Who Is the Best Offensive Player in MLB Heading into the 2020 Season?

Zachary D. Rymer@zachrymerMLB Lead WriterJanuary 29, 2020

Who Is the Best Offensive Player in MLB Heading into the 2020 Season?

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    Spoiler alert.
    Spoiler alert.Mark J. Terrill/Associated Press

    With a new season of Major League Baseball fast approaching, it's a good idea to get to know which players are appointment viewing.

    Let's begin with the must-watch offensive players for 2020.

    For this, we've arranged something that's less of a ranking and more of a discussion. We covered 14 players and separated them into tiers to show where they stand among baseball's top offensive threats.

    We mainly considered what they can do in the batter's box but also noted what they can do on the basepaths. In both cases, surface-level results (you'll want to be familiar with wRC+) and Statcast metrics (such as exit velocity, hard-hit rate, barrels, xwOBA and sprint speed) came in handy.

    You can probably guess who's No. 1, but let's dive right in.

Honorable Mentions: Alonso, Soto, Alvarez, Martinez and Springer

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    Adam Hunger/Associated Press

    Pete Alonso is fresh off leading MLB and setting a rookie record with 53 home runs in 2019, and yet it's oddly difficult to label him a premier offensive weapon.

    Alonso had the same wRC+ (143) as New York Mets teammate Jeff McNeil despite hitting 30 more homers, and his .374 xwOBA barely cracked the top 30 among hitters with at least 350 plate appearances. 

    Elsewhere in the National League East, Juan Soto proved he was the real deal in 2019 with a 142 wRC+, 34 homers and 12 stolen bases. He also ranked in the top 10 with a .407 xwOBA. Considering he's still only 21 years old, the Washington Nationals wunderkind almost certainly hasn't peaked yet.

    Over in the American League, Yordan Alvarez and George Springer are somehow only the Houston Astros' second- and third-best offensive players. Albeit in only 369 plate appearances, the 22-year-old Alvarez ranked seventh with a .410 xwOBA and second with a 178 wRC+. In only 122 games, Springer blasted 39 homers with a 156 wRC+ and .398 xwOBA.

    Also in the AL, we're not ready to write off J.D. Martinez despite his relatively disappointing '19 season. The Boston Red Sox slugger was baseball's second-best hitter with a 169 wRC+ across 2017 and 2018. And though his numbers took a dive last year, he still posted a stellar .400 xwOBA.

The Tools Are There: Ronald Acuna Jr., Atlanta Braves

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    John Bazemore/Associated Press

    Ronald Acuna Jr. is nothing if not exciting.

    He certainly lived up to his billing as a five-tool prodigy when he won the NL Rookie of the Year Award for the Atlanta Braves in 2018. For an encore, he came close to achieving only the fifth-ever 40-40 season with 41 home runs and 37 stolen bases.

    Acuna's underlying talents also lit up the charts in 2019. His average sprint speed of 29.4 feet per second ranked in the 96th percentile. He also averaged a solid 90.6 mph on his batted balls and posted a whopping .495 xwOBA when he made contact. The latter placed fifth among all hitters who put at least 300 balls in play.

    However, Acuna wasn't perfect. He swung through too many pitches in the strike zone, and he curiously had one of the lowest overall power outputs for any 40-homer slugger. Such things went into his good-not-great 126 wRC+.

    Still, Acuna isn't yet a finished product. He's only 22 years old, so he has loads of time to live up to his enormous potential.

Don't Forget About: Anthony Rendon, Los Angeles Angels

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    Jayne Kamin-Oncea/Getty Images

    The Los Angeles Angels got a good one when they signed Anthony Rendon to a seven-year, $245 million contract in December.

    The 29-year-old third baseman found his offensive mojo with a 140 wRC+ and 49 home runs across 2017 and 2018. Yet it was only last season that he cemented himself as one of the league's great hitters.

    His 34 homers and 154 wRC+, which ranked seventh among batting title qualifiers, are solid proof of that but perhaps not as much as Rendon's peripheral stats. For instance, his .418 xwOBA ranked fifth among all hitters who had at least 500 plate appearances.

    That Rendon had nearly as many walks (80) as strikeouts (86) says plenty about how sharp his approach is. And while his hard-hit rate of 46.6 percent didn't jump off the page, his tally of 218 batted balls of at least 95 mph was higher than all but four other hitters.

    Though Rendon is an average sprinter, he's one of the more capable baserunners among third basemen over the last three seasons. Between that and how he's arguably a top-five hitter, he is at least the most underrated offensive player in baseball.

Don't Forget About: Nelson Cruz, Minnesota Twins

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    Jim McIsaac/Getty Images

    It's no fun to watch Nelson Cruz run the bases. He can beat, say, Albert Pujols in a footrace, but it should surprise nobody that Cruz is a decidedly below-average sprinter.

    But, man, can he hit.

    The 244 homers Cruz has hit since 2014 are 21 more than the next-most prolific slugger. And even though injuries limited him to 120 games for the Minnesota Twins in 2019, he still mustered 41 long balls with a 163 wRC+ and the same xwOBA (.418) as Anthony Rendon.

    True to form, Cruz struck out (131) far more often than he walked (56). Yet even among hitters who put only 100 balls in play, he ranked:

    • 3rd in average exit velocity (93.7 mph)
    • 4th in hard-hit rate (51.5 percent)
    • 1st in barrels per plate appearance (12.5 percent)
    • 3rd in xwOBA on contact (.539)

    Cruz may not be the league's swiftest baserunner or most refined hitter. But even at 39 years old, he is still capable of hitting rockets with the best of 'em.

Don't Forget About: Aaron Judge, New York Yankees

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    Mary Altaffer/Associated Press

    Speaking of masters of hitting rockets, Aaron Judge is perhaps the master in that particular field.

    Judge's ability to punish the ball was certainly on display in 2017, when he posted a 174 wRC+ and set what was then the bar for rookies with 52 home runs. His returns have diminished—i.e., a 146 wRC+ and 54 homers—as injuries have limited him to just 214 games over the last two seasons, yet he's not to be underestimated going into 2020.

    To wit, even Nelson Cruz didn't quite specialize in hard contact as well as Judge did in 2019. The New York Yankees' 6'7", 282-pound giant bested Cruz with his 95.9 mph average exit velocity, a 57.1 hard-hit percentage and a .561 xwOBA on contact.

    Though Judge, 27, has failed to get his strikeout rate under 30 percent, his 16.1 career walk percentage is evidence he's no wild swinger. Nor is he a one-dimensional slugger. In 2019, his 28.2 feet-per-second sprint speed qualified him as an above-average runner.

    It's possible Judge needs only good health to reclaim the rhythm he had as a rookie, in which case he would reestablish himself among MLB's offensive elite.

Don't Forget About: Mookie Betts, Boston Red Sox

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    Elise Amendola/Associated Press

    Mookie Betts may not be long for the Boston Red Sox, but he should be a well-rounded producer no matter where he plays in 2020.

    One only needs to go back to 2018 to find when Betts was the absolute best of the best on offense. He finished that season with a .346/.438/.640 batting line, 32 home runs and 30 stolen bases, not to mention a 185 wRC+ (second in MLB) and .433 xwOBA (first in MLB).

    Betts' results fell across the board last season, including to a relatively modest 135 wRC+. Yet he just missed the top five in xwOBA with a mark of .408, which indicates he suffered from bad luck.

    Like Anthony Rendon, Betts walked (97) nearly as often as he struck out (101). Also like Rendon, he regularly struck the ball well en route to 235 batted balls of at least 95 mph.

    Though Betts is more an above-average runner than a true speedster, the 27-year-old right fielder has nonetheless been baseball's most productive baserunner over the last four seasons. It helps that he rarely gets thrown out trying to steal and that he frequently takes extra bases.

    In short, don't sell Betts, well, short.

In the Discussion: Alex Bregman, Houston Astros

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    David J. Phillip/Associated Press

    We come now to perhaps the most efficient hitter in baseball.

    Since breaking into the majors in July 2016, Alex Bregman has been on an upward trajectory that placed him among MLB's top hitters in 2019. He hit .296/.423/.592 with 41 home runs and finished third among batting title qualifiers with a 168 wRC+.

    It's worth noting MLB's investigation into the Astros' sign-stealing scheme centered on the 2017 season, in part because it didn't find much evidence of wrongdoing in 2018 or 2019.

    If that's true, then Bregman was mostly operating on his own devices in racking up 47 more walks (215) than strikeouts (168) over the last two seasons. That's a remarkable feat relative to how strikeouts are becoming more prevalent on an annual basis.

    In 2019, the 25-year-old was neither a quick baserunner nor a merchant of loud contact, as he only ranked in the 62nd percentile with his 27.4 feet-per-second sprint speed and the 41st percentile with his 37.5 hard-hit percentage. Yet he placed his good contact well. Few were better at hitting line drives and fly balls to their pull side, which is where power is most within reach.

    Hence the operative word: efficient.

In the Discussion: Cody Bellinger, Los Angeles Dodgers

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    Sam Gangwer/Associated Press

    Following a step back in his sophomore season in 2018, Cody Bellinger went back to being flat-out dangerous in 2019.

    He revealed himself as an offensive force when he broke out with a 138 wRC+ and what was an NL-rookie-record 39 home runs in 2017. But that was nothing compared to his MVP-winning turn last season, which he finished with a 162 wRC+, 47 homers and 15 stolen bases.

    Even more mind-blowing is the notion that Bellinger might have underachieved in 2019. His .429 xwOBA, which ranked second among players with at least 500 plate appearances, was 15 points higher than his actual wOBA.

    The 24-year-old did himself a huge favor by getting his strikeouts (108) more closely in line with his walks (95). He also made the most of his decidedly pretty swing, achieving new heights with 90.7 mph average exit velocity and 59 barrels.

    What's less talked about is just how fast Bellinger is on the bases. Notably, he was the fastest regular on the Los Angeles Dodgers last season with an average sprint of 28.8 feet per second.

    It's hard to believe they make 'em any better than this, but they do.

Arguably the Best: Christian Yelich, Milwaukee Brewers

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    Dylan Buell/Getty Images

    Nobody has better results over the last season-and-a-half than Christian Yelich.

    That might sound controversial at first, but it's all there in the Milwaukee Brewers star's numbers. Since the 2018 All-Star break, he's gone off for a .342/.436/.705 slash line, 69 home runs, a 190 wRC+ and 13.2 wins above replacement, according to FanGraphs.

    Out of those numbers, the only one that doesn't place Yelich above all his peers is his .436 on-base percentage (he ranks second).

    The 28-year-old right fielder doesn't look any less well-rounded in the details. He's balanced walks (115) and strikeouts (170) fairly well since the '18 break, and his 48.6 hard-hit percentage places seventh among all hitters who've put at least 300 balls in play in that span. Meanwhile, he's also nabbed 40 stolen bases.

    So why can't Yelich be considered the best offensive player in baseball, full stop? In part because there's some concern about lingering effects from the knee injury that prematurely ended his 2019 season. Yet also in part because he doesn't have the league's best xwOBA over the last year-and-a-half.

    You likely won't be surprised who does.

Actually the Best: Mike Trout, Los Angeles Angels

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    David J. Phillip/Associated Press

    It's Mike Trout. Of course it's Mike Trout. It could only be Mike Trout.

    Though he was an MVP-caliber player annually from 2012 to 2016, it's really only in the last three seasons that Trout staked his claim as MLB's best hitter, period. He led all qualified batters in wRC+ (180, 190 and 180) in 2017, 2018 and 2019 and also cranked out 117 home runs in the process. Further, his .440 xwOBA since 2017 is by far the best among hitters who've made at least 1,000 plate appearances.

    The Los Angeles Angels star has only eight more strikeouts (334) than walks (326) since 2017. And while he didn't stand with the best in average exit velocity or hard-hit rate, he mustered more barrels per plate appearance then everyone except Nelson Cruz, Gary Sanchez and Joey Gallo in 2019.

    Trout, 28, also carried on in the 95th percentile with his average sprint of 29.2 feet per second, so it's not for a lack of swiftness that he swiped only 11 bases after thieving 46 across 2017 and 2018.

    There will come a time when Trout is past his prime and his deeds are spoken of in less glowing terms. But for now, that moment still seems a long way off.


    Stats courtesy of Baseball Reference, FanGraphs and Baseball Savant.