10 Fallen MLB Stars Teasing 2021 Comebacks with Red-Hot Spring TrainingsMarch 18, 2021
10 Fallen MLB Stars Teasing 2021 Comebacks with Red-Hot Spring Trainings
Because the coronavirus pandemic-shortened 2020 season was unlike any other in Major League Baseball history, it's that much easier to give a pass to stars who had bad years.
Early though it may be in 2021, some of them are already angling to bounce back.
We have our eyes on 10 stars who are washing away the sour taste of 2020 with red-hot performances in spring training.
Six of them are hitters who've put up huge numbers over at least 20 plate appearances. Three are pitchers who've made the most of three outings. Then there's the hitter-pitcher who's wowing at the plate and on the mound.
Going in alphabetical order, let's discuss them one at a time.
1B Pete Alonso, New York Mets
2020 Stats: 57 G, 239 PA, 16 HR, 1 SB, .231 AVG, .326 OBP, .490 SLG
2021 Spring Training: 11 G, 33 PA, 3 HR, 0 SB, .407 AVG, .515 OBP, .889 SLG
Pete Alonso never really cooled down as he was slamming a rookie record 53 home runs for the New York Mets in 2019. But in 2020, he was cool all the way through.
Fast-forward to now, and Alonso looks a lot more like his '19 self. Seven of his 11 hits have gone for extra bases, including one home run clocked at 112.6 mph off the bat. He's also balanced his eight strikeouts with five walks.
Even before he reported to camp, Alonso was hyped about the Mets' newfound emphasis on analytics and hitting coach Chili Davis' return to the dugout. He also told Tim Britton of The Athletic that he's renewed his focus, partially by getting off social media.
The Mets didn't need the best version of Alonso to lead the majors in OPS+ last season. If the 26-year-old is indeed at his best again in 2021, their lineup is going to terrify the opposition.
1B Josh Bell, Washington Nationals
2020 Stats: 57 G, 223 PA, 8 HR, 0 SB, .226 AVG, .305 OBP, .364 SLG
2021 Spring Training: 10 G, 29 PA, 2 HR, 0 SB, .333 AVG, .414 OBP, .708 SLG
Josh Bell's 2020 slump actually began in the second half of 2019. After earning an All-Star nod by way of a 1.024 OPS and 27 home runs before the break, he slipped to a .780 OPS and 10 homers after it.
Certainly, the Washington Nationals acquired Bell from the Pittsburgh Pirates in December with the hope he would turn the clock back to the first half of 2019. It's so far, so good on that front, as the 28-year-old has racked up five extra-base hits and four walks in spring training.
Mind you, the Nats are seemingly leaning toward platooning Bell with Ryan Zimmerman at first base. But given that the switch-hitter's career OPS against right-handers is 120 points higher than it is against left-handers, that might be the best thing for him.
Regardless, Bell figures to drive in plenty of runs if he stays in form while batting behind Trea Turner and Juan Soto.
SP Matthew Boyd, Detroit Tigers
2020 Stats: 12 G, 12 GS, 60.1 IP, 67 H (15 HR), 22 BB, 60 K, 6.71 ERA
2021 Spring Training: 3 G, 3 GS, 9.0 IP, 6 H (2 HR), 4 BB, 8 K, 2.00 ERA
Matthew Boyd was a serviceable innings-eater for the Detroit Tigers in 2018, and then something more like a star in 2019 when he struck out 11.6 batters per nine innings.
What caused his fall from grace in 2020? Mainly a lack of success with his fastball. Opposing hitters simply didn't miss it, knocking it around for a .322 average and 20 extra-bases hits, the latter of which tied for second-most in the majors.
It's little wonder, then, that Boyd has been leaning more heavily on his slider and changeup as he's mowed down the opposition in spring training. Because he's kept walks mostly in check, he might feel comfortable dialing down his fastball usage below his typical 53.1 percent.
If the 30-year-old were to have success with such an approach, he would reinvigorate his trade value and become perhaps the most sought-after starting pitcher on the market.
RF Joey Gallo, Texas Rangers
2020 Stats: 57 G, 226 PA, 10 HR, 2 SB, .181 AVG, .301 OBP, .378 SLG
2021 Spring Training: 11 G, 29 PA, 5 HR, 0 SB, .348 AVG, .483 OBP, 1.130 SLG
Though Joey Gallo won his first Gold Glove Award in 2020, the Texas Rangers star otherwise had a season to forget. To wit, he had the fewest hits of any batter with at least 210 plate appearances.
Now the 27-year-old looks ready to one-up even his 2019 self, who carried a .253/.389/.598 line with 22 home runs in 70 games. Gallo only has three more strikeouts (9) than walks (6) in spring training, and he clearly hasn't had to sacrifice any of his trademark power to achieve that balance.
Though he's typically been a poster boy for baseball's launch angle craze, Gallo is actually working on not getting under the ball. In his words, the idea is to correct "bad habits" he got into last year.
If this is a sign of things to come, the rebuilding Rangers are going to have a major trade chip to cash in ahead of the deadline.
2B Ketel Marte, Arizona Diamondbacks
2020 Stats: 45 G, 195 PA, 2 HR, 1 SB, .287 AVG, .323 OBP, .409 SLG
2021 Spring Training: 9 G, 25 PA, 2 HR, 0 SB, .455 AVG, .520 OBP, .909 SLG
The Arizona Diamondbacks got an MVP-caliber season from Ketel Marte in 2019, when he went off for a .329/.389/.592 line with 32 home runs and 7.2 rWAR.
Then came a drastic and frankly baffling fall from grace. Though his power production cratered, it happened despite a career-low strikeout rate and an improved hard-hit rate. That's enough to suggest Marte's struggles in 2020 were largely the result of bad luck.
Yet the 27-year-old is leaving nothing to chance in spring training. He's been generating exit velocity like gangbusters, peaking at 114.7 mph on a homer and averaging 98.6 mph on the 14 balls he's had tracked.
Though Marte is nursing a rolled left ankle, he should be ready for Opening Day on April 1. It's all good news for the Diamondbacks, who will need everything they can get out of Marte to contend for a playoff spot.
DH/SP Shohei Ohtani, Los Angeles Angels
2020 Stats: 44 G, 175 PA, 7 HR, 7 SB, .190 AVG, .291 OBP, .366 SLG; 2 G, 2 GS, 1.2 IP, 3 H (0 HR), 8 BB, 3 K, 37.80 ERA
2021 Spring Training: 8 G, 23 PA, 4 HR, 1 SB, .600 AVG, .609 OBP, 1.200 SLG; 2 G, 2 GS, 4.0 IP, 9 H (1 HR), 3 BB, 9 K, 13.50 ERA
Shohei Ohtani's two-way dream seemed to die in 2020. His long-awaited return from Tommy John surgery was the very definition of "Not great, Bob," and it wasn't such a good year for his bat either.
Right now, though, Ohtani looks more like the player who hit and pitched his way to the American League Rookie of the Year Award in 2018. He's looked especially good at the plate, hitting some absolute blasts, including one off reigning AL Cy Young Award winner Shane Bieber.
Despite his ERA, the 26-year-old has also impressed on the mound, as he's hit 100 mph and snapped off some devastating splitters.
Ohtani's health will determine how many times he takes the mound and goes to the plate for the Los Angeles Angels. But at least he's healthy now; the sky's the limit if he can stay that way.
1B Matt Olson, Oakland Athletics
2020 Stats: 60 G, 245 PA, 14 HR, 1 SB, .195 AVG, .310 OBP, .424 SLG
2021 Spring Training: 10 G, 26 PA, 4 HR, 0 SB, .360 AVG, .385 OBP, .960 SLG
Once he started playing every day for the Oakland Athletics in 2017, it didn't take long for Matt Olson to become one of baseball's elite first basemen via his powerful bat and Gold Glove defense.
In fairness, Olson's power remained in fine form last season. But he just couldn't buy many hits as he struggled with a career-worst 31.4 strikeout percentage, which he chalked up to mechanical flaws.
Because he's struck out eight times and walked only once this spring, the 26-year-old might not be out of the woods just yet. But it's perhaps not a coincidence that he's kept the hits coming anyway, as he's reportedly been taking advantage of Oakland's new virtual reality preparation tool.
If that continues to make a difference for him, he can only help the A's secure a fourth straight playoff berth.
LF Joc Pederson, Chicago Cubs
2020 Stats: 43 G, 138 PA, 7 HR, 1 SB, .190 AVG, .285 OBP, .397 SLG
2021 Spring Training: 11 G, 32 PA, 5 HR, 0 SB, .500 AVG, .563 OBP, 1.192 SLG
Joc Pederson was a steady power producer for the Los Angeles Dodgers from 2015 to 2019, topping 25 home runs four times and peaking with 36 in 2019.
That player simply never showed up in 2020, and the timing couldn't have been worse. With his value decimated, Pederson settled for a one-year, $7 million free-agency deal (2022 mutual option) with the Chicago Cubs.
The 28-year-old's stock is already on the way back up. He has as many walks (four) as strikeouts and two doubles to go along with his five home runs. His 29 total bases are the most of any hitter in spring training.
This might simply be a case of a talented hitter regressing to the mean after an outlier season. Yet it doesn't hurt that Pederson is fitting in well with the Cubs, who are hoping to remain atop the National League Central.
SP Robbie Ray, Toronto Blue Jays
2020 Stats: 12 G, 11 GS, 51.2 IP, 53 H (13 HR), 45 BB, 68 K, 6.62 ERA
2021 Spring Training: 3 G, 3 GS, 8.1 IP, 2 H (1 HR), 4 BB, 11 K, 2.16 ERA
After peaking as an All-Star in 2017, Robbie Ray continued to be a strikeout machine and an innings-eater for the Arizona Diamondbacks in 2018 and 2019.
Though Ray kept the strikeouts coming last year, it was for naught as his control fell apart and he was unable to suppress loud contact. Notably, he bested Matthew Boyd—and everyone else—in serving up 22 extra-base hits on his four-seamer alone.
At least relative to last year, the 29-year-old's control is under more, well, control in spring training. He's also back to being unhittable. In what sure seems like a related story, he's once again using a three-quarters arm slot after experimenting with a more over-the-top delivery in 2020.
If Ray can keep it up, he will make for a solid No. 2 behind ace Hyun Jin Ryu in the Toronto Blue Jays starting rotation. That, in turn, would put the American League East title that much closer within reach.
SP Julio Teheran, Detroit Tigers
2020 Stats: 10 G, 9 GS, 31.1 IP, 39 H (12 HR), 16 BB, 20 K, 10.05 ERA
2021 Spring Training: 3 G, 1 GS, 9.0 IP, 5 H (0 HR), 1 BB, 12 K, 2.00 ERA
Julio Teheran was an All-Star for Atlanta in 2014 and 2016, and he was still good for 180 innings and an above-average 106 ERA+ per year between 2017 and 2019.
But in 2020, Teheran tested positive for the coronavirus before the season began and never got it together after joining the Los Angeles Angels in August. Notably, his average fastball slipped to a nadir of 89.0 mph.
Now it seems as if a younger version of the 30-year-old veteran is pitching for the Detroit Tigers this spring. Teheran has gotten up to 93.4 mph with his fastball and has generated plenty of swings and misses with his slider, which he says is "the best it's been in a while."
Teheran is on a minor league deal that will only pay him $3 million if and when he makes the big club. If he keeps pitching like this, he'll be yet another trade chip for Detroit to cash in this summer.
Spring stats courtesy of MLB.com. Other stats courtesy of Baseball Reference, FanGraphs and Baseball Savant.