The 6 Players Defining the 2021 MLB Season

Abbey MastraccoContributor IMay 5, 2021

The 6 Players Defining the 2021 MLB Season

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    Elaine Thompson/Associated Press

    Baseball's youth movement is in full swing (no pun intended). 

    The kids are dominating MLB this season, along with Mike Trout, who isn't quite a kid anymore as he approaches 30, but he plays with the enthusiasm of a younger man and somehow keeps getting better with age. 

    The same goes for Jacob deGrom, the New York Mets ace who is getting better and throwing harder as the team's offense continually fails to support him. Baseball can be a befuddling game, and this is one conundrum the Mets have yet to solve, despite significant roster improvements made throughout the last five years. 

    But, mostly, it's players under 30 and even players under 25 making the most noise in baseball this season. Ronald Acuna Jr., Fernando Tatis Jr., Vladimir Guerrero Jr. and Juan Soto are four of the best players in the game, and they're barely even into their early 20s. 

    Here is a look at six players defining the game and dominating headlines this season. A few vary in age, but the common denominator is that they've separated themselves from other competitors with their talent and performances this season.

Los Angeles Angels SP/DH Shohei Ohtani

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    Ted S. Warren/Associated Press

    The Los Angeles Angels have an aggressive plan for Shohei Ohtani to hit on days he pitches, and they aren't limiting his pitch counts. In an era where pitchers are coddled and some don't even go three times through the order, the Angels feel that Ohtani will be more successful with fewer restrictions. 

    MLB has not seen a two-way player like this in decades. Maybe even since Babe Ruth. Sure, there are pitchers who can hit, like Zack Greinke and Jacob deGrom. Some pitchers can run into a few hits here and there. But a two-way talent like this gives the Angels a huge weapon.

    Ohtani could open the door for more two-way players in the future. There might be some trial and error regarding his workload and the injury potential will be considered if teams try to bring up two-way players in the future, but there is a blueprint for success in place. 

    The 26-year-old Japanese phenom will make his fourth start Wednesday. He's 1-0 with a 3.29 ERA on the mound and he's hitting .268 with nine home runs at the plate. Health is key, especially considering he was off the mound through 2019 and much of 2020 because of Tommy John surgery, but the Angels can sure use him since their pitching staff collectively is one of the worst in the league (5.04 ERA, No. 27 in MLB).

New York Mets RHP Jacob deGrom

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    Frank Franklin II/Associated Press

    Death, taxes and deGrom throwing strikes. 

    The New York Mets have a tendency to be a chaotic, circus-like organization, but deGrom provides a stabilizing presence every five days. He's a throwback to the days when pitchers went deep into games, worked quickly and efficiently and mixed speeds to play chess with the hitters. With deGrom, it's less about win probabilities and analytics, and more about strategy and mechanics.

    It's tough to believe a two-time Cy Young Award winner could get better, but deGrom is throwing harder this season than he ever has, per Baseball Savant. Watching him mix speeds and paint the corners is like witnessing an artist at work. 

    Yet still, deGrom can't get any run support behind him. The Mets fired hitting coaches Chili Davis and Tom Slater on Monday night in an attempt to jumpstart the dormant offense and make some organizational changes. Davis was an old school hitting coach which may not have meshed with the current front office. 

    The next day, deGrom was scratched from his start in St. Louis with lat inflammation. The Mets have avoided a disaster. He won't need to go on the injured list, but he will need to take a few days away from throwing. One could argue the Mets might be better off putting him on the injured list. If he isn't throwing for a few days, as manager Luis Rojas said, he may miss another start, so the Mets could end up playing down a man for an extended period.

    But nothing should come as a surprise with this team. 

    deGrom is redefining what it means to be an elite pitcher. It's not about the win column, and it's not about throwing hard, though we know he can do that. He's an old-school arm in a new-school game, dominating hitters his way.

Atlanta Braves RF Ronald Acuna Jr.

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    John Bazemore/Associated Press

    The 23-year-old Atlanta Braves outfielder became the first player to hit 10 home runs this season when he clubbed his 10th in a 6-1 defeat of the Washington Nationals at Nationals Park Tuesday night. The National League Player of the Month for April put up some absurd numbers in the first month of the season, slashing .341/.443/.705 with eight home runs, 18 RBIs and 25 runs scored in 24 games. 

    He also stole three bases, and his speed is what sets him apart from some of peers. Acuna's speed and base-running abilities have allowed him to leg out grounders and turn them into singles, score easily on shallow sacrifice plays and pestered pitchers. The Braves have the fourth-best OPS in baseball and the third-best in the National League in part because of Acuna's production at the top of the order. 

    Acuna came into the season needing to maintain his level production from the last two seasons, and he has surpassed it. He's also improved his plate discipline this season, though there is still some room for growth here.

    It's a small sample size and maybe there will be some regression to the mean throughout the rest of the season, but he went from striking out in 18.8 percent of his plate appearances last season to 13.8 this season, per FanGraphs. It's still above his career mark of 11.5 percent, but it shows some adjustments being made.

Chicago White Sox LHP Carlos Rodon

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    Tony Dejak/Associated Press

    Carlos Rodon isn't the new kid in town. He's been on the South Side of Chicago since 2015, only one year after his college career at North Carolina State ended. And his rookie season was good. He went 9-6 with a 3.75 ERA in 26 appearances, 23 of them starts). 

    But he never really repeated that performance. He was just sort of...fine. So, if you haven't been paying attention to him in the past, it's probably because he didn't command the attention. He had a career ERA of 4.14 over five seasons, and the cost-conscious White Sox did not tender him a contract after last season, something he called a "wakeup call." He only pitched 7.2 innings last season, his first after making a return from Tommy John surgery. Rodon signed a one-year deal with the club and won a rotation spot in spring training. 

    There is no question Rodon has the attention of baseball right now. He's commanding just about everything effectively after six years of being just fine, but nothing special. 

    Now, Rodon is having a special season. He authored the first no-hitter of the season last month and the first of his career. He went 4-0 with a 0.72 ERA in April. He's throwing hard, up around the high 90s, but locating well. 

    Rodon improved his fitness and his diet last winter. First-year pitching coach Ethan Katz may be playing a role in his dramatic turnaround as well. Whatever the case may be, Rodon is establishing himself as one of the American League's best in 2021.

Toronto Blue Jays 1B Vladimir Guerrero Jr.

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    Mike Carlson/Associated Press

    The Toronto Blue Jays are stuck in geographic limbo and AL East Limbo. They're a good team in a competitive division, but they aren't the best team in the division. Despite all of the aggressive maneuvering to upgrade the roster over the winter, the Blue Jays sit in fourth place behind the Tampa Bay Rays with a 14-14 record. 

    But Vladimir Guerrero Jr. is giving an entire country something to cheer for on a nightly basis, just like his father, Vladimir Sr., once did when he played in Montreal. 

    A week ago, Guerrero had the offensive game of his life when he hit three home runs and drove in seven runs against the Nationals. One of those homers was a 415-foot grand slam, and his season total stands at seven.  

    The funny part is his dad once homered off the same pitcher, Max Scherzer, when he was with the Texas Rangers and Scherzer was a member of the Detroit Tigers. The Guerreros became just the fifth father-son duo to homer off the same pitcher. The two might be very different players, but they may end up each winning the same award—the AL MVP. 

    Vladimir Jr. is on the same level as Acuna, Tatis and Soto, but he's also on the same level, or maybe even better, than his father once was as well. It's pretty impressive for a 22-year-old. 

Los Angeles Angels CF Mike Trout

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    Mark J. Terrill/Associated Press

    It's tough to talk about Mike Trout without sounding too hyperbolic. It's also tough to talk about Trout without mentioning the fact that he hasn't been to the playoffs since 2014. But now that's out of the way, let's get to the good stuff. 

    He has the highest OPS in baseball (1.293), though Minnesota Twins outfielder Byron Buxton is gaining ground on him. He's tied for the highest fWAR in baseball with Buxton (2.3). He puts the ball in play and makes things happen like few others in the history of baseball. His league-high BABIP is .540 and his wRC+ is 252. These big, gaudy numbers are par for the course with Trout. 

    He's one of few, true five-tool players. There really isn't anything he isn't good at. He makes acrobatic catches in the outfield look easy and he does the same thing when he smashes 99 mph fastballs into the fountains at Angel Stadium. 

    When it comes to the title of the best player in baseball, Acuna is giving him a run for his money. Vladimir Jr. is too, and even his own teammate, Ohtani, could challenge him for the AL MVP Award. But they aren't Trout just yet. He's still the best player in the game and is playing like it on a nightly basis.

    Now, if only the Angels can help him get a chance to play like that into October.

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