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Predicting Tigers breakout and breakdown players for 2019

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Based on various statistical factors (and some gut feelings), who is in line to progress and regress this season?

MLB: Spring Training-New York Yankees at Detroit Tigers Kim Klement-USA TODAY Sports

Baseball is a sport filled with progressions and regressions. Some trends are easier to spot than others, but with the sheer volume of advanced statistics and pitch tracking tools available, there are numerous ways to examine a player’s trajectory and predict where it will take him next.

Was the previous season a fluke? Or was it a sign of what’s to come, for better or worse?

By combining a mixture of statistical factors (and some gut feelings, too), I’ve compiled a short list of potential breakout and breakdown players for the upcoming Tigers season. With each player, I’ve included FanGraphs’ Depth Chart projections, which are a combination of ZiPS and Steamer projections.

And yes, by writing these predictions I realize I’m at risk of looking like a complete fool by the middle of May. That’s a risk I’m willing to take.

Breakouts

Nicholas Castellanos

2018 season: 157 games, .298/.354/.500, 130 wRC+, 3.0 fWAR
2019 FanGraphs projection: 153 games, .276/.333/.488, 120 wRC+, 1.9 fWAR

Right away, I’ve decided to defy the mighty gods of FanGraphs, who see regression in Castellanos’ future. My reasoning is simple: Castellanos hits the ball very hard.

via FanGraphs

His 47.9 percent hard-hit percentage, as measured by FanGraphs, was sixth highest in the majors last year, edging out Christian Yelich and Paul Goldschmidt. And over the past three seasons, Castellanos ranks 10th in the league — and first among Tigers — in barreled balls (a Statcast measurement for the highest quality contact, as explained here).

That helps explain why his batting average on balls in play (BABIP) has surpassed the league-average mark of .300 each season of his career. It’s less about luck and more about the fact he is mashing baseballs. He also posted career-highs in OPS (.854) and walk rate (7.2 percent) last year, which is encouraging.

Castellanos is a free swinger, mind you, which doesn’t always work to his advantage. He hacked at the first pitch 44.1 percent of the time last year, well above the league average of 28.2 percent, and strikes out in more than a fifth of his at-bats. That isn’t likely to change.

But I feel comfortable taking my chances on someone who hits the ball as hard as he does. And who knows, maybe that whole impending-free-agent thing will provide a spark, too.

Matt Moore

2018 season: 102 innings, 6.79 ERA, 1.66 WHIP, 0.2 fWAR
2019 FanGraphs projection: 138 innings, 5.17 ERA, 1.47 WHIP, 0.8 fWAR

This just felt right as a breakout pick — after what Moore did last season, how could he possibly get worse?

In truth, I put a little more thought into it than that. Everyone is looking for the next Mike Fiers, right? This could be the guy. Consider these similarities; both pitchers came from the AL West, with very little familiarity to AL Central batters, and posted career-worsts in ERA, WHIP and home run rates (HR/9) the season prior to joining the Tigers. This is a bounce-back waiting to happen.

Moore had a .342 BABIP against last year, his highest ever and an outlier to his .304 career average. He leaned a bit too heavily on his 91-93 mile-per-hour four-seam fastball, throwing it a career-high 58.4 percent of the time. Perhaps Moore can look to his off-speed pitches more often, particularly the knuckle curve, which has produced a sub-.300 wOBA three of the past four seasons. He is reportedly ditching his cutter, which was absolutely shelled last year.

And here’s some good news about Moore, particularly in the wake of the Michael Fulmer situation: Moore has only been on the injured list once since 2015. The Tigers will need as many innings out of him as possible, either until the trade deadline or the end of the season.

Breakdowns

Blaine Hardy

2018 season: 86 innings, 3.56 ERA, 1.17 WHIP, 1.3 fWAR
2019 FanGraphs projection: 30 innings, 3.93 ERA, 1.28 WHIP, 0.0 fWAR

Hardy was the closest thing the Tigers had to a super-utility pitcher last year. He started games (for the first time in his MLB career), finished games (earning his first-ever save) and made plenty of appearances in between. When parts of the rotation or bullpen fell apart, he was the duct tape and chewing gum that put it back together.

Now, some signs suggest Hardy may fall apart. He has never been a stellar strikeout guy, but he posted a career-low 6.9 strikeouts per nine innings in 2018. That didn’t really hurt him, though, because he recorded his best-ever BABIP (.276) — despite a career-low soft-contact rate of 17.6 percent. That combination of good fortune is unlikely to reoccur.

With his various roles last season, Hardy’s usage was 27 innings greater than the two previous seasons combined. Throwing 86 innings may not seem overly intensive, but it’s a big jump for someone who had only ever been a reliever. It’s worth noting that Hardy’s four-seamer and cutter both dipped by about 2 miles per hour last year. That could be attributed to a number of things, including arm fatigue. Other possibilities include altered grips, adjusted mechanics, an effort to improve control, etc.

via Baseball Savant

Hardy has been productive in Detroit’s bullpen before and he can be now (though in his most recent season as a full-time reliever, in 2017, he had an unsightly 5.94 ERA). The big question is how will he bounce back in the season following his highest usage, in which he was asked to fill several roles — particularly if he is asked to do it again.

Niko Goodrum

2018 season: 131 games, .245/.315/.432, 103 wRC+, 1.1 fWAR
2019 FanGraphs projection: 145 games, .234/.297/.392, 86 wRC+, 0.3 fWAR

Goodrum was only a rookie last year. That means he has a limited set of big-league data, which makes it more difficult to project how he will fare in his sophomore season. But let’s give it a shot anyway.

In 26.8 percent of his at-bats last year, Goodrum struck out. Yes, one could argue he’s still adjusting to MLB pitching, but that adjustment goes both ways. He was a productive fastball hitter (.359 wOBA), but struggled mightily with changeups (.255 wOBA, 40.7 percent whiff rate) and sliders (.293 wOBA, 43.2 percent whiff rate).

The 27-year-old started 117 games last year and fielded six defensive positions (he didn’t pitch, catch or play center), which earned him the title of a “super-utility player.” He seems destined to play all over the field again, but now there’s a question of how frequently he’ll have his chances — even if Ron Gardenhire is focused on keeping him in the lineup.

With the additions of Josh Harrison and Jordy Mercer up the middle, as well as a healthy Miguel Cabrera and a fresh-faced Christin Stewart, Goodrum doesn’t have a solid home in the field. Being a switch hitter helps, but he’s still on the outside looking in.

What if he wavers early on, as he did last year, when he posted a .645 OPS in his first 25 games? With a trio of minor-league options available, Goodrum would be a prime candidate to be sent to Toledo for regular playing time.

That might be jumping ahead a bit. Again, it’s important to remember how small Goodrum’s career sample size is. But as we continue gathering more robust data on him, so do the opposing teams trying to get him out.