Harper, Stanton, Cutch among those looking for more production in '17
By Andrew Simon
The calendar has flipped to 2017, which brings a clean slate to those whose '16 seasons were marred by disappointment and frustration.
As Spring Training approaches, the Steamer projections provide an early look at players who could seize the opportunity to rebound. The system isn't making exact predictions, but rather uses a player's recent track record and spot on the aging curve to provide an estimate of future production.
Here is a look at six hitters who are projected to bounce back significantly at the plate from 2016 campaigns that fell well below their standards. This is based on their weighted runs created-plus (wRC+), a park- and league-adjusted metric that accounts for a player's total offensive production (100 is league average).
Bryce Harper, OF, Nationals 2016 wRC+: 112
Projected wRC+: 148
In 2015, when Harper was a unanimous pick for the National League MVP Award, his 197 wRC+ was the third-best posted since 1960 by anyone other than Barry Bonds (minimum 600 plate appearances). After producing at a similar level last April, Harper batted .235/.367/.392 the rest of the way, drawing plenty of walks, but slugging at about the same level as speedster Jarrod Dyson over that span.
Yet Harper still is only 24, and he battled some physical issues last season. Although the Nationals denied reports that he was hampered by an injury to his right shoulder, Harper's ability to hit the ball with authority suffered, with his average exit velocity dropping from 92.8 mph in April to 88.9 mph afterward, according to Statcast™. A fully healthy Harper should return to being a force in the middle of the Washington lineup.
Giancarlo Stanton, OF, Marlins 2016 wRC+: 114
Projected wRC+: 142
There is no more intimidating presence in the batter's box than Stanton, who wreaks havoc when he makes contact. Stanton was responsible for 21 of the top 46 hardest-hit balls last season, and he ranked behind only Nelson Cruz in average exit velocity. On the other hand, an August hamstring injury contributed to limiting Stanton to 119 games, and he produced significantly below his career level (141 wRC+) when he was on the field.
The biggest hurdle for Stanton is health, as he has averaged just 115 games and 486 plate appearances since 2012. But compared to '15, when Stanton hit .265/.346/.606, his strikeout, walk, swing and contact rates hardly budged in '16. The 27-year-old does need to get back to crushing fastballs, as his slugging percentage against all types of heaters fell from .687 to .495, according to Statcast™.
Andrew McCutchen, OF, Pirates 2016 wRC+: 106
Projected wRC+: 129
A rumored trade away from Pittsburgh hasn't materialized, and now the question is whether McCutchen can return to form for the Bucs at age 30. Defensive issues aside, 2016 brought some concerning developments at the plate, including a drop in walk rate, a career-high strikeout rate and declining speed (career-low six steals).
Pittsburgh can take heart in McCutchen's finish, however. Following a brutal June and July, the five-time All-Star hit .284/.381/.471 with an average exit velocity of 90.9 mph the rest of the way. That's pretty close to what he did in 2015, when he won an NL Silver Slugger Award and finished fifth in the MVP Award race.
Yasiel Puig, OF, Dodgers 2016 wRC+: 102
Projected wRC+: 126
Puig just turned 26 in December, and as recently as 2014, he posted the fourth-highest wRC+ in the NL (148). That's how a guy who has played 183 disappointing games since, and was demoted to Triple-A for a month last summer, ranks 16th in projected wRC+ between Buster Posey and Carlos Correa. As Dodgers president of baseball operations Andrew Friedman said on Wednesday, "I think the upside is significant."
Health and approach at the plate both have been nagging issues for Puig, and there have been questions about whether he maintains the same athleticism and bat speed that he displayed early in his big league career. He still hit .297/.371/.486 and averaged a 92.0-mph exit velocity after returning from the disabled list last June 21 -- before and after his time in the Minors.
Jason Heyward, OF, Cubs 2016 wRC+: 72
Projected wRC+: 106
After signing an eight-year, $184 million contract, Heyward came as advertised on defense, ran the bases well, and gave that memorable rain-delay speech in Game 7 of the World Series. But as a talented player in his age-26 season with no obvious injury issues, his severe drop-off at the plate was puzzling. Heyward, who hit a solid .273/.348/.433 from 2012-15, generated the fourth-lowest wRC+ among qualified players in '16. His average exit velocity dropped from 90.7 mph to 87.4 mph, and he posted an OPS of .620 or higher in only one month.
But like others on this list, Heyward is still young and has a track record of recent success. He also has been working hard this offseason at the Cubs' Arizona complex, tweaking his swing. An adjustment or two could be all Heyward needs to start driving the ball again and re-emerging as an above-average hitter.
Ryan Zimmerman, 1B, Nationals 2016 wRC+: 67
Projected wRC+: 103
The injury-plagued former third baseman turned 32 near the end of a season in which he was below league average with the bat for the first time in his career. Zimmerman endured two more DL stints, and his wRC+ was the sixth lowest in the Majors (minimum 450 plate appearances). With three expensive guaranteed years left on his contract, the Nats are sticking with Zimmerman and hoping he can bring his offensive game in line with his new position.
The challenge for the veteran going forward isn't making hard contact, as his average exit velocity of 93.7 mph ranked ninth in MLB (minimum 200 batted balls). It's more about doing enough damage when making hard contact. Of 76 players who hit the ball 100-plus mph at least 100 times, Zimmerman had the fourth-lowest launch angle on those balls (5 degrees) and sixth-lowest slugging percentage (1.048). By contrast, Chris Davis averaged 21 degrees and slugged 1.920.
Andrew Simon is a research analyst for MLB.com. Follow him on Twitter @AndrewSimonMLB. This story was not subject to the approval of Major League Baseball or its clubs.