Can Biggest Surprise Sluggers of 2017 Repeat it This Season?

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Published on February 1 2018 6:18 am
Last Updated on February 1 2018 6:18 am

By ESPN

Who were the most surprising hitters of 2017? You could enter the numbers into a spreadsheet, compare each player’s performance to his preseason projection and see which players most overachieved. I’m too lazy to do that.

Maybe the 10 players below weren’t the exact 10 biggest surprises by some formula. But they were 10 of the most compelling players of 2017 because of their surprises. That makes them compelling for 2018. It also makes them 10 of the most important players for the upcoming season. Can they repeat their improbable production? The Steamer projections at FanGraphs say no: All 10 players are predicted to regress in their triple-slash lines.

Let’s examine our 10 guys.

Cody Bellinger, 1B, Los Angeles Dodgers

2017: .267/.352/.581, 39 HRs, .299 BABIP

2018 projection: .253/.340/.516, 36 HRs, .282 BABIP

Bellinger was a prized prospect before the 2017 season, but nobody could have expected this kind of season. He started in Triple-A, and it took a series of injuries for the Dodgers to call him up in late April. All he did was set the National League rookie record for home runs while ranking fifth in the majors in isolated power. Given his rookie production and his age -- he didn’t turn 22 until halfway through the season -- he should be one of the game’s premier sluggers for the next decade.

One reason to buy into him as a consistent slugger is that he pulls the ball. Take his Dodgers teammate Corey Seager, who hasn’t completely tapped into his power potential because he rarely pulls the ball in the air. Most home runs are pulled, so the big-time power hitters tend to be pull hitters. Here’s Bellinger’s hit chart:

In the postseason, Bellinger struggled (hitting just .219 with 29 strikeouts and three walks) as pitchers fed him a steady diet of breaking balls. I think that was more the result of being tired after a long season than a fatal flaw that will be exploited in the future. Bellinger hit .260/.329/.625 against off-speed pitches in the regular season, so it wasn’t a concern before the postseason. Bellinger is the prototypical young slugger in today’s game: He had the eighth-highest rate of fly balls in the majors. That might prevent him from being a .300 hitter, but it won’t prevent him from hitting 40 home runs in 2018.

Chris Taylor, CF, Los Angeles Dodgers

2017: .288/.354/.496, 21 HRs, .361 BABIP

2018 projection: .264/.331/.411, 14 HRs, .328 BABIP

If Bellinger was a pleasant surprise, Taylor’s season was more of a shocking revelation. He also started the season in the minors and still produced a 4.8 WAR, learning a new position in the process. Taylor had hit one home run in 291 major league at-bats entering the season, but he mashed 60 extra-base hits in 514 at-bats in 2017. It wasn’t all because of the ball.

Taylor was one of those who revised his swing. By the end of the World Series, he was at least able to joke about how many times throughout the season he was asked about his swing change. Here’s the interesting thing, however: Unlike teammate Justin Turner and others, Taylor actually didn’t start hitting a bunch more fly balls:

Fly ball rate, 2014-2016: 32.4 percent

Fly ball rate, 2017: 30.6 percent

His line-drive and ground ball rates were similarly close to his career totals. Obviously, something clicked, as a combination of a better approach, swinging harder and barreling up more balls than he had in the past, but the power wasn’t simply the result of hitting more balls in the air. This was a different hitter from the one who previously struggled in the majors.

You can see the projection forecasts a pretty big decline, primarily due to a regression on average on balls in play. With 142 strikeouts and 50 walks, Taylor didn’t have a great SO/BB ratio, but he isn't a wild swinger, with a chase rate (pitches out of the strike zone) of 25.2 percent, which ranked 30th out of 144 qualified regulars. Although I’m not completely sold on Taylor, I think that slugging percentage will be higher than the .411 projection (if less than his .496 number from 2017), and there’s a chance that he will cut down on the strikeouts, putting more balls in play to make up for a lower average when he does make contact. The Dodgers are counting on him as their center fielder, and I believe he’ll hold the job.

Aaron Judge, OF, New York Yankees

2017: .284/.422/.627, 52 HRs, .357 BABIP

2018 projection: .254/.369/.518, 38 HRs, .320 BABIP

How can we even attempt a forecast on Judge? Most young players improve, but how can you project a guy to improve on 52 home runs? First of all, only nine players have had more than one 50-homer season, and only five of them had consecutive 50-homer seasons: Mark McGwire and Sammy Sosa both had four in a row, Babe Ruth hit 50 consecutively two times, and Alex Rodriguez and Ken Griffey Jr. also had back-to-back 50-homer seasons.

But we’ve had only a couple players with size and strength similar to Judge's -- and one of them is now his teammate. I’d throw in Frank Howard. Dave Winfield had the size but only three 30-homer seasons. With that short porch at Yankee Stadium, Judge can mishit a ball and still get it over the fence with brute strength.

The obvious way for Judge to improve is to cut down on his strikeouts -- he had 208 of them last year in 678 plate appearances, a 30.7 percent rate -- so what if he eliminates 25 strikeouts? That cuts his rate to 27.0 percent and results in 20 more balls in play (assuming the same walk rate). If he produces at the same rate on contact as in 2017, his batting line would improve to .290 with 55 home runs and a .639 slugging percentage. If he cuts his strikeout rate to 25 percent (170 strikeouts), he would improve to .293, .647 and 57 home runs.

Is that possible? Sure. George Springer struck out 33 percent of the time as a rookie, then dropped that to 24.2 percent his second season and all the way to 17.6 percent in 2017 -- cutting his strikeouts almost in half over three seasons.

Now, what’s even scarier is if Judge does better when he makes contact. He hit .461 when he didn’t strike out last season. Maybe 60 home runs are possible.

Tommy Pham, OF, St. Louis Cardinals

2017: .306/.411/.520, 23 HRs, .368 BABIP

2018 projection: .267/.357/.442, 21 HRs, .336 BABIP

This was one of my favorite stories of last season -- and not just because Pham was on both of my fantasy teams. OK, it was partially because he was on my fantasy teams. Since 2008, Pham has battled a degenerative eye condition that causes visual distortion. Try hitting a 98 MPH fastball on the corner with vision problems. Pham's special-made contacts gave him better results in 2017, and he responded with an overlooked 6.4-WAR season, even though he was another player who started the season in the minors. After playing mostly left field in 2017, he’ll be the Cardinals' regular center fielder in 2018.

Here’s one reason I like his odds of another big season: According to ESPN Stats & Info data, he had the second-lowest chase rate behind only Joey Votto (and just ahead of teammate Matt Carpenter). Here’s another reason: This is a man on mission, a player who probably believes he has missed several of his prime seasons because of those eye issues (he’s older than you might think, entering his age-30 season).

“I have very big plans for myself in this game,” he told MLB.com’s Jennifer Langosch earlier this offseason. Pham has filled his Instagram with images of his rigorous workouts. He wants to be faster and better in 2018.

Pham did have a pretty high BABIP last season, and his rate of home runs to fly balls was eighth in the majors, so there are a couple of red flags in his 2017 numbers. I know this much, however: I’m not trading him off my fantasy teams.

Jose Ramirez, 2B/3B, Cleveland Indians

2017: .318/.374/.583, 29 HRs, .319 BABIP

2018 projection: .297/.358/.490, 21 HRs, .304 BABIP

Ramirez hit .312 with 46 doubles in 2016, so his season was maybe less of a surprise than those of others on this list, but he improved from 11 home runs to 29 and finished third in AL MVP voting.

The projection system sees some regression in those power numbers, but Ramirez isn’t so much about pure power as putting the ball in play -- he had just 69 strikeouts (and the fourth-lowest K rate among regulars) and added 56 doubles, giving him 91 extra-base hits (tied with Giancarlo Stanton for most in the majors). One of the most impressive things I saw all season was Ramirez taking batting practice at the All-Star Game, spraying hard hits all over the field from both sides of the plate. Kind of like a switch-hitting Edgar Martinez.

Look, the numbers will probably go down some. The only players since World War II with 90 extra-base hits in consecutive seasons are Albert Pujols, Todd Helton and Griffey. Since Ramirez doesn’t rely on a high average on balls in play, however, I’d expect him to hit .300 again. He’s a force.

Avisail Garcia, RF, Chicago White Sox

2017: .330/.380/.506, 18 HRs, .392 BABIP

2018 projection: .281/.339/.456, 15 HRs, .333 BABIP

This might be the easiest call of the season: If there’s one player you’d project to regress with certainly, it’s Garcia. Before 2017, he was basically a replacement-level player, accumulating 0.1 WAR over his career. The White Sox kept him around in part because they needed somebody to play right field in a rebuilding season. He rewarded them with an All-Star appearance and 85-point increase in batting average from the season before.

He isn't going to hit .330 again. Garcia’s flaw has always been a poor approach, and his chase percentage was seventh-worst in the majors, though his walk rate actually decreased. He did have the third-highest average on pitches in the strike zone (.373), so maybe there was some real improvement. Still, the .392 BABIP will regress, he doesn’t hit the ball in the air to produce big home run totals, and it’s almost impossible to hit .300 when you swing at pitches out of the zone. It would be interesting to look at the video of all his 171 hits to see how many bleeders and bloopers he had.

Rhys Hoskins, LF/1B, Philadelphia Phillies

2017: .259/.396/.618, 18 HRs, .241 BABIP

2018 projection: .263/.355/.522, 37 HRs, .279 BABIP

Hoskins’ abbreviated rookie campaign wasn’t so much a breakout as an introduction. In a sense, he was the ultimate poster boy for the rabbit ball. In Triple-A, he averaged a home run every 13.8 at-bats; in the majors, one every 9.4 at-bats.

As you can see, the projection loves his power potential and is buying into his small, 50-game sample as a sign of things to come. I also love his improving plate discipline as a professional. In 2015 in Class A, he had 99 strikeouts and 55 walks; at Double-A, it improved to 125/75; at Triple-A, it was 75/64; and in the majors, he drew 37 walks against 46 strikeouts (just one intentional). Among players with at least 200 plate appearances, he had the 18th-best walk-to-strikeout ratio. Hoskins clearly has a very high floor. He might not hit enough line drives to produce a .300 average, but he’s going to be a high-OBP, 30-homer slugger.

Matt Olson, 1B, Oakland Athletics

2017: .259/.352/.651, 24 HRs, .238 BABIP

2018 projection: .236/.331/.474, 33 HRs, .267 BABIP

Like Hoskins, Olson had a remarkable partial season, including one of the craziest stat lines you’ll ever see: 24 home runs and just two doubles. Olson’s power is absolutely legit, as he ranked ninth in average exit velocity among those with 100 batted balls (Hoskins was 10th) and finished with 47 home runs between Nashville and the A’s.

Olson probably doesn’t have quite the upside of Hoskins as an all-around hitter. While he drew 100 walks at both Class A and Double-A, his career minor league average was just .249. His control of the strike zone in the majors didn’t match what Hoskins did, so he projects as a low-average, moderate OBP guy. The projection seems to fit, with the upside that he mashes 45 home runs.

Joey Gallo, 1B, Texas Rangers

2017: .209/.333/.537, 41 HRs, .250 BABIP

2018 projection: .228/.338/.514, 38 HRs, .286 BABIP

Talk about extreme. Gallo’s .209 average was the second-lowest ever by a 40-homer hitter (Adam Dunn hit .204 in 2012 with the White Sox). Heck, there have been 335 40-homer seasons but only eight in which a player hit less than .240 -- and three of those were by Dunn.

The apt comparison seems to be Dunn. Would that be a happy outcome? Given that Gallo has the potential to provide more defensive value (though he’s locked in at first base, with Adrian Beltre still manning third), his ultimate upside is constrained by all the swing-and-misses. Gallo’s strikeout rate was 36.8 percent -- that’s 6 percentage points higher than that of Aaron Judge (or 36 more strikeouts in 600 plate appearances). The only regular with a higher K rate was Chris Davis, and I wonder if that’s Gallo’s future: Some monster seasons mixed with more .209 seasons. Let’s note as well that this was his first full season, and he had just 532 plate appearances. Fifty home runs are certainly a possibility.

Domingo Santana, RF, Milwaukee Brewers

2017: .278/.371/.505, 30 HRs, .363 BABIP

2018 projection: .258/.353/.472, 26 HRs, .327 BABIP

We’ve been hearing about Santana ever since he was a teenager in the Phillies system, but 2017 was his first full season in the majors -- and he was still just 24. After the Brewers acquired outfielders Christian Yelich and Lorenzo Cain, Santana’s future in Milwaukee might be in doubt. Immediate speculation was that he could be traded to clear room in a crowded outfield. Of course, these things have a way of working themselves out, and Braun could end up seeing time at first base (though the platoon of Eric Thames and Jesus Aguilar combined for 41 home runs in 2017).

Santana had an interesting breakout season. He draws some walks, so he actually led Brewers regulars in OBP. He also struck out a ton (178 times), and there are some red flags here: a high BABIP and the third-highest rate of home runs to fly balls (behind only Judge and Stanton), both accomplished without elite average exit velocity. That leads to a regression prediction even though Santana is a young player. The indicators here are pretty strong, so I’d expect a drop in BABIP and thus a drop in overall production -- whether it’s with the Brewers or another team.