Don’t laugh. Walker Buehler could very well join the very exclusive club of single-season 25-game winners.
What if I had told you, before last season, that Shohei Ohtani would hit 46 home runs and strike out 156 batters? What if I had told you that, before the trade deadline, the 51-53 Atlanta Braves would win the World Series? I think you probably would have laughed in my face. And yet, every baseball season is filled with achievements that few would be foolish enough to predict.
Well, in that spirit, let’s get foolish! Here are five predictions that might have you shaking your head in disbelief today, but we’ll see who is laughing come the season’s end. — Paul Hembekides
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Juan Soto will finish the season with a .500 OBP: The last time a player not named Barry Bonds produced a .500 OBP was all the way back in 1957, when Ted Williams and Mickey Mantle both did the trick. We know Soto is disciplined enough — in 2021, he logged the lowest chase rate (11.8%) in any season during the pitch-tracking era. And, from May 31 to Sept. 27, he reached base 234 times in 468 plate appearances — exactly a .500 OBP — across 107 games, which is about two-thirds of a full season.
Vladimir Guerrero Jr. will reach 400 total bases: Sure, 400 total bases is a lot. It’s a milestone that was last reached in 2001 (by four different hitters, including good old Mr. Bonds). Guerrero led the majors last season with 363 total bases. However, 400 is well within reach because he also ranked 15th in baseball with 226 ground balls, 155 of which were turned into outs. Buzzword alert: launch angle! On swings with a positive launch angle, Vlad hit a preposterous .478 with a 1.022 slugging percentage. More, please.
Ronald Acuna Jr. will lead the NL in both home runs and stolen bases: This would be amazing. The last player to lead his league in both of these categories was Chuck Klein of the Phillies — a full 90 years ago! Last year, Acuna was on pace for 44 home runs and 31 stolen bases before his season-ending injury on July 10. Fernando Tatis Jr. wound up being the HR leader (42) while Trea Turner took the SB crown (32). As long as he gets back on the field quickly and the knee holds up, Acuna has a real shot at this.
Walker Buehler will win 25 games: LOL, right? Since 1981, the only pitcher to win at least 25 games in a single season was Bob Welch — and that was way back in 1990. However, Buehler was an unlucky 16-4 last season. The Dodgers’ bullpen ERA was 3.73 in his starts, half a run worse than it was overall. Plus, he posted a 3.33 ERA in 13 no-decisions, nine of which were quality starts. For his career, Buehler is 26-1 as a starter when he has received at least five runs of support, and the new-look lineup in Los Angeles (please welcome, Freddie Freeman) should be ferocious.
Shane Bieber will finish with 300 strikeouts: Five different pitchers have recorded 300 strikeouts in a season since 2015 and Bieber is the best bet to do it in 2022. Over his past 33 starts — the equivalent of a full-season workload — Bieber has fanned 291 batters across 206⅔ IP. His strikeout rate since the start of 2020 (13.2 K/9) leads all qualified pitchers. The math is pretty easy. If Bieber can match his career-high in innings (214⅓ in 2019), 300 strikeouts should be a relative cinch.
Are these predictions truly a fantasy?
We asked our fantasy experts Eric Karabell and Tristan H. Cockcroft to weigh in as to which of these flights of fancy were the most fanciful and, if any of these were to actually happen, what it would mean in terms of fantasy value for these players. And, turnabout being fair play, we asked them to offer up a few bold predictions of their own.
Karabell: Perhaps I’m missing the point, but my first reaction is that while these are bold predictions, they’re not so bold that they’re ridiculous. In fact, I predicted the Acuna one before last season. It might be tougher for him in 2022 because he will miss time recovering from the knee surgery, but he should play more than Tatis. Either of them is eminently capable of this achievement.
The Soto one would not greatly affect roto leagues, but in points formats, he would become the best player, non-Ohtani edition. With Guerrero, more home runs would be awesome, too. Buehler winning 25 with, we presume, the accompanying strikeouts, ERA and WHIP, would be wild and might make him the No. 1 player. Nobody other than his teammate Julio Urias even approached 20 wins one season ago.
Hey, I’m on board for all of these bold predictions. What say you?
Cockcroft: Well, they’re bold in the context of the overall probability of actually happening, but in their specifics, isn’t something like one of these inevitably going to occur in 2022? As mentioned, Ohtani did hit 46 homers and struck out 156 batters last year, the first time in history that that has happened.
Turn the clock further back, and you had Justin Verlander winning 21 games while posting the eighth-best WHIP (0.80) in history back in 2019. Giancarlo Stanton hit a ninth-best-ever 59 home runs in 2017. Barry Bonds managed an epic 73-homer, .515-OBP season in 2001. The catch is that there was no conceivable way we could have individually seen any of those coming, but we generally know that someone is going to do something extraordinary. So why not one of these coming to fruition?
I’d say Acuna’s prediction is going to be the most immediately conceivable to fantasy — specifically rotisserie — managers, and maybe it’s the most probable, since he’ll potentially get green lights immediately and “leading the league” is relative to the field. I’ll rank them Bieber, Soto, Acuna, Guerrero and then Buehler, as 25 wins is almost mathematically impossible these days. As for impact, we’re talking about roughly $20 individual valuation boosts if any do happen — the kind of thing that actually turns a first- (or second-) rounder into a league-winner.
Karabell: I hope you’re right about Bieber staying that healthy. I have invested in him in several places. None of my own bold predictions for this season predicted historic numbers like the ones Paul optimistically (but perhaps realistically) mentioned. So, I guess I need to get bolder!
What if Jacob deGrom simply didn’t give up a single run for the entire season? Wouldn’t that be historic? OK, but a 1.08 ERA over 32 starts would be truly ridiculous and, I might argue, more impactful for fantasy than any of the above submissions. Hey, Mookie Betts once scored 135 runs in 150 games, for the 2019 Red Sox. What if he leads off for this season’s Dodgers and scored a run per game, like 150 runs in 150 games? History!
Cockcroft: I’ll give you two wild ones. How about Bobby Witt Jr. joining Mike Trout and Chris Young as the only 25/25 rookies in history? Or the Milwaukee Brewers, behind Corbin Burnes, Brandon Woodruff and Freddy Peralta, becoming the first team in history to have three different pitchers strike out 275-plus hitters?
Karabell: I’m not sure the Witt one is so wild. He did have 33 home runs and 29 stolen bases in the minor leagues last season. If the Royals announce Witt is going to make the team right out of spring training, wouldn’t we both rush to move Witt into the top 100 of our respective rankings right away, if not the top 50? I might. Speaking of rookies, now that the Reds have surprised everyone by naming Hunter Greene to the Opening Day rotation (who cares about that extra year of team control!), perhaps he could set the record for most 100 mph pitches in a season. It was deGrom who led all starting pitchers with 314 pitches of at least 100 mph last season. Only one other starter even topped 100 (Sandy Alcantara). Greene is going to be much-watch TV every fifth day!