MLB Stars Who Will Take an Unexpected Step Back in 2013

Adam WellsFeatured ColumnistMarch 18, 2013

MLB Stars Who Will Take an Unexpected Step Back in 2013

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    When a Major League Baseball player has a huge year that comes seemingly out of nowhere, the expectations, unsurprisingly, get raised to ridiculous levels. 

    Everyone from fans to the media plays a role in the hype machine, but with so many advanced metrics and stats at our fingertips, it has become easier to figure out which players are actually on the rise and who will come back down to earth. 

    As the slow trek through spring training begins to wind down, we are all making picks for the postseason, awards, fantasy teams, etc., and have exhausted so much energy in trying to find out which players will take the leap in 2013. 

    But what about those players who will trip under the weight of their own expectations? Who won't be able to defy the odds one more time and appear as if they had a bad season, relative to the expectations placed on them before the season began?

    Baseball is a cruel and fickle game. What we know one day can be completely wrong the next. That holds even more true when you start looking at things from season to season. 

    Here are the players who shined last season who will have a difficult time replicating that level of success in 2013. These are players either in their peak years or still close enough to their peak years, so we are not just taking all old players who had a bounce-back season after a down year. 

    It should also be noted that relievers aren't included because the nature of the role lends itself to being a candidate for regression every year, unless you are Mariano Rivera. So even though Fernando Rodney will take a step back this season, he is not on the list. 

    Note: All stats courtesy of Fangraphs.com unless otherwise noted. 

Gio Gonzalez, SP, Washington Nationals

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    2012 Stats

    21-8, 32 GS, 199.1 IP, 149 H, 207 K, 76 BB, 2.89 ERA, 9 HR, 5.4 WAR

     

    Why we expect regression

    When the Nationals acquired Gonzalez from Oakland in December 2011 for four prospects, he seemed like a prime regression candidate last season because he was primarily a flyball pitcher with poor command moving away from the spacious Oakland Coliseum. 

    Instead, Gonzalez showed better command, posted the best fastball velocity of his career (93.1 mph) and had the lowest home-run rate in baseball (0.41 per 9 IP) last season en route to winning 21 games and finishing third in the National League Cy Young award voting. 

    Entering his age 27 season in 2013, perhaps Gonzalez was able to flip a switch and truly become one of the very best pitchers in baseball. The numbers, while strong on the surface, suggest a different story. 

    As mentioned already, Gonzalez had the lowest home-run rate in the game last season and lowest flyball rate of his career (30.0%). His opponents' batting average on balls in play was the lowest of his career (.267). Most pitchers will settle in around .300 for their career.

    His walk rate of 3.43 per 9 IP was 73rd out of 88 starting pitchers who qualified for the ERA title. Ervin Santana, who struggled all last season with Los Angeles, had a lower rate than Gonzalez (3.08). 

    Gonzalez has always been a pitcher who gets by on stuff and below-average command/control. He has walked 340 hitters in 734.2 career innings pitched. Eventually that will catch up to you, as it did in his last six starts (including the postseason), when he walked 24 in 34 innings pitched. 

    Because Gonzalez is effectively wild, he is always going to post a high strikeout total without giving up a lot of hits. But when you put runners on base at the rate he does, it is hard to sustain an ERA around 3.00 the way he has the last two years. 

    When you miss bats you have a chance to post a low ERA, but Gonzalez tends to hurt himself more than most top-flight pitchers, so another Cy Young-caliber season does not seem likely. 

Kris Medlen, SP, Atlanta Braves

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    2012 Stats

    10-1 (1 Save), 50 G (12 GS), 138.0 IP, 103 H, 120 K, 23 BB, 1.57 ERA, 6 HR, 3.9 WAR

     

    Why we expect regression

    First, and most obvious, is no starting pitcher is going to post an ERA under 2.00 and qualify for an ERA title. Medlen defied all odds and expectations placed on him after the Braves moved him into the rotation late in 2012. 

    The Braves were virtually unbeatable with Medlen on the mound, setting a new Major League record with 23 straight wins (dating back to 2010) in games started by the right-handed pitcher after defeating New York on September 30. 

    Medlen's success as a starter last season wasn't entirely unexpected. ESPN's Keith Law wrote last April (Insider Subscription required), while Medlen was still in the bullpen, that he had the arsenal to be a starter and would "be no worse than a back-end starter."

    It is safe to say Medlen beat even the most optimistic of expectations placed upon him after the move, turning into the best pitcher the Braves had and starting the Wild Card Playoff game against St. Louis. 

    As great as Medlen was, he is due for a big step back in 2013. That is not to say he will be bad–when you post a 1.57 ERA, you can regress significantly and still be in the top half of pitchers in the league. 

    Unlike Gio Gonzalez, Medlen doesn't have an overpowering arsenal to work with. He has an average fastball that plays up because of his changeup and command in the zone. 

    Medlen actually had a lower home-run rate (0.39) and BABIP (.261) than Gio Gonzalez. If he had enough innings to qualify, he would have led the league in strand rate, leaving runners on base 85 percent of the time. 

    Without the dominating arsenal to work with, Medlen's margin of error is much smaller than a pitcher like Gonzalez. He has to be pinpoint with his fastball, otherwise hitters are going to elevate it and drive it into the gaps or out of the park.  

    Having the command and changeup to keep hitters off balance does help Medlen succeed, but the insanely low home-run rate and BABIP makes me believe that he will be much closer to a league average starter in 2013 than one of the best pitchers in the game. 

Chase Headley, 3B, San Diego Padres

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    2012 Stats

    161 G, .286/.376/.498. 31 HR, 115 RBI, 95 Runs, 31 2B, 2 3B, 17 SB, 86 BB, 157 K, 7.5 WAR

     

    Why we expect regression

    Despite all the rumors of a possible trade in the offseason, Headley remains in San Diego for at least the first few months of the season. It makes sense, as he is just 28, coming off a career year and is two years away from free agency. 

    Unless Headley falls off a cliff, his value will still be high at the trade deadline this year or next winter if the Padres don't feel like they can afford to re-sign him. 

    But it probably would have been in their best interest to seriously explore trade options with Headley, because you have to wonder just how much of his success in 2012 was actual progress on his part and how much was related to a three-month hot streak. 

    In the first half of last season, Headley was the player he was in 2011. He hit .267/.368/.413 with eight home runs in 86 games before the All-Star break. After the break, he looked like Mike Schmidt at third base, hitting .308/.386/.592 with 23 home runs in 75 games. 

    Headley had 171 total bases in the second half. For a comparison, Mike Trout had 170 total bases after the All-Star break last year. 

    That power Headley showed off last season is likely going to be hindered all season after it was revealed by Corey Brock of MLB.com that the Padres third baseman fractured his left thumb. 

    The fracture of Headley's left thumb is at the tip. Surgery doesn't appear as if surgery will be needed. #Padres

    — Corey Brock (@FollowThePadres) March 18, 2013

    Any injury to the hand is going to sap power from a hitter for a long period of time. We see it happen every year. A big reason Justin Upton struggled to drive the ball last season was because of a hand injury that plagued him all season. 

    Aside from the unexpected spike in his power in the second half, nothing really changed for Headley in 2012. His walk rate of 12.3 percent was a little higher than he posted in 2011 (11.8), but he also had his highest strikeout rate since 2008 (22.5%). 

    Let's also not forget that PetCo Park is a hitter's worst nightmare and Headley has to play half his games there. He did hit 13 of his 31 home runs last season at home, but he slugged 86 points higher on the road (.541 to .455). 

    Considering Headley had hit 36 home runs in his first four seasons combined, then found a power stroke in the second half of last season, you have to expect his power numbers are going to come back down to earth. 

    If Headley was a younger player still getting his feet wet, you could be more optimistic about this power sticking around. But he did it at the age of 28, still young but not exactly when you expect to see this kind of improvement from a player, especially when you have three full seasons worth of evidence to look at. 

Johnny Cueto, SP, Cincinnati Reds

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    2012 Stats

    19-9, 33 GS, 217.0 IP, 205 H, 170 K, 49 BB, 2.78 ERA, 15 HR, 4.8 WAR

     

    Why we expect regression

    After spending the first three seasons of his career as a back-of-the-rotation power arm with control issues, Cueto has turned into one of the better pitchers in the National League the last two seasons.

    He has posted ERAs of 2.31 and 2.78 in the last two seasons, lowering his walk rate from 3.52 in 2008 to 2.03 last season. He was also one of the leading contenders for the Cy Young award before stumbling to the finish line with a 4.33 ERA in the final month of the season. 

    At age 27, Cueto is still at the peak of his career. The progress he has made from year to year has been great to watch, and he could turn into the top-of-the-rotation starter the Reds have been missing in the postseason. 

    But the more I watch Cueto, the more skittish I am about his continued chance for success. He is listed at 5'10" and does not get a lot of plane on his fastball, making it easier to elevate and drive out of the ball park. It doesn't help that he also plays in one of the best hitters' parks in baseball. 

    Despite my reservations, Cueto has been able to succeed because he commands his pitches much better now than he ever has, and his changeup is one of the best in baseball. 

    Last season was the first time in Cueto's career that he surpassed 200 innings, breaking his previous career high of 185.2 innings. He is a flyball pitcher, though his splits have gotten much less extreme the last two years. 

    Cueto is good, but because he is prone to giving up flyballs and had the highest strand rate of his career in 2012 (78.8), it is hard to see him being nearly a five-WAR pitcher again. 

David Wright, 3B, New York Mets

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    2012 Stats

    156 G, .306/.391/.492, 21 HR, 93 RBI, 91 Runs, 41 2B, 2 3B, 15 SB, 81 BB, 112 K, 7.8 WAR

     

    Why we expect regression

    There was a time, not that long ago, when Wright's days in New York seemed numbered. The Wilpon family that owns a majority stake in the team was going through financial hell thanks to their involvement in the Bernie Madoff Ponzi scheme

    Now, just a few years later, Fred Wilpon is saying that the financial woes are over and it is back to business as usual. Considering that the Mets signed Wright to a seven-year, $122 million extension through 2020 this offseason, Wilpon's statement certainly appears to be true. 

    But was it a good investment?

    Wright turned 30 in December and is coming off his best season, by far, since 2008. His 7.8 Wins Above Replacement in 2012 was the third-highest in the National League, behind Buster Posey and Ryan Braun. 

    His defense at third base was never better, as he was credited with 16 defensive runs saved after three straight years of having a negative total in that category. (For the record, using one-year defensive metrics to evaluate is not ideal. A three-year sample is considered more representative of actual performance.)

    So it certainly seems like Wright is back on the right track. However, it is really hard to think Wright will maintain this level of performance as he moves into his age-30 season. 

    On the one hand, you could say Wright was finally healthy last year after an injury-plagued 2011. He is still in the prime years of his career and has never had injury problems outside of two years ago. 

    On the other hand, the spike in his defensive performance and his .347 BABIP (which is around his career average of .341 last season seem like they led to an over-inflated WAR.) 

    It also doesn't help Wright's case that he was suffering from a back injury during the World Baseball Classic.

    Wright's back is what gave him problems in 2011, when he suffered a stress fracture. Mark Hale of the New York Post wrote an article in May 2011 that includes quotes from a doctor saying that it could be a problem for him forever.

    It should be noted that the doctor quoted, Jeff Goldstein, had not seen Wright's medical records, he was just offering an educated opinion on the injury. 

    The back wasn't an issue for Wright in 2012, but hearing that it is flaring up right now is enough to raise some red flags. 

Alex Rios, RF, Chicago White Sox

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    2012 Stats

    157 G, .304/.334/.516, 25 HR, 91 RBI, 93 Runs, 37 2B, 8 3B, 26 BB, 92 K, 4.3 WAR

     

    Why we expect regression

    Rios tends to be one of the more frustrating players to watch on a season-by-season basis, especially for the last four years. He tends to have an All-Star season one year, then look like a replacement-level player the next. 

    I am not one to buy into trends like in even-numbered years a player does better than in odd-numbered years, but there are people out there who will try to convince you that there is something to that pattern. 

    Rios' slash lines of .247/.296/.395 in 2009 and .227/.265/.348 in 2011 don't tell us anymore or less about him than the .284/.334/.457 line in 2010 or .304/.334/.516 line last season. All we can say, with any certainty, is that Rios is incredibly inconsistent. 

    Whether that means Rios is going to have a bad season in 2013 because he had a good one last year is up to you to decide. 

    I don't think Rios will be nearly as valuable in 2013, but not because it is an odd-numbered year. No, I am looking at his career-low walk rate (4.1%), increased strike-out rate (14.4%) and age (32) as signs that another season of slugging .500 is not going to happen again. 

    U.S. Cellular Field does help power numbers because the wind can carry the ball out of that park if you elevate it, but it didn't help Rios in 2011. His line-drive percentage of 21.8 was also a career high. 

    When you see a lot of career highs from a player into his 30s, you know that it is not likely something that will last over the course of a two- or three-year stretch. 

Michael Bourn, CF, Cleveland Indians

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    2012 Stats

    155 G, .274/.348/.391, 9 HR, 57 RBI, 96 Runs, 26 2B, 10 3B, 70 BB, 155 K, 42 SB, 6.4 WAR

     

    Why we expect regression

    There is a widespread belief in baseball that you don't pay players with just one plus tool into their 30s, especially if that tool is speed. As you get older, you are going to start losing a step, leaving the team to scramble and find out what happened. 

    Bourn was one of the more fascinating free-agent cases to watch this offseason. His overall performance has been better and more consistent than B.J. Upton, but because Bourn is older and doesn't have power, teams seemed cautious about bidding on him. 

    Cleveland took advantage of the situation to address its need in center field and at the top of the lineup, giving Bourn a four-year, $48 million deal in February. 

    It seems like a good move on the surface, as Bourn has been the best defensive center fielder in baseball for years and adds an element of speed that the Indians haven't had for a long time. 

    But having just turned 30, Bourn is going to start–if he hasn't already–losing a step of that speed that has allowed him to track down balls hit to the deepest part of the park and keep his stolen-base total going down. 

    Despite being a leadoff hitter, due in large part to his speed, Bourn is not a great hitter. He doesn't walk a lot, setting a career high last season with 70 unintentional walks (just the second time he has had more than 60 in his career). He also strikes out a lot, whiffing in 22 percent of his plate appearances last season. 

    So we have a leadoff hitter with speed but no power who struggles to make contact moving to the more difficult American League at the age of 30. If he posts an on-base percentage over .340 again, the Indians will have gotten their money's worth for 2013. 

Matt Harrison, SP, Texas Rangers

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    2012 Stats

    18-11, 32 GS, 213.1 IP, 210 H, 133 K, 59 BB, 3.29 ERA, 22 HR, 3.8 WAR

     

    Why we expect regression

    Harrison is one of those pitchers whose actual performance is much better than the scientific numbers would suggest. He has above-average fastball velocity from the left side, yet doesn't miss many bats. 

    For his career, Harrison has struck out just 5.49 hitters for every nine innings pitched. His rate was a little better than that in 2012 at 5.61.

    Usually, if you are a good pitcher with a low strikeout rate, it is because your command in the zone is so good. But Harrison was middle of the pack last season with 2.49 walks per nine innings, 15th among the 36 American League starters with enough innings to qualify for the ERA title. 

    Harrison also gives up a lot of hits, 210 in 213.1 innings pitched last season. He is not an extreme flyball pitcher, as his rate has dropped from 32.8 percent in 2010 to 30.9 percent last season, but he still gives up a lot of home runs. 

    Being in Texas, especially as a flyball pitcher, you would think inflates Harrison's home runs allowed, but he actually gave up more home runs on the road (12) than he did at home (10) in 2012. 

    Some pitchers are able to get away with a high-flyball rate–Matt Cain immediately comes to mind–but most of them have enough weapons in their arsenals to miss more bats than Harrison has been able to. 

    The three keys to being a successful pitcher are: Don't walk guys, keep the ball on the ground and miss bats. Most good starting pitchers can get away with two of those three skills, but Harrison doesn't do any of those things well. 

    Eventually things are going to catch up to Harrison, even though he has managed to defy the odds for the last two seasons. 

Jason Hammel, SP, Baltimore Orioles

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    2012 Stats

    8-6, 20 GS, 118.0 IP, 104 H, 42 BB, 9 HR, 3.43 ERA, 2.9 WAR

     

    Why we expect regression

    Hammel was just another journeyman pitcher who started his career in Tampa Bay before moving to Colorado for three years starting in 2009. He was consistent with the Rockies, which is more than you can say for most of their pitchers over the last 20 years, throwing over 170 innings in each of his three seasons with them. 

    Then Hammel moved to Baltimore prior to the 2012 season, found a little more gas for his fastball (his average velocity went from 92.9 in 2011 to 93.6 last year) and cleaned up his delivery enough to increase his ceiling ever so slightly as a 29-year-old. 

    Now, having turned 30 last September, Hammel is going to be tasked with saving the Orioles' rotation after he showed signs of improvement last season. He posted the highest strikeout rate of his career (8.62) and by far the lowest ERA of his career (3.43). 

    However, and this is the key, Hammel also posted the second-highest walk rate of his career (3.20) and was only able to make 20 starts due to a knee injury that required surgery. 

    So are we supposed to put stock in the 120 innings Hammel was able to throw with the Orioles last season, or the 730 innings he threw with Tampa Bay and Colorado before moving to Baltimore?

    If Hammel was a younger pitcher who was just struggling to put everything together with two different organizations, I would say his 2012 season could be the start of something. 

    But since Hammel did this at the age of 29, still struggles to throw strikes and is playing in the toughest division in baseball for a pitcher, expect him to revert back to the pitcher he was before 2012. 

    That will put a huge dent in the Orioles' hopes of making it back to the postseason, as they didn't do anything to upgrade their rotation in the offseason and only had one starter (Wei-Yin Chen) make more than 20 starts last year. 

Jake Peavy, SP, Chicago White Sox

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    2012 Stats

    11-12, 32 GS, 219.0 IP, 191 H, 194 K, 49 BB, 27 HR, 3.37 ERA, 4.4 WAR

     

    Why we expect regression

    It is almost too easy to say that health is the key to Peavy's success, but he proved last season that all he has to do is stay off the disabled list to be one of the better pitchers in the American League. 

    Peavy's resurgent season impressed the White Sox so much that they rewarded him with a two-year, $29 million contract that will keep him with the team through 2014.

    That deal could end up looking like a bargain, when you consider that the going rate for league-average pitchers this offseason was $13 million per season when the Chicago Cubs signed Edwin Jackson to a four-year, $52 million deal

    And even if the Peavy deal goes south on the White Sox, which it easily could, it is not a long-term commitment, so they don't have to worry about paying him that far down the road. 

    As impressive as Peavy looked last season, it was not all sunshine and rainbows. He was able to surpass the 30-start and 200-inning marks for the first time since 2007 when he won the National League Cy Young award with San Diego. 

    However, Peavy struggled away from U.S. Cellular Field and in the second half of the season. On the road, he posted a 3.61 ERA and gave up 113 hits and 16 home runs in 117.1 innings pitched. At home, his ERA was 3.10 and he allowed 78 hits in 101.2 innings. 

    Before the All-Star break, Peavy had a 2.85 ERA with four complete games and an opponents' slash line of .213/.264/.346. After the break, his ERA was 4.00 with a slash line of .258/.307/.434 and he gave up 15 of his 27 home runs. 

    It is hard to bank on Peavy making 30 starts again just because it had been so long since he had done it. He is as injury prone as any starting pitcher in the game today. It will be a surprise if he is worth more than four Wins Above Replacement again. 

Mike Trout, OF, Los Angeles Angels

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    2012 Stats

    139 G, .326/.399/.564, 30 HR, 83 RBI, 129 Runs, 27 2B, 8 3B, 67 BB, 139 K, 49 SB, 10.0 WAR

     

    Why we expect regression

    I saved Trout for the end for two reasons. One, I imagine he will be the most controversial player on this list and it would likely take away from the rest of the piece. Two, to make a point about how regression isn't necessarily a bad word. 

    Also, Trout's inclusion on this list has nothing to do with the ridiculous controversy surrounding him showing up to camp back in February weighing 240 pounds. He is 21-years-old and a freak athlete who is built like a linebacker, runs like a wide receiver and happens to play baseball. 

    A slight weight gain in the offseason for Trout is not a big deal. 

    As far as Trout on the field in 2013, how do you follow up the greatest rookie season in baseball history and one of the best single-season performances in baseball history?

    The short answer is: You probably can't. I add the word probably in there just because Trout is so gifted in every facet of the game that you can't put it past him to improve upon what he did in 2012. 

    But every single projection you look at for Trout, with the exception of Bill James', shows a dropoff for him this season. 

    Baseball Prospectus' PECOTA projection (subscription required) has Trout hitting .288/.354/.467 with 21 home runs, 77 RBI and 45 stolen bases. 

    Even the most optimistic projection for Trout on Fangraphs, which lists five different projections from various sources, comes from Bill James. The sabermetric guru has Trout hitting .325/.402/.564 with 30 home runs, 87 RBI and 53 stolen bases. 

    The other projection systems all have Trout being worth between 6.5-8.6 Wins Above Replacement. If Trout falls into that range this season, he will still be one of the five best players in baseball and a serious MVP candidate again. 

    Yet those projections still have Trout taking a step back from his historically great debut season. Even if Trout is worth 70 percent of the value he was in 2012, he is still the best player in the game. It just doesn't quite match what he did last season. 

    Where we run into a problem with Trout that we don't with the other players on this list is track record. Trout could very well end up going all Barry Bonds on us and posting 12 Wins Above Replacement. 

    You just can't predict that because the list of 12-WAR seasons in baseball history is limited to Babe Ruth, Rogers Hornsby and Carl Yastrzemski (per BaseballReference.com). 

    Those players had some kind of track record where you could feel comfortable predicting them to have a season like that and not look like an idiot. 

    Trout, as great as he is, has just one full season under his belt. He is also just 21-years-old. We have never seen any 20-year-old do the things he did last season while playing in just 139 games. 

    No one expects Trout to be anything less than great in 2013–nor should they. But expecting him to be as great as he was last season might be asking a bit too much. 

     

    If you want to talk about players on the list or who you feel should be on the list, or just want to discuss baseball, hit me up on Twitter.