6 players outperforming their 2020 selves

June 24th, 2021

Last year was a tough year for everybody. Even if you made it through 2020 with your head above water, no one’s ever going to classify '20 as “a good year.” No one was at their best last year. It’s OK if, on some things, you take a bit of a mulligan.

There are certainly a fair share of baseball players who had been excellent heading into 2020 and then, for any of a variety of reasons (shortened season, COVID-19 protocols, simple bad luck and poor timing), just had a lousy year. They had to wonder, heading into '21: Was that an anomaly? Or is this who I am now?

We’re just over 60 games into the 2021 season, which means we’ve surpassed what was played last year. Here are six guys who have definitively proven that their down '20 seasons were a fluke: They are back to being their best selves again.

1. Nolan Arenado, 3B, Cardinals
The Cardinals have had a difficult start and a wretched few weeks, but you can’t blame Arenado. After an injury-plagued 2020, in which he put up the worst numbers of his career (how in the world did he hit .253 at Coors Field?), Arenado has looked closer to his old self this year. His numbers have dipped a bit because of a cold streak lately, but that’s the same cold streak that everyone in St. Louis is suffering through right now. Based on OPS+, which adjusts for park effects and 100 represents league average, Arenado is at 129 this year and was at 86 in 2020. And he has 14 homers after hitting eight in last year’s 60-game season. Arenado looks healthy, active and motivated. His last year in Colorado was his worst. He’s closer to the Arenado we know now.

2. Nick Castellanos, OF, Reds
Castellanos was a remarkably consistent hitter for Detroit before being traded to the Cubs at the Deadline in 2019 and becoming an absolute monster, putting up a 1.002 OPS in 51 games and looking like a guy who had found his place in the National League. (He was even a little better on defense than you might have thought.) That made him an ideal target for the Reds, who brought him in as a free agent for their big '20 run. He hit for some power, but he put up the lowest batting average and OBP of his career. It’s fair to say he has turned it around. His batting average went from .225 last year to a league-leading .340 so far this season. (He also leads the Majors in hits and doubles.) He hasn’t sacrificed power either: Castellanos is only one homer behind last year’s pace. And he might just get himself elected to the All-Star Game.

3. Yuli Gurriel, 1B, Astros
Gurriel had been a steady, low-key pillar of the Astros' offense for a few years before 2020 got away from him. He only hit .232, and he had just six homers after a 31-homer season in '19. Gurriel can forget that now, though, thanks to his '21 season, in which he’s the best hitter in that offense and one of the best hitters in baseball. He’s hitting a full 100 points higher than last year, and he’s nearly doubled his homer total as well. Gurriel has gone from one of the weakest links in Houston's offense to its MVP.

4. Ketel Marte, CF/2B, D-backs
Back when the D-backs looked like up-and-comers, way back in 2019, Marte looked like a star for years to come, smashing 32 homers, getting on base at a .389 clip and finishing fourth in NL MVP Award voting. Unfortunately, like everything else with the D-backs that year, it all came crashing down in '20. Things aren’t going much better for the D-backs in '21, but when he has been healthy, Marte has been Marte again. The power hasn’t returned, but he sure is hitting the ball, with an eye-popping .366 average. Unfortunately, the health is again an issue: He left Tuesday night’s game with a left hamstring injury. But when he’s in the lineup, he has been great.

5. J.D. Martinez, DH/OF, Red Sox
Of the 142 qualified position players on the FanGraphs WAR leaderboard for 2020, Martinez, the guy who had finished fourth in American League MVP Award voting just two years before, was last. Last! The '20 season was a nightmare for Martinez, but now it’s as if that year never existed. (If we could all be so fortunate!) Martinez is back over .300 after hitting .213, and he has doubled his home run total already. He also was playing for a last-place team in '20. Now? He’s playing for a contender.

6. Bryan Reynolds, OF, Pirates
Reynolds finished fourth place in Rookie of the Year Award voting in 2019 and had the look of a professional hitter from his very first game: You wondered if he was going to win a batting title someday. Then he went out and hit .189 in '20. Not only is he back over .300 in '21, he has also elevated his walk rate and boosted his power. He looks like a guy who might just hit .300 and 30 homers this year. The question now is: At 26, does he have more value as a Pirate, or as a guy the Pirates trade?