When COVID-19 delayed and shortened the 2020 MLB season, players considered to be “high-risk” were able to opt out of playing while still getting paid. Players who were not in that high-risk group could also opt out and not be in breach of contract — though they would forfeit their salary and service time. This led to 25 players1 spending either part or all of the season away from the game they love. A year later, some of those players are retired, some are free agents, and some have returned to their teams (and are excelling). With three weeks down in a more normal — but not completely normal — game than the one they opted out of last season, let’s check in on all 25.
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Back in the game
Seventeen players who opted out of the 2020 season are currently with MLB organizations, though four (Tyson Ross, Kohl Stewart, Welington Castillo and Isan Díaz) have yet to take the field in the majors this season. Additionally, Colorado Rockies outfielder Ian Desmond announced in February that he had decided to opt out of the 2021 season as well.
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“Over the last few months, I’ve had tough conversations,” Desmond said. “I’ve asked a lot of questions and done a lot of thinking. For now, I’ve decided to opt out of the 2021 season. My desire to be with my family is greater than my desire to go back and play baseball under these circumstances.”
That leaves 12 players who chose not to play in 2020 over COVID-19 concerns but are giving it a go at the game’s highest level in 2021:
|Player||Pos||Team||2019 season||2021 season||Diff.|
|Michael Kopech||P||White Sox||0.0||4.0||+4.0|
Obviously, all of these trends come with the usual small-sample caveats for early-season baseball stats. But on average, the opt-out players are playing more2 than they did in 2019 and producing more value3 (with an average of 1.5 wins above replacement4 per 162 games, compared with 1.0 in 2019). Some of that is skewed by Michael Kopech, who missed all of the 2019 season with Tommy John surgery. But even without including Kopech, the average 2020 opt-out has seen his WAR per 162 essentially stay steady from 2019 (1.1) to 2021 (1.3). We don’t know if rust will eventually set in, but it hasn’t yet, by and large.
Of course, some have struggled early in their returns. Most notably, that group includes a quartet of pitchers (Shelby Miller, Collin McHugh, David Price and Joe Smith) and Brewers outfielder Lorenzo Cain, who was hitting just .154 before going to the injured list with a strained quad. But others have returned from the year away with few signs of deteriorating skills.
Nationals first baseman Ryan Zimmerman struggled to an uncharacteristically poor season (90 OPS+) even as Washington was winning the World Series in 2019. This year, he is hitting much more like his old self (129 OPS+). The same goes for Giants catcher Buster Posey, who had the worst full season of his career in 2019 but is currently playing at his best WAR-per-162 pace since 2017. The year of rest appears to have helped Posey recover from a hip injury that ended his 2018 season and affected his performance even a year later.
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“I think the exciting thing for me is I feel like I’m still progressing to where I think I can get to an even better place offensively,” Posey said of the new approach he’s taken to the game since his return. “It’s definitely nice to be off to a good start. The goal is to try to just get better each day.”
Twins shortstop Andrelton Simmons was also playing much better in 2021 before he hit the COVID-19 reserve list last week. Simmons opted out of the final week of the 2020 schedule, explaining later that he made the decision for his own mental health after struggling with depression throughout the season.
“The idea of finishing the season in a bubble was too much for me to handle,” he said.
In addition to working through his own feelings, though, Simmons told the press that he wanted to share his story in order to help others who were struggling. “It helped me. I think people understand a little better now,” he said. “I hope everything that was put out there was good and people understand what me and maybe some other people have to go through. I’m happy with how everything worked out.”
Simmons appeared to be more comfortable on the field to start the season as well. He’s been playing well defensively — on pace for 15 defensive runs saved per 1,200 innings — and has a 173 OPS+, all of which added up to the kind of value Simmons provided at his peak with the Angels a few years ago.
The biggest gains from before 2020, however, belong to a couple of pitchers: Kopech (who has a stellar 1.69 ERA so far in his return from injury) and Mets starter Marcus Stroman. Stroman pitched very well (3.22 ERA) for Toronto and New York in 2019 but opted out in August 2020 over the “uncertainties” of playing in a pandemic. Returning for 2021, Stroman has been nothing short of superhuman in three starts thus far, allowing just two runs in 20 innings with improved fastball velocity.
Retirees and free agents
Seven players who chose not to play in 2020 have yet to stick with another team, currently sitting unsigned on the free agent list. One of them — former Mets outfielder Yoenis Céspedes — initially did play last year, suiting up for eight games, but ultimately decided to opt out of the season on a chaotic day in early August. With 21.4 career WAR, Céspedes has had one of the better careers of the players who have yet to return to the field in 2021 after opting out in 2020 — though the undisputed best career belongs to longtime Seattle Mariners ace pitcher Félix Hernández (52.2 WAR). Hernández had signed on with the Atlanta Braves before the coronavirus put the baseball world on pause, and in early July he elected not to play. This year, King Félix joined and left the Orioles before opening day; his resume might need a bit more work to get him into the Hall of Fame, but for now he remains a free agent along with Céspedes and five others.
|Francisco Liriano||P||Blue Jays||0.4||20.9||21.3|
Just one of the 25 has officially retired from baseball — and it was a player who originally opted out before returning to his team later in the season.
Early in July 2020, Braves right fielder Nick Markakis decided not to play after hearing about teammate Freddie Freeman’s harrowing battle with COVID-19 over the summer. “Just hearing him, the way he sounded on the phone, it was tough,” Markakis said at the time. “It was kind of eye-opening.” However, he would change his mind three weeks later and rejoin the team, hitting a walk-off home run in his second game back and eventually playing 48 games (including the postseason) as Atlanta came within a game of reaching the World Series. Markakis announced in March that his 15-year MLB career was coming to a close.
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