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NL East – Can Bryce Harper Bounce Back?
What Bryce Harper did in 2015 is ridiculous. Forty-two home runs, 118 runs scored, 99 RBI, and a .649 slugging percentage. He followed it up with a pedestrian campaign in 2016, posting 24 HR, 84 R, 86 RBI, and a .441 SLG. The biggest reason for the drop-off? Check his underlying statistics. Harper’s BABIP (batting average on balls in play) in 2015 was an absurdly high .369 (.264 in 2016). His HR/FB% (home run per fly ball rate) was 27.3% in 2015, 14.3% in 2016 (meaning that more than a quarter of his fly balls in 2015 went for home runs). His soft contact percentage was 11.9% in 2015, and 19.8% in 2016. So which Bryce Harper will we see in 2017? Even if it’s a split-the-difference Harper, he’ll end up with over 30 homers, score about 100 runs, drive in about 95 runs, and slug around .500. The Nationals would take that in a heartbeat.
NL Central – The Cubs’ Title Defense
It’s been a while since the Chicago Cubs have had to defend a World Series title, but something tells us they’ll be alright. Per FanGraphs’ projections, they’re expected to allow the second-fewest runs per game in 2017, buoyed by their pitching depth. Jon Lester, Jake Arrieta, Kyle Hendricks, and John Lackey are each projected to eclipse 170 IP, throw 7.9 or more strikeouts per nine innings, walk fewer than three batters per nine, and have a FIP under 4.00. Needless to say, they’ll be a complete team again, and time this around they have championship experience.
NL West – The Kershawshank Redemption
Movie puns aside, all eyes will be on Clayton Kershaw as he rebounds from an injury-riddled 2016. After throwing 149 innings, one has to figure he’ll be fresh for 2017. Consider that Kershaw was on pace to lead the NL in ERA (1.69) and have the highest strikeout-to-walk ratio in MLB history (15.64, with 172 K and 11 BB). He finally shed some of his postseason demons (although some haters still remain), and if he returns to full form in 2017, he will continue to cement his case for the best pitcher alive.