then he still has to outperform all AL pitchers for this bold prediction to hit. So why do I like Darvish over the other 25 or so guys who could realistically walk away with the top spot?
First, he’s done it before—and recently. He went bananas in the second half of 2019, and has been successful in the past, and hasn’t lost velocity on his fastball due to aging yet. A short season should help him fight off decline for at least another year.
Second, Darvish has a silly pitch mix, and he’s still adding to it. He threw eight different pitches in 2019 and is adding a new one to the mix this year, which he named the “Supreme.” This is a unique pitch that is described as a mix between a two-seam fastball and a splitter, which would give the pitch a similar path as a changeup but at the speed of a heater. Knowing Darvish, he is probably going to throw his changeup a little more too if the “Supreme” sticks since they would play off each other. Personally, it puts me in the mood for a frozen pizza so I’m curious if and when the pitch will get an official baseball classification.
Next, Yu Darvish is on the Cubs and plays in the NL Central. Due to the unusual schedule format in 2020, this means he dodges Coors Field completely. He also avoids offensive juggernaut teams like the Dodgers, Yankees, and Astros. In fact, the Cubs only face one team that finished in the top 15 in runs scored per game in 2019. That one team is the Minnesota Twins, which Darvish has a 40% chance of avoiding facing anyway since they only play each other for a single three-game series at the end of September. Yu Darvish could face below-league average offenses in every single start in 2020.
Finally, he’s slated to have Victor Caratini behind the dish for every start this year. Nothing against Willson Contreras (well, maybe a little) but Caratini took the field with Darvish for his final 14 starts of the 2019 season after Contreras and Taylor Davis handled 12 of his first 17 starts. Caratini didn’t enter the picture until start number ten last year. Remember how Darvish “figured it out” and broke out in a big way in the second half? Yeah, there was another factor in that breakout behind the plate. How do we know this actually impacted Darvish, though?
May I present Exhibit A as the number of pitches Yu Darvish threw in the strike zone last year that did not generate swings and were called balls by the umpire (strikes that were lost):
Maybe it’s a fluke, right? Let’s take a look at Exhibit B; the number of pitches Darvish threw in the “shadow” zone, but technically outside of the strike zone that did not generate swings and were called strikes by the umpire (strikes that were stolen):
We’ll wrap up this topic and move onto my next bold prediction, but I’ll leave you with this. Check Darvish’s reaction after this pitch in the zone made it to the backstop:
Mookie Betts Is the Most Valuable Fantasy Hitter in 2020
This one is a bold prediction because Mookie Betts hasn’t been selected higher than third overall in 60 NFBC drafts in the past week. Ronald Acuna Jr., Christian Yelich, and Cody Bellinger have all gone first overall and have a higher ADP than Betts in the last week. There’s this other guy named Mike Trout who is still expected to play most of the season who could make a run for this title as well.
Second, Mookie is moving to a great hitting environment. He’s slotted to hit first or second for the team projected to score the most runs in the league which makes Betts the favorite to lead the league in plate appearances. He has a reigning MVP behind him in the lineup for protection which means he will get some pitches to hit. There has been some speculation that Betts will get pitched around in Los Angeles, but that means adding guaranteed baserunners and RBI opportunities for guys like Max Muncy, Cody Bellinger, and Justin Turner, and I don’t see that happening intentionally. He should maintain his standard walk rate which is already well above the league average. Additionally, he will have more RBI opportunities with the Dodgers than a typical leadoff hitter due to the depth and quality of hitters in the bottom part of the order, which helps raise his ceiling and floor.
Dodger Stadium often boasts ideal hitting conditions, and the dimensions are favorable to the power of Betts. Toss in four games at Coors and two games in Houston with the short porch in left for good measure and we could be looking at a power surge for Mookie. Also, he’s paired up with fellow swing guru Justin Turner to help work through any type of slump quickly, similar to what he’s losing in J.D. Martinez.
Another overlooked factor with Betts is that he has stolen base upside. Heading into the season, none of the major projection systems have him above 8 stolen bases for the year. He saw his stolen base rate cut almost exactly in half last year after a career-high 30 thefts in 2018. Double-digit stolen bases (10 = 27 in a full season) are in-play after averaging that amount from 2016-2018. Does this look like a player who is slowing down as much as his stolen base totals suggest?
Next, the Dodgers don’t face many elite starters. They may get Justin Verlander, but they play the Astros in two separate two-game series separated by two months. I could see the Astros moving things around to make sure Verlander does get the Dodgers, but there’s still a decent chance they don’t and he misses them. So other than Verlander, how many pitchers ranked in the top 15 of Nick Pollack’s most recent version of The List will the Dodgers face? Zero. The best offensive team in baseball has a decent chance to go through the entire regular season without facing a pitcher ranked in the top 15 heading into the season. If you’re curious, Chris Paddack comes in at number 17 and Corey Kluber at 18 is right behind him but could miss the Dodgers as well since they only play a single three-game series against each other.
My last point here originally was that Mookie Betts has a lot on the line as an impending free agent in 2021 looking for a massive long-term contract. Well, that has been resolved after it’s been reported that he signed a 12-year $350 million dollar contract extension with the Dodgers on Wednesday. Some may think of this extension as a negative to Mookie’s value, citing decreased motivation and higher expectations, but I couldn’t disagree more.
Mookie Betts has made a career out of playing with something to prove. He wasn’t supposed to be a superstar. Drafted in the fifth round and was just the Red Sox seventh-ranked prospect heading into his first major league season in 2014. Betts is one of the most professional and mindful players in the game and, I feel that he will be overly cautious to stay safe and healthy during the 2020 season as well. I have him as one of the least likely players to turn up a positive COVID-19 test because of this, which is a big deal for his playing time outlook.
Mookie Betts deserves to be going first overall in fantasy drafts this year.
Jake Arrieta Records at Least Five Saves for the Phillies in 2020
For more, check out my deep dive on why Arrieta could and should move to the bullpen
Okay, I know this doesn’t sound too impressive, but an 8/8 season in 60 games is a 20/20 player in a full season. Here are their current projected totals for the upcoming season according to ATC Projections:
I think Roman Quinn gets the majority of starts in CF for the Phillies this year. He has flashed some power in camp this year and has drawn positive reviews for his work at the plate from skipper Joe Girardi. Health has been a factor for Quinn throughout his career, and a 60-game season could give him an opportunity to make it through a full season with fewer opportunities for injury along the way.
Adam Halsey doesn’t really excite me too much this season, and Quinn offers more flexibility as a switch hitter who can play all three outfield positions. On top of that, the other Phillies outfielders do have a history of injury, so if Andrew McCutchen, Jay Bruce, or Bryce Harper go down, Quinn will get as many at-bats as he can handle. He could also see time in the leadoff spot due to his ability to get on base and electric speed which ranked in the 99th percentile of the league last year. He’ll get his stolen bases, and I think if he can get 150-200 plate appearances, he could pull off 8 home runs. Obviously, the basis of this prediction comes from the idea that they will be getting more playing time than expected.
Monte Harrison doesn’t have a single major league at-bat to his name and hasn’t been projected to play a prominent role on the team this year after being reassigned to minor league camp during spring training. He impressed in summer camp but plans for Jonathan Villar to play the outfield along with Corey Dickerson, Harold Ramirez, and…umm…Matt Joyce, and…uh…Lewis Brinson might provide a temporary roadblock on the path to playing time for Harrison in the early going. Joyce and Brinson have missed some time this summer and have been placed on the COVID-19 IL, however, and Harrison has taken full advantage of the opportunity.
Harrison put up nine home runs and 20 stolen bases in AAA last season in just 56 games, so 8/8 seems reasonable in 2020 if he can get enough playing time. In addition, Monte showed some good on-base skills last year while reducing his strikeout rate by seven percentage points from 2018, so he could get some at-bats from the leadoff spot as well throughout the year.
Randy Arozarena is another guy who isn’t projected to make the opening day roster and is currently on the COVID-19 IL which makes him the boldest prediction of this group. The Rays outfield is crowded with a lot of good options, unlike the Marlins. If he is healthy, Kevin Kiermaier has center field locked down apart from some tough matchups against lefties that may go to new arrivals Manuel Margot and Jose Martinez.
The problem with all of this is that Kiermaier has a hard time staying healthy (he only played 130 or more games once in his six major league seasons), Margot can’t hit (career wOBA of .289), and Martinez can’t field (-9 Outs Above Average was dead last among all qualified right fielders in 2019). Given Tampa Bay’s depth, I can’t imagine a situation where Margot is used as more than a defensive replacement for Hunter Renfroe or pinch-runner, and Martinez ever wears a glove. That means if Kiermaier goes down, the job could be Arozarena’s to lose.
The Rays also don’t like holding onto expensive players if they don’t have to and Kiermaier is the highest-paid position player on the team by a significant amount making more than double the salary of the next guy. If Arozarena shows he’s ready, look for the Rays to move Kiermaier quickly to make room. Now that we hypothesized a path to his playing time, let’s find out if he can make to 8/8 in 50 or fewer games (let’s be realistic—he has .048 years of service time already and the Rays are willing to pay Kiermaier for a few extra games to buy a full extra year of what should be prime Arozarena—he’s not on the team until he passes his service time magic day).
97th percentile in sprint speed and decent stolen base numbers in the minors? Check. Game power? Questionable. Has he done it before? Almost. Arozarena put up a 16/19 line in 422 plate appearances across three levels in 2019. That puts him at 7.52/7.98 over 200 plate appearances. This one will be close, even if everything goes “as planned” as stated above. Consider this one the French roast of bold predictions.
Vladimir Guerrero Jr. Wins the Batting Title
I feel like the baseball community underrating the potential of Vladimir Guerrero Jr. It’s universally accepted that Guerrero disappointed in his first season in the majors. Honestly though, considering Vlad’s age and rookie wOBA which was above the league average, I think it’s unfair to it that. Did he struggle in his year in the majors compared to his minor league track record? Yes. Have other superstars struggled during their first taste of the big leagues and turned it around rather quickly? You bet. Here are some examples:
|Minor League wOBA
|Vladimir Guerrero Jr.
Vlad absolutely scorches the ball and he doesn’t pop up too often, which plays into his BABIP and ability to hit home runs. He had two of the top four exit velocities on batted balls in the game in 2019 (the other two belonged to Giancarlo Stanton). Considering the type of contact he makes, you’d think he would have an issue with whiffs. That’s the scary part—he posted league average contact skills and a strikeout rate well below league average in his first year and it’s not like he’s swinging at everything either. Guerrero chased pitches out of the zone less than one percent above the league average rate. Yes, I picked some success stories of high-profile prospects who struggled in their first year and took a huge step forward in their sophomore season.
I’m not trying to convince you that he is a lock to go down the same path as these superstars, but I am trying to highlight that it is definitely possible. Some of the best to play in this generation had a rough first year but had extremely strong minor league numbers that highlighted their elite talent before reaching the major leagues. It would be wise not to completely write that talent off and take his first year at face value. He’s being drafted in 2020 based on an average projected increase in wOBA of about .029, which would be a smaller relative improvement in season two than any of the others listed. I’m expecting a larger jump in wOBA sparked by some improved batted ball luck.
His BABIP, however, sat at .309 which is still above the league average but has room for growth given his minor league rates and his batted ball profile. Additionally, getting away from Rogers Centre should help his batting average as it’s a fairly neutral park with a huge amount of foul territory that leads to more outs that would have been foul and out of play in other parks. If his true talent BABIP is closer to .330, which I believe it, plus the gains I think he will continue to make in his strikeout and walk rates as most young players do, then my projections have him putting up a .318 batting average, which only trails Mike Trout, Jose Altuve, Howie Kendrick, and Luis Arraez puts the batting title within reach.
Austin Meadows (2013) and Ian Happ (2015) were both ninth overall draft picks in the MLB draft. They are both considered “late bloomers” and my projections have them performing at nearly identical levels this year. Meadows has a slight edge in stolen bases and batting average, but considering the short season, I’ll take my chances. Here’s their projected batting line: .270/.348/.512/12/4. If this one hits, I’m retiring!
These 5 hitters with an ADP > 400 all have an ADP of 125 or lower heading into 2021
The Diamondbacks beat the White Sox in the World Series after sneaking into the playoffs and getting hot at the right time. Christian Walker is the World Series MVP.
Vlad: (Photo by Julian Avram/Icon Sportswire) Darvish: (Photo by Adam Davis/Icon Sportswire) Betts: (Photo by Ric Tapia/Icon Sportswire)
Winker: (Photo by Daniel Bartel/Icon Sportswire) Arrieta: (Photo by Kyle Ross/Icon Sportswire) | Feature Graphic Designed by James Peterson (Follow @jhp_design714 on Instagram & Twitter)