First, the terms: irrationally is the key word. If a player follows six straight Cy Young seasons with a 20-loss season, it's not irrational to expect improvement. A less-ridiculous example would be Eric Hosmer. He's young, and he was good before he was bad. I'm thinking he's going to be good again. But there's logic behind that assumption, even if you disagree with it.
When I spin around Baseball Reference or MLB Depth Charts and look at various rosters, I assign labels to hitters and pitchers, almost unconsciously. Good, bad, okay, amazing … I might not mouth the words like I'm trying to memorize a monologue, but I'm mentally assigning these labels as I'm going along. And after handing out some of the "should be better"s, there were a couple that made me stop and think, wait, why should they be better?
Here are the five players that I've caught myself assuming will be better in 2012, even if I can't back it up.
5. Francisco Liriano
This was a four-paragraph section, and then I found out that Liriano's shoulder futzed up his deal with the Pirates. So like Moses in History of the World, Part I, I had to change things up a bit. The four -- four! -- players I'm expecting to improve!
This column is off to a good start.
4. Jarrod Parker
This might not be the kind of name you'd expect here, but hear me out. Young pitchers don't usually get better with a nice, linear, and easily recognizable progression. The good ones don't usually have a two-WAR season when they're 24, a three-win season when they're 25, and then a breakout four-win season when they're 26. There are ups and downs, trials and tribulations. A young pitcher who learns how to pitch might also have to deal with a degradation of stuff.
Which is all to say that it's not automatic that Parker will get better next year just because he's young.
For one thing, he was already excellent. He was worth 3.8 wins according to Baseball Reference, 19th among all qualified starters. That ranked ahead of Matt Cain, CC Sabathia, Jered Weaver, and Zack Greinke, for example. You might quibble with the stat (or the version of the stat) used to get to that conclusion, but I think we can all agree on the conclusion: Parker was good.
I think he'll get better. There's nothing that indicates it with his strikeout-to-walk ratio, and he didn't have an abnormally high batting average allowed on balls in play. But I'm a sucker for the changeup. And at 23, Parker could throw a changeup like this:
Because he can do that, I think he'll get even better. There aren't any studies that suggest changeup pitchers automatically improve with experience. So I have to file this under irrational. (Look at that damn changeup, though ...)
3. Hunter Pence
He doesn't look like a ballplayer. He doesn't swing like a ballplayer, run like a ballplayer, or throw like a ballplayer. So when Hunter Pence is slumping, he looks really, really bad. After coming over to the Giants in July, he looked worse than really, really bad. He looked like some sort of ill-advised front-office stunt -- Charlie Finley signing a guy out of a professional jai alai league because he had an idea in the tub one day.
I spent most of the playoffs feeling bad for Pence, that's how bad he looked. It probably had something to do with those puppy-dog eyes*.
He's been a consistent 2-to-3-wins player for years, so it's probably rational to expect a rebound to that level. But after a bad year, it's probably more rational to assume he'll continue to be bad because he wasn't supposed to be good in the first place. Still, when I go over the Giants' projected roster, I assume Hunter Pence will be better, even if I probably shouldn't.
*They have puppies on Xzvyzxx, where Pence is from. They're covered in scales and hiss a lot, but they have them.
2. Kevin Youkilis
Because it would be annoying.
It wouldn't be Boggs-on-a-horse annoying, but check this out, Red Sox fans:
Annoying. And you know what would be more annoying for you? Youkilis going nuts and returning to form in a Yankees uniform, single-handedly rescuing the quietist offseason for the Yankees in decades.
Sometimes baseball works in mysterious ways. And sometimes it's as obvious as a 10-year-old boy with his first whoopee cushion. He'll be 34 next season, and his career has an obvious downward trajectory. So there's no logical reason to think he'll be better, except for the part where you can feel it in your bones.
1. Chase Utley
So this is the "over-30 former star" section of the program. And this one has a family of possums living in his knees. When Utley kneels down to tie his shoes, it sounds like a helicopter crashing into an empty swimming pool. He's 34, played 103 and 83 games over the last two years, hitting just under .260 with 11 home runs in each season. His WAR by year:
2008: 8.8 (age 29)
Trends don't come neater than that. With all of the above, can you think of one reason to expect Utley to get better?
I think of him as a Hall of Famer, but he probably isn't getting in without another couple of good years. So I think I'm automatically assigning him those good years so I don't have to disagree with my preformed opinions. I'm okay with that! Take that, logic.
Now you. What players are you expecting good things from next year, even if you probably shouldn't? This is probably the first year that Barry Zito doesn't make the list for me, and it's following a postseason in which he was a bonafide playoff hero. Huh.