Safe Predictions You Can Expect for the 2021 MLB Season

Martin FennFeatured Columnist IApril 1, 2021

Safe Predictions You Can Expect for the 2021 MLB Season

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    Matt York/Associated Press

    There are those who thrive on hot takes and making bold predictions, but that's not the aim of this column.

    Consider the following an antithesis to a Skip Bayless or Colin Cowherd rant. These are safe predictions for the 2021 MLB season and are based on things like historical context and projected outlook, among other factors.

Dodgers Win 90-Plus Games

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    Ross D. Franklin/Associated Press

    Do you know the last time the Los Angeles Dodgers failed to eclipse the 90-win mark in a 162-game season? That would be in 2012. 

    The Dodgers had won over 100 contests in two of the previous three seasons entering 2020. They were on pace for over 116 wins last summer, finishing 43-17.

    Then the defending World Series champions got better.

    Los Angeles re-signed Justin Turner and landed the big fish in reigning National League Cy Young winner Trevor Bauer. Even if Bauer falls short of the hype, his homecoming—in addition to David Price's return from an opt-out—gives the Dodgers options with young arms Julio Urias, Dustin May and Tony Gonsolin. 

    The team does everything well. It led the majors in runs scored and tied for the MLB lead in OPS+ in 2020. Los Angeles also ranked first in ERA and added Bauer and Price to a rotation that includes Walker Buehler and Clayton Kershaw, with a wealth of young arms waiting in the wings.

    Barring some kind of cataclysmic event, the Dodgers will win at least 90 games.

Christian Yelich Bounces Back...

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    Ashley Landis/Associated Press

    Christian Yelich burst onto the scene as one of the top superstars in his first two seasons with the Milwaukee Brewers. But 2020 was more of a slog. 

    Yelich still hit 12 home runs, good enough for a 32-homer pace. However, he hit just .205. More curiously, Yelich saw a substantial rise in strikeouts. The 2018 NL MVP struck out in over 30 percent of his plate appearances. He just never quite looked in sync at the dish.

    Do not fear, Brewers fans. Yelich will be an MVP candidate in 2021.

    The 29-year-old ranked in the 99th percentile in average exit velocity and 98th percentile in hard-hit rate. He also ranked in the 98th percentile in walk rate.

    That 30-plus percent home run-to-fly-ball ratio many seemed to question the sustainability of after 2018 was still present this past season, with 32.4 percent of his fly balls leaving the yard.

    Perhaps most importantly—for Yelich and a host of others—players can watch in-game video in 2021 after being denied that luxury last summer.

    Yelich's batted-ball numbers were off the charts despite the swing-and-miss oddities. The strikeouts should fall thanks to the reinstitution of in-game video. That adds up to a bounce-back season. 

    As a quick aside: Yelich is +1200 to win NL MVP. Those are strong odds for a guy who finished first and second for the award in 2018 and 2019, respectively.

…As Does Francisco Lindor

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    Lynne Sladky/Associated Press

    Francisco Lindor is another superstar who struggled in 2020. Actually, Lindor's struggles date back to 2019.

    He hit just .218 with a .705 OPS in the final month of the 2019 regular season as Cleveland fell out of the playoff chase. It was a bitter end to another strong individual campaign. 

    Things were far worse at the dish in 2020. Lindor hit just .258, with his OPS falling from .854 to .750. He also had to deal with the constant distraction of his impending free agency, 

    But Lindor finds himself in a new situation in New York and is coming off a big spring training. The 27-year-old hit .370 with four homers and a 1.063 OPS in camp. Three of those homers came in consecutive games from March 19 to March 23.

    Oh, and then there's this: the Mets and Lindor agreed to a 10-year contract extension worth $341 million late Wednesday night.

    Lindor has the feel of a guy who could have a massive year after a change of scenery, especially now that he has the long-term security. It should also be said his slash line in 2020 disguised the fact that he had the highest sweet spot and hard-hit percentages of his career.

    "Mr. Smile" always offers terrific defense and should be an asset on the bases. Expect him to settle into a groove hitting toward the top of a loaded Mets lineup.

Jacob deGrom Finishes Top-3 in NL Cy Young Voting

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    Lynne Sladky/Associated Press

    Is there any reason to expect Mets ace Jacob deGrom will not be one of the favorites to win the 2021 NL Cy Young? That's a rhetorical question. The obvious answer is no.

    The 32-year-old won back-to-back Cy Young Awards in 2018 and 2019. He finished third in the 2020 voting after posting a 2.38 ERA and leading the NL with 104 strikeouts in 68.0 frames. His 13.8 strikeouts per nine innings marked a personal best, and the 183 ERA+ and 2.26 fielding independent pitching (FIP) were both the second-best marks of his career.

    DeGrom ranked in the 93rd percentile in expected wOBA and 98th percentile in whiff rate. He blows away hitters with a fastball that averaged 98.6 mph, which ranked second among all qualified pitchers in 2020. The Mets ace follows that four-seamer with a slider that averages 92.5 mph and yielded a 44.6 percent whiff rate this past season.

    There is nothing deGrom cannot do on the mound. He paints the fastball and can elevate it whenever he chooses. The slider is unhittable because of how it plays off the fastball with good velocity. Then he comes with a changeup that drops off the table.

    DeGrom is the betting favorite (+425) to win the NL Cy Young in 2021. He won't finish lower than third if healthy.

Mike Trout Finishes Top-5 in AL MVP Voting

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    Matt York/Associated Press

    While deGrom has been the most dominant pitcher in recent years, Los Angeles Angels star Mike Trout has been the best player in baseball for almost a decade.

    Trout has also been a surefire top-five American League MVP candidate.

    The three-time AL MVP has not finished lower than fifth in the voting since his first full season in 2012. That fifth-place finish was in 2020, when Trout slashed .281/.390/.603 with 17 homers and 46 RBI in what he called a "bad year," per The Athletic's Fabian Ardaya.

    There's also this: Trout told Ken Rosenthal of The Athletic he had been "fighting" at the plate for the better part of a year. He alluded to his timing being off and having different swings in the cage as compared to during games.

    But Trout is feeling more comfortable and should be dialed in at the plate. That's terrifying for American League West starters.

    He hasn't had a sub-.900 OPS since 2012. His 164 OPS+ in 2020 was the lowest of his career aside from a 40-game stretch in 2011. Again, this came in a "bad" year!

    Some might cite past durability issues as something that could derail Trout's hopes. However, consider the fact that he still finished fourth in AL MVP voting in 2017 despite playing just 114 games. 

    Trout is an enormous favorite to win his fourth MVP at +225. Alex Bregman, Aaron Judge and Jose Ramirez have the next-best odds at +1200.

    The modern GOAT will be in the top five, at the very least.

Mookie Betts and Nolan Arenado Win Gold Gloves

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    Lynne Sladky/Associated Press

    Not sold on this prediction? Let me do some enlightening.

    Nolan Arenado has won the Gold Glove at third base in eight straight seasons. Eight! He has also been awarded the Platinum Glove in four of those seasons.

    The St. Louis Cardinals star towers over all other third basemen with 130 defensive runs saved (DRS) since 2013. Want another metric? Arenado easily ranks first among third basemen with 62 outs above average (OAA) since 2016. He tied for first in that category in 2020.

    Mookie Betts has been every bit as sensational in right field. Betts has won five straight Gold Glove Awards in right. His 107 DRS since 2016 is far and away the most among right fielders. As is the case with Arenado, this translates across all metrics. Betts leads all right fielders with 54 outs above average since 2016 and ranked first in OAA (5) in 2020.

    Starting to get the gist? Arenado is the best defensive infielder in baseball. Betts is the best defensive outfielder.

    Considering the run both guys have been on and the fact that they are in the prime of their respective careers, there is no reason to believe they will be unseated as Gold Glovers.

Trevor Story Will Be Traded

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    Ashley Landis/Associated Press

    The Colorado Rockies might have hoped dealing Arenado would pave the way for a potential extension with Trevor Story, who is slated to hit free agency at the end of the season.

    Yeah, that's not happening.

    Colorado has every reason to desire a long-term partnership with Story. He is one of the best shortstops in the game, a guy who can slug, steal bases and play plus defense at a premium position.

    However, there is no reason Story would want to sign an extension with a team closer to a full-scale teardown than contention. Actually, hold on. Per MLB Network's Jon Heyman, the Rockies—after paying down over $50 million to move Arenado—don't even have the "budget" to pay their superstar!

    All signs indicate the Rockies will move Story before the July 31 trade deadline. Colorado would not dare retain Story through the end of the season and try to re-sign him in the winter.

    Sure, the Rockies could at least get a compensation pick by extending the qualifying offer. But it would be foolish to simply accept that when the club figures to get assets in a trade.

    Story will be wearing a different uniform by the end of the season.

Dealin' Dave Makes an Aggressive Move

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    Chris O'Meara/Associated Press

    The Philadelphia Phillies are dark-horse contenders in a strong National League East. President of baseball operations Dave Dombrowski is one of the most aggressive executives in the sport. 

    You know what that means? Madness!

    Dombrowski got right to work in addressing Philly's biggest need this offseason by acquiring a pair of relievers in Jose Alvarado and Sam Coonrod. He also signed Archie Bradley and, of course, re-signed star catcher J.T. Realmuto.

    The Phillies went from possible offseason sellers to buyers. It is no coincidence the shift happened after Dombrowski came on board in December, and it would hardly be a surprise were he to buy top assets come deadline season if his team is in contention.

    Perhaps said assets will come in the form of more relief help. Alvarado has looked terrific this spring, as has Bradley. But the unit could benefit from another power arm.

    Or, maybe the Phillies try to get a new center fielder if Adam Haseley struggles and Roman Quinn, Odubel Herrera, Scott Kingery or prospect Mickey Moniak can't take the job.

    Dombrowski earned the "Dealin' Dave" moniker for a reason. He is not afraid to reshuffle or deplete the farm system and play into a heavy win-now approach. That should make for an interesting deadline dynamic.

The Astros Trash-Can Jokes Continue

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    Lynne Sladky/Associated Press

    Let's be real: The Houston Astros were mostly spared the vicious backlash that awaited them in the immediate aftermath of the sign-stealing scandal that first broke in the fall of 2019.

    Yes, the Astros had to give up four draft picks and were fined $5 million. Houston fired former manager A.J. Hinch as well as general manager Jeff Luhnow. But the players did not have to deal with the in-person wrath of fans boiling with anger, as the coronavirus kept stadiums largely empty. That will be different in 2021. In fact, there have already been "trash can" jokes in spring training. 

    A security guard banged a trash can as Alex Bregman was batting during the team's spring training matchup with the Miami Marlins on Sunday. If that isn't an indicator of things to come, I'm not sure what is.

    The scandal still looms large. It has been mentioned at Detroit Tigers camp, where Hinch is in his first year as Tigers skipper. Miguel Cabrera made comments that prompted quite a bit of discussion. Of course, Carlos Correa kept the fire raging when he called out the haters last fall.

    Well, now fans will be back in the seats. Globe Life Field, home of the Texas Rangers, is opening to full capacity. Guess what team is in the Rangers' division?

    The Astros will have to endure an endless amount of goading and harassment on the road. Fans can be unrelenting, and they are sure to remind 'Stros players of past sins throughout the season.

At Least One Player Gets Busted for Doctoring the Ball

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    John Bazemore/Associated Press

    If you need more insight into MLB's new policies for preventing pitchers from doctoring baseballs, read this piece by Bleacher Report's Zach Rymer.

    In essence, MLB will keep a closer eye on strange rises in spin rates and will inspect balls, among other procedures.

    The memo has been a major sticking point in the game. There are also questions as to how and whether MLB will really be able to punish players.

    Buster Olney of ESPN cited the "chain-of-custody" defense in terms of just how many people will make contact with baseballs put out of play and sent for analysis. Evan Drellich of The Athletic asked how MLB will evaluate sample sizes.

    Still, they will test the new policies, and I have no doubt at least one player will be suspended or disciplined for doctoring. 

    Spin rates are all the rage. Eno Sarris of The Athletic wrote last fall about pitcher obsession with improving grip. Trevor Bauer experienced a huge year-over-year leap in fastball spin rates and won the Cy Young. 

    It's going to happen at some point. The interesting part will be how MLB deals with discipline and whether the policies prove to be flawed or overly intrusive.

             

    All stats obtained via Baseball Reference, FanGraphs or Baseball Savant, unless otherwise noted. Spring stats accurate as of March 25. All odds obtained via DraftKings.

          

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