Not too early to say these big bats are back

April 12th, 2021

Usually, less than two weeks of baseball action wouldn’t be enough of a sample size to make any definitive judgments. But after last year’s shortened season, the positive signs we’re seeing early on from a number of accomplished players who struggled at the plate in 2020 might mean a whole lot.

After all, 2020 bore little resemblance to a typical year. The 60-game campaign was played amid a pandemic with no fans in the stands. It came after a four-month layoff. And players also had to adjust to a new rule -- one that is no longer in effect -- that prohibited in-game video. It wasn’t exactly easy for hitters to develop a routine.

With baseball returning to a sense of normalcy in 2021, it’s not too early to say these nine star hitters are back.

, 2B, Astros
Nothing went right for Altuve in 2020 -- during the regular season, at least. In the wake of the Astros' sign-stealing scandal, the 2017 American League MVP hit .219 with a .629 OPS in 48 games, and the underlying metrics weren’t much better. But after busting out of his slump in the postseason with five homers and a 1.229 OPS in 13 games, the 30-year-old has carried it over into 2021.

Altuve has struck out only four times in his first 42 plate appearances, and he’s made hard contact (95+ mph exit velocity) on half of his batted balls. The second baseman’s .369 expected batting average, based on quality of contact and real-world strikeout numbers, says it all.

, 3B, Cardinals
Arenado remained a defensive stalwart last season, but his offensive production plummeted as he battled a left shoulder injury. Prior to 2020, Arenado was one of the game’s most consistent hitters, belting 37 homers or more in each season and recording the following OPS marks from ’15-19: .898, .932, .959, .935 and .962, respectively.

Dealt from the Rockies to the Cardinals in a stunning trade back in February, the 29-year-old hasn’t seemed to miss the hitter-friendly confines of Coors Field. He’s reached base in each of his first nine games with St. Louis, hitting two homers as well as a 110.6 mph double -- his hardest batted ball in five years.

, 3B, Cubs
We knew Bryant wasn’t 100% healthy last season, but we didn’t know the extent of his injuries. The third baseman revealed in March that he played most of 2020 with a fractured left wrist and ligament damage in his left ring finger. Now back to full health, Bryant seems determined to put last year’s disappointing performance behind him before heading to free agency this offseason.

Through his first nine games, the third baseman is sporting a .928 OPS, as he’s tallied six extra-base hits (two homers) and five walks in 36 plate appearances. After recording only five barrels on 91 batted balls in 2020, Bryant has barreled three balls already. Turns out having two fully functioning hands is pretty important at the plate.

, SS, Astros
The second Astro on this list, Correa has kept pace with his double-play partner Altuve, hitting .333/.400/.583 with two homers and three doubles in nine games. The 26-year-old has been demolishing the ball, recording a 53.7% hard-hit rate and producing four batted balls with an exit velocity of 110+ mph -- including a 116.4 mph single, the third-hardest ball in MLB this season -- after maxing out at 109 mph in 2020.

An impending free agent like Bryant, Correa seems poised for a strong rebound campaign after posting a career-low .709 OPS in 2020. Whether he can stay healthy is another story. The shortstop appeared in 58 of Houston’s 60 games a year ago, but he hasn’t played more than 110 games in a season since 2016.

, DH, Red Sox
An outspoken opponent of the decision to ban in-game video usage, Martinez saw his production fall off a cliff last season. He hit .213 with seven homers and a .680 OPS, a far cry from the stellar numbers he put up from 2014-19.

But in the early stages of 2021, Martinez is looking like his old self. Boston’s designated hitter went deep three times against the Orioles on Sunday and became the third player since at least 1901 to record an extra-base hit in each of his first eight games to start a season, joining Sandy Alomar Jr. (1997) and Alex Rodriguez (2007).

, INF, Dodgers
While bad luck played a part in Muncy’s .192/.331/.389 finish last season (his expected slugging percentage was .477), his diminished sweet-spot and hard-hit rates didn’t help matters. Muncy not only has reversed course in both metrics this season, he's also become much more difficult to strike out, with the lowest chase rate in MLB (8.3%) and only four K’s in his first 39 plate appearances.

Entering Sunday, the 30-year-old was leading the NL in on-base percentage and had an eye-popping .379/.538/.586 slash line.

, RHP/DH, Angels
Ohtani’s two-way brilliance has made him a must-see attraction this season. A national audience watched Ohtani pitch and hit in the same game for the first time in his career on April 4, and the 26-year-old didn’t disappoint, flashing 101 mph heat on the mound and crushing a 115.2 mph, 451-foot homer in the first inning.

A blister has delayed Ohtani's second start of the season, but he’s continued to rake in the meantime. Ohtani was tied for the Major League lead with seven barrels entering Sunday's games, and he's registered six extra-base hits (three homers) with a 1.039 OPS over his first 36 plate appearances, up from a .657 OPS in 2020.

, C, Yankees
Sánchez’s ability to mash baseballs has never been in doubt, but the same can’t be said about his ability to make consistent contact. The catcher struck out in 36% of his plate appearances last season, contributing to a .147 average and a .618 OPS, and there was some question as to whether the Yankees would bring him back.

New York ended up retaining Sánchez, and it’s looking like a wise choice. The slugging backstop went down on strikes less than 19% of the time over his first 27 plate appearances. Breaking balls and offspeed pitches were especially problematic for Sánchez a year ago, but he was 5-for-12 (.417) with a homer, a double and one strikeout against such offerings through Saturday.

, 2B, Blue Jays
Semien has a new team, a new position and a reinvigorated swing in 2021. Pay no mind to his .205 average and .279 OBP. The veteran infielder has been hammering the ball, posting a 57.1% hard-hit rate and slugging three homers in his first nine games.

Semien’s second (109.5 mph) and third (108.6 mph) homers of the year are his two hardest batted balls since Statcast began tracking in 2015, and his xSLG through Saturday was .506, a sizable increase over his 13th-percentile figure (.344) from 2020.