The Underappreciated Role Players of 2012

It’s easy to see what Mike Trout, Miguel Cabrera, or Andrew McCutchen are doing to keep their team in the race this year. All three are having fantastic seasons, and are doing their part (and then some) to help keep their team in the playoff race.

However, baseball is the major sport where an individual player has the least impact on his team’s results, and no player can single-handedly carry his team to a playoff berth. To make it to October, a team needs production from up and down the roster, but not every contributor gets their fair share of recognition. Today, we shine a light on four key role players whose performances have been instrumental in keeping their team’s playoff hopes alive.

Coco Crisp, OF, Oakland

Crisp was one of the worst players in baseball for the first two months of the season. After going 0-4 on June 6th, his batting line stood at .158/.213/.175, as he had hit into twice as many double plays as he had extra base hits. However, over the last 10 weeks, Crisp has turned his season around in a big way, hitting .307/.370/.513 over his last 258 trips to the plate. To put that in perspective, that .883 OPS matches what Mark Trumbo has put up this season. Crisp isn’t thought of as a major power hitter, but he has 26 extra base hits in the last two and a half months, all while playing in a park that significantly depresses offense. Even with his terrible start and a DL stint in May, Crisp has already racked up +2.1 WAR, and is one of the underrated cogs that is keeping the A’s in contention. While there scoffs when a rebuilding Oakland team gave a 32-year-old a two year contract as a free agent, Crisp has proven to be worth far more than he signed for, and his off-season signing was one of the best moves any team made all winter.

Wade Miley, SP, Arizona

The Diamondbacks entered the season with one of the best trios of pitching prospects in baseball, as Archie Bradley (#19), Trevor Bauer (#21), and Tyler Skaggs (#25) all rated highly on Keith Law’s pre-season top 100 prospect list. However, while Bauer struggled with his control upon being called up, Skaggs just made his MLB debut this week, and Bradley has spent the year in A-ball, rookie southpaw Wade Miley has been the main reason Arizona is still hanging around in the NL West race. The 25-year-old is doing his best Ian Kennedy impersonation, pounding the strike zone with average velocity fastballs and succeeding in a way that shouldn’t logically work in Arizona’s ballpark. However, his command has been so precise that he’s been able to limit walks and keep the ball in the yard, the combination of which has led to an ERA that is 33 percent better than the league average. In fact, the only two NL pitchers with a better park adjusted ERA are Johnny Cueto and Jordan Zimmermann. Miley didn’t have much hype coming into the season, but he’s been the one with substance so far in 2012.

Angel Pagan, OF, San Francisco

While Melky Cabrera has gotten the headlines (for reasons both good and bad), the off-season pickup of Angel Pagan hasn’t received as much attention, but he’s been an extremely valuable piece for the Giants this year. After a down year with the Mets, the Giants gave him new life on the west coast, and Pagan has responded by putting up numbers right in line with his prior career norms. His jack-of-all-trades skillset is the one that is most often undervalued, as he doesn’t excel in any one area, but instead is a solid player across the board. Pagan draws walks, makes good contact, hits for some power, steals bases, and plays a good enough center field. This year, that package of skills has added up to +2.9 WAR, and Pagan’s presence has as a switch-hitter has given the Giants offense some life at the top of the order.

Chad Billingsley, SP, Los Angeles

Last year, it appeared that Billingsley might be pitching his way out of LA. At age 26, he had the worst year of his career right after signing a three year contract, and questions about whether he’d ever mature into a reliable rotation stalwart only seemed to get louder. Over the last few months, Billingsley has seemingly put those questions to rest, and is quietly having a pretty terrific season for the Dodgers. Command was his main issue a year ago, but Billingsley managed to get through 102 batters in July while only issuing one walk the whole month, a Halladay-esque performance from a guy who has never really resembled a strike-thrower. In fact, he’s issued 10 or fewer walks in every month but May, and the result has been a career low BB% of 6.8%, turning Billingsley into a guy who can work deep into ballgames. Clayton Kershaw is the undisputed ace of the Dodgers staff, but the mid-rotation guys behind him are one of the main reasons that the Dodgers are surprise contenders this year, and the rejuvenation of Chad Billingsley is one of the keys to the success of the boys in blue.

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Dave is the Managing Editor of FanGraphs.

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