MLB Free Picks for
Posted on March 19
Minnesota under 82½ -106
Last year at this time PECOTA (a sabermetric system for forecasting Major League Baseball player performance) was predicting a massive improvement from the Minnesota Twins, projecting them for 78 wins following a season in which they had the worst record in baseball. No projection system was higher on Minnesota than PECOTA. The most prominent Las Vegas odds-makers pegged the Twins for 72-75 wins, and the notion of the team approaching .500 seemed to shock even optimistic fans. The analytics projected the Twins to go from 59 wins to 78 wins, for an MLB-high improvement of 19 games. In reality, the Twins went from 59 wins to 85 wins, making the playoffs as a Wild Card team just three months after making the no. 1 overall pick in the draft. Minnesota’s year-to-year improvement of 26 games was the largest in American League Central division history and one of the 10 largest by any American League team since the 162-game schedule was adopted by both leagues in 1962.
So what does analytics expect from the Twins as an encore? They lost zero impact players since the end of the season, and of particular note, the young offensive core that drove the second-half turnaround and led the lineup to the fourth-most runs in the league remains entirely intact, with a late addition of slugger Logan Morrison coming off a 38-homer breakout year. They missed out on Yu Darvish, but made several useful additions to the pitching staff in Addison Reed, Jake Odorizzi, Fernando Rodney, and Zach Duke. Surely, if analytics liked the Twins so much last February, it must like them even more now, right? Maybe so but but history says the Twins are in for regression and so do the numbers.
Minnesota improved by 26 games over the previous season. Going from the worst record in baseball to 85 wins is a helluva story that takes us to previous teams that made huge improvements from one season to the next. Limiting the pool of teams to post-1962, which is when the 162-game schedule was adopted MLB-wide, here are the teams that had the 10 biggest year-over-year improvements:
1999 Diamondbacks 100 wins for a +35 improvement
1989 Orioles 87 wins for a +33 improvement
1993 Giants 103 wins for a +31 improvement
2008 Rays 97 wins for a +31 improvement
1980 Athletics 83 wins for a +29 improvement
2004 Tigers 72 wins for a +29 improvement
1991 Braves 94 wins for a +29 improvement
2011 Diamondbacks 94 wins for a +29 improvement
1967 Cubs 87 wins for a +28 improvement
2013 Red Sox 97 wins for a +28 improvement
Focusing strictly on the year after each team listed above had their huge improvement, here’s what happened next:
2000 Diamondbacks 85 wins for a -15 decrease
1990 Orioles 76 wins for a -11 decrease
1994 Giants 77 wins for a -23 decrease
2009 Rays 84 wins for a -13 decrease
1981 Athletics 95 wins for a +12 improvement
2005 Tigers 71 wins for a -1 decrease
1992 Braves 90 wins for a -4 decrease
2012 Diamondbacks 81 wins for a -13 decrease
1968 Cubs 84 wins for a -3 decrease
2014 Red Sox 71 wins for a -26 decrease
Note that the 1994 Giants and 1981 A's are projected for full 162-game seasons, as their follow-ups were strike-shortened years but there is no doubt that regression was in full bloom.
Of the 10 teams that improved the most, nine declined the following year and six declined by double-digit games. Surely at the time each of those fan bases thought it would be the start of an extended run, but regression to the mean takes no prisoners. Billy Martin, Rickey Henderson, and the A’s are the big outlier, following their 29-game improvement in 1980 by improving the equivalent of 12 games in 1981 (an AL-best 64-45 in the strike-shortened schedule). On the most basic level, it makes sense that the youngest of the most improved teams would be the least likely to suffer follow-up declines, and the 1980 A's, 1967 Cubs, and even 1991 Braves support that theory (albeit somewhat subjectively). In total, 63 different teams improved by at least 20 games (or the equivalent, in strike years) since 1962 and 50 of them failed to improve again the next season. The regression monster is so powerful that we’re going to apply it to the Twins this season but that’s not the only thing that makes this wager so reasonable.
Logan Morrison had a .294 True Average last season and is projected for .265 this season, which is both a bigger projected drop than any of last year’s regulars and still ranks third-best on the team. He’ll likely be getting most of his playing time at the expense of Eduardo Escobar, Robbie Grossman, and Kennys Vargas, who combined for a .254 True Average last season.
Each of the other seven regulars are projected to be at least slightly worse. Regression to the mean is to blame for some of that, and gaining or dropping a few points is also no big deal, but Brian Dozier, Joe Mauer, Eddie Rosario, and Eduardo Escobar projected to lose 14-16 points of True Average apiece is notable. Mauer is 35, which is an age at which declines are almost always projected. Even still, his projected .258 average is very much in line with his 2014 (.261), 2015 (.258), and 2016 (.259) marks. Dozier is 31, and while a .266 average is a big step down from his 2016 (.291) and 2017 (.280), it’s higher than his 2015 (.260) and in line with his .269 career mark. Similarly, the projected .257 average for Rosario is higher than he’s had in two of his three seasons and just a couple points off his .259 career mark. Escobar’s projected .241 is also just two points off his .243 career mark and 32 points higher than he managed in 2016. You get the idea and so will many Blue Jays fans who saw almost every player in 2016 have a career year before regressing to the means set in last year. You can apply that some theory to the Twins this year.
Lineup depth and Buxton’s otherworldly defense were Minnesota’s primary strengths last year and that figures to be true again, but is the pitching staff any better? Last season the Twins shaved 101 runs off their allowed total and still ranked just ninth in the league, which speaks to just how brutal their pitching was for the previous six seasons. Combined from 2011 to 2016, the Twins allowed 300 more runs than the next-worst team in the league, ranking last or second-to-last in five of the six years. The front office made no secret about plans to upgrade the rotation and bullpen, talking about it publicly in a way that the previous regime never would have (and perhaps raising expectations too high in the process). They made Darvish a five-year contract offer in excess of $100 million—likely twice as much as the largest free agent signing in team history, $55 million for Ervin Santana three winters ago—and predictably fell short, instead completing lower-wattage moves that are sound individually but underwhelming collectively. And then they learned that Santana needed finger surgery, likely sidelining him until May.
Assuming the Twins go with a 12-man staff to open the season, the favorites to claim each spot seem fairly straightforward. The five-man rotation: Jose Berrios, Jake Odorizzi, Kyle Gibson, Adalberto Mejia, and either Anibal Sanchez or Phil Hughes filling in for Santana, with prospects Fernando Romero and Stephen Gonsalves waiting in the wings. The seven-man bullpen: Fernando Rodney, Addison Reed, Trevor Hildenberger, Zach Duke, Ryan Pressly, Tyler Duffey (could end up as a starter) and Taylor Rogers, with Alan Busenitz on the outside looking in thanks to having a minor-league option left.
Make no mistake, this is not a great staff. It lacks upside and high-end talent, save for Berrios and perhaps Romero around midseason, and the 35-year-old Santana is a poor bet to duplicate last season’s All-Star performance even before the surgery. What the Twins have successfully done—in part with a busy offseason of solid but unspectacular moves, but also through trades for depth pieces and prospect development—is raise the overall water level of pitching throughout the organization. It’s difficult to overstate just how much of a mess the Twins’ pitching was five years ago, or even two years ago but there’s a lot of space between “improved and no longer a mess”. None of the Twins’ top nine starter options, including Santana, are projected for an ERA under 4.00, and only Berrios (4.11) and Romero (4.24) are under 4.50. It’s a similar story in the bullpen, where no one projects for a sub-3.50 ERA but nearly everyone is in the 3.75-4.25 range. When you can’t get guys out, it can make for a long season.
This is more or less the same Twins team that earned PECOTA’s preseason love and then won 85 games last year but let’s not fool ourselves here. Minnesota had a great year because so many players had career years. Typically teams that have such huge year-to-year improvements were playing at the peak of their ability or got more than a little lucky, and that tends not to carryover. A lot of things will have to go right for the Twinkies to repeat last year’s success but the pitching staff plus normal regression likely isn’t going to allow that to happen. The entire baseball world is very high on the Twins this year, which also influences the number, as this season win total has been bet up from 81 to its current mark of 83. Pitching isn’t everything but this pitching staff is among the worst in MLB and that makes it very difficult to win more than half your games. We’re betting the Twinkies won’t.
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Minnesota under 83 -106 (Risking 3.18 units - To Win: 3.00)
Posted on March 19
San Diego over 71½ -105
It wasn't too long ago that the San Diego Padres made an ill-advised attempt to quick fix the roster and contend. During the 2014-15 offseason the Padres added Matt Kemp, Craig Kimbrel, James Shields, Justin Upton, and Wil Myers in an effort to turn around a team that went 77-85 in 2014. The club then went 74-88 in 2015, and GM A.J. Preller started the process of tearing things down.
As a result, the Padres now have one of the game's top farm systems, but the big league roster is well short of postseason caliber. That doesn’t mean they’re going to lose over 90 games. Squint your eyes and you can see the makings of an above-average offense in San Diego. The Padres still have some holes in the lineup but so what. All teams are flawed and we don’t need anyone to go nuts to go over 71½ victories. Here is the starting eight that Manager Andy Green figures to run out there come Opening Day:
CF Manuel Margot
2B Carlos Asuaje
RF Wil Myers
1B Eric Hosmer
3B Chase Headley
LF Jose Pirela
SS Freddy Galvis
C Austin Hedges
Margot is a stud who looks destined to become a dynamic 20-homer, 40-steal, Gold Glove caliber leadoff man. Asuaje has the skills to play in this league for a decade as a high on-base middle infielder. Hedges’ is a top notch defensive catcher with pop, and those guys are hard to find. Headley and Galvis are stopgaps, not long-term solutions, but there are some nice pieces here. We can’t shake the feeling that this is the year Austin Hedges becomes a complete ballplayer, as there is no question that a next gear is waiting for him. The meat of the order (3, 4, 5 and 6) could be anywhere from below average to deadly so let’s put it somewhere in-between those two. We’re big fans of Wil Myers. Essentially, the LF field spot looks fluid going forward. Pirela has enjoyed a terrific spring, going 14-for-30 with two HR and 11 RBI’s and it suggests that his 2017 breakout (.288/.282 BA/xBA) may not have been a one-off. It sounds like he'll factor into LF and a hotly contested 2B spot early on. 2019 free-agent-to-be Freddy Galvis projects to fill the gaping Padres SS hole for most of, if not all of 2018 -- or at least until uber-prospect Fernando Tatis is ready. Galvis was unable to repeat that 2016 20 HR season but as a seventh or eighth spot batter the Padres could do a lot worse and he’s not in there for his bat.
What we know for sure is that San Diego has been named by many former and current players as the greatest place to live and play in because the weather is perfect 365 days a year. Baseball in San Diego is in a rare optimistic moment, and the addition of a real leader like Hosmer as well as the character of the team has the clubhouse very optimistic by all reports out of spring training. That’s a good place to start
That brings us to the starting rotation. The Padres have some young interesting arms, but this club was near the bottom of the league in rotation ERA (4.70) and rotation WAR (+7.5) in 2017, and it's hard not to see a major improvement. The starting rotation will likely look like this:
LHP Clayton Richard
RHP Tyson Ross
RHP Bryan Mitchell
RHP Dinelson Lamet
RHP Luis Perdomo
Ross is back with the Padres following arm problems in 2016-17 and an uninspiring showing with the Texas Rangers last year. He's in camp as a non-roster player but is healthy, and is expected to land in the rotation. Mitchell, Lamet, and Perdomo are all young and have good arms, though they're still trying to figure things out at the MLB level. Matt Strahm, Robbie Erlin, Jordan Lyles, and Colin Rea are among the depth starters. Actually, San Diego’s #1 starter might be their worst.
Luis Perdomo has not been able to turn some of his skill flashes into results yet but he’s close. A lot of that inconsistency can be blamed on his deep struggles against lefties but his skills become very roster-worthy against RH bats and feature a healthy combination of strikeouts and groundballs (8.1 K’s/9, 68% GB%) A minor tweak against lefties and things begin to look entirely different.
Dinelson Lamet posted a 4.57 ERA over 21 starts in 2017 but experts are speculating on his potential, which was especially evident in his electric skills in the first half when he averaged 12.2 K’s/9. His premium ability to generate whiffs gives him intriguing breakout appeal in 2018.
Chase Headley and RHP Bryan Mitchell were acquired by the Padres on Dec. 12, in exchange for a package including OF Jabari Blash. Obviously the key here was Mitchell, who posted intriguing Triple-A numbers—3.25 ERA, 66/13 K/BB with a big groundball tilt in 64 IP—in 2017, mostly as a starter. The 26-year-old has struggled at the MLB level (4.94/4.90 ERA/xERA over 98 IP in a mixed role over the past four seasons), and had seemingly run his course with the Yanks but he’s shown flashes and now has an established role along with piece of mid while playing for a team that wanted him. Let’s also not forget that Tyson Ross enjoyed three fine seasons in San Diego between 2013 and 2015, posting sub-3.50 ERAs and huge groundball %’s while whiffing more than a batter an inning. He now heads back to Petco after pitching in that minefield in Arlington. Yeah, there are a lot of what ifs here but that can be applied to many rotations. What if they all slightly improve from a year ago when this team won 71 games?
In lefty Brad Hand, the Padres have a bona fide shutdown closer, who could be part of a championship caliber bullpen. Beyond him there are some, well, let's call them interesting arms. They might be more useful to the Padres long-term as possible trade chips than roster players but all bullpens are made up of former starters that couldn’t cut it as a starter so they were demoted. Here’s a look at the pen but we’re not going to spend a lot of time on it because bullpens are extremely unpredictable. They are like turnovers in football in that every year the order from top to bottom is completely different:
Closer: LHP Brad Hand
Setup: RHP Craig Stammen, RHP Kirby Yates
Middle: LHP Buddy Baumann, HHP Carter Capps, RHP Kazuhisa Makita, RHP Phil Maton
Long: RHP Jordan Lyles
Capps is the wild card. He had a magnificent 2015 season with the Marlins in which he struck out 58 batters in 31 innings with a 1.16 ERA -- but he blew out his elbow and needed Tommy John surgery. The Padres got him as a reclamation project in the Andrew Cashner trade and he hasn't been nearly as dominant since returning from elbow surgery. If Capps can regain his form as he gets further away from Tommy John surgery, it'll be a nice boost for the Padres. If not, oh well.
Eric Hosmer is just 28 years old and in his prime. Clearly, the Padres did not sign Hosmer only for his bat and glove. There are plenty of first basemen who hit like Hosmer -- who hit more than Hosmer, really and while his glove is good, it's not $100 million good. The Padres signed Hosmer because he's a quality player and a championship caliber clubhouse guy. They want him to be at the center, as they incorporate young players into the lineup just like what happened in Kansas City. The Padres are not delusional. They know Hosmer won't put them over the top in 2018 but he’s a player who helps on the field and even more so in a young clubhouse. Hosmer is an instant respect dude. Young players look up to him and he's the type of player a potentially good/rebuilding team wants mentoring their youngsters. It is also entirely possible that Tatis and Luis Urias will make their MLB debuts in 2018. Both reached Double-A last season and they're just that damn good.
In summarizing, the Padres are clearly making strides. This is a team that won 71 games a year ago and this year they’re being asked to win just one more lousy game to go over the number. It’s proven that pitcher’s arms get worn out less in San Diego. It’s also a market that gets very little exposure, as folks on the West Coast watch Giants, Dodgers and Angels while folks on the East Coast that stay up to watch baseball late at night do the same. This is a market that is completely unaware or uninterested in the Padres and we trust that they are being greatly overlooked here, which prompts us to move in hard on a bad number. Padres should easily go over 71½.
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San Diego over 71½ -105 (Risking 3.15 units - To Win: 3.00)
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