Bold is the eye of the beholder, so this attempt to thread the needle between “so crazy it’s actually useless to consider” and “contains too much realism to really be an outlier” is doomed to fail from the start. Cries of ‘too bold!’ and ‘not bold enough!’ are part and parcel of this yearly package. It’s still fun to try and predict some of the weirder things that we will know happen in any given baseball season.
Most years, three of these are right. Last year was a bad year, only two correct — Logan Gilbert was the Mariners’ best starting pitcher, and the Nationals did have the worst pitching staff in baseball — but the column came just three Nate Lowe homers short of hitting .300 as it usually does.
So which three predictions will be right this year?
Take your pick.
1. Mike Trout will set a career-high in homers and lead the league
The trick to this thing is to always have one prediction that’s just a few off what’s projected for this year. Projections are by their nature reasonable, they sum up the possible outcomes and give you a median one. And THE BAT X projections from Derek Carty over at FanGraphs project that Mike Trout will hit 37 homers and be second in the big leagues to Aaron Judge and Kyle Schwarber at 39 a piece. So Trout is totally in the mix for home run leader around the league.
But to set his career high, he’s going to have to hit 46 homers, which is significantly more than what he’s projected for. Why would he do that at age 31?
Two reasons. First, the numbers. Barrel rate is more predictive of future power than any other single power stat — probably because it’s actually launch angle and exit velocity wrapped into one stat, meaning it’s not really one stat, but that’s a digression — and Trout just keeps Barreling more balls as his career goes on.
But the second half of this is soft science, about motivation and where Trout is in his career. He has a teammate in Shohei Ohtani that looks like he’s the best player of all time, and who is in the last year of his contract. The Angels have made the postseason once with Trout on the team. Now he’s coming off a WBC run that he told Ken Rosenthal was “unbelievably fun” and “the funnest experience I’ve had on a baseball field.” He’s extremely motivated to win for two reasons: the obvious, annual need to win. And also, the need to convince Ohtani to stay.
“I’m going to do everything I can,” Trout told reporters earlier this spring, “to keep Shohei here for sure.”
Hitting 50 homers might be a start. Too bad he can’t pitch.
2. The Padres will have the best rotation in baseball this year
Over at FanGraphs, they have the Padres with the seventh-best rotation going into the season. They finished last year ninth in WAR, and 13th in rotation ERA. They didn’t make a high-priced front-of-the-rotation acquisition. So why would the Padres have the best rotation in baseball this year again?
For one, they did improve their depth. Signing Michael Wacha, converting Nick Martinez back to starting, trading for Jay Groome, signing Seth Lugo and then stretching him out in the spring, getting Adrian Morejon back from injury, and working to improve Ryan Weathers’ pitch shapes and mix — all of these things will matter in the end. Teams use six or seven starters liberally, and ten starters total on average, and it looks like this Padres team is a little better set to deal with any setbacks at the top of the rotation.
The top of the rotation is plenty good, too. Perhaps underrated by traditional projections. But here at The Athletic, we have projections based on Stuff+, which is a metric that looks only at the physical properties of the pitch and has been shown to be powerfully predictive. And these projections performed admirably in testing, as well. And if you sum up all the players projected for at least two starts for every team, look at which team rises to the top of the projected ppERA (pitching plus ERA) for starters.