There are dozens of players having unexpectedly excellent seasons. Michael Fulmer is ahead of schedule. Kyle Hendricks is exceeding expectations. Daniel Murphy is apparently Rod Carew now. These are the stories that baseball offers every year, the surprises that stand out in a sport of surprises. Some of them will be reclaimed by the void next year; some of them will spend the next half-decade doing roughly as well as they’re doing right now.
Then there are these players. Every week or so, I take a spin around all 30 team pages on Baseball-Reference to keep abreast of baseball happenings. But my limited attention span and lousy eye for detail make this a less than effective method of keeping up with the vast Major League Baseball universe. There are hundreds and hundreds of players, and I’m not sure if all of them are canon.
It’s easy to be bad at this job.
Not as easy as I make it look, mind you, but there are players who will sneak up on me every year, and by about Aug. 31 or so, I’ll do my tour through Baseball-Reference and realize that I’ve missed all sorts of good-to-great seasons.
These are five of those seasons. Apologies to all involved. Good job on the whole good-at-baseball thing!
A frontrunner for the Most Random Player of the Year Award (the MoRPY, or the Ryan Vogelsong Award), Guerra has a 2.93 ERA in 107 innings for the Milwaukee Brewers. "Quite the capital season for the rookie!," you exclaim. Except that omits the decade of strife that led to him being here.
Phase 1: In 2006, Guerra was in the Atlanta Braves' system, and he was a 21-year-old pitcher in rookie ball. That’s baseball code for "non-prospect." He was oft-injured and walking way, way too many batters. That’s baseball code for "uh, maybe you should start checking out culinary schools in the area."
Phase 2: After being released before reaching Double-A, the New York Mets picked Guerra up, and he immediately started pitching better. In 10 games for the Savannah Sand Gnats, he had 34 strikeouts and two walks in 25 innings, outstanding for any level. The problem was the innings. His career high was 34, which gives you an idea of his durability. The Mets released him after he was injured again.
Phase 3: Three years of nothing but the Venezuelan Winter League, where he was bad.
Phase 4: A season spent being the Mike Pelfrey of the independent Wichita Wingnuts, where he was serviceable, but nothing a scout would pay attention to.
Phase 5: Five starts in the Mexican League, where he was bad
Phase 6: Another turn with the Wingnuts, but with an improved strikeout rate. He carried the whiffs over to the Venezuelan League the next season, prompting the Chicago White Sox to give him a shot.
Phase 7: Minor league success, but three iffy outings in his first major league experience with the White Sox. He was waived after the season to make room on the 40-man roster.
Phase 8: He’s been excellent in the majors all season. Guerra is more than a decade removed from his first shot in affiliated ball. He’s 31. And in his seven seasons with the Tiburones de La Guaira, only once did he post an ERA lower than what he has with the Brewers. If he makes four more starts over the next month (he’s coming off the DL this week), he’ll set a career high for starts at any level.
Nothing about him makes sense. There are red flags piled atop red flags, and when you open the door with the red flag on it, red flags spill out all over the place.
But he’s having a fantastic season. I could even see the Brewers taking advantage of the soft pitcher market this offseason and enticing teams into taking a Rich Hill-type gamble. Because he can do this somehow:
All he needs is health. Which is what you could have said about Rich Hill a year ago.
I knew Dozier was hitting a lot of dingers. Kept seeing things across my Twitter feed about his ridiculous August. But it was hard to reconcile that with what I remembered earlier in the season, which was the Minnesota Twins and Dozier being completely awful.
In the beginning, the Twins were bad. And I, intrepid baseball writer, spent at least two minutes at the end of May looking for the reasons why. Dozier, who was supposed to be one of the better players on the team, was awful. This came after a 639 OPS in the second half the previous year after making the All-Star team. That’s six consecutive months of evidence that he wasn’t good.
At the end of April, Dozier was hitting .191/.276/.340. At the end of May, he was hitting .202/.294/.329 with five home runs. It was fun while it lasted.
Since June 1: .306/.369/.651 with 26 homers in 81 games. Over a 162-game season, that would be ... uh .. at least 30 homers. He’s been prime Juan Gonzalez, and he’s doing it after several months of misery. It would be great for the Twins if Trevor Plouffe were struck by the same lightning bolt, but for now, they have their All-Star back. And apparently he’s way, way, way better than he used to be.
Oh, I had heard of Villar. He made SportsCenter once, after all.
"Hey, honey! I’m on SportsCenter! Hurry!"
"Never mind. Stay there. Please do not come here."
Yes, it was Villar who slid into Brandon Phillips’ butt.
And I, uh, what were we talking about? Right! How Villar is excellent now! That makes two Brewers on the list, which probably says something about my viewing habits, but I’m pretty sure y’all will let that slide.
Villar was with the 2013 and 2014 Houston Astros, both dreadful teams, and he was in that eternally tricky spot of being in the majors before he was ready, a fringe top-100 prospect with more tools than results. After a solid return to the majors in 2015 (albeit one that wasn’t predicted by Triple-A stats), the Brewers traded Cy Sneed for him. And because they were more 2014 Astros than they wanted to admit, they gave Villar the starting job.
He’s thrived. He’s stolen 50 bases, and his .378 on-base percentage is about 50 points higher than the Brewers’ most optimistic scenario. He’s handling shortstop well, too, so it’s not like there’s any part of his game that makes you think he’s an illusion. He is striking out in a quarter of his plate appearances, but he’s also 25. There’s nothing about this season that should make the Brewers anything less than thrilled.
This is what bad teams need to turn the franchise around. They need to avoid whiffing with their first-round picks, they need to develop the lesser prospects into major leaguers and they need found money. Villar turning into one of the better shortstops in the league is the definition of found money.
Villar and J.D. Martinez both had a 79 OPS+ for the 2013 Astros. Makes you think.
Small sample alert! Maybe has just 289 plate appearances this year, and the next 289 could prove to you that he’s the same Cameron Maybin that we’ve been used to for years. But for now, he’s hitting .329/.401/.416 and having the best offensive season of his career.
High BABIP alert! It’s at .391, which is why that .329 batting average is doomed. And if the batting average is doomed, some of that OBP will go with it, and the slugging percentage will be a drag. Combine that with his defense — he passes the eyeball test, but the stats hate him, possibly because of his weak arm — and maybe this isn’t so exciting after all.
Still, here’s something that doesn’t have to be a small-sample mirage:
Percentage of PA ending in a strikeout (career): 19.1%
Percentage of PA ending in a strikeout (2015): 18.4
Percentage of PA ending in a strikeout (2016): 15.9
BB% (career): 8.0%
BB% (2015): 8.1
BB% (2016): 10.0
Strikeout and walk rates are among the first stats to stabilize, and when you combine them with the drop in isolated power, it all screams out that Maybin is using a different, more measured approach at the plate.
This isn’t a change that you’ll find in the spray charts:
But the incremental increase in plate discipline could be real. And with it, a helpful Maybin, back with the team that drafted him in the first place. That’s some super sleight of hand, trading away a top prospect for an inner circle Hall of Famer, only to get the prospect back for his best years. All the Detroit Tigers need is to get that other guy, the left-handed pitcher, and see if he can do anything these days.
The Colorado Rockies have more celebrated young pitchers. Jon Gray was a no. 3 pick, Tyler Chatwood was a former top-100 prospect and Jeff Hoffman was one of the main pieces of the Troy Tulowitzki trade. Anderson floats by in the background by comparison. Also, his name needs some work. He needs a nickname. The Iron Grifter. Six Blades. Papa Venom. But that’s for the fans to decide.
The 26-year-old lefty is a 2011 first-rounder, and he’s never struggled at any level. His 1.98 ERA in Double-A was easy to overlook because a) it didn’t come with a gaudy strikeout rate and b) the season was cut short by Tommy John surgery. A pitcher who allows that much contact shouldn’t do this well in Coors Field, even if he keeps the ball on the ground.
At least, that’s what I thought. Remember that the Rockies (especially with Trevor Story back) might have one of the best infield defenses in baseball, and you can see how someone with this kind of command could work anywhere:
Anderson hovers mostly in the high 80s and low 90s, so the strikeouts probably aren’t going to come, but he’s still waiting to struggle at pitching for the first time in his life, which isn’t something a lot of rookies can say. It took a slow, steady climb, and he was kicked down the mountain by Tommy John, known sociopath, but if the Rockies want to be optimistic about their future — and they should be — Anderson will probably be a huge part of that.