With Vladimir Guerrero Jr. becoming the cover athlete for MLB The Show 23 last week (and the collector’s edition this year featuring the Negro Leagues as a whole rather than one player), we thought it would be fun to rank the MLB The Show covers by year, starting with MLB 06: The Show.
We’re starting with MLB 06: The Show because that’s when the “modern” era started for the series. Before then, it had not had “The Show” as a part of its name, and it was developed by 989 Sports. Funnily enough, Vladimir Guerrero Sr. was on the last version of the “old” series, titled MLB 2006.
So how will we do these rankings of cover athletes? Well, we’re going to go a little bit by vibes, but mainly it will be about MLB production at the time. We’ll mostly be looking at the statistical year they had while on the cover, but we’ll also consider the year they had before getting on the cover — usually the reason they were on the cover to begin with — and also perhaps one other year in that window of time if need be.
But first, let’s list all the names of everyone who has graced a cover, and then let’s also disqualify a couple of the cover athletes for simplicity’s sake.
MLB The Show Covers By Year
- MLB 06: The Show – David Ortiz
- MLB 07: The Show – David Wright
- MLB 08: The Show – Ryan Howard
- MLB 09: The Show – Dustin Pedroia
- MLB 10: The Show – Joe Mauer
- MLB 11: The Show – Joe Mauer
- MLB 12: The Show – Adrian Gonzalez
- MLB 13: The Show – Andrew McCutchen
- MLB 14: The Show – Miguel Cabrera
- MLB 15: The Show – Yasiel Puig
- MLB The Show 16 – Josh Donaldson
- MLB The Show 17 – Ken Griffey Jr.
- MLB The Show 18 – Aaron Judge
- MLB The Show 19 – Bryce Harper
- MLB The Show 20 – Javier Baez
- MLB The Show 21 – Fernando Tatis Jr.
- Collector’s Edition: Jackie Robinson
- MLB The Show 22 – Shohei Ohtani
- MLB The Show 23 – Jazz Chisholm
- Collector’s Edition: Derek Jeter
- MLB The Show 24 – Vladimir Guerrero Jr.
- Collector’s Edition: Negro Leagues
We’re leaving off the Taiwanese, Korean, and Canadian cover athletes for various years, but I see you Russell Martin, Jose Bautista, Wei-Yin Chen, Shin-Soo Choo, and so on. We’re also leaving off Vladdy Jr. because the 2024 baseball season hasn’t happened yet.
On top of that, we’re not going to rank the players who were no longer active when they graced the cover, so this means Derek Jeter, Jackie Robinson, and Ken Griffey Jr. will be left off the rankings as well (but obviously they’re all-time legends for a reason).
This leaves us with 17 cover athletes to rank.
Ranking MLB The Show Cover Athletes (Worst To First)
17) MLB The Show 20 – Javier Baez
Javier Baez had an awful 2020 season, and this also became an awful year as Covid-19 obviously took hold during this time. Going by the vibes check, this means almost by default Baez has to go here. In terms of stats, everything is slightly weird because of the shortened season, but his .599 OPS and .203 AVG over 59 games sort of points to how dreadful things went for him this year (and the world).
16) MLB The Show 23 – Jazz Chisholm
In a case of SDS shooting its shot, they risked a Jazz Chisholm cover here even though he was coming off an injury-shortened 2022 season. That said, he was a 2022 All-Star and looked like someone who could explode over a full season in 2023 if he got back healthy.
Unfortunately that did not quite come together as he only played in 97 games in 2023 due to a variety of injuries, and he really needed a hot stretch to even pull together a decent season. Still, he almost went 20 homers and 20 stolen bases, so it wasn’t all bad. It doesn’t feel like this is the beginning of the end or anything for him, it more just feels like he’s a player who is still in the process of finding himself.
15) MLB 15: The Show – Yasiel Puig
A lot of folks point to Yasiel Puig as the worst The Show cover athlete, and if you take everything into account now, it might be true. However, at the time, it seemed like this was more the first instance of SDS shooting its shot and trying to nail a player in a major market right before a big breakout season.
Puig was an All-Star and coming off a 5 WAR season in 2014, so he had more pedigree than a Jazz Chisholm, but in 2015 he played in just 79 games. On top of that, he only had a .758 OPS and he turned into a mess of a player all-around for a couple seasons before at least delivering somewhat again on the field in 2017 and 2018.
14) MLB 11: The Show – Joe Mauer
In the last of the injured players division, Joe Mauer would only play in 82 games during the 2011 season. The numbers were down across the board when he did play, but he’s the only player who gets two bites at the apple here as he was also on the 2010 cover, so we’ll be seeing him again.
13) MLB 12: The Show – Adrian Gonzalez
If you get traded during your cover athlete season, that hurts the vibes score. He’s in a Red Sox jersey on the cover of MLB 12 but by the end of the year Adrian Gonzalez was playing for the Dodgers. If he he’d had a massive year, I could have looked past some of it, but by his lofty standards it was just a decent year with an .806 OPS and 108 RBI.
On top of that, it just felt late for this cover athlete selection. His best years were mostly with the Padres, and it almost felt like one of those “we owed you an Academy Award” selections by SDS since the San Diego-based studio maybe wanted to give a former player some love.
12) MLB The Show 19 – Bryce Harper
This one caught me by surprise a bit. The selection in part was made because Harper was one of the biggest names in the sport and had just jumped from the Nationals to the Phillies during the offseason by signing a 13-year, $330 million contract. I do think the vibes get a +1 for that aspect of things, but Harper wasn’t coming off an insane year by his standards, and he wouldn’t have an insane one in 2019 either.
His 2019 stats include an .882 OPS, 35 HR, 114 RBI, and 4.4 WAR. But the Phillies only finished .500 and it felt like things did not quite go as planned overall. When factoring in his 2017 and 2018 seasons also being just okay by his standards, this was not the best three-year stretch for Harper (minus the checkbook).
11) MLB The Show 18 – Aaron Judge
I struggled with where to put Judge here because he only played in 112 games during the 2018 season, so he maybe should go lower than this. However, his 2017 season included a Rookie of the Year Award, coming in second in MVP voting, 52 home runs, 8 WAR and also 208 strikeouts just to put a little sauce on it all.
And it’s not like his injury-shortened 2018 season was bad, he still compiled about 6 WAR due to his glove and bat, looked great in the postseason before the Yankees were eliminated, and put up another 35 homers with an .882 OPS. Regardless, this begins a three-year run of injuries and this feels like his ceiling in these rankings.
10) MLB The Show 21 – Fernando Tatis Jr.
Tatis Jr. is another tough one to rank here because it’s sort of like Judge in some regards as he only plays in 130 games in 2021, but he still leads the league with 42 home runs, and this was as healthy as he had been up to this point. He came in third in MVP voting, had a .975 OPS, and put up around 6.5 WAR in 2021 as well. Overall, this felt like a good get by SDS targeting a player right before a massive breakout as his 2020 season was obviously complicated by Covid-19.
But in the back of my mind, I also know his 2022 non-season is around the corner. He’s about to be injured and then suspended for 80 games, and that sort of puts his career on hold until coming back with a solid 2023 campaign.
9) MLB 10: The Show – Joe Mauer
I think this is where the rankings start to get hard. Coming into his cover athlete season, Mauer puts up an insane 2009 where he has around 8 WAR, wins MVP, gets the Gold Glove, and rips off a line of .365 AVG, .444 OBP, 1.031 OPS, and a career-high 28 homers that he would never sniff again.
His 2010 season does not approach that, but it’s still a great season for a catcher as he had an .871 OPS and remained a hitting machine. He’d get eighth in MVP voting in 2010, but these two years together are what get him this ranking. We already mentioned above how things fall apart in 2011, so 2008-2010 is his best three-year stretch by far.
8) MLB 09: The Show – Dustin Pedroia
I think you could flip Pedroia and Mauer in the rankings because it’s sort of the same story for both. Pedroia’s 2008 season is an MVP year where he has 213 hits, 54 2B, 118 runs, 20 SB, .870 OPS, and 7 WAR to lead the league. That followed up a Rookie of the Year Award and a World Series title in 2007.
His 2009 season is perfectly solid with an .819 OPS and another 5.5 or so of WAR, but it just lacks that little extra juice. It’s not the same sort of fall off as Mauer though, albeit Pedroia does end up having his own injury-plagued 2010 as well.
7) MLB 08: The Show – Ryan Howard
In retrospect, Howard’s counting stats are probably a little overrated in the grand scheme of things over his career, but this is the third cover athlete in a row we’re covering who was coming off an MVP season. With that in mind, you could also move him around with Pedroia and Mauer, but I think Howard gets some extra love here because the Phillies would win the 2008 World Series and end a long drought for the city of Philadelphia.
On top of that, he would come in second in the MVP race in 2008, and he would hit 48 HR to go with 146 RBI. He also had around a .900 OPS during the World Series run, so he was a big part of the championship.
6) MLB 14: The Show – Miguel Cabrera
This was the hardest player for me to place because Miguel Cabrera was coming off back-to-back MVPs, and his 2012 season was obviously one for ages as that was his Triple Crown year. So in back-to-back years he put up about 16 WAR in total. By comparison, his 2014 season was a “disappointment” as he would only end up around 5 WAR with 25 HR and 109 RBI.
Still, it’s hard to put him lower because it’s still one of the best three-year runs of hitting in the modern era.
5) MLB 06: The Show – David Ortiz
Now we really get into the heavy hitters, starting with Big Papi. David Ortiz was living a charmed life at this point, as he had the 2004 World Series that ended Boston’s suffering on his shelf. He followed that up by getting second in MVP voting during the 2005 season.
So what does he do during his 2006 season but lead the league with 54 HR, 137 RBI, and 119 BB. He would get third in MVP voting this season and rack up about 6 WAR. All in all, it’s a great three-year run that also gets some added vibe points by becoming the iconic Red Sox player for the 21st century.
4) MLB The Show 16 – Josh Donaldson
I go with Donaldson above Ortiz because the defense obviously helps, and he was also coming off a really pressure-fueled 2015 year where he was traded to the Blue Jays and delivered with an MVP season where he had 41 HR, 123 RBI, 122 runs, and 7 WAR. On top of that, he was great in the postseason even if the Blue Jays came up short in the end.
He follows that up as the cover athlete and puts up another 7 WAR season while hitting 37 homers and putting together a 1.128 OPS in 9 playoff games for the Jays. There’s really not much more you can do to endear yourself to your new team.
3) MLB 07: The Show – David Wright
In retrospect, David Wright’s 2007 season while the cover athlete is maybe underappreciated now. He would put up 8 WAR with 30 HR, 107 RBI, 34 SB, a .963 OPS, and only get fourth in MVP voting. He did this as a 24-year-old 3B playing in a New York market. It’s wild to only get fourth in MVP voting and receive no first-place votes after that sort of season. Again, if that voting takes place today, my guess is it goes a bit differently.
SDS really picked a winner here either way because his 2007 season was by far his best year. His 2006 season was good (4 WAR), but he wasn’t great in the postseason, and his 2008 season had better counting stats in some ways but also just couldn’t compare to the 2007 run.
2) MLB 13: The Show – Andrew McCutchen
Okay, I had forgotten how wild every part of the 2013 season was for both McCutchen and the Pirates. This would be the pinnacle for both the player and franchise during this run, and his cover athlete season included winning the Gold Glove, MVP, and included the only time the Pirates would escape the play-in game and actually get to play in a “real” postseason series. Overall, he hit .348 with 21 HR, 27 SB, his best year in the field, and a .911 OPS that equated to around 7.8 WAR to lead the league.
The 2013 season was sandwiched between getting third in the MVP race in 2012 and 2014, so this is a really special run for McCutchen.
1) MLB The Show 22 – Shohei Ohtani
I do think this is actually closer than it seems, but it’s still really hard to go against Ohtani because, well, he does it all while being a massive draw all over the world. He has the stats and then all the vibes — he’s just brought down by injuries and a lack of postseason appearances thus far.
Regardless, his 2022 season includes getting 2nd in MVP voting, 4th in Cy Young voting, and putting up around 9+ WAR between pitching and hitting. As a hitter his 2021 season was better, but it still ends with 34 HR and an .875 OPS. Then as a pitcher it’s a big step up from 2021 as his SO/9 is 11.9, and his FIP is 2.40 in 166 IP. All in all, that ends up leading to 15 wins on the mound and a 2.33 ERA while striking out 219 hitters. That’s pretty good.
The downside is of course any three-year window so far is incomplete in some regards due to injury/Covid, but that’s the power of Ohtani as he still won MVP in 2023 due to his combined hitting/pitching even though he got hurt on the mound.