Monday, December 7, 2015

What I Didn't Expect in Baseball in 2015

Hard to believe I've been blogging about my MLB predictions for four straight years; it's become a Baseballot tradition. Now it's time for another Baseballot tradition: laughing at how wrong I was. With the baseball season comfortably behind us and another World Series champion crowned, I took a look back at what a younger, more innocent Nathaniel Rakich thought would happen in 2015 in both the American League and National League. Both in the name of accountability and because some of the predictions are truly hilarious in hindsight, I present my home runs and strikeouts alike for you to enjoy.

Prediction: The AL playoff teams would be the Angels, Rays, Indians, Mariners, and Orioles. The NL playoff teams would be the Nationals, Dodgers, Cardinals, Mets, and Cubs.
What Really Happened: Every one of my AL picks missed the postseason, but four of my five NL picks made it—just substitute the Pirates for the Nats. This, though, is consistent with everyone else's picks—the NL was just easier this year. I'm proud that I was so high on the Cubs and Mets, but one of my worst calls was being so down on the eventual World Champion Royals. Overall, the difference between my predicted win totals for the 30 teams and their actual win totals had a standard deviation of 10.0 and an average error of 8.6—roughly on par with my predictions in other years.

Prediction: The Red Sox outfield would be a mess, as Hanley Ramírez and Rusney Castillo flop. Justin Masterson would prove to have lost it for good, but the bullpen would be stronger due to additions like Anthony Varvaro.
What Really Happened: Hanley and Rusney were both constant sources of agitation for Red Sox nation, but the outfield as a whole was passable as Mookie Betts was a legitimate MVP candidate. Masterson does (sadly) look like he's done after posting a 5.61 ERA in 59.1 innings, but Varvaro was put on waivers by May 3. The bullpen had a 4.24 ERA.

Prediction: Despite Eric Hosmer finally reaching the 20-homer plateau, the Royals would score no more than the 651 runs they scratched out in 2014 en route to a sub-.500 season.
What Really Happened: Hosmer hit just 18, but the Royals upped their run total to 724 thanks to contributors like Mike Moustakas and Kendrys Morales. It was, of course, enough to win the World Series.

Prediction: The Mets' time would arrive, as Matt Harvey would return to ace form and Noah Syndergaard would be one of the league's top two rookie pitchers. Travis d'Arnaud would slug 20 dingers, David Wright would double his number of home runs, and the Mets would be an above-average offensive team for the first time since 2011.
What Really Happened: The Mets still had a below-average offense, just barely (98 OPS+), as injuries kept d'Arnaud and Wright to 12 and five home runs, respectively. But oh, the pitching—Syndergaard topped all rookies with at least 130 innings pitched with a 3.24 ERA, and Harvey twirled 189.1 innings with a 2.71 ERA.

Prediction: Steven Souza and Kris Bryant (23 home runs, not including one in the playoffs against the Mets) would be named your Rookies of the Year; Andrew Heaney would be runner-up in the AL.
What Really Happened: Bryant won the award and cranked 26 home runs, plus one in the NLCS against New York. (My prediction was specifically that it would come off Harvey in the Wild Card game, but we'll let that slide.) Souza, though, struggled to adapt to life in Tampa Bay, hitting just .225. Heaney was better (3.49 ERA, 3.73 FIP) but didn't play enough to garner award consideration. My prediction that he would outpitch supposed Angels ace Jered Weaver proved true for all rate stats but walks per nine.

Prediction: Jung Ho Kang would "flop so miserably that no Korean Baseball Organization position player will dare attempt moving to MLB again until the 2020s."
What Really Happened: Kang was a revelation, toting an .816 OPS until he was wiped out by Chris Coghlan's slide and finishing third in NL Rookie of the Year balloting. Already in this young offseason, four KBO hitters have sought to make the jump to the states, with one (Byung Ho Park) already signing with the Twins.

Prediction: The Miami outfield—Giancarlo Stanton, Christian Yelich, Marcell Ozuna, and Ichiro Suzuki—would post the highest WAR of any in baseball. If not, it would be the Pirates' trio of Andrew McCutchen, Gregory Polanco, and Starling Marte.
What Really Happened: By fWAR, the Pirates' outfield finished 12th; the Marlins were 22nd! (Maybe keeping Ozuna in the minors for much of the year wasn't the best decision?) The Diamondbacks were actually tops, with contributors AJ Pollock, Ender Inciarte, and David Peralta, whom I called undeserving of a starting job. All he did was slash .312/.371/.522.

Prediction: The Braves' offense would lead the majors in shutouts and strikeouts. Only Freddie Freeman would register an offensive WAR above 1.0, and the team would finish with the fewest runs scored of any team in a non-strike-shortened season since 1971.
What Really Happened: Atlanta scored just 573 runs, worst in baseball but not nearly as bad as the low mark of futility set by the 2013 Marlins and 2010 Mariners (513 runs). Amazingly, though, they struck out only 1,107 times—second-fewest in the majors, after the world champs. Several other players did post oWARs over 1.0, including Nick Markakis, AJ Pierzynski, and Cameron Maybin.

Prediction: Álex Rodríguez would pick up where he left off with 20 home runs and a .330 wOBA. Prince Fielder would roar back to hit 25 home runs, and Shin-Soo Choo would put up a 15 HR/15 SB season.
What Really Happened: A-Rod left the yard no less than 33 times and sported a .361 wOBA. Turns out the guy is a Hall of Fame talent—who knew? Choo did bounce back in the power and OBP departments, though not stolen bases (instead of a 15/15 guy, he was a 22/4 guy), and Fielder, with his 23 home runs, won Comeback Player of the Year honors.

Prediction: With Cliff Lee out all year and Cole Hamels traded before the deadline, Aaron Nola would be the Phillies' best pitcher left standing by September. Elsewhere in the division, Shelby Miller would evolve into the ace of the Atlanta staff.
What Really Happened: Exactly that. Lee didn't pitch, Hamels was traded to the Rangers on July 29, and Nola finished the year as Philly's only decent pitcher, with a 3.59 ERA and 1.20 WHIP. And Miller, despite a 6–17 record, showed with his 3.02 ERA that he could lead a staff.

Prediction: Yordano Ventura and Masahiro Tanaka (after leaving his Opening Day start in pain) would need Tommy John surgery, while comeback bids by Brandon Morrow and Josh Johnson would end, yet again, in injury. 2015 would be their last major-league season.
What Really Happened: Tanaka is still healthy as a horse after 24 starts, 154 innings, and 2,290 pitches. Ventura threw 163.1 healthy but inconsistent innings. However, neither Morrow nor Johnson enjoyed good health. Morrow was shut down after five starts with shoulder inflammation, while Johnson didn't climb the mound at all for the second straight year. We've yet to see if their careers are truly over, but it doesn't look great.

Prediction: Yadier Molina and Dee Gordon would cease to be effective hitters. Gordon would actively harm the Marlins with a .300 OBP and half the stolen bases of 2014.
What Really Happened: Gordon didn't walk much, but he maintained an insane BABIP (.383) to post a career-high .359 OBP. His 58 stolen bases were just six fewer than the prior season. On the other hand, Molina's OPS nosedived to a nine-year low of .660. He struggled to get on base (.310 OBP) and could muster only four home runs—the fewest since his rookie year. Buyer beware in 2016 fantasy drafts.

Prediction: Craig Kimbrel would be traded midseason for a number-one prospect. A more surprising deadline acquisition would be Trevor Cahill, who would be in the midst of a nice bounceback season.
What Really Happened: Kimbrel was traded just before Opening Day in a deal that netted pitcher Matt Wisler, who wasn't a number-one prospect for long—he made 19 starts for the threadbare Braves in 2015. Cahill did make for a shrewd pickup, but I didn't get the order of events quite right: Cahill had a miserable 51 ERA+ when Atlanta traded him to the Cubs, but he thrived in Chicago's bullpen with a 189 ERA+.

Prediction: By the advanced defensive metric Defensive Runs Saved, the Cardinals would lead the NL, but Philadelphia's defense would be the most porous in baseball.
What Really Happened: At –92 Defensive Runs Saved, the Phillies had the worst defense in the majors by far. Jason Heyward helped make the St. Louis defense a net positive, but they only finished fourth in the league in DRS. Leading both the NL and the majors were the Diamondbacks, with 71 DRS.

Prediction: Matt Kemp, Justin Upton, and Wil Myers would combine for just 40 home runs but –40 DRS for the Padres. Will Middlebrooks would be the least valuable player in all of baseball.
What Really Happened: I was far too negative about San Diego. The outfield's final totals: 57 home runs, –13 runs saved. The ignominious distinction of baseball's worst player went to Víctor Martínez, who was worth –2.0 fWAR to the Tigers. Middlebrooks clocked in at a comparatively mild –0.4 fWAR.

Prediction: In a bit of a '90s flashback, Dodgers rookies Joc Pederson and Álex Guerrero (who would slash .330/.380/.480) would excel. That would be essential to the injury-plagued team, which would lose Brandon McCarthy, Hyun-Jin Ryu, and Brett Anderson for long stretches.
What Really Happened: Pederson had a great first half—capped by a memorable Home Run Derby—but was benched in the latter going. Guerrero hit a putrid .233/.261/.434, although the fact that he got his slugging percentage that high is a testament to his power. McCarthy started only four games and Ryu missed the whole season as the Dodgers frantically tried to fill rotation gaps all year long—but one slot they didn't have to worry about was Anderson's, who started 31 games for the first time in his career.

Prediction: Mike Trout, with fewer strikeouts, more steals, and better defense, would again win AL MVP. His Los Angeles counterpart, Yasiel Puig, would take home the prize in the NL. Bryce Harper wouldn't put together a monster season, but he'd be worth at least two wins more than in 2014.
What Really Happened: That monster season came, and Harper won NL MVP for it. By rWAR, he improved by 8.9 wins from a year ago. Puig, though, injured his hamstring in April and was a non-factor on the field the rest of the year. Off the field, he may now be a pariah. Trout did nothing to not deserve winning his own MVP trophy, with fewer strikeouts and better defense than the previous year (but fewer steals), but Josh Donaldson nipped him for the honor.

Prediction: After Trout, Adam Eaton would be the AL's most valuable center fielder. Carlos Rodon, if called up early enough, would lead the White Sox to the playoffs.
What Really Happened: Eaton was only the seventh-most valuable center fielder, but at 3.6 fWAR (same as Adam Jones), he remains firmly underrated. Rodon was called up before April turned to May, but the White Sox stumbled as virtually every offensive contributor took a huge step back—Alexei Ramírez, Conor Gillaspie, and Tyler Flowers as I predicted, Adam LaRoche and Melky Cabrera as I did not.

Prediction: Álex Ríos would be less productive than the (cheaper) man he replaced, Nori Aoki.
What Really Happened: Ríos hit a dismal .255/.287/.353 with a –1.1 rWAR; Aoki hit .287/.353/.380 with a 1.0 rWAR for the Giants. Again: Nori Aoki's on-base percentage was the same as Álex Ríos's slugging percentage.

Prediction: Revenge of the veteran pitcher! CJ Wilson would return to form with a 3.50 ERA, 3.0 BB/9, and 8.0 K/9. AJ Burnett would likewise be rejuvenated in Pittsburgh, and Dan Haren would ride a 4.0 strikeout-to-walk ratio to his best season since 2011 and retire on top.
What Really Happened: Wilson bounced back, but not to these nice round numbers. He finished with a 3.89 ERA, 3.1 BB/9 (his lowest since his career year in 2011 with Texas), and 7.5 K/9. Burnett's 3.18 ERA made him a rotational rock for the Pirates. Haren's 3.60 ERA and 2.2 rWAR were both his best since 2011. His strikeout-to-walk ratio fell short, though, at 3.47—actually his worst showing since 2005. As promised, he retired after the season.

Prediction: The Tigers would sink to last place as their former stalwarts fell apart, including Justin Verlander, JD Martínez, and Víctor Martínez, leading to the dismissal of manager Brad Ausmus.
What Really Happened: This was a pretty bold prediction, as the Tigers were coming off four straight years as division champs, but they did indeed sell at the trade deadline and wind up in the cellar. I was wrong about which players would falter, though—while Víctor slumped to .245/.301/.366, JD hit 38 home runs, and Verlander posted a 117 ERA+ when healthy. Reports surfaced that Ausmus had lost the job before the season even ended, but they were either erroneous or the Tigers had a change of heart, and the former catcher was given one last chance.

Prediction: Fernando Rodney's implosion would mean at least three pitchers would spend time at closer for the Mariners. Meanwhile, the Pirates' Mark Melancon would lead the majors in saves.
What Really Happened: Rodney had 16 saves but a 5.68 ERA, paving the way for closer tryouts from Carson Smith (13 saves) and Tom Wilhelmsen (13 saves). They all aspired to Melancon's mark of 51 saves, which did indeed top all other relievers.

Prediction: The Indians would be the first team in major-league history to strike out more than a batter per inning.
What Really Happened: Not quite, but their staff did strike out 8.84 batters per nine innings, which was good for best in baseball.

Prediction: Yasmany Tomás would look like a bust of a signing, combining terrible defense with one of the game's lowest contact rates.
What Really Happened: Tomás had –14 Defensive Runs Saved, and he struck out 25.8% of the time (though he had plenty of company in this whiff-tastic season). His 73.7% contact rate was also among the lowest in baseball.

Prediction: Félix Hernández would beat Chris Sale for the Cy Young Award in the AL. In the Senior Circuit, Clayton Kershaw would top second-place finisher Max Scherzer and third-place finisher Gerrit Cole.
What Really Happened: Dallas Keuchel took home the award in the AL despite my prediction that he would add a full run of ERA from 2014 (he shaved off almost half a run). The NL race featured Kershaw, Cole, and Scherzer, in that order... but they were third, fourth, and fifth, respectively. Jake Arrieta, of course, came out of nowhere to win the award.

Prediction: The A's would work their magic again, with big breakouts from Ike Davis (.250/.350/.450, 25 home runs, and 90 RBI) and Drew Pomeranz (doubling his career WAR). Marcus Semien would be "one of the AL's better shortstops."
What Really Happened: I whiffed. Davis turned in his worst season yet (.229/.301/.350 with three home runs and 20 RBI), while Pomeranz was decent out of the bullpen but sported just a 0.4 rWAR. Semien was perfectly fine with the bat (.715 OPS), but as a shortstop, he was terrible—getting tagged with an eye-popping 35 errors.

Prediction: Totally healthy seasons from Troy Tulowitzki and Carlos González, and a 6.0 WAR emergence by Nolan Arenado, would lead the Rockies to score the most runs in the NL.
What Really Happened: For the first time in years, both CarGo and Tulo were the models of health in Colorado—with Tulowitzki missing time only after a trade to the Blue Jays. Arenado finally became a household name as his rWAR topped out at 5.8—so close! The Rockies ended up scoring 737 runs, which did indeed lead the National League.

Prediction: Johnny Giavotella would be the Angels' surprise catalyst at the top of the order. He'd amass more WAR than Howie Kendrick or Josh Hamilton.
What Really Happened: Giavotella finally got his biggest chance in the majors but was nothing more than average (96 OPS+), with a disappointing .318 OBP. His 1.0 rWAR was in between Kendrick's 1.1 and Hamilton's 0.4, but in the same number of plate appearances, Hamilton too would have notched 1.1.

Prediction: The Cubs' heralded rookies would all debut before June 1, pushing out placeholders like Chris Coghlan, Ryan Sweeney, Tommy La Stella, and Mike Olt. Jorge Soler would have a .900 OPS and Matt Szczur would have 15 steals as a pinch runner. They'd lead the team that won 73 games in 2014 to their first World Series championship in 107 years.
What Really Happened: All the veterans but Coghlan did indeed lose their jobs, though Addison Russell, not Javier Báez as I envisioned, was the usurper in the middle infield. Szczur stole just two bases, and Soler's .723 OPS disappointed. The North Side youth movement was, however, enough to briefly make the Cubs World Series favorites before they fell in the NLCS.

Prediction: The Reds' division-worst offense would mean an unprecedentedly low number of save opportunities for Aroldis Chapman. Johnny Cueto, their only above-average starting pitcher, would be traded by July 31.
What Really Happened: Their 640 runs scored were indeed bottom in the NL Central, and Chapman's 33 saves and 36 save opportunities were both career lows since taking over as closer. Cueto and Mike Leake were both above average in the rotation—and so both were traded at the deadline.

Prediction: Fatigue from San Francisco's 2014 World Series run would hurt Madison Bumgarner, who would hit a Tim Lincecum–esque wall. Other Giants taking a step back would include Joe Panik and Brandon Crawford. Yusmeiro Petit would be the team's best starter.
What Really Happened: Panik's OPS went from .711 in 2014 to .833 in 2015 in nearly double the playing time. Crawford hit a career high in nearly every category. The team's best starter was... Madison Bumgarner, who had a virtual carbon copy of his 2014. Petit started one game all year.

Prediction: The Rangers would again lead the majors in days spent on the DL, ending the team's season hopes before they even began. Yovani Gallardo would be eaten alive playing half his games in Arlington's batter-friendly Globe Life Park.
What Really Happened: Texas players missed a total of 1,701 days to the disabled list, leading the majors for a second straight year, but it didn't keep them from the playoffs. Gallardo had a resurgent walk year in which he posted a 3.42 ERA—though it came with a 4.00 FIP and dangerous secondary numbers, including a career-low 5.9 strikeouts per nine.

Prediction: The Cardinals would be much improved from last year's .254 average with runners in scoring position but possess the majors' worst record in one-run games.
What Really Happened: St. Louis somehow got worse with runners in scoring position (.242) while still winning 100 games. Maybe it had something to do with their 32–23 showing in one-run games, as Trevor Rosenthal was far more reliable than I envisioned.

Prediction: Toronto would be able to boast three 30-home-run hitters (José Bautista, Josh Donaldson, and Edwin Encarnación) and a Gold Glove center fielder (Dalton Pompey). The squad would lead the league in runs, edging out Boston.
What Really Happened: Toronto's 891 runs scored did lead all of baseball by a huge margin—but it was the Yankees that finished second. Bautista, Donaldson, and Encarnación almost had 40 home runs each (Encarnación was one shy). And the team's center fielder was a Gold Glove finalist—but it was Kevin Pillar, not Pompey. Pompey spent most of the year in the minors.

Prediction: The Astros would lead the AL, if not MLB, in offensive strikeouts; Colby Rasmus would parlay a bounceback year into a four-year, $50 million contract.
What Really Happened: The Cubs kept the sport-wide title from them, but the Astros' 1,392 Ks did lead the AL. And Rasmus did improve in 2015, setting a new career high with 25 homers, but he surprisingly became the first player in history to accept a qualifying offer.

Prediction: Carlos Santana, with a .900 OPS, would be the Indians' best player, ahead of a disappointing followup by Michael Brantley. Jason Kipnis and Lonnie Chisenhall would also lose value thanks to their sloppy defense.
What Really Happened: Santana's .752 OPS was lower than his .792 from 2014, and his deflated average, which I predicted would rebound, matched his .231 from 2014 exactly. Santana ended up being the Tribe's 15th-most valuable player; Brantley was fifth. Meanwhile, Kipnis and Chisenhall were both net positives on defense—a truly astounding turnaround for Lonnie, who went from –16 Defensive Runs Saved in 2014 to +18 this year.

Prediction: Pat Venditte would debut in The Show and post a sub-2.00 ERA.
What Really Happened: The switch-pitcher did finally make his long-anticipated debut, but he came away with a mediocre 4.40 ERA.

Prediction: Drew Hutchison would help the Blue Jays by shaving a full run off his 4.48 ERA from 2014. Toronto would still have the worst bullpen ERA in baseball, though.
What Really Happened: Er, did I say drop a full run? I meant add a full run! Hutchison's ERA shot up to 5.57. With a 3.50 ERA, the Jays had the 12th-best bullpen in baseball. Not bad—unlike my prediction.

Prediction: Rickie Weeks and Seth Smith would prove to be strong additions to a now-middle-of-the-pack Seattle offense—more valuable, even, than Nelson Cruz—leading the M's to their first World Series appearance ever.
What Really Happened: Smith was good (1.9 rWAR), but Cruz was an absolute beast (5.2 rWAR). Weeks hit .167 in 84 at-bats. The Mariners offense was exactly average according to wRC+, but the Mariners fell far short of the World Series, losing 86 games.

Prediction: Jesse Hahn and Kendall Graveman would pitch well in the first half before running out of steam. Age would catch up to Ben Zobrist.
What Really Happened: Hahn had a 3.35 ERA before the All-Star break but didn't pitch after it due to a forearm strain. Graveman had a 3.38 ERA before the break but a 5.73 showing after it. But Ben Zobrist, of course, was his consistently excellent self (.276/.359/.450), at least at the plate (–12 Defensive Runs Saved).

Prediction: In Milwaukee, Carlos Gómez would go from great to meh and Ryan Braun would go from meh to great. Mike Fiers's 4.0 K/BB ratio would make him the staff ace of a rotation full of 3.70 ERAs.
What Really Happened: Braun had a career renaissance, hitting .285/.356/.498. Gómez's value halved—exactly as I projected—from 5.7 fWAR in 2014 to 2.6 in 2015. Fiers was the one with a 3.70 ERA, but that was enough to make him the staff ace as Matt Garza (5.63) and Kyle Lohse (5.85) fell apart.

Prediction: Terry Francona would win Manager of the Year in the American League, joined by Joe Maddon in the National League.
What Really Happened: Jeff Banister won the award in the AL for bringing the Rangers out of nowhere into the playoffs; Francona didn't get any votes as the Indians finished 13.5 games out. Maddon, however, easily took home the NL trophy.

Prediction: Despite the loss of Nelson Cruz, the Orioles would outscore their 2014 selves thanks to Chris Davis's 33 home runs and 121 OPS+.
What Really Happened: The Orioles scored 713—eight more than in 2014. Davis blew my expectations away with 47 dingers and a 146 OPS+.

Prediction: Charlie Blackmon wouldn't regress, but Corey Dickerson would.
What Really Happened: Blackmon didn't get the same attention he did during his All-Star 2014 campaign, but his line of .287/.347/.450 was actually a little better, and he hit just two fewer homers. Dickerson, however, managed only half as many plate appearances as the previous season; his 118 OPS+ was still quite good, but it didn't touch his 141 OPS+ from 2014.

Prediction: Nate Karns (ERA under 3.00, strikeouts over 200) and Jake Odorizzi would excel in Tampa Bay thanks in part to Kevin Kiermaier's 25 Defensive Runs Saved.
What Really Happened: Karns wasn't that good, but he still struck out a batter an inning with a 3.67 ERA. Odorizzi was even better at 3.35, and Kiermaier saved an unreal 42 runs on defense.

Prediction: The Twins would do better the more they just let their many young studs play.
What Really Happened: Minnesota surprised a lot of pundits by finishing with 83 wins, and young players did contribute—although Alex Meyer and Oswaldo Arcia, two I was high on at the beginning of the year, were largely absent from the team.

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