Every year we see a number of players break out, delivering numbers unlike anything they have accomplished in the past. Sometimes those breakouts can be justified. A change in approach or pitch selection, improved discipline – a number of factors can be identified when looking at the underlying metrics which tell us if a player has turned the corner.
However, those same underlying metrics can also point to the opposite, suggesting that what we saw was nothing more than a career year and that regression is looming right around the corner. Sometimes, despite what the numbers tell us, a player can out-produce expectations. More often than not, players fail to live up to the previous year’s expectations and revert to their previous identities.
In 2017 there were high hopes for Rick Porcello after his fantastic 2016 season. He set career highs in ERA, WHIP, and walk rate, and totaled 22 wins for the Red Sox. Some pointed to a change in pitch framing and arm slot in his delivery. The underling metrics told a different story. They painted a picture that showed little difference between 2016 and past seasons. He achieved better results – nothing more. He wasn’t the changed pitcher some thought he had become, and his 4.65 ERA last year confirmed this.
Heading into the 2018 season there are a number of players to be wary of. One is Domingo Santana. He batted .278 with 30 home runs, 15 steals and produced 80-plus runs and RBIs. His breakout, among others on the team, is partly responsible for the Brewers signing Lorenzo Cain and trading for Christian Yelich. Offensively the team was on the verge of competing, and these two acquisitions make Milwaukee a serious threat to the Cubs in the NL Central. But will Santana be a part of that winning conversation in 2018?
A number of things that stand out with Santana. First is his awful contact rate, which ranked in the bottom 10 in the majors in 2017. Next, and just as bad, was his strikeout rate of almost 30 percent. Some players can make this combination work, but most times it is a recipe for disaster. Additionally, the fly ball rate did not change, and with a rate below 30 percent it is unlikely we will see another 30-home run season. Also, the batting average improvements do not align with his high BABIP. Granted this number was close to what was produced in 2016, but his average was 20 points lower.
Santana has power and speed, but so does teammate Keon Broxton. He went 20-20 last season and will have to fight for a fifth outfield spot this year. Santana is still only 25 years of age and did have solid numbers in the minors. That being said: The poor discipline and high strikeouts could take their toll on him this year. Given the talent on this team, he has little margin for error.
In Chicago, Avisail Garcia has less competition on the rebuilding White Sox. After his 2017 season the team views the 26-year-old as one of its building blocks. After years of struggling to reach a .250 batting average Garcia managed to bat .330. A simple look at his league-leading .392 BABIP screams regression, and there is little to support the batting average being sustainable.
There was a slight improvement in contact, but he is still well below average in this department. Some of that can be attributed to an increase in swings. The strikeouts fell just below 20 percent – a manageable number – but the swinging strike rate was on par with the rest of his career. In addition to the batting average spike, Garcia produced a .380 career high OBP, yet his walk rate slipped below six percent.
For a player with a ground ball profile that doesn’t steal bases anymore and has just enough power to hit 20 home runs (maybe), everything about Garcia’s 2017 says it was a career year. His career line over 1,550 plate appearances prior to 2017 give a much clearer picture of what can be expected in 2018 – that’s not good news for Garcia and the White Sox.
I will not just pick on hitters. As we saw with Porcello, the career year is not exclusive to hitters. This year I believe Gio Gonzalez will put forth his best Rick Porcello impersonation. The last time Gonzalez produced an ERA under 3.00 was in 2012, and it seems unlikely that at age 32 he has rediscovered himself.
His strikeout rate, while strong with an 8.42 K/9, is on a steady decline. The walk rate (3.54 BB/9) was in line with the past three seasons – but higher than we would like. The ground ball rate is on a two-year decline and those extra numbers have gone into fly balls. His average contract rate remains unchanged, but batters are swinging less and less.
The fastball, which averaged 92 MPH until 2015, was down to 91 in 2016 and just below 90 MPH last year. Yet somehow his fastball registered at 11.5 runs above average last year after a four-year average of 1.5 runs above from 2013 to 2016. This puts more reliance on his curveball, which was a slightly positive pitch last year but was basically neutral in the three years prior.
What sticks out most for Gonzalez was his .258 BABIP. That’s almost 40 points better than his career average and over 50 better than the previous four-year average. In addition to the BABIP luck, he had some luck with his strand rate. The 80 LOB percentage is sure to regress closer to the 70 percent average from 2014 to 2016.
Gonzalez is on a strong team with a great home park and an easy division. Those few saving graces are the main reasons projection systems place his 2018 ERA just over 4.00. I see that number being a half-point higher. Between the velocity decline and good fortune in 2017, Washington will need to rely on Strasburg and Scherzer even more this season.