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I sometimes get the question: “I want to do my own rankings this year. Where do I start?”
Of course, my first reaction is that the guy should stop trying to do my job; I don’t need to feel any more replaceable.
More reasonably, a fine place to start is with what players did last year, or even over the past three years. But to be clear, it’s a place to start, not a place to finish. We all know that unsustainable things happen over the course of a full season. I write Regression Alert pieces throughout the year, but the truth is we never know when the regression is coming.
That doesn’t mean we shouldn’t be looking for it heading into a new season. And Avisail Garcia may as well have a neon sign hanging around his neck.
Garcia led baseball with a .392 BABIP in his breakout campaign. That’s a full 52 points higher than his career mark and 72 points higher than his 2015 mark, which was previously his career high. What does that even mean? That you should probably expect a batting average in the .275 range, which is a huge drop for a player that has still never hit 20 home runs and doesn’t steal a lot of bases. Garcia is a No. 4 outfielder who looks like much more based on last year’s numbers.
Before we get to the rest of the regression candidates, it’s important to recognize that regression in not inherently negative. Players can regress back to their previous state (or stats) in a positive way as well. Want an example? Look no further than Manny Machado. In 2017 Machado struck out less than his career rate, walked more, created less soft contact than his career norm and posted a career high in hard contact. The result? He posted his lowest OPS+ since his rookie year. He will regress back towards the mean in 2018, which will mean better numbers.
Here are 10 others due for regression and what you should realistically expect in 2018:
Sure, Garcia may be the poster boy for regression, but Zimmerman isn’t far behind. As a 32 year-old he set career highs in home runs (36), RBI (108), ISO (.269), BABIP (.335) and HR/FB rate (26.5 percent). You can trace a lot of that back to his 40 percent hard contact rate and the fact that he played 140 games for the first time since 2013. Even if you project another healthy year (which seems risky), you have to expect that Zimmerman regresses to an average near .270 and a home run total below 30. It’s hard to see him as more than a low-end corner infielder at a deep position like first base.
Like Zimmerman, Marcell Ozuna just had his career year. Unlike Zimmerman, he’s right in the middle of his prime so people are far more likely to buy into it. While I’m fine with Ozuna as a top-25 outfielder, I don’t think he can match last season’s BABIP (.355) or HR/FB rate (23.4 percent). And while he should benefit from leaving the third-worst park for right-handed power hitters, the park he’s moving to was the fifth worst in 2017. Again, saying Ozuna is going to regress doesn’t mean I think he’ll be bad. But he’s currently being drafted as the 13th outfielder, and that’s too rich for my blood.
Admittedly, Eric Hosmer’s value will be partially determined by where he signs. But there is virtually nowhere he could sign that I would expect him to repeat last year’s 22.5 percent HR/FB rate considering his lack of hard contact. Hosmer is a rare case where the eye has always liked him more than the numbers, and that makes him especially dangerous coming off a good year like 2017. He’s a borderline start-able first baseman who will be drafted like a borderline star. Expect fewer home runs, a lower batting average and a possible drop in run production, especially if he re-signs in Kansas City.
This is where I get really uncomfortable. Both Aaron Judge and Charlie Blackmon look like regression candidates. I just don’t know what we should do about it. Judge’s .357 BABIP and 35.6 percent HR/FB rate are not sustainable. Or at least they never have been before. Then again, we don’t often see players post hard contact rates above 45 percent either. I expect Judge to lose 15-plus points off his batting average. I expect his home runs will regress by 10 percent. I would still take him at the end of the first round in Roto leagues.
Charlie Blackmon is another player whose batted ball data doesn’t look particularly sustainable, and I’m not sure if you should particularly care. Blackmon was the No. 1 hitter in points leagues in 2017, and I don’t expect him to repeat that. Expect an average closer to .300 and his home run total to drop. He’ll still be worth a mid-first round pick in 2018.
I don’t have a name yet for what I expect from Buster Posey this season, but I’m working on it. Like a double-breaking putt, Posey has regression coming from both angles. His .347 BABIP was his highest since 2012 and a full 22 points higher than his career norm. That’s likely coming down. His HR/FB rate was 8.4 percent, the lowest mark of his career and almost 33 percent below his career rate. That should come up. The tiebreaker? Run production. Posey had just 129 combined runs and RBI in 2017 despite a .400 OBP and an ISO (.142) that wasn’t far off the past two seasons. I would expect somewhere closer to 160, and I also expect him to be the No. 1 catcher in points leagues.
Mookie Betts had a down year in 2017. And just about everyone wishes their bad year could look like his. Betts walked almost as often as he struck out, topped 100 runs and RBI and was a member of the 20-20 club. He’s the only player in baseball to top 20/20/100/100 each of the past two years. And the regression he has coming is positive. Despite incredible plate discipline, Betts hit just .264. Why? A .268 BABIP that was 35 points below his career average. That will bounce back, he’ll hit close to .300 and he may just lead baseball in runs scored.
Betts’ teammate Xander Bogaerts creates snowflakes of seasons. No 2 of his look the same. He’s also always in the regression discussion. After 2015 we questioned his BABIP, and it promptly dropped 37 points. After 2016 we doubted his HR/FB rate. It plummeted nearly 40 percent. Last year he looked like a blend of those two players before a hand injury really seemed to hamper him. He posted a career-high walk rate and a career-low swinging strike rate last season. I expect an average near .300 with double- digit steals and home runs.
I know I’ve got quite a history of doubting Rougned Odor, but I never thought he’d be that bad. And he shouldn’t have been. Yes, Odor walks too little and strikes out too often. That may never change. But his batting average in 2017 was 50 points lower than what you would expect. Give him even a .250 average (and .300 OBP) and you’re looking at a guy with 30 HR, 15 SB and more than 160 runs + RBI. That’s the baseline in 2018, and there is certainly a chance his K rate drops back to pre-2017 levels as well.
This could be Maikel Franco’s last chance, but I’m not ready to give up on him yet. Franco has never been as good as we was as a rookie, when he hit .280 with an .841 OPS, and I’m not totally sure why. The batted ball profile hasn’t changed all that much, and if anything it’s improved, while his production has lagged. What I am sure about is that we shouldn’t expect another .234 BABIP. With his high contact rate and an improved lineup around him, a .270 season with 90-plus RBI and 30 home runs is well within the realm of possibility.