We all know the classic end-of-season awards like Cy Young and MVP. But the NBA has two awards MLB doesn’t – Most Improved Player and 6th Man. So I’m going to attempt to look at what those awards would mean in the context of MLB and who the 2021 recipients would be if these awards were handed out.
MOST IMPROVED PLAYER
First, the Most Improved Player. This is pretty self-explanatory, but the player who has improved their performance the most over the previous year. I should note that this award would be different from the Comeback Player of the Year, which is usually – but not always – awarded to a player who has returned from injury to play at a high level. Trey Mancini’s return from a battle with stage 3 colon cancer should make him a lock to win Comeback Player this year in the American League.
There are plenty of players we could consider for Most Improved. The obvious choices would be MVP caliber seasons from Shohei Ohtani and Vladimir Guerrero Jr. One could even argue that even former Cy Young winner Jacob deGrom could make a case after posting video game-like numbers to start the year. Ohtani and Guerrero should finish #1 and #2 in AL MVP (which order you prefer is a different debate) but have also had high expectations placed on them in the past, so even their monumental seasons can’t be viewed as that unexpected. So, I’ll leave them out of the conversation for most improved and instead focus on players who seemingly came out of nowhere to have a huge season far beyond the expectations.
AL Most Improved Candidates
1. Cedric Mullins
One of the few bright spots in what was otherwise a forgettable year for Orioles fans. Mullins had previously been a below average bat who looked destined to be a fourth outfielder. Instead, he capitalized on playing time on a bad Orioles team to the tune of a 30/30 season, a .291/.360/.518 slash line, and 5.3 fWAR. He will certainly garner MVP votes despite playing on a 110-loss Orioles team.
2. Robbie Ray
Last season saw Ray post a dismal 6.62 ERA (6.50 FIP) to go along with 7.84 BB/9 and a sky-high 2.26 HR/9. He was quickly re-signed by Toronto for $8 million, a move that was questioned by many at the time. In response, he will be an AL Cy Young finalist in 2021. He rebounded to post a 13-7 record with an AL-leading 2.84 ERA (3.69 FIP), 11.54 K/9, and 2.47 BB/9.
3. Marcus Semien
Ray’s Toronto teammate Semien has had stellar seasons in the past but certainly rebounded from the shortened 2020 season that saw him hit just .223/.305/.374. In 2021, all he did was set a new Major League record for home runs by a second baseman. Semien finished the year with 45 blasts, 102 RBIs, and a .265/.334/.538 slash line. He posted 6.6 fWAR, and yet it feels as if he had an under-the-radar season somewhat overshadowed by the excellent seasons turned in by Vlad Guerrero Jr. and Robbie Ray.
4. Carlos Rodón
Rodón had faced a myriad of injuries throughout his career, including a 2019 Tommy John surgery. He returned briefly in 2020 but could only muster an 0-2 record with 8.22 ERA in 7 2/3 innings. In the offseason, he was non-tendered by the White Sox, and his career looked to be at a crossroads. However, he re-signed with the White Sox for $3 million early in 2021 on a sort of prove-it deal. He responded in a monster way. He posted a career-high 185 strikeouts (12.55 K/9), a career best 2.37 ERA (2.65 FIP), and a 4.9 fWAR in only 132 2/3 innings.
NL Most Improved Candidates
1. Frank Schwindel
Schwindel is a 29-year-old rookie who had only managed six games played in the majors in 2019 and only got a shot with the Cubs this year following their massive fire sale around the trade deadline. He responded by putting up an unfathomable .342/.389/.613 slash line in over 200 PAs with the Cubs, including 13 homers. Frank the Tank looks to have found a home in Chicago if he can sustain even the slightest bit of success he had this season.
2. Logan Webb
Webb sported an ERA over 5.00 in both 2019 and 2020. While his low-4’s FIP pointed to some optimism, I don’t think anyone saw his 2021 coming. Nevertheless, he emerged as one of the Giants’ best starters, especially in the second half when he went 7-0 with a 2.71 ERA. Overall on the year, he went 11-3 with a 3.03 ERA (2.72 FIP) while boosting his strikeouts and drastically reducing his walk rate. Oh, and by the way, he had two absolutely spectacular starts in the playoffs for the Giants against the rival Dodgers, only allowing one run over 14 2/3 innings.
3. Bryan Reynolds
A rookie season that saw him finish 4th in Rookie of the Year voting was followed up by a major Sophomore Slump in 2020. He managed only a .189/.275/.357 slash line due in part to some bad BABIP misfortune. He’s been able to bounce back with a spectacular 2021 season for the Pirates: A career-high 24 homers to go along with a .302/.390/.522 line that translates to a 146 OPS+.
10TH MAN OF THE YEAR AWARD
This concept doesn’t translate as well from the NBA to MLB. For starters, a sixth man in the NBA gets plenty of playing time despite coming off the bench. In baseball, bench players might get to pinch-hit once and stay in for defense. Not exactly the scoring punch off the bench the NBA 6th men provide. If we wanted to look at true utility players who play full-time but all over the diamond, players like Jake Cronenworth and Kiké Hernández would be the obvious choices. Both had outstanding seasons while providing versatility to their clubs. However, I’d instead like to focus on a few players who weren’t necessarily expected to be full-time starters but excelled in the limited playing time they did get with two of the best teams.
1. Darin Ruf
A former Phillies prospect, Ruf spent three years in Korea before returning stateside with the Giants in 2020. He posted an elite 142 OPS+ in 2020 and a nearly identical 143 OPS+ this year. He had over 300 PAs this year and slashed .271/.385/.519 for the 107-win Giants. He gained playing time throughout the season and started three of the Giants’ post-season games.
2. Albert Pujols
No, he’s not the vintage Hall of Fame Albert from his Cardinal days, but following his release by the Angels, he excelled in his role with the Dodgers. This is in part because a deep Dodgers team could limit his at-bats to hitting against lefties. On the year versus lefty pitching, Pujols slashed .294/.336/.603 with 13 home runs. As a pinch hitter in 2021, he was 14-for-39 (.359 BA) with two home runs. He also served as a valuable clubhouse presence for the Dodgers’ star-studded roster.
3. Austin Slater
Much in the vein of Albert Pujols, Slater was a lefty crusher this year. He hit ten homers off lefties to go with ten steals in just 169 PAs. He struggled versus righties but provided the Giants with strong defense in the outfield. As a pinch hitter, he was 11-for-38 with 4 home runs (slashing .289/.438/.711).
4. LaMonte Wade Jr.
The third Giant on this list, and for a good reason. They utilize platoons better than probably any team in the league. Wade Jr. was acquired from the Twins in the off-season to little fanfare. However, Wade Jr. chipped in 18 homers and carried a 107 OPS+ for the Giants on the season. That hardly tells the whole story, however, as “Late Night LaMonte” was clutch for the Giants when it mattered most. He slashed .362/.444/.511 in “late and close” situations and an ungodly .565/.583/.826 in 24 9th inning PAs. Small sample size be damned, it’s still impressive.