Breaking Down the Best MLB Units in 2021: Cs, INFs, OFs, Bench, SPs and RPs
There is no shortage of articles ranking MLB players by position, league, age, production or something else entirely.
We're going to try something a little different.
Rather than ranking individual players, we set out to name the best multi-player units in baseball. The goal is to decide which team has the best catchers, infielders, outfielders, bench, starting pitchers and relief pitchers.
We're focusing solely on 2021 production, so previous track record and future projections were not a factor. We are simply looking for which team has the most productive unit this season.
Best Catching Unit: Tampa Bay Rays
He ultimately found his way back to Tampa Bay on a new one-year, $3 million deal that includes a 2022 club option. But the Rays also added some competition for the starting role in former top prospect Francisco Mejia, whom they acquired in the Blake Snell blockbuster.
That duo has started all but one game behind the dish for the Rays this year and posted the following combined stat line in the process:
- 505 PA, .235/.309/.504, 56 XBH (31 HR), 76 RBI, 75 R, 4.3 WAR
Zunino, 30, was an All-Star for the first time this year. His 26 home runs trail only Salvador Perez among all backstops. On top of his offensive production, he is also one of the game's best pitch framers, and the pitching staff has a 3.61 ERA when he's in the crouch.
Mejia, 25, is hitting .263/.323/.429 with 20 extra-base hits, and he has thrown out 32 percent of base stealers on the year. He has also done a solid job handling the staff with a 3.87 ERA behind the plate.
Honorable Mention: Arizona Diamondbacks, Cincinnati Reds, Los Angeles Dodgers, Milwaukee Brewers, Minnesota Twins, Oakland Athletics, San Francisco Giants
Best Infield Unit: Atlanta Braves
After a slow start, reigning NL MVP Freddie Freeman is once posting elite numbers. The 31-year-old is hitting .337/.413/.543 with 15 home runs and 41 RBI in 74 games since the beginning of June, and his 3.5 WAR on the year ranks fifth among all first basemen.
Second baseman Ozzie Albies has been one of the most productive players at the position since his first full season in 2018, and this season is no different. He has a 103 OPS+ with 22 home runs, 84 RBI and an NL-leading 32 doubles. He also has a career-high 16 steals in 18 attempts and provides Gold Glove-caliber defense.
Shortstop Dansby Swanson is hitting .322/.372/.594 with 10 home runs in 36 games since the All-Star break. The 27-year-old already has career-highs in OPS+ (109), hits (126), doubles (29), home runs (25) and RBI (75).
The biggest surprise has been Austin Riley, who looked like the weak link after posting an 84 OPS+ in 503 plate appearances over his first two seasons. The 24-year-old has a 131 OPS+ with 23 doubles, 27 home runs and 76 RBI, and he has also made significant strides defensively at the hot corner.
With three more home runs from Albies, the 2021 Braves will become only the second team in MLB history to have all four primary infielders tally 25 home runs, per ESPN Stats & Information's Jared Berson, joining the 2008 Florida Marlins.
Honorable Mention: Chicago White Sox, Houston Astros, Los Angeles Dodgers, Milwaukee Brewers, San Diego Padres, Seattle Mariners, Tampa Bay Rays
Best Outfield Unit: Cincinnati Reds
With George Springer, Eloy Jimenez and Luis Robert all missing considerable time and Cody Bellinger struggling through a down year, the Toronto Blue Jays, Chicago White Sox and Los Angeles Dodgers narrowly missed the cut for the title of MLB's best outfield unit in 2021.
That leaves the Cincinnati Reds as the pick.
The corner outfield duo of Nick Castellanos and Jesse Winker both rank among the MLB leaders in a number of offensive categories:
- OPS+: Winker (140, T-13th), Castellanos (137, T-21st)
- BA: Castellanos (.319, second), Winker (.307, eighth)
- OBP: Winker (.395, fifth), Castellanos (.377, 13th)
- XBH: Winker (57, T-ninth), Castellanos (54, 15th)
- TB: Winker (235, T-11th), Castellanos (226, 20th)
Joining them is Tyler Naquin, who earned a spot on the MLB roster on a minor league contract and is earning $1.5 million on a one-year deal. The 30-year-old is hitting .268/.333/.482 for a 105 OPS+ with 22 doubles, 18 home runs and 66 RBI.
There are undoubtedly better defensive trios than this group, but their top-tier offensive production earns them the nod for top outfield unit in 2021.
Honorable Mention: Boston Red Sox, Chicago White Sox, Houston Astros, Los Angeles Dodgers, Philadelphia Phillies, San Diego Padres, St. Louis Cardinals, Toronto Blue Jays
Best Bench Unit: San Francisco Giants
The San Francisco Giants have had 16 different players tally at least 100 plate appearances this season, and that group does not count prized deadline pickup Kris Bryant.
Wilmer Flores (358 PA, 102 OPS+, 15 HR, 44 RBI), LaMonte Wade Jr. (249 PA, 123 OPS+, 16 HR, 41 RBI) and Darin Ruf (230 PA, 151 OPS+, 14 HR, 33 RBI) have all been extremely productive in utility roles. They've helped to bridge the gap with veterans Brandon Belt and Evan Longoria both missing significant time because of injuries.
Homegrown players Steven Duggar and Austin Slater have also seen semi-regular time in the outfield, though Duggar was recently optioned to Triple-A now that Bryant can provide corner outfield depth as well.
Aside from having a ton of playable depth, the Giants have also slugged an MLB-leading 14 pinch-hit home runs.
Honorable Mention: Los Angeles Dodgers, Oakland Athletics, San Diego Padres, Tampa Bay Rays, Washington Nationals
Best Starting Rotation Unit: Milwaukee Brewers
The Los Angeles Dodgers lead the majors with a 2.90 starters' ERA, but injuries and off-the-field issues have thinned their rotation considerably.
The Milwaukee Brewers aren't far behind with a 3.11 ERA, and they have a trio of bona fide aces atop the staff that have helped lead them to the top of the NL Central standings.
- Brandon Woodruff: 24 GS, 2.48 ERA, 0.94 WHIP, 167 K, 145.1 IP
- Corbin Burnes: 21 GS, 2.13 ERA, 0.91 WHIP, 175 K, 127 IP
- Freddy Peralta: 22 GS, 2.45 ERA, 0.94 WHIP, 164 K, 121.1 IP
All three of those guys could finish in the top 10 in NL Cy Young voting, but the staff goes deeper than that trio. Most teams need to go at least six starters deep over the course of a season, and the Brew Crew also have three quality back-end starters behind their ace-caliber arms.
- Adrian Houser: 20 GS, 3.44 ERA, 1.33 WHIP, 82 K, 107.1 IP
- Brett Anderson: 19 GS, 4.15 ERA, 1.31 WHIP, 51 K, 82.1 IP
- Eric Lauer: 13 GS, 3.59 ERA, 1.25 WHIP, 76 K, 77.2 IP
Hard-throwing top prospect Aaron Ashby has also made three spot starts, and he could make a major impact as a multi-inning weapon out of the bullpen down the stretch.
Honorable Mentions: Chicago White Sox, Houston Astros, Los Angeles Dodgers, Oakland Athletics, San Francisco Giants
Best Bullpen Unit: Tampa Bay Rays
The Tampa Bay Rays bullpen has chewed through an MLB-leading 533.1 innings this season.
With Charlie Morton and Blake Snell both departing during the offseason and Tyler Glasnow lost to Tommy John surgery, more pressure has fallen on the relief corps to prop up the pitching staff. They've responded with an MLB-best 3.05 ERA.
That success has come despite myriad injuries and significant roster turnover.
There are currently 13 relief pitchers on the injured list for the Rays, including standout closer Nick Anderson and hard-throwing setup man Pete Fairbanks. The club also traded away Diego Castillo at the deadline in exchange for JT Chargois and Austin Shenton.
Regardless of who the Rays plug into the pen, they continue to find success.
From first-time All-Star Andrew Kittredge (44 G, 1.41 ERA) to reclamation project Collin McHugh (27 G, 1.30 ERA) to 31-year-old rookie Louis Head (20 G, 3.16 ERA), they continue to plug and play better than any organization in baseball when it comes to building a bullpen.
Honorable Mention: Chicago White Sox, Cleveland, Los Angeles Dodgers, Milwaukee Brewers, New York Yankees, San Diego Padres, San Francisco Giants
All stats courtesy of Baseball Reference and accurate through Monday's games.