We are not yet at the halfway point of the 2021 season, but we are very close. We’ve gone long enough, in fact, that anything “surprising” should stop feeling like it has come out of nowhere: After half a season, a “surprise” starts to resemble just a normal thing that’s happening.
Every team has someone who has jumped up this year, going above and beyond what anyone could have seen coming. So here's a look at the player from each team who has been the most pleasant surprise so far. Some of these players are total shocks; some recovered from a rough 2020; some were good but became great. But all of them have been welcome successes for their team, and their fans, this year.
AMERICAN LEAGUE EAST
Blue Jays: Robbie Ray
So this was the pitcher the Blue Jays dreamed they might be getting, someone who is effective and healthy at the same time -- something he hasn’t been in a while. Now they just need two or three more of him.
Orioles: Cedric Mullins
Mullins established himself as a regular last year, as someone the Orioles could count on in their lineup. But turning into a superstar? Did even he see that coming?
Rays: Andrew Kittredge
Sure, sure: Rays reliever breaks out and is dominant, news at 11. But Kittredge threw eight innings last year. Now he might be one of the best, most valuable relievers in the game.
Red Sox: Nick Pivetta
For a team that has been as generally surprising as the Red Sox, they haven’t had many guys who came out of nowhere. But Pivetta has become a stabilizing influence in that rotation, which few could have seen coming.
Yankees: Gary Sánchez
People are all over Sánchez all the time, and have been for years, but he’s one of the hitters the Yankees haven’t had to worry about this year.
AMERICAN LEAGUE CENTRAL
Cleveland: Emmanuel Clase
He didn’t pitch in 2020, and while he’s been a little wild, no homers in 30-plus innings will absolutely do the trick.
Royals: Danny Duffy
It’s not every day that a guy just shows up -- after a decade with his team -- and puts together a Koufax-esque season for you, but the Royals surely do not mind.
Tigers: Akil Baddoo
He got all the headlines for his first at-bat, but he remains the best hitter on this team.
Twins: Byron Buxton
Not a lot of happy surprises for the Twins this year, but Buxton -- while not being able to remain healthy -- added power to his game in a way that is truly scary.
White Sox: Carlos Rodón
It was obviously Yermín Mercedes for much of the year, but now that he has slowed down, it’s Rodón, who has been the best starter on this staff. There was also the business of that no-hitter.
AMERICAN LEAGUE WEST
Angels: Jared Walsh
I mean, it’s surprising that Shohei Ohtani has stayed healthy, but lineup-wise, Walsh has been nearly as good a hitter.
Astros: Luis Garcia
The Astros knew he had great stuff, but who in the world could have counted on him to be a rotation mainstay?
Mariners: Drew Steckenrider
Another reliever just showing up and being dominant. The Mariners actually have a few of these guys.
Rangers: Adolis García
Do not forget that every team in baseball passed up García on waivers just last year.
NATIONAL LEAGUE EAST
Braves: Austin Riley
Riley had some initial excitement, but his free-swinging ways blunted his natural talent in his first two years. He has settled down and been a monster for the Braves this season.
Marlins: Trevor Rogers
Of all the young Marlins starters people were excited about, Rogers was rarely picked as the one most likely to bust out and be the best of the bunch.
Mets: Taijuan Walker
With all the (completely understandable) attention given to Jacob deGrom, Walker’s elevation to No. 2 starter status has barely been noticed. But he has been fantastic.
Nationals: Kyle Schwarber
The Nats just hoped he’d be a helpful lineup piece, but his recent surge has sent him flying up leaderboards in a way he never did in Chicago.
Phillies: Ranger Suárez
In 2020, Suarez gave up nine earned runs in four innings. This year, amidst a wild Phillies bullpen, he has given up three in 29. That’s, uh, an improvement.
NATIONAL LEAGUE CENTRAL
Brewers: Omar Narváez
As much as you might want to go with a pitcher, it’s actually pretty amazing that Omar Narváez is doing this, right?
Cardinals: Tyler O'Neill
The Cardinals have been waiting for years, hoping he could become something remotely close to what he’s doing now. Will we see him in the Home Run Derby?
Cubs: Craig Kimbrel
Lots of happy surprises for the Cubs this year, but having Kimbrel actually be better than he was in Atlanta has to be near the top.
Pirates: Adam Frazier
Frazier hit .230 in 2020. He is batting around 100 points higher and has led the NL in hits at multiple points this season.
Reds: Wade Miley
The D-backs, Red Sox, Mariners, Orioles, and Astros waited a decade for this Wade Miley to return. The Reds finally got him.
NATIONAL LEAGUE WEST
D-backs: Pavin Smith
The D-backs surely didn’t expect Smith to be leading their team in hits this year, but they will take all the good news they can get at this point.
Dodgers: Albert Pujols
It’s surprising enough that Pujols is, you know, playing for the Dodgers. But how about the fact that he’s outslugging Mookie Betts, Justin Turner and Cody Bellinger?
Giants: Buster Posey
You could probably pick anyone on this team, but Posey sat out the 2020 season, making this even more stunning.
Padres: Tommy Pham
Pham had been a mess since joining San Diego, but over the last month, he has been one of their best hitters.
Rockies: Ryan McMahon
McMahon finally turned it on for them this year, while everything else seems to be crumbling apart.