MLB Players Trending Up Who Deserve Your Attention

Zachary D. Rymer@zachrymerMLB Lead WriterAugust 17, 2021

MLB Players Trending Up Who Deserve Your Attention

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    Austin Riley is one of baseball's best hitters right now.
    Austin Riley is one of baseball's best hitters right now.Associated Press

    With only about six weeks left in the 2021 Major League Baseball season, everyone should have a good sense of which players are this year's top stars. Heck, dozens were named All-Stars just last month.

    Well, this article is not about those guys.

    Instead, we're shining a well-deserved spotlight on players who haven't played like stars all season but are certainly doing so right now. Though there are many players who qualify for such a list in theory, we picked 10 in particular because, for varying reasons, they're especially interesting to talk about.

    Going in alphabetical order, let's start with five hitters and end with five pitchers.     

2B Jonathan India, Cincinnati Reds

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    Jeff Dean/Associated Press

    2021 Stats: 109 G, 455 PA, 16 HR, 8 SB, .283 AVG, .396 OBP, .476 SLG, 122 OPS+, 2.2 rWAR

    Since June 3: 66 G, 302 PA, 13 HR, 5 SB, .309 AVG, .429 OBP, .542 SLG

    When looking at the Cincinnati Reds offense, it's perhaps easiest to notice All-Stars Nick Castellanos and Jesse Winker and sudden home run specialist Joey Votto.

    But given that only Juan Soto has a higher on-base percentage since June 3, it's arguably Jonathan India who's really making the Reds offense go right now.

    After the Reds chose him with the No. 5 pick in the 2018 draft, India's stock promptly fell as he struggled through a nagging wrist injury in 2019. Though strong showings at the alternate site in 2020 and in spring training this year earned him a spot on Cincinnati's Opening Day roster, the struggle bug found him again in the first two months of 2021.

    As India told Bobby Nightengale of the Cincinnati Enquirer, it was his move to the leadoff spot on June 5 that "definitely got me going." He's indeed been the model leadoff hitter, drawing walks 12.9 percent of the time and finding holes in the defense when he puts the ball in play. To wit, he's batting .406 against the shift.

    At the rate he's going, the 24-year-old has a chance to gain an edge on Trevor Rogers and Ian Anderson in the National League Rookie of the Year race.    

OF Rafael Ortega, Chicago Cubs

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    David Zalubowski/Associated Press

    2021 Stats: 64 G, 173 PA, 6 HR, 7 SB, .329 AVG, .384 OBP, .506 SLG, 141 OPS+, 1.5 rWAR

    Since July 17: 30 G, 102 PA, 4 HR, 5 SB, .398 AVG, .451 OBP, .613 SLG

    Sans Kris Bryant, Anthony Rizzo, Javier Baez, Craig Kimbrel and others, there are fewer reasons to watch the Chicago Cubs now than there were before the trade deadline.

    Rafael Ortega is a good one, though.

    The 30-year-old definitely took the long way to his major league breakout. It was all the way back in 2012 that he first broke in with the Colorado Rockies. Between then and the end of 2019, all he had to show for his major league experience was a .229/.287/.290 batting line over 143 games.

    In context of all this, it's fair to have doubts about how long Ortega can sustain the eye-popping numbers that he's been putting up over the last month. Likewise, it's noteworthy that both the left-handed swinger's at-bats and his production have come almost entirely against right-handed pitching.

    Yet there are also other numbers that underscore how locked in Ortega is right now, such as a line-drive rate and a hard-hit rate that are both around 40 percent. And if nothing else, it's always a great story when a guy goes from pondering retirement to finding center stage at baseball's highest level.   

3B Austin Riley, Atlanta

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    John Bazemore/Associated Press

    2021 Stats: 118 G, 487 PA, 25 HR, 0 SB, .292 AVG, .370 OBP, .526 SLG, 128 OPS+, 3.4 rWAR

    Since July 4: 37 G, 165 PA, 11 HR, 0 SB, .329 AVG, .400 OBP, .643 SLG

    How has Atlanta risen to the top of the National League East even with Ronald Acuna Jr. on the sidelines with a torn ACL?

    A good chunk of the credit belongs on the left side of Atlanta's infield, where Dansby Swanson is red-hot and Austin Riley finally seems to be putting it all together.

    In 2019 and 2020, the 24-year-old's major league experience was marked by occasional ups but more frequent downs. That pattern held true even into this season, as Riley had hot stretches in April and May and then hit .191/.263/.315 in a 24-game span between June 9 and July 3.

    As far as what's changed, Riley has been the right kind of aggressive in upping his in-zone swing rate from 73.3 percent through July 3 to 76.9 percent since July 4. He's likewise done a better job of getting under the ball, upping his fly-ball percentage from 33.3 to 42.2.

    As a result, he's hitting for power at a rate that only three players have beat since July 4. If he can keep this up, he should at least get some down-ballot MVP votes after missing out on an All-Star nod last month.

3B Abraham Toro, Seattle Mariners

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    Elaine Thompson/Associated Press

    2021 Stats: 53 G, 197 PA, 9 HR, 4 SB, .260 AVG, .345 OBP, .451 SLG, 121 OPS+, 1.4 rWAR

    Since July 25: 20 G, 82 PA, 5 HR, 1 SB, .343 AVG, .439 OBP, .629 SLG

    The mood in the Seattle Mariners clubhouse after the team traded closer Kendall Graveman last month was...not great. If the players were actual seamen on an actual boat, one might have even called it mutinous.

    Well, now said clubhouse has a better sense of why Seattle general manager Jerry Dipoto did that trade to get Abraham Toro.

    Though Toro, 24, was never a top-100 prospect, he did open eyes with a strong turn in the Arizona Fall League in 2018 and a subsequently excellent season in the minors in 2019. He played in 114 games at Double-A and Triple-A and hit .324/.411/.527 with 17 home runs.

    However, the main problem that Toro kept running into between then and this July was a general lack of playing time with the Houston Astros. So even though he was already trending up with homers in back-to-back games on July 25 and 26, the team understandably deemed him expendable.

    Toro has kept right on hitting as a Mariner, and how. He has more walks (nine) than strikeouts (eight) in 18 games and has hit only 16 of his 56 batted balls on the ground. So even if he hasn't homered since August 3, his blueprint for continued slugging is sound.   

3B Luis Urias, Milwaukee Brewers

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    Aaron Doster/Associated Press

    2021 Stats: 111 G, 416 PA, 16 HR, 5 SB, .247 AVG, .338 OBP, .446 SLG, 110 OPS+2.0 rWAR

    Since July 16: 25 G, 86 PA, 4 HR, 0 SB, .284 AVG, .376 OBP, .554 SLG

    As Christian Yelich remains mired in a prolonged funk, it's taken a village to keep the Milwaukee Brewers offense going. For that, All-Star catcher Omar Narvaez and newcomer shortstop Willy Adames should take a bow.

    So too should Luis Urias.

    Previously, Urias was on the bad end of what looked like one of the worst trades in recent memory. He came to Milwaukee in November 2019 by way of a deal that outfitted the San Diego Padres with Zach Davies and Trent Grisham. As they played well in 2020, Urias hit just .239/.308/.294 with the Brewers.

    Urias still wasn't hitting much through the first two months of 2021, as he ended May with a sub-.700 OPS. Yet he has an .842 OPS since then, with as many homers (11) in 246 plate appearances as he had in his first 592 plate appearances in the majors.

    The 24-year-old has gotten even hotter since the break, drawing an even number of walks (10) and strikeouts (10) with nearly a 50 percent hard-hit rate. In all, a good reminder that he was one of baseball's elite prospects before getting a dose of humility in 2020.

RHP Frankie Montas, Oakland Athletics

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    Kelvin Kuo/Associated Press

    2021 Stats: 24 G, 24 GS, 136 IP, 134 H (16 HR), 152 K, 39 BB, 4.04 ERA, 101 ERA+, 1.3 rWAR

    Since June 26: 9 G, 9 GS, 53.1 IP, 43 H (3 HR), 65 K, 18 BB, 2.87 ERA

    With wins in 12 of their last 17 games, the Oakland Athletics have gotten hot and closed to within 2.5 games of the Astros for the lead in the American League West.

    Among other things, this recent stretch has been a showcase for Chris Bassitt and a sort of redemption story for fellow ace Frankie Montas.

    After originally signing with the Boston Red Sox in 2009, it wasn't until 2017 that Montas got his big break with the A's and not until 2019 that he found a groove with a 2.63 ERA in 16 starts. But then, of course, came a performance-enhancing drug suspension and an ugly 5.60 ERA upon his return in 2020.

    Montas kept struggling through June 21 of this season, at which point he had a 4.79 ERA after an eight-run dud opposite the Texas Rangers. But then he had a novel idea: Why not make his splitter his primary pitch?

    That's exactly what he's done since June 26, and the plan has succeeded, as his splitter has held batters to an .098 average since then. In tandem with hard stuff that he can run up around 100 mph, that's apparently all Montas needed to recapture his fleeting glory of 2019.         

RHP Cal Quantrill, Cleveland

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    Tony Dejak/Associated Press

    2021 Stats: 33 G, 15 GS, 102.2 IP, 95 H (9 HR), 80 K, 34 BB, 3.24 ERA, 141 ERA+2.9 rWAR

    Since July 17: 7 G, 7 GS, 41.0 IP, 30 H (2 HR), 37 K, 14 BB, 1.76 ERA

    It's been something of a bleak season for the Cleveland team that will soon be known as the Guardians, but at least the squad has stuck to its recent knack for digging up gold on the mound.

    Case in point, Cal Quantrill.

    As he's the son of a former big league pitcher and a top-100 prospect as recently as 2018, it was perhaps inevitable that Quantrill would break out in the majors. But it was a process. He put up an ERA north of 5.00 as a rookie for the Padres in 2019, after which he mostly pitched out of the bullpen.

    That's obviously changed this year, and especially as Quantrill has started going deeper into games as a starter since the All-Star break. And he's done so in a decidedly throwback fashion.

    In lieu of trying to rack up strikeouts, the 26-year-old has leaned heavily on his sinker and slider to generate weak contact. With a ground-ball rate over 50 percent and his average exit velocity at a paltry 83.5 mph since July 4, it's fair to say this approach is working.      

LHP Patrick Sandoval, Los Angeles Angels

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    Marcio Jose Sanchez/Associated Press

    2021 Stats: 17 G, 14 GS, 87 IP, 69 H (11 HR), 94 K, 36 BB, 3.62 ERA, 128 ERA+, 2.4 rWAR

    Since May 17: 14 G, 14 GS, 79.2 IP, 63 H (8 HR), 86 K, 31 BB, 3.39 ERA

    The popular narrative is that the Los Angeles Angels can't pitch, which...OK, fair enough. It's not as if their 4.70 ERA suggests otherwise, after all.

    It's no secret, though, that the Angels are in good hands when Shohei Ohtani takes a break from slugging home runs to toe the mound. And even he hasn't been as good as Patrick Sandoval since the middle of May.

    The 24-year-old had his moments in 2019 and 2020 but not enough of them as he ultimately posted a 5.33 ERA across the two seasons. So it went at the outset of his 2021 season, as he joined the Angels as a reliever in May and promptly coughed up a 6.14 ERA through three appearances.

    He's been a different guy since moving into the rotation on May 17 and not just because he's throwing a little harder than he did in his first two seasons. His stupendous changeup has been his main weapon, as it's held hitters to a .135 average with 51 strikeouts since he became a starter.

    Factoring in that Sandoval also has a ground-ball rate above 50 percent in this span, he's quietly among the more dominant pitchers in baseball right now.   

RHP Jameson Taillon, New York Yankees

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    Mary Altaffer/Associated Press

    2021 Stats: 23 G, 23 GS, 118 IP, 109 H (18 HR), 116 K, 35 BB, 3.89 ERA, 110 ERA+, 2.1 rWAR

    Since July 6: 8 G, 8 GS, 48.1 IP, 35 H (4 HR), 43 K, 14 BB, 1.68 ERA

    It's not all because of their new-look offense that the New York Yankees have won 20 of their last 28 games. Their pitching has actually led the way in posting a collective 3.25 ERA.

    In the process, Jameson Taillon has perhaps supplanted $324 million ace Gerrit Cole as the Bombers' top hurler.

    He may only be 29 years old, but Taillon has already has what you could call a "book-worthy" career. Though he was billed as a future ace after the Pittsburgh Pirates tabbed him with the No. 2 pick in the draft in 2010, two Tommy John surgeries and testicular cancer are among the things that have held him back.

    What the Yankees are seeing now, however, is akin to the tantalizing version of Taillon that the Pirates saw back in 2018. His fastball is sitting at a solid 94.0 mph, and he's effectively re-weaponized his curveball by throwing it for strikeouts both in and out of the zone. Hitters are batting just .179 against it since July 6.

    Should Taillon be striking out more guys? Probably. But as long as he keeps the ball in the yard as well as he has been, the Yankees will gladly live with more of the same.

RHP Logan Webb, San Francisco Giants

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    Jeff Chiu/Associated Press

    2021 Stats: 17 G, 16 GS, 85 IP, 71 H (7 HR), 90 K, 26 BB, 2.96 ERA, 141 ERA+, 2.1 rWAR

    Since May 11: 10 G, 10 GS, 53 IP, 35 H (4 HR), 57 K, 12 BB, 1.53 ERA

    Atop the San Francisco Giants starting rotation is a pair of aces in Kevin Gausman and Anthony DeSclafani, but what if neither is actually the team's best pitcher right now?

    For his part, Logan Webb has a better ERA than every pitcher except Jacob deGrom since May 11. And since deGrom is currently out with right elbow inflammation, logic dictates that Webb is therefore the best pitcher in all of MLB right now.

    There are, of course, holes in this argument. Among them is the reality that Webb, 24, missed all of June with a shoulder injury. And because he's thrown over 100 pitches only once this season, he also doesn't have the workhorse factor of a proper ace.

    Yet Webb's recent excellence is believable because it's flowing from three verifiably dominant pitches. His sinker is one of the game's best in terms of run value, and his slider (.119 AVG vs. RHB) and changeup (.074 AVG vs. LHB) have done their jobs marvelously since May 11.

    In short, the impressive display that Webb put on during spring training is proving to be the real deal. Even if he's only good for six innings a pop, he should be a major X-factor for the Giants in October.

                                   

    Stats courtesy of Baseball Reference, FanGraphs and Baseball Savant.

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