12 MLB Players Looking To Carry Hot Finishes Into 2021

In a typical season, players have enough time to overcome a slow start and still put up numbers that jump off the page.

That was not the case in 2020.

With the regular season reduced to 60 games, a slow two- or three-week start was enough to weigh down a player’s stat line for the entire year. With the stresses of Covid-19, having to shut down and then ramp back up after a nearly four-month layoff, new and unfamiliar testing regimens and protocols, the lack of fans in the stands, restrictions on using in-game video and everything else that changed in 2020, many players understandably took a few weeks to get used to their new reality and round into form—if they did at all.

As spring training games get set to begin this weekend, it’s prudent to look back at some of the players whose overall 2020 season numbers might not look great on the surface, but in reality were just weighed down by a slow start.

If these players can continue to perform like they did after adjusting to their new reality, they could be on a continuing upward trajectory in 2021.

Players are listed in alphabetical order.

Shogo Akiyama, OF, Reds
Age: 33

First 27 games: .183/.264/.232
Last 27 games: .315/.451/.370

The transition from Japan to MLB is difficult even under normal circumstances, and Akiyama understandably struggled early after an interrupted first spring training and a limited ramp-up period in summer camp. But the rookie outfielder found his stride at the end of the season and reached base in 21 of his final 24 starts, showing the leadoff skills that made him a top international signee. Most notable was the improvement in his strikeout and walk numbers. After recording eight walks and 21 strikeouts in his first 27 games, Akiyama had more walks (17) than strikeouts (13) in his final 27 games. 

Josh Bell, 1B, Nationals
Age: 28

First 26 games: .186/.243/.268
Last 31 games: .265/.362/.459

Bell’s encore to his breakout 2019 was not nearly as poor as his overall line suggests. He got off to a slow start in 2020, but after that his performance was in line with his career numbers entering the season (.265/.354/.477). Bell hit six of his eight home runs in the final month while nearly doubling his walk rate and cutting his strikeout rate by 8% from the first month, all signs he was rounding into form and that the Nationals were wise to acquire him in a buy-low trade with the Pirates. 

Cody Bellinger, OF, Dodgers
Age: 25

First 24 games: .175/.245/.320
Last 32 games: .293/.401/.569

Bellinger had a comedown from his 2019 MVP season, but the drop-off wasn’t as steep as it appears. It was merely a slow start for first three-and-a-half weeks, followed by a return to form as one of the game’s elite sluggers. Better strike-zone discipline was a key part of Bellinger’s surge. He had nine walks and 21 strikeouts in his first 24 games, compared to 21 walks and 24 strikeouts in his final 32 games. 

Griffin Canning, RHP, Angels
Age: 25

First six starts: 0-3, 4.88, 7.5 K/9, 3.9 BB/9
Last five starts: 2-0, 3.14, 10.4 K/9, 3.5 BB/9

Canning struggled with his command early and completed five innings only once in his first six starts. He figured it out by the end of the season and pitched at least five innings in four of his final five outings, including a career-high eight innings against the Mariners on Aug. 30. He capped his surge with a career-high 10 strikeouts against the Padres in his final start of the year. 

Rafael Devers, 3B, Red Sox
Age: 24

First 21 games: .183/.239/317
Last 36 games: .307/.350/.573

Devers appeared to fulfill his projections of future stardom when he led the majors in total bases as a 22-year-old in 2019. He wasn’t able to build on that in 2020, but after he shook off his slow start, his performance over his final 36 games wasn’t far off from his .311/.361/.555 line in 2019. He hit nine of his 11 home runs—and 21 of his 28 extra-base hits—in those final 36 games. 

Tommy Edman, 3B/2B/OF, Cardinals
Age: 26

First 11 games: .171/.244/.317
Last 44 games: .270/.335/.380 

Edman didn’t replicate the power he showed as a rookie, but he still demonstrated the ability to hit for average and get on base at an above-average clip after a slow start. The Cardinals’ Covid-19 outbreak forced the team to shut down for 19 days early in the season, and Edman was one of many players who understandably needed a few games to get back up to speed when they returned. He eventually found his stride and was a positive offensive contributor for most of the season, even if his overall numbers don’t show it. 

Vladimir Guerrero Jr., 1B, Blue Jays
Age: 22

First 20 games: .221/.294/.330
Last 40 games: .285/.348/.500

The reason for Guerrero’s early-season struggles isn’t a secret. By Guerrero’s own admission, he arrived at summer camp out of shape and was visibly sluggish during the early part of the season. But Guerrero lost weight as the year went on, and his bat speed and explosiveness progressively came back. From Aug. 19 through the end of the season, he ranked in the top 20 in MLB in hits, runs and total bases. 

John Means, LHP, Orioles
Age: 28

First four starts: 0-2, 10.13, 6.7 K/9, 1.7 BB/9
Final six starts: 2-2, 2.73, 9.3 K/9, 1.4 BB/9

Means appeared to regress from his 2019 all-star and rookie of the year runner-up campaign, but context is important. Means began the year on the injured list with left arm fatigue and was limited in his first two outings, then returned home on bereavement leave after his father died from pancreatic cancer. Means returned in mid August and understandably struggled in his first two starts after his father’s death, but after that he found his top form. Means limited batters to a .198/.242/.413 slash line over his final six starts. He was particularly dominant at the end, finishing with four straight starts of at least 5.2 innings and only one run allowed. 

Jurickson Profar, OF, Padres
Age: 28

First 19 games: .167/.296/.267
Last 37 games: .333/.369/.508

Profar struggled both at the plate and defensively at second base in the early going. Once he moved to left field in place of the injured Tommy Pham in mid-August, however, he flourished on both sides of the ball and became an unsung hero for the Padres. From Aug. 15 through the end of the season, Profar ranked tied for ninth in MLB in hitting (.333) and notched 11 of his 13 extra-base hits. 

Austin Riley, 3B, Braves
Age: 24

First 18 games: .150/.200/.317
Last 33 games: .281/.348/.461

Riley bounced between starting at third base, left field and first base early in the season and was never able to find a rhythm. Once the Braves stopped moving him around in mid August and kept him at his natural position third base, he got comfortable and showed hints of becoming the impact hitter long predicted. Particularly promising, his strikeout rate dropped from 34% to 19% over the season’s final six weeks. 

Brady Singer, RHP, Royals
Age: 24.

First six starts: 1-3, 5.16, 8.2 K/9, 3.6 BB/9
Last six starts: 3-2, 3.12, 8.8 K/9, 2.9 BB/9

Singer jumped straight from Double-A to the majors and understandably took some lumps early. His control and command improved greatly as the season went on, setting the stage for more strikeouts, fewer walks and home runs allowed and longer outings as the year progressed. After allowing seven home runs in his first six starts, Singer allowed only one home run in his final six outings.

Kyle Tucker, OF, Astros
Age: 24

First 22 games: .193/.227/.349
Last 36 games: .317/.386/.619

Like most of the Astros’ offense, Tucker scuffled early in 2020. Once mid August hit, Tucker emerged from his slumber and was quietly one of MLB’s most dangerous hitters through the end of the season. Tucker found his power—without sacrificing average—and hit seven doubles, five triples and seven home runs in his final 36 games. His .619 slugging percentage and 1.005 OPS both ranked 12th in MLB in that span. 

Oldies But Goodies

The players who made substantial jumps after slow starts in 2020 tended to skew younger or less experienced. However, there were a few veterans who had similar mid-season turnarounds.

Here are five more established players whose 2020 numbers were also weighed down by slow starts and are worth watching in 2021.

Miguel Cabrera, DH, Tigers

First 25 games: .176/.269/.319
Last 32 games: .310/.378/.496

Cabrera struggled at the outset, but he turned it around in late August to provide hope he still has something left as he moves into his late-30s. Cabrera reeled off a 13-game hit streak at one point and his underlying Statcast numbers showed a hitter still able to do damage, with an average exit velocity in the 97th percentile on MLB and a hard-hit percentage in the 91st percentile. Cabrera is incentivized to have a big year in 2021—he is 13 home runs away from 500 and 134 hits shy of 3,000.

Francisco Lindor, SS, Mets

First 21 games: .212/.264/.353
Last 39 games: .285/.371/.450

Those seeking to rationalize the Lindor trade for anything other than financial reasons point to his decline in performance in 2020. In reality, the dynamic shortstop had a slow three-week start, like a host of other players, before resuming his typical excellence. He notched 15 of his 21 extra-base hits in his final 39 games while posting nearly as many walks (20) as strikeouts (23).

Andrew McCutchen, OF, Phillies

First 14 games: .180/.250/.200
Last 43 games: .275/.346/.503

In probably the most extreme example of a slow start weighing down a player’s overall numbers, McCutchen got off to 9-for-50 start with no home runs. From that point forward, he was one of the Phillies’ most dangerous hitters with 10 home runs and an .849 OPS the rest of the way.

Jean Segura, 2B, Phillies

First 20 games: .206/.316/.368
Last 34 games: .298/.365/.452

Segura was more passive in 2020 with the lowest swing percentage, highest strikeout percentage and highest walk rate of his career. That approach didn’t pay dividends early, but he clicked a month into the season and put up numbers the rest of the way similar to what he’d done over his previous four seasons, in which he hit .301/.346/.442.

Justin Upton, OF, Angels

First 20 games: .099/.167/.225
Last 22 games: .303/.398/.605

Upton began the year 7-for-71 with 28 strikeouts and was demoted to a part-time role at one point. He began receiving more consistent at-bats again at the end of August and quietly was one of the American League’s best hitters over the final month of the season. He cut his strikeout rate by more than half from the start of the year and got to his power with five doubles and six home runs in his final 22 games.

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