MLB's Biggest Winners and Losers from the First 2 Weeks of the 2021 Season

Martin FennFeatured Columnist IApril 14, 2021

MLB's Biggest Winners and Losers from the First 2 Weeks of the 2021 Season

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    Carlos Osorio/Associated Press

    Nearly two weeks have passed since Opening Day, and some wonderful storylines are taking shape.

    We have seen terrific individual performances and surprising team starts, both good and bad. Which players and teams have offered the best of the best and the worst of the worst?

    Here are MLB's biggest winners and losers from the first couple of weeks.

Winner: Mike Trout and the Los Angeles Angels

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    Orlin Wagner/Associated Press

    The Los Angeles Angels have the look of a playoff team, and their MVP is in high gear early.

    Mike Trout is slashing .394/.545/.848 with four homers and went into Tuesday tied for the MLB lead in fWAR. He is leading the charge for a lineup that is tied for the American League lead in runs and ranks fourth in OPS.

    Shohei Ohtani leads the team in RBI with 11 and is tearing the cover off the ball. Meanwhile, Jared Walsh has the second-highest OPS+ on the team and is building on his 2020 breakthrough. The lineup could really kick in once Anthony Rendon gets healthy and Jose Iglesias and David Fletcher channel their hit tools.

    The bullpen has been surprisingly good, with Mike Mayers and Junior Guerra excelling in the middle innings. Young right-hander Chris Rodriguez is one to watch going forward. The unit ranks ninth in fWAR.

    In terms of continuity, it once again boils down to the rotation. Alex Cobb has been the mid-rotation piece the Angels were likely hoping he would be. Jose Quintana...not so much. It doesn't help that Andrew Heaney and Griffin Canning have struggled out of the gate.

    The rotation gives reason for pause, especially depending on Ohtani's health. But the Angels have a terrific lineup and vastly improved bullpen. A move for a starter could be the final piece to the playoff puzzle.

Loser: Oakland Athletics

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    Jeff Chiu/Associated Press

    The Oakland Athletics have rebounded nicely from a 1-7 start. The bats are starting to wake up, which is vital.

    But the issue is the American League West could be tighter at the top if the Angels prove to be for real. Both Los Angeles and the Houston Astros put up runs in bunches—tough news for a pitching staff in dire straits.

    Athletics relievers rank 28th in fWAR. Trevor Rosenthal will be out for at least three months after undergoing thoracic outlet surgery. The starters have not fared any better, also ranking 28th in that department. Rosenthal was a big loss for the bullpen, but the latter could be especially concerning.

    Homers and command have troubled Frankie Montas after a poor 2020, which is not good considering he was a swing arm for the rotation. He looks nothing like the player who put together a 2.63 ERA over 16 starts in 2019, though that success came before an 80-game suspension for PED use. Long balls have afflicted each starter, and the group just doesn't have a ton of swing-and-miss aside from Jesus Luzardo.

    The pitching issues are real for the A's in a more crowded division.

Winner: The Fun Cincinnati Reds

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    Matt York/Associated Press

    It's not as if the Cincinnati Reds were projected to be woeful. But they weren't expected to have one of the best lineups in baseball, either.

    The Reds ranked first in runs per game, slugging and OPS heading into Tuesday's slate. Tyler Naquin's potential has been on full display as he makes tons of hard contact. Nick Castellanos could be in line for a big year.

    Cincinnati also has some depth options with both Jesse Winker and Aristides Aquino off to good starts and Shogo Akiyama on the mend. The catching combination of Tucker Barnhart and Tyler Stephenson has been impressive.

    The arm talent is there, as well. Luis Castillo rebounded from a tough Opening Day start, though he struggled a bit Tuesday night against the San Francisco Giants. Tyler Mahle continues to flash exceptional strikeout stuff, while Wade Miley offers more of a command look at the back of the rotation. Additionally, Sonny Gray is nearing his return.

    The bullpen is every bit as intriguing. Tejay Antone has looked dominant and could have the chance to move into the rotation. Cincy could possibly stand to add depth in this arena, but that's something to watch down the road.

    There is also the fact the Reds were involved in the first benches-clearing brawl of the season, with Amir Garrett later giving the team a motto that now doubles as its Twitter bio.

Loser: Chicago Cubs

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    Nam Y. Huh/Associated Press

    If the Reds have been fun and explosive, the Chicago Cubs have been boring and feeble. Maybe the better term is "anemic," as I wrote after the first week.

    The Cubs ranked at the bottom of the majors in basically every hitting category heading into Tuesday's games, including batting average, OPS, OPS+ and runs per game. Those struggles are even more frustrating given that Chicago also ranks eighth in strikeouts.

    Manager David Ross said after Monday's 6-3 loss to the Milwaukee Brewers that the lineup feels "homer-dependent." It has felt like the group has leaned toward the three true outcomes for the last four seasons. The Cubs needed a late homer from Willson Contreras to get a win Tuesday after being shut down most of the evening. 

    While it's true the Cubs have managed to get some quality starts, the rotation could also be headed for a decline. Trevor Williams and Zach Davies were roughed up in their second outings. Jake Arrieta has a 2.25 ERA but also owns a 5.27 expected ERA (xERA) and is giving up a bunch of hard contact.

    The National League Central should remain wide-open. But the Cubs need the lineup to show signs of life if they want to avoid a sell-off at the deadline.

Winner: Dodgers-Padres Hype

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    Gene J. Puskar/Associated Press

    The hype appears to be real when it comes to the Los Angeles Dodgers and San Diego Padres.

    Los Angeles was tied with Cincinnati for the best run differential in the majors heading into Tuesday. The Padres ranked third. These two clubs headline the top National League contenders.

    Both squads are deep, from a positional standpoint and in the rotation. The San Diego starters look good with Joe Musgrove dominating behind Yu Darvish and Blake Snell. The bullpen ranks second in fWAR.

    The Dodgers rotation ranks second in fWAR and might have the best top-to-bottom group in baseball. Not to mention, the L.A. lineup also ranks first in OPS+. San Diego is sixth.

    Dodgers fans might not consider the Padres "rivals" after their club has dominated the National League West for eight years. But there is no denying this showdown makes for the best divisional race in baseball.

Loser: National League East

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    John Minchillo/Associated Press

    The NL East looked like the best division in baseball on paper entering the new season. It has been anything but in the past couple weeks.

    The opening series between the Washington Nationals and New York Mets was postponed due to Washington's COVID-19 issues. The Nats since began the year at 2-5 and got blown out by the St. Louis Cardinals on Tuesday, while the Mets' offense has sputtered early.

    Speaking of sputtering, the Atlanta Braves lost four straight to start the season. Atlanta has since righted the ship, but six different starters are hitting below the Mendoza line.

    The Miami Marlins have one of the most exciting rotations in the game, but offensive struggles have been and should remain a prevalent storyline.

    The Philadelphia Phillies were off to a good start and got excellent performances especially from a remodeled bullpen. But their run differential suggests they should be more around the .500 mark. Indeed, the Phils dropped a double header to the Mets on Tuesday.

    It still seems likely the NL East will prove itself the most competitive division when things get more fleshed out, but it's just been a bit dull thus far.

Winner: Ronald Acuna Jr. and Byron Buxton as All-World Players

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    John Bazemore/Associated Press

    Some of Atlanta's stars might be struggling. In no way does that pertain to Ronald Acuna Jr.

    Acuna is on a mission early, slashing .447/.500/.947 with four homers and three stolen bases. He is beating out hard-hit ground balls to shortstop and tagging up on shallow fly balls to center.

    The 23-year-old's blend of power, speed and charisma makes him one of the most magnetic superstars in the sport. Byron Buxton also possesses that blend, and his elite talents have been on full display in the early goings. 

    Buxton leads the majors in slugging (1.185), OPS (1.734) and OPS+ (376). He ranks in the 100th percentile in expected slugging (xSLG) and barrel percentage as well as the 98th percentile in exit velocity and hard-hit rate. Just for good measure, the 27-year-old is a former Platinum Glove Award-winner who excels in center field and can fly around the bases.

    Acuna and Buxton are as exciting as any players in the game. Baseball fans should pray they remain healthy over the course of a full 162.

Loser: 'Deadened' Baseballs

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    John Bazemore/Associated Press

    Major League Baseball sent a memo to teams in February stating new balls used in 2021 would fly a bit shorter on all balls hit over 375 feet.

    The "deadened" baseballs seemed to fall in line with a general desire within the Commissioner’s Office to get the ball in play more often and prompt more action. But there's an issue: the dead balls simply haven't worked as planned. 

    Well, we should clarify. Homers are down slightly so far from the historic rates of 2019 and 2020. But the new ball really hasn't had that large of an impact, as homers are flying out of ballparks at the fourth-highest rate ever. 

    There have still been a number of multi-homer games. Additionally, strikeouts have been more prevalent than ever thus far. 

    The Commissioner's Office can change the ball. But figureheads cannot shape how general managers approach the game, nor can they avoid the growing premium placed on things like exit velocity and hard-hit rates.

Winner: J.D. Martinez, Triple Crown Winner?

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    Michael Dwyer/Associated Press

    Boston Red Sox slugger J.D. Martinez very nearly captured the AL Triple Crown in 2018. Might he push for it once again in 2021?

    Martinez had a rough 2020 without the availability of in-game video, slashing .213/.291/.389 in 54 games. Those numbers were quite unlike the guy who had been one of the best hitters in the sport from 2017 to 2019.

    It would seem the 33-year-old is out to regain that mantle as an elite hitter. Martinez came into Tuesday's game hitting .472/.500/1.083 with five homers and 16 RBI. He trails only Buxton in weighted runs created plus (wRC+).

    The batted ball numbers also tell the story of a guy who has regained his form. Martinez ranks in the 93rd percentile or higher in average exit velocity and barrels as well as the 96th percentile in xSLG.

    Martinez's elite hit tool and ability to spread the ball to all fields with good power make him a nightmare for opposing pitchers to deal with. He also has the benefit of hitting in the middle of a Red Sox lineup that could once again be one of the best in baseball.

    Perhaps it will all add up to a Triple Crown this time around.

Winner: Glasnow, Musgrove and Burnes, Oh My!

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    Steve Nesius/Associated Press

    There have been some wonderful pitching performances thus far, but three arms in particular have stood out from the rest. 

    Tampa Bay Rays right-hander Tyler Glasnow could push for the pitching Triple Crown if he remains healthy. The 27-year-old has been brilliant through his first three starts, giving up seven hits and one run in 19.2 innings while also leading the majors in strikeouts, fielding independent pitching (FIP) and ERA+

    Milwaukee Brewers right-hander Corbin Burnes and San Diego Padres right-hander Joe Musgrove have been every bit as noteworthy. Burnes took a no-hitter into the seventh inning in his first start of the season and has struck out 20 while not conceding a single free pass.

    Musgrove completed his no-hit effort, blanking the Texas Rangers this past weekend and striking out 18 against zero walks in his two starts combined. He makes the already stellar Friars rotation look even stronger as they compete for an NL West title. 

    Aces such as Jacob deGrom and Gerrit Cole deserve an obligatory hat tip for their early showings, but Glasnow, Burnes and Musgrove could all command greater attention as the year rolls along.

Loser: New Doctoring Rules

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    Jeff Chiu/Associated Press

    Major League Baseball announced prior to Opening Day it would take a series of steps in an effort to prevent pitchers from doctoring baseballs. The new procedures have already made for controversy.

    Ken Rosenthal of The Athletic reported last week MLB collected multiple balls from Dodgers starter Trevor Bauer during a start against the Oakland Athletics. The fallout resulted in Bauer chastising MLB for an apparent procedural failure. 

    That was hardly the end of it, though. Dodgers manager Dave Roberts later opined Bauer was being singled out. Bill Shaikin of the Los Angeles Times reported MLBPA would challenge both possible disciplines and leaks. Alden Gonzalez of ESPN reported Bauer was unlikely to face discipline with MLB in "information-gathering mode."

    The whole saga naturally drew lots of eyeballs since Bauer is one of the most polarizing talents in the sport. But it also seems to reflect the sheer uncertainty when it comes to the protocols and just how viable and fair they will be in preventing doctoring.

    How will MLB establish a threshold in terms of spin rates? What about accounting for all the hands that touch the balls put out of play? Might most players simply cry wolf and ask for the union’s support if they come under investigation?

    There is an abundance of questions, and very few answers.

                   

    All stats obtained via Baseball Reference, FanGraphs or Baseball Savant, unless otherwise noted. Stats are accurate prior to the start of play on April 13.

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