Predicting individual leaders in each statistical category is like picking bull stocks from the NASDAQ—everybody has 20/20 hindsight.
But before reading all the Warren Buffett spring training predictions, keep in mind how many people really bought stock in Apple or Google 10 years ago.
Likewise, who really thought Jose Bautista would hit 54 HRs last year or that Adrian Beltre would lead the American League with 49 doubles?
It seems reasonable to have predicted that Juan Pierre would have led the league in stolen bases, unless you recall that he was a part-time player for two years in Los Angeles before his 2010 renaissance.
As with fantasy projections, there’s no more reliable metric than consistency. But factor in emerging talents, changing team environments and whatever other crazy baseball-only circumstances you want, and we could have a different cast of AL category leaders in 2011.
And so, fearlessly tossing aside any other disclaimers, here are our buy low/sell high predictions for AL statistical leaders in 2011...
Crawford might have been in full contract-year mode last year, posting career highs in HR, runs, RBI and OPS. Going into his 10th season, Crawford’s legs are as strong as ever and his hands just as fast through the strike zone.
He’s a 600 AB machine who has posted at least 46 stolen bases every year but once, making him as consistent as any speedster the AL has seen in the last 20 years.
With Crawford joining the Red Sox and batting in front of Adrian Gonzalez, Dustin Pedroia and David Ortiz, this is as sure as any prediction in the AL for 2011. Crawford is a sweet-swinging lefty who’ll slap a ton of doubles off the Green Monster and should improve his OBP with renewed patience at the top of the Sox order.
Crawford scored 110 runs last year batting in front of Evan Longoria and Carlos Pena in Tampa to establish a new career high and should exceed that number in 2011.
The only question with Gonzalez this year will be his shoulder, and those questions will be answered in the next few weeks. Fenway is the perfect park for Gonzalez, who hits for power to the opposite field better than any slugger in baseball.
The difference in the left field dimensions between Petco and Fenway is scary.
Anyone who has watched Gonzalez hit rainbows into the gloomy San Diego night that landed innocently in a camping outfielder’s glove waiting on the Petco warning track the last few years knows how many of those will fall onto Lansdowne Street in 2011.
An amazing 65 percent of Gonzalez's bombs were hit on the road last year, demonstrating how affected he was by the Padres’ home field.
Along with Josh Hamilton, Cano has the sweetest lefty swing in baseball. Is he a stretch to win the RBI crown? Sure. But can it happen? Easily.
Cano is that rare hitter who is comfortable slapping the ball to the opposite field or pulling it down the right field line in cozy new Yankee Stadium.
Last year, Cano became more dangerous by yanking the ball down the right field line more frequently than ever. His 36 percent fly-ball rate led to a career high 29 HRs and 109 RBI.
Now in his prime, Cano is no longer a slow starter, and he doesn’t waste ABs (as he did for much of 2008), making him one of the elite run producers in the game. He also recently hired Scott Boras as his agent, signaling the chance he might be looking for RBI king money, not singles hitter money.
So is this pick based on the chance he’ll bat cleanup for part of 2011? To some extent, yes. But if A-Rod’s hip continues to bother him or the Yankees need to shake up their lineup while trailing the Sox in the standings, they might find that the player in pinstripes most suited to bat cleanup is Cano.
The question with Hamilton will always be his health, and he may not have another full season anytime soon. Hamilton has admitted that doctors aren’t sure what the cumulative effect of the damage he’s done to his body will be or what the likelihood is that he’ll enjoy a long career in baseball.
He shows an unusual vulnerability to muscle strains and pulls and was shut down in September of last year with cracked ribs. In his four-year big league career he has only one season with more than 520 ABs.
Here is what we do know about Hamilton—he is a hit machine.
The AL has a few other hit machines, but none of them are so awesomely gifted as Hamilton at the plate—Ichiro does not drive the ball to the opposite field, and Billy Butler can’t run. Miguel Cabrera swings for the fences at times, and Joe Mauer can get dinged up behind the plate.
It’s hard to call Hamilton a contender in any counting stats, but he can flat rake when he’s healthy, and he should follow up his .359 campaign from a year ago with another yearlong laser show in Arlington.
Upton has not been a sure thing for anything during his four-year big league career except inconsistency. No one questions his talent, but his .237 average last year and 164 strikeouts endeared him to few Rays fans last season.
But Upton’s only 26, and he’s worked hard this offseason to change his swing mechanics and patience at the plate. He had only 67 BBs last year but had almost 100 in 2008, the last time he routinely saw the top of the order.
Which brings us to the Rays, who may find the need to manufacture some runs this season. With all of their offensive prowess the last three seasons, it’s easy to forget that Joe Maddon is a run-manufacturing manager like his former boss in Anaheim, Mike Scioscia. It’s conceivable that he will send Upton and other Rays early and often when they’re on base.
Combine that with a steady position at the top of the Rays order this year, and Upton could exceed 60 swiped bases in 2011.
At 25, no one can doubt that Longoria is beginning to enter his prime with the Rays, meaning a likely improvement on his 22 HRs and 72 BBs last season. Longoria reportedly added 10 pounds of muscle this offseason. He also suffered from a huge drop-off in his HR rate per fly ball, which should rebound in 2011.
But the biggest reason his OPS should skyrocket is the walks he will receive with little support behind him in the Rays lineup. Opposing pitchers might be more inclined to pitch to Dan Johnson or Manny Ramirez, pushing Longoria's free pass totals to Albert Pujols-like numbers.
It’s the only conceivable reason that Longoria wouldn’t be a fantasy beast in 2011, and it makes the prediction that he’ll lead the AL in OPS an easy one.
Any prediction regarding the AL and hits that doesn’t include Ichiro is crazy.
He has led the league in hits for five years running and six out of the last seven. He has 10 consecutive years with over 200 hits. He has also led the AL in ABs for six out of the last seven seasons, making his durability as impressive as his bat control
Maybe his fantasy value is dropping. He relies on his legs too much to get on base for someone 37 years old, and his BABIP numbers have dropped the last two years. He may only steal 30 bases, and the M's have no one to consistently drive him in.
But Ichiro will get hits and stay healthy.
After compiling only 13 wins in 2010, no one could question that Hernandez was the best pitcher in the American League on the worst team. At 25 now, he has dominated the league for two straight years. Last year he improved his control while increasing his strikeout rate.
He could lead the league in innings pitched on the merits of his fastball alone. He throws 97 MPH regularly, and his fastball has a natural sink that induces ground balls by the bushel. His precocious poise and confidence on the mound make him seem invulnerable to the big inning.
He has also become an innings beast, throwing 249.2 last year. He improved as the year went along in 2010, posting a 1.53 ERA and 0.94 WHIP after the All-Star break. With David Aardsma out to start the season and options bleak in the Ms bullpen, Hernandez could be asked to finish what he started more often than in the past.
The only obstacle in this prediction is the burnout factor, but the same could be said for any of the top young arms in the AL.
Scherzer is nasty. He is the prototypically nasty, dominating presence on the mound, with a wide build and a huge arm. He regularly tops 97 MPH heat and complements it with a huge break on his curveball, forcing as much guessing by opposing batters as anyone in the league.
The question is consistency, and for 2011, the answer is yes. Scherzer found his mechanics and his composure during a midseason sojourn to Toledo last year and came back to dominate, posting a 2.46 ERA and striking more than a batter per inning.
In the end, Scherzer put up 30 starts for the second straight season, answering questions about the shoulder issues he’s experienced in the past. It’s likely that no pitcher is better poised for a breakout season in 2011.
Gonzalez is ready to become an ace in 2011. He may already be there—he put up a 2.59 ERA in the second half of 2010.
Nobody who has seen Gonzalez develop questions his raw stuff, which is the best on a talented A’s pitching staff. He sports a full arsenal of pitches, led by a devastating curve.
However, his development last year hinged on the location of his fastball, which became his out pitch. He used his mid 90s heat to cut down on his walks and improve his K totals.
Gonzalez won 15 games last year and has the highest potential for growth among all young stars in the AL for 2011.
Cahill is a ground-ball machine who throws a heavy sinker for strikes and induces tons of balls pounded into the dirt. He plays in front of an above-average defense in Oakland, and this formula led to 18 wins and a 1.16 WHIP in 2010.
Cahill has the least impressive stuff of any staff ace in the AL. He just finds a way—he prepares better, keeps hitters off balance and induces grounders. He isn’t flashy and has a low strikeout rate (at just over six per nine innings).
But another season with an ERA south of three and a WHIP just over one is in the cards for Cahill.
Lester isn’t a kid anymore for the Red Sox. He has three straight seasons of 200-plus innings and two straight seasons of at least 200 strikeouts. Questions surrounding his durability have vanished after his 19-win season in which he threw 208 IP in 2010.
Lester has also adjusted to Fenway Park, becoming more of a ground-ball pitcher. Lester allowed only 14 HRs last year and showed a propensity to limit the damage and avoid big innings. He improved his deceptive changeup to complement the nasty fastball and curve that are his hallmarks.
The Red Sox will score a ton of runs, and their back end might be as good as anyone's in the American League. This should add up to Lester's first 20-win year in 2011.
Weaver lost his recent arbitration case after failing to agree with the Angels on a contract extension. Multiple reports indicated that the two sides weren’t even close and that Weaver is not inclined to give the Angels a hometown discount.
All of this could add up to a huge year for Weaver, who will be battling for big free agent money with only two years of contractual control remaining.
Last year was Weaver’s breakout season, in which he posted his best career strikeout rate and walk rate. He finished second in K:BB ratio to Cliff Lee, who walked only 18 batters last season and now pitches in the NL.
The difference last year was his command of his breaking pitches and his confidence throwing them for strike three. Add that to huge motivation, and Weaver could top 200 Ks again in 2011.
Saying David Price will be asked to do more might be an understatement, insofar as every Rays pitcher will be asked to do more. The Rays lost seven of their top eight bullpen pitchers by innings pitched from 2010.
Price completed only two games last season (the first two of his career) and threw 208 innings, but the reins will be taken off by Joe Maddon this year.
Price grew comfortable in his role as staff ace as the season progressed, gaining comfort with his game-day routine and demonstrating improved command of his breaking stuff. Now at 25, he has a dominant change and slider. But last year, he found that he could get by just by locating his 98 MPH fastball and painting the black all day. He no longer has to slow it down to throw it consistently for strikes.
With just J.P. Howell and Kyle Farnsworth to close games, Price could be asked to finish what he started a lot in 2011. Six or seven complete games for the young fireballer is not out of the question.