Baseball is supposed to be fun. That might come as a surprise to Pirates fans, but it’s true. So in the lead-up to the past nine seasons, I’ve compiled a position-by-position list of the most exciting players to watch that year. These are players worth changing the stream over to when they’re at the plate or on the mound. Or maybe not, since they consistently make highlight plays that will end up on SportsCenter the following morning.
This list is, by its nature, subjective. For instance, I love watching extremely aggressive hitters and base runners, even if they’re less efficient. I love a great changeup, but I think sliders are boring. Regardless of your preferences, though, these are 21 of the most exciting players in the league.
First Team: Alejandro Kirk, Toronto Blue Jays
This is not a great year for fun catchers. Kirk tops the list, though it’s anyone’s guess how many big league plate appearances he’ll get—and how many of those will even come behind the plate. Kirk is most famous for his physique, which makes Willians Astudillo look like Triston McKenzie. A better comparison might be to the Death Star, because Kirk is not only round but extremely powerful. The 22-year-old made his MLB debut last year, having skipped Double-A and Triple-A, but in about a full season’s worth of action in the low minors (151 games), he hit .315 with 89 walks, 60 extra-base hits, and only 60 strikeouts.
Wherever Kirk plays, he will provide a fascinating combination of hit tool and power. And in the (admittedly unlikely) event he remains behind the plate for long, he could become an impact player.
Second Team: Will Smith, Los Angeles Dodgers
For the past few years, the best catcher in baseball has been either J.T. Realmuto or Yasmani Grandal, depending on which of the two was swinging the bat better at any given moment. Smith is set to make it a Big Three—at least until Baltimore’s Adley Rutschman gets called up to make it a Big Four. Smith forced his way into the Dodgers’ lineup in 2019 but hasn’t been able to squeeze Austin Barnes out and establish himself as the full-time, 130-starts-a-year-type starter. That has to change this year, as he’s one of only a handful of players in the world capable of catching every day and hitting the middle of a lineup as deep as the Dodgers’.
First Team: Vladimir Guerrero Jr., Toronto Blue Jays
In last year’s post, I embedded Vladito’s star-making Home Run Derby performance from 2019. And you know what? I’m gonna do it again.
The former no. 1 prospect hasn’t quite put it all together in the majors, but hitters this talented come along … if not once in a generation, then not much more frequently than that. He can match someone like Pete Alonso for power while also employing a more aggressive and entertaining approach at the plate, spraying rockets all around the diamond in addition to launching moon-shot home runs. Fans of Evan White or Matt Olson might ask questions about Guerrero’s defense—and reasonably so—but the best defense is a good offense.
Second Team: Ji-Man Choi, Tampa Bay Rays
Choi is a very large, very bendy man who’s famous for doing the splits at first base. (MLB.com released a three-minute highlight reel of all of Choi’s splits from last year’s playoffs. It’s like he heard the Rays talking about “payroll flexibility” and thought he’d get a huge raise if he showed off his pliable connective tissue.)
The left-handed hitter also tried switch-hitting in the middle of a game against the Blue Jays last year and took Anthony Kay deep in his second at-bat from the right side.
Choi also absolutely owns Gerrit Cole: He’s 8-for-12 lifetime against Cole with three walks and three homers. First basemen tend not to be the kind of player you’d describe as “chaotic,” but weirdness follows Choi wherever he goes.
First Team: Ozzie Albies, Atlanta Braves
Albies has been one of the premier second basemen in the majors since the moment he was called up in 2017, but a wrist injury in 2020 all but scuttled his campaign. Not only did he miss a month (about half of the shortened regular season), but he hit just .159 while trying to play through the injury. After returning to the lineup in early September, Albies hit .338/.372/.581 in the last 18 games of the regular season, then he hit two home runs into the Atlanta bullpen in the first two games of the NLCS.
The best player at a position isn’t always the most exciting player, but that’s the case here.
Second Team: Nick Madrigal, Chicago White Sox
It would be logically inconsistent to note bat-to-ball ability as a foundational skill of entertaining ballplayers and then omit Madrigal from this list. The question about Madrigal as a prospect was whether his hit tool would make him an instant star, or whether a player of his small stature would get the bat knocked out of his hands in the majors. The answer to both seems to be: “Yes.” Through 29 games last year, Madrigal had only three extra-base hits—all doubles—and he walked just four times. But he also hit .340, which boosted his wRC+ to 112. There hasn’t been a hitter quite like Madrigal in recent baseball history; even slap-hitting gods like Ichiro and José Altuve had more power, and Juan Pierre and Ben Revere relied more on their speed. Either he’ll grow into more power and become a star, or he’ll remain a unique but effective big league regular.
First Team: Matt Chapman, Oakland Athletics
Good defense at third base is one of the most beautiful things in all of sports. The greatest players at the position are frequently described as “catlike” because they display a combination of quickness, power, and grace that we don’t really associate with humans. Chapman somehow manages to play with both the big-dude-flinging-himself-all-over style of a Scott Rolen or Manny Machado, and the quieter, quickness-based game of Adrián Beltré.
Also he can really hit. He has a career OPS+ of 127, which almost feels like an afterthought for a defender this good.
Second Team: Ke’Bryan Hayes, Pittsburgh Pirates
We are living in an exciting time for third basemen. There’s Chapman, Machado, Nolan Arenado, Alex Bregman, and numerous others. Alec Bohm is one of my favorite hitters to watch in all of MLB, and he might not be among the top 15 most fun third basemen—the position is just that deep.
So I’ve decided to highlight a player who might not be a household name yet, but will be soon.
Ke'Bryan Hayes went 5-for-5 last night.— Pirates (@Pirates) September 27, 2020
The kid can hit. pic.twitter.com/zy7FvvN33s
Hayes played just 24 big league games last year, but he hit his way into a few Rookie of the Year votes with his .376/.442/.682 slash line. Hayes also had 14 extra-base hits in 95 plate appearances; Kyle Lewis, who won the 2020 AL Rookie of the Year award, had 14 extra-base hits in 242 plate appearances. And Hayes’s best attribute is not his bat, but his glove.
First Team: Fernando Tatis Jr., San Diego Padres
If Tatis isn’t the biggest star in the game now, he ought to be soon. His numbers are eye-popping, but the most impressive thing about him is the way he plays. Tatis has occasionally been error-prone in the field and ridiculously aggressive on the bases, but not in a way that suggests a lack of judgment. He’s not making mistakes: He’s testing the sport itself for weaknesses.
The best players are the ones who destroy conventional wisdom about what’s tactically advisable—or even physically possible—in a sport. Babe Ruth swinging for the fences, Steph Curry shooting 30-foot jumpers, Patrick Roy popularizing the butterfly. Tatis runs the bases and plays defense like he wants us to talk about him in those terms 15 years from now. And, it bears repeating, he’s a 22-year-old shortstop with a .301/.374/.582 batting line in just 143 big league games.
Second Team: Francisco Lindor, New York Mets
Everyone who’s paid attention to baseball for the past five years knows exactly how good Lindor is and how entertaining he can be. Even so, I’m excited to see what he does in 2021. Lindor became one of the most famous and universally beloved players in baseball during his time in Cleveland, and that was while playing for a smaller-market team. Putting a player of his talent and personality on an up-and-coming Mets team in New York could turn him into a Derek Jeter–type national celebrity. The sky is the limit.
First Team: Randy Arozarena, Tampa Bay Rays
For reasons I’m not entirely sure I understand, a majority of the most-entertaining corner outfielders are playing right field this year. I considered just pretending that Juan Soto and Joey Gallo were moving back to left, but instead I’m putting Arozarena atop the list.
Arozarena was the story of the 2020 postseason. After a January trade brought him from St. Louis to Tampa, Arozarena was forced to quarantine ahead of the 2020 season. He ate nothing but chicken and rice and passed the time by doing 300 push-ups a day, and voilà, by October he was hitting like Sylvester Coddmeyer III.
His October breakout was too huge to ignore, but also too sudden to trust, which makes him one of the players to watch in 2021. FanGraphs rated Arozarena—a 26-year-old with 42 big league games under his belt—as the no. 4 prospect in all of baseball heading into this year. Either he’s as good as advertised, in which case we should all eat more chicken, or he’ll revert to being an OK outfielder with big power and a slightly frantic defensive and baserunning style, which would be fun to watch regardless.
Second Team: Christian Yelich, Milwaukee Brewers
Yeah, he hit .205 last year, but it was a very short, very weird season. And even though Yelich had to suffer through two months of “Rey Ordóñez called, he wants his batting average back” jokes, the 2018 NL MVP still walked enough and hit for enough power to post a 113 wRC+. I’m inclined to believe the old Yelich will return and bring his old brand of high-contact, high-power offense back with him.
First Team: Byron Buxton, Minnesota Twins
Sure, there’s a high likelihood that Buxton will have suffered a freak injury between the time I file this piece and the time it runs. But he is so fast it beggars belief.
Speed shows up all over the diamond: not just stolen bases, but in defensive range and the ability to take the extra base. Buxton, when healthy, gets as much mileage out of his legs as any player in baseball. That makes him the most dynamic defensive center fielder in the sport and one of its most dangerous base runners.
Second Team: Luis Robert, Chicago White Sox
Robert looks like the kind of person who can hit a baseball 487 feet. He’s sturdily built, in the same way as those World War II artillery pieces that had to be moved on train lines and take the curvature of the Earth into account when aiming.
But he’s also a plus defensive center fielder who stole nine bases last year, which projects out to 26 steals over a 162-game season. Sure, Robert strikes out too much, but you go to the ballpark to see what happens when he makes contact. Just make sure you’re wearing a hard hat if you’re sitting in the outfield seats.
First Team: Ronald Acuña, Jr., Atlanta Braves
Second Team: Bryce Harper, Philadelphia Phillies
I picked these two for the same reason, so rather than write separate blurbs, I’ll just explain why: Acuña and Harper have two of the prettiest swings in baseball. Their bat speed and power are awe-inspiring, of course, but it’s not just that. It’s the fluidity of their actions—the freedom of motion. Both of these guys swing like they’re in a ballet about lumberjacks, and it’s really incredible to watch, particularly for a right-handed hitter like Acuña. Other aspects of their games diverge—Harper is the more patient hitter, Acuña the better defender and base runner—but at the plate, they’re compelling for the same reason.
They also both understand that baseball is showbiz. That coming up with the big hit is great, but if you can sell it to the crowd, that’s even better. Sometimes Harper goes a little overboard and comes off as pandering or attention-seeking, but that’s not necessarily a bad thing. MLB is only recently, and only tentatively, starting to embrace the personality-driven model that’s turned the NBA into a round-the-clock 12-month tabloid bonanza. If baseball is going to keep up, it needs personalities like these.
Shohei Ohtani, Los Angeles Angels
Shohei Ohtani, over the batter’s eye, against Shane Bieber. pic.twitter.com/6jmipxLknW— Fabian Ardaya (@FabianArdaya) March 16, 2021
First base is the least interesting position on the diamond, and designated hitter is where people who are too boring to play first base go. But not every DH has a swing as sweet as Ohtani’s, or can pitch effectively at the big league level. Also, Ben Lindbergh is standing behind me with a lead pipe threatening to do me in if I don’t carve out a spot for Ohtani on this list, so here we are.
First Team: Ian Anderson, Atlanta Braves
Anderson burst onto the scene as a rookie last year with a 1.95 ERA in his first six regular-season starts. Then, he posted an 0.96 ERA in four postseason starts as the Braves pushed the Dodgers to seven games in the NLCS. As the most promising player from a pretty disappointing 2016 draft, Anderson is already generating lots of chatter about how he could have slipped to no. 3 in that class. And there are good reasons for that: No high school right-hander has ever gone no. 1. If that streak had ended in 2016, it would’ve been Riley Pint and his 104 mph heater who broke it, not a pitcher from the part of New York we should’ve just given back to Canada in the Treaty of Paris.
The second reason Anderson wasn’t the no. 1 pick in 2016 is that he wasn’t throwing the Big Freeze from Backyard Baseball in his draft year. He sure is now, though.
Every year, some rookie pitcher goes bonkers in October and is heralded the following year as a potential Hall of Famer. Most of the time that hype is unwarranted, but Anderson could be the exception.
Second Team: Yu Darvish, San Diego Padres
After a decade as one of the premier power pitchers in baseball, Darvish now throws 11 distinct pitches. That’s a level of versatility and experimentation that—if it came from Johnny Cueto or Zack Greinke—would elicit rapturous comparisons to Luis Tiant. And Darvish is still throwing his fastball at an average of 96 mph.
First Team: Devin Williams, Milwaukee Brewers
Williams allowed one earned run last season. One. He has the 97 mph heater that seems to be a prerequisite for pitching effectively in an MLB bullpen these days, but he also has the Airbender.
there was a wide array of answers, some amazing blast from the past honorable mentions, and genuine debate about Mariano's cutter. we brought up the airbender as the only pitch in baseball with a chance to unseat our final answers. but when I watch this, man...— Bobby Wagner (@bwags) March 24, 2021
Watch that clip more than twice and you’ll start going “Neeeyawwww” like a child playing with a toy airplane. Williams has faced only 167 batters at the major league level, so maybe all the hype is premature. On the other hand, he’s faced only 167 batters at the major league level and his changeup already has a nickname.
Second Team: James Karinchak, Cleveland Indians
Karinchak finished second to Williams last year in strikeout rate among relievers, but he’s on this list for qualitative reasons. Anyone who wears no. 99 while closing for Cleveland is going to invite comparisons to Rick Vaughn from Major League. Those are big shoes to fill, and Karinchak is universally considered weird enough to fill them. Karinchak’s drop-and-drive delivery bottoms out as he engages his legs, like Clayton Kershaw or an overburdened Chevy Cavalier going over a speed hump.
James Karinchak is his own hype man.— Cleveland Indians (@Indians) February 26, 2020
Check the post strikeout cellys. pic.twitter.com/NIyXnHc6kN
And then there’s Karinchak’s gorgeous rainbow of a curveball, the kind of pitch that required the baseball ancients to start using the word “yakker.” All this in a pitcher who exudes a bizarre, almost nervous energy on the mound. Great relievers convert saves so routinely they run the risk of becoming boring, but it’s hard to see that ever happening to Karinchak.