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Look for these 7 stars to bounce back in '21

@_dadler
January 2, 2021

The 2020 season was a weird year for everyone, but especially for some of MLB's biggest stars. MVP and Cy Young-caliber players slumped uncharacteristically through the shortened 60-game season. Names you'd expect to be at the top of the awards voting were nowhere to be found. But with any luck,

The 2020 season was a weird year for everyone, but especially for some of MLB's biggest stars.

MVP and Cy Young-caliber players slumped uncharacteristically through the shortened 60-game season. Names you'd expect to be at the top of the awards voting were nowhere to be found. But with any luck, those slumping stars will be back to normal next season.

Here are seven superstars we expect to bounce back in 2021.

(All projections for 2021 come from Steamer.)

1. Christian Yelich, LF, Brewers
2020 stats: .205 AVG / .356 OBP / .430 SLG, 12 HR, 4 SB, .786 OPS
2021 projections: .280 AVG / .389 OBP / .531 SLG, 35 HR, 18 SB, .920 OPS

Yelich's big problem in 2020 was that his strikeout numbers went way up, with his strikeout rate increasing from 20.3 percent in '19 to 30.8 percent last year. But he was also hitting the ball as hard as ever. Yelich's average exit velocity (94 mph) and hard-hit rate (55.6 percent) were both career highs and ranked among the top 10 in the Majors.

Highest avg. exit velocity in 2020
1) Fernando Tatis Jr.: 95.9 mph
2) Miguel Sanó: 95.2 mph
3) Christian Yelich: 94.0 mph
4) Mike Trout: 93.7 mph
5) Matt Chapman: 93.6 mph

Yelich will need to get the strikeouts back in line, but remember, he was one of the elite contact hitters in baseball up until last season. The back-to-back batting titles in 2018-19 were no accident. From '14-19, Yelich's strikeout rate hovered around the 20 percent mark every year. If he gets his contact in order next season, the way he squares it up, he'll be back to MVP-level Yeli.

2. Nolan Arenado, 3B, Rockies
2020 stats: .253 AVG / .303 OBP / .434 SLG, 8 HR, .738 OPS
2021 projections: .284 AVG / .358 OBP / .532 SLG, 35 HR, .890 OPS

This is a bet on Arenado's track record. The Rockies' superstar third baseman was so good, and eerily consistent, every single year leading up to 2020. The Arenado stat line was clockwork.

2015: 42 HR | .287 AVG | .575 SLG | .898 OPS | 124 OPS+
2016: 41 HR | .294 AVG | .570 SLG | .932 OPS | 129 OPS+
2017: 37 HR | .309 AVG | .586 SLG | .959 OPS | 130 OPS+
2018: 38 HR | .297 AVG | .561 SLG | .935 OPS | 133 OPS+
2019: 41 HR | .315 AVG | .583 SLG | .962 OPS | 130 OPS+

What's more likely, that the 29-year-old Arenado forgot how to hit in his prime, or that his 2020 stats were an aberration (potentially impacted by a left shoulder injury)? We're banking on the latter.

3. Francisco Lindor, SS, Indians
2020 stats: .258 AVG / .335 OBP / .415 SLG, 8 HR, 6 SB, .750 OPS
2021 projections: .277 AVG / .349 OBP / .507 SLG, 33 HR, 19 SB, .856 OPS

Lindor's offensive production, particularly his power numbers, took a hit in 2020. But he still ranked highly compared to the Majors in nearly all of Statcast's quality of contact metrics, from exit velocity and hard-hit rate to expected batting average and slugging percentage, all with low strikeout and swing-and-miss numbers.

The key to Lindor's home run breakout from 2017-19 was pull power -- he hit 78 homers to the pull field, tied for the most of any hitter. The good news is that, in 2020, he was still pulling line drives and fly balls as often as he was from '17-19. But a lot fewer of them left the ballpark last season (only seven of Lindor's 38 pulled air balls went for homers, 18.4 percent, compared to 26.6 percent over the previous three years). Look for Lindor to drive more of those over the fence in 2021.

Most pulled HR from 2017-19
1-T) Francisco Lindor: 78
1-T) Nolan Arenado: 78
3) Edwin Encarnación: 77
4) José Ramírez: 76
5) Mike Moustakas: 75

4. Cody Bellinger, CF, Dodgers
2020 stats: .239 AVG / .333 OBP / .455 SLG, 12 HR, 6 SB, .789 OPS
2021 projections: .282 AVG / .382 OBP / .568 SLG, 40 HR, 12 SB, .950 OPS

Bellinger was more "overshadowed" than "bad" in 2020, and he had some big playoff moments, but still -- the Dodgers had two top-10 MVP finishers (Mookie Betts and Corey Seager), and neither was the reigning award winner. The projections see Belli returning to that MVP level in 2021, though. He's one of five hitters projected for 40-plus homers, along with Ronald Acuña Jr., Pete Alonso, Giancarlo Stanton and Mike Trout, and he's projected for the third-best OPS behind Juan Soto and Trout. There's plenty of reason to think he could match those projections.

Bellinger's quality of contact was a lot better than his results last season. He was better than 60 percent of the league in exit velocity, hard-hit rate and barrels, and better than 80 percent of the league in expected batting average and slugging percentage. Bellinger was also MLB's best fielder in 2020 by Statcast's Outs Above Average (+8 OAA), and was faster than 90 percent of the league (28.6 ft/sec sprint speed). Bellinger is 25 years old and still has all his tools, so it's a good bet he'll be an all-around superstar again next season.

5. Alex Bregman, 3B, Astros
2020 stats: .242 AVG / .350 OBP / .451 SLG, 6 HR, .801 OPS
2021 projections: .278 AVG / .393 OBP / .527 SLG, 32 HR, .920 OPS

Bregman is entering his age-27 season and was so good from 2018-19 -- when he had 80-plus extra-base hits in back-to-back years -- that it's hard to imagine him not being much better in '21 than he was in a weird '20. Especially when his approach at the plate is still intact.

Bregman kept up his elite plate discipline in 2020 -- he walked nearly as often as he struck out, only chased 18.1 percent of pitches outside the strike zone, only whiffed on 14.7 percent of swings and made contact 91.8 percent of the time when he swung at a pitch in the strike zone. All of those marks ranked near the top of the league. He also hit the ball in the air at the same rate as he did the previous two years. The foundation is in place for a strong 2021.

6. Jack Flaherty, RHP, Cardinals
2020 stats: 4-3, 4.91 ERA, 49 K, 40 1/3 IP
2021 projections: 11-10, 3.97 ERA, 203 K, 182 IP

An ERA close to five from one of the game's top young aces? Don't worry. Flaherty was better than that shows. He was great on Opening Day, but then he couldn't pitch again for nearly a month as the Cardinals dealt with a COVID outbreak. That meant Flaherty could only make nine starts, and couldn't throw as many innings as normal. So his ERA was blown up by one bad game against the Brewers on Sept. 15, when he allowed nine runs in three innings. Throw out that start, and Flaherty's ERA drops to 3.13.

Flaherty's strikeout and swing-and-miss numbers were at the same level in 2020 as they were in '18 and '19, and nothing happened to his stuff (his slider, in particular, continued to be extremely effective). Only the ERA was the problem. Expect Flaherty to fix it.

Flaherty season by season
2018: 10.85 K/9 | 29.6% strikeout rate | 31.6% whiff rate
2019: 10.59 K/9 | 29.9% strikeout rate | 30.9% whiff rate
2020: 10.93 K/9 | 28.8% strikeout rate | 34.5% whiff rate

7. Gleyber Torres, SS, Yankees
2020 stats: .243 AVG / .356 OBP / .368 SLG, 3 HR, .724 OPS
2021 projections: .270 AVG / .350 OBP / .498 SLG, 32 HR, .847 OPS

Torres went from 24 home runs as a rookie in 2018, to 38 in '19 … to three in '20. That's a single-digit home run pace even over a full season. So what happened? There are a few explanations. Torres stopped barreling the ball in 2020 -- his barrel rate dropped from 10.1 percent to 3.7 percent. He was pitched tougher, with 45 percent of the pitches he saw hitting the edges of the strike zone, up from 39.7 percent in '19. And he was maybe a little too selective against hittable pitches, only swinging at 66.9 percent of pitches in the strike zone (down from 75.6 percent in '19) and 69.8 percent of pitches right down the middle (down from 84.9 percent in '19).

The good news is, Gleyber actually had a slight gain in hard-hit rate, he hit fly balls and line drives just as often as in 2018 and '19, and he chased a lot fewer bad pitches. He just needs to combine the hard contact and the air contact like he did before, and find the balance between discipline against bad pitches and attacking good pitches. Why wouldn't a 24-year-old who's already proven his superstar talent on the field be able to do it again?

David Adler is a reporter for MLB.com based in New York. Follow him on Twitter at @_dadler.