We're a quarter of the way through the 2022 MLB season, and as baseball fans, we've started to settle into our viewing habits for the year: the teams we turn to first when we put on MLB.TV, the hitters whose highlights we seek out and the pitchers whose nasty stuff we have to see to believe.
In case you're looking to mix up your routine -- or gain an even deeper appreciation for the stars you are already watching -- we asked MLB experts Bradford Doolittle, Alden Gonzalez, Joon Lee, Jeff Passan, Jesse Rogers and David Schoenfield to give us the rundown on who has our full attention whenever they take the field and what makes them worth your time.
The teams we can't get enough of right now
If you love superstars
Passan: Mike Trout. Shohei Ohtani. Isn't that enough? No? Fine. Well, Taylor Ward has turned from afterthought into star. Patrick Sandoval might be the most underappreciated pitcher in baseball, with a monster changeup and slider. The rest of the Angels' six-man rotation, led by Ohtani, is plenty formidable. And they've caught the ball surprisingly well for a team expected to lag behind defensively.
Trout might be the best player you'll ever see, the epitome of what baseball should look like, and Ohtani is the most unique player any of us have ever seen, a two-way talent whose across-the-board excellence is singular in the game's 150-year-plus history. Baseball is not like the NBA, where stars single-handedly carry teams to wins, or the NFL, where success is almost always contingent on a quarterback. But for pure enjoyment, individual talent does play, and the two most enjoyable players in the game being on the same team makes this a no-brainer.
If you love the young and brash
Gonzalez: They're young, they're fun, and they're undeniably good. Vladimir Guerrero Jr. (23) is already one of the world's best hitters. Bo Bichette (24) is on a path to stardom. Alek Manoah (24) is flat-out dominant. The Blue Jays boast an exhilarating young core surrounded by an impressive cast of veterans in their prime, a list that includes George Springer, Matt Chapman, Kevin Gausman, Jose Berrios, Jordan Romano and a host of others. They haven't hit full stride yet, but they will. And when they do, it'll be a blast.
The Blue Jays are the model team for a sport desperate to appeal to a younger audience -- young, likable, loose, explosive and diverse, as is perfectly illustrated on their illustrious home run jacket. At their best, they can score at will, shut down any opponent and dazzle with defense. Their enclosed ballpark, Rogers Centre, can be one of the loudest venues in the majors at full capacity.
If you love stars at every position
Lee: One of the most star-studded rosters in all of baseball added Freddie Freeman, who not only produces from the 2-hole in the lineup but also provides strong defense. After a slow start, Mookie Betts is also mashing the ball, leading the team with 10 home runs, while shortstop Trea Turner is one of the sport's most dynamic players. Combine that with strong seasons from catcher Will Smith and Gavin Lux, and you have arguably one of MLB's most dynamic lineups.
On the mound, Clayton Kershaw was putting together a strong season before hitting the injured list, and Walker Buehler and Julio Urias are known quantities in the rotation. But keep an eye on Tony Gonsolin, who has been the team's best pitcher with a 1.62 ERA and 1.5 bWAR so far this season.
If you love seeing an experiment in action
Doolittle: This year's Twins are a wonderful baseball experiment. It begins with their decision not to dive into a full rebuild after a last-place finish in 2021. Instead, Minnesota went big, signing the winter's top free agent in Carlos Correa. Of course, Correa might be a Twin for only one season, and if Minnesota falters, his tenure could be shorter than that. Still, Correa is just one of several fascinating players on the Twins' roster. That list is topped by Byron Buxton, who might play only 110 to 120 games this year -- but every time he is in the lineup, he is likely to show why he might be the most scintillating player in baseball. The ground he covers in center field is better measured by acres rather than feet. At the plate, he's a 450-foot home run waiting to happen, and because he leads off, he gets you to the edge of your seat as soon as the Twins come to bat.
Then there is Luis Arraez, who doesn't necessarily look like a professional baseball player but has such a penchant for contact and bat control that he has been called a poor man's Rod Carew. Maybe that's laying it on a bit thick, but the guy does strike out only once about every five games. The Twins' pitching staff is also worth tuning in for. In Joe Ryan, Minnesota has stumbled upon one of the game's most unorthodox aces, and rookie Jhoan Duran, well, you'll read more about him shortly.
If you love a team that won't fool us again ... right?
Schoenfield: The Mets are always interesting, but this season they're actually good. Yes, we've been fooled by them before in recent seasons -- such as last year, when they were in first place before collapsing in the final two months -- but 2022 feels different. They had the season's most exciting win when they scored seven runs in the top of the ninth to beat the Phillies 8-7, they beat the Cardinals in April with five runs in the ninth, and they're 3-0 in extra-inning games. They have must-watch stars in Pete Alonso, Francisco Lindor, Starling Marte and the injured Max Scherzer and Jacob deGrom, but also underappreciated players, including on-base machine Brandon Nimmo and Chris Bassitt, who turns every start into a master class on pitching.
One thing seems clear: Buck Showalter has made this team more ... I'll use the word "professional." Better fundamentals, better on the bases (they take the extra base 44% of the time compared to 37% last year), better defensively and less reliant on the home run (11th in the National League in homers, but fourth in runs scored). It's hard to believe Showalter went three seasons without a managing gig. He's known for his attention to details, and that has meant something to a franchise that has too often been stuck in the muck of Mets nonsense. So far, there is none of that, and they've opened up a big lead in the NL East -- with the returns of Scherzer and deGrom coming down the road.
If you love expecting the unexpected
Rogers: The Guardians' offense is best described as one with a Dr. Jekyll and Mr. Hyde vibe. They've scored 10 or more runs in five games this year but have also been held to one or no runs in 10 games. That makes for some unpredictability, but when they're on, they're fun to watch. No player more so than All-Star third baseman Jose Ramirez -- though Josh Naylor gave him a run for his money one memorable night in Chicago. Naylor hit home runs in the ninth and 11th innings to complete an incredible come-from-behind win. Some days are ugly in Cleveland, some are enjoyable -- but they're all exciting.
On the mound, Shane Bieber is slowly but surely returning to form, and the Guardians are among the best in the sport at developing starting pitching, so you never know when a new star -- such as Cal Quantrill and Triston McKenzie -- will emerge.
The hitters whose at-bats we plan our snack breaks around
If you love Ted Williams ... with 2022 celebrations
Gonzalez: It has never been harder to hit, and yet somehow Juan Soto makes it look so easy. Pitchers continually cycle through major league mounds throwing upper-90s fastballs and knee-buckling sliders and gravity-defying changeups, and yet Soto expertly does what we were all taught to do as kids: lay off pitches when they're balls, crush them when they're strikes. It sounds simple, but to do that so well, so consistently -- in this era, at that age (23) -- is a marvel.
Imagine Ted Williams as a wrestling persona. That's Soto. He is an expert craftsman who boisterously lets you know it. Nobody swaggers within a batter's box like Soto. The exaggerated lunge, the occasional crotch grab, the unruly tongue, the poignant stare-down -- all in an effort to intimidate opposing pitchers, as if his otherworldly bat-to-ball skills weren't enough. Soto is as close to Barry Bonds as we've seen with regard to strike-zone recognition and the ability to take full advantage of the few mistake pitches he'll see -- except he does it with more grace, more style, more fun.
If you love power. Epic power
Schoenfield: The baseball world is always a better place with a healthy, dominant Aaron Judge -- he is, after all, still the face of the sport's most visible franchise. He is dominating like never before, not even in his out-of-this-world rookie season in 2017 when he hit 52 home runs. He's hitting .325/.398/.715 and leads the majors with 17 home runs, giving him an OPS+ of 222, well above his 171 figure of 2017. It's not just the numbers. With his size and strength, he has always been a hitter for whom you don't turn the channel or run to get a hot dog when he's at the plate. (And, no, he doesn't have 17 home runs because Yankee Stadium is a little league field; he's slugging .718 at home and .712 on the road.)
This has come after Judge turned down a contract extension before the season -- while the Yankees are off to one of their best starts in franchise history. With the way Judge and Trout are playing right now, this has the makings of an epic, historic MVP race. After losing to Jose Altuve in 2017, you know Judge would love to head into free agency as the reigning MVP -- after perhaps leading the Yankees to their first World Series since 2009.
If you love explosive action -- and don't want to wait for it
Doolittle: First: It's not just raw ability with Robert. It's production, too. Because of injuries and pandemics, he only recently reached the 155-game mark for his career, or roughly a full season for an everyday player. Over those games, he posted an MVP-like 6.8 bWAR. At the plate, Robert reminds me of Vladimir Guerrero Sr. in a couple of respects. For one thing, he's so aggressive that you better pay attention when he's up because something is going to happen and it's going to happen soon. And while Robert doesn't have Vlad Sr.'s preternatural ability to get the bat on the ball wherever it's pitched, they are similar in that when contact is made, the ball explodes off the bat virtually every time.
Robert is built like an NFL safety but has eye-catching speed and is already a dynamic force on the basepaths. So he is just as interesting to watch after a single or a walk as he is when he clubs one into the bullpen. Then, in the field, Robert runs everything down, from side to side and in going back to the wall, especially at Guaranteed Rate Field, which is a great park in which to rob homers. He gets plenty of defensive opportunities with the White Sox, as well, because he often plays in between two natural first basemen. You just can't take your eyes off the guy.
If you love hits -- lots and lots of hits
Rogers: Any everyday player who has a .393 on-base percentage with just six walks on the season is automatically exciting in my book. In other words, Anderson goes up there to hit -- and, boy, does he ever. He can turn on a fastball for a homer to left but often goes the opposite way -- either with power or simply by dumping an off-speed pitch on the outside corner into right field for a single. On defense, he has had a tough start to the season on some routine plays, which only make his spectacular ones stand out even more.
At the plate, he never looks like he's guessing and hardly ever looks fooled by a pitch. Anderson's hands are always inside the ball, which allows him to go to right field on just about anything he gets. But there is also sneaky power, so don't be surprised if the White Sox are up 1-0 before you've taken your seat. Anderson is hitting over .400 in the first inning this season.
If you love watching a surefire Hall of Famer
Lee: Machado is off to one of the hottest starts of his career, as he leads all hitters in batting average, on-base percentage, hits and wins above replacement. Machado has also grown into a leadership role in the Padres' clubhouse as the team tries to bounce back from a disappointing 2021 campaign, and with Fernando Tatis Jr. on the injured list, Machado is the bat the Padres lean on to set the tone for their offense.
And that's before we talk about his defensive impact. Machado isn't the same defender he was early in his career, when he often flashed shades of the legendary Brooks Robinson as a Baltimore Oriole, but his ability to man the hot corner makes Machado one of the most dynamic players in the sport and someone who will be on the track to Cooperstown one day if he stays healthy and maintains this level of consistent offensive output.
If you love true five-tool talent
Passan: With Franco, the Tampa Bay Rays' 21-year-old shortstop, you get the cornucopia of skills: power, speed, glove, arm, smarts and, best of all, contact. And it's worth focusing on Franco's bat-to-ball skills, because they're just about unmatched: In a league that strikes out in 22.5% of plate appearances, Franco is one of just four hitters out of 170 currently qualified for the batting title who punches out in less than 10%. For a game that is too often starved of action, Franco brings it nightly.
Though his triple-slash line is admittedly pedestrian this year, and his allergy to walking might keep him from the MVP conversation in his first full season, Franco's excellence is seen in the little things. One minuscule part of his all-around game deeply appeals to my baseball nerdery: In his 31 left-handed at-bats during which he has hit the ball to the left side this year, Franco is batting .387. It's a small sample, sure, but the pureness of a lefty lashing the ball to the left side is one of baseball's underappreciated joys.
The pitchers we drop everything to see on the mound
If you love ... well, you know why
Gonzalez: How often do you get to see a unicorn pitcher? Ohtani could have made this list as one of the most prodigious power hitters and one of the fastest base runners in the world, and some would argue that it's his pitching that really sets him apart. His fastball often sits casually in the upper 90s, and he is noticeably getting better and better at commanding it. He pairs it with a devastating splitter and a nasty breaking ball. And when he's on, he can be just as dominant on the mound as he is in the batter's box and on the bases.
So, about that -- what we're watching here is truly unprecedented. Babe Ruth was the last man to serve as a two-way player more than 100 years ago, but his exploits on the mound were short-lived -- and he didn't steal bases like Ohtani. Ohtani is basically the best player on your local little league team, except he does all the things that kid does at baseball's highest level, emitting just as much joy while doing so. He'll hit a double into the left-center-field gap, score from second on a single, then come back out to the mound -- with his pants caked in dirt and his back pocket undone -- and strike out the side. His every move demands attention.
If you love good old-fashioned heat
Lee: Acquired in the Chris Sale trade, Kopech took some time to establish himself in the major leagues following Tommy John surgery, but the flamethrower has arrived. The White Sox tapped the righty to replace Carlos Rodon in the rotation, and Kopech has come through. On May 15, Kopech retired the last 13 batters of the game against the Yankees before opening his next start, also against the Yankees, by retiring 14 straight batters to start the game. In other words: 27 up, 27 down across two starts against one of the best offenses in baseball.
Through eight starts, Kopech ranks among the best pitchers in baseball, trailing just Justin Verlander in ERA so far this season. Eight starts is just eight starts, but given Kopech's history as a former top pitching prospect, his top-tier stuff and his unusual level of dominance so far this season, it wouldn't be surprising to look back at the 2022 season as the beginning of Kopech's ascent toward becoming a top of the rotation starter.
If you love learning about a pitch you've never heard of before
Passan: The single hardest pitch thrown this season registered at 103.3 mph and was taken for a ball by Franmil Reyes. Eventually, Jhoan Duran struck him out, because that is what quite often happens when a guy has thrown 134 fastballs this season and 116 of them have registered at 100 mph or higher on the stadium gun. It's still early in the season, but Duran's 100.7 mph average fastball velocity is the second-highest mark ever for a pitcher, behind Jordan Hicks' 101.2 in 2019. And the funny part is, the heater isn't even Duran's best pitch.
About 25% of the time, Duran throws a never-before-seen pitch called the "splinker," a portmanteau of splitter and sinker. It is a pitch that could be concocted only in the Circles of Hell, simultaneously treacherous and violent and heretical and gluttonous -- one after which every other pitcher lusts. Its average velocity is 96.1 mph, four ticks quicker than any other splitter on record thrown more than 10% of the time, and the combination of speed and movement is so distinctive, so special, it turns the eighth and ninth innings in which Duran now pitches into true events.
If you love a throwback vibe
Rogers: First off, his look and demeanor alone make him exciting. With a 1970s-style mustache and his soft-tossing style on the mound, he looks like a pitcher from a different era. Add his ability to change arm angles and throw an assortment of pitches from any of them, and Cortes has become must-watch TV for Yankees fans. His 1.80 ERA speaks for itself: His unique style is working.
Start by watching the arm angles. You don't need to be a pitching coach to see what Cortes is trying to do: simply fool hitters. On any given pitch, he'll come from over the top with a nasty off-speed offering, while the next one could be a sidearm fireball. And it doesn't matter if the hitter is a right or lefty -- the unique and fun style works both ways.
If you love watching a master craftsman
Doolittle: Greinke is the antidote for all those who bemoan the "three true outcome" age and the evolution of pitching from an art form into an industrial process. He's at the bottom of the barrel these days in things like strikeout rate, whiff rate and fastball velocity. Yet his ERA is still well better than the league average and he still works in the strike zone. Greinke has always been fun to watch, but these days, watching him set up hitters and sometimes make them look foolish with absurdly low-velocity offerings is a joy.
While the Royals are pretty terrible overall, they do play solid defense, and Greinke benefits from that because he allows so many balls in play. That means every game he pitches, the action moves briskly and there is always plenty happening. He keeps the Royals close. It's hard to say how many pitchers like this current version of Greinke we'll see in the future because they might be weeded out long before they can evolve to become what he has. So enjoy him while you can. If you don't dig watching the Royals' offense or bullpen, which is understandable, you can always change to a different game when Greinke departs.
If you love discovering the Next Great Thing
Schoenfield: I was going to go with Justin Verlander here, as he has been terrific in his comeback from Tommy John surgery, but let's be honest: We love watching the Next Great Thing, and Shane McClanahan is the Next Great Thing among starting pitchers. We saw glimpses of stardom during his rookie season in 2021, when he went 10-6 with a 3.43 ERA, but he has gone next level in 2022. He has 65 K's in 46⅓ innings but is also efficient enough that the ultra-conservative Rays have started to let him go deeper into games, as he can go seven innings and still be under 100 pitches.
It starts with one of the most explosive southpaw fastballs in the game, as he averages 96.9 mph. All three of his other pitches are also plus offerings: his curveball, his slider and a changeup he throws exclusively to righties. That changeup has been a big asset in 2022. Batters hit .393 against it last year but are 1-for-31 this year -- and he's throwing it twice as often. It doesn't seem fair. It's hard to believe McClanahan fell all the way to the 31st pick in the 2018 draft after being a projected top-10 pick entering the draft.