Ranking MLB's 10 Most Overhyped Players Entering 2021 Spring Training
Spring training is here, and there's perhaps no better way to mark the occasion than by throwing cold water on some of Major League Baseball's brightest stars.
OK, fine. There are many better ways to mark said occasion. But we're going to do it anyway, because we just can't help but think that 10 stars in particular are more hyped than they deserve.
Because there's no good way to quantify "hype," this is admittedly a judgment call. But in our defense, we didn't target any low-hanging fruit. To some degree or another, each of the guys who ended up on our dissection board is someone that the average baseball fan will recognize as a star.
It should also be noted that the idea here isn't to say "This guy sucks, actually," and then move on. These 10 guys indeed have been and can still be quite good, but only if they erase the red flags hanging over them at the outset of 2021.
On this note, we'll count down from the guy who has the least to prove to the guy who has the most.
10. CF Cody Bellinger, Los Angeles Dodgers
Key 2020 Stats: 56 G, 243 PA, 12 HR, 6 SB, .239 AVG, .333 OBP, .455 SLG, 113 OPS+
2020 WAR: 1.7
Because his accolades through four seasons with the Los Angeles Dodgers include a Rookie of the Year, an MVP, a Gold Glove, two All-Star nods and a World Series ring, Cody Bellinger needs no introduction.
What he does need, though, is a little consistency.
Just as he did in 2018 following his ROY-winning effort in 2017, Bellinger took a step back in 2020 after winning the National League MVP in 2019. And it was perhaps foreseeable, as even his triumphant '19 campaign saw his OPS get lower on a monthly basis.
There's an unsurprising correlation between Bellinger's lesser production and his chase rate against breaking and offspeed pitches. He's also struggled against left-handers in the bad times, posting sub-.700 OPSes against left-handers in both 2018 and 2020.
On top of all this, Bellinger is coming off surgery to repair the separated shoulder that he suffered in last year's playoffs. His checklist for 2021 therefore includes both health- and performance-related matters.
9. RF Aaron Judge, New York Yankees
Key 2020 Stats: 28 G, 114 PA, 9 HR, 0 SB, .257 AVG, .336 OBP, .544 SLG, 142 OPS+
2020 WAR: 1.1
Since 2017, the only outfielders with more rWAR than Aaron Judge are named Mookie Betts and Mike Trout. That speaks to the New York Yankees star's thundering power and underrated athleticism.
But given how his last three seasons have gone, it's fair to wonder just how often those skills will actually be seen this season.
Judge played through a shoulder ailment down the stretch of 2017, causing a slump that cost him the American League MVP award. He's also missed 142 games over the last three seasons courtesy of wrist, oblique and calf injuries. Though neither cost him any games, he also had rib and neck injuries last year.
Even if his talent is about as humongous as his body, Judge's next season as a durable and reliable star will also be his first such season.
8. SS Carlos Correa, Houston Astros
Key 2020 Stats: 58 G, 221 PA, 5 HR, 0 SB, .264 AVG, .326 OBP, .383 SLG, 92 OPS+
2020 WAR: 1.8
Carlos Correa boasts a 126 OPS+ and 26.3 rWAR since his debut for the Houston Astros in 2015, the latter of which ranks behind only Francisco Lindor among shortstops.
Correa's last three seasons, however, haven't been as productive.
Though Correa was able to stay on the field in 2020, he endured easily the worst offensive season of his career. For reasons that seem obvious, he just hasn't been able to lay off breaking and offspeed pitches outside the strike zone as well as he did back in 2017.
To his credit, Correa busted out in a huge way last October. Yet this season is nonetheless a crucial proving ground for him, as only through good health and consistent production will he build value for free agency.
7. SP Blake Snell, San Diego Padres
Key 2020 Stats: 11 G, 11 GS, 50.0 IP, 10 HR, 18 BB, 63 K, 3.24 ERA, 131 ERA+
2020 WAR: 1.1
The city of San Diego rejoiced when the Padres acquired Blake Snell from the Tampa Bay Rays in December. He is, after all, a Cy Young Award-winning pitcher.
But whereas Snell deserved that honor in 2018, the last two seasons have raised questions.
Out of all hurlers who've made at least 30 starts since 2019, Snell only ranks 54th with 2.5 rWAR. An elbow injury cost him some starts in '19, and other red flags include diminished fastball velocity and a hard-hit rate that ranked in the 51st percentile last season.
Though Snell nonetheless put up good results in 2020, it helped that the Rays spared him from having to face hitters a third time in any given game. And understandably so, as he got lit up for a .609 slugging percentage on the 23 occasions when he did.
So even if the Padres give Snell a longer leash in 2021, whether he can keep them from shortening it is another matter.
6. DH Nelson Cruz, Minnesota Twins
Key 2020 Stats: 53 G, 214 PA, 16 HR, 0 SB, .303 AVG, .397 OBP, .595 SLG, 169 OPS+
2020 WAR: 1.8
Nelson Cruz has been the top slugger in MLB as he's racked up an MLB-high 260 home runs over the last seven seasons. And after a prolonged stay on the open market, he's now back with the Minnesota Twins.
Yet Cruz is no spring chicken, and it's already starting to show.
Though his station as an everyday designated hitter spares him from substantial wear and tear, Cruz isn't indestructible. He missed 42 games with a wrist injury in 2019, and he hit only three homers in 20 games as he battled a sore hip late in 2020.
Cruz's peripheral numbers also took a dive last year. To wit, his average exit velocity and hard-hit rate both ranked in the 99th percentile in 2019. In 2020, they sunk to the 87th and 86th percentile, respectively.
Cruz will likely be a productive hitter no matter what happens in 2021, but he's only going to dabble in his usual greatness if he staves off Father Time.
5. 1B Anthony Rizzo, Chicago Cubs
Key 2020 Stats: 58 G, 243 PA, 11 HR, 3 SB, .222 AVG, .342 OBP, .414 SLG, 103 OPS+
2020 WAR: 1.0
Anthony Rizzo has done enough throughout his nine-year tenure with the Chicago Cubs to be Grandfathered into any list of MLB's top 10 first basemen. Indeed, he's second among first basemen in rWAR since 2014.
On a per-162-game basis, however, Rizzo's last three seasons haven't been nearly as productive as the four he had between 2014 and 2017:
Rizzo's defense and plate approach are aging just fine, but he's no longer a sneaky-good baserunner, and it's about time to worry about his power. He hasn't topped 30 home runs since 2017, and his average exit velocity, hard-hit rate and expected slugging percentage were all below average in 2020.
Rizzo can still be a good player despite this. But unless he has a slugging renaissance on tap for 2021, his days as one of baseball's great first basemen could be over.
4. 2B Jose Altuve, Houston Astros
Key 2020 Stats: 48 G, 210 PA, 5 HR, 2 SB, .219 AVG, .286 OBP, .344 OBP, 71 OPS+
2020 WAR: Minus-0.2
At his peak between 2014 and 2017, Jose Altuve was an annual All-Star, a three-time batting champion and an MVP. Through it all, only Mike Trout and Josh Donaldson accumulated more rWAR.
But much has changed for Altuve since then, mostly in ways that aren't good.
His body has broken down as two different knee injuries (see here and here) and a hamstring strain (here) have forced him to miss 75 games over the last three seasons. Now that he's north of 30, he probably won't be getting more durable.
Because Altuve was an absolute nightmare for opposing pitchers in last year's playoffs, it won't be surprising if he has moments of brilliance in 2021. But if he's going to be an MVP-caliber regular again, he'll need to stay healthy and revitalize his offensive magic.
3. 2B Jeff McNeil, New York Mets
Key 2020 Stats: 52 G, 209 PA, 4 HR, 0 SB, .311 AVG, .383 OBP, .454 SLG, 131 OPS+
2020 WAR: 1.5
Three seasons into his career with the New York Mets, Jeff McNeil is tied for 12th in OPS+ among all hitters who've taken at least 1,000 plate appearances since 2018.
But dare we say that McNeil's ceiling isn't much higher than his floor?
After posting strikeout and walk rates in the 98th and 57th percentile, respectively, in 2020, McNeil's eye and bat-to-ball skills are clearly there. But even though he racked up 23 homers just in 2019, how much power he actually has is a good question.
His average launch angle has been trending down since 2018, and his average exit velocity has been exactly 86.6 mph in two of his three seasons. The latter placed in the 16th percentile last year, and his hard-hit rate was even worse off in the 5th percentile.
Of course, we'll be eating crow if McNeil gets his power back to its 2019 form this season. But if not, he won't be much more than a glorified singles hitter.
2. Luke Voit, New York Yankees
Key 2020 Stats: 56 G, 234 PA, 22 HR, 0 SB, .277 AVG, .338 OBP, .610 SLG, 156 OPS+
2020 WAR: 1.7
Luke Voit has done nothing but hit since the New York Yankees acquired him in 2018. He boasts a 143 OPS+ and 57 home runs in 213 games overall, and he's coming off leading MLB with 22 blasts in 2020.
Despite that, it's telling that Voit only ranked seventh among first basemen in rWAR last year.
He's a subpar defender with base-clogging speed, and last year was arguably a step back for Voit despite his home run barrage. In part because he cut his walk rate in half, his OBP fell precipitously from the .384 mark he had in his first 157 games with New York.
The quality of Voit's contact was also oddly modest. To wit, both his average exit velocity and his hard-hit rate were in the 52nd percentile.
As such, the Yankees might not want more of the 2020 version of Voit. They're better off hoping he returns to his 2018/2019 form, or perhaps finds a happy medium between the two.
1. SP Max Fried, Atlanta
Key 2020 Stats: 11 G, 11 GS, 56.0 IP, 2 HR, 50 K, 19 BB, 2.25 ERA, 212 ERA+
2020 WAR: 2.9
Max Fried carried Atlanta's otherwise unstable starting rotation in 2020, putting forth a season that placed him fifth in the National League Cy Young Award voting.
Fried's bread and butter was his talent for stifling hard contact. It's no accident that he allowed only two home runs, as his metrics included average exit velocity and a hard-hit rate in the 98th percentile.
Yet Fried also finished with strikeout and walk rates roughly in the middle of the pack. Thus did he arguably lean too far into his pitch-to-contact style, which might have come back to bite him over a large sample size.
Indeed, that kinda-sorta happened last year. Whereas Fried opened the postseason with seven shutout innings, his next three outings saw him get tagged for 18 hits (including four homers) and eight runs.
Fried whiffed 11.8 batters per nine innings back in 2018, so he clearly can handle a more strikeout-heavy approach. He might need to get back to that in order to carry on as an ace in 2021.