These 10 have been MLB's best ... so far

April 23rd, 2021

There’s an old stathead maxim (OK, maybe only like five years old) that you know a season is getting past its chaotic early period and settling into something like normalcy when Mike Trout comfortably rests near the top of the WAR leaderboard. Per FanGraphs, he was actually tied for 13th in 2020 -- that weird year -- but second in '19, '18 and '14, sixth in '17 (when he only played 114 games), first in '16 and '13, and tied for first in '15 and '12.

Well, here we are, on April 23, and Trout is … tied for first place.

That sounds like normalcy to us! So today, we’re going to look at the top 10 qualified* players in fWAR up to this point, including Trout, and will try to guess whether they’re likely to be in the top 10 by the end of the season. It’s a snapshot of the season, but these have been the best 10 players in baseball so far. Can they keep it up? Let’s take a look.

* Byron Buxton's 48 plate appearances leave him short of qualifying among hitters, but his 1.6 fWAR would put him in a tie atop the list.

  1. Ronald Acuña Jr., OF, Braves
    Current WAR total: 1.6

Acuña Jr. hasn’t played since Sunday night, when he left with an abdominal strain against the Cubs, and that he’s still in first place is a sign of just how incredible of a start he was off to. The Braves are hopeful that he can return by Friday, and considering their rough start, every game counts. This has long been considered the likely “breakout” year for Acuña Jr., and he has been electric from the opening bell this year. There are many candidates for The Best Player In Baseball -- Acuña Jr. is going to be one of them for a long time.

Likely to stay in the top 10? Absolutely. Probably for the next decade.

  1. Mike Trout, Angels
    Current WAR total: 1.6

Is it just me, or has Trout come out like he was shot out of a cannon this year? Maybe it’s turning 30 in August, maybe it’s the frustration of still not having won a playoff game, maybe he just thinks this is the best Angels team he’s had in a while, but there’s a clear fire in his belly, no? He’s crushing the ball every night, and, notably, after some Statcast numbers implied that his defense in center might be slipping, he’s been terrific out there, too. Here's hoping the left elbow contusion he suffered on a hit-by-pitch Thursday doesn't keep him out long, because we’re lucky enough to be watching the best baseball player of our generation be brilliant, every night. We’re just blessed.

Likely to stay in the top 10? The only question is whether or not he ends up No. 1.

  1. Tyler Glasnow, Rays
    Current WAR total: 1.4

For years, the book on Glasnow has been that he has had amazing stuff and terrific metrics, but he could never quite get his results to match up with his peripherals. That is no longer an issue. Glasnow has been absolutely dominant every single night, confirming suspicions that for all the talk about Blake Snell and Charlie Morton over the last few years, his was the true booming stuff of Tampa Bay's rotation. The only question about Glasnow is the same question about all Rays pitchers: Will he be allowed to pitch enough to maximize his impact? Though if the Rays even get a chance to pull him early from a World Series game, that’ll be justifiably considered a huge success.

Likely to stay in the top 10? It’s going to be close. Here’s betting the Rays need to rely on him to get into the playoffs and ride him hard all year.

  1. Corbin Burnes, Brewers
    Current WAR total: 1.4

Burnes has been slowly, quietly building up to this for a while -- remember, he had a 2.11 ERA last year -- but his performance so far makes your eyes pop out of your head. Forty strikeouts and no walks! That’s impossible! That’s like a pitcher version of Barry Bonds. How is he not No. 1 on this list? There are some unsustainable numbers on his stat sheet -- 100 percent left-on-base rate, first and foremost among them -- but he is charging through lineups like Jim Brown in the open field. You’re not supposed to be able to pitch like this.

Likely to stay in the top 10? This is so absurd that no human could keep it up. He’s obviously an ace. But top 10? All year? Maybe he has shredded our brains, but we’ll pump the brakes a bit. But just a little.

  1. Gerrit Cole, Yankees
    Current WAR total: 1.4

The Yankees have a lot of issues right now, but Cole absolutely is not one of them. If anything, he needs to be cloned, maybe twice. All the gains that he made in Houston have carried over to New York, and if anything, this year he’s even more important, considering the Yankees’ pitching issues and the first full 162-game season in two years. The Yankees may never need Cole more than they do right now.

Likely to stay in the top 10? Injuries are always a worry for any pitcher, but the Yankees are going to let Cole throw every inning he can.

  1. Clayton Kershaw, Dodgers
    Current WAR total: 1.4

Ha, of course Kershaw is back in the top 10 players in baseball. Remember when we were worried about him? Turns out that inner-tier Hall of Famers have a way of pitching like inner-tier Hall of Famers even when you maybe think that they’re too old to do so. (And Kershaw is still just 33, for what it’s worth.) We’d say it’s just our good fortune to see Kershaw like this, but it’s becoming increasingly clear that Kershaw is just always like this.

Likely to stay in top 10? Will the Dodgers cut down his innings as they approach the postseason? Will he let them?

  1. Vladimir Guerrero Jr., Blue Jays
    Current WAR total: 1.3

Now this is more like it. Guerrero Jr. has been counted on to be a superstar for so long that we forget how young he truly is. (He’s younger than Orioles pending phenom Adley Rutschman.) Now, that temporary ballpark certainly isn’t hurting him any, but it’s clear that offseason training program to get in better shape is working splendidly. Vlad has truly arrived.

Likely to stay in top 10? That .383 average is going to fall, but will it be offset by more power? It’ll have to for him to remain at these heights. But my goodness how fun it is to see him emerging like this.

  1. Jacob deGrom, Mets
    Current WAR total: 1.3

Obviously, “wins” aren’t a part of WAR, which means it only takes into account how truly awesome deGrom continues to be. This year he has an offense behind him (if not a defense), which should help in the traditional stats. But he’s throwing harder than he ever has and generally just being his electrifying self. And when those stands get more full, Citi Field is going to be downright crackling, and soon.

Likely to stay in the top 10? We’d argue he’s the best bet of any of the pitchers on this list to stay here.

  1. J.D. Martinez, Red Sox
    Current WAR total: 1.1

Turns out 2020 was a fluke for Martinez, who is hitting like the monster that the Red Sox signed him to be. (And what he was his first year or so in Boston.) It’s a pure pleasure to see Martinez hitting like this again. And he’s been the key to the turnaround in Boston. Will he pull a Nelson Cruz and keep doing this into his 40s?

Likely to stay in the top 10? You generally need some defensive value to stay this high, and Martinez doesn’t have much of that. He’s not keeping up .361 all year, and to stay here, he’d have to.

  1. Justin Turner, Dodgers
    Current WAR total: 1.1

Well, look who the best Dodgers hitter has been. Turner has been knocking the cover off the ball early this year, hitting .379 and knocking five homers. He hasn’t lost a thing and making sure he came back is looking like yet another smart decision by the Dodgers. Still: .379?

Likely to stay in the top 10. He won’t be leading Dodgers hitters in WAR by the end of the year, and he probably won’t be doing so by June.

The next two qualified players, by the way? Jazz Chisholm and Bryce Harper. Man, these guys are good.