Updated MLB Stat Leader Projections 2 Months into 2021 Season

Martin FennFeatured Columnist IMay 30, 2021

Updated MLB Stat Leader Projections 2 Months into 2021 Season

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    Frank Franklin II/Associated Press

    The 2021 MLB season has seen its share of spectacular performances. 

    Young superstars like Ronald Acuna Jr., Fernando Tatis Jr. and Vladimir Guerrero Jr. continue to ascend. Tenured aces such as Clayton Kershaw and Max Scherzer have been dealing. There have also been storybook seasons from the likes of Adolis Garcia and Yermin Mercedes.

    All of those players find themselves among the league leaders in various categories. The question is: Can they remain there?

    We are going to make stat leader projections based on the first two months. These projections will combine current success with other metrics or advanced statistics that might better inform why a particular player could lead a given category when the dust settles and the season is over.

WAR (Position Player): Ronald Acuna Jr., Atlanta Braves

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    Charles Krupa/Associated Press

    Toronto Blue Jays sensation Vladimir Guerrero Jr. has opened up a fairly sizable lead through two months, with his 3.2 fWAR ranking ahead of both Cincinnati Reds outfielder Nick Castellanos and Boston Red Sox shortstop Xander Bogaerts.

    There is no doubting Vladdy's value this season. He also handily leads all position players in offensive value over average (OVOA) so far. Still, I'm going to run with Ronald Acuna Jr. to eventually surpass everyone and finish with the highest fWAR in the majors.

    Acuna sits at 2.3 fWAR through his first 45 games. His strikeout rate is at a career low as he has been a tremendous spark at the top of Atlanta's lineup. Here's where it gets even scarier, though: Acuna is usually better in the latter half of the year.

    The 23-year-old has a .955 career OPS in the second half, including a 1.061 OPS in August and .938 OPS in September. Now, it's a bit hard to account for 2020 since the season started in late July. Still, Acuna seems to thrive down the stretch.

    Additionally, Acuna has a slight edge over some of the names above him because he is a menace on the bases. He's 6-for-7 in stolen base attempts but could just as soon look to start swiping more bags. Acuna has also typically ranked well in FanGraphs' defensive metrics, though he is currently running minus-two in terms of defensive runs saved.

    All told, I think the Atlanta Braves superstar is just getting started.

Batting Average: Xander Bogaerts, Boston Red Sox

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    Charles Krupa/Associated Press

    It feels like we as a baseball community continuously underrate Xander Bogaerts. 

    Maybe it's because he's not quite as strong defensively as other superstar shortstops. Or perhaps it's because he's slightly less exuberant in nature. Either way, the dude is a hitting machine.

    Bogaerts leads the American League with 60 base hits and is slashing .333/.395/.578 with a career-high 167 OPS+. He ranks sixth in expected batting average (xBA) and has the highest barrel percentage and second-highest hard-hit rate of his career.

    X seems as good a candidate as any to pace the majors in batting average. He'll draw his walks but doesn't walk a ton. That means we'll typically see a bunch of contact. Bogaerts also ranks in the 80th percentile in whiff rate and 75th percentile in strikeout rate.

    There are a number of intriguing candidates for this category, including sleepers like Detroit Tigers utility man Harold Castro and a scorching-hot Nick Castellanos.

    However, I like Bogaerts to win the batting title when all is said and done. Remember, he hit over .300 in each of the past two seasons and hit .320 back in 2015. Plus, with J.D. Martinez and Rafael Devers back and hitting at a high level, Bogaerts feels even more dangerous in that Boston Red Sox lineup.

OBP: Max Muncy, Los Angeles Dodgers

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    Tony Avelar/Associated Press

    Los Angeles Dodgers infielder Max Muncy is having a remarkable season. 

    Muncy leads the majors in both walks (43) and on-base percentage (.444), while also slugging .528 with 11 homers and a 174 OPS+. He ranks fourth in fWAR and fifth in weighted runs created plus (wRC+), consistently generating offense for the Dodgers even in the midst of their late-April and early-May struggles.

    The 30-year-old works some of the best at-bats in baseball. He is willing to see a lot of pitches and has a firm grasp of the strike zone. We've seen this dating back to last October, when Muncy had an absurd 25 percent walk rate.

    So, why is it Muncy has suddenly become this walk machine in addition to being a dangerous left-handed bat? We already mentioned he has a great understanding of the zone, but there's also this: He doesn't chase. Muncy ranks at the top of baseball in chase rate, consistently making opposing pitchers beat him.

    It's not just the walks. The quality of the contact is terrific as well. Muncy ranks in the 93rd percentile in barrel rate, and his .291 xBA is slightly higher than his current average. It adds up to Muncy ranking fourth in xwOBA.

    Don't worry, Blue Jays fans, Vladdy is about to get his flowers. However, Muncy's approach has paid big dividends at the dish thus far, and it could result in an OBP crown.

OPS: Vladimir Guerrero Jr., Toronto Blue Jays

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    Noah K. Murray/Associated Press

    Some readers are undoubtedly thinking: finally.

    Vladdy Jr. is having a magnificent season thus far. He is tied for the lead in home runs (16) while also leading the majors in OPS (1.092), OPS+ (200) and total bases (118). I think he'll keep the OPS lead when all is said and done.

    Guerrero has nearly the same number of walks (31) as strikeouts (32). He also ranks sixth in xwOBA and eighth in xSLG. Those three factors combined make for a pretty good formula in terms of being an OPS leader, particularly when considering Guerrero also ranks in the 99th percentile in average exit velocity and 92nd percentile in barrel rate.

    Guerrero has rated pretty well in terms of barrels and exit velocity dating back to last year. The difference this time around is he's getting the ball in the air more.

    The 22-year-old has a career-high 7.5 degree launch angle, and his fly-ball rate is up 5.3 percent. Vladdy has even more slugging upside when considering he still hits the ball on the ground nearly 50 percent of the time.

    All told, Guerrero's ability to put the ball in play, work counts and consistently hit with power to all fields make him the leading candidate in the OPS category.

HR: Ronald Acuna Jr., Atlanta Braves

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    John Bazemore/Associated Press

    I picked Acuna to lead the National League in homers at the start of the season, though I also suggested he might just lead the majors. We are holding to that prediction.

    Acuna barely trails Guerrero and Adolis Garcia in homers (15). However, he has a few advantages over those two. 

    Whereas Guerrero still hits the ball into the ground nearly 50 percent of the time, Acuna has a 32.6 percent fly-ball rate. As for Garcia, he has the slight misfortune of playing home games at Globe Life Field, which ranks 20th in ESPN's Park Factor when it comes to home runs. Meanwhile, Acuna plays his home games at Truist Park, the eighth-friendliest homer environment so far.

    Realistically, though Acuna might not need those advantages. He ranks third in the majors in barrels per plate attempt behind Shohei Ohtani and Garcia, also ranking third in hard-hit percentage and average exit velocity.

    We've made note of Guerrero and Garcia. Ohtani and Fernando Tatis Jr. are a couple of others to keep an eye on in the home run race as the season rolls along. 

    However, Acuna's batted ball metrics and launch angle (19.3 degrees) should make for a whole lot of round-trippers in the coming months.

RBI: Jose Abreu, Chicago White Sox

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    Charles Rex Arbogast/Associated Press

    Chicago White Sox first baseman Jose Abreu might not be having the same kind of MVP year he had in 2020, but he's still doing what he does best. Plus, he's heating up in a hurry.

    Abreu ranks fifth in the majors in RBI (40) after leading the majors in that category in 2020 and leading the AL in RBI in 2019. The overall slash (.256/.344/.488) might not seem overly impressive, but Abreu is hitting .314 with a 1.019 OPS in May. He's settling into a nice groove at the plate, which is good news for the White Sox. 

    Chicago desperately needs Abreu to be the primary run producer with Luis Robert and Eloy Jimenez in the middle of the order. The White Sox have had success doing the little things and manufacturing runs, but it helps to have a professional hitter who excels with runners in scoring position.

    Abreu certainly does that. He is having great success with traffic on the bases, hitting .273 with a .925 OPS with runners in scoring position and .293/.959 with men on base. He's also hitting .357 with two outs and runners in scoring position. The latter part especially informs Abreu's ability to do damage when it matters most. 

    Guerrero and Boston Red Sox third baseman Rafael Devers should be in the mix here, as will Devers' teammate J.D. Martinez. Baltimore Orioles star Trey Mancini (42 RBI) deserves endless praise for his remarkable performance after missing the 2020 season rehabbing from a cancer diagnosis.

    That said, we'll go with Abreu in part because of track record, opportunity and his tendency to deliver in crucial situations.

SB: Trea Turner, Washington Nationals

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    Nick Wass/Associated Press

    Trea Turner is one of the fastest players in the bigs. Speed is hardly the only factor in stealing bases, but it sure plays a role. 

    The Washington Nationals shortstop is tied for the fastest sprint speed in MLB at 30.8 feet per second. His 90-feet running split ranks fifth in the majors. Those are two elite speed measurements.

    Turner also has the pedigree of a guy who can steal bases. He swiped 43 bases in a full, 162-game season back in 2018. The 27-year-old stole 35 more in 122 games in 2019. He's been even better at converting his chances this season, stealing 10 bases while only being caught once.

    Kansas City Royals speedster Whit Merrifield leads the majors with 14 stolen bases and has only been caught once. However, Turner has a higher OBP (.356) than Merrifield (.321), which gives him more chances to put the game in motion.

    Fernando Tatis Jr. and Garrett Hampson are a couple of other worthy NL contenders. Tatis' numbers (12 steals) are especially notable since he's only played 35 games.

    Still, Turner should bump those numbers up quite a bit. Getting him in motion is critical for the Nats offense.

WAR (Pitcher), ERA, WHIP: Jacob deGrom, New York Mets

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    Frank Franklin II/Associated Press

    Going for a trifecta here because, well, Jacob deGrom is still the cream of the crop.

    New York Yankees ace Gerrit Cole (3.0) has a slight edge over the New York Mets ace (2.4) in terms of fWAR, but he's also made four more starts than deGrom.

    The guess here is deGrom will pass Cole and all others by the time the year is over, in all of WAR, ERA and WHIP. 

    The Mets right-hander has ranked in the top three in fWAR in each of the past three seasons, leading all pitchers in that category back in 2018. He had also posted a sub-1.00 WHIP in each of the past three seasons entering 2021.

    Of course, deGrom also appears to be as good as he has ever been. His 0.80 ERA and 0.60 WHIP are the best of his career through seven starts. He is also recording nearly 10.6 strikeouts per free pass, which easily surpasses his past personal best (5.9 in 2018).

    DeGrom's four-seam fastball is averaging 99 mph this season, the fastest mark of his career to date. He can paint it to every quadrant and throw it up in the zone, making it almost impossible when he changes opposing hitters' eyesight later in at-bats.

    The 32-year-old complements that heat with an absurd 91.6 mph slider that has yielded a 51.7 percent whiff rate so far this season. Just for good measure, deGrom can also throw a 91.1 mph changeup that dives in the other direction.

    Is this a cop out? Maybe, but deGrom's dominance is overpowering.

K's: Shane Bieber, Cleveland

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    Carlos Osorio/Associated Press

    Shane Bieber captured pitching's triple crown in 2020 en route to winning the American League Cy Young Award. He won't repeat that feat in 2021 but is still the top candidate to lead MLB in strikeouts. 

    For starters, Bieber's 13.8 strikeouts per nine innings is tops among qualified starters. His swing-and-miss stuff is as good as any in baseball, as he ranks in the 96th percentile in whiff rate and 95th percentile in strikeout rate.

    The right-hander doesn't have overpowering velocity, but his breaking stuff is ridiculous, particularly a wipeout knuckle curveball that totally falls off the plane.

    Interestingly, Bieber could have more strikeout upside if the velocity experiences an uptick. His four-seam fastball is over a full tick slower than it was in 2020. The 25-year-old will be that much harder to hit if the velocity returns in the summer months.

    Another reason Bieber is the leading candidate at this point: He throws a lot of innings every start, with Cleveland manager Terry Francona repeatedly allowing him to work deep into games.

    Gerrit Cole and Tyler Glasnow are worthy competitors. DeGrom would be as well, though his latest injured list stint puts him behind the eight ball a bit.

    Bieber has eight or more punchouts in nine of his 11 starts and also has at least 11 strikeouts in six starts. He can string the K's together in a hurry.

SVs: Mark Melancon, San Diego Padres

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    Derrick Tuskan/Associated Press

    The "save" has sort of become a bit of a novelty concept in the modern game, but having a legitimate stopper at the back end of the bullpen is still as important as ever.

    San Diego Padres closer Mark Melancon is hardly the flashiest reliever in baseball, but he is excelling in the ninth inning for the Friars. Melancon leads the majors with 17 saves, with just one blown save. 

    The 36-year-old has a 0.90 WHIP and has been terrific in leveraged spots, with a .451 OPS in high leverage and a. 190 OSP in medium leverage. What he lacks in being a power arm he makes up for in inducing soft contact.

    Melancon ranks in the 97th percentile in average exit velocity and 88th percentile in hard-hit rate. He also ranks in the 91st percentile in barrel percentage.

    Opponents pound the ball into the ground against the veteran righty. He had a ground-ball rate above 60 percent in 2019 and 2020, and it's currently at 67.2 percent. The weak contact rate (9.4 percent) is the second-best of his career.

    The Padres should have their fair share of closing opportunities for Melancon in the months to come. He might not be a fireballer, but he sure gets the job done.


    All stats obtained via Baseball Reference, Baseball Savant or FanGraphs, unless otherwise noted. Stats are accurate prior to the start of play on May 29.