MLB Hitter Rankings: Manny Machado, Nolan Arenado Rising; 2021 MVPs Plummeting

Kerry Miller@@kerrancejamesCollege Basketball National AnalystMay 9, 2022

MLB Hitter Rankings: Manny Machado, Nolan Arenado Rising; 2021 MVPs Plummeting

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    San Diego's Manny Machado
    San Diego's Manny MachadoDiamond Images/Getty Images

    "Hot Corner" is taking on a whole new meaning in 2022 with San Diego's Manny Machado, St. Louis' Nolan Arenado and Cleveland's Jose Ramirez among the best hitters in Major League Baseball.

    Based on a combination of contact, power, plate discipline and baserunning, we've cobbled together a ranking of the current 10 best hitters in baseball. (Baserunning is less important than the other three, but that key component of baseball did give some guys a boost.) A report card grade has been assigned for each of the four categories, and rankings are loosely based on each player's average grade.

    Regarding the plummeting MVPs in the headline, both Shohei Ohtani and Bryce Harper were top five when our Brandon Scott ranked the 10 best hitters this preseason. But with both of those stars currently below .300 in on-base percentage, they drop out of the top 10 to make room for players who have actually hit well so far.

    Also of note, both Fernando Tatis Jr. and Ronald Acuna Jr. did not crack the top 10, as the focus here is predominantly on statistics accrued thus far in 2022. Although, with two home runs and three stolen bases in his first eight games back from a torn ACL, Acuna is already making quite the case for the top 10.

    Honorable Mentions: Jazz Chisholm Jr., Eric Hosmer, Ty France, Tommy Edman, Wander Franco, Tim Anderson, J.P. Crawford, C.J. Cron, Rowdy Tellez, Shohei Ohtani, Bryce Harper, Mookie Betts, Ronald Acuna Jr., Fernando Tatis Jr.

    Unless otherwise noted, statistics are current through the start of play on Sunday, May 8.

10. Taylor Ward, Los Angeles Angels

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    Rob Tringali/Getty Images

    Preseason Rank: Not Ranked

    Contact: A

    Taylor Ward is already starting to come back to earth with just four hits in his last 18 at-bats, but he is still leading the AL with a .356 batting average. Ward didn't make his season debut until the Los Angeles Angels' ninth game, but he had seven multi-hit performances in his first 15 games, quickly playing his way into the leadoff spot of an excellent lineup.


    Power: A

    If you had Ward leading the majors in both slugging (.685) and OPS (1.168) one month into the season, step right up and cash what would have to be at least a 50,000-1 ticket. In part-time work over the past four seasons, Ward slugged .388 with a 162-game pace of 15 home runs. But he has six home runs already this season.


    Plate Discipline: A+

    Whether you're buying Ward as a breakout star or writing him off as a small sample size outlier is up to you, but one thing is for certain: He's seeing the ball well.

    You would think in a lineup featuring Mike Trout, Shohei Ohtani, Anthony Rendon and Jared Walsh, Ward would be seeing a lot of "get me over" fastballs just to avoid free passes. To the contrary, Ward is leading the AL with 18 walks drawn (in only 91 plate appearances, no less). He has swung at just 18.7 percent of pitches outside the strike zone, good for second-fewest among players with at least 90 PA.


    Baserunning: D+

    Since the start of last season, Ward is just 2-for-5 on stolen base attempts and has taken extra bases (advancing more than one base on a single or scoring from first on a double) at a rate a bit below the MLB average this year.

9. Steven Kwan, Cleveland Guardians

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    Icon Sportswire/Getty Images

    Preseason Rank: Not Ranked

    Contact: A+

    The Cleveland Guardians are loaded with guys who are hitting for average, and rookie Steven Kwan is one of their best. He had a five-hit performance in just the third game of his career and has continued to deliver at the plate with a .319 average. While it's unlikely he'll become the first rookie with at least 200 hits in a season since Ichiro Suzuki in 2001, he's easily one of the better first-year hitters we've seen in decades.


    Power: D-

    Would've gone with an F here were it not for the inside pitch that he turned on for a barely-cleared-the-fence home run against Toronto on Thursday. Kwan did hit a dozen home runs in the minors last season, but that was the first indication that he could crank one in the big leagues.


    Plate Discipline: A+

    "Swing and miss" isn't in Kwan's vocabulary.

    Among the more than 200 players with at least 70 plate appearances this season, Kwan's 1.9 swinging strike percentage is the best by a mile. He did not strike out once (swinging or looking) in 34 spring training plate appearances, and he saw more than 100 pitches before his first swing and miss in the regular season. He almost never swings at the first pitch, unafraid of falling behind early, since he can foul off anything close later in the AB.


    Baserunning: B

    Kwan has yet to steal a bag and only had six swipes last season. But he does have considerably above-average speed and good instincts on the basepaths. He is always ready to go first to third on any ball hit to the outfield, and getting him to ground into a double play is darn near impossible.

8. Byron Buxton, Minnesota Twins

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    Daniel Shirey/Getty Images

    Preseason Rank: Not Ranked

    Contact: B+

    For his career, Byron Buxton has a modest .250 batting average. But he's at .278 in the early going of this season after ending up at .306 in 2021. He's doing most of his damage on four-seam fastballs, but he has proved he can hit anything. Sliders have given him some trouble so far this year, but he was second-best in the majors against sliders over the past two seasons with the Minnesota Twins.


    Power: A+

    Buxton already has nine home runs in just 79 plate appearances and would be leading the majors in slugging percentage (.722) if he had enough PA to qualify. This was also true last year. But what else is new? We've all known for years that Buxton has the tools to be one of the best in the business when he stays healthy. It's just that qualifier that keeps holding him back and limiting him to zero All-Star Game appearances in his career.


    Plate Discipline: D+

    Buxton has never been particularly patient at the dish. In 2020, he had the lowest walk rate (1.5 percent) among the more than 300 players who made at least 100 plate appearances. For his career, he has averaged nearly five strikeouts per walk. But that ratio is up to a brutal 6.5 this season, as he is striking out in nearly one-third of plate appearances.

    That said, his overall swing percentage is a bit lower than usual48.6 percent after four straight years of 53.0 or higher. He just isn't making contact as well as he usually does. It's still early in the year, but it's something to monitor.


    Baserunning: A+

    Despite the litany of injuries in his career, Buxton is usually an asset on the basepaths. FanGraphs puts him at a 27.5 baserunning runs above average for his career, good for 12th-best among hitters since the start of 2015. Baseball Reference says 21 runs above average. Either one is mighty impressive. Only one stolen base so far in 2022, though he did hurt his right knee just one week into the season.

7. Aaron Judge, New York Yankees

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    Vaughn Ridley/Getty Images

    Preseason Rank: No. 9

    Contact: A

    When you think of Aaron Judge, you probably think of a mountain of a man at the plate who can hit the ball very far when accomplishing the home run portion of his three true outcomes (HR, BB or K) approach. But did you know that Judge hit .287 last year and was batting .303 as recently as Wednesday morning?

    In addition to his nine home runs, Judge has a dozen singles and half a dozen doubles and is oh-so-close to leading the New York Yankees in batting average. (DJ LeMahieu is 0.0006 points ahead of Judge.) He strikes out a lot, but he's pretty good at getting on base in the 70 percent of plate appearances in which he doesn't whiff.


    Power: A+

    Judge is tied with teammate Anthony Rizzo (and others) for the most home runs in the majors. But while Rizzo is taking advantage of the short porch in right field at Yankee Stadium, Judge has been putting balls into orbit. Eight of his nine home runs have come since April 22, one of which was a 453-foot blast to dead center in his first at-bat of May.


    Plate Discipline: C-

    For the sixth consecutive year, fewer than 40 percent of pitches thrown to Judge have been in the strike zone, currently at a nadir of 37.7 percent. Yet, he has only drawn nine walks while striking out 31 times. That 0.29 BB/K ratio is the worst of his career. Judge did lead the AL in each of home runs, walks and strikeouts while winning ROY in 2017, so we'll see if he can harness the power of drawing free passes again.


    Baserunning: B-

    Judge hasn't been much of a runner in his career, but he does already have a pair of stolen bases and is leading the Yankees with 17 runs scored. Granted, he was able to trot around the bases on more than half of those runs, but he's surprisingly agile on the basepaths for a guy who is roughly the same height and weight as Zion Williamson.

6. Jose Ramirez, Cleveland Guardians

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    Thearon W. Henderson/Getty Images

    Preseason Rank: Not Ranked

    Contact: A

    Jose Ramirez is batting .310, and he's doing so with a modest BABIP of .286. In that regard, of all the players batting above .300 right now, Ramirez has actually been the most unlucky on balls in play—that's hard to believe for the man who is leading the majors in RBI.

    Ramirez hit north of .310 in both 2016 and 2017, so this hasn't come out of nowhere. However, it's a remarkable improvement from spending three of the past four years at .270 or below.


    Power: A

    He doesn't look the part at 5'9" and 200 pounds soaking wet, but Ramirez is one of the best sluggers in baseball. Over the previous five seasons, he had a 162-game pace of 36 home runs, slugging .547 with a .912 OPSnumbers slightly worse than those of Bryce Harper and slightly better than those of Mookie Betts during that same time. And Ramirez already has 16 extra-base hits early in the current campaign.


    Plate Discipline: A+

    Among the 105 players with at least 100 plate appearances, only Yandy Diaz (2.0) can hold a candle to Ramirez's 1.6 BB/K ratio. The Guardians third baseman has nearly as many home runs (seven) as he does strikeouts (10), and that's in spite of a 5.7 swinging strike percentage a bit higher than his career average. He's already seeing the ball extremely well, and there might even be some positive regression coming his way.


    Baserunning: B+

    Ramirez is finally starting to run. After no stolen bases in April, he already has three in May, now well on his way to a ninth consecutive season with at least 10 steals. He has always been above-average on the basepaths.

5. Vladimir Guerrero Jr., Toronto Blue Jays

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    Icon Sportswire/Getty Images

    Preseason Rank: No. 2

    Contact: A

    Vladimir Guerrero Jr. is easily one of the best "pure hitters" in baseball. While his raw power gets most of the attention, let's not forget he batted .311 last year while leading the majors in total bases (363).

    Guerrero has been in a bit of a dry spell over the past two weeks, batting just .200 in his last 11 games. However, he was sitting at .344 prior to that and is still a respectable .287 on the season. And even during what has been a rough stretch by his standards, he has gotten at least one hit in each of his last six games with the Toronto Blue Jays.


    Power: A+

    Guerrero has only homered twice since April 15, but the power here is undeniable. He led the majors with 48 home runs last season while leading the AL in both slugging (.601) and OPS (1.002). He had a three-HR performance against the Yankees back in the opening week of this season and is a permanent threat to go yard every time he steps up to the plate.


    Plate Discipline: B+

    Guerrero is more aggressive than most at the dish, swinging at more than 53 percent of pitches seen thus far this season. But it's hard to blame him, seeing as how he inherited his dad's uncommon ability to swing at pitches more than a foot out of the zone and deposit them in the outfield seats. And for as much as he does swing, he still walks on better than 10 percent of plate appearances and strikes out in fewer than 20 percent of them.


    Baserunning: C-

    Pops was a respectable base stealer in his career, but Junior doesn't much dabble in that art with just eight attempts (five successful) in 372 career games. (He was thrown out in his only attempt this season.) He also grounds into double plays at an above-average rate. As far as FanGraphs is concerned, Guerrero's baserunning has been worth negative-10.3 runs above average.

4. Juan Soto, Washington Nationals

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    RJ Sangosti/MediaNews Group/The Denver Post via Getty Images/Getty Images

    Preseason Rank: No. 1

    Contact: A

    Juan Soto's batting average (.260) is down a good bit from the previous two seasons (.322), but he does already have nine multi-hit games and appears to be heating up for the Washington Nationals. And if there's one player who couldn't care less about MLB's plans to banish the shift, it's Soto. His spray chart is about as evenly distributed as it gets.


    Power: A

    Soto has power. He couldn't have hit 98 home runs from 2018-21 without it. And last year's Home Run Derby served as proof that he can mash the ball. But even with the six early homers this year, Soto isn't the type to go up there swinging for the fences. He wants to take what the pitchers give him. And, sometimes, that means a moonshot. 


    Plate Discipline: A+

    Soto is the standard-bearer for plate discipline. That doesn't mean he's leading the league in strikeout percentage. In fact, his whiff rate is a bit worse than it was the past two seasons. But Soto is the patron saint of patience at the dish, drawing walks on nearly 20 percent of plate appearances.

    This year in particular, he isn't seeing many strikes. Per "Pitch Info Plate Discipline" on FanGraphs, only 42.4 percent of pitches thrown to Soto have been in the zone, which is the lowest rate among qualified batters. And he only swings at 18.8 percent of pitches outside the zone. As a result, Soto is potentially on his way to a third consecutive season leading the majors in OBP.


    Baserunning: B

    Soto isn't much of a threat on the basepaths (12 steals in 19 attempts since the start of 2021), and he does ground into more than his fair share of double plays (25 during the same time frame). That isn't to say he's a liability, but he has been an average baserunner at best. He's 3-for-3 in stolen base attempts just in the past two weeks, though, so maybe things are changing.

3. Nolan Arenado, St. Louis Cardinals

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    Thearon W. Henderson/Getty Images

    Preseason Rank: Not Ranked

    Contact: A+

    Nolan Arenado's batting average dropped off a cliff in recent years. He hit .299 from 2014-19 before plummeting to .253 in 2020 and .255 last year. Nothing quite like making up for lost time, though. Through 26 games, Arenado is sitting at .347. And over his last 11 games, he has struck out just twice.


    Power: A+

    You can take the Arenado out of Coors Field, but you can't take the home runs out of his bat.

    Then with Colorado, the now-St. Louis Cardinals third baseman led the NL in home runs in each of 2015, 2016 and 2018. He also hit 34 four-baggers with St. Louis in 2021 and is on pace for better than 40 this season after launching four round-trippers within his first six games. His .653 slugging percentage ranks among the best in baseball.


    Plate Discipline: A-

    Arenado seems to be seeing the ball better than ever. His current walk rate (10.9 percent) is the highest of his career, and his strikeout rate (13.6 percent) is slightly better than his career average. He does swing at more than his fair share of pitches outside of the strike zone, but his swinging strike percentage is around eight percent for what would be the third consecutive season. In other words, he does sometimes chase, but at least he usually makes contact.


    Baserunning: D+

    Per Baseball Reference, Arenado's "extra bases taken percentage" thus far in 2022 (75 percent) is drastically higher than his career rate (44 percent). But let's not pretend the 31-year-old with just 18 stolen bases in 33 career attempts is suddenly fleet of foot. He does get a good number of doubles and a few triples every year, though.

2. Mike Trout, Los Angeles Angels

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    Ronald Martinez/Getty Images

    Preseason Rank: No. 7

    Contact: A+

    With the exception of a 40-game stint with a .220 batting average in his "pre-rookie" season (2011), Mike Trout has hit at least .281 in each and every season of his MLB career. And despite missing the final 122 games of last season, Trout has been even better than usual in 2022, batting .321 with a 1.096 OPS.

    Splitters have given Trout fits for most of his career, but if you're going to struggle with any pitch, the seventh-most common one isn't a bad choice.


    Power: A+

    Trout has never led the majors in home runs in a season, but he did finish top-five in each of 2015, 2019 and 2020 with the 45 from three years ago serving as his personal best. He has led the AL in slugging percentage three times, though, with more than 600 extra-base hits in his still rather young career. He's already up to six home runs and 15 extra-base hits in 2022.


    Plate Discipline: A-

    For as great as he is, Trout does strike out a fair amount and has gotten considerably worse in 2021 and 2022 in terms of making contact on swings. "Worse" for Trout is still pretty darn good for mortals, though, and even with the 21.5 percent strikeout rate in his career, he makes up for it with lots of walks and a .419 career on-base percentage. He currently has a .441 OBP in 2022. 


    Baserunning: C

    Trout used to run a lot more, stealing 49 bases back in 2012. However, he was already easing off the gas prior to tearing a calf muscle last season. In 89 games played between the 2020 and 2021 seasons, he only attempted to steal four times, and he has not done so yet this season. To be clear, though, he's not exactly David Ortiz on the basepaths. He's just much more selective now that he's 30.

1. Manny Machado, San Diego Padres

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    Denis Poroy/Getty Images

    Preseason Rank: Not Ranked

    Contact: A+

    Would you say the MLB leader in batting average is a good contact hitter?

    His current mark of .381 is excessive compared to his career norm of .282, but Machado has always been an above-average hitter with the ability to use the entire field. And he can hit anything you throw him. Machado was good for some runs above average on each of the six main pitch types last year, and only the cutter has even slightly tripped him up this year. When he's seeing the ball like he has been for the past month with the San Diego Padres, good luck.


    Power: A

    Similar to Juan Soto, Machado is not so much a slugger as he is a great hitter with a good amount of power. His career high in home runs is 37, and he has eclipsed 30 on five occasions. He's certainly on pace for a sixth such campaign with seven round-trippers already this season. In Thursday's 2-1 victory over the Marlins, Machado's two solo shots provided all of the offense.


    Plate Discipline: B

    Machado has never been one to draw a ton of walks, maxing out at 70 free passes in both 2015 and 2018. But he isn't a hack artist, either, with a career strikeout rate of 16.6 percent. He just prefers to swing at pitches early in the count, averaging 3.57 pitches per plate appearancegood for 155th among the 175 qualified batters. And that's fine. It clearly works for him.


    Baserunning: A

    At the start of play Sunday, Machado was the only player in the majors with at least five home runs and five stolen bases, boasting seven and six, respectively. Stealing bags isn't usually his thing. In fact, he didn't have a single swipe in 2016 and only had five in 2019. But thus far this season, the 29-year-old has been one of the most prolific runners in the league.