An off-beat -- but defensible -- All-MLB Team

November 13th, 2021

The 2021 All-MLB ballot is out, and there are some obvious favorites -- who's not voting for Vladimir Guerrero Jr. or Shohei Ohtani or Max Scherzer?

Well … here's a case for some other deserving candidates you might not think of at first.

This is one out there -- but defensible -- All-MLB Team.

First base: Joey Votto, Reds
Key stat: 1.000 OPS after return from IL

A healthy Votto equipped with an overhauled hitting approach outslugged even Vlad Jr. down the stretch in 2021. Votto traded his classic OBP-driven style for a power-centric approach after a three-game benching during the 2020 season, and this year, once he returned from a broken thumb sustained in May, he was one of the most dangerous hitters in baseball. Votto's 31 home runs, .605 slugging percentage and 1.000 OPS from the day he rejoined the Reds' lineup on June 8 through the end of the season were the highest among regular first basemen, topping Vlad Jr.'s 30 homers, .570 slugging and .952 OPS over that span.

Second base: Brandon Lowe, Rays
Key stat: +3.50 win probability added

Another position where a Blue Jays player seems like the easy choice -- Marcus Semien just set the single-season record for home runs by a second baseman with 45 -- but how about Lowe? Not only did the Rays second baseman crush 39 homers himself, he also led all second basemen in win probability added, per FanGraphs, a stat where he was much better than Semien (+1.43 WPA). From that aspect, Lowe was by far the biggest individual difference-maker in the Rays rolling to an American League-best 100 wins this season.

Third base: Manny Machado, Padres
Key stat: Avg. starting depth of 172 feet when shifting LHB

If you're locked in on offense, José Ramírez or Rafael Devers or Austin Riley stand out at third base. But Machado's numbers were excellent, too (28 homers, 131 OPS+), and he's also a unique defender. Machado routinely starts 200-plus feet deep in the outfield as a rover when the Padres deploy their Machado Shift against powerful left-handed hitters. He's the only infielder who does this with any frequency, and he makes plays no other infielder makes. It works, too -- the Padres have become one of the best teams in baseball at taking away offense from left-handed hitters via the shift since they started using the Machado Shift in 2020.

Deepest 3B when shifting LHB, 2021
Manny Machado (SD): 172 feet
Austin Riley (ATL): 158 feet
Rougned Odor (NYY): 148 feet
Luis Urías (MIL): 148 feet
DJ LeMahieu (NYY): 140 feet

Shortstop: Nicky Lopez, Royals
Key stat: +25 outs above average

How about some points for defense? Lopez was the single best fielder in all of baseball in 2021 by Statcast's outs above average -- by a pretty significant margin, too -- preventing 19 runs for the Royals with his defense. He was also a .300 hitter who stole 22 bases while only being caught once, but this one's all about the glove.

Best fielders by OAA, 2021
Nicky Lopez (KC): +25 (19 runs prevented)
Francisco Lindor (NYM): +20 (15 runs prevented)
Nick Ahmed (ARI): +19 (14 runs prevented)
Matt Chapman (OAK): +17 (13 runs prevented)
Manuel Margot (TB): +16 (14 runs prevented)
Andrelton Simmons (MIN): +16 (12 runs prevented)

Catcher: Mike Zunino, Rays
Key stat: 52 percent called strikes on borderline pitches

With all the respect in the world to the retiring Buster Posey and MLB co-home run champ Salvador Perez, here's the case for Zunino on the All-MLB team. He had a very strong combination in two key areas for catchers: power and pitch framing. Zunino's 33 home runs were second to Perez, and he was also one of the best in MLB at getting strikes on borderline pitches. Zunino's 52 percent called strike rate on the edges of the zone ranked fourth among catchers. Salvy, by contrast, was one of the worst framing catchers in 2021; Zunino saved the Rays six runs from framing, while Perez cost the Royals an MLB-worst 19 runs.

Designated hitter: J.D. Martinez, Red Sox
Key stat: .335 BA with RISP

Yes, it's tough to make a case for anyone not named Shohei Ohtani to be the All-MLB DH. But here's one important area where Martinez stood out: clutch hitting. The Red Sox DH was the best at the position at getting hits with runners in scoring position -- and in the even more critical situation of two outs and runners in scoring position. Martinez's .335 batting average with RISP topped Ohtani's .284 (while his 52 total hits with RISP were third-most of any player), and his .349 average with two outs and RISP topped Ohtani's .268. Martinez also struck out a lot less in those situations (about one in six-to-seven plate appearances to Ohtani's one in four).

Outfield: Kyle Tucker, Astros
Key stat: .395 xwOBA

Tucker's red-hot stretch run helped carry the Astros to the AL West title and eventually into the World Series. He was the best hitter in the best lineup in baseball, despite being overshadowed by Houston's bigger names, and his quality of contact was absolutely elite. Tucker ranked in the 99th percentile of MLB in expected batting average (.303), 96th percentile in expected slugging percentage (.566) and 95th percentile in Statcast's overall offensive stat, expected wOBA (.395). You might think of names like Bryce Harper, Juan Soto and Aaron Judge first, but Tucker is a deserving All-MLB outfield candidate, too.

Outfield: Adam Duvall, Braves
Key stat: 14 HR in high-leverage situations

Duvall hit a lot of home runs in general in 2021 (38 of them), but his greatest strength was hitting them in important moments. His 14 home runs and 20 extra-base hits in high-leverage situations, per Baseball Reference, led all MLB hitters. And his .709 slugging percentage was second highest among hitters who got 100 or more plate appearances in those spots.

Outfield: Jesse Winker / Nick Castellanos, Reds
Key stat: 1.033 OPS (Winker) / 1.016 OPS (Castellanos) vs. winning teams

Call this one a tie between teammates. We're putting Winker and Castellanos on the deserving All-MLB list for the same reason: their stellar performance against strong opponents. Against teams that were .500 or better in 2021, Winker and Castellanos were the two best hitters in the Majors. Winker's 1.033 OPS vs. those opponents ranked No. 1, with Castellanos right behind him at 1.016.

Highest OPS vs. winning teams, 2021
(Min. 200 PA vs. .500+ teams)
Jesse Winker (CIN): 1.033
Nick Castellanos (CIN): 1.016

Fernando Tatis Jr. (SD): .998
Vladimir Guerrero Jr. (TOR): .984
Juan Soto (WSH): .974

Starting pitcher: Carlos ​​Rodón, White Sox
Key stat: 2.62 xERA

Rodón's teammate, Lance Lynn, is the one who ended up an AL Cy Young Award finalist, but there's more than one White Sox ace who's deserving of an All-MLB nod. Rodón, first of all, had the lowest ERA of anyone who threw as many innings as him (132 2/3), and his underlying metrics were also elite. Rodón's expected ERA of 2.62, Statcast's overall pitching stat based on quality of contact allowed, walks and strikeouts, was fourth best among starting pitchers, behind only Jacob deGrom, Corbin Burnes and Lynn.

Starting pitcher: Logan Webb, Giants
Key stat: 68 percent ground-ball + strikeout rate

Webb was one of the best pitchers at keeping the ball out of the air in 2021 -- which is what you want, because that's where hitters do damage. He induced a 62 percent ground ball rate on contact (his average launch angle allowed was actually negative, -0.5 degrees), and he also got a lot of strikeouts, 158 in 148 1/3 innings. Over two-thirds of the hitters who faced Webb either struck out or hit a ground ball, one of the highest rates among starting pitchers.

Highest K+GB% among SP, 2021
Framber Valdez (HOU): 68 percent
Jacob deGrom (NYM): 68 percent
Logan Webb (SF): 68 percent
Corbin Burnes (MIL): 65 percent
Clayton Kershaw (LAD): 63 percent

Starting pitcher: Brandon Woodruff, Brewers
Key stat: +3.61 WPA

Corbin Burnes is the Brewer who's the finalist in NL Cy Young Award voting, but Woodruff had the higher win probability added, which means he had a huge impact on Milwaukee winning games on its way to the NL Central title. Woodruff's +3.61 WPA was second best among starters, per FanGraphs, trailing only another Cy Young Award finalist, Max Scherzer.

Starting pitcher: Walker Buehler, Dodgers
Key stat: -42 run value

Statcast's run value takes the outcome of every pitch a pitcher throws -- ball, strike, single, home run and so on -- and uses it to calculate the runs he costs or saves his team. Buehler had the best run value in the Major Leagues, suppressing 42 runs for the Dodgers in 2021. The pitcher Buehler beat out for the MLB lead by one run? His teammate who got the Cy Young finalist nod, Scherzer.

Starting pitcher: Shohei Ohtani, Angels
Key stat: 57 percent strikeout rate with splitter

On the pitching side of his two-way superstardom, Ohtani threw arguably the most all-around unhittable pitch in baseball in 2021: his signature splitter. Hitters went 11-for-127 against it with 77 strikeouts in 136 plate appearances. Among all starting pitchers' pitch types with 100-plus plate appearances decided on them, Ohtani's splitter generated the second-highest strikeout rate (57 percent), fifth-highest swing-and-miss rate (49 percent), third-lowest batting average (.087) and lowest slugging percentage (.102).

Reliever: Emmanuel Clase, Indians
Key stat: 100.2 mph avg. cutter velocity

Everything starts with Clase's unique, 100-plus mph cutter, the hardest cutter in recorded history. Thanks to that cutter -- which he threw nearly 70 percent of the time and used to generate a 68 percent ground-ball rate that was one of the highest in baseball -- Clase suppressed opposing hitters' contact to the tune of a 2.14 expected ERA, the second lowest among relievers behind only AL Reliever of the Year Liam Hendriks.

Reliever: Jordan Romano, Blue Jays
Key stat: +3.75 WPA

Romano's performance in the big spots meant he had one of the largest impacts on his team winning games of any reliever. Romano had the second-most win probability added among relievers, behind only NL Reliever of the Year Josh Hader, and he was the most clutch reliever in baseball by FanGraphs' Clutch stat. The hard-throwing right-hander had a 1.37 ERA and 11.6 strikeouts per nine innings in high-leverage situations, per Baseball Reference, and a 1.05 ERA and 11.7 K/9 in late-and-close situations.