The 2021 MLB regular season is nearly down to its final month, and we’ve already seen some pretty incredible achievements so far. Although this season’s normal, 162-game schedule naturally helps to even out aberrant numbers more than last year’s shortened, 60-game slate did, there’s still been no shortage of eye-popping stats. Here’s a rundown of the best and worst — and downright bizarre — outlier performances of the year:
Shohei Ohtani’s all-around MVP performance
The outlier of all outliers this season has to be Shohei Ohtani of the Los Angeles Angels. As we’ve noted before, Ohtani’s combination of hitting and pitching value is unlike anything the game has seen in roughly a century, whether you compare him with a young Babe Ruth in the 1910s or with do-everything Negro Leagues legend Bullet Rogan in the 1920s.
By wins above replacement, per 162 team games, Ohtani has easily been the most valuable all-around player in MLB this season, on pace to finish more than two wins clear of No. 2 Walker Buehler of the Los Angeles Dodgers:
|WAR per 162 games|
|Player||Team(s)||Share of team playing Time||As Batter||As Pitcher||Total|
|Vladimir Guerrero Jr.||TOR||6.8||6.46||0.00||6.46|
|Trea Turner||LAD, WSN||6.4||6.30||0.00||6.30|
|Fernando Tatís Jr.||SDP||5.2||6.19||0.00||6.19|
If that lead holds up, Ohtani’s edge would be the largest since Barry Bonds finished the 2002 season 2.8 WAR per 162 ahead of runner-up Alex Rodriguez, and the sixth-widest margin between Nos. 1 and 2 in WAR since the start of MLB’s expansion era in 1961.
It cannot be overstated just how remarkable Ohtani’s 2021 season has been. He currently ranks second in baseball in total bases behind Toronto’s Vladimir Guerrero Jr., and he is one of just four hitters — along with Guerrero, Bryce Harper and Fernando Tatís Jr. — to boast an OPS of .985 or higher. But he’s a pitcher! Specifically, a pitcher with MLB’s 22nd-best ERA and 22nd-best strikeout-minus-walk differential (among pitchers with at least 100 innings pitched). If Ohtani was either of those things alone, he would be one of baseball’s top players. The fact that he is both, however, makes him arguably the biggest outlier in the history of the sport.
Rockies being Rockies
We’ve written extensively about the Colorado Rockies being an outlier in their very existence — playing as they do at MLB’s highest-elevation home park (by a very wide margin). So weird statistical quirks just come with the territory in Denver.
One has been the team’s historic home-road split, which currently sits at a staggering 400 points of winning percentage between when the team plays at Coors Field (43-22) and anywhere else (17-48). Not only is that overall gap the largest of any team since the divisional era began in 1969, but the 2021 Rockies have the 81st-best home record of any team in that span while simultaneously boasting the 13th-worst road record in the sample. They are truly a totally different team depending on where you happen to be playing them.
(You want more outliers? The Rockies don’t even have the worst — or second-worst! — road record of any team this year. Both the Texas Rangers and Arizona Diamondbacks have been slightly less successful away from their home parks — though unlike Colorado, both of those teams have also struggled greatly at home.)
Even as the team struggles on the road, Colorado has seen some unique individual performances this season. Splitting time between third base and second base, Ryan McMahon currently has +22 defensive runs saved above average, tops in baseball in 2021 and one of the best defensive seasons by an infielder ever. Prior to 2021, he’d never been any better than +7 in any of his four MLB seasons. And before he was injured in early August, left fielder Raimel Tapia had been on a totally different wavelength than just about any other hitter in baseball. His groundball-to-flyball ratio of 2.07 leads MLB by a huge margin, and his 66.9 percent groundball rate is tied with Ben Revere’s 2012 campaign for the highest single-season mark since at least 2002. It’s not what you would expect from a hitter in the place where fly balls sail extra far (and the pitchers have always preached getting grounders), which only adds to Tapia’s outlier status.
Juan Soto’s otherworldly plate discipline
Even as the Washington Nationals struggled — and then traded what felt like their entire roster away — right fielder Juan Soto continued to be one of the best hitters in baseball. Soto leads MLB in on-base percentage, with his .441 mark sitting 24 points ahead of Harper at No. 2. Though that number is somewhat lower than it was for Soto in 2020, when he put up a Ted Williams-like .490 OBP, you could argue that Soto’s already impressive ability to discern balls from strikes is getting even better. For starters, he’s the only qualified batter in MLB this season to have more walks than strikeouts. And according to my metric for “good” decision-making at the plate — which uses FanGraphs’ plate discipline stats to determine how often a batter either swung at pitches in the strike zone or laid off pitches outside it — Soto has made the correct call on 75.4 percent of the pitches he’s seen this season, up from his 72.5 percent rate last season and easily the best good-decision rate of any hitter facing at least 2,000 pitches this year. (Atlanta’s Freddie Freeman is second at 74.6 percent.)
If Soto keeps swinging at strikes and shuffling at balls the same way, he would finish 2021 with the sixth-best plate discipline season since 2010 and become just the ninth batter in that span to record a “correct” decision on at least three-quarters of pitches seen in a season:
Naturally, at age 22, Soto would also be by far the youngest member of the club. If his ability to distinguish balls from strikes is this good at such a young age, it’s scary to think about how disciplined a hitter Soto will be as he gets even more experience under his belt against major league pitching.
Yasmani Grandal’s weird stat line
Chicago White Sox catcher Yasmani Grandal has missed a fair amount of time this season with a knee injury, but when healthy, he has remained among the better backstops in the game. Among catchers with at least 250 plate appearances, only Buster Posey of the Giants has a better OPS than Grandal’s .890 mark this season.
But the way Grandal has done it is utterly bizarre. Grandal has 21 more walks than hits this year and more than three times as many walks as singles. (More than half of Grandal’s hits have come for extra bases.) He’s hitting .207, but his on-base percentage is nearly 200 points higher, at .398. Among batters with at least 250 plate appearances in a season, Grandal is tracking to become the only person in the entire history of MLB to have a batting average of .210 or lower with an OBP of .390 or higher. (The only other player even close was Wes Westrum of the 1951 New York Giants, who hit .219 with a .400 OBP.)
Nicky Lopez is playing a different game
Somewhat similar to Tapia, Kansas City Royals shortstop Nicky Lopez is a player out of a very different era than MLB’s modern one. Lopez is arguably the least powerful hitter in baseball today, with just one home run in 370 at-bats — giving him the highest at-bats-per-HR ratio in MLB this year. (Among other seasons that ended with just a single HR, the record for at-bats is 698 by Matty Alou in 1969, so Lopez will fall well short of that — but not for lack of trying.) Perhaps relatedly, he’s the most prolific bunting non-pitcher in the game, with 10 successful sacrifices on the year; nobody else is even close to double figures.
You might think that laying down bunts 10 times as often as you hit homers isn’t a recipe for success — and it hasn’t been, outside of deadball times. But the real plot twist is that Lopez is actually very good! He’s on pace for 4.2 WAR per 162 team games, a borderline All-Star type of season, because he does just about everything well outside of hitting for power. His baserunning value of +10.0 runs per 162 games ranks second only to the +12.0 of Miami Marlins center fielder Starling Marte, and his total defensive value (including positional value) of +13.3 runs per 162 ranks 15th. Combining those two categories, Lopez’s defense and baserunning have been worth more than 23 runs above average per 162 games, the best mark in baseball.
|Runs per 162 games from …|
|Player||Team||Baserunning||Fielding||Position||Total BsR + DEF|
|Michael A. Taylor||KCR||0.3||15.5||2.6||18.3|
|Starling Marte||MIA, OAK||12.0||1.9||2.2||16.0|
Kevin Newman’s very bad season
With the Pirates tanking fairly openly (once again), excellence was neither expected nor particularly demanded in Pittsburgh this season. And yet, even by those low standards, shortstop Kevin Newman’s performance at the plate has stood out for its lousiness. Newman is essentially the anti-Grandal: He’s currently hitting .220/.259/.303 with a weighted on-base average (wOBA) of .245, making him the worst statistical batter in MLB this season (nearly 10 points of wOBA below runner-up Elvis Andrus of the Oakland A’s). Among qualified batting seasons since 2000, only Chris Davis’s putrid .239 wOBA from 2018 ranks worse than Newman’s 2021 mark.
And just like Davis’s 2018 Orioles, who kept penciling his name into the lineup for nearly the entire season despite his horrible numbers, the Pirates have started Newman 109 times in 131 chances, sometimes even batting him leadoff (like they did on Sunday). While Newman does have a Lopez-like knack for adding value with his legs and glove, his poor hitting has more than swallowed up whatever other positives he brings to the lineup. Newman is on pace for more than 550 plate appearances by season’s end, and if he maintains his current level of wOBA, this would surely be among the worst hitting seasons to ever reach that threshold of playing time.
Austin Adams is going plunking for the record
Pitchers have been hitting batters at historic rates in recent MLB seasons. Last year set a new post-deadball record — 0.46 HBP per game — and 2021 is checking in not far behind, at 0.44. (That’s including a substantial portion of the season being played after pitchers’ use of sticky substances was outlawed, which seems to have slightly increased HBPs since inspections began.) So if any era was going to produce a batter-plunking outlier, it was probably going to be our current one.
But even against that expectation, San Diego Padres pitcher Austin Adams is raising eyebrows with his HBP tally. Adams has plunked a league-leading 18 hitters this season, which is just five shy of the post-deadball record of 23 (set by Detroit’s Howard Ehmke in 1922). What’s extra-impressive is that, unlike every other name above him on that ranking, Adams is a reliever — he’s hit those 18 batters in just 45⅔ innings, meaning he has plunked a batter just about every 2.5 innings on average. Among pitchers with at least 40 innings in a season since the deadball era ended in 1919, that would easily obliterate the old record of 5.0 innings per hit-batsman, set by the Yankees’ Jeff Nelson in 1998.
As MLB.com’s Jason Catania notes, Adams throws a nasty slider, and even he doesn’t always know where it’s heading — but the batter’s body is a good guess a lot of the time.
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