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November 10, 2010

Checking the Numbers

Sneaky Good in the Senior Circuit

by Eric Seidman

With Major League Baseball about to enter its official awards season, I thought it would be interesting to take a look back at some players who will not be regaled with hardware but who performed admirably under the radar. These players were sneakily effective, eliciting “he was that good” reactions much more frequently than confident head nods upon glancing at their end-of-season statistics. In some cases, the players derived much of their success in the field while others managed to put together all-around great campaigns while lacking publicity. Others might not have performed at a star level but finished with noteworthy numbers relative to their production a year ago.

Today we will look at the National League players fitting this description while repeating the exercise for the American League next week. Without further ado, here are the sneaky good players from 2010 by position.


Starting Pitcher

Ian Kennedy (4.2 WARP): The Diamondbacks turned Max Scherzer into Edwin Jackson and Kennedy and flipped Jackson to the White Sox for Dan Hudson and prospects. All told, they ended up with two very solid starters under team control for six years apiece. Kennedy relies on command and control, and unlike in his brief tenure with the Yankees, both of those attributes were on display last season. In addition to keeping the ball on the ground, he even began striking hitters out at a rate far exceeding expectations.

Bronson Arroyo (4.2 WARP): Not much separates Arroyo’s 2009 and 2010 seasons. He made 33 starts both years, threw virtually the same number of innings, with the same ERA, and almost identical walk and strikeout rates. The major difference was a decrease in hits allowed, which translated to a lower WHIP—1.14 vs. 1.26. Though this differential can be attributed in large part to the improved Reds defense, Arroyo still provided utility on his own and flew under the radar for most of the season.

Anibal Sanchez (4.1 WARP): For a while it seemed like Sanchez would be just another pitcher who threw a no-hitter and went on to become nothing other than vastly overrated. Over the last two seasons, however, he has thrown 281 innings with a 3.65 ERA and 5.8 WARP. He won’t become an ace of the Josh Johnson ilk, but he is also still quite young. Cutting back on free passes will go a long way toward defining his potential.

Carlos Zambrano (3.7 WARP): Many didn’t realize how well Zambrano pitched last season, in large part due to his own histrionics and the ensuing “timeout” they caused. In 129 2/3 innings—113 as a starter—Zambrano pitched to a 3.33 ERA and a .539 SNWP. And while it feels as though he has been around forever, he is just about to enter his age-30 season. Zambrano might not be worth the contract he signed a few years ago, but he is still a very talented pitcher.

Relief Pitcher

Brad Lidge: Lidge produced the worst single season for a closer given as many opportunities in 2009 but rebounded nicely to the tune of a 2.86 WXRL that ranked 11th in the league. From August 1 until the end of the season, he allowed just three runs, one of which came in a non-save situation, in 24 2/3 innings. That success continued into the postseason. He is on the hook for a hefty salary next season. Relievers are fickle due to small sample sizes, but the Phillies have to be encouraged.

John Axford: Axford stepped into the closer position when it became evident that Trevor Hoffman had virtually nothing left in the tank. In 50 games, the mustachioed man produced an impressive 3.85 WXRL that ranked eighth in the league. He allowed just one home run, which certainly helped given he was no stranger to the free pass.

Sean Marshall: Carlos Marmol hogged most of the headlines in Chicago last year as far as relievers went, but Marshall, a failed southpaw starter, held the opposition in check and fell just behind Lidge with a 2.78 WXRL. His strikeout rate soared to 29.3 percent and he kept the ball in the yard as well. Still under team control and only 28 years old, he could help stabilize an up-and-down bullpen.

Matt Belisle: I’ll never forget thinking that it was odd when the Rockies brought Matt Belisle into a crucial game down the stretch. I hadn’t seen much of them throughout the year and just assumed that the team had run out of arms as opposed to buying into the idea that it trusted him with such an important spot. After all, he is freaking Matt Belisle, though he became something different last season. He managed a 5.7 K/BB ratio, a 2.93 ERA in 92 innings, and a 2.70 WXRL. Color me skeptical he experiences this type of success consistently down the road, but it certainly happened last season, no ifs, ands, or buts.

Catcher

Ramon Hernandez (4.1 WARP): Both of the Reds' catchers—Hernandez and Ryan Hanigan—performed well last season. Hernandez is getting up there in age and is no longer going to be a full-time starter, but in 352 PA he produced a .289 TAv with his highest power output since the 2006 season. Valuations of catcher defense make it a tricky proposition to find unheralded players at the position, but his offense pushes him over the top. Honorable mention to Carlos Ruiz of the Phillies, though his bandwagon grew almost exponentially throughout the season.

First Base

Prince Fielder (5.0 WARP): This was probably the toughest position to find a sneaky-good player given that it broke down into two distinct groups—the Pujolses and the LaRoche Clones. In one corner we had the stat demons who were publicized all season. In the other corner stood the first basemen whose numbers were not as solid given the context of the position. Fielder sort of fell in between both groups as he topped a .400 OBP for the second straight year, and despite dropping off by .131 with his slugging percentage, he put up a .316 TAv.

Second Base

Jamey Carroll (4.1 WARP): Carroll was 36 years old last season and had never produced a TAv north of .267 in a full season, yet somehow slashed .291/.379/.339, and finished with a .283 mark. The normal reaction upon seeing his name in an article like this is to assume that his fielding carried the load, but while his glove helped – he ranked 17th amongst keystone corner men in our new FRAA – his bat did most of the talking.

Shortstop

Stephen Drew (5.8 WARP): Drew has been one of the most frustrating players over the last half-decade, as he has shown all of the requisite tools needed to become a perennial all-star but never in the same season. Something clicked this year, and he hit .278/.352/.458, for a .286 TAv, while adding solid glovework at the most premium of positions. Whether or not he progresses into an all-star level player will depend on whether or not that OBP is an aberration, but even with a discount, he has a three-year average of approximately .280/.340/.460, which is more than acceptable with a playable glove.

Third Base

Chase Headley (4.0 WARP): Headley didn’t get much notoriety last season, in large part because his unadjusted numbers were not terribly impressive, but they translated well given the league average and his park. He also added solid defense. He isn’t going to blossom into the next David Wright or Ryan Zimmerman, but he provides a very cost-effective option for a team hoping to remain a playoff contender on a shoestring budget. 

Outfield

Andrew McCutchen (6.1 WARP): Last year, much of the debate with the Rookie of the Year award involved Randy Wells, J.A. Happ, and Chris Coghlan. How McCutchen’s name rarely factored into the discussion drove me crazy, and after a second straight dynamite season, it is safe to assume he is the real deal. In two seasons, he has a .286/.365/.459 line, 61 doubles, 14 triples, 28 home runs, and 55 stolen bases, while playing a position up the middle, and doing so fairly well. Even if he wasn’t great, he would end up making the All-Star team as the Pirates' obligatory representative, but he legitimately deserves any accolades sent in his direction and much more publicity than he currently receives. He might be the MVP of this group.

Logan Morrison (1.5 WARP): Morrison only logged 287 PA at the major-league level last season but looked mighty impressive with the stick. A first baseman transplanted to the outfield, the big question with his production was whether the sudden spike in his walk rate could be sustained. As evident from his .390 OBP, I would say, yeah, it stuck. It’s sticking. He can hit, and he was one of the more frustrating hitters for opposing pitchers, as he rarely offered at anything remotely out of the zone. Heck, he even played a night after getting zonked in the eye with a foul ball. With Morrison and Mike Stanton, the Marlins have the making for a very potent, young outfield.

Drew Stubbs (5.3 WARP): Jay Bruce gets most of the attention in the Reds outfield, but Stubbs really put together a solid season in his own right. He launched 22 home runs and stole 30 bases en route to a .284 TAv, adding decent defense in center field. His OBP last season does not belie his ability to take a walk, primarily due to the fact that he strikes out so frequently. Figuring out a way to reduce those empty swinging ABs will catapult him from a solid player to a great player. However, as we have seen time and time again, this is not as easy as turning a switch on or off.

Anybody else deserving? There were certainly other players I considered, such as Rickie Weeks for second base or Rafael Furcal at shortstop, but they just missed the cut for one reason or another.

Eric Seidman is an author of Baseball Prospectus. 
Click here to see Eric's other articles. You can contact Eric by clicking here

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