10 MLB Players Who Changed the Narrative in 2023

10 MLB Players Who Changed the Narrative in 2023
Zachary D. RymerSeptember 18, 2023

10 MLB Players Who Changed the Narrative in 2023

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    Fernando Tatis Jr. is still a star, albeit one of a different kind.

    Fernando Tatis Jr. is still a star, albeit one of a different kind.Sean M. Haffey/Getty Images

    With the regular season winding down, hundreds of players across Major League Baseball are busy writing the final chapters to their 2023 stories.

    The genres of these vary greatly, but of interest here and now are the redemption arcs.

    Specifically in focus are 10 players who have changed the narratives of their careers for the better. A couple guys showed they’re not busts. Others showed they’re not washed up. One simply showed he has more than one trick up his sleeve. And so on.

    Please note that this is not about breakout players or those who have leveled up their games. As you can tell by those links, those guys have their own articles.

    As to the guys who are on the list, let’s check them off in alphabetical order.

CF/1B Cody Bellinger, Chicago Cubs

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    Cody Bellinger

    Cody BellingerDustin Bradford/Getty Images

    The Narrative Then

    Far from just any fallen star, Cody Bellinger was arguably the fallen star in MLB prior to 2023.

    It’s hard to begin a career better than he did, as he won the National League Rookie of the Year in 2017 and the MVP in 2019 before he even turned 25. But then came the crushing injuries and the effect they had on his stock. Between 2021 and 2022, Bellinger was 44 percent worse than the average hitter.

    Once seemingly destined to become a franchise legend, Bellinger was non-tendered by the Dodgers last November. Even after he signed a modest one-year, $17.5 million deal with the Cubs, some still took offense.

    The Narrative Now

    Bellinger isn’t going to win another MVP, but he should have some votes coming his way. By way of a .311 average and 25 home runs, he’s been the best offensive player on a Cubs team that’s eyeing the playoffs.

    Bellinger’s agent, Scott Boras, credited Bellinger’s renaissance to him simply being healthy. He also anticipates the demand for his client to be “very, very high” this winter. That tracks, as he’d be arguably the best of the upcoming free agents were it not for Shohei Ohtani.

RHP José Berríos, Toronto Blue Jays

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    José Berríos

    José BerríosAndy Lyons/Getty Images

    The Narrative Then

    José Berríos was the worst pitcher in baseball last year.

    This is obviously debatable, if for no other reason than that there’s no universally agreed upon way to quantify such things. But he did lead the American League in both hits and runs allowed, and his minus-0.6 rWAR was the lowest of any qualified starter.

    None of it made any sense. Berríos had been an All-Star in 2018 and 2019 and he even placed in the top 10 in the AL Cy Young Award voting in 2021. He was also not yet 30 years old, so 2022 was either a fluke or a premature beginning of the end.

    The Narrative Now

    The former explanation is the one that’s holding more water in 2023, wherein Berríos has looked like…well, like José Berríos.

    He’s shaved his ERA down from 5.23 to 3.49 while averaging just south of six innings over his 30 starts, a performance pretty much in line with his pre-2022 norms. If it feels like he’s flown under the radar, that’s only because Kevin Gausman’s ongoing rise and Alek Manoah’s fall from grace have been the bigger stories concerning Blue Jays starters.

RF Nick Castellanos, Philadelphia Phillies

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    Nick Castellanos

    Nick CastellanosTim Nwachukwu/Getty Images

    The Narrative Then

    In the first season of his five-year, $100 million contract, the Phillies got basically zero production from Nick Castellanos in 2022.

    Indeed, it was literally zero production. Because his rWAR was 0.0, you see. Castellanos came to Philly with an .853 OPS over his last six seasons, but only managed a .694 OPS last season while playing his typically below average defense.

    That Castellanos really started struggling after bruising his wrist hinted at a good excuse for it all, but other clues suggested his bust status would be permanent. For instance, he saw more breaking pitches in 2022 and did nothing with them.

    The Narrative Now

    The record should show that 2023 hasn’t been all good for Castellanos. Despite a warm August in which he hit eight home runs, he’s been cool since the All-Star break to the tune of a .666 OPS.

    Castellanos was nonetheless an actual All-Star during said break, and in general he’s looked more like himself in racking up a .768 OPS and 24 home runs. He’s also been an iron man, playing in all but three of the Phillies’ games. As such, maybe it was just the wrist last year.

C William Contreras, Milwaukee Brewers

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    William Contreras

    William ContrerasBrian Rothmuller/Icon Sportswire via Getty Images

    The Narrative Then

    William Contreras was not the headliner of the three-team trade that sent Sean Murphy to Atlanta last December. Nor was he necessarily regarded as a steal for the Brewers.

    Though Contreras was fresh off making the National League All-Star squad in 2022, seemingly nobody could look at him without spotting the same fundamental flaw that his older brother, Willson, is known for: defense.

    Though undeniably good hitters by catcher standards, neither came into this season with credentials as difference-makers behind the plate. That was especially true of William in ’22, as he rated as below average as a framer, blocker and thrower.

    The Narrative Now

    The Brewers must have waved a wand and said “Catcher-us good-us!” Contrary to last season, the younger Contreras is one of the best framers and blockers in the sport and his throwing is much improved.

    Making these improvements has cost Contreras nothing offensively, as he’s lost some slugging but upped his average and on-base percentage from last season. As a result, he’s one of the best two-way players at the most important position on the diamond.

RHP Josiah Gray, Washington Nationals

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    Josiah Gray

    Josiah GrayMitchell Layton/Getty Images

    The Narrative Then

    Imagine being traded for Max Scherzer and Trea Turner and then going full flop with your one and only chance to make a good first impression.

    Such is the CliffsNotes version of Josiah Gray’s introduction to the Nationals. Though he arrived in Washington as the No. 42 prospect in baseball, he ended 2021 with a 5.38 ERA over 12 starts and struggled again with a 5.02 ERA in 28 starts in 2022.

    Nobody could chalk it up to bad luck. Gray served up more than two home runs per nine innings in his first 40 starts as a Nat, and he even led the National League in home runs and walks in ’22. It was just plain bad pitching.

    The Narrative Now

    To be sure, this season hasn’t gone by without Gray taking any additional lumps. He only has a 4.07 ERA for the year and he’s thus far coughed up a 5.48 ERA in the second half.

    His first half, though, was good enough to be worthy of his first All-Star selection. And even now, he isn’t deviating from the much-improved rate of 1.3 home runs per nine innings he has for the season. He’s simply a better pitcher, and one who hasn’t even turned 26 yet.

DH J.D. Martinez, Los Angeles Dodgers

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    J.D. Martinez

    J.D. MartinezRonald Martinez/Getty Images

    The Narrative Then

    Come the end of 2022, it looked like J.D. Martinez was washed.

    He’d had a rough one just two years earlier in 2020, but it was a shortened season and, well, who didn’t have a rough year in 2020? What happened in 2022 was different. He missed all but 23 games with the Boston Red Sox, yet he managed only a .790 OPS and 16 home runs.

    This from a guy who had clubbed 38 long balls per 162 games with a .926 OPS between 2014 and 2021, and the numbers beneath the numbers didn’t provide much optimism. His batted-ball metrics were way down from ’21, including a 3.0-mph drop in exit velocity.

    The Narrative Now

    Like with Castellanos and Gray, it hasn’t been all good for Martinez in 2023. Because of a bothersome core injury, he’s played just 15 games and hit one home run since the start of August.

    This year has nonetheless been a return to form for the veteran. His 22 home runs at the All-Star break marked his best first-half showing since 2018 and he has an .852 OPS for the year. He’s among the biggest gainers in contact quality, especially with his hard-hit rate.

CF Luis Robert Jr., Chicago White Sox

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    Luis Robert Jr.

    Luis Robert Jr.Duane Burleson/Getty Images

    The Narrative Then

    Nobody ever denied Luis Robert Jr.’s talent as he was making his mark on the league in his first three seasons.

    How could anyone? He debuted as a Gold Glover and the runner-up for the AL Rookie of the Year in 2020 and he proceeded to post an .830 OPS over the next two years. That was with 162-game averages of 24 home runs and 17 stolen bases.

    The problem, though, was that Robert played in just 166 out of 324 possible games across ’21 and ’22. As that was a result of five different trips to the injured list, it was fair to stick him with the dreaded “injury prone” label.

    The Narrative Now

    The White Sox have played 150 games this year. Robert has gotten into 139 and started 135 of them. Not because he hasn’t had injuries, but rather because he’s played through the ones that have cropped up.

    That alone would mark a major step forward, but then there’s what he’s done with the extra time on the field. Between his .845 OPS, his 35 home runs, his 17 stolen bases and his excellent glovework, he’s legitimately one of the best players in the American League.

LHP Blake Snell, San Diego Padres

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    Blake Snell

    Blake SnellCarmen Mandato/Getty Images

    The Narrative Then

    Perhaps this will come off as a confession since there was no universal consensus or anything, but Blake Snell’s 2018 season felt like a one-off, didn’t it?

    That was the year he won the AL Cy Young Award on the strength of 21 wins and a 1.89 ERA over 180.2 innings. It was an amazing performance that only got better over time. His last 16 starts saw him pitch to a 1.25 ERA.

    In five seasons on either side of 2018, however, Snell’s ERA vacillated between the low 4.00s and mid 3.00s and he failed to reach even 130 innings in any of them. And while he racked up strikeouts in bunches, he also did the same with walks.

    The Narrative Now

    Whatever doubters Snell had are pretty quiet these days. Though walks remain a problem, he’s once again leading the majors with a 2.43 ERA and he’s gone where few have ever gone before in posting a 1.33 ERA over a 21-start span.

    Snell likely has the NL Cy Young Award in his future, in which case he’ll become only the seventh pitcher to win it in both leagues. After that, he’s going to strike it rich in free agency.

RF Fernando Tatis Jr., San Diego Padres

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    Fernando Tatis Jr.

    Fernando Tatis Jr.Sean M. Haffey/Getty Images

    The Narrative Then

    Fernando Tatis Jr. didn’t exactly make new fans when MLB suspended him 80 games for using performance-enhancing drugs in 2022.

    Otherwise, hanging over his head coming into 2023 wasn’t so much a narrative as a sense of mystery. Between the suspension, two surgeries on his left wrist and another on his left shoulder, could he be the same guy who was one of MLB’s most dynamic players between 2019 and 2021?

    This, of course, is to say nothing of the questions pertaining to Tatis’ maturity level. Or to those pertaining to his shift from shortstop to right field. Or about…well, you get the idea.

    The Narrative Now

    With his OPS no longer in the .900s, Tatis hasn’t quite been the fearsome hitter that he was prior to 2022. But a .793 OPS will play, as will 25 home runs, 26 stolen bases and a position-leading 12 Outs Above Average in right field.

    He’s still a star in other words, albeit one of a slightly different vintage than the one who took MLB by storm between ’19 and ’21. And by all accounts, the other major difference between the star he is now and the star he was then is that he’s more mature these days.

1B Spencer Torkelson, Detroit Tigers

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    Spencer Torkelson

    Spencer TorkelsonRich Schultz/Getty Images

    The Narrative Then

    The Tigers were naturally high on Spencer Torkelson when they drafted him No. 1 overall in 2020, but there was always a catch.

    Because the pandemic put the college and high school baseball worlds on pause, neither the Tigers nor any other team in MLB had complete pictures of the prospects they were scouting. Even more than usual, every pick was a roll of the proverbial dice.

    Following his brilliant season in the minors in 2021, the heightened risk seemed to bite the Tigers in 2022 and even earlier this year. Despite all his accompanying hype, Torkelson’s first 796 major league plate appearances yielded just a .651 OPS.

    The Narrative Now

    Don’t look now, but Torkelson is suddenly one of the more dangerous hitters in the American League. In 56 games dating back to July 18, he’s put up an .859 OPS with 16 home runs.

    Does it pass the smell test? You bet it passes the smell test. Since that day, he ranks fifth among qualified hitters in hard-hit rate and fourth in barrel rate. He is, finally, the slugger who was promised.

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