SPECULATOR: 2016 Mulligans

Long-time Speculator readers will remember an annual staple around this time of year: Mulligans. It’s a column topic that we've not dove into since 2012, but one that is no less relevant as the season turns into its final week.

The skinny? We’ve assembled a list of bounceback candidates for 2017. Players that, for the most part, have had an established track record before 2016, but for one reason or another, suffered through a terrible statistical season. You’ll need thick skin (and a short memory for 2017), for some of these players might have run your fantasy squads into the ground in 2016.

But how ‘bout we give them a mulligan? Acknowledge their bad 2016, and trust that with a new slate in February (well, along with some underlying metrics here and there), they will act like 2016 never happened. Below, we speculate on five players from each league who could return to form in 2017. 

Know that this column is not for those prone to recency bias. But consider—if we ran this column a year ago, the likes of Julio Teheran, Jonathan Lucroy, Will Myers, Hanley Ramirez, and Ian Desmond would have been included. The lesson: Keep your minds open.

AMERICAN LEAGUE

Jose Bautista (OF, TOR): Baustia’s decline will be an easy one to believe in: He’ll be 36 years old by the time spring training rolls around, at which time he could be on another team with a less favorable lineup and ballpark combination. But his 126 HctX in 2016 was a near carbon copy of 2015 and 2016 (both 124); he sported the highest LD% of his career at 20%; and his 15% hr/f was the lowest since 2009 (that’s 246 HRs ago). He could easily return to the mid-$20 level in 2017.


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Corey Dickerson (OF, TAM): The Leaving Coors narrative will be rampant, but several aspects of his game have undergone transformation that a venue change just can’t explain. With HctX rates of 123 and 126 over the previous two seasons, his 2016 HctX dropped to 96. A line-drive machine in COL (26%, 27%, 30%), Dickerson descended to 17% in Tampa Bay, and in tandem, his FB% shot up from 32% to 44%. Was he intentionally trying to combat cries of “He won’t hit outside Denver”? At 27 and with his skill set, let’s give him a pass and look towards next season.

Alex Gordon (OF, KC): While his second half has been a bit better, he’s still in danger of a sub-.700 OPS for the season. While his hit rate is down, it’s not dehabilitating (28%). Gordon has paired a 22% LD% with the best xPX of his career (147), but the output just isn’t there. His xBA (.228) doesn’t give much hope, due in part to a career-low 68% contact rate. But at 32 years old, this would be very early for a skills dive. He’ll be back in 2017. 

Sonny Gray (RHP, OAK): Gray, of course, comes with an injury caveat, the dreaded forearm strain. Which may or may not have contributed to his 5.74 ERA season. Gray was very hittable in 2016, giving up 10.2 hits per nine innings, as compared to 7.7 and 7.2 marks in 2014 and 2015. Dom and Ctl were relatively stable; his FB velocity barely moved, and while his H% was up from previous seasons, 32% is not enough to draw regression conclusions. Obviously health is issue #1, but other indicators say the 26-year-old could return to form in 2017. 

Dallas Keuchel (LHP, HOU): Keuchel finishes with only 26 starts, and his second-half shoulder inflammation is worth keeping an eye on. A big jump in walks, along with strand-rate and hr/f bad luck during the first three months, led to a 5+ ERA. But in his final nine starts (which was the entirety of his second half), he looked more the part of the Cy Young winner: 3.36 xERA, 3.6 Cmd, 113 BPV. A 69% strand rate during that span still kept his ERA higher than it should have been. Assuming his shoulder is sound, Keuchel is a relatively safe pick for next season.

NATIONAL LEAGUE

Zack Greinke (RHP, ARI): This is not the disaster year, but even acknowledging that a sub-2.00 ERA like 2015 was impossible to repeat, we surely expected more than a 4.37 ERA/1.27 WHIP. And the smoking gun can’t be found — though he’s been tagged a bit by hr/f, H% and S% have been stable. Ctl is up and Dom is down, but within normal season-to-season variances, and FB velocity has been stable. He’s among the league leaders in FpK (68%), so he’s getting ahead in the count. Just like this year couldn’t be as good as last year, his skill set says in 2017 he won’t be as bad as he was in 2016.

Jason Heyward (OF, CHC): First, put away your superstar expectations; this is not about that. Instead, we’re talking about a $20 player three out of the past four seasons, who earned $6 in mixed-league play in 2016. He suffered through an unfortunate 5% hr/f—and for someone who doesn’t hit a lot of FB, the result is a measly 7 HR. But his ct% is solid, he’s tied a career high with 21% LD%, and he still takes his walks. So no—right now, there’s not a superstar season coming in 2017. But still just 26 years old, he certainly is able to climb back to the mid-$20 level next season. He’ll slip down draft boards and be a huge profit center for his owners in 2017.

Andrew McCutchen (OF, PIT): A bit like Keuchel, McCutchen is doing all he can in August and September to end on a good note. Through 170 AB over that span, he’s put up a .288/.388/.494 slash line with 9 HR and 32 RBI, with plate-control skills (bb%, ct%) that best his most productive full seasons so far. Yes, the first four months were awful—whether is was due to his wrist injury or something else—but he’s shown late in the season that he still has it. Just 29 years old; he still has a couple superstar-level seasons in him. In a league that pays attention to the batting average and RBI dips of the full season, McCutchen has a chance to also have a hefty return on investment.

Adam Wainwright (RHP, STL): At 34 years old, the temptation will be to accept that 2016 was the beginning of Wainwright’s age-related decline. After all, he’s giving up more line drives than ever, and his Cmd has dipped under the 3.0 mark for the first time since 2008. But his 68% S% is at least partially responsible for the 4.57 ERA, and batters are hitting him at a .284 clip. After a $7 season in 2012, he regained his ace form by adjusting and throwing fewer walks. We think he’s a smart enough starter to do it again.

Kolten Wong (2B, STL): The youngest player on this list at 25, Wong had seemingly laid the foundation for a step up with two mid-teens level earning years coming into 2017. But it was a flop from the get-go; over the first three months, half of his batted balls were grounders, he couldn’t square up anything (72 HctX) and he totaled four extra base hits in 161 AB. But his skills and output improved in the second half, and his very good plate control (10% bb%; 83% ct%) led to the best batting eye of his career (0.67). In addition, his power ticked up post-June, and his elite 151 Spd score for the season point to some latent SB upside. While his YTD numbers (.237/5/23/7) will barely get a mention next March in this Brian-Dozier-hits-40+ world, Wong still has potential.

 

The Speculator is not designed to make definitive assertions about the future; rather, it is designed solely to open readers' eyes to possibilities they may not have previously entertained, and in doing so, provide a different perspective on the future. Many of the possibilities will be of the "out on a limb" variety. All are founded on SOME element of fact. But none should be considered any more than 20% percentage plays.


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  For more information about the terms used in this article, see our Glossary Primer.