Few things define baseball’s difficulties like the year-to-year swoons players have or what is considered success. If you fail seven out of 10 times for 12 years, that may be enough for the Hall of Fame. Nowhere else is such a low rate of accomplishment acceptable at work, let alone lauded.
Which is why players bounce back from one year to the next, flop after a big season or emerge from the weeds.
So, who of the defending World Series champions could fall into each category? Let’s look:
Bounceback candidate: Adam Eaton.
Recent memories of Adam Eaton may make him seem an odd choice here. He hit .320 in the World Series, including two home runs. His .993 OPS was better than Anthony Rendon’s against Houston in the postseason’s final series.
But, prior, Eaton went through another solid-to-average regular season. His 101 OPS-plus suggests he was right on the border of being an average major leaguer on offense. It was also the lowest of any full season of his career.
His defense was worse. Eaton misplayed or misread several fly balls last season on the way to a third consecutive season with a negative defensive WAR. He noticed.
“I stunk last year defensively, still coming with my leg,” Eaton said in spring training.
“I feel so much better,” Eaton said. “Even just bouncing around the outfield. I was still on one leg quite a bit last year. I think once July hit, that’s really when I kind of hit my stride with the leg -- August -- where I could really have my legs underneath me, I was really able to play full tilt. Early on, I was fielding ground balls on one leg. Peg-legging it.”
Eaton is 31 years old. One team option remains on his contract. If his defense comes back -- likely -- and his offense takes a modest boost, he could move back to 4-WAR territory and help close the gap produced by Rendon’s departure.
Regression candidate: Daniel Hudson.
Hudson went through an October like no other. He became a crucial part of the Nationals’ bullpen, a father for the third time and a national storyline.
Hudson’s 1.44 ERA and 322 ERA-plus with the Nationals were both significantly better than his career numbers of 3.83 and 109, respectively. Even his combined numbers from Toronto and Washington (2.47, 186) were well-beyond his career marks.
What helps Hudson this year? Sharing time with Will Harris, Sean Doolittle and even Tanner Rainey should lighten his workload. It could make his spots to pitch more pinpoint and advantageous.
But, he now has a decade of sample size. And last year was glaring for its departure from his norm. Expect him to go backward.
Breakout candidate: Tanner Rainey
He will perpetually be a breakout candidate. It’s the reason he is in Washington.
When Mike Rizzo swapped Tanner Roark for Rainey, the move seemed curious. Washington lost a lot of innings, a solid starting pitcher and traded him for a Triple-A reliever.
That was Rainey, who easily throws 99 to 100 mph. It’s not a max effort delivery to do so. Rainey’s fastball averaged 97.8 mph last season. His slider, which he upped the usage of, averaged 87 mph. That’s a distinct speed difference when the mechanics are the same. His 13.78 strikeouts per nine innings was elite.
The challenge is command and plan. Rainey needs to spot his pitches better and to understand his fundamental attack better. A second year with a full workload should help him. Video is one thing. Standing on the mound staring at a specific hitter is another.
Rainey also needs to be better against left-handed hitters. His splits heavily favor them, and the new three-batter minimum rule is going to bring them to the plate to face him.
Fixing each department incrementally -- command, plan, execution against lefties -- would launch Rainey into being one of the better setup men in baseball. His command will never be pinpoint. He’s going to allow home runs. However, his stuff is electric enough to make up for some of his detriments, leading to a chance for a breakout season.
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