The All-Star Game is tonight, and (most of) the game’s brightest stars will be on display. With all 30 teams represented and about six dozen players earning the All-Star designation, there should be somebody for everyone to root for.
However, that doesn’t mean that all of this season’s key players will take the field Tuesday. And I’m not just talking about the absence of Yasiel Puig and Evan Longoria. There are lots of players having terrific under-the-radar seasons who will be playing golf, fishing or spending time with family and friends during their brief summer break.
Sure, the quality of these players’ seasons is mostly based on small sample sizes, but so what? We still can have some fun putting together a roster of noteworthy performers, even if there’s no way any of them would have a chance of appearing in the Midsummer Classic.
The batters are mostly players who would be best used as pinch-hitters in ideal scenarios, but pinch-hitting is prevalent in the All-Star Game, and there’s a good enough mix of players to create an actual lineup. The pitchers are mostly middle relievers, but these nondescript one-inning hurlers would fit right into today’s usage pattern in baseball’s midseason exhibition.
Catcher: Evan Gattis
Is a player’s back story enough for him to earn a spot on this roster? No, but Gattis’ story is as close as anyone’s could come to getting the job done.
Beyond his story, Gattis’ performance has been pretty surprising, too. Fourteen home runs and a .563 slugging percentage? That’s a whole lot better than teammate B.J. Upton is doing, and Upton’s salary is 30 times Gattis’. Gattis filled in nicely behind the plate when Brian McCann was out, and then he shifted to corner-outfield and occasional first-base duty—whatever the team has needed.
As a 26-year-old rookie who strikes out in about 25 percent of his at-bats, there’s no telling where Gattis’ career will go. Perhaps he’ll follow the Josh Hamilton path of coming back from nowhere to post impressive results. Maybe he’ll be out of the majors within the next couple of years.
Regardless, Gattis’ presence in the big leagues shows that, for many, getting to The Show is anything but a straight, clearly defined path.
First base: Matt Adams
Due to the glut of impressive hitters on the St. Louis roster—including All-Star first baseman Allen Craig—there’s not a full-time gig available to Adams. However, the 6-foot-3, 260-pounder has taken advantage of the limited opportunities given to him, bopping to a .316/.368/.549 tune with seven long balls in 133 at-bats.
Despite his girth, Adams hasn’t served as designated hitter during any of the Cardinals’ games in American League parks, indicating a certain trust in his glove. Whether Adams will be a long-time fixture in St. Louis or serve as trade bait as the Redbirds look to upgrade at a position of need (shortstop!) is unknown, but for now he’s a good thumper to have at the cold corner and off the bench.
Second base: Jeff Baker
Okay, so he’s played only one game at the keystone this season, but Baker has more games at second than anywhere else in his career. And, yes, he’s missed the last month with a sprained thumb. But when Baker was on the field, he was producing. In only 82 at-bats, he has nine homers, a .317/.391/.695 line, and a 1.086 OPS. Even in Arlington, that’s 83 percent better than an average hitter.
Whenever Baker comes back, his injury and reality almost certainly will bring his numbers back to earth. But for now, let’s highlight the terrific numbers he posted during his early-season surge.
Shortstop: Brendan Ryan
He lost his job recently because he’s hit below the Mendoza Line over the last one-and-a-half seasons. But with a roster full of sluggers surrounding him, there would be room to throw a defensive wizard into the mix. While the numbers show his leather may have taken a step back this year, the long-term excellent glove work Ryan has provided the Cardinals and Mariners has value.
Is that value $3.25 million, his 2013 salary? Before this season, yes. Now and in the future? That’s much less certain. But if a late-inning replacement is needed for a single game, it would be difficult to find someone more suited for the role than Ryan.
Third base: Cody Ransom
Ransom began the season 0-for-11 with San Diego, leading to the Padres putting him on waivers. Snatched up by the Cubs, Ransom has improved his OPS+ from -100 with the Friars to 167 with Chicago’s North Siders. That will happen when you bop nine home runs in 97 at-bats. He’s been flexible enough to step in for a game at first base and even one at shortstop, though he’s mainly been a platoon partner at the hot corner with Luis Valbuena.
As is the case with probably all of these players, this performance level is unlikely to last. But if the Cubs can extract a little value and possibly a low-tier prospect for Ransom, claiming him off the waiver wire will have been a nice little move for Theo Epstein’s front office.
(The resuscitated corpse of Eric Chavez, brought back to life last year in the Bronx after four years of virtual non-existence, would have been a good candidate for this spot. Indeed, he could be the platoon partner for Ransom, coming in when a right-handed pitcher is on the mound.)
Left field: Matt Tuiasosopo
Cast off by Seattle in late 2011 (after not appearing in the bigs since 2010), Tuiasosopo spent last year in the minors with the Mets. Signed by Detroit this past winter, all Tuiasosopo has done this season is crush the ball. His .329/.447/.624 line in 103 plate appearances is good for a 184 OPS+. (His best OPS+ before this year was 83 in 25 plate appearances in 2009.) And he’s been abusing both left-handed and right-handed pitchers, so it’s not just platoon splits he’s taking advantage of.
Oh, and that “Seattle castoff” thing? You’ll see that again soon.
Center field: Juan Pierre
Once upon a time, Pierre was quick enough to slash-and-dash his way to a .300 average, even as recently as last year. This season, that batting average is .241 with few walks and no power.
However, he’s stolen 18 bases, good for seventh in the NL. Pierre may only be a platoon player nowadays, but if an All-Star manager needs someone to pilfer a bag late, there aren’t too many better pinch-running options.
Right field: Raul Ibanez
With 24 home runs, tied for fourth in the AL, it’s a bit surprising Ibanez isn’t on the actual All-Star roster. He’s now hit more home runs in his age-40 and age-41 seasons (43) than he hit through his 20s (27 through his age-29 campaign in 2001). Talk about your late bloomers.
This is now 12 straight seasons with 16-plus long balls. While Ibanez’s OPS+ is “only” 149, he’s achieved that mark over 296 trips to the plate, making him perhaps the most impressive hitter on this squad.
Designated hitter: Mike Carp
The Mariners did make the wise decision to bring Ibanez back after four seasons away, but they flubbed things with Carp, dealing him to the Red Sox before the season started for next to nothing. He’s played only about half as often as Ibanez, but Carp has a .303/.369/.606 line that’s good for a 157 OPS+.
He’s alternated good seasons with bad ones in his five-year career, and Boston is reaping the benefits of employing him in an odd-numbered year. Next year, who knows? But for now, they’ll take it.
Starting pitcher: None
I was going to go with Jeff Samardzija before he blew up in his last start, pushing his ERA over 4.00 and his ERA+ below 100. So he’s out.
I considered Chris Sale, figuring a guy with a 5-8 record wouldn’t make the real team. But he won the last time out, has a 2.85 ERA, is striking out 9.8 batters per nine, and—most importantly—is on the real All-Star team.
The solution? Punt on a starter. After all, no pitcher will go more than two innings, so we’ll make this an all-bullpen game.
Relief pitchers: A cast of thousands
If you’ve been reading along dreadfully, repeatedly screaming “small sample size” at the screen and reacting like Bill The Cat, sorry, but things aren’t going to get any better.
We’re going to be looking at vanishingly small numbers as low as 20 innings, but these little tales still can be fun to read. It’s highly unlikely any of these performances are part of any Hall-of-Famer careers, but that’s not the point. This section is an opportunity to highlight the good work being done by the bullpen pitchers who get little publicity.
You know, guys like Steve Delabar, the Toronto Blue Jays reliever who gets no atten … what’s that? He is an All-Star? He was one of five right-handed relievers in the AL’s final fan vote? (Who came up with that idea?) And he beat out players from both the Red Sox and Yankees? Well, slap me twice and call me Sally. I never would have seen that coming.
Okay, let’s just ignore that highfalutin’ Delabar fella and see who’s really flying under the radar.
How about Tom Gorzelanny? Did you even know he’s still in the majors? Did you also know he’s now in the Brewers’ starting rotation? Yep, his last two outings have been six innings apiece with no earned runs, dropping his season ERA to 1.88 and raising his ERA+ to 210. Will he keep it up? Sure, why not? So what if his career ERA is 4.24? Also, Gorzelanny throws left and bats right. That’s charmingly oddball.
Did you also know Oliver Perez still toiled for a big league franchise? Similar to Gorzelanny, he’s done most of his recent work out of the bullpen, and he finally unbroken. Perez has whiffed 50 batters in 36 innings—a career-best 12.5 K/9 rate—and has a 1.75 ERA and 217 ERA+. Those are numbers plenty of teams could use.
(If you want to dive really deep into the flamed-out-starter-resurrected-as-reliever pool, Sean Burnett has a 429 ERA+ in 9.2 innings for the Angels.)
Neal Cotts has an .800 winning percentage! If you extrapolate that over a full season … well, you’re foolish. Still, Cotts is fanning 10.8 per nine, has a 1.01 ERA and a 433 ERA+. He last pitched in the majors in 2009. Maybe he went on a spiritual journey of rediscovery and found an ancient Mayan mystery pitch. Or maybe it’s just 26.2 really good innings. I’m betting on the mystery pitch.
Now we come to one of my favorite guys I found while digging through mounds of statistics. Did you know that among Caleb Thielbar‘s first 16 appearances, only one was in a game his Twins won? How’s that for low-leverage situations?
Also, through his first 17 games, Thielbar didn’t allow a single run. However, he’s given up two runs in his last three outings, and his ERA has ballooned from 0.00 to 0.83, dropping his ERA+ to a disappointing 510. The end is nigh!
Lastly, Thielbar is another of those weirdos, like Gorzelanny and Rickey Henderson, who bats right-handed while throwing with his left.
Challenging Thielbar for coolest stats is Tampa Bay’s Alex Torres. In 26.1 frames, he allowed one run, giving him a 0.34 ERA and 1139 ERA+. You don’t often see a quadruple-digit number for that stat, and you almost certainly won’t with Torres when the year is done, but he’s sure been a gift for Rays fans so far in 2013.
Does the team need a strikeout? Well, maybe it’s time to bring in Trevor Rosenthal. This flame-throwing monster has retired 68 batters via punchout in only 45 innings, good for a 13.6 K/9 rate. Building on last year’s 140 ERA+, Rosenthal has bumped that number to 170 this season. He may be a closer in waiting, but he’s not waiting to show batters what he can do.
As the game come to its end, we’ll call on a guy who has done a little bit of closing this year, though he’s a lefty, which puts off some managers. Rex Brothers picked up four saves while Rafael Betancourt was out, but it’s not his saves that are most impressive. Over 39.2 innings, he’s whiffed 41 batters and yielded a tiny 0.91 ERA. That’s a 495 ERA+, which fits the definition of “insane” quite nicely.
We’ll let Brothers take care of both the righty and lefty hitters in the ninth, finishing off what surely would be a victory for this menagerie, right?
Okay, maybe they wouldn’t beat either of this year’s real All-Star squads, but this team is full of surprising—and generally cheap—players who have shown in the season’s first half that they belong, that this game always has, and always will, provide its fans with plenty of unforeseen marvels.
References & Resources
Baseball-Reference.com and FanGraphs.com were wonderfully helpful as always.