3 Undervalued MLB Players Who Are Keeping Their Teams in the Playoff Hunt
As the schedule shifts to mid-August, MLB playoff contenders find themselves in the midst of the dreaded dog days. Some of these teams have found key contributions from unexpected places since the All-Star break. Who are a few of these breakout performers, how did they find themselves in such important roles, and can they continue to produce down the stretch?
Chris Taylor, Shortstop, Seattle
Seattle busted open their wallet for Robinson Cano in the offseason, and he's delivered to the tune of a .330 average, 66 RBI, and a career-high .398 on-base percentage. Shortstop for Seattle, on the other hand, has been a complete disaster.
Brad Miller’s .201 batting average, 23.6% strikeout percentage and .324 slugging percentage (yes, that’s nearly 75 percentage points lower than his double-play partner’s on-base rate) weren't cutting it. Utility man and potential Miller replacement Nick Franklin was shipped to Tampa as part of the Mariner-Ray-Tiger trade deadline blockbuster, despite Franklin hitting an uninspiring .128 in 52 plate appearances this season.
In stepped Chris Taylor, a rookie out of Virginia who made his Major League debut on July 24. He's started every game for the Mariners at shortstop since July 31, the same day Nick Franklin was shipped to Tampa.
The results have been astonishing, as Taylor boasts a .375 average (.462 on balls in play), as well as better plate discipline than Miller. Taylor has swung at only 27.5% of the pitches he’s seen outside the strike zone, compared to Miller 34.1% swing rate on those same balls. However, Taylor isn't merely looking to walk. He swings at a higher percentage of pitches in the strike zone (73.3% versus 65.6%) than Miller as well.
Taylor has some big-game experience from his college years at the University of Virginia, where his two-run single lifted the Cavaliers past UC Irvine and into the 2011 College World Series. It’s a small sample size to be sure, but there’s no reason to doubt Taylor’s ability to pester pitchers, get on base, and flip over the Mariner’s dangerous lineup, especially when the alternative is riding the Mendoza line.
Caleb Joseph, Catcher, Baltimore
When the Orioles lost Matt Wieters to Tommy John surgery after 26 games, some wrote off Baltimore’s postseason chances. The team acquired former Padre Nick Hundley and called up triple-A backstop Steve Clevenger, but Caleb Joseph, a relative unknown out of Lipscomb, appears to have won the job.
Joseph smashed 22 homers in 135 games at Double-A Bowie last season, and got off to a lukewarm start this year, hitting .268 in Triple-A. It took him some time to warm up in the Charm City, but Joseph appears to be getting on a roll as of late. He’s hit .309 in 58 plate appearances since the All-Star break, and although his average for the season is low (.228), he’s got some surprisingly solid numbers, even compared to other contributors to the potent Oriole offense.
Joseph’s .312 wOBA sits right next to the weighted on-base averages of sluggers Chris Davis and JJ Hardy, and is far ahead of Jonathan Schoop’s .266 mark. His .198 isolated power hangs near Adam Jones’ .193 clip, and is light-years ahead of Hardy’s .105. Joseph makes contact 79.8% of the time he swings, a higher percentage than Jones (75.1%) and Nelson Cruz (74.8%), and a much better rate than Davis (66.5%).
Joseph appears to be a capable eighth or ninth-place hitter who doesn't try to do too much, but can crush a mistake out of the ballpark. His streak of five straight games with a homer last week proved he has pop in his bat, and in a hitter’s ballpark like Baltimore’s, Joseph will be a dangerous sand trap at the bottom of the Oriole lineup come playoff time.
Josh Harrison, Utility Man, Pittsburgh
It’s hard to view Josh Harrison as a breakout performer in the second half since he made the National League All-Star team, but the Pirates’ do-everything spark plug has taken on an even bigger role since then. His All-Star team selection appeared similar to Omar Infante’s in 2010 - sure, he deserved it, but he separated himself from the talent pool with his ability to play multiple positions, and not so much with his numbers.
Harrison hit a solid .297 before the All-Star break, smacking five homers and 15 doubles while playing almost everywhere on the diamond. Mike Matheny, manager of Pittsburgh’s division rival St. Louis Cardinals and the NL All-Star squad, may be kicking himself for putting Harrison on the team. Why? The selection put a hop in Harrison’s step, and he still hasn't stopped hopping as the calendar hits mid-August.
Since the All-Star break, Harrison has filled in for Neil Walker at second, Pedro Alvarez at third, and is now starting to sub for the injured Andrew McCutchen in the outfield. Not bad for someone who saw his original corner outfield perch snatched by phenom Gregory Polanco.
Regardless of where Harrison plays in the field, he’s sure to contribute at the plate. He’s hitting a blistering .372 in 94 at-bats since the All-Star break, matching his pre-break total of five homers and collecting 35 hits in 24 games. Harrison’s .192 isolated power and .377 wOBA both rank second on the Pirates, behind only McCutchen. Harrison has appeared to find a home atop the Pittsburgh lineup, where he will be counted on not only to set the table for Pittsburgh’s power hitters, but also to give Pirate regulars a much-needed day off or two down the stretch by playing their position in the field.