Ranking MLB's 10 Best Left Fielders Ahead of 2021 Spring Training
As the 2021 Major League Baseball season creeps ever closer, so do we to the end of our rankings of the top players at every position.
With Washington Nationals wunderkind Juan Soto now in right field, left field is missing one of its brightest stars from recent seasons. But not to worry. The position is still teeming with established names and young go-getters.
In ranking the best of the best, we did our usual thing in considering players' recent track records. But even more so than with any of the infield positions, it also behooved us to weigh their upside and downside for the looming campaign.
We'll begin with some honorable mentions and then dive right into the top 10.
5 to Watch
Andrew Benintendi, Kansas City Royals
Franchy Cordero, Boston Red Sox
Jarred Kelenic, Seattle Mariners
Our No. 10 prospect is one of the most purely talented players in the minors. And while he's justifiably unhappy with how the Mariners are handling his service time, he should slot into left field in no time.
Alex Kirilloff, Minnesota Twins
Our No. 24 prospect, meanwhile, is already penciled in for a job as Minnesota's everyday left fielder. Mainly courtesy of his excellent hit tool, he could mount a run at the American League Rookie of the Year.
Tyler O'Neill, St. Louis Cardinals
First 5 Out
Alex Dickerson, San Francisco Giants
Though he put up an impressive .298/.371/.576 slash line last season, it helped that his 52 games played yielded only 12 plate appearances against left-handers.
Andrew McCutchen, Philadelphia Phillies
The 2013 National League MVP can still hit, but whether he has any upside beyond the good-not-great 115 OPS+ that he has since 2018 is a fair question.
Joc Pederson and Kyle Schwarber, Chicago Cubs and Washington Nationals
We're cheating with a two-for-one special here because Pederson and Schwarber fit the same profile going into 2021: formerly feared sluggers who are looking to bounce back from brutal 2020 seasons.
Tommy Pham, San Diego Padres
He was a 20-20 guy as recently as 2019, so omitting him from the top 10 was a tough call. But in our defense, he hasn't been durable in the best of times and he's going to be 33 on March 8.
AJ Pollock, Los Angeles Dodgers
10. Clint Frazier, New York Yankees
Key 2020 Stats: 39 G, 160 PA, 8 HR, 3 SB, .267 AVG, .394 OBP, .511 SLG, 149 OPS+
2020 WAR: 1.7
Clint Frazier got in some games for the New York Yankees between 2017 and 2019, but his playing time was inconsistent and he ultimately didn't hit enough to tone down questions about his defense.
Then everything changed for him in 2020.
Offensively, he decreased his rate of swings outside the strike zone and ended up with one of the league's highest walk rates. He also set new highs for average exit velocity (89.4 mph) and hard-hit rate (43.2 percent) and further tuned his swing for Yankee Stadium by launching five opposite-field home runs.
Albeit primarily as a right fielder, Frazier also finished last season in the black for outs above average, defensive runs saved and ultimate zone rating. So even if the small sample size over which all this occurred can't be ignored, neither can his realistic upside as an All-Star-caliber regular for 2021.
9. Jesse Winker, Cincinnati Reds
Key 2020 Stats: 54 G, 183 PA, 12 HR, 1 SB, .255 AVG, .388 OBP, .544 SLG, 142 OPS+
2020 WAR: 1.3
Meet the new Jesse Winker, who's not the same as the old Jesse Winker.
The 2017-2019 version of the Cincinnati Reds left fielder was good overall with a 120 OPS+, but he mostly did that damage against righties (.907 OPS) while doing virtually none against lefties (.543 OPS).
That changed in a major way in 2020 as he narrowed the gap between his OPS against righties and lefties to just 54 points. He likewise made a major improvement against breaking balls, and overall he sent his average exit velocity (92.1 mph) and hard-hit rate (49.0 percent) to lofty new heights.
Per his .383 xwOBA—a metric based on strikeouts, walks and contact quality—Winker tied for 13th out of all hitters who took at least 150 plate appearances last year. Provided he can pick up where he left off, this year could see him net his first All-Star selection.
8. Dominic Smith, New York Mets
Key 2020 Stats: 50 G, 199 PA, 10 HR, 0 SB, .316 AVG, .377 OBP, .616 SLG, 169 OPS+
2020 WAR: 1.9
Because of injuries and sporadic opportunities, Dominic Smith mustered just a 79 OPS+ over 105 games for the New York Mets in 2017 and 2018.
As he's swung at more than half the pitches he's seen, Smith is more aggressive than the garden-variety standout hitter. But he does most of his hunting in the heart of the zone, which helps explain how he notched career highs for exit velocity, hard-hit rate and barrel rate in 2020.
At least until the designated hitter becomes universal, Smith will be miscast as a left fielder so Pete Alonso can play first base. Otherwise, the only thing he must prove at this point is that he can stay healthy over a full 162-game season.
7. Randy Arozarena, Tampa Bay Rays
Key 2020 Stats: 23 G, 76 PA, 7 HR, 4 SB, .281 AVG, .382 OBP, .641 SLG, 179 OPS+
2020 WAR: 0.9
It's full steam ahead for the Randy Arozarena hype train.
His upside first came into focus while he was in the St. Louis Cardinals organization in 2019. He racked up a .344/.431/.571 line in 92 games at Double-A and Triple-A and then went 6-for-20 in 19 games with the big club.
Now Arozarena's superstar potential is clear to even the average baseball fan after what he did with the Tampa Bay Rays in 2020. Between the regular season and his record-setting postseason, he played in 43 games and hit .333/.406/.745 with 17 home runs.
Altogether, Arozarena had the same exit velocity as Eloy Jimenez and a better hard-hit rate than Juan Soto, not to mention sprint speed in the 93rd percentile. So despite his swing-and-miss tendency, one path before him for 2021 could take him to the AL Rookie of the Year and maybe even the AL MVP.
6. Mark Canha, Oakland Athletics
Key 2020 Stats: 59 G, 243 PA, 5 HR, 4 SB, .246 AVG, .387 OBP, .408 SLG, 126 OPS+
2020 WAR: 1.6
Even by Oakland Athletics standards, Mark Canha hasn't had much of a national profile as he's played second fiddle to stars like Matt Chapman and Matt Olson in recent years.
Canha has nonetheless been productive, and especially over the last two seasons as he's racked up a 140 OPS+. That isn't a platoon mirage, as his OPS against righties (.887) is 40 points higher than his OPS against lefties (.847).
Canha's chase rate is on a downward trajectory, and it shows in the narrowing gap between his walk and strikeout percentages. And while he didn't hit for much power last year, his exit velocity and launch angle were fine.
Whether Canha is particularly good at any position is a good question, but it's to his credit that left field isn't the only position at which he can hold his own. If he keeps doing his thing in 2021, maybe he'll get an overdue All-Star nod.
5. Eloy Jimenez, Chicago White Sox
Key 2020 Stats: 55 G, 226 PA, 14 HR, 0 SB, .296 AVG, .332 OBP, .559 SLG, 140 OPS+
2020 WAR: 1.4
On the heels of the foot injury that he suffered late in 2020, it seemed like the Chicago White Sox might proceed with Eloy Jimenez as their everyday DH. But that's not the case.
Regardless, Jimenez has been one of baseball's best hitters since things clicked for him in August 2019 and he began an 82-game run in which he's slashed .319/.355/.604 with 23 home runs.
As evidenced by the 98th-percentile hard-hit rate that he had in 2020, the 6'4", 235-pound Jimenez can definitely make noise when he connects. What he should do now is work on making more frequent contact, drawing more walks and upping his launch angle so he doesn't hit so many ground balls.
Of course, one scary thing is that even this imperfect iteration of Jimenez is one of MLB's most feared sluggers. The even scarier thing is how great he might be if those flaws suddenly vanish in 2021.
4. Lourdes Gurriel Jr., Toronto Blue Jays
Key 2020 Stats: 57 G, 224 PA, 11 HR, 3 SB, .308 AVG, .348 OBP, .534 SLG, 138 OPS+
2020 WAR: 1.2
Nothing has been the same for Lourdes Gurriel Jr. since the Toronto Blue Jays started him in left field for the first time on May 24, 2019:
At the plate, Gurriel's general approach borders on being too aggressive. But that's fine and dandy as long as he keeps crushing breaking and offspeed pitches. He also does well to focus his swings on the inner half of the strike zone, which helps amplify his left-of-center power.
Even if he was a finalist for a Gold Glove in 2020, Gurriel still needs to convince outs above average and defensive runs saved that he's actually a good defender in left field. But as long as he keeps the offense coming, he'll continue to stand out as one of the top stars at the position in 2021.
3. Michael Brantley, Houston Astros
Key 2020 Stats: 46 G, 187 PA, 5 HR, 2 SB, .300 AVG, .364 OBP, .476 SLG, 126 OPS+
2020 WAR: 1.7
Since 2014, only two players have taken at least 3,000 plate appearances and accumulated a batting average over .310: Jose Altuve and Michael Brantley.
Brantley has dabbled in a little more power since joining (and re-joining) the Houston Astros, for whom he's slugged a sturdy .497 in two seasons. His core approach, however, has pretty much remained unchanged.
That is, he emphasizes making contact and finding the holes in the defense. Such things notably make him a rare shift-proof hitter. Out of all batters who've hit into at least 500 shifts since 2018, only reigning NL MVP Freddie Freeman has bested Brantley's .350 average in such situations.
If there's a catch here, it's that Brantley is seemingly past his defensive prime. But since he's a veritable picture of offensive reliability, he can be marked down for a .300 average and what would be his fifth All-Star nod in 2021.
2. Marcell Ozuna, Atlanta
Key 2020 Stats: 60 G, 267 PA, 18 HR, 0 SB, .338 AVG, .431 OBP, .636 SLG, 175 OPS+
2020 WAR: 2.6
Marcell Ozuna was just OK (i.e., a 107 OPS+) with the St. Louis Cardinals in 2018 and 2019. But because he was perhaps the unluckiest hitter in MLB during that span, Atlanta had the right idea to bring him in on a one-year deal for 2020.
And now for an understatement: it paid off.
Beyond leading the National League in home runs and ranking fourth overall in OPS+, Ozuna had stellar peripherals that included average exit velocity and a hard-hit rate in the 96th and 97th percentiles, respectively. More specifically, only teammate Freddie Freeman was better at crushing fastballs.
Especially given that he had subpar metrics in 2018 and 2019, the big question is whether Ozuna can hack it as an everyday left fielder after starting at DH 39 times in 2020. But as long as he keeps crushing the ball, whatever issues he might have in the field will be of little consequence to Atlanta.
1. Christian Yelich, Milwaukee Brewers
Key 2020 Stats: 58 G, 247 PA, 12 HR, 4 SB, .205 AVG, .356 OBP, .430 SLG, 111 OPS+
2020 WAR: 0.5
Regarding 2020, only so much of Yelich's downturn can be chalked up to bad luck. He struck out in a career-worst 30.8 percent of his plate appearances, in part because his in-zone whiff rate rose for the second straight year.
On the plus side, Yelich remained decidedly dangerous when he did make contact. His average exit velocity (94.0 mph) and hard-hit rate (55.6 percent) were new personal bests and in the 98th and 99th percentiles among all qualified hitters.
Yelich is only going to be a superstar again in 2021 if he gets his strikeouts back down. While that may not be a sure thing, the return of in-game video—the lack of which was seemingly a factor for him and others in 2020—can only help.