The 10 Best Part-Time Players of 2017

This season, 144 players reached the 502-plate-appearance threshold necessary to qualify for the batting title. On the opposite end of the spectrum, there were 190 position players who tallied between one and 99 PA for the season. In between, there were 291 position players. Some of these were starters who simply missed time due to injury (Bryce Harper, for example) or the nature of their position (Salvador Perez) or because they weren’t major leaguers yet at the start of the season (Paul DeJong), but some of them are what we’d call true part-time players. At this time of year, we generally focus on the very best players. It’s awards season, after all. Part-time players get less shine. So let’s focus on them today, at the very least.

I’ve done this exercise once before, back in 2012. Now, as then, I’ve parsed the list to give us a clear picture of who is really a part-time player. My favorite tool for this exercise is the “Lineups and Defense” pages on Baseball-Reference. When they redesigned the website recently (I think it was recently? Maybe it was last year? I don’t know, I don’t even remember what I had for dinner on Thursday.) I experienced a few panicky minutes when I couldn’t find the pages, but fortunately they’re still there. Phew.

With these pages and a simple Ctrl+F search, you can get a clear sense of just how often the player in question started. Of course, you can also filter for games played, and I’ve done that, but that isn’t foolproof. For instance, Kike Hernandez played 140 games, but only garnered 342 PA. Is he a full-time player or a part-time one? It’s unclear from the numbers alone. But sliding over to B-Ref, one finds that he only started three (or more) games consecutively on six different occasions but, at the same time, never went more than nine games in between starts, so you can surmise that he didn’t land on the disabled list at any point. Seems like a part-time player to me.

The same is true for Ichiro Suzuki, who played in 136 games but logged just 215 PA. With just -0.2 WAR, however, Ichiro probably won’t factor into our discussion here. So who does? Let’s get to it.

Honorable Mentions

Ehire Adrianza, Albert Almora Jr., Kike Hernandez, Brandon Nimmo, Eric Sogard, and Wilmer Difo.

10. Jake Marisnick, Houston: 259 PA, 66 GS/106 GP, 1.4 WAR

Historically a defensive asset, Marisnick wasn’t quite as good with the glove this season, rating below average as a center fielder according to UZR (and at 0 runs saved by DRS), and that’s where he played the majority of the time. It seems as though he’d still be an asset in the corners, but he was utilized mostly as George Springer’s caddy in center. Still, he ended up having a good season because of his bat. The 117 wRC+ he recorded represented his first end-of-season batting line better than league average and was easily his career-best mark. Marisnick typifies the player who was most aided by the juiced ball/whatever it was that increased home-run production. Entering the season, Marisnick had recorded 18 homers in 1,038 career PA, but in 2017, he hit 16 in 259 PA. It might not repeatable if the ball returns to “normal” next season, but that doesn’t mean we shouldn’t highlight his performance.

9. Juan Lagares, New York NL: 272 PA, 58 GS/85 GP, 1.5 WAR

Hello, old friend, it’s really good to see you once again. After Lagares put up 6.8 WAR between 2013-2014, a combination of injuries, poor hitting, and the Mets’, um… non-traditional outfield alignments conspired to crowd Lagares out of the spotlight. But he was up to his old tricks in 2017. Before he fractured his thumb in mid-June, Lagares started in just 18 of the 47 games he played in, all in center field. Had the Mets’ season gone to plan (they were 30-35 when Lagares got hurt) that likely would have continued to be his role. But when he came back in mid-August, the Mets traded Curtis Granderson to the Dodgers, and suddenly the Metropolitans needed Lagares to start in center again. The need for Lagares was only magnified by Michael Conforto’s horrifying shoulder injury a week later.

8. Kyle Schwarber, Chicago NL: 486 PA, 109 GS/129 GP, 1.5 WAR

You might think that Schwarber’s high games-started total might disqualify him from consideration here. Surely someone who started 109 games isn’t really a part-time player, right? Well, in this case I think the answer is “yes.” The reason is that Schwarber only completed 50 of the 101 games he started in left field. He also entered 14 games mid-stream: nine in left, four at catcher, and one at first base. The Cubs work hard to find the right kinds of playing time for Schwarber, and when he hits the way he did in the second half, they’re happy to do so.

7. Jose Martinez, St. Louis: 307 PA, 62 GS/106 GP, 1.6 WAR

The 28-year-old Martinez is a classic example of St. Louis’s ability to mine its farm system for useful players. With good plate discipline and power and speed for a three-corners player, Martinez might have just solidified himself a roster spot for next season.

6. Jon Jay, Chicago NL: 433 PA, 88 GS/141 GP, 1.6 WAR

Jay’s story is similar to Schwarber’s: while he played in 141 games, he only recorded 41 complete games. That means he had to really maximize his production when he was on the field. Jay repeated his plus baserunning performance of last year while also hitting at a league-average rate. Jay doesn’t hit a lot of homers (just 33 in his eight-year career), but he gets on base — this year, his .374 on-base percentage was a career high — and he plays acceptable defense. That’s the recipe for a useful part-time player.

5. Austin Jackson, Cleveland: 318 PA, 79 GS/85 GP, 1.8 WAR

When the outfielder signed with Cleveland in late January, it was a mere footnote. But after Cleveland wrung successful seasons out of 2016 free-agent signees Rajai Davis and Mike Napoli, you had to wonder if they would do it again. And they did. Jackson was excellent in every month but May, and if the last two weeks are any indication, he’ll be Cleveland’s starting left fielder this postseason. It was quite the nice return to form for a player who looked like he had washed out of the league following a sub-replacement 2016 season with the White Sox.

4. Ian Happ, Chicago NL: 413 PA, 89 GS/115 GP, 1.8 WAR

You might be noticing a trend here: Happ is the third player on this list who regularly logged time this year in the Cubs outfield. Perhaps I should have combined them all. Then again, simply because a club decides to employ multiple players in complementary roles doesn’t mean those players will perform well. Chicago got back to the postseason for the third straight season because these players do play well. Despite his somewhat limited role, Happ managed to make some history: only two other Cubs rookies have homered more often than Happ did in 2017 — Kris Bryant and Billy Williams. The juiced ball plays a role here, most likely, but given Happ’s prospect pedigree, it feels more like a Kris Bryant season and less like a Tyler Colvin season.

3. Delino DeShields, Texas: 440 PA, 102 GS/120 GP, 2.3 WAR

The diminutive outfielder had his best major-league season to date, splitting time with Nomar Mazara in left field and backing up Carlos Gomez in center. He was an asset at the plate, in the field, and especially on the bases. His 9.2 BsR ranked fifth-best in baseball, behind just Byron Buxton, Billy Hamilton, Mookie Betts and Dee Gordon. All four played in at least 19 more games and tallied at least 71 more PA than did DeShields. Only six players accumulated more stolen bases. He’ll probably never be a power threat, but not everyone needs to be.

2. Kurt Suzuki, Atlanta: 309 PA, 71 GS/81 GP, 2.7 WAR

Much like Marisnick’s, Suzuki’s season has the feeling of one helped significantly by the juiced ball. Splitting time behind the plate primarily with Tyler Flowers, Suzuki easily matched his career-best in home runs. After posting double digits in homers from 2009 to -11 with Oakland, Suzuki had failed to hit more than eight in the intervening five seasons. Then he hit 19 this year, three more than he hit from 2014 to -16 combined. He posted a .254 ISO; his previous best ISO was .148 in 2011. His walk and strikeout rates were all at their normal career levels. Suzuki did most of his damage against fastballs, but he saw the same percentage of fastballs as he had in previous years. He didn’t have some incredible exit-velocity spike. Looks like he did everything the way he usually does. The ball simply went further when he hit it. No crime against that, though, and it made him more valuable than he was from 2014 to -16 combined.

Austin Barnes was pretty great this season.
(Photo: TonyTheTiger)

1. Austin Barnes, Los Angeles NL: 262 PA, 53 GS/102 GP, 2.5 WAR

The former ninth-round pick is fast becoming one of my favorite players. He put up a 142 wRC+ overall, and his 154 wRC+ as a catcher was tops at the position.

2017 wRC+ Leaders, Catchers at Catcher (Min. 100 PA as C)
Name Team PA BB% K% AVG OBP SLG ISO Spd wOBA wRC+
Austin Barnes Dodgers 197 16.2% 13.2% 0.292 0.421 0.528 0.236 5.2 0.404 154
Jorge Alfaro Phillies 108 2.8% 27.8% 0.327 0.370 0.535 0.208 0.9 0.382 135
Evan Gattis Astros 200 5.5% 13.5% 0.288 0.335 0.543 0.255 2.4 0.367 134
Kurt Suzuki Braves 302 5.6% 12.6% 0.286 0.355 0.546 0.260 1.1 0.378 133
Buster Posey Giants 403 10.9% 10.7% 0.318 0.402 0.461 0.143 2.0 0.371 132
Mike Zunino Mariners 430 8.8% 36.3% 0.253 0.333 0.514 0.261 1.9 0.357 127
Willson Contreras Cubs 387 9.6% 22.2% 0.288 0.360 0.517 0.230 2.2 0.371 127
Gary Sanchez Yankees 446 7.6% 21.5% 0.279 0.343 0.521 0.242 2.0 0.363 127
Robinson Chirinos Rangers 301 10.6% 25.6% 0.257 0.360 0.502 0.245 3.8 0.367 126
Tyler Flowers Braves 353 7.9% 22.4% 0.284 0.380 0.446 0.162 1.5 0.359 121

This is just for players while they were catching, which is why Buster Posey and Gary Sanchez don’t rank as highly. But whether you like using time as a catcher, or just the general leaderboard that incorporates all of the player’s playing time, Barnes still has the highest wRC+. For the season, he nearly walked as many times (39) as he struck out (43) and posted a .408 OBP, joining Posey as one of just 129 catchers to ever do so — and the first to do it since 2014, when Russell Martin recorded a .402 OBP with the Pirates. Oh, and he started four games at second base. Could he keep this production up over a full season? I don’t know, and we probably won’t get to find out unless Yasmani Grandal gets hurt, but either way — I. Love. Austin. Barnes.

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Paul Swydan is the managing editor of The Hardball Times, a writer and editor for FanGraphs and a writer for Boston.com. He has written for The Boston Globe, ESPN MLB Insider and ESPN the Magazine, among others. Follow him on Twitter @Swydan.

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I. Love. Austin. Barnes.

I’ve already made T-shirts.