SPECULATOR: A revised 2019 UP: list

As most of you know, UP: (and DN:) projections are regularly tacked on the end of player boxes in The Baseball Forecaster. They’re intended to reflect a ceiling (or floor) beyond the accompanying preseason projection—where the skills warrant it, of course. From the book:

Upside (UP) and downside (DN) statistical potential appears for some players; these are less grounded in hard data and more speculative of skills potential.

We broke down the preseason UP lists for batters and pitchers from the 2019 book, which was released last November. Now that we’ve exercised excruciating patience for seven-plus weeks, it’s time to cook up a new batch of UP: siders based on the early returns.

Some of the UP: lines here will look similar to a player’s pro-rated YTD stat line. Take these as “buy high” opportunities—those entering uncharted territory that have a chance at keeping it up all season. Here's a list of hitters, ranked by BPV, who are not only enjoying career years early on, but whose skills have caught our speculative eye. First, the hitters (players with commentaries in bold):

Hitters

Player             AB  ct%   xBA  HctX   PX/xPX  RSpd  BPV
================  ===  ===  ====  ====  =======  ====  ===
Jorge Polanco     175   84  .285   124  131/149    88  111
Tommy La Stella   125   92  .329   154  115/125     0  109
Josh Bell         165   75  .320   143  203/183     2  109
Daniel Vogelbach  124   72  .296   101  207/159     0  107
Austin Meadows    101   76  .296   130  175/133    94  104
Paul DeJong       178   81  .294   146  138/151   115   92
Alex Verdugo      124   89  .305   137  107/110   122   90
Hunter Dozier     155   77  .282   130  143/167    68   89
Yandy Diaz        156   79  .291   125  129/118   127   82
Hunter Renfroe    129   72  .292   131  195/125    94   82
Byron Buxton      142   75  .260    92  158/ 91   123   74
Trey Mancini      171   75  .291   101  151/149     0   70
Franmil Reyes     147   73  .295   135  177/161     0   62
Logan Forsythe    110   75  .280   134  131/148    93   61
Dansby Swanson    168   79  .269   127  104/108   112   60
Jesse Winker      144   79  .283   129  122/147     3   60
Ketel Marte       181   78  .270   116  117/131   125   59
Raimel Tapia      120   69  .268    88  155/ 85    69   59
Kolten Wong       149   85  .249   115  77 /101   109   58

The "launch angle revolution" is entering buzzword status in today's game, but when you add loft with noticeably harder contact? That's when we really start to get excited. Josh Bell (1B, PIT) has done both, upping his fly ball rate to 37% this season (32% career), while our hard-hit and raw power metrics fully support his early 14-HR barrage. Bell's typically-strong plate skills have dipped slightly—his 75% ct% and 11% bb% would be the lowest of his career—but it's a trade-off we'll welcome with open arms if it results in this type of power. A former Top 50 prospect, Bell's showing skills that put him in line for a post-hype, age-26 breakout to the tune of... UP: .300 BA, 35 HR.

Speaking of a post (poooost)-hype breakout, how about Hunter Dozier (3B, KC)? The last time we saw Dozier on an HQ100 prospect list was at 59th overall way back in 2015. A Top 10 pick in 2013, Dozier has resurrected his career with a .303 BA and 9 HR in his age-27 season. Most of that production came in a scorching April, but Dozier's underlying skills in May have been just fine (.273 xBA, 143 xPX in 69 AB). Not only has Dozier's raw power skills flourished (167 xPX), but he's done it with a much-improved plate approach: 13% bb%, 77% ct%. With decent team context—Dozier has little competition at 3B with decent table-setters ahead of him in KC—and a lively ball that's seeing hitters reach new heights, the stars could align for Dozier to deliver... UP: .275 BA, 30 HR

Who's the only hitter (min. 60 AB) with a 90% contact rate, more walks than strikeouts, and a 40% hard-hit rate? Why it's Tommy La Stella (2B, LAA), of course. A 30-year-old journeyman, La Stella entered the 2019 season with 10 HR in career 828 AB, but he's already outpaced that mark with 11 bombs in six weeks of mostly part-time action. The underlying skill growth is staggering—not only has the raw power jumped (115/125 PX/xPX), but La Stella's .299 BA gets full support from a .329 underlying xBA and some amazing plate approach gains (92% ct%, 1.44 Eye). A career of fantasy futility can't be ignored, but La Stella has our speculative juices flowing... UP: .300 BA, 25 HR

Jorge Polanco (SS, MIN; pictured above) is one of the many reasons why MIN has become one of the more feared lineups in baseball. Polanco's age-25 breakout is headlined by a .335 BA and 8 HR through 179 AB, as he's on pace for career-highs in every roto category outside of SB. While his green light is gone (1 SB, 4% SBO), Polanco's transformation looks legit: he's striking out less (84% ct% in 2019; 79% last year), making harder contact (149 xPX; 86 career), and joining the launch angle revolution (51% FB%; 41% career). He's actually been unlucky in the power department, as an 11% hr/f doesn't jibe with the elite pop he's flashing thus far... UP: Top 5 AL MVP candidate

San Diego's outfield was a logjam to start the season, but injuries and poor performance have paved the way for Franmil Reyes (OF, SD) to snag near-everyday playing time. We knew Reyes had next-level power before the season, but he's beefed up the rest of his profile with upticks in contact rate (69% to 73%), line drive rate (21% to 25%), and fly ball rate (30% to 39%) compared to 2018. The result? A 14-HR outburst with a .259 BA that should probably be even higher (26% h%, .295 xBA). Reyes's Top 10 barrel rate (12.5%) confirms he can mash, so while we tabbed him as a "high-upside work-in-progress" in this year's Forecaster, we're now more confident sticking some lofty numbers on him... UP: .270 BA, 45 HR

Alex Verdugo (OF, LA) was our Skills searching for roles cover boy here a few weeks back, and sure enough, an elbow injury to AJ Pollock has since opened up the PT door. Verdugo's been a quick study in his first extended MLB look, flashing a plate approach beyond his years (89% ct%, .305 xBA) with plus power, good-enough speed, and no lefty/righty splits. Verdugo was a Top 40 prospect on our 2019 HQ100 thanks to a versatile skill set that led us to envision "future seasons of .300 with 25 HR and 10 SB" when he was called up. Well, that future is now... UP: .300, 25 HR, 10 SB.

Pitchers

Pitcher           IP   ERA/xERA  GB%  FpK/SwK  Ctl   Dom   Cmd  BPV
================  ==  =========  ===  =======  ===  ====  ====  ===
Hyun-Jin Ryu      59  1.52/2.78  45%  63%/13%  0.6   8.9  14.8  168
Matt Boyd         61  3.41/3.39  38%  64%/14%  1.9  10.8   5.6  159
Shane Bieber      59  3.22/3.36  40%  61%/14%  2.0  10.6   5.3  155
Caleb Smith       48  2.25/3.01  32%  60%/17%  2.6  12.0   4.6  155
Tyler Mahle       51  3.51/3.37  43%  67%/10%  1.9   9.5   4.9  139
Frankie Montas    54  2.67/3.28  54%  63%/12%  1.8   8.7   4.7  139
Luke Weaver       51  3.16/3.56  42%  63%/12%  2.1   9.6   4.6  137
Brandon Woodruff  56  3.51/3.47  40%  59%/13%  2.7  10.4   3.8  132
Pablo Lopez       48  5.06/3.37  53%  57%/12%  2.4   9.2   3.8  131
Max Fried         50  2.86/3.33  55%  66%/11%  2.0   8.2   4.2  128
Eduardo Rodriguez 50  4.89/3.65  46%  63%/13%  2.9  10.1   3.5  128
Kyle Gibson       50  4.47/3.49  46%  68%/13%  2.3   9.1   3.9  125
Felix Pena        39  3.49/3.69  41%  60%/13%  1.9   8.6   4.6  124

Brent Hershey's recent GM'S OFFICE column on openers and bulkers opened our speculative eyes to what Felix Pena (RHP, LAA) is doing in his new role. Pena's essentially a two-pitch guy with length, so LAA's call to use him as a 4-5 inning "bulker" where he can lean on a nasty slider (23% SwK) more often makes a ton of sense. Skipping the top of the order in the first inning can only help, so with decent peripherals and hopefully enough run support (welcome back, Shohei), Pena could be... UP: the Ryan Yarbrough of 2019

Eduardo Rodriguez (LHP, BOS) is one of the few underperformers for our revised UP: list, as a brutal 38%/66% H%/S% has wreaked havoc on his surface ERA. Things look rock-solid under the hood, as Rodriguez has held double-digit Dom with firm support from our sub-indicators (FpK, SwK). He's traditionally struggled with the long ball, but Rodriguez is keeping the ball on the ground thanks to a worm-killing change-up (68% GB%) that also gets a ton of whiffs. The age-26 lefty looks healthy after dealing with leg issues over the last two years, he's on a team that should provide plenty of run support, and the skills are in place for... UP: 16 wins, 3.25 ERA

Blake Snell, Max Scherzer, and... Caleb Smith (LHP, MIA)? Those are your swinging-strike rate leaders so far this season (min. 45 IP). With a 400+ ADP entering the season, Smith has been an endgame boon with a 2.25 ERA and 64 strikeouts through his first eight starts. He can miss bats with any of his three pitches: a fastball (13% SwK), slider (19%), and change-up (22%), and has cut down on the walks—albeit with lukewarm support from his underlying FpK%. Smith hasn't thrown 130+ innings in a season since 2015, so while he won't get the volume needed to make a run at the NL's strikeout title, we'll opt for something similar... UP: NL Dom leader among qualified SP

The Luke Weaver (RHP, ARI) rollercoaster ride has taken another—far more fun—turn as he's flipped the script on 2018's disastrous season. Weaver's using a brand new cutter with a killer change-up (19% SwK, 49% GB%) to drive some impressive underlying skills growth: 3.54 xERA, 143 BPV. Weaver suddenly looks like the 2017 rookie that had many of us so excited at this time last year. Now with an ARI organization that has helped fuel several recent SP turnarounds, we'll go full-circle with Weaver and return to what we had in the 2018 Baseball Forecaster... UP: 3.00 ERA, 200 K

Next week: The revised "DN:" list.

The Speculator is not designed to make definitive assertions about the future; rather, it is designed solely to open reader's 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.