The baseball season is really, really long. Beautifully long, but really long. Long enough that, come late July or early August, it starts to feel like it’s always been baseball season, and always will be. So then we get to this part of the year, and suddenly there are about twenty games left, and the fact that the season will end eventually (and pretty soon, at that) is a bit hard to get the ol’ head around. And then I realize that as closely and regularly as I follow baseball, and as much as I read about it, there’s been a ton of stuff going on in the game that I just haven’t paid any attention to at all.
That might be especially true this season. It feels to me as though this year, more than any others I can remember, has revolved around a small handful of individual players. Trout and Pujols in Anaheim; Harper and Strasburg in Washington; Cabrera, Fielder and Verlander in Detroit. Hamilton, Felix, Braun, Cain. Your mileage may vary, and there are probably several I’m forgetting who belong there, but the national stories I’ve seen have tended to focus on one or two of the guys in that group.
Conversely, and naturally, there are plenty of players having great, good or merely interesting seasons who, as far as I can tell, have received essentially no national attention. Here are my favorite five:
1. Chase Headley.
In the normal order of things, if you saw a man playing third base and putting up (through Sunday) an .857 OPS while playing his home games in an extreme pitcher’s park — and putting up between 5 and 6 wins above replacement, depending on where you look — you’d notice him. In this case, unfortunately, that man is Chase Headley, and you probably haven’t. Headley plays for the Padres, who have been out of the N.L. West race since approximately February 2. And most of Headley’s good work has come when they were way, way out of it; at the end of the day on June 6, Headley was hitting a much more Chase-Headly-in-Petco-like .251/.364/.427. Since then, though, he’s hit .304/.370/.526, with 20 homers in about half a season’s worth of games, including five of them in eight Septemer games entering yesterday. Since the team moved to Petco in 2004, only Adrian Gonzalez (four times) has hit more home runs in a season than Headley’s 27 so far in 2012.
Headley hit just four homers in 2011, and was lauded by Baseball Prospectus for having stopped trying to hit home runs and focusing on getting on base instead. This season, he’s seen his batting average and walk rate hold steady, while hitting exactly as many home runs as he had in all of 2009-2011 combined. He’s also played in all 141 Padres games after missing nearly fifty of them last year, and scored a career-high 78 runs and driven in a league-leading 102 for a team that entered yesterday 14th out of 16 NL teams in scoring. Whether a breakout (which, at age 28, is certainly possible), a fluke, or a sampling of both, Headley has had a truly phenomenal 2012, and one that deserves more attention than it’s been given.
2. Kendrys Morales.
The story with Morales is less what he’s done than the fact that he’s done anything at all. After a breakout season at age 26 in 2009, Morales had a solid first third of a season in 2010, capped by a walk-off grand slam on May 29, during the celebration of which he seriously injured his ankle. Morales didn’t play again, or at all in 2011. An early-season story on his comeback by Jim Caple can be seen here, but after that there was Pujols and Trout and even (for a while) Mark Trumbo, and Morales just kind of slipped into the shadows.
Well, Morales has proven healthy and played in 117 of the team’s first 141, despite having no apparent position after the team landed Pujols and held on to Trumbo. He’s hit an entirely respectable .280/.328/.466 through Sunday — good for a 123 OPS+ — with 18 homers. Solid work for a guy who went nearly two full years without playing an official pro baseball game.
3. Matt Moore.
There’s a funny thing that tends to happen to super-hyped prospects; if they disappoint, they disappear from the public consciousness at a shocking rate of speed. It happened to Jason Heyward last year. If Bryce Harper doesn’t show marked improvement in 2013, it’ll happen to him then. And it happened to Rays starter Matt Moore almost instantly; after he was so electrifying in his one regular season appearance and 10 postseason innings in 2011, Moore was a near unanimous pick for the titles of (a) 2012 Rookie of the Year and (b) The Next Randy Johnson. Then he went 1-5 with a 4.76 ERA through the end of May 2012, by which time Trout had been in the league for a month and already established himself as a superstar, so Moore’s uber-prospect window was quite abruptly closed.
Since then, even after a rough first start in September, Moore has been about as good as could ever reasonably have been hoped. Had Moore’s MLB season started on June 3, he’d be 9-4 in 17 starts right now, with 103 K and 42 walks in 105.2 innings and a pretty 3.07 ERA, and in nearly any other league and year, he’d have a good argument to win that Rookie of the Year Award. His monthly FIPs have gone 5.50, 4.18, 4.06, 3.33, 2.70, 2.79. Moore is well on his way to becoming that superstar everyone expected, just working on a delay of a month or two. He turned 23 in June.
4. Matt Holliday.
Hey, remember 2009? Jason Bay, aged 30, and Matt Holliday, 29, were two of the best left fielders in baseball that year, and both signed big contracts as free agents that winter. Bay got about $16 million a year from the Mets over four years, which seemed a bit high. Holliday got $17 million per over seven years, which bordered on absurd.
You know about what Bay has done since: very little. He’s hit 25 homers across three seasons after 36 in 2009 alone, and has put up a 92 OPS+ after coming to the Mets with a career 131. By Fangraphs’ value reckoning, Bay’s Mets career has been worth about $4.9 million, just a bit more than 10% of what it’s cost the Mets so far.
Meanwhile, the reason you don’t hear that much about Holliday is that he’s just gone on being the same very, very good player he’s always been, and consistent excellence (but not brilliance) can be boring. Adding 12% to his 2012 totals, his Fangraphs WARs since 2008 have gone 6.2, 5.6, 6.7, 5.0, 5.7; his bat alone has been more consistent, with OPS+es of 138, 140, 149, 152, and 144. Holliday could be the most underrated great player around right now. We’re taking him for granted.
What’s more, by Fangraphs’ numbers, he’s well on his way to earning that huge contract, which is a thing that almost never happens. Again adding 12% for the rest of 2012, he’s been “worth” $75.0 million over the first three years of the deal, meaning that in a clumsily oversimplified sense, he’s got just $45 million left to “earn” to fully justify the deal. So over the next four years, Holliday could be literally half the player (in dollar-value-per-year terms) that he’s been for the preceding three, and he’d have earned all of his $120 million. Still far from a sure thing, but it’s been a pretty perfect first 3/7ths from the Cardinals’ perspective.
5. Joe Nathan.
Closers almost always get more attention than they deserve, and assuming the Rangers hang on to their division lead, Nathan will get plenty in October. For now, though, Nathan’s a better story than he’s getting credit for. For the six seasons from 2004 through 2009, only Mariano Rivera could challenge Nathan for the title of baseball’s best relief pitcher, and it’s closer than you might think; Rivera threw 21 more innings, but Nathan had him by a point of ERA+ (237 to 236), three saves (246 to 243), and 94 strikeouts (518 to 424).
Then Nathan was hurt in spring training 2010, and required Tommy John surgery. He came back in 2011, and was a different pitcher — fewer strikeouts, many more home runs, and a 4.84 ERA / 4.28 FIP. He showed enough life to get a two-year deal from the Rangers, but he started out shaky, and nearly lost his job almost before he got started, giving up three runs in a blown-save loss to the Mariners on April 11.
Since then, though, Nathan has thrown 51.1 innings with a 1.93 ERA, and with 62 strikeouts vs. only nine walks and four homers allowed — numbers that fall right in line with his six-year peak ending three years ago. For the season, Nathan’s 2.44 ERA is perfectly supported by his 2.45 FIP and 2.42 xFIP; he’s just been legitimately, consistently great — albeit in necessarily very short bursts — ever since his fifth game of the season. Nathan will turn 38 in November, and missed an entire season of baseball at age 35. You’re not supposed to come back from that and perform at the same elite level you did at age 32, but at least since mid-April, that’s just what Nathan has been doing.