There was a series played in the Bronx this week. Maybe you heard about it. The Yankees and Angels squared off, pitting Shohei Ohtani and Mike Trout against Aaron Judge.
Three modern-day icons. A three-time MVP, a newly-crowned American League home run king and a unicorn/global icon on a scale we’ve never seen in the sport. It was awesome. And it got even more awesome when Judge robbed Ohtani of a home run Wednesday night, the second time he’s done so in less than a calendar year, in fact.
But it also got me thinking. These three have, at various points, been dubbed the “Face of Baseball” by the collective baseball consciousness. Right now, it’s Judge and Ohtani in particular that seem to be everyone’s 1 and 1A. It’s a debate so prevalent that when I tuned into daytime baseball TV the day after Opening Day, what was the first topic on the rundown? Judge vs. Ohtani, you guessed it!
It’s always assumed someone needs to take the mantle, to project their image onto the game in a way that elevates the league and sport in the eyes of the public. And I believe all three of them do that in their own unique ways. But I also don’t see why we have to choose one, or stop the search there.
The truth is that baseball has a multitude of amazing faces at the moment, a list that only continues to grow. Attracting eyeballs to baseball isn’t about finding one superhero for everyone to latch onto–it’s showing that baseball has something for everyone. So rather than rehash a debate that could happen on any Thursday on any website or TV network, I’m picking six other players I look forward to seeing on my screen each night, and by the end of this article, I hope to have found a “face” for every type of fan to latch onto.
Arenado is a delight to watch hit baseballs. He’s developed a unique brand of footwork that appears noisy at a glance, but helps him time up elite big league pitching so well that he’s become one of the most complete hitters in the sport. The home run pop is there, but he also sprays line drives from chalk to chalk.
The Cards’ third baseman is not one of the most physically imposing players in baseball either, exemplified by both stature and the fact that he has never ranked in the top 10% of the league in barrel percentage or average exit velocity. But he strikes out at a well-below average clip (11.6% in 2022, 97th percentile in MLB) and finds lots of gaps. His .289/.346/.533 career triple slash line puts him in borderline Hall of Fame territory.
Here’s the catch, though. Arenado is already a surefire Hall of Famer assuming he stays healthy a few more years. Why? Well, he’s played nine years in MLB. And he’s won nine Gold Gloves. The past six of those years, he’s also won the Platinum Glove (best overall fielder in the National League), which might soon need to be rechristened the Nolan Arenado Award.
If you walk into a right-handed batter’s box and see #28 standing at the hot corner, you know you’d better not roll over a ground ball. Doesn’t matter how hard or soft you hit it, or in which direction, it’s an automatic out. He’s taken away countless hits in his big league career.
Actually, we can quantify them, because we have stats like defensive runs saved, which says he’s taken away 157 runs from opposing teams over the course of his career. If you want to talk wins, he’s got 19.0 defensive WAR, which ranks 59th all-time and NUMBER ONE among active baseball players. In summation, he’s just a gamer. He helps you win games on both sides of the ball and I love to watch it.
As a side note, do you know why Arenado is the active leader now? Not only did Yadier Molina (28.0 dWAR) retire, but Andrelton Simmons, who racked up an astonishing 28.5 dWAR in parts of 11 seasons, can’t seem to get a job anywhere. The bat dipped so much in 2022 with the Cubs that he disappeared from MLB, but he was on pace to potentially challenge the all-time career leader (Ozzie Smith, 44.2). Couldn’t someone use him? Maybe a team like the Dodgers, who have plenty of great hitters but no shortstops? Alas, I digress.
Full disclosure here: I was a hitter. Not good enough to still be playing, but I did it for long enough that I tend to form more of a vicarious relationship with the position players of MLB. When they talk about hitting, I understand. Pitching is more like Spanish–I’m close to fluent, but there are some methods of sentence construction that float a little over my head.
That said, I understand this much: Spencer Strider is one badass mf’er. He came into pro ball with two plus-plus pitches: a triple digit heater and a wipeout slider. Any coach or scout will tell you if you want to be a big league starter, you need to develop a third pitch. But Strider has thus far effectively said, “not until they can hit either of my first two.”
With those two dominant pitches, Strider sits in the 97th percentile in strikeout percentage, 95th in whiff rate and 95th in extension (those giant quads really help him get off the rubber, it seems). Just for funsies, he’s got a changeup he throws only 4.7% of the time, to left-handed batters only, which he’s yet to surrender a hit this season when throwing. It’s almost a cheat code, the last ditch secret weapon he pulls out when a lefty seems to have his timing down.
All that adds up to a young arm proving himself to be so singularly dominant that I can’t help but be locked in whenever he takes the mound. His 16-strikeout performance against the Rockies was the most captivating pitching performance I saw last season, mostly because it just seemed easy. I have no doubts he could do the same again this season.
Plus, if we’re just talking about literal “faces” of baseball, how can you not gravitate towards that mustache? That’s +3 mph on the radar gun for sure.
From a value perspective, Rutschman is about as close to Ohtani as anyone else in baseball for the total significance of his contributions. Sure, he can’t throw 100 mph off the mound, but playing solid defense and managing a pitching staff while providing excellent offense at the catching position has long been the next best thing.
Think of the great offensive catchers of the 21st century. Joe Mauer. Buster Posey. More recently, J.T. Realmuto. What do they all have in common? Their teams win a LOT when they’re on the field. And they absolutely pile up WAR in the process.
Rutschman only came up on May 21 last season, with the Orioles stuck in the rut that had held them for each of the past five seasons. The team was 16-24, sitting in last place, where it had finished every 162-game season since 2016. What did he do? Only turn the entire franchise around, by the looks of it.
The O’s went 67-55 the rest of the way–and are 11-7 to open this exciting young season. Rutschman, despite only playing 70% of the team’s games, led the team in WAR for the full length of 2022. He has stacked up 6.1 already in his career, more than any catcher but Realmuto (7.1) since the start of last season. He’s off to a ridiculous start to 2023, slashing .309/.447/.515 while leading the American League in walks (five more than Aaron Judge!)
As great as Rutschman is individually, it’s clear his real elite trait is winning. He won a College World Series in 2018, while breaking the all-time CWS hits record, and made it to the semifinals the prior season as well. He’s turning around an MLB franchise as we speak that had become accustomed to historic levels of losing–but might just have a chance to succeed this season in one of the toughest divisions we’ve ever seen. And as a bonus, he’s only costing the team $733,900 in the process.
So there’s not much else to add. This comparison might only hit home Harry Potter fans, but Rutschman really might be the Chosen One. Much like Harry was marked from birth to save the wizarding world, Rutschman was drafted to save the Baltimore Orioles organization, and so far, there’s nothing to indicate he won’t be able to do so.
There was never any way I was going to be able to complete this article without talking about my favorite player in the game right now. When Devers is in the box, you simply can’t look away. There’s a chance that lightning is going to strike at any moment.
Most will remember the moment Devers burst onto the scene as his 2017 ninth inning home run against Aroldis Chapman, taking a 103 mph high fastball on the inner third of the plate and depositing it over the fence in the cavernous part of Yankee Stadium’s left-center gap. Lefty hitters weren’t supposed to be able to do that. And to this day, Devers is still doing things his peers can only dream of.
The minute you think you have Devers beat, he ruins you psychologically by proving that yes, he can hit that pitch too. He pokes the high-and-outside heater down the left field line. He drops the barrel on the back foot slider as the catcher drops to his knees. He pulls his hands in and takes the high heater–many lefties’ kryptonite–to dead center. He’s got a combination of power and bat-to-ball skills unlike anyone else I’ve ever seen in person.
The Red Sox fully became Devers’ team this offseason as he signed an 11-year extension while longtime infield mate Xander Bogaerts headed west for a payday in San Diego. While the remainder of the Sox’ core has been largely depleted, as long as Devers is around, there’s reason for hope. And the prospect of playing with Devers just might be enough to entice another superstar or two to hop on board in the 2023 offseason.
Plus, his nickname is “Carita,” or “baby face” in Spanish. How appropriate is THAT for the topic at hand?
Since his debut as a 20-year-old in 2008, there hasn’t been a pitcher you’d be more confident handing the ball to every fifth day. Kershaw has been a surefire Hall of Famer for over half a decade already, yet he’s still got plenty of magic left at 35 years of age. It’s rare to be able to watch someone you know to be an all-time-great continue to chase greatness.
Granted, Kershaw hasn’t won a Cy Young since 2014, his third, but he’s still been excellent, at times dominant. He’s made five All-Star appearances in that span, bringing his career total to nine. He’s put up ERAs ranging from a very solid 3.55 to an otherworldly 1.69 in 2016–a year where he pretty much only didn’t win the Cy Young because everyone was tired of writing his name on the ballot.
What I love most about Kershaw is the precise arsenal he uses to pick hitters apart. It’s never been velocity that blew you away, but it’s three excellent pitches with which he has total command. He’s become much more slider dependent throughout his career–throwing it around 43% of the time the last two seasons compared to just 24.5% a decade ago. The true 12-6 curveball he features is a rarity in the modern game, and he throws all three of them at the exact moment the hitter thinks he’s getting something else.
This season is starting to look like a special one at the outset, too. He won his 200th career game Tuesday, a feat that is becoming a rarity in the bullpen era. He’s struggled with various minor injuries the past few years, but leads the National League in innings pitched through four starts. If he can keep up the pace he’s on through this tiny sample size (2.52 ERA, 9.4 K/9, .750 winning percentage), he just might add to the trophy case.
Alright, so maybe you’re a tough customer. Maybe you don’t like home runs, strikeouts, dazzling defense or even unicorns. Maybe all you want to see is a throwback hitter who can put the ball in play, rack up the hits and frustrate the hell out of opposing pitching staffs. If so, I’d love to introduce you to Luis Arráez.
In an era where seemingly no one hits .300 anymore, Arráez does nothing else. He managed “just” a .294 average in 121 games in 2021 and has hit at least .300 in every other full season he’s played since debuting as a Twin in 2019. This season, though, he’s been on an entirely different level.
In 18 games thus far since joining the Marlins, Arráez has a whopping 28 hits already. He’s batting a major league-leading .438, ahead of second place Matt Chapman by a full 40 points. He’s hit for the cycle, the only player to do so this season. And he’s helped the Marlins to a surprising 10-9 start, especially when you consider that ace Sandy Alcántara has been hit hard in three of his four starts.
As a baseball junkie, I love the extremes. I love the Judges and Kyle Schwarbers of the world who pop balls over the fence while barely trying. But I also love a hitter whose goal clearly is just to find a hole and get himself on base. Arráez is pesky. He’s exactly who you don’t want to see at the plate to lead off an inning… or if you’re one out away from a no-hitter.
Which means that although in many ways, hitters like Arráez are a dying breed, I find it a joy to watch someone of his ilk compete. You know the opposing pitcher is going to have to work extra hard to keep him off base–and let’s all just hope the Marlins can supplement him in the lineup with hitters that are a real threat to drive him in.
So the next time you hear a talking head say “Player X is the face of baseball,” feel free to yell at your screen! But don’t yell in hopeless frustration, yell because you know the truth. Baseball’s greatest gift is its long list of fantastic faces. These are just a few of mine, but whichever faces you associate with baseball, I wish you a long season of watching them thrive.