Early Check-Ins on Mike Trout, Mookie Betts and MLB's Brightest Superstars
Though it may be early in the 2021 season, some new stars are already popping up throughout Major League Baseball. They deserve to be—and surely will be—covered accordingly.
Just not in this space.
Instead, we thought we'd check in and see how 10 tried and true superstars are doing in the early days of the 2021 season. Any number of players are eligible for such a list in theory, but we limited our scope to hitters with at least five games played and pitchers with at least two starts.
Mind you, a few bolded name drops will show up along the way. We'll otherwise start with three pitchers and end with seven hitters, each ordered according to their present level of superstardom.
Clayton Kershaw, Los Angeles Dodgers
Key Stats: 2 GS, 12.2 IP, 14 H (0 HR), 1 BB, 10 K, 4.26 ERA
After finally adding a World Series ring to go with his three National League Cy Young Awards and MVP, Clayton Kershaw began this season with a six-run dud against the Colorado Rockies on Opening Day.
To be fair, though, only five of those runs were earned. This was also at Coors Field, which has flummoxed even baseball's all-time greatest pitcher—hey, that's just one metric's opinion—to the tune of a 4.57 ERA in 24 career starts.
The Los Angeles Dodgers ace looked a lot more like himself against the Oakland Athletics on Tuesday, firing seven innings of one-run ball with eight punchouts. His slider was much sharper than it was in Denver, ultimately drawing a whopping 16 swings and misses.
That very pitch has taken on a larger and larger role in Kershaw's approach as he's gotten older (33 as of March 19) and his fastball has gotten slower. So as long as he keeps it in fine form, he'll more than hold his own alongside fellow Dodgers aces Trevor Bauer and Walker Buehler.
Shane Bieber, Cleveland
Key Stats: 2 GS, 12.1 IP, 8 H (2 HR), 7 BB, 24 K, 3.65 ERA
We'd be remiss if we didn't at least mention Jose Ramirez, who busted out in a big way with his first two home runs of the season against the Kansas City Royals on Wednesday.
But just as it was for much of last season, Cleveland's corner of the MLB universe has been the Shane Bieber Show thus far in 2021. Even though he took the loss on Opening Day and got a no-decision Wednesday, he's clearly not done racking up strikeouts after topping Jacob deGrom for the MLB lead in 2020.
What's different this year is how the 25-year-old is overpowering the opposition. He said in spring training that he wanted to breathe new life into his slider, and he has. His slider usage is way up from 2020, and the pitch drew 11 whiffs on Opening Day and then a new personal high of 15 on Wednesday.
Considering his fastball, curveball, cutter and changeup are weapons in their own right, Bieber now has more than what he needs to chase after his second straight American League Cy Young Award.
Gerrit Cole, New York Yankees
Key Stats: 2 GS, 12.1 IP, 9 H (1 HR), 2 BB, 21 K, 1.46 ERA
There's also Gerrit Cole, who's looked every bit like the $324 million ace the Yankees need him to be. And he indeed has been ever since last September, at which point he shrugged off a slow start to post a 1.79 ERA and 64 strikeouts over his final 45.1 innings of the 2020 season.
Particularly as he whiffed 13 against the Baltimore Orioles on Tuesday, the 30-year-old's fastball has been arguably his most impressive pitch thus far. He's gotten it up to 101 mph, and its spin rate is the best it's ever been.
In the context of Cole's appearance in an offseason story concerning ball doctoring, that last part is perhaps especially encouraging for the Yankees. Since he's also had his slider, curveball and changeup working, there's little standing between him and his second 300-strikeout season in three years.
Jose Abreu, Chicago White Sox
Key Stats: 7 G, 34 PA, 2 HR, 1 SB, 9 RBI, .207 AVG, .294 OBP, .414 SLG
The Chicago White Sox have gotten a heck of a boost from rookie Yermin Mercedes, who started 8-for-8 and has kept the hits coming ever since.
This season has been more of a mixed bag for Chicago's incumbent stars, including reigning AL MVP Jose Abreu. He's struck out in more than a third of his plate appearances, in part because he's been a little over-aggressive expanding the strike zone in the face of a higher rate of offspeed and breaking balls.
So it goes for the 34-year-old, who now has 11 more batted balls of at least 95 mph than any other hitter since the start of the 2019 season. Another MVP might be too much to ask, but there's every reason to expect him to keep doing damage in the heart of Chicago's order.
Freddie Freeman, Atlanta
Key Stats: 6 G, 23 PA, 1 HR, 1 SB, 1 RBI, .111 AVG, .304 OBP, .278 SLG
Led by Marcell Ozuna, Ronald Acuna Jr. (more on him soon) and especially NL MVP Freddie Freeman, Atlanta's offense was positively scorching in 2020 as it finished second in MLB for runs and home runs.
There hasn't exactly been more where that came from early on in 2021, in part because Freeman himself has yet to really get going. Though he got off the schneid by taking Max Scherzer deep on Tuesday, he has much to do before he catches up to last year's absurd .341/.462/.640 batting line.
Or so it would seem from looking at his results, anyway. The 31-year-old's peripheral stats tell a different story, in which he has more walks (5) than strikeouts (3) and is hitting the ball just fine. Out of 15 batted balls, he's clocked nine at 95 mph or better.
So even if Freeman's slow start is coming on the heels of him hitting just .184/.311/.316 in spring, Atlanta's panic meter should be close to zero. He'll be fine.
Christian Yelich, Milwaukee Brewers
Key Stats: 6 G, 26 PA, 0 HR, 1 SB, 1 RBI, .318 AVG, .423 OBP, .364 SLG
If the Milwaukee Brewers are going to do anything of note this year, they need Christian Yelich to recapture the form that led him to a .327/.415/.631 line and 80 home runs across 2018 and 2019.
So far, he's looked more like the guy who never really got going in 2020. His average and on-base percentage are nice, but he has just one extra-base hit and has struck out 11 times already.
The strikeouts are especially alarming after Yelich experienced a sizable spike in that department in 2020. Also alarming is the reality that this isn't an issue relating to the 29-year-old's plate discipline. His rates of in-zone contact from the last two seasons are the worst of his career.
Granted, Yelich did take a step toward busting out by going 3-for-4 with a walk against the Chicago Cubs on Wednesday. The more of those he takes, the closer he'll be to getting out of the woods.
Nolan Arenado, St. Louis Cardinals
Key Stats: 6 G, 26 PA, 1 HR, 0 SB, 3 RBI, .360 AVG, .385 OBP, .520 SLG
Because Francisco Lindor was sidelined with the rest of the New York Mets for the season's opening weekend, the winter's other major trade acquisition has mostly had the floor to himself.
It's fair to say Nolan Arenado has made the most of it. He got his first home run for the St. Louis Cardinals out of the way early on April 3, and has otherwise looked the part of the five-time All-Star and eight-time Gold Glover he was for the Colorado Rockies.
Considering he no longer has the luxury of playing at Coors Field, it's little wonder that pitchers are testing Arenado with a higher frequency of breaking and offspeed stuff. The 29-year-old has thus far been unfazed by that, going 6-for-12 in at-bats ending with one of those two pitch types.
That's a good sign that Arenado can make like Matt Holliday and DJ LeMahieu by continuing to hit at a star-caliber level even away from Denver. If so, bully for the Cardinals and their quest for a third straight playoff berth.
Ronald Acuna Jr., Atlanta
Key Stats: 6 G, 25 PA, 2 HR, 2 SB, 4 RBI, .304 AVG, .360 OBP, .652 SLG
Even in going just 2-for-12, Ronald Acuna Jr. was one of Atlanta's better hitters in the club's opening sweep at the hands of the Philadelphia Phillies.
Then came Tuesday, in which he launched two home runs off Max Scherzer. Those aren't even the hardest-hit balls he has this season, and he's indeed 11-for-17 in terms of batted balls of at least 95 mph.
It's also misleading that Acuna has whiffed six times while drawing only two walks. Following an offseason and spring in which he worked hard to close up holes in his swing, he's been better than ever at not expanding the strike zone in the early days of the 2021 season.
Even at just 23 years of age, Acuna already has an NL Rookie of the Year and two Silver Sluggers to his name. If it can last through the entire season, this version could beat out even fellow NL East superstar Juan Soto to make it two MVPs in a row for Atlanta.
Mookie Betts, Los Angeles Dodgers
Key Stats: 5 G, 28 PA, 1 HR, 2 SB, 1 RBI, .348 AVG, .464 OBP, .565 SLG
With fellow MVP Cody Bellinger temporarily sidelined by a calf injury, there's a little extra pressure on Corey Seager and Mookie Betts to carry the Los Angeles Dodgers lineup.
Seager is doing his part with a .423 average through six games. Though he had to sit on Wednesday with a stiff back, Betts has been right there with him. He collected his first home run of the season Tuesday and has otherwise been a tough out as he's balanced just one strikeout against four walks.
If there's a red flag here, it's that Betts' swing-and-miss rate is actually trending (well, "trending") at a career high for now. In what may be a related story, the 28-year-old has also been more aggressive with his swings than usual.
But until either of those developments starts leading to more strikeouts, neither is an actual problem. And since Betts' hard-hit rate is more or less par for the course, whatever experimental approach he may be carrying out clearly isn't holding back his power potential.
Mike Trout, Los Angeles Angels
Key Stats: 6 G, 27 PA, 2 HR, 0 SB, 5 RBI, .368 AVG, .556 OBP, .737 SLG
The Los Angeles Angels made a huge splash when they signed Anthony Rendon after the 2019 season, and everyone is now falling back in love with two-way wunderkind Shohei Ohtani.
Yet if there was ever any doubt this is still Mike Trout's team, there ought to be no sign of it by now. The three-time AL MVP and veritable WAR machine has been on base more often than not, and he's averaging (yes, averaging) just south of 100 mph on his batted balls.
At the same time, Trout's eye for the strike zone just keeps getting better. All this is a good reminder that he's the Best Player in Baseball largely because he's arguably the Best Hitter in Baseball.