The Guys Hardly Anyone Talks About
Hey, a non-Phillies column. Whaddaya know? I was perusing highlights on MLB.com and happened upon this home run hit by Josh Willingham last night. There was nothing particularly special about it — it was a solo shot and his Twins were down 2-0, and it wasn’t hit particularly far. But it was hit by Willingham, a player for whom I’ve had a soft spot for a while, even dating back to his days as a Florida Marlin and as a known Phillies-basher. The 33-year-old is earning $7 million this year, the first of a three-year, $21 million deal signed last December, and he has a .382 weighted on-base average (wOBA). That ranks 13th-best in the Majors, sandwiched between Adrian Beltre and Carlos Gonzalez, two players who get way more publicity than Willingham.
In researching the surprisingly productive year of Willingham, I came across a slew of players who are having fantastic seasons and are generating almost no buzz. I’d like to highlight them and do my small part in bringing attention to their fantastic years.
For the non-stat-savvy, here are links to reading material on the stats I will commonly cite:
- Wins Above Replacement (WAR)
- Weighted on-base average (wOBA)
- Batting Average on Balls in Play (BABIP)
- Expected Fielding Independent Pitching (xFIP)
Edwin Encarnacion – 1B/DH, Toronto Blue Jays
Is Edwin Encarnacion the next Jose Bautista — a player who has a mediocre start to his career, goes to Toronto, and transforms into one of baseball’s most prolific power hitters? EE has 40 home runs on the season, second-best in baseball behind Josh Hamilton‘s 41, and he’s only 29 years old. The Cincinnati Reds gave up on him in July 2009, sending him to Toronto in the Scott Rolen trade. His first two and a half seasons in Canada were more of the same slightly above-average offense, below-average defense and poor base running.
2012 is a completely new ballgame. Spending a majority of his time as a first baseman for the first time in his career, Encarnacion’s power has blown through the roof. His current .287 isolated power is easily a career-best, surpassing 2010′s .238 mark. He is drawing walks at a career-best rate (12.5%) and striking out at a career-low rate (14.5%). Just for good measure, he’s added 13 steals in 16 attempts as well. His WAR, 4.4 per Baseball Reference and 4.2 per FanGraphs, is the best among first basemen, surpassing even Prince Fielder and Albert Pujols. Playing in the same league as Mike Trout, Encarnacion’s MVP award hopes are dashed as the Angels outfielder is close to lapping him for a second time in WAR, but EE’s fantastic season shouldn’t be lost in the shuffle.
Dexter Fowler – CF, Colorado Rockies
Rockies players are easy to overlook. They’re 57-85 in the cellar of the NL West and their numbers are inflated by the very, very hitter-friendly nature of Coors Field. The roster is comprised of injured stars (Troy Tulowitzki), washed-up veterans (Todd Helton, Jason Giambi), and Major League flame-outs (Jeff Francis). Quietly, though, the 26-year-old Dexter Fowler is having a break-out season. His .386 wOBA is a 40-point improvement on last year thanks in large part to a .402 BABIP, a 50 point again over last season’s output. And he does have a substantial home-road split, but so too did Matt Holliday back in 2007 and he turned out all right.
Fowler gets very poor defensive grades from both Baseball Reference and FanGraphs, though I wonder if the extraordinarily spacious outfield at Coors Field makes him look worse than he really is. Additionally, despite the speed and the .396 on-base percentage, Fowler has only stolen 12 bases in 16 attempts, so a large majority of Fowler’s 3.6 fWAR and 3.0 rWAR come from his offense.
As shown here several weeks ago, a hitter’s high BABIP one year is likely to regress the next year even though hitters have a lot of control over their own BABIP compared to pitchers. Fowler’s 2012 is likely very fluky and unable to be repeated, but it doesn’t mean we can’t enjoy what he has done so far anyway.
Aramis Ramirez – 3B, Milwaukee Brewers
Entering 2012, his age-34 season, Aramis Ramirez had played in more than 125 games just once in his previous three seasons. Nevertheless, the Brewers gambled on him when they signed him to a three-year, $36 million contract in the off-season. So far, it has worked out very well. The third baseman has played in 131 of his team’s 143 games while posting a .380 wOBA, 20 points above his career average. According to FanGraphs, the only third basemen to have been more valuable to their teams than Ramirez has to the Brewers (5.5 fWAR) are David Wright, Chase Headley, Miguel Cabrera, and Adrian Beltre. As mentioned here many times, third base is a very, very shallow position nowadays, so having one of the top-five best at that position is a nice thing to have.
Ramirez got off to a slow start, finishing April with a .645 OPS. Many thought he was cooked, but Ramirez pressed on and finished the first half with a respectable .821 OPS. Since the All-Star break, he has been on fire, finishing the months of July and August with an OPS north of 1.000 each. He is a big reason why the Brewers, like the Phillies, have gone on a tear recently (25-15 since August 1), surpassing .500 and getting themselves back into the chase for the second Wild Card.
The remainder of Ramirez’s contract remains a question mark (not unlike Raul Ibanez after 2009 with the Phillies), but there is no doubt that many teams — including, perhaps, the Phillies — are kicking themselves for not pursuing his services in the past off-season.
Austin Jackson – CF, Detroit Tigers
Austin Jackson finished second in AL Rookie of the Year voting in 2010, losing to Neftali Feliz of the Texas Rangers. Jackson’s .293 batting average was heavily buoyed by a .396 BABIP and Saber-types correctly wrote him off in 2011. Jackson’s wOBA dropped from .333 to .309 and his fWAR from 4.1 to 2.9, still respectable nonetheless. In 2012 at the age of 25, older and wiser, Jackson has returned to his high-average, high-BABIP ways (.309, .385) but has brought along some tools to go with it. His 11.5% walk rate is a career-best and a significant improvement on last year’s 8.4%. His strikeout rate is down to 21.8% from 27.1% as well, illustrating his much-improved strike zone judgment. (He is still striking out roughly two times for every one walk, so there is still a lot of room for improvement in this regard.)
The power, though, is where Jackson has made his biggest stride. He already has a comparable amount of doubles, triples, and home runs this year as he did last year, but in 130 fewer trips to the plate. His ISO is up to .183 from .125, which may not put him in the Trout-Hamilton echelon, but is still above average for a centerfielder as the Major League average is .148. Saberists will call for him to regress again in 2013 because of that BABIP, but because of the marked improvement in plate discipline and power, he will still be a very valuable part of the Tigers roster in the coming years, especially as he enters his late 20′s.
David Murphy – LF, Texas Rangers
No, not the Phillies beat writer for the Daily News. Since joining the Texas Rangers in 2007, Murphy has established himself as a valuable player in that he hits at about the league average and plays decent defense in a corner outfield spot. In those five years, he posted a 105 OPS+ while the Rangers paid him under $4 million. Comparatively, Raul Ibanez posted a 111 OPS+ with below average defense for the Phillies, earning $31.5 million over three years.
2012 has made Murphy vital to the Rangers, who hope to return to the World Series for a third consecutive season. His .377 wOBA is easily a career-best, as is his 11% walk rate. His strikeout rate, at 14.3%, is only a hair above last year’s career-low of 13.9% as well. He has been the third-best hitter for the Rangers this year behind Josh Hamilton and Adrian Beltre as his team paces the American League in batting average, on-base percentage, and OPS. Perhaps because of his common name and his not-so-common teammates, Murphy isn’t getting any airtime this year, but he is having himself a very nice season.
Greg Holland – RP, Kansas City Royals
Many have been correctly obsessing over Aroldis Chapman‘s impressive numbers and in the process are overlooking some of the more human arms out there, like that of Greg Holland. The right-handed Holland is coming off a 2011 season in which he posted a 1.80 ERA in 60 innings as a 25-year-old, painting a very rosy picture for the coming years. Despite a 110-point BABIP increase (.250 to .359), Holland’s ERA sits under 3.00 and he is striking out one in every three batters he faces, the 11th-highest strikeout among qualified relievers in the Majors.
Holland recently moved into the closer’s role, taking over for Jonathan Broxton, who was traded to the Cincinnati Reds. Since August 1, Holland has a 1.74 ERA with 28 strikeouts and eight walks in 20.1 innings. It looks like the Royals have found their future closer, one who will be with the team for a while as he isn’t eligible for arbitration for the first time until 2014.
Kyle Lohse – SP, St. Louis Cardinals
Kyle Lohse is infamous in Philadelphia for the grand slam he surrendered to Kazuo Matsui in Game Two of the 2007 NLDS against the Colorado Rockies. He then became a fixed part of the Cardinals’ rotation, having mixed results under pitching coach (or, more accurately, pitching guru) Dave Duncan. Although Duncan hasn’t been with the Cardinals this year due to spending more time with his family, his tutelage has paid off as Lohse has a 2.81 ERA in 30 starts, something that might earn the 33-year-old some back-end Cy Young award votes as he approaches free agency — potentially for the last time in his career.
Lohse isn’t doing anything particularly different, benefiting from a .261 BABIP. He has, however, made strides in limiting his walks (4.3%, a career-low) and striking out more batters (15.8%, his best rate since 2006). His 4.04 xFIP is identical to that of 2011, when his ERA was nearly 0.60 higher. Nevertheless, Lohse has been exactly the type of pitcher good teams have at the back of their rotations to get to the post-season. Lohse’s incredible 2012 has been crucial to the Cardinals, who are desperately clinging to a two-game lead for the second Wild Card.
Wade Miley – SP, Arizona Diamondbacks
At 71-72, the Diamondbacks aren’t out of it yet, but they will have to hurdle five other teams if they hope to fight their way into the post-season. Should that happen, it will no doubt be on the arm of one of their most impressive — and youngest — pitchers in Wade Miley. At 25 years old, Miley has a 3.05 ERA, heavily dependent on his pristine control. He has walked fewer than one in 20 batters this year at 4.4%, the sixth-lowest walk rate among qualified pitchers. Miley isn’t overpowering as his 18.3% strikeout rate is right at the league average, and he doesn’t have any amazing batted ball skills, nor is he benefiting from unsustainable luck. Miley has simply been himself, steady and consistent, all year long.
Miley’s 3.5 WAR is the second-best among rookies in the National League according to Baseball Reference, trailing only Bryce Harper at 3.8. Due to Harper’s pre-season hype and the startling success of his team, Miley is likely a long shot to take home the NL Rookie of the Year award, but a strong finish to the 2012 season and perhaps a surprise late-season surge by his Diamondbacks, could push him into prominence.
Hiroki Kuroda – SP, New York Yankees
Hiroki Kuroda doesn’t get any respect. Quietly, the 37-year-old pitcher from Japan has been one of baseball’s best pitchers this season, currently the author of a 3.17 ERA. It marks the third consecutive season he has posted an ERA of 3.40 or below. When the Yankees picked him up as a free agent this past January, many thought that the small confines of Yankee Stadium and Kuroda’s advanced age would lead to a disaster, but 2012 has been anything but that. Kuroda simply succeeds by inducing ground balls (52.6%), striking out hitters at an average rate, and limiting the walks (5.3%). He is eligible for free agency once again after the season. Given how good he’s been, it’s hard to see the Yankees letting him go anywhere, but in the event Kuroda hits the open market, he will generate more interest than was present this past off-season, even at the age of 38.
Wilton Lopez – RP, Houston Astros
Phillies fans saw this guy last night when he closed out a 6-4 victory for his downtrodden Astros. On Twitter, I was very surprised by Lopez’s stats:
Lopez’s 8.5 strikeout-to-walk ratio is the best among all relief pitchers in baseball, even better than Craig Kimbrel (7.0). 26 years old and under team control through 2015, you have to imagine the smart minds that have populated the Astros’ front office recently (e.g. Jeff Luhnow, Mike Fast, Kevin Goldstein) know what a treasure they have in this right-hander. Relievers who can both strike out hitters at an above-average rate and limit walks to such a staggeringly-low point are very rare and very valuable. Of the 13 qualified relievers with a K/BB of 5.0 or better, only two — Joel Peralta and Chris Perez — have an ERA above 3.00. Two — Kimbrel and Aroldis Chapman — have an ERA below 2.00. If the Astros can put together a roster that can somehow bring leads of one to three runs to the late innings, they should have considerably better success going forward with Lopez ready to turn off the lights for opposing teams.