It’s easy to forget this, but baseball is an entertainment venture as well as a competition. Sometimes great competitors are also great entertainers, but not always. The WAR leaderboard doesn’t quite match up with the guys you set alerts for on your MLB.TV Game Changer. So allow us to introduce the 2017 version of the All-MLB.TV Team — the two players at each position that we enjoy watching the most.
First Team: Yadier Molina, St. Louis Cardinals
I’ve long believed that Molina is historically overrated — as one of the most visible members of a Cardinals team that’s won four pennants and two World Series during his tenure, Molina is a very high-profile player. And while the things he’s good at, like handling pitchers and controlling the running game, are ways to produce value around the margins, they pale in comparison to, say, his career 98 OPS+. If I were making a list of the best catchers in baseball, I’d start with Buster Posey and Jonathan Lucroy and probably get quite a way down the list before arriving at Molina.
But his intangible qualities, while overrated, are also a lot of fun. Well, unless you’re Jurickson Profar.
At 34, Molina is entering the “catch him live while you still can” phase of his career. The time to watch him pump up his pitchers and pick runners off first base is running out.
Second Team: Christian Bethancourt, San Diego Padres
This is cheating a little, because Bethancourt isn’t strictly a catcher anymore, but that’s the point. He is going to catch part time, play the outfield part time, and pitch. Two-way players are common at the lower levels of baseball, but MLB hasn’t seen one in over a decade. The experimental nature of Bethancourt’s 2017 season will make it worth watching.
First Team: Joey Votto, Cincinnati Reds
Votto is one of the more studious and creative hitters in baseball, which is a separator not only because first basemen tend to lack top-end athleticism and are judged mostly as hitters. Not too long ago, baseball was full of fun slow-pitch-softball-type guys who swung from the heels, but the Matt Stairs–John Jaha archetype has given way to the likes of Votto, Anthony Rizzo, Freddie Freeman, and Miguel Cabrera. Among those, Votto’s the most fun.
Second Team: Paul Goldschmidt, Arizona Diamondbacks
Everyone knows Goldschmidt’s got that top-end power — perhaps more raw power than any other first baseman in the game — but he also went 32-for-37 in stolen-base attempts in 2016. At 6-foot-3 and 225 pounds, Goldschmidt finished ninth in MLB in stolen bases.
First Team: Javier Báez, Chicago Cubs
This was the toughest position to decide on, because even beyond ignoring your normal “fun because they’re good” guys, like Robinson Canó and Jason Kipnis, I had to leave Rougned Odor off this list, and he’d have made at least second team at every other position. That’s how quickly Báez’s star is rising.
It’s time to talk about the Javy Báez hype train, a vehicle I was certainly complicit in building. Báez spent all of October making spectacular and unusual defensive plays at second base, then picked up in the WBC right where he left off.
Like Molina, Báez is good at things that get overrated because they’re cool, but the other way of looking at it is that he’s good at cool stuff. He’s the only baseball player I’m aware of who’s made his name almost entirely on his skills as a tagger, and he plays like he’s ready to either kiss or murder every other person on the field — sometimes both in the course of a game — and sells the excitement of the game in a way few other players do. As a total package, Báez is unique.
Second Team: José Altuve, Houston Astros
Altuve walks more and hits for more power than he used to, but he’s still an aggressive, high-contact rate hitter with good speed. Even setting aside the obvious humor of anyone that short being good at baseball, Altuve is essentially the blueprint for what I view as entertaining baseball.
First Team: Manny Machado, Baltimore Orioles
Two straight seasons of 35 or more home runs, two straight top-five MVP finishes, and the best thing about Machado remains that he’s a third baseman who never should’ve moved off of shortstop.
Because he’s an Oriole, the Brooks Robinson comparisons come easy, but Machado is the next evolutionary step beyond the Hall of Famer; he’s bigger, stronger, quicker, and has a better throwing arm. He’s like Scott Rolen in that he looks like a cross between a soccer goalie and a jaguar, and Machado’s an even better athlete than the young Rolen was.
Second Team: Adrián Beltré, Texas Rangers
Nolan Arenado has great power, Kris Bryant has great eyes, and Kyle Seager’s got that fun competitive edge, but Beltré is the godfather. He’s an inner-circle Hall of Famer and five-time Gold Glove winner with a reputation for high jinks and hitting home runs from his knees, and at age 37 last year, he hit an even .300 with 32 home runs. Once Beltré retires, we’ll make room for Arenado, Bryant, Seager, and the others.
First Team: Francisco Lindor, Cleveland Indians
Probably the most striking thing about the final two rounds of the WBC was the juxtaposition of Brandon Crawford — who’s a very good defensive shortstop — with Lindor and Andrelton Simmons. Lindor and Simmons made every play Crawford did, and then some, but it all looked so much easier for them. Lindor isn’t quite the same caliber defender as Simmons, who might be the best defensive shortstop ever, but he gets most of the way there in the same gymnastic style. Offensively, Lindor has a similar punchy little-guy game to Altuve. That’s a pretty fun package.
Second Team: Andrelton Simmons, Los Angeles Angels
Simmons makes me think of Tigger from Winnie the Pooh — the top’s made out of rubber, the bottom’s made out of springs.
For what it’s worth, we’re in a golden age of shortstops — you could make a case for 15 or 20 different guys here, depending on what you, personally, find entertaining.
First Team: Yoenis Céspedes, New York Mets
Between the big arm and the big power, Céspedes has always been fun, but since arriving in New York, he’s turned into one of the top power hitters in baseball, and exhibited a flair for the dramatic.
This isn’t strictly on-field, but probably my favorite thing about Céspedes is that he seems to get that being rich and famous is supposed to be fun — hence the cars and the horses. If you’re making $22.5 million a year and you’re worried about looking brash or tasteless, go give your money to someone who’ll enjoy it.
Second Team: Christian Yelich, Miami Marlins
Yelich has always been a personal favorite of mine — he’s got a great feel for hitting, he plays a good left field, and with his 21 home runs in 2016, is growing into a little bit of power in his mid-20s. Plus he had a great World Baseball Classic, as he hit third for Team USA and found himself in the middle of several key rallies in the knockout rounds. I think there’s a batting title in Yelich’s future, and potential for a star turn if the Marlins ever get good.
First Team: Odubel Herrera, Philadelphia Phillies
Center field, like shortstop, is loaded with fun players — because, shockingly, the best athletes get funneled into up-the-middle positions — but Herrera stands out over some more traditionally fun candidates (Jackie Bradley Jr., Kevin Kiermaier, Starling Marté) because nobody else in baseball who’s as good as he is has such an ugly game, outside of maybe Hunter Pence. As a Rule 5 rookie in 2015, Herrera hit .297/.344/.418, and in 2016 he hit .286/.361/.420 and made the All-Star team. All while looking like this:
He has almost 1,200 above-average big league plate appearances, and I have no idea how he even makes contact from that swing. Then there’s his defense, which grades out as average-to-above-average in center, but sometimes looks … um … unorthodox.
Herrera’s an obscure pick just because watching him means you have to watch the rest of the Phillies, which your doctor would say is bad for you, but I look forward to the rest of the baseball-loving world getting to know him.
Second Team: Mike Trout, Los Angeles Angels
Sure, he’s the best player in baseball, not that that’s supposed to matter for its own sake on this list. But the athleticism, skill, and wow factor that makes an athlete great usually also makes that athlete fun to watch. So Trout’s fun for many reasons — his speed, his power, his goofy aw-shucks attitude — but my favorite is the way he takes a pitch. Some hitters remain coiled and ready to act until the ball hits the catcher’s mitt, but the instant Trout decides not to swing he goes rag-doll limp, as if keeping up the pretense that he might swing is just too much effort. And because he’s got one of the best batting eyes in baseball, he does this almost right as the ball leaves the pitcher’s hand. I don’t know if there’s a better example in baseball right now of a player processing the game at a different speed than normal players.
First Team: Bryce Harper, Washington Nationals
A shoulder injury dogged Harper throughout 2016, in which he followed up one of the best seasons ever for a player his age with a more pedestrian 116 OPS+. But assuming he’s at full strength in 2017, he’ll bring back the violent, trebuchet-like swing that made him the most sought-after amateur prospect of his generation.
Beyond that, Harper’s competitiveness often boils over into anger, and while that might not be an ideal quality in, say, an elementary school teacher, it makes him a very entertaining ballplayer. His intensity positively burns through your TV screen.
There is no great drama without conflict, after all.
Second Team: The Mighty Giancarlo Stanton, Miami Marlins
This is another loaded position. Apart from Harper and TMGS, Mookie Betts is an incredibly fun player, José Bautista has a penchant for drama, and Hunter Pence and Yasiel Puig are both one-of-a-kind players.
Stanton and Yelich deserve so much better than the team they’re on.
First Team: Johnny Cueto, San Francisco Giants
There’s not really a wrong answer here, either.
I like Corey Kluber’s sinker/slider combo. I like Marcus Stroman’s pugnacity on the mound. I love Chris Archer’s explosiveness and the way he wears his socks. I like Chris Sale’s wild-ass sidearm lefty delivery, and remain fascinated by how he’s managed for so long not only to get righties out from that arm slot, but to stay healthy. I like Rich Hill’s curveball and hop-skip-and-jump off the mound, Cole Hamels’s changeup, and just about everything about Yu Darvish. I actually don’t like watching Clayton Kershaw that much, because his drop-and-drive delivery has a jolt in it when he strides that makes me think of bottoming out your car on a speed bump, and it makes me cringe every single time.
But Cueto is just fascinating to me. For some reason, he’s never really gotten his due as a true top-level starting pitcher, but he’s as nailed on a 200-inning, 135 ERA+ guy as you’ll find in the game these days, and the way he does it, with his varied pitch mix and big windup, feels more artistic, more human than his peers. He’s got a little bit of that old-man trickery, like a cross between Jamie Moyer and St. Louis Browns–vintage Satchel Paige, only he’s harnessed it into a 31-year-old arm that’s still got a lot of life in it.
They’re all different in their own way, of course, but on some level the big, hard-throwing Texans who have dominated big league rotations in recent years — Kershaw, Noah Syndergaard, Jake Arrieta — all feel to some extent like they came off an assembly line, like we’re going to find out that there’s a gated compound outside of College Station where power pitchers are cloned and grown in tubes. Cueto, with his dreadlocks and Bartolo Colón–starter-kit body, doesn’t fit that mold.
Second Team: Matt Harvey, New York Mets
My favorite pitcher to watch, ever, was Diamondbacks right-hander Brandon Webb, mostly because there’s nothing I love more than a heavy sinker and nobody’s sinker was heavier than Webb’s. But Webb also had a funky, upright delivery …
… that reminds me a little of Harvey’s.
They’re certainly not identical. Webb’s was herky-jerky in a way that suited his sinker, while Harvey’s is compact and smooth in a way that’s suited to his big fastball and hard slider. But for whatever reason, whether it’s the leg drive or arm angle or something else entirely that I can’t put my finger on, I find Harvey’s motion very pleasing to watch.
First Team: Andrew Miller, Cleveland Indians
Last postseason, Miller revolutionized the position of relief ace as Cleveland’s rubber-armed midgame stopper. While Miller’s fun in his own right — a mid-90s fastball, cutting mid-80s slider, and long limbs generated a 44.7 percent strikeout rate in 2016 — I am absolutely enamored with what he represented last year. As a multi-inning fireman, Miller loomed over every Indians playoff game from the fourth inning on, like the Angel of Death, if the Angel of Death wore size 32x40 pants. That’s not a pitcher; that’s a literary figure.
Second Team: Sam Dyson, Texas Rangers
Players on this list tend to be prone to emotional outbursts. That’s a personal preference, because I tend to get into the game more when the players get into it. Acting like you’ve been there before might appeal to some code of Anglo-Saxon stoicism, but it’s easy to get bored with places you’ve already been. Emotional players can be joyful (Trout, Céspedes, and Lindor), combative (Molina and Harper), or a little bit of both (Báez) — either way, it’s fun.
Dyson’s got that edge to him as well. It was Dyson, after all, who sparked the benches-clearing incident in the 2015 ALDS after José Bautista’s bat toss, otherwise known as the most entertaining half-hour of baseball in my lifetime.
Dyson also boasts a fun beard and one of the best sinkers in baseball, a ground ball–generating machine more geared for generating weak contact than missing bats altogether.