Opening Day is upon us, and if you try hard enough, you can imagine you can smell the freshly cut grass and various questionable culinary choices at your favorite ballpark.  If you can’t imagine that hard, you can, at the very least, hear John Kruk’s timeless and invaluable analysis, maybe more often than you want to!

As we watch our first games of the year, we are also treated to the requisite list and prediction articles and posts.  Everyone has one.  Some writers have several! Even Sullivan has some!  In deference to their expertise, I won’t attempt to re-create their creations, but in anticipation of the coming season, I’d like to look at some things that have a chance of not happening quite like some expect them to.  We like to project things, and everyone likes projections, and they’re actually very useful and good in a lot of ways, but sometimes, the more statistically minded of us get married to ideas like regression to the mean (as an explanation for everything!) and the numerically most likely things to happen, and we predict Mike Trout to win MVP and the Nationals to win the World Series.

So in the spirit of risk-taking and the potential for the wearing of egg on face, I’m going to go out on a limb, and offer some possibilities for 2015 that are at least mildly unconventional.  I give you Six, Not Five, Players Who Will Outperform Their Projections.  (The caps are kind of for effect.  Not for grammar. It looks good, right?)

Without further ado…

 

6. Lonnie Chisenhall, 3B, CLE

Chisenhall had what I think can fairly be called a break-out season in 2014, hitting .280/.343/.427 with 13 home runs.  That line doesn’t adequately reflect his ridiculous first half, during which he hit .332/.396/.519.  Suffice it to say he couldn’t keep up that scorching pace, and cooled back off in the second half.  The end result is still a very good year for a young player we’ve been waiting to see take that next step forward. The projection systems seem to buy Chisenhall’s growth, and expect continued success in 2015, with maybe a baby step backward.  ZiPS likes him to hit .271/.325/.429, with 14 HR.  That’s pretty good following up on a career year, but I like Chisenhall to be a little better than that.  His BABIP was a bit bloated last year, at .328, but he made a lot of contact, with a better-than-league-average K rate of 18.6%, and he hit a lot of line drives, with an above-average 23.7 LD%.  This is mostly a gut feeling, because I don’t have a lot of predictive stats to support this, but I liked Chisenhall to have a good 2014, and I like him to build on his success in 2015.  He was a highly-rated prospect, and scouts raved about his swing and hit tool, but it took him a little while to put it all together.  He owns a career line of .282/.351/.470 in 1695 minor league at bats, he’s still only 26-years-old going into 2015, and I think his best years are ahead of him.  I’ll take .285/.345/.460 with maybe like 19 HR.

 

5. Todd Frazier, 3B, CIN

Also a guy coming off a career year, during which he hit .273/.336/.459 with 29 HR, Frazier is not looked on particularly favorably by the projections systems.  Steamer is particularly stingy, projecting .248/.317/.431, with 23 HR.  ZiPS likes him a little more, at ..258/.325/.454 and 25 HR, but both are a little pessimistic.  Frazier had good power in the minors, and has shown consistently above-average pop in the majors as well, with an ISO of .225 in 2012, and .186 in 2014.  After hitting 19 HR in 2012 and 19 HR in 2013, he added 10 more in 2014, which Mike Podhorzer at Rotographs attributes to a steadily increasing average fly ball and home run distance, which spiked last year.  I like the sound of that, and see no reason, with Frazier entering his age-29 year, for him to suddenly take a step backward.  Barring injury, I see Frazier hitting closer to .269/.332/.460, lets give him an even 30 HR, and I wouldn’t be surprised if he outperformed my expectations.

 

4. Kyle Seager, 3B, SEA

Okay, I didn’t go out looking for three third basemen to profile.  It just kind of happened.  I talked about Seager in my Seattle Mariners Preview, and I think there’s a lot to like here.  So do the Mariners, apparently, because they signed him to a 7-year, $100 million dollar extension.  Seager quietly had a great year in 2014, hitting .268/.334/.454 with 25 HR.  Like the other guys here, the projection systems like him to take a step back in 2015.  ZiPS has him hitting .261/.327/.430 with 21 HR.  Steamer likes him to hit .262/.329/.432 with 20 HR.  I guess this is all regressing to past performance, but Seager seems like a guy who is on an upward trajectory.  His home run totals have increased each of the last three years, from 20 to 23 to 25.  So has his wRC.  Last year, his line drive % increased 1.4% and his fly ball rate decreased 3.9%.  He hit fewer fly balls, but he hit more of them out of the park.  His BABIP was a perfectly reasonable .296.  Seager is 27, just entering his physical peak, and looks to me to be a hitter who is making adjustments every year, and still getting better.  I don’t think we’ve seen the best of him, and I see no reason to expect a drop-off absent a significant injury.  I see Seager hitting closer to .280/.344/.465 with more like 26-27 HR.

 

3. Drew Hutchison, SP, TOR

Just 24-years-old, Hutchison is the Blue Jays’ Opening Day starter, after impressing in his first full season by throwing 184 solid innings over 32 starts, with a 4.48 ERA and a 3.85 FIP.  Note the difference there!  The projection systems don’t like Hutchison to be very good in 2015.  ZiPS has him throwing just 153 innings, wity 8.5 K/9, a 4.22 ERA, and 4.02 FIP.  Steamer has him throwing 170 innings, with almost an identical strikeout rate, a 4.06 ERA, and a 4.00 FIP.  I’m not sure why!  Hutchison’s ERA bloated in the second half, to 4.96, but his xFIP was just 3.57, so it seems like he was a victim of a combination of bad luck and bad defense.  His 10.17 K/9 was excellent and his 2.66 BB/9 was pretty good, too.  Also telling, I think, was that his full season o-swing% (pitches swung at outside the zone) was 31.5%, which was up from 21.9% in limited innings in 2012.  Contact on pitches outside the zone dropped from 69.9% in 2012 to 56.2% in 2014.  Hutchison is getting more swinging strikes on pitches outside the zone than he used to, which means hitters are chasing, and they’re missing, and that’s exactly what a pitcher wants.  I’ll credit his slider, which was worth 4.5 runs above average.  I like Hutchison to build on his success and outperform his expectations.  I’m looking for close to 200 innings, a 3.85 ERA, and a 3.65 FIP, with around 185 strikeouts.

 

2. Nate Karns, SP, TB

Karns sort of came out of nowhere this spring, expected to be a long-shot to win the Rays’ 5th starter spot.  Injuries have created opportunities, and Karns will now be starting Tampa Bay’s second game of the season.  He’s not a highly-touted prospect, coming to the Rays last year in a deal that sent backup catcher Jose Lobaton to the Nationals.  Kiley McDaniel at Fangraphs has him pegged as a 40 future value prospect, and he’s much more qualified to evaluate talent than I am, but I think there’s the potential Karns is one of those guys that comes out of nowhere.  He throws pretty hard, with an average velocity around 93 mph on his fastball (according to PITCH f/x), which McDaniel grades as a 55 current valule/60 future value.  He also throws a curve and change, which are seen as average-ish.  So far, Karns’ stuff has translated to quite a bit of success, at least in the minors.  Over 449 innings, he’s averaged 10.3 K/9, 3.8 BB/9, with a 3.45 ERA.  He’s also only given up 33 home runs in all those innings, which is pretty good.  He threw well this spring, with a 3.86 ERA in 23.1 IP, along with 19 K and 8 BB.  Yes, I know, SPRING STATS ARE MEANINGLESS, but the Rays seemed to like what they saw, and Karns will be taking the hill in Game 2.  The projections actually kind of like him with ZiPS saying he throws 133 innings with a 4.26 ERA and a 4.52 FIP.  Steamer has him at 3.93/3.96.  I’m going to throw caution to the wind and be even more optimistic, based on Karns’ minor league track record.  Let’s say he throws 150 innings, with a 3.87 ERA and a 4.42 FIP, and let’s throw in 135 strikeouts!

 

1. Chris Tillman, SP, BAL

Stat guys hate Chris Tillman!  It’s easy to see why, because he has consistently outperformed his FIP.  And you’re not supposed to be able to do that!  In 2012, Tillman wowed all the newspaper guys  with a 2.93 ERA and 9 wins (WINS!) in just 15 starts, but his FIP was 4.25.  He wasn’t really even good!  Or was he?  Because in 2013, he did it again, but over 200 innings, with a 3.71 ERA and a 4.42 FIP.  He struck out fewer than 8.0 per nine, but he won 16 games!  Stat guys HATED that!  He made the All Star Team, for crying out loud!  And then last year, he did it again, also over 200 innings, with a nifty 3.34 ERA next to a 4.01 FIP.  He struck out even fewer guys!  How has he not run out of smoke or mirrors?  It seems to me Tillman is one of those guys that consistently beats BABIP.  He’s done it three years running, and at this point, it looks to me like a skill.  His BABIP in 2012 was just .221.  It was .269 in 2013, and .267 last year.  Over the same three years, his ground ball rate has gradually increased.  Always known as a hard thrower in the minors, his average velocity in the majors, according to PITCHf/x is only 90.7.  But that fastball is his best pitch, worth 12.5 runs above average last year, and he threw it better than 64% of the time.  I look at Tillman and see a guy who has learned to pitch to his strengths.  He seems to have figured something out, maybe trading some velocity for better control or command, and pitching to spots hitters won’t make good contact.  ZiPS projects him to throw 184 innings with a 4.00 ERA and a 4.33 FIP.  Steamer has him at 4.22/4.48.  I say Tillman continues to beat the odds and throw another 200 innings or so, with a 3.75 ERA and 4.15 FIP.

 

 

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