Kris Bryant has been an elite player so far. Mike Trout somehow keeps getting better. Is Yermín Mercedes sticking around or will we forget about him by the All-Star break?
I get it, it’s only May 7th. There is a lot that can happen between now and the end of September. But it is always a fun exercise once we get into a decent sized sample of plate appearances to see who the best players in baseball are, if only as a means to try to predict which early breakouts may be real and which may not be. Even though we are not even half way through the first half of the 2021 season, what I found is that many of the names on this list are ones I expected.
With that said, here is what the MVP race looks like in the present moments. As far as methodology goes, I simply pulled the top players in each league by fWAR, so no ‘he’s on a contending team,’ or ‘he’s the guy you want in the ninth inning with the game on the line’ type of bias.
1) Mike Trout: 2.5 fWAR, 251 wRC+
Let me know if you have heard this before: Mike Trout is the best player in the American League. Trout will be 30 later this year, so it’s crazy to think that be may have gotten better, but it is actually possible. Coming off a career worst (lol) 162 wRC+ in 2020, he ranks in no less than the 96th percentile in all Statcast quality of contact metrics, and his 22% barrel rate is the highest of his career.
Obviously, Trout won’t sustain a .529 BABIP. But like, maybe he will? He is Mike Trout after all. I expect him to come down to earth at some point, but down to earth for Mike Trout is a 173 wRC+.
2) Byron Buxton: 2.4 fWAR, 242 wRC+
Simply put, this is the Byron Buxton we have been waiting for. We have already seen the speed, the defense, and the excitement — players like Buxton remind me why I love baseball — but injuries and an inconsistent bat have kept him from being in the conversation of elite players, even if the tools are elite.
If it’s even possible, Buxton is a small shade better that Trout in Statcast QOC metrics, outpacing him in both barrel rate and hard hit rate, to go along with a 99th percentile sprint speed. It’s harder for me to believe that Buxton will sustain this level of offensive production than Trout, but even is he regresses to a 120 wRC+, a healthy Buxton playing an elite centerfield with surely put him in the MVP discussion at years’ end. If you’re looking for the ‘which guy other than Trout can we give this award to,’ Buxton might be it.
3) Vladimir Guerrero Jr.: 1.9 fWAR, 208 wRC+
It seems rather ridiculous to say that Vlad has disappointed in his short major league career so far. One, because he is still only 22 years old, but also because he has been an above league average bat. This year, however, has been a coming out party for Guerrero, jr, as the results are finally matching the pedigree.
So far in 2021, Vladito is slugging .622 and is finally showing the patience that made him an elite prospect, ranking in the 98th percentile in walk rate and in the 89th percentile in chase rate, both of which were closer to the middle of the pack a year ago. Combine that with the ability to consistently bruise baseball, and we finally have the version of Guerrero, Jr that we have been dreaming of.
Vladimir Guerrero Jr. Has hit 3 Home Runs tonight totaling 7 RBIs for the Blue Jays against the Nationals. Here are all 3 pic.twitter.com/dZS5o4M7Jy— MLB Walk Offs & Game Winning Plays (@MLBWalk_Offs) April 28, 2021
J.D. Martinez: 1.8 fWAR, 215 wRC+
José Ramírez: 1.6 fWAR, 166 wRC+
Cedric Mullins II: 1.5 fWAR, 155 wRC+
1) Ronald Acuña Jr.: 2.2 fWAR, 192 wRC+
Ronald Acuña Jr. has been great for so long that it is hard to believe that he is still only 23 years old. Acuña Jr, is tied for the major league lead in home runs with 10 and is second in baseball in xwOBA with a mark of .508. His team may not be off to the start they want, but I can’t imagine Acuña Jr. is disappointed with his.
While he hasn’t quite been in the discussion for the league’s best player so far in his career, if he can sustain anywhere near this level of production, he may force himself into that conversation.
2) Kris Bryant: 1.8 fWAR, 180 wRC+
Bryant’s career arc has been quite an interesting one. He was Rookie of the Year in 2015 and an MVP and World Series champion in 2016. But after a start that looked like it would take a Hall of Fame trajectory, Bryant has been closer to very good than elite. But as far as names, his is as recognizable as any on this list and the entire game. However, he is two years removed from an All-Star season, and about four years removed from an MVP-level one.
But a few months from free agency, Bryant looks to have recaptured his early years, and is posting the highest barrel rate of his career. Although he is coming off a forgettable ‘20 season that signaled a decline in skills, it’s not unreasonable to think this bounce back is real.
3) Trea Turner: 1.5 fWAR, 148 wRC+
I have to be honest with you, Turner is not the Washington Nationals player I expected to see on this list. In any case, Turner has been a top 25 player on a rate basis since making his debut in ‘15. So far in ‘21, he is on pace for his best campaign yet. The only thing that is alarming is the fact that he is both striking out more and walking less than he eve has, but it’s also possible that both could regress to the mean.
Juan Soto will inevitably catch fire and end the season with a better batting line, but the fact that Turner does what he does while playing a premium short stop while also having the best sprint speed in the game, he could end the season as the more valuable player of the two.
Nick Castellanos: 1.4 fWAR, 166 wRC+
Justin Turner: 1.4 fWAR, 175 wRC+
Bryce Harper: 1.3 fWAR, 178 wRC+