Ranking the 25 Biggest Surprises of the 2020 MLB Season
The 2020 MLB season has been full of surprises, from unexpected contenders vying for a spot in this year's expanded playoff format to individual standouts who have exceeded expectations.
The focus here will be on the individual side of things.
Based on production relative to expectations, we have selected the 25 biggest surprises of the 2020 MLB season.
What does "production relative to expectations" mean?
It means you won't see top prospects like Luis Robert, Sixto Sanchez, Alec Bohm, Ke'Bryan Hayes or even James Karinchak who are living up to the hype on this list. Those guys were expected to do what they're doing, and we'd be talking about them as disappointments if they weren't producing at a high level.
It also means you won't see the guys who were popular picks to break out heading into the year. Guys like Dinelson Lamet, Max Fried, Alex Verdugo, Jesse Winker, Eloy Jimenez and Dansby Swanson all gave prior indication that bigger things might be forthcoming in 2020, so it's hard to call them surprising.
Instead, the focus is simply on the 25 players who we are most surprised to see performing at their current level.
Let's kick things off with some honorable mentions.
Other Notable Surprises
- RP Jose Cisnero, DET
- RP Jake Diekman, OAK
- RP Rafael Dolis, TOR
- RP Matt Foster, CWS
- RP Victor Gonzalez, LAD
- RP Jonathan Hernandez, TEX
- SP Cristian Javier, HOU
- SP Tyler Mahle, CIN
- SP Triston McKenzie, CLE
- RP Rafael Montero, TEX
- SP David Peterson, NYM
- SP Framber Valdez, HOU
- RP Phillips Valdez, BOS
- SP Taijuan Walker, SEA/TOR
- UT Mike Brosseau, TB
- SS Willi Castro, DET
- SS Andres Gimenez, NYM
- OF Robbie Grossman, OAK
- IF Luis Guillorme, NYM
- 1B Jedd Gyorko, MIL
- C Ryan Jeffers, MIN
- C Andrew Knapp, PHI
- DH Matt Kemp, COL
- IF Brad Miller, STL
- OF Darin Ruf, SF
- C Pedro Severino, BAL
25. RP Tyler Matzek, Atlanta Braves
Tyler Matzek was the No. 11 overall pick in the 2009 draft and a top-50 prospect on the Baseball America Top 100 list in 2010 and 2011.
He went 6-11 with a 4.05 ERA and 3.78 FIP in 117.2 innings as a rookie, and it looked like the Colorado Rockies had a homegrown rotation piece on their hands.
Instead, his command evaporated the following season when he had more walks (19) than strikeouts (15) over his first five starts before being demoted to the minors. Injury issues popped up from there, and he has spent the past several years bouncing around trying to make a comeback.
Pitching for the indy ball Texas AirHogs last season, he posted a 2.64 ERA and 15.6 K/9 in 22 appearances, and the Atlanta Braves purchased his contract last August.
The 29-year-old made his first MLB appearance in more than five years in the third game of the 2020 season, and he has a 3.47 ERA in 17 appearances with 2.7 BB/9 and 12.7 K/9 in 23.1 innings.
24. 1B Jared Walsh, Los Angeles Angels
Jared Walsh entered the 2020 season as an intriguing prospect thanks to his two-way potential, but it was unclear how exactly he fit into the plans for the Los Angeles Angels in 2020, if at all.
The 27-year-old hit .325/.423/.686 with 30 doubles and 36 home runs at Triple-A last year while also making 13 appearances out of the bullpen and posting a 4.15 ERA.
After playing sporadically to start the year, he took over as the starting first baseman at the beginning of September, and he's hitting an absurd .417/.426/.979 with seven home runs and 18 RBI in 54 plate appearances this month.
It's a small sample size, but his power is legit and he has given himself a solid head start toward winning the first base job in 2021.
23. SP Dane Dunning, Chicago White Sox
The Chicago White Sox acquired Lucas Giolito and Reynaldo Lopez in the trade that sent Adam Eaton to the Washington Nationals during the 2016 winter meetings.
They also picked up right-hander Dane Dunning in that deal, and he was once a top prospect in his own right, checking at No. 82 on the Baseball America Top 100 prior to the 2018 season.
He posted a 2.94 ERA with 168 strikeouts in 144 innings in his first season in the White Sox system, and he was on his way to another impressive year in the upper levels of the minors in 2018 when he was lost for the year to Tommy John surgery.
After missing all of 2019 recovering, there was no guarantee he would see any action this year, but an injury to Carlos Rodon and the ineffectiveness of Lopez opened up a spot in the rotation. He seized the opportunity.
In five starts, he's 2-0 with a 2.33 ERA, 0.93 WHIP and 28 strikeouts in 27 innings, and a strong 3.20 FIP suggests he's the real deal.
He could be the No. 4 starter in the playoffs behind Giolito, Dallas Keuchel and Dylan Cease.
22. IF/OF Dylan Moore, Seattle Mariners
Dylan Moore had a forgettable debut with the Seattle Mariners last season, hitting .206 with an 87 OPS+ in 282 plate appearances as a rookie.
A seventh-round pick by the Texas Rangers in 2015, he spent time in the Atlanta Braves and Milwaukee Brewers systems before joining the M's as a minor league free agent following the 2018 season.
Viewed as little more than a versatile bench player at the start of the season, he's been one of Seattle's best hitters, posting a .266/.359/.500 line for a 138 OPS+ in 142 plate appearances while tallying eight doubles, seven home runs and 11 steals.
"Dylan has had an awesome year, doing what he can defensively all over the field," Mariners manager Scott Servais told reporters. "And offensively, it continues. We'll continue to play him every day. Where does he settle in? What position is best for him? I'm not quite sure, but he can do so much, he's a great asset to have on the ballclub."
The 28-year-old has been worth 1.5 WAR, and he's the kind of glue player who makes any team better.
21. RP Mike Mayers, Los Angeles Angels
If there's a player on this list who remains unknown outside the bubble of his own city's fanbase, it's Los Angeles Angels reliever Mike Mayers.
The 28-year-old spent the first four seasons of his MLB career with the St. Louis Cardinals, posting a 7.03 ERA, 1.70 WHIP and minus-1.5 WAR in 73 appearances.
He entered 2020 out of minor league options and was designated for assignment in November, at which point he was scooped up by the bullpen-needy Angels.
The 6'2" right-hander has been nothing short of a revelation for the Halos, posting a 1.96 ERA and 0.87 WHIP with 33 strikeouts in 23 innings.
He added a cutter to his repertoire during the offseason to complement his mid-90s fastball and hard slider, and it has quietly made him one of the best setup relievers in baseball.
20. SP Alec Mills, Chicago Cubs
Alec Mills made the preliminary list for this article before he threw his no-hitter last Sunday, so don't chalk this one up to recency bias.
If not for Jose Quintana cutting his hand on a wine glass, Mills would have been pitching out of the Chicago Cubs bullpen to start the 2020 season.
Instead, he opened the year with back-to-back quality starts and quickly solidified his place on the starting staff. There have been some ups and downs, but if the playoffs started today, there's a good chance he would be the No. 3 starter behind Yu Darvish and Kyle Hendricks.
He has five quality starts in nine outings and a 3.93 ERA and 1.06 WHIP in 52.2 innings on the year. Not bad for a guy who was acquired from the Kansas City Royals for fringe prospect Donnie Dewees.
With club control through 2025, he has a chance to be an important part of the North Siders' future.
19. 2B Donovan Solano, San Francisco Giants
An under-the-radar minor league free-agent signing prior to the 2019 season, Donovan Solano was one of the few bright spots for the San Francisco Giants in a disappointing year.
He hit .330/.360/.456 with 18 extra-base hits in 228 plate appearances in a utility role, though a .409 BABIP raised some obvious red flags about the sustainability of that performance.
The 32-year-old has been even better in 2020, hitting .342/.382/.506 for a 143 OPS+ while stepping into the starting second base role. Those numbers are once again propped up by a .402 BABIP, but it's hard to argue with his production.
His .342 average puts him third in the NL batting title race, behind Freddie Freeman (.352) and Trea Turner (.344), and just ahead of Michael Conforto (.341).
18. RP Trevor Rosenthal, Kansas City Royals/San Diego Padres
An All-Star closer for the St. Louis Cardinals at his peak, Trevor Rosenthal had 45 saves in 2014 and 48 saves in 2015 thanks to one of the most overpowering fastballs in baseball.
However, he missed the entire 2018 season recovering from Tommy John surgery and was absolutely shelled in his return to the mound last year with a 13.50 ERA and more walks (26) than strikeouts (17) in 22 appearances.
The Kansas City Royals took a chance on him with a minor league deal, and he wound up being one of the most sought-after trade chips of the 2020 deadline.
He converted all 10 of his save chances with a 2.41 ERA, 1.02 WHIP and 29 strikeouts in 18.2 innings with the Royals, and he has three saves over five scoreless innings since joining the San Diego Padres.
Still just 30 years old, he has put himself in position for a multiyear deal and a significant raise in free agency.
17. LF Adam Duvall, Atlanta Braves
After back-to-back 30-homer seasons with the Cincinnati Reds in 2016 and 2017, outfielder Adam Duvall hit just .195 with a 70 OPS+ in 2018 and was eventually traded to the Atlanta Braves.
The former All-Star spent most of the 2019 season at Triple-A, but he made a late-season impact with a 116 OPS+ and 10 home runs in 130 plate appearances after he was called up at the end of July.
Despite that strong finish, he was still viewed as a bench player heading into 2020.
The 32-year-old has instead slugged his way into an everyday role, and he's currently tied for the NL lead with 15 home runs thanks to a pair of three-homer games.
He has the track record, but few would have guessed this level of opportunity and production would be there in 2020.
16. RF Wil Myers, San Diego Padres
With three years and $67.5 million left on his contract and fresh off a minus-0.4 WAR season in 2019, Wil Myers was a staple on any list of the most overpaid players in baseball heading into 2020.
Over the past two seasons, he posted a 102 OPS+ and averaged 14 home runs and 46 RBI in 416 plate appearance, and a busy offseason left his status for an everyday role in question.
Now he's an instrumental part of a postseason-bound San Diego Padres team.
The 29-year-old is hitting .298/.358/.626 with 13 doubles, 13 home runs and 35 RBI, slotted behind Fernando Tatis Jr., Eric Hosmer and Manny Machado in a loaded San Diego lineup.
That's a 41-homer, 111-RBI pace over a full 162-game season to put those numbers into perspective.
Who would have guessed?
15. SP Kenta Maeda, Minnesota Twins
Kenta Maeda enjoyed a solid four-year run with the Los Angeles Dodgers, pitching in a variety of roles and posting a 3.87 ERA, 1.15 WHIP and 9.8 K/9 in 589 innings.
The offseason trade that sent him to the Minnesota Twins in exchange for hard-throwing Brusdar Graterol has benefited both sides, so it's not a lopsided deal by any means.
That said, if it wasn't for the otherworldly season that Shane Bieber is putting together with the Cleveland Indians, Maeda would be the AL Cy Young front-runner, and no one saw that coming.
Most expected Maeda to be a good complementary piece to Jose Berrios and Jake Odorizzi in the Minnesota rotation, but he has instead been the unquestioned ace of the staff.
14. C Austin Nola, Seattle Mariners/San DIego Padres
Who would have guessed at the start of the season that Austin Nola would prove valuable enough to bring back top-100 prospect Taylor Trammell in a midseason trade?
Signed prior to last season as a minor league free agent, he hit .269/.342/.454 with 12 doubles, 10 home run and 31 RBI in 267 plate appearances as a 29-year-old rookie while playing all over the field.
With Omar Narvaez traded to Milwaukee and Tom Murphy sidelined with a broken bone in his foot, he was thrust into the starting catcher role for the Seattle Mariners to begin the season.
By the time the deadline rolled around, he was hitting .306/.373/.531 with five home runs and 19 RBI in 100 plate appearances, and he was sent to the San Diego Padres in a seven-player trade.
Despite his age, his remaining team control through the 2025 season makes him a long-term piece for a Padres team on the rise.
13. RF Anthony Santander, Baltimore Orioles
A Rule 5 pick who stuck with the Baltimore Orioles in 2016, Anthony Santander slugged 20 home runs in 405 plate appearances for the Baltimore Orioles last season, with 16 of those long balls coming after the All-Star break.
However, that impressive power production was accompanied by a .297 on-base percentage and a 4.7 percent walk rate that raised questions of whether his aggressive approach and lack of contact ability would be easily exploited.
A modest uptick in his walk rate (+1.4 percent) and a sizable dip in his strikeout rate (-6.0 percent) has given him a more well-rounded offensive profile this season, and he has been a surprisingly competitive Orioles team's best offensive player as a result.
12. 1B Jeimer Candelario, Detroit Tigers
Jeimer Candelario was a popular breakout pick heading into 2019 after posting a 91 OPS+ with 19 home runs and 54 RBI in his first full season in the majors the previous year.
He ultimately fell flat, hitting just .203 with 27 extra-base hits in 386 plate appearances in a forgettable 0.5-WAR season, and his status as a long-term piece of the rebuilding puzzle in Detroit was up in the air when the 2020 season began.
Still just 26, he has seemingly brought a sense of urgency to the shortened season, hitting .325/.381/.554 for a 149 OPS+ with 21 extra-base hits in 181 trips to the plate.
He moved across the diamond from third base to first base when C.J. Cron went down with a season-ending injury, and the move down the defensive spectrum may have helped him focus more on his offensive game.
Regardless, he now looks like a cornerstone piece of the rebuild.
11. SP Zach Davies, San Diego Padres
A solid middle-of-the-rotation innings eater during his time with the Milwaukee Brewers, Zach Davies entered the 2020 season with a 3.91 ERA and 110 ERA+ in 614.1 career innings.
He was 10-7 with a 3.55 ERA, 1.29 WHIP and 102 strikeouts in 159.2 innings last season before he was shipped to San Diego along with Trent Grisham in exchange for Luis Urias, Eric Lauer and a player to be named.
The 27-year-old did not offer much upside on paper with middling stuff and so-so peripherals, but he has pitched like a frontline starter in his Padres debut.
He ranks among the NL leaders in ERA (2.69, eighth), WHIP (1.01, eighth) and opponents' batting average (.206, 10th), and he has raised his strikeout rate from 5.7 to 8.2 K/9.
With Davies under control for one more year and Grisham developing into a solid everyday outfielder, it looks like the Padres won that swap.
10. SP Dylan Bundy, Los Angeles Angels
Here's what I wrote about the Los Angeles Angels at the start of the season:
"If they had managed to reel in Gerrit Cole to front the staff, we might be talking about the Angels as serious wild-card contenders. Instead, they settled on Julio Teheran and Dylan Bundy as the big additions to the starting staff."
Here's a side-by-side comparison of what Cole and Bundy have done in 2020:
- Cole: 11 GS, 6-3, 3.00 ERA (145 ERA+), 0.99 WHIP, 87 K, 66.0 IP
- Bundy: 10 GS, 5-3, 3.12 ERA (146 ERA+), 1.01 WHIP, 69 K, 60.2 IP
Not a bad consolation prize.
After posting a 4.69 ERA and 95 ERA+ in his four full seasons with the Baltimore Orioles, Bundy was a prime candidate for a change of scenery after failing to live up to being the No. 4 overall pick in the 2011 MLB draft who made his MLB debut at the age of 19.
The Angels have disappointed once again, but at least they've found their staff ace for 2021.
9. RP Daniel Bard, Colorado Rockies
Daniel Bard pitching his way onto the Colorado Rockies roster to make his first MLB appearance since 2013 was already one of the feel-good stories of the 2020 season.
Once a dominant late-inning force for the Boston Red Sox, his command seemingly disappeared overnight. In his most recent action prior to this year in 2017, he walked 24 batters in 9.1 innings in the New York Mets minor league system.
When he pitched 1.1 scoreless innings on July 25 to earn the victory in his first appearances of 2020, it was the culmination of a long journey back to the big leagues. That alone would have made him a candidate for a spot on this list.
He didn't stop there, impressing early and eventually pitching his way into the closer's role, where he has converted all six of his save chances. With a 3.60 ERA and a 25-to-6 strikeout-to-walk ratio in 20 innings, he has been a legitimate weapon in a shaky Colorado bullpen.
8. RF Teoscar Hernandez, Toronto Blue Jays
Teoscar Hernandez was one of my dark-horse picks for a breakout season in 2020 back in July.
Let's ignore the fact that the other three players on that list are Adrian Houser (9 GS, 5.40 ERA), Isan Diaz (22 PA, .182 BA) and Josh James (11 G, 8.22 ERA) and focus on the pick that I nailed.
Why the optimism surrounding Hernandez?
He hit .259/.346/.592 with 18 home runs in 62 games after the All-Star break last year, including a .909 OPS and five long balls in September. Looking below the surface, his 52.9 percent hard-hit rate in the second half trailed only Aaron Judge (56.2 percent) and Miguel Sano (53.3 percent) among qualified hitters.
That strong finish to 2019 has indeed been a precursor to a breakout 2020.
The 27-year-old is hitting .298/.348/.616 with 14 home runs in 164 plate appearances, and his numbers might look even better if not for the time he missed to an oblique strain.
7. CF Ian Happ, Chicago Cubs
On a Chicago Cubs roster that includes the likes of Javier Baez, Kris Bryant, Anthony Rizzo, Willson Contreras and Kyle Schwarber, it was easy to overlook Ian Happ.
The 26-year-old started the 2019 season in the minors working to improve his contact rate, and he ended up spending the entire first half at Triple-A. He finally rejoined the MLB roster at the end of July and went on to post a 128 OPS+ with 11 home runs and 30 RBI in 58 games.
That proved to be the jumping-off point for an unexpected breakout.
In 201 plate appearances, he's hitting .275/.380/.561 for a 150 OPS+ with 11 doubles, 12 home runs and 28 RB in a 1.2-WAR season.
While several of the team's established stars have struggled this season, Happ has shouldered the load and been one of the most productive hitters in the National League.
6. CF Kyle Lewis, Seattle Mariners
Kyle Lewis made a splash as a September call-up last year, hitting six home runs in 18 games.
However, he also struck out 29 times in 75 plate appearances and a season of middling production at the Double-A level.
As a result, he was not included on the Baseball America Top 100 prospect list at the start of the year, checking in as the No. 10 prospect in a deep Seattle Mariners farm system.
The 25-year-old was the hottest hitter in baseball to start the year, and he has continued to impress despite cooling off a bit with a .291/.385/.480 line and 10 home runs in 205 plate appearances.
His strikeout rate is down to a manageable 27.3 percent, and he has shown an advanced approach with a 13.7 percent walk rate. Throw in his solid defense in center field (2 DRS), and he looks like a cornerstone piece for the rebuilding Mariners.
5. SP Corbin Burnes, Milwaukee Brewers
Corbin Burnes made a significant impact out of the Milwaukee Brewers bullpen in 2018, and he was expected to be a key member of the starting rotation last year in what wound up being a lost season.
"Burnes was demoted to the minors three times, was sent to the team's Phoenix pitching lab searching for answers and spent the winter working with a mental skills coach," wrote Adam McCalvy of MLB.com.
The end result was an unsightly 8.82 ERA in four starts and 28 relief appearances, though his 70 strikeouts in 49 innings reinforced the quality of his stuff.
Now the breakout performance that many were anticipating has come in a big way, just a year later than expected.
The 25-year-old is 3-0 with a 1.98 ERA, 0.98 WHIP and 74 strikeouts in 50 innings, and he leads the NL in FIP (1.94) and strikeouts per nine innings (13.3).
He's a legitimate NL Cy Young candidate in a wide-open race.
4. CF Mike Yastrzemski, San Francisco Giants
Mike Yastrzemski was one of the biggest surprises of the 2019 season when he posted a 123 OPS+ with 22 doubles and 21 home runs as a 28-year-old rookie for the San Francisco Giants.
It was fair to wonder whether he could maintain that level of production.
Instead, he has far exceeded it, hitting .285/.390/.553 for a 157 OPS+ that ranks ninth among qualified NL hitters. He has 26 extra-base hits, his walk rate is up from 7.8 to 13.3 percent, and he has played a stellar center field.
All of that has made him one of the most valuable position players of 2020:
- Mookie Betts: 3.1 WAR
- DJ LeMahieu: 2.7 WAR
- Jose Abreu: 2.7 WAR
- Manny Machado: 2.5 WAR
- Freddie Freeman: 2.5 WAR
- Trevor Story: 2.4 WAR
- Fernando Tatis Jr.: 2.3 WAR
- Michael Conforto: 2.3 WAR
- Mike Yastrzemski: 2.2 WAR
- Dansby Swanson: 2.1 WAS
Expect to see his name included on more than a few MLB ballots.
3. 1B Luke Voit, New York Yankees
Luke Voit hit .228 with four home runs and a 32.3 percent strikeout rate after the All-Star break last season, and a strong finish from Mike Ford raised some legitimate questions about his role with the New York Yankees in 2020.
Suffice to say those questions have been answered.
The 29-year-old became the first player to reach 20 home runs in the shortened 2020 season when he launched his fourth home run in his last three games Thursday night.
He's hitting .283/.342/.659 with 46 RBI, and he has trimmed his strikeout rate (-4.6 percent) while making more hard contact (+8.0 percent) and hitting the ball in the air more (+7.6 percent).
All of that has been a recipe for success, and he has been instrumental in shouldering the offensive load for a Yankees team plagued by injuries once again.
2. IF Jake Cronenworth, San Diego Padres
Jake Cronenworth was one of the best two-way players in the nation during his time at the University of Michigan. He hit .312/.400/.436 as a three-year starter on the infield and tallied 27 saves with a 2.76 ERA in 52 appearances as the team's closer.
The Tampa Bay Rays selected him in the seventh round of the 2015 draft and gave him some two-way exposure, but he was used primarily as a shortstop, hitting .334/.429/.520 with 40 extra-base hits in 94 games at Triple-A last year.
He joined the San Diego Padres during the offseason in the Tommy Pham-for-Hunter Renfroe swap and ended up being the most impactful part of that deal.
The 26-year-old is hitting .310/.369/.531 with 21 extra-base hits and 20 RBI in 160 plate appearances, and he has settled in as the team's starting second baseman.
He looks like the odds-on favorite for NL Rookie of the Year honors, and that's something no one would have predicted at the start of the year.
1. RP Devin Williams, Milwaukee Brewers
Devin Williams spent six seasons in the minors before finally making his MLB debut last August, following a midseason appearance in the Futures Game.
A second-round pick in 2013, he posted a 5.82 ERA at High-A in 2018 in his final season as a starter before making the move to the bullpen last year. He had a 3.95 ERA and 9.2 K/9 in 13 appearances in the majors last year, and he has since developed into one of the game's most dominant relievers.
The 25-year-old has struck out 43 of the 81 batters he's faced this year while posting a 0.43 ERA and 0.67 WHIP with seven holds and a staggering 18.4 K/9 in 19 appearances.
His dominance stems from one of the best changeups in baseball, a pitch he has thrown 191 times on the year and allowed just one hit while racking up 33 strikeouts.
With team control through the 2025 season, he is an extremely valuable long-term piece in Milwaukee.