The MLB regular season is the epitome of a marathon. Every player wants to get their respective seasons off to a good start in April and May. However, a solid start doesn’t necessarily guarantee a productive season. Similarly, a bad start doesn’t automatically doom a player to a forgettable performance once Game 162 is in the books.
The five MLB players highlighted below have all been positive big-league contributors to varying degrees. Some have done it for several years, and others have flexed their proverbial muscles in more of a short-term manner. What they all have in common, though, is that their 2022 production has already outpaced what they did in 2021…with about six weeks left in the regular season.
The main criteria used to make this determination was comparing a player’s 2021 FanGraphs WAR (fWAR) to the number they’ve currently accumulated this year. With that all out of the way, let’s get to the list.
Francisco Lindor, New York Mets
2021 fWAR: 4.2
2022 fWAR (so far): 4.6
It’s hard to have a 4.0-plus fWAR performance and have it considered a disappointment, but that’s what happened for Francisco Lindor in 2021. This was mostly the case because his Mets tenure got off to such a horrid start.
In his first 200 plate appearances (through May 31), Lindor hit .194/.294/.294 with four homers, 11 RBI, and 22 runs scored, which led to a 70 Weighted Runs Created Plus (wRC+). His production from June 1 through the end of the regular season was more in line with the shortstop’s career production (.822 OPS and 124 wRC+). Either way, a strong start in 2022 was crucial for him to keep the boo birds at bay in Queens. He’s certainly done that.
Lindor’s 77 RBI are already more than what he accumulated last year (63), and his 19 homers are just one off his total from the prior season. One of the keys behind the shortstop getting himself back to normal is that his BABIP has recovered to career norms. Lindor’s BABIP is .293 for his career and .299 in 2022. That number in 2021 was all the way down to .248.
He’s also had better production across the board against a variety of pitches. During his first year in New York, he owned a wRC+ above 100 against two pitches (four-seamers and sinkers). So far this season, he’s done this against five pitches (four-seamer, sinker, changeup, curveball, and cutter).
Shane McClanahan, Tampa Bay Rays
2021 fWAR: 2.5
2022 fWAR (so far): 3.4
It’s not that Shane McClanahan didn’t have a solid 2021 campaign. It’s just that his performance in 2022 has been that much better. So good, in fact, that he’s among the frontrunners for the AL Cy Young Award.
The right-hander has improved in just about every major statistical category that matters. His strikeout rate has risen by six percentage points to 33.3%, while his walk rate has gone from 7.2% to 4.8%. His WHIP has gone from a decent 1.27 to a dominant 0.83, which has aided a huge drop in his ERA (3.43 to 2.24).
The key to McClanahan’s incredible performance appears to be a shift in pitch mix. His slider usage has dropped dramatically (34.8% to 15.0%) in favor of more curveballs (16.3% to 24.9%) and split-finger fastballs (8.1% to 25.3%). Opposing hitters have posted a 10 wRC+ against McClanahan’s curveball this season. While his split-finger fastball results are bunched together with four-seamer results on FanGraphs, there’s been an overall rise in strikeout rate (15.7% to 22.8%) and a drop in wRC+ (151 to 126) for that offering.
Anthony Rizzo, New York Yankees
2021 fWAR: 2.0
2022 fWAR (so far): 2.3
The Yankees went searching for other options to fill their void at first base before settling on re-signing Anthony Rizzo. His left-handed swing seems to be fitting in quite nicely at Yankee Stadium, don’t you think?
After slugging 22 home runs in 576 plate appearances last year, he’s already up to 27 dingers in just 415 plate appearances during his first full season in the Bronx. And even with a .227 batting average, Rizzo’s 142 wRC+ is on pace to be his best since posting consecutive seasons of 145 in 2015 and 2016.
One thing that jumps out when looking at Rizzo’s peripheral stats is a huge rise in fly balls. His fly-ball rate is up at 50.2%, which would be a career-high mark. The last time he finished a season with that number above 40.0% was in 2016…when it was 41.3%. Rizzo’s 1.112 OPS and 205 wRC+ on fly balls in 2022 are some of his best numbers for this batted-ball event in quite some time. He’s also sporting a 14.3% soft-hit rate and 42.1% hard-hit rate in this situation.
Those numbers haven’t been that good since, yup, you guessed it – 2016.
Willson Contreras, Chicago Cubs
2021 fWAR: 2.1
2022 fWAR (so far): 2.8
In case you couldn’t guess, Willson Contreras is playing his final season prior to hitting free agency this winter. Since debuting for the Cubs in 2016, the catcher has produced five seasons of at least 2.0 fWAR. The 2.8 he’s accumulated thus far in 2022 is already a single-season career-high mark. His .217 Isolated Power (ISO) is on pace to be his highest since 2017, while his 133 wRC+ would be a new career-best mark if the season ended today.
Contreras is the type of hitter who collects a lot of ground balls. His ground-ball rate has finished at or above 50.0% in all but one season in his career. However, he’s paired that with a 42.6% hard-hit rate this year, which would be his best if he were to sustain it through September.
The 30-year-old just struggled through a rough July (44 wRC+ in 74 plate appearances), but it appears he’s bounced back so far in August. Plus, what he did between May and June gave him a nice cushion for any kind of slump. During a span of 211 plate appearances, Contreras slashed .295/.412/.557 with 11 home runs, 27 RBI, and 31 runs scored, which led to a 171 wRC+.
Tarik Skubal, Detroit Tigers
2021 fWAR: 0.7
2022 fWAR (so far): 3.0
Tarik Skubal has completely blown away his overall production in previous years. Between 2020 and 2021, he accumulated 0.6 fWAR in 181.1 innings. The 3.0 mark he’s produced so far in 2022 has come in just 117.2 innings of work.
There haven’t been any huge improvements in Skubal’s strikeout rate or walk rate. He’s allowing free passes at a 6.7% clip, which is on pace to be a new career-best mark. Meanwhile, he’s making hitter’s whiff at a 24.5% rate, which is on pace to be a new career-worst mark. Hitters are making a fair amount of contact against the hurler, but he’s controlled the batted-ball outcomes much better this season.
After allowing 2.11 homers per nine innings in 2021, that number is down to 0.69 in 2022. His ground-ball rate and fly-ball rate have both improved each of the last two seasons. And after watching batters post a 38.4% hard-hit rate against him last year, that number is all the way down to 29.4% so far this season.
Each of these players has already put together memorable performances, and with plenty of regular season left to go, they have a chance to put a true exclamation point on it all.
All stats courtesy of FanGraphs and accurate as of 8/8/2022.