Ranking the Biggest Surprises of the 2021 MLB Season

Brandon Scott@@brandonkscottFeatured Columnist ISeptember 19, 2021

Ranking the Biggest Surprises of the 2021 MLB Season

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    This has been an MLB season full of surprises, from the San Francisco Giants emerging as one of the top teams in baseball to watching trade deadline fire sales from recent World Series champions like the Washington Nationals and Chicago Cubs.

    Or how about watching movie-themed broadcasts, like ESPN's "May the Fourth Be With You" to promote Star Wars, and Fox's "Field of Dreams" game that turned out to have as much drama as a motion picture?

    This piece will focus on individual performances, selected based on expectations for a given player's role versus how their seasons have panned out.

    But first, let's consider some of these storylines.

    There was in-season fallout concerning pitchers using foreign substances, and now they're getting checked between every inning. Never thought I would see the day.

    An MLB record nine no-hitters have been recorded, and the Cleveland Indians have been on the wrong side of three of them.

    Speaking of no-hitters, remember when Diamondbacks pitcher Tyler Gilbert threw one in his first career start?

    Speaking firsts in a career, there was also Padres reliever and San Diego-native Daniel Camarena hitting a grand slam off Max Scherzer the day he was called up.

    Future Hall of Famer Albert Pujols had an unceremonious exit from the Los Angeles Angels in a year they were expected to contend in the American League West.

    When Javier Baez was still with the Cubs, he helped his team steal a run in one of the most bizarre defensive blunders you will ever see.

    I'm sure we're leaving some meat on the bone. Feel free to drop your biggest surprises in the comments.

    Here are the surprise players of 2021.

Honorable Mentions

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    C Will Smith, Los Angeles Dodgers

    SS Brandon Crawford, San Francisco Giants

    2B Nicky Lopez, Kansas City Royals

    3B Ty France, Seattle Mariners

    RF Teoscar Hernandez, Toronto Blue Jays 

    3B Austin Riley, Atlanta Braves

    2B David Fletcher, Los Angeles Angels

    SS Willy Adames, Milwaukee Brewers

    SS Wander Franco, Tampa Bay Rays

    CF Cedric Mullins, Baltimore Orioles

    SP Luis Garcia, Houston Astros

    LF Jesse Winker, Cincinnati Reds

    RP Ryan Pressly, Houston Astros

10. SP Julio Urias, Los Angeles Dodgers

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    The plan was always for Urias to take the next step this season, but he's been even better than expected. With Walker Buehler and Max Scherzer at the top of the rotation (and Trevor Bauer before his legal issues), Urias gets less attention.

    Urias joins his teammates Buehler and Scherzer as the Dodgers' starters boast a combined WHIP of 1.02

    While wins may not be the best way to determine a pitcher's effectiveness, and Urias enjoys some of the best run support from the Dodgers lineup, it's still surprising to see him with the most wins in baseball (18).

    The Dodgers had been careful with Urias since shoulder surgery ended his 2017 season. He became a full-time starter in last year's shortened 60-game season when he started 10 games.

    Urias stepped up this season and has been efficient doing so.

    He's throwing the fourth-fewest pitches per inning (15.07) in the National League and fourth in MLB for walk rate per nine innings (1.87).

9. SS Amed Rosario, Cleveland Indians

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    When Cleveland traded Francisco Lindor and Carlos Carrasco to the New York Mets in January, it was understood coming back would be two of the Mets' highest-rated prospects developed over the past decade in Rosario and Andres Gimenez.

    What we did not expect was for Rosario, at least in the early part of it, to make a case for the best player in the trade.

    That's not to be ridiculous and suggest Rosario is better than Lindor. However, their slash lines are comparable this year, with Rosario performing above his career average (.279/.316/.405 in 2021; .271/.306/.403 for career) and Lindor performing below it (.231/.327/.407 in 2021; .279/.344/.479 for career).

8. SP Carlos Rodon, Chicago White Sox

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    Rodon was supposed to be the fifth starter for the White Sox this season, but at times has shown signs of being an ace. Rodon is 12-5 with a 2.38 ERA and a 0.96 WHIP, along with 175 strikeouts.

    His 12.63 strikeout rate per nine innings is also impressive.

    This is quite the bounce-back season for someone who posted an 8.22 ERA in only 7.2 innings last season and a 5.19 ERA in 2019, though advanced numbers were kinder to Rodon at that time.

    Rodon's FIP in 2019 was 3.62 and 4.89 last season, which is still high but not nearly as disastrous as what 8.22 would seem to indicate.

    Now, his FIP (2.67) is much closer to the ERA, and overall he's made tremendous strides in 2021.

7. 1B Yuli Gurriel, Houston Astros

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    When Gurriel signed a one-year contract extension last year with a club option for 2022, it was in the midst of a down year. The Astros showed faith in Gurriel, an important piece to their World Series infield that's still intact for now.

    Gurriel posted a career-worst .232/.274/.384 slash line with six home runs last season. There was a legitimate case for Gurriel, now 37, having his best days behind him.

    Not so.

    Gurriel started Saturday ranked third in batting average (.313), second in on-base percentage (.379) and third in plate appearance-strikeout ratio (8.97) among American League hitters.

    Gurriel has also set a new career-high in walks this season (55).

6. SP Trevor Rogers, Miami Marlins

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    If you asked before the season which Miami Marlins pitcher would contend for 2021 NL Rookie of the Year, it would have been Sixto Sanchez. That was how it looked entering spring training until Sanchez experienced right shoulder discomfort in a March 31 simulated game.

    The injury was bad enough during rehab that Sanchez underwent season-ending shoulder surgery, setting the stage for fellow rookie Trevor Rogers to emerge.

    Rogers boasts a 2.71 ERA with 1.17 WHIP. Both his 141 strikeouts and 122.2 innings pitched led all NL rookies as of Saturday.

    It's been a struggle for Rogers since being named a National League All-Star this year. He spent some time on the injured list with lower back muscle spasms and all of August for personal matters.

    Rogers' three September starts so far have yielded a 4.97 ERA. However, before the All-Star break, Rogers had an ERA of 2.31, so the Marlins still have to be pleasantly surprised with what they saw from him early.

5. C Salvador Perez, Kansas City Royals

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    Catchers are not supposed to age like Salvador Perez. Or maybe the 31-year-old is setting a new standard.

    Either way, Perez has never been as impressive as he's been this season, and it was already well-established how great of a player he is.

    His 2021 slash line of .276/.317/.549 is above the career average (.270/.302/.463), after posting career last year (.333/.353/.633) in a small sample size of 37 games played.

    Perez has been in a three-man race with Vladimir Guerrero Jr. and Shohei Ohtani for the Major League lead in home runs. Perez hit his 45th home run of the season last Thursday to tie Johnny Bench's record for most homers in a season by a catcher.

4. CF Bryan Reynolds, Pittsburgh Pirates

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    If there is anything for Pirates fans to be excited about during this difficult time for the franchise, watching Reynolds return to being the player they saw in 2019 has to be toward the top of the list.

    Let's face it–The Pirates are pitiful right now. Bless those who remain dedicated.

    Reynolds, though, is a silver lining.

    After an initial rookie slash line of .314/.377/.503 in 2019, he regressed significantly in an overall odd 2020 campaign (.189/.275/.357).

    The numbers are up to .299/.386/.515, while posting a wRC+ of 140 and a WAR in the top 12 (5.0).

3. SP Wade Miley, Cincinnati Reds

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    It's always reasonable to expect Miley to be solid. He's been known as a reliable middle-of-the-rotation starter ever since he made his only All-Star game as a rookie in 2013.

    However, he's a step above that in 2021. Aside from a no-hitter earlier this year that got lost in the shuffle of no-hitters, Miley's ERA is down to 3.09, which is the lowest it's been when he's started more than 16 games.

    Miley is also among the WAR leaders for pitchers (5.9), tied with Walker Buehler and trailing only Zack Wheeler, Robbie Ray, Gerrit Cole and Max Scherzer.

2. SP Robbie Ray, Toronto Blue Jays

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    With Ray, the issue has never been talent—it's consistency. He's been that in 2021, making his progression all the more surprising.

    Ray went from leading the league in walks (by far) last season to becoming the Blue Jays' ace and a contender for the AL Cy Young Award this year.

    His 2.64 ERA is the lowest it's ever been, as is the 1.01 WHIP.

    Sort of like with Gurriel in Houston, it seemed odd when the Blue Jays brought him back in free agency on a one-year deal worth $8 million.

    Who pays that for the league's leader in walks?

    Well, Ray is leading the league in strikeouts now with 233. In August, he also set a new MLB record for most strikeouts by a pitcher through the first 1,000 innings of their career.

1. RF Kyle Tucker, Houston Astros

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    Tucker has been arguably the best hitter in baseball since May, and even before then, he was hitting the ball hard into unlucky spots.

    From May 2 to Sept. 18, he led MLB with a .328 batting average and ranked second in the AL in OPS (.992), trailing only Vladimir Guerrero Jr.

    On the season, Tucker entered Saturday ranked ninth in the AL in average (.295) and fifth in OPS (.905).

    He showed glimpses of this last year, but it was hard knowing what to make of 2020 to any extreme. His 27 extra-base hits last year tied for sixth in the AL. However, the Astros still had a logjam of older, veteran outfielders in Michael Brantley, George Springer and Josh Reddick that took up playing time.

    Brantley is the only one of that trio still in Houston and has played well when healthy this season, but now he's passing the torch to Tucker as the building block of the Astros' future outfield.