Each week our writers go round the table to give their thoughts on the biggest stories or questions in baseball.
Which player is having the most outstanding ‘under the radar’ season?
Edward Overend: Hector Santiago, Angels
Outside of Mike Trout and Albert Pujols the Angels offense has been less than stellar so far this season and yet they still find themselves very much in the hunt in the AL West.
One of the biggest factors for this has been the huge improvement from Santiago. Hector has always had the ability to strike people out but he also has given up way too many free passes in the past to be effective. This season his WHIP has dropped dramatically to an outstanding 1.09 and the strikeouts have remained.
Admittedly, his .234 BABIP against has to regress but a 2.40 ERA has to be way better than even the most optimistic Angels fan expected coming into the year. With Jered Weaver out and Matt Shoemaker finding it difficult to maintain last year’s performance, the Angels could not be more delighted with how the left armer has gone so far.
Casey Boguslaw: Randal Grichuk, Cardinals
When Matt Holliday got injured on June 8th the Cards held a division lead of 6.5 games. This injury was in addition to losing their ace, Adam Wainwright and starting first baseman, Matt Adams. Fast forward a month later and on July 7th their division lead is still strong at 6 games (4.5 after losing both halves of a double-header on the 7th). While the pitching rotation has held strong and first base has been filled by essentially replacement-level Mark Reynolds it has been Randal Grichuk who has filled in admirably for the team’s star over the last few years, Matt Holliday.
After only starting 22 games as a rookie in 2014 (mostly due to a different Matt Adams injury) while only sporting a 0.2 WAR, not much was to be expected from Grichuk going into this season. He has accumulated a 1.5 WAR thus far into this season (already 42 games started) while also improving his OPS from .678 to .816. He has also saved six runs according to BIS defensive runs saved (in contrast, Holliday has cost the Cards three runs in his 50 starts this season).
The Cardinals are well known for extreme franchise depth and Grichuk is just one amongst a long line of surprise call-ups that no one outside St. Louis even knew about in March. What the Cardinals have done this season when you consider the injuries they have had is remarkable and Randal Grichuk is a big contributor to their success.
Anthony Rescan: Jason Hammel, Cubs
Since I already wrote on two under the radar players in Kiermaier and Pollock, I’m going to target someone different – Jason Hammel. So far, Hammel has completely exceeded the expectations tagged to any normal #3/4 starter type in the league. Hammel is already a 2.1 win pitcher, which is good for 22nd in the league on Fangraphs. Usually when someone overperforms like this, it is usually a smoke and mirrors game. The player usually has a very low ERA but a very high FIP noting that they will regress at some point. Meanwhile, Hammel currently boasts a career best in ERA at 2.89 and, to go along with it, he has favorable DIPS statistics with a 3.09 FIP, a 3.15 xFIP, and a FIP- of 80. It is worth noting that he is currently posting a .252 BABIP, suggesting that he may be getting some extra defensive help or luck.
On top of his impressive run based statistics, Hammel has been shattering his career highs in K% and BB%, posting a 25.6% and 4.4% mark in each category. What’s interesting about Hammel is that he did this before with the Cubs. Prior to being traded to Oakland last season, Hammel had nearly identical stats and was one of the surprises of the season. In his second half stint with the A’s, he reverted to his career averages over the long haul and lost the sheen of his great first half. Maybe there’s something in the water at Wrigley that gives Hammel a bit of a boost?
Joe Commesso: Anthony Gose, Tigers
When speaking of the Detroit Tigers, it is difficult to do so without using names like David Price, Miguel Cabrera or J.D. Martinez. This talented Tigers team is sending four players to the All-Star Game, with a possibility of a fifth with Yoenis Cespedes in the running for the AL final vote. Despite the presence of these super-stars on the field, a team’s success can often be attributed to the contributions of less reputable players. On a team like the Tigers, young talent can be easily over-shadowed by the All-Star caliber players. In some cases, its these unsung heroes that don’t receive enough credit.
Anthony Gose exceptionally portrays that one does not have to be an All-Star to positively contribute to a baseball team. Although the Tigers aren’t exactly setting the world on fire with their 42-40 record, Gose has definitely helped them win some games. The 24 year old outfielder is enjoying his first year with the Tigers since being traded from the Blue Jays last November. Gose, whom only hit .226 last year in 94 games, is seeming to find his groove as of late. He is currently hitting .277 in 242 at-bats, which is already more than he’s had in any prior single season. Gose has played in 66 games, sharing time with Rajai Davis in the outfield. Anthony Gose is certainly making himself a case to be an everyday starter, displaying the ability to offensively contribute at the top or bottom of the lineup. With 13 stolen bases, Gose has been an effective table setter, getting on base and moving himself over. His impressive defense can be heavily attributed to his speed as well, showing stellar range while tracking down balls in the outfield. Despite some first-half blemishes, the Detroit Tigers are determined to play in October, and Anthony Gose plays an important role in doing so.
In terms of first half surprise contributors the first player that came to mind is Will Venable for the San Diego Padres. With the injury to Wil Myers, Will Venable was suddenly thrust back into a starting role. He had been a starter for most of the first eight years of his career with the Padres but was relegated to a backup with the acquisitions of Matt Kemp, Justin Upton, and Wil Myers. He had always been a respectable player but nothing more than decent except for his breakout 2013 season. So far this year Venable has nearly matched his 2013 season and could even be in for a career year this year if he continues to get playing time.
Patrick Brewer: Will Venable, Padres
Will Venable has been a pleasant surprise for the Padres to say the least. Prior to the season, not much was expected of Venable because of his role as a backup. Venable has responded well to being thrust back into the starting lineup and has proven many of the doubters wrong. So far on the year in 69 games played, with 218 plate appearances, Venable has a slash line of .260/.321/.410. He also has a wRC+ of 108 and has been good for 1.1 WAR up until this point. Based on his first half numbers, Venable may be in for a career year should he maintain consistency as well as maintain his current amount of playing time.
Out of the whole Padres team Venable is third in wRC+ and WAR behind only Justin Upton and Yonder Alonso in wRC+ and Justin Upton and Derek Norris in WAR. With all the offseason trades made by AJ Preller, not many would have thought someone like Will Venable would be one of the best on the Padres roster in many major offensive categories. Venable has more than staked his claim on the Padres surprise first half MVP and may be one of the bigger surprises in all of Major League Baseball.
Darren Helley: Wei-Yin Chen, Orioles
The Baltimore Orioles’ starting pitching in 2015 has been shaky to say the least. While veterans Chris Tillman and Bud Norris have experienced serious struggles in the first half of the year, many would look upon rebounding RHP Ubaldo Jimenez as the bright spot for the Orioles on the mound.
But in case you might have forgotten, there is a left-hander in this rotation. In fact, he’s quietly elevated his game into one of the best left-handed pitchers in all of baseball. Taiwanese pitcher Wei-Yin Chen has been overlooked as one the most valuable players for the Orioles in 2015 so far. Signed in 2012 as the franchise’s first and only Taiwanese player, the 29-year old Chen has quietly progressed since donning the Orioles uniform.
Wei-Yin Chen’s ERA of 2.82 sits in the top 5 among all left-handed starters in the majors heading into the All-Star break. He’s outperforming Cole Hamels- the sought-after trade chip of the Phillies- and current CY Young award winner and NL MVP Clayton Kershaw. If you want to take into account the presence of the designated hitter within the American League, Chen ranks 9th in among all AL starters in ERA. The big reason for Chen’s success in 2015 is his ability to reduce the amount of batters getting on base, resulting in a stellar 1.1 WHIP. While his BB/9 is at 2.1, his H/9 stands at a whopping 7.9. Taking into account his AL East environment and the long line of power hitters stepping up to the plate; that’s an impressive feat so far for the Taiwanese southpaw.
What’s also been impressive about Wei-Yin Chen in 2015 has been his production against right-handed batters. So far, Chen has allowing a .238 batting average against righties; again, the division environment gives that stat more value than at first glance.
This has been a breakout year for the Taiwanese star southpaw. Wei-Yin Chen is pitching better than anybody on the bump right now; but not only that, he’s also been incredibly consistent. Don’t be surprised to see Chen’s name floating around the All-Star game as a reserve pitcher.
Adam Brown: Trevor May, Twins
When I think of the Minnesota Twins and who’s contributing to their unfathomable first half of the season, Brian Dozier, Trevor Plouffe and Joe Mauer are probably names that bounce around the brains. Yet with a starting rotation that’s seen Ervin Santana suspended, Phil Hughes regressing and the mediocrity of Mike Pelfrey, what if I said the key to this rotation could be Trevor May.
May, who thus far in his career has an ERA + of 72, not helped by his appalling stint in the major league last year has seemed to be the victim of copious amounts of bad luck, especially this season. FIP, a stat that erases the impact of the defensive players has May at 3.20, the lowest in the Twins rotation, far ahead of Mike Pelfrey, who holds the second best mark at 4.09. The 2015 version of May has seen his peripherals dramatically improve, and not be a truly indicative reflection of his ERA. He has a K/BB of 3.94, and a BB% of 5.2, well below the MLB average of 7.6. His control will be a key aspect in his imminent breakout.
What’s holding May back is bad BABIP luck, he holds a career mark of .356, and .344 for 2015, this is clearly out of sync with the Major League median of .298, which would indicate that a regression to the mean should be on the horizon. With his league average strikeout rate of 20.5% (League average 20.3%), the ball is in play as often as would be expected, which would again be indicative of an impending turnaround in luck.
May’s peripherals indicate he’s a good candidate to lead this staff in the second half of the season, and will be an integral part of keeping the improbable Twins in the postseason mix.