By the end of the season my Out-Of-Nowhere All-Stars may look more like Small-Sample-Size All-Stars or Impending-Regression All-Stars, but such is life evaluating players based on the first half. My goal here is pretty simple: Identify the players at each position with the best first halves and the lowest expectations. That’s admittedly subjective and leaves out some actual All-Stars who surprised, but my focus is on role players, waiver claims, journeymen, non-prospects, trade throw-ins, and after-thoughts doing great work for the first time.
While in the Twins’ farm system, Herrmann was viewed as a marginal prospect because his bat wasn’t good enough for him to be a regular corner outfielder and his glove wasn’t good enough for him to be a regular catcher. Sold separately a bad-hitting corner outfielder and a bad-fielding catcher have little value, but when combined the Twins liked Herrmann enough to give him nearly 400 plate appearances from 2012-2015. He was awful, hitting .181/.249/.280 for a .529 OPS that ranked dead last among all big leaguers with at least 350 plate appearances during that time. He also wasn’t much better in the minors, hitting .261/.336/.391 in 152 games at Triple-A.
When the Twins traded Herrmann in November it seemed shocking that they were able to snag anything resembling a decent prospect in return. That prospect, Triple-A outfielder Daniel Palka, currently has the second-most homers in the minor leagues, but Herrmann halted most mockery of the trade by hitting .291/.353/.511 in 52 games for Arizona. His defensive numbers still aren’t pretty, but he’s started 28 games as a catcher along with seeing time in all three outfield spots. Wilson Ramos, another ex-Twins prospect who made the actual All-Star team for the Nationals, is the only big-league catcher with at least 150 plate appearances and a higher OPS.
Rodriguez has carved out a decade-long career thanks to defensive versatility and a perception that he has more offensive upside than a typical utility man, but he’s never actually hit. Coming into this season his lifetime mark was .228/.295/.371, including zero years with an OPS above .720. He was especially bad last year for the Pirates, posting a .230 TAv, but Pittsburgh kept him around for another season and he hit .261/.342/.527 with 10 homers in 188 plate appearances in the first half while seeing defensive action at every position except catcher and pitcher.
He’s still mostly a bench player and most of his time at first base has come as a late-inning sub, but Rodriguez can play anywhere and there just aren’t many truly out-of-nowhere starting first basemen this season. Much of Rodriguez’s damage has come against lefties, but two-thirds of his playing time has come against righties and he’s posted a .795 OPS off them compared to his career mark of .631. Jake Arrieta, among others, can attest to the fact that Rodriguez has been uncharacteristically knocking around righties plenty this season.
Prior to this season, Nunez was best known for being Derek Jeter’s backup on the Yankees and for constantly losing his helmet on the bases. At age 29 he’d never gotten as many as 340 plate appearances in a season and was slated to be the Twins’ utility infielder for the third straight year. He was in the lineup just twice in the first 10 games, but totaled seven hits in those two starts and has started 70 of 76 games since, hitting .321/.347/.489 overall in the first half. Nunez is just two plate appearances from tying his career-high set in 2011 and has 12 homers after totaling 18 long balls in 414 games from 2010-2015.
Even considering the Twins’ lack of viable options to fill their mandatory All-Star slot, Nunez being chosen for the American League team as a 29-year-old career-long utility man is remarkable. As always his defense leaves a lot to be desired, especially at shortstop, and a 41/12 K/BB ratio suggests the second half may not be so kind. All of which is why the trade market for Nunez may not be very robust later this month, but in the meantime he’s a middle infielder hitting .321 with 12 homers and 22 steals at the break and he’ll be known as “Eduardo Nunez, All-Star” for the rest of his life.
One year ago Diaz was struggling enough at Double-A that the Cardinals outrighted him off the 40-man roster and he passed through waivers unclaimed. Diaz remained in the organization and was slated to begin this season at Triple-A, but Jhonny Peralta’s spring training thumb injury cleared a path for him in St. Louis and he batted .423 in April to secure an extended stay. Diaz eventually cooled off, but finished the first half hitting .315/.380/.536 with 13 homers and 22 doubles to rank second among all shortstops in WARP. Peralta is healthy now, but he’s been moved to third base.
Any team that wanted Diaz could have had him for zero in return just 11 months ago, and it took a significant injury in March for the Cardinals to give him a look, which is quite an origin story for a 25-year-old rookie All-Star. It’s unclear how much faith to put in Diaz going forward. On one hand he hit .276/.335/.444 in the minors, which is nothing special, and no one thought he was worth a 40-man roster spot last June. On the other hand the combination of power and strike zone control he’s shown as a rookie is tough to ignore, and he did have a big stretch run at Triple-A last year after underwhelming production at Double-A. He’s probably the captain of this team.
Third Base: Danny Valencia, Oakland A’s
PECOTA 90th Percentile OPS: .770 | First-Half OPS: .854
Oakland is Valencia’s fifth team in three years, as he joined the A’s on a waiver claim last August after the Blue Jays successfully overhauled his swing and then let him go for nothing in return anyway. As a rookie with the Twins in 2010 he hit .311/.351/.448, but Valencia bounced around a ton from 2011-2014 while hitting just .249/.288/.393 and spent much of that time in the minors. His got his career back on track last season as a part-time player, but Valencia has been playing every day and producing like a star for the past year or so. He hit .304/.356/.498 with 12 homers in the first half to lead the A’s in TAv.
Compared to early in his career Valencia looks like a completely different hitter against righties, as well as with two strikes, which has helped him move beyond standard platooning usefulness. He still crushes lefties, but he’s also hitting .291/.335/.450 off righties, and his .784 OPS with two strikes is the fifth-best in baseball behind only David Ortiz, Mike Trout, Matt Carpenter, and Ichiro Suzuki. Valencia handling righties well and rating among the elite two-strike bats no doubt seems unfathomable to anyone who watched him flail away in Minnesota, but he’s hit .296/.350/.510 with 30 homers and 34 doubles in 172 games dating back to last season.
Byung-ho Park got all the headlines and three times as much money to sign with the Twins, but Kim looks like the best hitter from the Korean Baseball Organization to make the jump to America this year. And it almost didn’t happen. Kim was so bad during spring training that the Orioles decided to send him to the minors, but his agent balked at the demotion and enforced a clause in his contract to keep him in the majors. It took a few weeks for manager Buck Showalter to give him an opportunity to actually play, but Kim eventually worked his way into a platoon role and hit .329/.410/.454 with nearly as many walks (18) as strikeouts (22) in 46 games.
Given his extensive history of hitting .320 for a decade in Korea it shouldn’t come as a big shock that Kim is thriving in America, but when a team attempts to rid itself of a player and that player goes on to hit .330 in the first half, it qualifies him for this squad. Heck, the fans at Camden Yards booed Kim on Opening Day because they were so upset about his not accepting the team’s desire to banish him to the minors. Four months later he leads the team in batting average and on-base percentage while leading All-Stars Manny Machado and Mark Trumbo in TAv.
Naquin was the Indians’ first-round draft pick out of Texas A&M in 2012, but his prospect stock faded when he failed to crack an .800 OPS at either Double-A and Triple-A. Cleveland turned to Naquin for Opening Day outfield help with Michael Brantley injured, but demoted the 25-year-old back to Triple-A twice in the first six weeks of the season in favor of other options. His third stint with the Indians started on June 1 and his odds of being sent down again now seem very slim. Naquin has hit .314/.374/.591 in 58 games, playing a huge role in the Indians sitting atop the AL Central at 52-36 despite having Brantley in the lineup just 11 times.
To say Naquin came out of nowhere may be overstating things a bit, because he’s 25 years old and was expected to be a contributor for the Indians at some point this season. Still, the Brantley injury pushed his timetable up and he forced the issue even further by showing far more pop at the plate than ever before. Naquin has nine homers in 58 games as a big leaguer after totaling 13 homers in 195 games at Double-A and Triple-A. His minor-league track record, along with a .418 batting average on balls in play and 52/14 K/BB ratio, say he’ll come crashing back down to earth soon enough, but Naquin was a top-10 center fielder whenever he got a chance in the first half.
Right Field: Robbie Grossman, Minnesota Twins
PECOTA 90th Percentile OPS: .833 | First-Half OPS: .886
Once upon a time, Grossman was a borderline top-100 prospect and stathead favorite thanks to his excellent plate discipline, but his other skills lagged behind his walk-drawing ability. Released by the Astros last year, he failed to win a spot on the Indians coming out of spring training and then opted out of his minor-league deal to sign with the Twins in mid-May. Minnesota was desperate for short-term outfield help, promoting Grossman to the majors 48 hours later. He went 3-for-4 with a homer in his debut and hasn’t looked back, playing regularly for the past two months while hitting .289/.421/.465 with 36 walks and 16 extra-base hits in 48 games to lead the team in TAv.
Grossman’s extreme patience remains intact. He leads the league with a walk rate of 19 percent and has the fifth-lowest swing rate on pitches inside and outside of the strike zone. In the past he got tagged with a reputation for being too passive, letting hittable pitches go by, but the narrative now is that he’s “selectively aggressive.” That may be true or it may just be how perceptions work when a super-patient hitter without a previous track record of success goes through a hot stretch. Either way, Grossman is a 26-year-old switch-hitter under team control through 2020 and at the very least he’s a solid bet to provide value to the Twins as a part-timer beyond the first half.
It doesn’t get more out-of-nowhere than a 31-year-old knuckleballer leading the league in ERA after coming into the season with all of 107 career innings. Wright was the Indians’ second-round draft pick way back in 2006 and he didn’t reach the majors until 2013 with the Red Sox. He’s spent parts of seven seasons at Triple-A and six seasons at Double-A, and has an underwhelming 3.79 ERA in the minors overall. But as the Red Sox previously learned with Tim Wakefield, all of that matters little once things click for a knuckleballer. Wright has a 2.68 ERA in 17 starts and the rest of Boston’s rotation has a 5.31 ERA in 70 starts.
ERA tends to overrate Wright and other knuckleballers because their style leads to sloppiness and unearned runs, but he put together a brilliant first half any way you slice it. Wright led the AL with three complete games and ranked third with 12 quality starts while allowing the lowest home run rate in baseball at 0.7 per nine innings. And he did all of that after entering the season as the Red Sox’s fifth starter, with the assumption being that his rotation spot would likely be temporary. Plenty of starting pitchers had surprisingly strong first halves, but none of them came out of nowhere quite like Wright and his floater.
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