The American League East is stacked with talented players and teams, and some are more well known than others. The New York Yankees and Boston Red Sox receive much of the attention. The Tampa Bay Rays and Toronto Blue Jays have performed better in recent years, but appear to be heading in two different directions. Alas, the Baltimore Orioles are at the bottom of the division, yet they have a few storylines worth watching in 2021. Within this division are obvious AL MVP candidates such as Aaron Judge, DJ LeMahieu, George Springer, and Xander Bogaerts. As the season starts in a little over a week, it is time to look at some lesser known players in the AL East who could sneak into MVP contention.
Austin Meadows, Tampa Bay Rays
Austin Meadows in the best hitter on the team that has won nearly 60% of its games since 2018. Yet, no one is talking about him right now. When it comes to Tampa Bay, the pitching staff gets all the love while Randy Arozarena is the hitter most people are currently excited to watch. Meadows has played one full season in the major leagues. In 2019, he finished 14th in MVP voting as he hit 33 homers with a .922 OPS, 144 OPS+, and posted 4.0 bWAR. It was a true breakout season for Meadows as he also became an All-Star. How is it that Meadows is a dark horse MVP candidate?
2020 was not too kind to Meadows as he battled COVID-19 and injuries to only play in 39 games during the shortened season. He never really got going and this might explain his poor numbers as he batted .205 with a .667 OPS. Despite this, some of Meadows’s deeper metrics were similar to 2019. He still hit the ball hard, with a 90.1 mph exit velocity and 44.4% hard-hit rate that. He lowered his ground ball rate from 35.1% to 27.4% and increased his fly ball rate from 29.6% to 36.9%. Additionally, he upped his walk rate from 9.1% to 11.2%. Generally, more balls in the air and less on the ground means better contact and more home runs. His poor 2020 turned Meadows into an afterthought by the baseball community. However, a healthy 2021 season means Meadows will go back to mashing the ball and pushing himself into MVP contention.
Alex Verdugo, Boston Red Sox
Alex Verdugo is an All-Star in the making. While he had a really good 2020, he still flies under the radar. Part of this is because he was the main return in the Mookie Betts trade. There is one thing that should be stated right away though — Alex Verdugo should not be compared to Mookie Betts. This is because Betts is a perennial MVP candidate who has a 10-WAR season under his belt. Hardly any players in history can live up to that and it is unfair to expect Verdugo to perform that way.
Now to what Verdugo does on the field. He brings the sort of swagger and confidence that fans love to see. Verdugo received one MVP vote in 2020 and finished 12th in the voting. He posted a 2.2 bWAR while batting .308 with an .844 OPS and 126 OPS+. In ranking in the 86th percentile in whiff rate and posting an above-average strikeout rate of 20.8%, Verdugo boasts the skills to be a very good contact hitter, at the very least.
In his best season, which was 2019, he posted a 3.2 WAR and hit 12 homers in 106 games. Considering 2021 will only be his age-25 season, perhaps this is the year in which he truly breaks out. This could mean putting combining a solid offensive output with his great speed and defense in center to put together a 6+ WAR season. If the Red Sox surpass expectations in 2021, Verdugo will be at be heart of that and could end up in MVP discussion.
Teoscar Hernandez, Toronto Blue Jays
Despite earning down ballot MVP votes and finishing 11th in voting in 2020, Teoscar Hernandez is very much a dark horse for AL MVP. His breakout came in 2020 and that brings with it a whole host of questions about his legitimacy. On a Blue Jays team that is surging, Hernandez is probably the least talked about hitter in the lineup. This club is loaded with players that can end up as AL MVP candidates. Regardless, Hernandez is the second or third best hitter on the team. That is what makes him a dark horse. He hit .289 with 16 homers, a .579 SLG, .912 OPS, and 146 OPS+ in 2020.
Not only were his surface level numbers in 2020 fantastic, his advanced metrics were great as well. His 93.3 mph exit velocity and 53.5% hard-hit rate were in the 98th and 96th percentile in baseball, respectively. In fact, he placed in the 92nd percentile or better in xBA, xSLG, barrel rate, and xwOBA. That latter statistic, which was a .398 xwOBA, is perhaps most important in determining how real his breakout was. One particular change in his batted ball profile was an increase in line drive rate, from 20.4% to 30.5%. All of this reflects very well upon Hernandez when thinking about how he might perform in 2021.
One aspect of his game that might derail him or limit his ceiling is his plate discipline. His walk rate, strikeout rate, and whiff rate all ranked in the 25th percentile or worse. The defense is not great either; regardless, if he is able to continue his offensive breakout, he will hit enough to garner more attention around baseball. Maybe it will be enough attention to become a legitimate AL MVP candidate.
Clint Frazier, New York Yankees
Can anyone on the Yankees qualify as a dark horse considering the star power on that team? Not to be too frank but there are a few players on that team who could sneakily contend for MVP. Clint Frazier profiles well as a breakout candidate as well as one of the several AL MVP candidates on his own team. He made great strides in improving all facets of his game in 2020. The defense went from putrid in 2019 to above-average in 2020.
Frazier looked like a sure thing in the outfield in 2020 which gave many Yankees fans some relief. In the batters box, Frazier vastly improved his plate discipline, upping his walk rate from 6.5% to 15.6% and lowering his chase rate from 21.1% to 14.1%. His hard-hit rate improved from 38% to 43.2% while vastly increasing his line drive rate, from 21.5% to 36.4%. All of this led to a fantastic .267/.394/.511 batting line, with a .905 OPS and 149 OPS+.
Frazier’s .368 xwOBA ranked in the 82nd percentile in the league, which reflects very well on his 2020 breakout. Even with great process stats and advanced metrics, it all came in only 39 games. There is still a little too much swing and miss in his game which limits his ceiling, but there is a lot to look forward to in 2021 for Frazier. Yankees manager Aaron Boone has already stated Frazier would be the everyday left fielder. Getting a chance to play everyday even when he is struggling, is the next step in his development, as this author previewed prior to Spring Training. Frazier has the talent and tools to be an all-star. Perhaps portraying his talent on a daily basis will lead to a monster season from in which Frazier earns some MVP consideration.
Anthony Santander, Baltimore Orioles
Anthony Santander is not the primary storyline for the Orioles this season, but he should be one of them. Similar to Frazier and Hernandez, Santander broke out in 2020. However, this comes with the same caveat that his breakout was only 37 games. Regardless, he hit 11 home runs and put up a .575 SLG with an .890 OPS and 138 OPS+.
His shortened 2020 breakout was only marred by a very low .315 OBP which is certainly why he did not receive any MVP votes. While it is not realistic for him to duplicate such a high slugging percentage, the advanced metrics are high on Santander. His .291 xBA ranked in the 90th percentile in the league while his .519 xSLG was in the 88th percentile. Furthermore, his 14.1 strikeout rate ranked in the 91st percentile and .362 xwOBA ranked in the 79th percentile. All of this goes to show that despite his poor OBP and walk rate, Santander still made great contact and that his breakout looked legitimate.
Santander’s sub-par defense and base running to go with his plate discipline limit his overall value. However, he too made changes in his batted ball profile that show the type of player he is capable of being. Additionally, he posted a low .249 batting average on balls in play (BABIP) which show he may have even got unlucky in 2020. Santander has never played more than 93 games in a season but has four more years of team control. He might fit as good a trade candidate as he does one of these AL MVP candidates. The Orioles are still in rebuild mode so they might look to cash in on Santander if he backs up his 2020 performance. Regardless, he should be one of, if not the best, hitter on the Orioles in 2021.
The AL East is littered with star players but it is clear that there are some players who are more under-the-radar than others. With the exception of maybe Santander, these players are not the best nor most talked about on their respective teams. However, each of them have their own merits and possess the skills to put up really strong 2021 seasons. It is totally possible than none of these players end up as AL MVP candidates yet they boast strong advanced metrics to prove they are the real deal. 2021 will be a fascinating season and the AL East will be really fun to watch.
Players mentioned: Aaron Judge, D.J. LeMahieu, George Springer, Xander Bogaerts, Austin Meadows, Randy Arozarena, Alex Verdugo, Mookie Betts, Teoscar Hernandez, Clint Frazier Aaron Boone, and Anthony Santander
Main Photo: Embed from Getty Images