It is not surprising to look at MLB leaderboards and see names like Ronald Acuña Jr. on them. Your current Major League OPS leader is Mike Trout. Of course he is! Your MLB leaders in strikeouts are Shane Bieber, Gerrit Cole and Jacob deGrom. … Yep, that checks out. Most of the superstars, in the early going, are acting like superstars. It’s nice to have some normalcy in this crazy world.
But some rather surprising names that you might not immediately recognize, or at least not immediately expect, have gotten off to fantastic starts this season, as well. Some of these are young players putting it all together; some are veterans elevating their career norms; some are just off to a hot start. But they’ve all been among the best 50 players in baseball to start the 2021 season. Each of them is having an amazing year so far … even if you maybe haven’t noticed.
Danny Duffy, LHP, Royals
Look no further than Duffy as an ideal avatar for the Royals’ “take care of your own guys, reward loyalty and keep players who want to stay in Kansas City” mantra. Duffy, who famously said he wanted to be “buried a Royal” (and then was subsequently the subject of countless trade rumors every July), was drafted by Kansas City way back in 2007, when his current rotation mate Brady Singer was 10 years old. Duffy has made 196 starts in his Royals career -- that’s seventh in franchise history -- but his best stretch of them might be this year. In four starts, he has given up just one earned run, and he has the highest strikeout rate of his career. And look at that: The Royals are in first place. One of just two Royals still around from those 2014-15 World Series teams -- he made five relief appearances in the two combined Series -- he has hung around long enough to see the Royals be good again. He might just be buried a Royal yet.
Ty France, 2B, Mariners
It must have been a bummer for France, who grew up in Southern California, went to college at San Diego State and was drafted by the Padres in 2015, to be traded by San Diego just 89 games into his Padres career in 2020. (He came to Seattle with Taylor Trammell and a few others for Austin Nola and a few others.) But France has blossomed with the Mariners, getting on base at a .406 clip, playing perfectly respectable defense and not missing a single game yet this year. If you’re looking for reasons why the Mariners are off to such a surprising start, France is atop that list.
Tyler Mahle, RHP, Reds
Every time I write “Mahle,” I want to write “Mahler,” as in old Braves (and Reds!) right-hander Rick Mahler. Alas! Mahle has been hanging around the Reds’ rotation for a few years now, to little effect: In 2018 and 2019, he was the weak link for a team that had all sorts of pitching problems already. He took a small step forward in 2020, thanks to a revamped slider, and has now taken a big leap this year, giving up just five earned runs in his first five starts, even shutting down the Dodgers on Monday night. His strikeout rate is way up (from 29.9% last year to 35.3%), and he, as much as anyone, appears to have benefitted from the Reds’ new approach to pitchers in the last few years. So far, he has been this team’s ace. (He’s even been better than former ace Trevor Bauer to this point.)
Cedric Mullins, OF, Orioles
Much of the Orioles’ strategy the last few years has been trying to find diamonds in any rough they can, looking for undervalued assets they can spur toward success by working on their previous flaws and giving them playing time to see if they can be corrected. Mullins never really clicked with the previous administration, but he has figured it out with these guys; he is actually tied for the Major League lead in hits, with 32. He even has added a little power, at least for a 5-foot-8 speedster. He still doesn’t walk much, but nobody’s putting the bat on the ball better right now.
Trevor Rogers, LHP, Marlins
Of all the young Marlins pitchers heading into 2021, Rogers was the one people talked about the least. (If anything, he was just “the left-handed one.”) But that left-handed one currently leads all southpaw starters in strikeout rate (34.9%) and has been the undeniable ace of this staff. He’s even getting Dontrelle Willis comparisons! He’s still very young and has less MLB experience than most of his rotation mates, but you can’t possibly argue with what he’s doing so far.
Nick Solak, 2B, Rangers
The former Yankees prospect has bounced around a bit, but he has clearly found a home in Texas, where he has been the best player on a team that was hovering around .500 until its recent skid. As reported by MLB.com’s own Kennedi Landry, the team has made parallels between Solak and the television character “Dexter,” partly because he kind of looks like Michael C. Hall and partly because … you know what, let’s just hope it’s because he kind of looks like Michael C. Hall. Anyway, he has been a linchpin for a team that needs all the stability it can get, posting a .307/.390/.568 slash line with seven homers, two of them coming on Tuesday night. (How in the world does he have more than three times as many homers as Joey Gallo?)
Alex Verdugo, OF, Red Sox
Well, well, well, look who’s off to a better start than Mookie Betts. All right, so obviously you’d rather have Betts, but Verdugo sure is looking like the star the Red Sox were betting on him being, with an OPS above .900. He has improved on his excellent 2020 and has even added a little bit more power. He’s also holding up defensively, important considering J.D. Martinez has that DH slot booked for the next few years. It was always going to be tough for Verdugo to be The Mookie Replacement. But he’s more than holding his own right now.