MLB Predictions: Will It Last? Thoughts on 10 Hot and Cold Starters

Jason HeimCorrespondent IMay 26, 2012

MLB Predictions: Will It Last? Thoughts on 10 Hot and Cold Starters

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    Popular opinion regarding how certain major league teams and players start a season generally holds that all authoritative conclusions made before June 1 are premature. Because teams and players turn cold starts into fine seasons, and hot starts into prolonged slumps, forecasting performance based on the season's initial third often results in poor predictions. 

    All the experts who eulogized David Ortiz's career at 34 years old in May 2009 certainly learned hard the lesson that two months of at-bats is simply not enough to accurately predict a player's rest-of-season destiny. If it were, Ortiz might have ended up with something like eight home runs and 50 RBI instead of the 28 and 99 that approximate his career averages.

    The season's first two months, as in all, feature slow-starting household names as well as no-namers lighting pitching staffs on fire.

    For those struggling, like Albert Pujols and Tim Lincecum, it is hard to fathom them continuing in their futility. Likewise, it is suspect to assume that the likes of Lance Lynn and Chris Capuano will continue their Cy Young performances throughout the season on the mound.

    Superficial stats are often fool's gold when predicting future success, which is why a glimpse at the underlying vital signs of these 10 players sheds light on just what can be expected from them as the calendar flips to June.

James McDonald, Pittsburgh Pirates SP

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    2012 stats: 3-2, 2.51 ERA, 2.40 FIP, 9.1 K/9, 2.83 BB/9, .264 BABIP

     

    A former touted Dodger prospect, the 27 year-old righthander seems to have finally realized his considerable potential as a power strikeout pitcher.

    One key to McDonald's success this year is limiting free passes. His 2.83 walks per nine innings is by far his best rate as a starter, and it's showing in his ability to pitch late into games (almost 6.5 innings per start). 

    McDonald is striking batters out at a high rate (13th best in MLB) and simply not giving up home runs (fifth-best HR/FB rate in baseball) this season, which is a departure from the profile he has established.

    Based on his improved control, standard batting average on balls in play (BABIP), a newfound aversion to the gopher ball and that age-27 thing, there is no indication to believe that McDonald's breakout is a fluke, nor that a major regression is coming.

     

    Outlook: Stays hot

Jake Peavy, Chicago White Sox SP

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    2012 stats: 5-1, 2.39 ERA, 2.68 FIP, 7.73 K/9, 1.55 BB/9, .249 BABIP

    The 30 year-old Jake Peavy has presumably returned to his Cy Young ways after three years of injuries and ineffectiveness. In doing so, he has defied the normal career arc of a pitcher who started to decline in his late 20s. 

    No underlying indicator about Peavy's torrid start to the season points to anything other than good luck.

    His 7.73 K/9 is well below his power-pitching peak and his low .249 BABIP suggests that he has benefited from fortunate outcomes on balls in play. The 2.68 FIP and 3.71 xFIP, a predictive metric useful for evaluating forthcoming performance, point to Peavy's current pace as unsustainable. 

    Two factors in line with his career bests are Peavy's walk and homer rates. After a few years over 1.0 HR/9, Peavy has shrunk that number down to 0.56, which is almost a career best. 

    His walk rate, combined with the decline in punchouts, suggests that Peavy might be reinventing himself as a contact pitcher late in his career. His 1.55 walks per nine is far and away the best of his distinguished career and is good for eighth-best in the majors so far. Any time a pitcher can keep his walk totals that low, he is going to keep himself, and his team, in the game.

    Though it's a little demanding to expect Peavy to keep up his current pace, it is certainly reasonable to assume above-average numbers for an AL starting pitcher from here on out.

     

    Outlook: Slight regression, but generally steady

Mark Teixeira, New York Yankees 1B

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    2012 stats: five HR, 21 RBI, .227 BABIP .294 wOBA, .155 ISO

    Mark Teixeira had an uninspiring two months to kick off the baseball season. In other news, the sky is blue, grass is green, and Charlie Sheen is wild

    The 32 year-old has stumbled out of the gates so frequently in his career that the first half is universally assumed as his warm-up time, only to shred opposing pitching as August and September arrive. 

    This year, Teixeira is really outdoing himself in first-half malaise. His advanced statistics are either ahead of or steady with his career rates, which makes his struggles this year quite the intriguing case.

    Long gone are the days of Tex hitting for average, with five consecutive marked declines in batting.  He is simply not going to bang out enough hits to sustain an average in the .270-.290 range anymore, especially given his strong uppercut swing.

    This year, however, his misses at the plate are not due to punchouts, as his strikeout percentage is the lowest of his career. The power is down, his walks are down, but so are the strikeouts. So what gives?

    The culprit could simply be bad luck. Teixeira's career batting average is .280, accompanied by a .293 BABIP. This year, his .226 average is identical to his BABIP, indicating a general lack of luck especially considering the league average for BABIP is .291. 

    Teixeira, Yankee fans and fantasy owners need only be patient as his second half surge, and better luck on contact, materializes. 

     

    Outlook: The funk is about to end, with a summer surge looming

Eric Hosmer, Kansas City Royals 1B

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    2012 stats: five HR, 16 RBI, .191 BABIP, .264 wOBA, .142 ISO 

    Eric Hosmer, one of this season's presumed breakout hitters, has sorely underperformed.

    Last year's excellent contact (.293 AVG) made his considerable power look replacement-level (.172 ISO). But this year, the average, and the power, are nowhere to be found.

    Jeff Zimmerman of Fangraphs explains that the young first baseman's contact and line drive rates are in line with last season's, and that defensive shifts are a major reason why Hosmer hasn't been able to break out so far by greatly hampering his BABIP on pull and straightaway hits using last year's rates as a baseline.

    Kudos to opposing managers for figuring out how to defend a promising power bat just 770 plate appearances into his career. 

    Because his line drive and fly ball rates parallel last year's breakout, it is wishful thinking to conclude that a continuation of his current hitting approach will lead to more success as the season wears on—that defensive shift will continue to eat him up.

    However, there is hope for Hosmer to markedly increase his .260 OBP and stolen base numbers if he takes walks (2.5 percent increase from last year) and avoids the strikeout (2.7 percent decrease from last year). 

     

    Outlook: Has to learn to beat the shift, or else brighter days might not be as close as some think

Tim Lincecum, San Francisco Giants SP

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    2012 stats: 2-5 6.41 ERA, 2.94 FIP, 4.72 BB/9, 10.01 K/9, .353 BABIP

    This case is the most perplexing of them all. 

    Linecum, a two-time Cy Young winner at 27 years-old and has maintained most of his excellent underlying numbers from even his best seasons, but the superficials and results have just not followed.

    It is easy to see where his strengths and weaknesses are this year, and that this nightmare stretch will soon give way to the dominant starter we are all used to. Lincecum's strikeout rate is his best in three seasons, and his home run rate is a career best. 

    His problems are as clear as his triumphs. As strange as it is to believe, Lincecum might be among the league leaders if he could just get out of the first inning.

    Tim has given up 12 earned runs in nine first innings this year with an ugly seven walks. The fourth inning has been an issue for him as well, suggesting that the majority of his time on the mound has been excellent, while a few bad apple innings are ruining his stats and confidence.

    A troubling indicator, though, is Timmy's major decline in velocity. He has made his living on an electric fastball-slider combo that he is featuring far less often this year.

    Jason Dunbar of The Hardball Times explains that Lincecum's average fastball is clocking 2.5 less MPH on the gun, no doubt in part because he is relying on it more. He has scaled his slider usage back by over 50 percent to preserve his elbow, but he might not recapture his Cy Young form without it. 

    My advice: Ignore the ERA and record because the seventh-worst luck on balls in play and inexplicably low strand rate are due to turn around, helping Tim Lincecum rebound in a big way for the rest of the season.

     

    Outlook: Get ready for a major correction to his averages and a return to the league's elite

Austin Jackson, Detroit Tigers CF

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    2012 stats: five HR, 29 R, 17 RBI, six SB, .331 AVG, .414 OBP, .423 wOBA, .388 BABIP, .213 ISO

    Now relegated to the DL with an abdominal strain, Austin Jackson has been sensational at the plate and in the field

    The touted former prospect has either fulfilled his considerable potential or noticeably exceeded it in this his third season. Last year's .249 AVG seems realistic given the rather high .340 BABIP, suggesting even that number was high.

    This year, Jackson's .331 AVG is completely out of left field (yes, pun absolutely intended). His .388 BABIP is second-best in the AL. That number is seemingly, definitely, unsustainable.

    Then again, Jackson has made noticeable progress in plate discipline this year, increasing his walk rate to a sky-high 12.6 percent and curbing his free swinging big time (8.9 percent decrease in whiff rate). He is clearly seeing the ball well this year, and appears to be employing a matured approach to the plate after last year's debacle. 

    Jackson will surely set career highs in most, if not all, hitting categories this year because of how well he has started. Just don't expect him to continue his sweltering pace at the plate all season.

     

    Outlook: Heading for a career year, but is headed for a few slumps and general slower pace

David Wright, New York Mets 3B

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    2012 stats: five HR, 30 R, 28 RBI, .405 AVG, .500 OBP, .467 wOBA, .233 ISO, .470 BABIP

    Your major league leader in AVG, OBP and the more dubious BABIP, David Wright is enjoying a two-month stretch that goes down as one of the most impressive by any hitter in decades. 

    There is no doubt that Wright is mashing at a pace that defies his career norms. The run that he is on is one that is unsustainable for even the best, this side of Barry Bonds and his pumpkin-sized dome. A .500 OBP means that Wright reaches base exactly half the times he strides to the plate. 

    That fact would be explainable by a sky-high walk rate, which Wright doesn't have. His 16.3 walk rate is fifth in baseball, but not an outlier. The only overt explanation, right (yes, pun intended again) or wrong, is that league-leading .470 batting average on balls in play. 

    Put plainly, in at-bats in which Wright puts the ball in play, just under half of the outcomes are base hits. The league average hitter converts a hit on just under 40 percent of batted balls in play.

    Considering that Wright has never achieved a BABIP above .400, his 2012 campaign at the plate certainly seems destined to change quickly, or else endure as a strong outlier from his career norms.

    As for the power, Wright's sizzling start has exhibited little.

    Most of his damage has been done in the gaps with the second-most doubles in MLB and that strong walk rate. However, a curiously high line drive rate (30.3 percent compared to a career average of 22.8 percent) and strong HR/FB rate suggest that the long ball might start coming soon, especially with the shrunken Citi Field dimensions.

    Plain and simple, Wright cannot keep up the fortune he has had on batted balls. Virtually everything is falling for him, though his penchant for line drives and gap doubles are signs of a locked in batter, not a fluky one. 

    I am predicting a spike in home runs with a steep, if short, drop off in luck and OBP as the summer wears on. 

     

    Outlook: Either significant regression ensues, or Wright is locked in for a historic season

Lance Lynn, St. Louis Cardinals SP

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    2012 stats: 7-1, 2.54 ERA, 3.22 FIP, 8.26 K/9, 3.02 BB/9, .265 BABIP

    Rookie righty Lance Lynn has done more than fill in for the injured Chris Carpenter in the St. Louis rotation. He's excelled. 

    After mowing down hitters to the tune of 10.38 K/9 in his 34.2 innings last season, Lynn has settled in nicely as a starter in his first full year. His telling stats are no better than solid, but his 7-1 record stands out.

    The truth is, Lynn enjoys the fourth-best run support in all of baseball, and he strands 82.5 percent of runners, which is 11th-best among starting pitchers and nearly 10 percent above league average. 

    To his credit, Lynn shows no signs of extreme good fortune on batted balls, has a K/BB ratio of nearly three-to-one and his HR/9 rate is strong. 

    As long as the runs keep coming from that patchwork, yet potent, Cardinal offense, Lynn's win total should remain among the league leaders.

     

    Outlook: ERA blowup coming in the near future, but run support covers a litany of errors

Chris Capuano, Los Angeles Dodgers SP

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    2012 stats: 6-1, 2.25 ERA, 3.42 FIP, 8.04 K/9, 3.05 BB/9, .235 BABIP

    One of the feel-good stories of the early season is the resurgent Chris Capuano, a 33 year-old lefty who has undergone two Tommy John surgeries.

    His initial success is threefold an indicator of how advanced Tommy John rehab has become, a testament to Capuano's work ethic to get back on the bump and a glimpse at the fulfilled potential of an All-Star caliber pitcher.

    All that said, the honeymoon phase is about to end for Cap. His ERA is more than a run under his Fielding Independent Pitching rate, and another half-run below his expected FIP. Those discrepancies are flashing neon signs that strong regression toward his 4.27 career ERA is looming. 

    Capuano's strand rate is the third highest in baseball and his BABIP puts him among the 20 luckiest starting pitchers. 

    There is nothing in this profile suggesting that he has somehow turned over a new leaf or improved his command—he is just enjoying a strong, unsustainable run of quality pitching. 

    Sometimes it's that simple.

     

    Outlook: Among the best pitchers so far, but also a leader among regression candidates. Fallout is coming soon.

Albert Pujols, Los Angeles Angels 1B

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    2012 stats: six HR, 25 RBI, .232 BABIP, .271 wOBA, .132 ISO

    What is there left to say about Albert? His early ruin is well-documented and analyzed, with theories ranging from slowed bat speed to impatience, from a simple acclimation period to American League pitching. 

    Whatever the perpetrating element is, its impact is slowly dissipating as Albert begins his summer-long onslaught against the rest of the American League.

    He has launched home runs in consecutive games—four in the last nine days and six for the month of May. His BABIP, a tepid .232, is 67 points below his career average suggesting a turnaround on contact is near. His ISO, which subtracts AVG from SLG to isolate the impact of extra base-hits, is a meager .132, more than 100 points below any other season in his career.

    Strangely, Albert's swoon has coincided with one of the highest line drive and lowest fly ball rates in his career. Either Albert's numbers are at their best when he is hitting fly balls, or the fly balls he is hitting are simply finding leather instead of grass like they have historically.

    These and other signs point to Albert turning this thing around for the Angels presently.

    Still, the warning signs of an aging slugger are present.

    Albert's plate discipline, one of the qualities that enabled him to put together a top five hitting decade of all time, has disappeared. His walk rate, down to a startling 5.7 percent, is on a steep four-year decline after six steady seasons in his prime.

    He is clearly not exercising the patience and batting eye that he used to rely on, hacking at a career high 35 percent of pitches outside the strike zone and 46.5 percent of all pitches. 

    Further, his strikeout rate is the highest it has been since his rookie year at 11.9 percent. 

    Add it all up, and you've got a traditionally disciplined hitter with shaken confidence flailing at pitches he has spat on for the last 11 seasons, but could turn unstoppable at any moment. 

    Who's to say how the season's biggest subplot will continue?

     

    Outlook: A return to form is coming as he settles in, but pro-rated for a 32 year-old Pujols, not the 29 year-old in his prime