Not all breakout seasons are created equal. With that in mind, it’s time to take a look at the MLB players who took the biggest steps forward in 2022 to decide who made the leap to stardom — and who still has more to prove.
To decide who graduated to stardom this season, we enlisted ESPN MLB writers David Schoenfield and Jeff Passan to break down 18 candidates with Schoenfield making the case for each emerging player and Judge Jeff rendering a final verdict.
The budding aces
Schoenfield’s case: Wait, Fried didn’t graduate a year ago? OK, maybe we’re a year late on him, but there’s no doubt Fried is now a bona fide ace and the Braves will feel as confident starting him in a big playoff game as the Mets would with Max Scherzer or Jacob deGrom or the Astros with Justin Verlander.
Fried has improved in a few areas in 2022: He has lowered his walk rate, lowered his home run rate and increased his chase rate. The overall package is a strike-throwing lefty who doesn’t make many mistakes and induces weak contact. And don’t forget that the last time we saw him in the postseason, he tossed six scoreless innings in the clinching Game 6 of the World Series.
Judge Jeff’s verdict: Can’t argue with anything here. Fried’s fastball velocity is steady, so there’s no sign of regression with his stuff. His groundball rate never has been below 50%. His average start has jumped to more than six innings per. He’s that guy.
Schoenfield’s case: The stuff is certainly all-world with a high-spin 97 mph heater and wipeout slider at which batters swing and miss nearly 50% of the time. There’s a reason he nearly no-hit the Twins on Saturday and has held batters to a .185 average and .301 slugging percentage — both marks in the top four for major league starters. But what cements his place on this list is his all-universe ‘stache. It’s 1980s-level quality, and while I’d like to say Cease is a throwback, the truth is that pitchers in the 1980s weren’t throwing this level of unhittable fastballs and sliders. Cease didn’t get that no-hitter, but I suspect he’ll get one or two at some point and with Verlander currently sidelined, Cease is suddenly back in the running for Cy Young honors.
Judge Jeff’s verdict: Respect the lip sweater. And the stuff. Ace all the way.
Schoenfield’s case: Manoah is in his first full season in the majors but after an impressive rookie season, it’s not a surprise that he has risen to this level so quickly. At 6-foot-6 and 285 pounds, you might expect Manoah to simply blow smoke past hitters, but his fastball is actually only about major league average. What this guy does is pitch — and what he loves to do as much as any pitcher in the game is throw inside. He led the AL in hit batters in just 111 innings in 2021 and leads this year with 14. A sign of wildness? No. Call it a sign of intimidation, no small part of why he owns a 2.48 ERA. The only pitcher in Blue Jays franchise history with a lower ERA in a season: Roger Clemens.
Judge Jeff’s verdict: Deeming someone an ace in his first full big league season is indeed a foolhardy endeavor. Well, by all means, call me a fool. Because Manoah is only going to get better once the Blue Jays let him pitch deeper into games, and with his elite fastballs — he throws four- and two-seamers — and an above-average slider and changeup, he’s got the right arsenal to top their rotation.
Schoenfield’s case: Yeah, dismiss his win-loss record if you want. I don’t want to hear it. Yes, he has had run support and fielding support and now he’s injured with forearm soreness. But the dude is 16-1, his ERA is 2.10 and he has held batters to a .169 average. He’s 2-0 with a 0.71 ERA against the Padres in two starts and he’s 1-0 with an 0.77 ERA against the Braves in two starts and he kept the Mets scoreless in his one start against them … what more do you want? Still not buying it? Think he’s a fluke? His career ERA is now 2.49, thank you very much. The Dodgers lose Walker Buehler to Tommy John surgery and simply create another star.
Judge Jeff’s verdict: The Dodgers’ player-development machine is unrivaled but if I’m gonna throw an ace label on a guy, he’s got to average more than 5.57 innings a start. Another year and some more innings and Gonsolin might be that guy. For now, he’s just a really good 28-year-old.
Schoenfield’s case: Another sophomore sensation, McClanahan was dominating and doing it in baseball’s deepest division: He’s second in the majors to Shohei Ohtani in strikeout rate, tied with Cease for lowest batting average allowed, second to Verlander in lowest OBP allowed. The power arsenal from the left side reminds me of one my favorites from my youth: Mark Langston. And don’t dismiss that comparison: Langston won 179 games and finished with 50 career WAR. The difference: McClanahan has better control. The only hitch: I said “was” dominating because McClanahan landed on the IL last week with left shoulder impingement.
Judge Jeff’s verdict: Before the injury, this was a yes. If he comes back soon and his stuff is the same — top-5-in-the-world quality stuff — it’s a yes. For now, it’s a yes*.
Schoenfield’s case: Man, I love watching this guy pitch. I don’t know if that earns him extra credit from Judge Jeff, but he’s one of a kind and that should earn him some extra credit. He throws five pitches, but it’s the Wiffle ball two-seamer that he throws about half the time that separates him from every other starter in the game. All batters do is pound it into the ground with Valdez inducing some of the most pathetic-looking attempts at hitting that you’ll see. He can turn the best hitters in the world into helpless Little Leaguers hitting weak dribblers to second base. The highest ground ball rates among starters:
Logan Webb: 57.5%
Kyle Wright: 54.3%
And he gets all those grounders while still averaging more than 8 K’s per nine, plus he has turned into a durable workhorse. After two short starts in April, he has gone at least six innings in every start since, including at least seven innings in five of his past six starts. Yes, the Astros have two aces.
Judge Jeff’s verdict: The most underrated pitcher in baseball, Valdez is must-watch. And as devastating as his sinker is, don’t sleep on his curveball. It’s one of the best in baseball. His cutter isn’t far behind, either.
The emerging hitters
Schoenfield’s case: Kirk’s unusual size (5-foot-8) and physique (big-boned) make him one of the most enjoyable players in the majors to watch. That got him a lot of attention last year, but his bat is generating the attention this year. Kirk is a hitter, and I mean that in all the ways that would impress even Rod Carew. He puts the ball in play (one of the rare hitters with more walks than strikeouts) with a beautiful line-drive stroke (he’s in the 81st percentile in hard-hit rate). Plus, he’s only 23 years old and doing this while learning all the chores of catching (where he rates in the 90th percentile in pitch framing, via Statcast). He made his first All-Star team and he’ll have many more in his future. Eight more to be exact.
Judge Jeff’s verdict: Uhhhh. I’ll take the under on nine All-Star appearances. And as much as I love watching Kirk, his .242/.342/.323 second-half line is a neon sign flashing “PUMP THE BRAKES.” Not star — yet.
Schoenfield’s case: Francisco who? Here’s all you need to know about Gimenez: He’s young (he just turned 24, but he’s in his age-23 season) and he’s already good. How good of a season is he having? He’s at 5.6 WAR, via Baseball-Reference. Here are the best seasons for a second baseman age 23 or under since 1950:
Carlos Baerga, 1992: 6.3
Willie Randolph, 1978: 5.8
Joe Morgan, 1965: 5.7
Andres Gimenez, 2022: 5.7
Paul Molitor, 1979: 5.6
Rod Carew, 1969: 5.5
That’s six players. Three of them are already in the Hall of Fame and Randolph could still get there. I’m not saying Gimenez is a future Hall of Famer, but I’m saying Judge Jeff’s verdict better agree with me: Gimenez has emerged as a star.
Judge Jeff’s verdict: Nope. This might look foolish a year from now, but I want to see another season of this level of production first. Unlike Manoah, whose stuff glistened last year, Gimenez was coming off a bad 2022. He’s extremely talented and could have a 20-20 season, but it’s too early to say he is a star.
Schoenfield’s case: Bear with me, but I’m going to make my third Rod Carew reference here, and although that wasn’t in my initial plan, sometimes you just have to roll with it. This one works since Arraez is going to inherit the title of AL batting champ, a crown that has passed among Twins hitters from Tony Oliva to Carew to Kirby Puckett to Joe Mauer and to Arraez, if he maintains his current lead. Like Carew, Arraez is average over power, but it’s his increased power this year (more doubles, more home runs) that helps make a more dangerous hitter than in the past. He lacks Carew’s speed, but he’s pretty much the one player in today’s game you can *really* label a .300 hitter.
Judge Jeff’s verdict: Arraez is the only of Dave’s three Carew comps to earn the admiration of the man himself. Still, I am to drop star on a guy slugging only .424, even if he has managed to walk 46 times and strike out just 37 in nearly 500 plate appearances. The numbers don’t scream star; the uniqueness does. The numbers, in this case, win, thought we can admit that in an era where contact is scarce, it’s wondrous to see Arraez handle the bat with the dexterity of another of his fans: Ichiro Suzuki.
Schoenfield’s case: Swanson’s road from first overall draft pick in 2015 to first All-Star appearance in 2022 hasn’t been the quickest trip, but I do feel he has graduated from steady performer to star with his outstanding all-around play. His career high in WAR before this season was 2.8, but he’s going to sail past 5.0 with a chance to reach 6.0. He has had his best defensive season — 100th percentile in Statcast’s outs above average — and will set a career high in hard-hit rate. He’s an outstanding baserunner and has missed two games over the past three seasons. Somebody’s going to get paid in free agency.
Judge Jeff’s verdict: I’m not sure Swanson is a star — and that’s OK. Being a very good everyday shortstop with power, speed and an excellent glove is plenty. If a guy doesn’t have a star-level talent like Arraez does with contact, he should at the very least have an OPS above .800 — which Swanson doesn’t.
Schoenfield’s case: He was one of the top prospects in the game entering 2020 after a brief major league trial in 2019 so Lux’s “future star” projection had lapsed for many, but as he chases a potential .300 season, he’s a reminder that not every hot-shot minor leaguer is an immediate star. Maybe we need him to show a little more power, but given his good eye at the plate, I think he’ll tap into more power in the future. He also has good secondary skills with excellent speed and the ability to play both the infield and outfield.
Judge Jeff’s verdict: Future star? Sure. Star now? Not yet. At 24, he’s got time.
Schoenfield’s case: Haven’t watched the A’s this year? I don’t blame you if you haven’t, but Murphy is turning into a really nice player. He’s an elite defender, winning the Gold Glove in 2021 and likely to do so again with his pitch-framing skills and quick release to second base. Like a lot of catchers, the bat lagged behind, but he leads all catchers in extra-base hits while keeping his average above league average. That’s a valuable player. You can ignore the A’s, but don’t ignore Murphy — and hope your team trades for him in the offseason, since it’s likely Oakland will deal him with another, cheaper catcher in Shea Langeliers in the pipeline.
Judge Jeff’s verdict: The threshold for catcher is lower than other positions, but Murphy turns 28 in October and still hasn’t been an All-Star. Let’s see him make one of those teams before removing the “All” for his designation.
Schoenfield’s case: I know Judge Jeff can be tough at times, but do we even need to debate this one? No, we don’t. Rodriguez has the power, the speed, the defense, the charisma, the personality. Enjoy the next 15 years, Mariners fans.
Judge Jeff’s verdict: The easiest one so far. Star. Actually, superstar.
Schoenfield’s case: Enjoy the next 15 years, Orioles fans (hopefully!).
Judge Jeff’s verdict: The second-easiest one so far. Star. Actually, superstar..
Schoenfield’s case: Pena’s defense is so good that all he has to do is be a league-average hitter — which is about what he has been this season — and he’s an extremely valuable player, one capable of posting 4-WAR seasons year after year. If the bat improves — most notably, he needs to improve his plate discipline — he’s going to be a top-10 MVP candidate, perhaps resembling Francisco Lindor for his power/defense combination.
Judge Jeff’s verdict: You know who never had a .287 on-base percentage? Francisco Lindor. Pena’s troubles getting on base make this one easy: While he might be a starter kit for one, he’s a ways away from being a star.
All of the Braves
Schoenfield’s case: Judge Jeff, I give you this evidence: Michael Harris II has a higher OPS than J-Rod, similar defensive and speed metrics, is close in WAR even though he has played 30 fewer games, and, like J-Rod, is also 21 years old. Harris didn’t enter the season with the same fanfare after playing in A ball in 2021, but he has absolutely exploded at the major league level. I think the race is on for best center fielder over the next decade.
Judge Jeff, if you saw the highlights of Spencer Strider setting an Atlanta franchise record with 16 strikeouts, I think you saw all the evidence you need. And if you need more: 13.7 K’s per nine, thank you very much.
As for Vaughn Grissom, I like what I’ve seen, but let’s give him a little more time. If he’s the real deal, this could end up being one of the greatest single-team rookie classes ever.
Judge Jeff’s verdict: For any team to produce a rookie class like this is impressive. For the defending champions to do so is borderline unfair. Much as I’m inclined to make a case against Harris because he didn’t arrive with the fanfare of Rodriguez or Rutschman, maybe sometimes it’s just better to acknowledge that evaluators and algorithms didn’t fully understand how good Harris is. (Props to Kiley McDaniel, the high man on Harris, who had him 38th on his Top 100 entering this season.) Harris’ platoon split and lack of power is really the only quibble, but he’s 21 and has plenty of time to improve. And now the Braves have him locked up well into the 2030s.
Strider is easy: He throws 100, rivals Cease for the best mustache in baseball and is punching out guys like prime Gerrit Cole and at a higher rate than anything Max Scherzer and Chris Sale ever have. He’s more than a strikeout-and-a-half-per-nine ahead of this year’s leader among qualified pitchers, Shohei Ohtani. Good enough for me.
Grissom has cooled some but still has produced more than a WAR in less than a month in the big leagues. He’s not a star at this point — and might not ultimately be one if he moves off the dirt and settles in a corner-outfield spot. One thing that would help that quest: A few extra mph off the bat. His max exit velocity of 107.1 ranks in only the 30th percentile of players, according to Statcast.