The curtain has closed on the first month of the 2019 MLB season, with star players getting accustomed to new teams and Cody Bellinger and Christian Yelich staying hotter than your favorite “Bond girl.”
We have already seen plenty of drama in the first month-plus of play. From Bryce Harper’s return to D.C., to the slow start of the defending champion Boston Red Sox and Ichiro’s touching farewell in his home country of Japan, memorable moments were scattered throughout March and April.
In addition to indelible memories, each new season brings a slew of players that seem to fly under-the-radar despite putting up tremendous numbers.
There is always going to be plenty of press when it comes to the likes of Harper, Manny Machado, Mike Trout, Aaron Judge and numerous other young stars around the league. But there are an equal number of players that deserve the attention of the masses but fail to receive their just due.
Here are five under-the-radar players that you should keep an eye on this summer:
5. Max Fried, Atlanta Braves
The Braves have one of the deepest pitching prospect pools in the league. From Mike Soroka and Kyle Wright to Touki Toussaint and Ian Anderson, Atlanta’s rotation could be stacked in the very near future. That same future looks that much better thanks to a stellar first impression from 25-year-old Max Fried.
Braves fans have had some background knowledge on Fried. He had made 25 appearances over the last couple of years before becoming Atlanta’s best pitcher this season.
Fried was ranked as the eighth-best prospect prior to the 2017 season, behind Wright, Soroka, Anderson, Kolby Allard and Luiz Gohara. But he has made the most immediate impact on a Braves team hoping to repeat as NL East champions for the first time since 2005.
In eight appearances (six starts) and 38 1/3 innings, Fried had posted a 2.11 ERA, giving the Braves a legitimate left-handed option on the bump.
Much of Fried’s success has been the result of a filthy curveball that was running a 2.2 pitch value (according to FanGraphs), with his slider proving to be equally effective.
Soroka and Wright may be the higher-profile names down the road, but Fried demands more attention right now as the man who anchored Atlanta’s rotation in ace Mike Foltynewicz’s absence.
4. Jason Heyward, Chicago Cubs
How is it possible to call the $184 man under-the-radar? Well, while Heyward has drawn the ire of Cubs fans everywhere, he has hardly struck fear in the hearts of opposing pitchers since coming to Chicago. For as vaunted as his defense remains, he is hardly regarded as the commodity that he was heading into the winter 0f 2015-16, when he was the hottest free agent on the market.
Heyward failed to post a single wRC+ over 100 in his first three seasons. This year, he is running a 155 wRC+ value, according to FanGraphs.
The 29-year-old has arguably been one of the most important pieces in Chicago’s lineup while stars Kris Bryant and Anthony Rizzo have gotten off to slow starts. As of May 2, Heyward’s walk rate was twice as high as it was in 2018, and he had already hit five homers (Heyward had seven total in 2018).
According to MLB Statcast, Heyward was averaging the highest exit velocity, hard-hit percentage, barrel percentage and launch angle of his career, all tremendous signs for a player whose power was seemingly zapped after heading to the Friendly Confines.
With four stolen bases in addition to a resurgence at the dish, Heyward is once again looking like an all-around superstar. Whether or not he can sustain this All-Star pace could help determine if the Cubs are the best team in the National League.
3. Jorge Polanco, Minnesota Twins
The Twins were atop the American League Central at the end of April, and Polanco has been a large reason for their success.
As of May 2, the 25-year-old shortstop has hit five homers and his OPS is just about at 1.000, and he has been the perfect compliment to both Max Kepler and Nelson Cruz in the lineup. Polanco’s blend of power and speed make him suited to the no. 2 hole, where he has thrived.
Polanco was suspended 80 games for PEDs in 2018, but he took the punishment in stride despite the fact that he was probably a victim of negligence on behalf of trainers in the Dominican Republic. He returned from the suspension to hit .288 in 77 games, showcasing some of the promise that had made him one of Minnesota’s top prospects since 2014.
The youngster has capitalized on that promise in 2019, showing some improvements with the glove in addition to his prodigious output at the plate. The Twins were a dark horse pick to win the Central, but with Polanco playing at an elite level and a surrounding group of players that continue to improve, the Twins might actually be the favorites by the time September rolls around.
2. Hunter Dozier, Kansas City Royals
This spot could also have gone to Royals infielder Adalberto Mondesi (who leads the league with 10 steals but is also running an .856 OPS as of May 2), but Mondesi has been on the Royals radar since he made his first big-league appearance in the 2015 World Series.
While Mondesi is truly one of the most exciting players in the bigs, Dozier has been one of the very best. The 27-year-old has been up and down in the Royals farm system since 2016, but has burst out of the gate in 2019.
With seven homers and a 1.104 OPS (as of May 2), Dozier has the third-highest wRC+ in baseball (189, higher than Mike Trout and only trailing Bellinger and Yelich) while also ranking fifth in fWAR. According to Statcast, Dozier ranks 13th in baseball in terms of average exit velocity, and his soft contact rate is below 10 percent.
The Royals are going to be one of the worst teams in baseball, but Dozier is having a once-in-a-lifetime kind of season, and Kansas City could use some positivity right now.
1. Paul DeJong, St. Louis Cardinals
When you think of the elite shortstops in the game of baseball, you probably think of Francisco Lindor, Carlos Correa, Javier Baez and Xander Bogaerts. DeJong has been better than all of them this season.
DeJong ranks third in baseball in fWAR, and has clearly established himself as one of the very best two-way shortstops in the game.
Aside from hitting .336 with five homers and a .986, DeJong leads the league with 14 doubles, and ranks fourth in the league in FanGraphs defensive value (second amongst shortstops, behind Marcus Semien of the Oakland Athletics). His 3.2 UZR ranks sixth in the league, and he is 13th with four Defensive Runs Saved.
The Cardinals were seen as instant contenders following their trade for superstar first baseman Paul Goldschmidt, and players like Marcell Ozuna, Yadier Molina, Matt Carpenter and Harrison Bader still seem to command a lot of the spotlight in St. Louis.
But DeJong has been the unstoppable juggernaut that has propelled the Redbirds to the top of the National League Central, and the highest winning percentage in baseball (.667, as of May 2).
The Cardinals were already deemed to be playoff contenders, but DeJong’s brilliance could make them World Series favorites come October.