For all the thrills and accomplishments of the 2020 season, there were a number of former All-Stars, MVPs and World Series winners who had down years.
As we wait for the free-agent market to heat up and, eventually, spring training and opening day, let’s look at 10 players in need of bounce-back 2021 campaigns.
Gleyber Torres, SS, Yankees:
2020 Season: .243/.356/.368, .724 OPS, 102 OPS+, 3 HR, 16 RBI, -0.2 bWAR
Torres was my preseason MVP pick entering the 2020 season. His maturing approach at the plate along with his natural talents suggested he would start the new decade off with a bang. He and Pete Alonso appeared together on the cover of Sports Illustrated’s MLB Preview issue, christened as two of the faces of baseball in the 2020s.
That prediction proved to be incorrect. From July 23 to Aug. 12, Torres batted .161 with just two extra-base hits (one home run) and had more strikeouts (13) than hits (9). It was too dreadful a start for him to overcome the rest of the way. He also had a bad defensive year, his -4 outs above average ranking third worst among qualified shortstops, according to Statcast.
When healthy, Aaron Judge is the Yankees’ best position player, but Torres is their most important, with their success over the next five years hinging upon his performance as he enters the prime of his career. His responsibility becomes even greater if DJ LeMahieu does not re-sign with them.
Torres is too talented not to bounce back in 2021, and his final 25 regular-season games suggest he’s already done so. From Aug. 14 through the end of the year, he slashed .300/.411/.463 with nine extra-base hits (two homers). One explanation for this change is his improved plate discipline:
First 17 Games
Final 25 Games
Even in a down year, Torres still posted the best on-base percentage (.356), walk rate (13.8%) and strikeout rate (17.5%) of his young career, albeit in a shortened season.
Javier Báez, SS, Cubs:
2020 Season: .203/.238/.360, .599 OPS, 59 OPS+, 8 HR, 24 RBI, 0.6 bWAR
Báez was one of several key Cubs players who had their worst seasons in 2020. He led Chicago with 75 strikeouts and had the team’s lowest on-base percentage among qualified hitters. Although he has never been a patient hitter, his 3% walk rate and 31.9% strikeout rate were the worst in his career.
As off as Báez was at the plate, his defense remained exceptional. He won his first Gold Glove and ranked second among NL shortstops in both defensive runs saved (7) and outs above average (4).
The Cubs will look different in 2021. Already this offseason, Theo Epstein stepped down as their president of baseball operations, and last week they non-tendered Kyle Schwarber and Albert Almora Jr. Their chances of winning the NL Central next year improve significantly if Báez returns to form, but they are clearly in a transition period.
Perhaps the biggest reason Báez needs a bounce-back 2021 campaign is financial. He’s one of a loaded group of free-agent shortstops next offseason that includes Francisco Lindor, Corey Seager, Trevor Story and Carlos Correa. A strong year for Báez would increase his value in free agency, whether or not the Cubs re-sign him.
Christian Yelich, OF, Brewers:
2020 Season: .205/.356/.430, .786 OPS, 111 OPS+, 12 HR, 22 RBI, 0.2 bWAR
In his worst season, Yelich was still 11% better than the league-average hitter, at least based on his 111 OPS+. Still, after winning consecutive batting titles and being the best hitter in baseball not named Mike Trout, a .205 average isn’t going to cut it.
Despite Yelich’s down year and finishing with a losing record, the Brewers did make the playoffs in 2020, winning the No. 8 seed in the expanded postseason format. The takeaway is they would’ve been much better if they had gotten Yelich-like production from him. Assuming he does bounce back after the fluky, pandemic-shortened season, Milwaukee should compete in a winnable NL Central in 2021.
Nolan Arenado, 3B, Rockies:
2020 Season: .253/.303/.434, .738 OPS, 84 OPS+, 8 HR, 26 RBI, 1.4 bWAR
The remarkably durable and consistent Arenado was neither of those things in 2020. He was placed on the injured list in September for just the second time in his career—and first since 2014—with left shoulder inflammation and a bone bruise, which had nagged him since the fifth game of the year. The hurt shoulder zapped his power and caused a decline in his offensive production.
Over his five previous seasons, Arenado slashed .300/.362/.575 while averaging 157 games and 40 homers per year, leading the NL in home runs three times. Even with the shoulder injury bothering him for most of 2020, he won his eighth consecutive Gold Glove—it was his eighth year in the league.
No matter what the Rockies say publicly, or to Arenado, they are not going to be competitive in 2021, regardless of how well he plays. Arenado needs no added incentive to bounce back next season. Remember, this is a guy whose coaches have to limit the number of extra swings he takes before and after games so he doesn’t wear himself out. Still, the timing for a resurgence couldn’t be better for the 29-year-old third baseman. He can opt out of his contract with Colorado next offseason, which he may very well do. Putting up another 40-homer campaign and winning a ninth Gold Glove sounds like a great way to earn a hefty payday on the open market.
José Altuve, 2B, Astros:
2020 Season: .219/.286/.344, .629 OPS, 71 OPS+, 5 HR, 18 RBI, -0.5 bWAR
There are plenty of explanations for Altuve’s worst season that have nothing to do with the Astros’ sign-stealing scheme. He is 30 years old, and he has been banged up a bit over the last few seasons. Plus, playing during a pandemic isn’t easy.
Still, the shadow of the cheating scandal remains, casting doubt over the entire Houston organization, especially those who did not perform well in 2020. (Coming within one game of winning their third AL pennant in four years did erase some of the legitimacy questions.) On top of that, the Astros are probably going to lose both George Springer and Michael Brantley to free agency this winter, adding more pressure on Altuve to bounce back in 2021.
Paul DeJong, SS, Cardinals:
2020 Season: .250/.322/.439, .671 OPS, 84 OPS+, 3 HR, 25 RBI, 0.2 bWAR
One of the many Cardinals to get COVID-19 during the organization’s outbreak early in the season, DeJong played in all but two of their games after he returned from the illness on Aug. 23. It’s unclear whether he felt some lingering effects from the virus after he started playing again. Either way, by the end of their stretch of 53 games in 44 days, DeJong was spent. It showed in his play. In 2020, his power diminished and his defense lagged. His -4 outs above average were the worst among NL shortstops, per Statcast.
DeJong ranked second among NL shortstops with 11.7 WAR from 2017–19. His combination of power and defense made him one of the most promising, and under-sung, shortstops in the majors. He hit 30 homers and was an All-Star in 2019.
The Cardinals are not an imposing offensive team, but they are more potent when DeJong is right. Conversely, because pitching is their strength, they need him playing sound defense behind them. They’re going to need him at his best next season, with both his bat and his glove.
Shohei Ohtani, DH/RHP, Angels:
2020 Season: .190/.291/.366, .657 OPS, 80 OPS+, 7 HR, 24 RBI, -0.1 bWAR (position player)
The Angels are relying on Ohtani to help them build a winning team around Mike Trout. The two-way sensation continued to hit in his first two big-league seasons while injuries kept him off the mound for all of 2019. This year, though, Ohtani could never find his rhythm at the plate. Meanwhile, back pitching again, he allowed seven runs in 1 2/3 innings before he was shut down again after two games with a forearm strain.
More than anything else, the Angels need starting pitching, so it makes sense that both they and Ohtani want to work to get him ready to pitch and hit in 2021. It was a good sign, then, that in early November he was progressing in his rehab program, throwing at 75–80% intensity from 120 feet.
Jack Flaherty, SP, Cardinals:
2020 Season: 4-3, 40 1/3 IP, 4.91 ERA, 28.8 K%, 9.4% BB, -0.3 bWAR
The Cardinals’ ace was actually quite good in 2020 except for his two starts against the Brewers. In a shortened season, though, those two starts made a big difference.
Still, this is a good sign for the Cardinals. Flaherty’s down year appears to be more of a fluke than a drastic regression, despite what his overall numbers are for 2020.
Madison Bumgarner, SP, Diamondbacks:
2020 Season: 1-4, 41 2/3 IP, 6.48 ERA, 15.8 K%, 6.8 BB%, -0.3 bWAR
It’s hard to imagine Bumgarner’s first season in Arizona going any worse. He didn’t get his first Diamondbacks win until his last start of the year, when he pitched five scoreless innings against the woeful Rockies.
If there is any silver lining to take away from MadBum’s 2020 campaign, it’s that he didn’t give up a run in either of his final two starts—the first of which came against the Astros. He allowed four hits (two in each game), walked one and struck out 11.
Patrick Corbin, SP, Nationals:
2020 Season: 2-7, 65 2/3 IP, 4.66 ERA, 20.3 K%, 6.1 BB%, 1.7 bWAR
As was the case for the Nationals as a whole, this was not the season we were expecting from Corbin. Their offense was sure to decline in 2020 after losing Anthony Rendon to the Angels, but their starting pitching should’ve at least kept them in contention. Instead, Washington fell flat.
Corbin allowed 85 hits this year, the most in the majors. His strikeout percentage dropped from 28.5% to 20.3%, and opposing batters posted the highest hard-hit percentage against him (44.2%) since Statcast began tracking it in 2015.
In an NL East that is only getting better—maybe with the exception of the semi-dysfunctional Phillies—the Nationals’ fate in 2021 will depend on their starting rotation. They’ll need Corbin to start missing bats and limit hard contact the way he did in 2017–18 with the Diamondbacks and when he helped pitch the Nationals to their first World Series in franchise history. Otherwise, the best part about next season for Washington fans will be reminiscing about 2019.