The Top 222 Players of 2021: Introduction

It’s season preview time, but you’re already inundated with team-level and league-wide previews, via podcast and the written word. (I know for sure, because I’m a significant contributor to the “problem”.) I want to preview and celebrate the upcoming season here, too, but to do so differently. Thus, starting tomorrow, I’ll be counting down my top 222 players of 2021 for you, with short writeups on each.

These aren’t fantasy rankings. (I’m guessing you’re all smart and perceptive enough not to try to use any of my information to win a fantasy league. I’m not good at that segment of baseball analysis.) They’re also not trade value rankings, akin to those published annually at FanGraphs. The focus here is the player themselves, and the rankings are deeply subjective. I’ve tried to arrange them according to the impact I believe they will have in 2021, but I’m sure biases have crept in. You might well notice that players with certain styles, or especially distinct recent performances, are higher or lower than you think they should be. You might well catch me overrating a young player with an especially intriguing profile.

I’ve created the list already, and I think I’ve muted those biases as best I can. I can tell you for sure that, this being March and me being an inveterate romantic about spring, the rankings probably reflect the 60th-percentile outcome for most of these guys, so players with slightly wider ranges of possible outcomes might rise past others of otherwise equal talent, but without as much upside.

I’m guessing 222 might sound like a lot. Don’t worry, I promise to keep (most of) the comments brief. I had originally planned to rank just 111 players; I think I even mentioned as much in a previous edition of the newsletter. As I set about the task, though, I almost immediately realized that that number was insufficient to tell us anything meaningful about the season ahead. 

Roger Angell began writing professionally about baseball in 1962, at the dawn of the expansion era. He began noticing almost immediately, and raised the point repeatedly over the ensuing decades, that expansion had robbed the casual fan of the ability to virtually build a comprehensive mental encyclopedia of the game for a given season. He understood the benefits of expansion, but never stopped lamenting the lost senses of familiarity and intimacy. I sympathize, even though the game hasn’t expanded since my first full season as a fan. 

In 1960, ranking 111 players would have meant accounting for more than a quarter of the league’s active roster spots. There were, back then, just 144 everyday position-player slots available, and most teams had five or fewer pitchers any fan needed to know by more than name and uniform number. In 2021, there are about 250 non-pitchers in the league’s lineups every day, and we all know what has happened to pitcher usage. 

Thus, to really capture the landscape, I had to go much deeper than I’d planned. I started with a list of nearly 400 players, then steadily cut it down. You’ll see the final result starting tomorrow, and I hope reading the countdown will both fire you up for the season ahead and introduce you to a few quirks, skills, or entire players of which you’re currently unaware. Little by little, maybe we can reclaim some of that sense that the baseball world can be contained within the green fields of our minds. At the very least, we might achieve some newfound appreciation for the main characters who populate this ensemble drama.

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