Baseball, Columnists, Sports

Fair or Foul: Players who continue to exceed expectations in 2021

With just four weeks to go in the 2021 MLB regular season, enough time has elapsed to make concrete judgments about players’ seasons. Here are 10 players whose 2021 campaigns have either greatly exceeded expectations or been a return to stardom not seen in years.

Alexia Nizhny/DFP STAFF
  1. Bryce Harper (OF, Philadelphia Phillies)

Five seasons have come and gone since Harper unanimously won National League MVP in 2015. His third season with the Phillies is by far his best yet. With his highest batting average and on-base plus slugging percentage (OPS) since 2017 and his highest adjusted OPS (OPS+) and home run pace since the MVP season, Harper once again looks like a top 10 player. Harper has a real chance to win his second MVP in 2021, and this is the level of play that earned him a $330 million contract.

  1. Austin Riley (3B, Atlanta Braves)

Aside from missing just one game all season, the 24-year-old former first-rounder is breaking out. After batting .232 with just 32 walks in 131 games over the two prior seasons, Riley’s plate discipline looks greatly improved, and he is making more contact. With the whole Braves infield slugging the team’s way to an NL East crown, Riley is leading the way.

  1. Robbie Ray (LHP, Toronto Blue Jays)

In 2017, Ray posted a 2.89 ERA with over 12 strikeouts per nine innings for the Arizona Diamondbacks. In the three seasons that followed, his ERA rose to 3.93, 4.34 and then 6.62 last season with Arizona and Toronto. With that trend in mind, no one could predict that Ray would be on pace for career-bests in every category. He also has the highest wins above replacement (WAR) for pitchers, per Baseball-Reference. A Cy Young Award might come his way with the season he is having.

  1. Salvador Perez (C, Kansas City Royals)

For a team deep in a rebuild, Perez is the one-star player remaining. His 2021 season remains unparalleled in his offensive production. With 42 home runs already, he needs just five more to pass Hall of Famer Johnny Bench’s single-season record for catchers. With a higher career batting average of .276, along with his crazy power, Perez keeps proving he was worth extending and remains the face of the franchise.

  1. Corbin Burnes (RHP, Milwaukee Brewers)

An argument can be made that Burnes’ teammate, fellow starting pitcher Freddy Peralta, deserves the nod, but Burnes’ resurgence caps off a roller-coaster ride of a three-year run. After posting a 2.61 ERA in 30 relief appearances as a rookie in 2018, his ERA ballooned to over eight, and he got sent down. Then, after a strong 2020 mixed between the rotation and bullpen, Burnes looks as elite as ever as a full-time starter. He currently leads the majors with a 1.58 fielding independent pitching (FIP) and 0.3 home runs per nine innings, along with an insane 12.3 strikeouts per nine.

  1. Brandon Crawford (SS) and Buster Posey (C, San Francisco Giants)

These two aging veterans each have three World Series rings — the most recent of which came seven years ago — and were key cogs in their team’s effort to win them. Nevertheless, Crawford’s offensive production in 2021 has never been seen before. His OPS will end up almost 100 points above his previous high for a full season. His defense remains Gold Glove level, and he is still dominating at age 34.

Posey owns the 2012 NL MVP Award, but his expectations for 2021 were all over the place after Posey sat out the 2020 season. While he may not catch more than 110 games, the fact that he is hitting over .300 again and looking better than most seasons since 2012, the veteran catcher’s resurgence has been fun to watch as his team keeps rolling.

  1. Marcus Semien (2B), Teoscar Hernández (OF), Vladimir Guererro Jr. (1B, Toronto Blue Jays)

The last spot is a trio. Semien came out of nowhere with significant defensive improvements and never-before-seen offensive output in 2019. This got him to finish third in MVP voting that year, but the ship completely derailed in 2020, and the Oakland Athletics chose not to sign him. His one-year deal with Toronto netted him a shot at over 40 homers and 100 runs scored, and a massive payday to come soon.

Hernández’s career got a restart in Toronto: It just took four seasons. With a 109 OPS+ from 2017-19 with Houston and Toronto, Hernández was a slightly above-average player. Since 2020, his OPS+ has risen to an impressive 132. His .292 average caps off what has been a steady presence in the Blue Jays lineup.

Last is Guerrero, who entered the league at 20 with enormous expectations. He didn’t quite meet them in 2019 or 2020, with a .269 average, .778 OPS and 109 OPS+ over the two seasons. 2021 has brought Vlad Jr. the world was waiting for. He leads the AL in on-base percentage and OPS+ and leads all of baseball in batting average, hits, runs and OPS. He will either finish first or second in AL MVP voting this season.

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