A bunch of MLB stars had down years in 2018. But digging in, those years look like blips on the radar instead of the start of downward trends. Here’s a ten-man roster of players who look like they’ll improve during the 2019 season.
C: Buster Posey, Giants
Posey’s gonna be 32 in a couple weeks, and he’s coming off the worst season of his career, so it’s not ridiculous to be worried about him. In 2018, Posey hit a career-low five home runs, slashing .284/.359/.382. However, there were still some bright spots for the 2012 NL MVP in 2018. His walk rate was 10.0% and his strikeout rate was 11.8%, both right in line with his career average. His 22.2% line drive rate was a hair above his career high. He hit more ground balls and fewer fly balls than he typically does during his career, but he hit balls harder than he had ever in his career.
More worrisome is the likely reason Posey struggled, and the reason his season ended in late August – a torn hip labrum that required surgery. Posey is back playing (and more importantly, catching) this Spring Training, and while there are reasons to be concerned about his health with how much he squats behind the plate, I think the fact that he’s back already is a good sign that he’s on the road to returning to something more closely resembling his All-Star form in 2019.
1B: Carlos Santana, Indians
After a year spent in Philadelphia, where he never seemed to click with the fans, the team, or the market itself, Carlos Santana returns to Cleveland, where he starred from 2010-2017. Santana’s season with the Phillies wasn’t a complete disaster – he played in a career-high 161 games, recorded his eighth 600 plate appearance season in a row, hit 20 homers for the sixth time in eight years, and walked more than he struck out for the first time over a full season in his major league career.
But Santana’s triple slash line was also below average (for him, at least), and approached career worsts in all three categories (his worst batting average, second-worst OBP, worst slugging). His atrocious April (.153/.295/.276 with just two home runs) set the tone for the year, and he was never really able to dig himself out of that hole. Furthermore, the lack of a DH in the National League didn’t help Santana stay fresh in 2018 – he played nearly 1,400 innings in the field, by far a career-high, and will be helped in 2019 with occasional days off to just focus on hitting. I think the shift back to the Indians will help Santana immensely, and he’ll be back to his old self in 2019.
2B: Brian Dozier, Nationals
2018 was Brian Dozier’s worst year since his rookie season back in 2012, and a midseason trade from the Twins to the Dodgers didn’t really help his overall numbers on the season. But Dozier will be part of a loaded (even without Bryce Harper) Nationals lineup in 2019, and while Washington shouldn’t expect him to launch 42 homers like he did in 2016, Dozier likely won’t have a slugging percentage under .400 again, like he did last year.
Dozier’s walk and strikeout rates were right in line with his career averages in 2018, and he hit balls harder than he ever has last year. But Dozier had awful luck with balls in play, even more so than usual. His .240 BABIP in 2018 was 31 points lower than his already below average .271 career mark, and if he gets a bit luckier this year and even comes within ten points of that career average, his entire triple slash will rise across the board and his wRC+ will jump from 90 to over 100, which would be just fine for the Nationals.
SS: Carlos Correa, Astros
After starring for the Astros during their World Series run in 2017 (despite missing 53 regular season games), Correa struggled in 2018, playing 110 games and slashing an all too disappointing .239/.323/.405 with just 15 home runs. Correa’s still only 24, and has dealt with a number of injuries over the last two years in the majors. If he’s healthy, which is a big if, he’ll be one of the best shortstops in all of baseball. If he’s not healthy, he still has potential to be an All-Star caliber player, which we saw during the 2017 season.
You really saw the injuries take effect on Correa in the second half of the season, when he slashed just .180/.261/.256 with two homers in 37 games. In 73 first half games, when healthier (but still not 100%), Correa slashed .268/.352/.480 with 13 dingers, a far more acceptable line. An .830 OPS isn’t even close to what a healthy Correa can do, but a sub-.730 OPS is the nadir of his abilities.
3B: Kris Bryant, Cubs
2018 was a season to forget for Kris Bryant. The Cubs’ third baseman played in just 102 games and logged 457 plate appearances in 2018 after not failing to reach both 150 games and 650 plate appearances in each of his first three seasons. He hit a career-low 13 homers, and while his .272/.374/.460 line was more than respectable, it was still far below the heights he had set for himself over his first three seasons in the majors.
Like with Correa, injuries plagued Bryant all season, and his performance was far worse in the second half of the season (.252/.347/.402, 3 HR) than in the first half (.280/.384/.482, 10 HR). With a full offseason to rest up and get healthy, Bryant should hopefully be back to his old self this year, especially given some of the comments he’s made this Spring Training about getting back on track.
OF: Kole Calhoun, Angels
In the first half of 2018, Kole Calhoun was one of the worst players in baseball because he screwed with his mechanics. In 75 games, Calhoun did hit nine home runs, but that was the highlight of his performance. He hit .187/.237/.319, walked 18 times, and struck out 63 times. It was a disastrous performance that would somehow have looked worse if I only looked at April and May, when he homered just one time with a sub-.400 OPS.
Calhoun got better in June, caught fire in July, played respectably in August, and fell apart in September. But even with that poor September, he slashed .231/.331/.423 in the second half with ten homers, and nearly doubled his walk total (from 18 to 35) in 62 games. He’s not a fantastic player, as his 105 career wRC+ can attest to, but Calhoun has never been a guy that’s going to be a drastically below average player, like he was in 2018. His .241 BABIP was a career-low and the sixth-lowest among qualified players in baseball (two of the players with worse marks, we’ve seen already on this list – Santana and Dozier). Three wretched months, two with hilarious, unsustainably low, BABIPs skewed his season, and I’d be willing to bet he doesn’t come close to reaching those depths again.
OF: Dexter Fowler, Cardinals
I’m aware that Fowler is going to turn 33 in a couple of weeks and won’t be the same guy he was during his peak years, but he has to be better in 2019 than he was last year, right? Fowler was atrocious in his second year in St. Louis, slashing .180/.278/.298, by far the worst full season mark of his career. Furthermore, he homered just eight times (lowest since 2014), and only stole five bases (a career-low). Combine all that with his contract (still owed $14.5 million per season over the next three years, with a no-trade clause), his age, and his poor defense, and you have all the makings of a guy whose best years are behind him.
With all that being said, I don’t think Fowler is going to be one of the worst hitters in baseball (again) in 2019. His walk and strikeout rates were in line with his career numbers. His hard hit rate was the third-highest mark of his career. He missed nearly all of the second half while dealing with a foot injury, and even though Tyler O’Neill and Jose Martinez are ready for more playing time, O’Neill struck out at a 40% clip in the majors last year and Martinez’s versatility will ensure he gets playing time and numerous positions. Fowler will be better in 2019, even if he’s only in a platoon role and not an every day player.
OF: Bryce Harper, Phillies
Ah yes, the recipient of the largest contract in American sports history. Harper had a “down year” for his standards in 2018, slashing .249/.393/.496 with 34 homers. It’s a down year for him because his batting average sucked and his poor defensive numbers took his fWAR down to just 3.5. But so much of the Harper criticism is over the top – his hard hit rate was 42.3%, the highest of his career and right in line with baseball’s elite hitters. His .247 ISO was above his career average, and his .289 BABIP was the second-lowest mark of his career (and nearly 30 points lower than his career mark). Harper also stole 13 bases, scored 103 runs, and drove in 100 (for the first time in his career), really filling out the stat sheet and the back of his baseball card.
In reality, people think Harper had a bad year because he had a low batting average and poor defensive metrics. His OPS was above .850 in five out of the six months of the season, with June as the lone outlier (a poor .188/.333/.341 month). In the second half of the season, his OPS was .972, and his batting average was an even .300. He’s one of the best hitters in baseball, was completely healthy last year (for one of the few times in his career) and while there will be pressure on him in Philly, he’ll (somehow) be part of a better lineup than he was in Washington last year. He’s going to produce at a higher level than he did last year, and come August, many of the people who damned his contract for 2019 will need to start looking at other straws to grasp onto.
SP: Nick Pivetta, Phillies
In 164 innings in 2018, Nick Pivetta had a 4.77 ERA for the Phillies. That isn’t good! But when you dig in to his actual performance, you’ll realize that Pivetta was way better than his ERA, and that he’ll likely be much better this season – especially with a better infield defense behind him. Pivetta’s FIP, which is an ERA estimator, was 3.80, nearly a full run lower than his actual ERA. That’s because in those 164 innings, Pivetta stuck out 188 and walked just 51, giving him a 3.69 strikeout to walk rate, just outside the top 20 in baseball among qualified starters, and ahead of players like AL Cy Young winner Blake Snell, Charlie Morton, Mike Foltynewicz, and Cole Hamels. Only two players in the top 30 in K:BB had a higher ERA than Pivetta’s 4.77, and one of those (Jon Gray) pitches his home games in Coors Field.
That better infield defense, as mentioned earlier, will also help Pivetta. His 69% strand rate was below baseball’s league average, and his .326 BABIP allowed was a full 33 points higher than the league average. Those two numbers don’t jive with Pivetta’s above-average 46.7% ground ball rate, and both should improve if Pivetta keeps his overall peripherals in the same territory as last year. The funny thing about him is that he doesn’t need to actually pitch all that much better to have a better win/loss record and ERA – if he just keeps doing what he does, and lets his improved defense (including Jean Segura at shortstop and Rhys Hoskins at first base instead of pretending to be a left fielder) do their jobs, everything should just take care of itself.
RP: Ken Giles, Blue Jays
Ken Giles is a frustrating pitcher because he’s so damn good, but is also prone to meltdowns (which is why the Astros lost faith in him during the 2017 Postseason and in the first half of 2018). Giles had an ERA of 4.63 last season despite striking out 53 hitters and walking just seven over 50 1/3 innings thanks to some of those meltdowns, namely the six homers he allowed on the season. It’s worth noting that his homer problems actually got worse following the midseason trade from Houston to Toronto, but his ERA actually improved while his strikeout and walk numbers remained somewhat consistent.
The main problem with relievers is that one bad outing can torch a player’s stats. Five of the nine earned runs Giles allowed in Toronto came in one outing against the World Champion Red Sox in early August. Yeah, it’s a selective endpoint, but after that game, he allowed three runs (two on solo homers) over the rest of the season and walked just three hitters in 17 innings. Hell, Giles’ season was ruined by a poor six appearance stretch from early July to early August, where he allowed 11 runs, four homers, and recorded 14 outs. Before that stretch, he had a 3.94 ERA, allowed one home run, walked three, and struck out 30 in 29 2/3 innings. He’ll have his bad stretches, but he can’t possibly have a stretch that goes as poorly as that summer spell.