MLB playoffs' most meme-worthy: Players who break the internet on 2020 contenders

ByJoon Lee ESPN logo
Friday, September 25, 2020

When Rob Friedman -- better known as PitchingNinja to his quarter-million followers on Twitter -- watches a game and sees something that sticks out, he checks his gut before tweeting a highlight. In the seasons since he began posting the nastiest pitches in baseball, he's developed an intuition about when something might be a hit on social media.

"I just love the superhuman stuff. Some of it is just that it has to be really unusual, sometimes I may be the only person who finds it interesting. I'm watching it and I'm like, 'Wow that was strange,'" Friedman said. "I'll tweet stuff and I won't know if anyone is going to get it or find it funny, but the ones where you doubt whether to put it out there are usually the best ones. You trust your instinct after seeing so many pitches every year."

While baseball's culture has pushed back against flair and individuality on the field over the course of the sport's history, the age of social media serves to highlight it. Bat flips that were once taboo, for example, are now embraced by a new generation of baseball stars. And people like Friedman, who watch baseball obsessively to find a player's or a game's idiosyncrasies, are helping drive the change.

With the postseason about to begin, here are some of the game's biggest online-highlight stars worth keeping an eye on for each of the 16 most likely playoff-bound teams (plus a couple of those still in contention heading into the final games of the season).

Atlanta Braves

Ronald Acuna Jr.

Why the internet loves him: Acuna is one of the most talented players in the sport, and he carries himself like he knows it. The Braves' franchise cornerstone routinely makes the jaw-dropping look routine at the plate, and he truly demolishes baseballs.Last year, he fell just shy of becoming the fifth major leaguer in history to join the 40-40 club, with 41 home runs and 37 stolen bases. He didn't get a chance to try again in this shortened season, but keep watching -- he's still just 22 years old.

Signature social media moment from 2020:What he does to the ball is serious, but the funniest moment from his season so far was this homer where he slammed his bat down in frustration, thinking he flied out to center field, only to see the ball carry, carry, carry over the wall.

Chicago Cubs

Yu Darvish

Why the internet loves him: Darvish brings so many pitches to the mound that his arsenal is prime for pitch overlays, dating back to his days with the Texas Rangers. Since this memorable GIF of five overlaid pitches from 2013, Darvish has accumulated several more pitches, including a sinker, a splitter, two different curveballs and an eephus. Combine that with his active social media presence (most of Darvish's tweets are in Japanese) and a stellar 2020 season and you have an internet fan favorite.

"He's just got so many pitches and they all move a ton. He loves communicating on social media, which makes it even more fun," Friedman said. "If I get something wrong, he'll just correct me, which he does regularly, and chimes in."

Signature social media moment from 2020: Darvish shows exactly why Friedman loves to watch him pitch by using an overlay to show how wildly different Darvish can make the pitches in his arsenal move.

Chicago White Sox

Luis Robert

Why the internet loves him: Robert does everything well on the field with a sense of flair, from demolishing line drive home runs to his speed on the basepaths, but the White Sox Rookie of the Year candidate routinely loves stealing fly balls from left fielder Eloy Jimenez in what can be described as the current on-field bit most closely resembling the old shtick between Adrian Beltre and Elvis Andrus with the Rangers.

Signature social media moment from 2020: Plenty of Robert highlights have made the rounds on Twitter this year, but the funniest has been the series of fly balls with Jimenez and Robert.

Cincinnati Reds

Trevor Bauer

Why the internet loves him:The polarizing Reds starter is outspoken on social media, but he also makes his presence known when he takes the mound, bringing one of the game's best approaches and arsenals with him while busting out cleats defending Dodgers relieverJoe Kellyafter Kelly threw behind and mocked Astros hitters earlier this year (more on that in a minute).

Signature social media moment from 2020: In a game where celebration is often frowned upon, it's refreshing to watch Bauer strut around the mound like McGregor after a K.

Cleveland Indians

Shane Bieber

Why the internet loves him: Bieber is the favorite for the American League Cy Young award and possibly even the MVP trophy for a reason. Cleveland's ace does nothing but strike out batters, possesses some of the best command in the game and provides fodder for baseball Twitter accounts like PitchingNinja's, which routinely turns Bieber hitting his spots into GIFs.

Signature social media moment from 2020: Watching Bieber pitch this year has been an absolute treat, and when you overlay two of his best pitches, his fastball and his knuckle curve, as Friedman has done here, you can see why hitters have had a hard time against him.

Houston Astros

Carlos Correa

Why the internet loves him:"Love" is probably not the best word to use when talking about the relationship between the Astros and the internet post-sign-stealing scandal. But Houston's baseball team routinely finds itself in the middle of social media moments as other teams respond to the offseason revelations. Correa, as one of the key players on the team, found himself right in the thick of everything, including ...

Signature social media moment from 2020:Correa was part of baseball's biggest internet moment of the year when Dodgers reliever Joe Kelly struck out the star shortstop and the two got into a jawing match, clearing the benches. Kelly has since become a folk hero in Hollywood, and his pouting face was made into a mural in Los Angeles.

Los Angeles Dodgers

Brusdar Graterol

Why the internet loves him:It's simple: Graterol throws gas and has a slider that moves like a Frisbee. On a team full of big-name players, Graterol is probably best known nationally as the pitcher whose failure to pass his physical led the Red Sox and Dodgers to renegotiate the trade of Mookie Betts -- but he's making a name for himself as a pitcher with stuff that screams back-end reliever potential.

Signature social media moment from 2020: Graterol is also a favorite of Friedman, who routinely highlights the movement on the Dodgers reliever's fastball and breaking pitches, but this moment, where Graterol throws a 101 mph fastball while shaking loose the chain around his neck, is the highlight of his season so far.

Miami Marlins

Sixto Sanchez

Why the internet loves him: Pedro Martinez recently said Sanchez is a "mini me with better stuff," and the inspiration is very clear in the Marlins starter's windup. Since making his debut, he's become a favorite of Friedman's. Regardless of whether you're rooting for or against the Marlins making the playoffs, if Sixto is on the mound, you're going to have a good time watching someone throw with electric stuff.

"Sixto Sanchez is off the chart with his pitches and exciting to watch. Part of it is that he plays it up, he plays like he's excited," Friedman said. "Sixto stands out because he just loves the attention too and you can tell. If there were fans out there, they would be going crazy and he craves that stuff."

Signature social media moment from 2020: In many ways, this GIF encapsulates Sanchez on the mound: incredible stuff and some swagger.

Milwaukee Brewers

Devin Williams

Why the internet loves him: Sometimes all it takes is one pitch to become a social media favorite, and the changeup of Brewers reliever Devin Williams is just that. The righty has been one of the best arms coming out of the bullpen, but the movement on his off-speed pitch really sticks out every time he takes the mound.

"If there is one pitch in baseball that you have to watch, it's Devin Williams' changeup," Friedman said. "That has stood out to me as something that's cropped up this season where I didn't come into this season thinking that I was going to watch Devin Williams every single time he comes out to pitch."

Signature social media moment from 2020: At a time where it seems like every reliever is coming out of the bullpen with a fastball measuring in the high 90s, watching Williams fool hitter after hitter with his off-speed stuff is a welcome change of pace.

Minnesota Twins

Byron Buxton

Why the internet loves him: Buxton hasn't necessarily lived up to the extraordinary hype that accompanied him as a consensus top prospect in baseball, but as one of the game's fastest players, the Twins outfielder routinely makes plays in the outfield and basepaths that few around the game can match.

Signature social media moment from 2020: Watching Buxton circle the bases for an inside-the-park home run truly highlights his game-changing speed.

New York Yankees

Luke Voit

Why the internet loves him: Amid an up-and-down season for the Yankees, Voit laid claim to the lineup's most stable presence while stars like Gary Sanchez and Gleyber Torres struggled at the plate and others like Giancarlo Stanton and Aaron Judge spent considerable time on the injured list. For most of the season, Voit's power at the plate represented one of the glimmers of hope for Yankees Twitter during their midseason slump, and he also provided some levity with his conspicuously non-specific "foot stuff" that has slowed him in the field and on the basepaths -- though not at the plate -- and has become a running joke among fans. Then, when that Yankees slump turned into a 10-game win streak, Voit, who had been outspoken on his team's poor play throughout, made it clear things had changed when he said, "We're back to being the Bronx Bombers."

Signature social media moment from 2020: When those rejuvenated Bronx Bombers hit five home runs in a single inning against the Blue Jays, of course one of them came from Voit-- who happens to be chasing a home run crown.

Oakland A's

Ramon Laureano

Why the internet loves him: Laureano popped up on the radar of even the most casual baseball fans this season when he found himself in the middle of a bench-clearing brawl with Astros hitting coach Alex Cintron, but the rangy Athletics center fielder routinely makes home-run-robbing catches look like a casual, normal part of his arsenal.

Signature social media moment from 2020: Since establishing himself in the majors, Laureano seemingly brings back a couple of homers every season, and every time, it's a spectacle.

Philadelphia Phillies

Bryce Harper

Why the internet loves him: The same reasons Harper came up as one of the most hyped baseball prospects of his generation are many of the same reasons he remains one of the most popular and polarizing players in the game. Depending on who you ask, Harper is both underrated and overrated, but either way, he often provides eye-catching highlights at the plate or in the outfield.

Signature social media moment from 2020: It's easy to forget that Harper was a catcher before converting to the outfield, but throws like these remind baseball fans that he possesses special talent.

San Diego Padres

Fernando Tatis Jr.

Why the internet loves him: At this point in 2020, it's hard to say anything about Tatis that hasn't already been said. He rakes, while embodying the joy a new generation of baseball players hope to infuse into the game by breaking some of the sport's antiquated unwritten rules. Few in the sport do that better in the batter's box, in the field and on the basepaths.

Signature social media moment from 2020: Air Tatis.

San Francisco Giants

Mike Yastrzemski

Why the internet loves him: It's hard to overlook the in-your-face baseball romanticism of the grandson of a baseball legend flourishing in the major leagues with a breakout season at age 30. The Giants surprised many around baseball with their performance so far this season, and the team doesn't sniff a playoff spot without the offensive production of Yaz, who's hitting .285/.390/.944 with 2.3 WAR.

Signature social media moment from 2020: A staring contest between Yaz and the TV audience.Some social media swooning ensued.

St. Louis Cardinals

Harrison Bader

Why the internet loves him: Bader brings an elite defensive skill set to the outfield for the Cardinals and routinely makes attention-grabbing snags in the outfield. Additionally, he's an active presence on Instagram, where he routinely posts game-day outfits and operates a second account to display his closet.

Signature social media moment from 2020: Bader makes diving catches in center field look routine, and he always seems willing to go flying through the air to make the extra effort.

Tampa Bay Rays

Willy Adames

Why the internet loves him: The consistency of Adames at the plate can come and go, but the Rays shortstop routinely makes eye-opening plays and brings an uncommon level of energy and joy to the field.

Signature social media moment from 2020: Adames makes a handful of eye-opening plays where he shows off his rocket arm from shortstop, and this is just one of the latest entries.

Toronto Blue Jays

Bo Bichette

Why the internet loves him: Bichette brings a level of controlled chaos both in the field and at the plate. His swing features an uncommon number of moving parts, from a huge leg kick to a pre-swing bat movement, but something about it just works. Among the trio of Blue Jays sons -- Bichette,Vladimir Guerrero Jr. and Cavan Biggio-- many evaluators around the sport expect the son of Dante to be the franchise's most important building block.Plus, his name became a meme as fodder forendless puns -- from Bro Bichette to Dough Bichette to Edgar Allan Poe Bichette.

Signature social media moment from 2020: Bichette is known more for his bat than his glove, but this diving stop and incredibly long throw remains atop Bichette's highlights during his first "full" season on the Blue Jays' major league roster.

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