Each every year there are players who surprise, in both positive and negative ways. While it's fun to try to predict which players those will be in 2016, it's also instructive to look back on 2015's biggest shockers and project them going forward.
There are many dangers of leaning heavily on 2015 results to project 2016. We'll focus on two today. The first is paying up for a player's career year after they've already had it. The second is writing a player off after a down year and completely missing their bounce back.
On the other hand, completely ignoring 2015 could cause you to miss breakouts or warning signs. That could lead to equally disastrous results in 2016 drafts. Even within these individual players, nuance is needed and that's why you'll rarely hear me say to 100 percent trust the year or the career. What I'll try to do below is present both sides and come up with a reasonable expectation for 2016.
The Career: Since entering the league in 2006, Tulowitzki has simply been the best offensive shortstop in baseball. One of the most impressive things about Tulowitzki is the balanced way he has gone about it. He leads all shortstops in both on-base percentage and slugging percentage since he entered the league. Of course, that comes with the elephant-sized caveat that he played his homes games at Coors Field for the first nine years of his career.
That isn't to say that Tulo was a product of Coors Field. Over his career he has slashed .274/.347/.462 away from Coors Field. That's eerily similar the first 10 years of Cal Ripken's career (.274/.347/.456). That's not to say anything other than Troy Tulowitzki is not a product of Coors Field. Yes, he has been better at Coors, but he has been elite nearly everywhere. At least until 2015.
The Year: If there was one glaring thing that stuck out in the Ripken/Tulowitzki comparison it was that Ripken was the Iron Man and Tulowitzki most certainly has not been. The 31 year-old has topped 150 games just twice in his career and not once since 2009. Injuries limited him again last season and likely contributed to his .239/.317/.380 slash line once he left Colorado. But let's not make this out to more than it is. That's 41 games with the Blue Jays of a .697 OPS vs. nine years of .885.
Tulowitzki did nearly everything worse last year with a career-worst 21.3 percent K rate and 7.1 percent walk rate. His .160 ISO was his worst since 2008 and was his .337 OBP. What's worse is you can't really blame luck as he posted a .331 BABIP that is ten points higher than his career mark .
2016 Expectation: Going back to Ripken for a minute, he also had his worst year to date in his 10th season. In his 11th, at age 30, he posted career highs in HR (34), RBI (114), and OPS+ (162) on his way to winning his second MVP. That's not to say we should expect the same from Tulowitzki, but you also shouldn't write off a 31-year-old shortstop because of a down year.
Tulowitzki will still play his home games in a hitter friendly park and he'll be part of arguably the best lineup in baseball. You should probably head into the year with a 130-game expectation of something slightly better than his career road numbers. That may not seem great by Tulowitzki's standards, but it will put him in the top three at his position in 2016.
The Career: Matt Carpenter had three years of very solid, workmanlike production heading into the 2015 season. He used a good command of the strike zone and elite contact skills to post on base numbers near the top of the league. In 2013 and 2014, Carpenter led all third basemen in doubles, triples, runs and walks. In other words, he was the prototypical points league player, whose Roto value was severely limited by his lack of power or speed.
The Year: In 2015, Carpenter exploded for a career-best 28 home runs and 84 RBI. He did so while maintaining ha .365 OBP and still hitting 44 doubles. If Carpenter had entered the league at age 21, this might be seen as him coming into his power, but he's now 30 years old. There were other things that might lead you to be suspicious.
First, that HR/FB rate was double Carpenter's career average heading into last season. Also, Carpenter's power wasn't exactly consistent. Carpenter had 13 home runs through his first 99 games then exploded in the last two months of the season for 15 in his final 54. That's a 40+ home run pace for a hitter that we previously thought had 15-20 home run potential. Color me skeptical.
2016 Expectation: This seems like a pretty clear case where we should weigh the career heavily, which isn't necessarily a bad thing. Carpenter should be expected to post an on-base around .370 and he should be the odds on favorite to lead the league in doubles. If anything, it's likely he'll hit more doubles in 2016 as a few of those home runs turn into two-baggers. I'd put the over/under on home runs at 17 and RBI at 75. That's enough to make Carpenter a borderline top five third baseman who is once again better in points leagues than Roto.
The career: Prior to 2015 Cain was known as a defensive star who had trouble staying healthy and even more trouble producing anything consistent offensively. Cain had one .300 season under his belt that was sustained by a seemingly unsustainable .380 BABIP. He had never topped seven home runs or 55 RBI.
The Year: Cain's BABIP did regress in 2015, all the way down to .347. Of course, that didn't hurt his batting average because he cut his strikeout rate from his career rate of 20 percent to 16.5. More importantly, Cain stayed healthy enough to top 600 plate appearances and set career highs in doubles (34), triples (6) and home runs (16) on his way to what can only be described as a career year. While his HR/FB rate did spike to 11.2 percent, that was pretty easily explained by a significant increase in hard contact and a corresponding slashing of his soft contact rate. Cain hit the ball a lot more often and hit it harder when he did.
2016 Expectation: Much like Matt Carpenter above, it's difficult for me to totally buy into a power surge from a player who will turn 30 in the first month of 2016. But there is plenty from 2016 that is believable, especially for a player that came to baseball as late as Cain.
The increased contact rate and hard contact rate are both sustainable, even if they don't result in quite as much power and Cain should be able to maintain a .340 BABIP, which will protect his average. Finally, he has stolen 28 bags in each of the past two seasons, so if nothing else he should remain a good source of steals and average. In the middle of an above average Royals lineup, Cain should be a solid second outfielder in points or Roto leagues.
The Career: Outside of a disastrous (and unlucky) 2010, James Shields had been the prototypical workhorse and borderline ace. His worst ERA from 2011-2014 was 3.52, and he threw at least 227 innings in each of those seasons. Shields pitched his entire career before 015 in pitcher-friendly AL parks in front of above average defenses.
The Year: The move to the National League should have been a positive one, but instead it was just weird. He gave up 33 home runs (the most since that 2010 disaster) and barely topped 200 innings. The only thing that went right for Shields was his K rate, as he struck out a career best 25.1 percent. That makes a little bit of sense simply because he was seeing pitchers 2-3 times per game and NL hitters hadn't been exposed to his world class changeup.
2016 Expectations: Fangraphs uses xFIP to normalize FIP for HR/FB rate, and that's probably a better explanation of the way Shields pitched over the past few seasons. In 2015, he had a 3.70 xFIP, which is right in line with his 3.72 and 3.56 from his time in Kansas City. I'd expect something similar in 2016, which should produce a better ERA from Shields even if his his strikeouts regress a bit.
Danny Valencia: Valencia had been a life long platoon player with a .664 against RHP in his career. At age 31 something clicked last year and Valencia thrived in an every day role. He crushed righties as he always had lefties, posting a .271 ISO and .374 against right handed pitchers. Oakland has given him the third base job and he should hit in the middle of the order. Valencia was given 600 plate appearance once in his career (2011) and posted a .667 OPS while hitting 15 home runs. I wouldn't expect much more in 2016, if he doesn't turn back into a platoon player by the All Star Break.
Logan Forsythe: Much like Valencia, Forsythe had only been useful against LHP until 2015. While I'm skeptical of Valencia's breakout, it is absolutely clear that Forsythe's was almost entirely good fortune. He still didn't hit for any power against RHP last year (.102 ISO, .375 SLG) so his mediocre OPS (.728) was propped up almost entirely by a .330 BABIP vs. righties. It's also the sole reason that a career .237 hitter against RHP hit .273 in 2015. Expect regression.
Chris Colabello: Colabello is the oldest of our three breakouts and was the luckiest in 2015. His .411 BABIP was 24 points higher than anyone in baseball with at least 350 plate appearances. For a player who strikes out 27 percent of the time, that's going to have a huge impact on BABIP. The Blue Jays seem to know this as they continue to try to add outfielders. I'd anticipate Colabello getting limited playing time once again, but performing much worse.