5 Major League Baseball Bench Players Who Deserve More Credit
There are many components that go into building a good team in baseball. Several clichés include having a good bullpen, being strong defensively up the middle, or having solid starting pitching.
But in my opinion, one of the biggest game-changers that have a huge impact on each day’s game is the strength of the bench. More than anything else, bench strength affects a manager’s in-game strategy every single day. This is especially true in the National League, as bench depth affects pinch-hitting assignments, fielding flexibility, starters days’ off, and more. And perhaps most importantly, bench players who can fill in for injured starters competently and for long stretches of time can usually make a general manager look like a genius.
The importance of having a strong bench often goes unappreciated. So consider this my acknowledgement of those players who can come in and deliver a big hit when asked to pinch-hit, or the ones can play multiple positions without embarrassing themselves at any of them.
To qualify for the list below, a player needs to have 175 at-bats or less at this point in the season. I’ve also excluded all starters who have lost time to injury or demotion, and players who are primarily backup catchers. The positions that they’ve played are listed next to them. All of these players’ statistics have small sample size caveats attached to them, but that doesn’t mean that what they have contributed impacted the team any less.
Eric Campbell | 1B, 3B, LF, RF, 2B, SS | New York Mets
If Eric Campbell had enough plate appearances to qualify, he’d be an early NL Rookie of the Year candidate. Seriously, make a case for any other rookie. He has the highest batting average (.340), on-base percentage (.386), and on-base plus slugging percentage (.833) of all first-year players, and no pitchers have seriously distinguished themselves.
He started out as the right side of a first base platoon with Lucas Duda, but mashed both lefties and righties so hard that manager Terry Collins has had to find him playing time anywhere he can. He’s mainly been at first, third and in left field as well, but he’s actually played six different positions in total. With a .340 average, you can imagine that he’s hit no matter when or where he plays, but as a pinch-hitter he’s hit a jaw-dropping .500 with a 1.338 OPS. He doesn’t walk much, but when you can rake like Campbell can, why would you bother?
Justin Turner | 3B, 2B, SS | Los Angeles Dodgers
The Dodgers’ infield bench depth was tested in the middle of this season when Juan Uribe went on the disabled list for a huge chunk of May and June. Turner got the bulk of the playing time at third, and hit .349 with a .955 OPS during that time, scoring 16 runs in 21 starts. He can play every infield position and play well, with 0.7 dWAR. And though he’s been on the DL the last couple of weeks with a hamstring strain, he’d still be an asset even if he were limited to pinch-hitting duties. In 15 at-bats as a pinch-hitter, he’s hitting .400.
Scott Van Slyke | CF, LF, 1B, RF | Los Angeles Dodgers
If you’ve wondered how it’s possible that the Dodgers are in first place despite the disappointment of most of their highly paid superstars, look at their bench. Yes, the pitching’s been good. But I put two Dodgers on this list for a reason.
As the Dodgers’ outfield has battled injury and inconsistency, look at fifth outfielder Scott Van Slyke. In 60 games this year split pretty evenly between center field, left field and first base, Van Slyke is batting .268 with a .400 OBP and a .928 OPS. In just 155 plate appearances, he has 25 walks and 16 extra-base hits. While he has had limited success as a pure pinch-hitter, his value to the Dodgers has been his ability to spell the regulars and do a better job than most of them. And his ability to adequately play center field should not be taken for granted either.
Steve Tolleson | 2B, 3B, RF, SS, P | Toronto Blue Jays
As the Blue Jays’ backup infielder, Tolleson has mostly seen time at second base. He started the season in the minors then was brought up to help stabilize the Jays’ abysmal second base situation. That was in May. Since the middle of June, he’s played second, third, a bit of outfield, and pinch-hit. He even pitched an inning once this season. With a .756 OPS overall, he’s been solid if unspectacular, but as a pinch-hitter he’s been amazing with a 1.137 OPS.
Ryan Flaherty | 3B, 2B, SS, 1B, LF, RF | Baltimore Orioles
I keep resisting the temptation to call him Ryan O’Flaherty for some reason. Whatever his name is, Flaherty has been an important defensive cog for the Orioles. He’s had limited offensive success, but he can and has played nearly everywhere on defense, though mostly in the infield. As the Orioles battled injuries, inconsistency, and suspensions involving Manny Machado and J.J. Hardy (especially earlier in the season), they needed a backup to help stabilize their infield. Flaherty has done just that. He’s not flashy or spectacular, but he’s been solid and helped the Orioles keep pace while they waited for their team to gel. That team is now in first place in the AL East.