Each MLB Team's Unsung Hero so Far in 2012
If there was a theme song for the players included in this list today, it would unquestionably be "Unsung" by Helmet, an alternative-rock band formed in New York City in 1989.
The opening line of that tune: "Your contribution left unnoticed some..." fits this group of players to a tee—because generally speaking, these players are overlooked and hardly ever spoken about outside of the fans that they play in front of.
But these are the players who comprise the bulk of MLB rosters around the game. So let's start naming the nameless.
Arizona Diamondbacks: David Hernandez, RHP
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2012 Stats: 33 G, 0-0, 2.90 ERA, 1.10 WHIP, 31 IP, 13.06 K/9, 10 Holds, 2-for-6 SV
Hernandez, who entered June with a 1.93 ERA on the season, has hit a bit of a rough patch, allowing five earned runs over his last 7.2 innings pitched. That being said, he still remains Arizona's best setup man and the fallback option to close when incumbent closer J.J. Putz is unavailable.
The 27-year-old has used three pitches: a four-seam and two-seam fastball, both which sit in the mid-90s, and a curveball in the low-80s to keep batters off-balance, holding the opposition to a .193/.279/.289 batting line.
Atlanta Braves: Kris Medlen, RHP
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2012 Stats: 25 G, 1-1, 3.24 ERA, 1.17 WHIP, 33.1 IP, 5.4 K/9, 3 Holds, 1-for-2 SV
Just over three weeks ago, Kris Medlen was sent down to Triple-A in order to stretch his arm out as a starting pitcher, with the Braves having plans of slotting him in their rotation upon his return.
Instead, both of Atlanta's primary setup men have issues—Jonny Venters has been ineffective and Eric O'Flaherty has been battling a sore elbow, prompting the Braves to prematurely recall Medlen back to the bullpen.
To his credit, while the 26-year-old Medlen was disappointed, his only concern is helping the Braves win games, as he told Carroll Rogers of the Atlanta Journal Constitution:
"It’s a little disheartening I guess because I went down there to be a starter. But things happen and they make plans and they don’t always work out. My entire career has been based on doing what I can for the team to help us win. Winning makes everything a lot better. I’ll do anything. I’m back in the bullpen and I’m going to make the most out of that."
With the ability to start or throw out of the pen, Medlen gives Braves manager Fredi Gonzalez a unique weapon at his disposal: versatility.
Baltimore Orioles: Chris Davis, 1B/DH
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2012 Stats: .273/.318/.480, 12 HR, 31 RBI
Chris Davis is in a slump, of that there is no doubt. Davis, 26, hasn't gotten a hit since June 14th against the Pittsburgh Pirates, a span of 28 at-bats that has seen his batting average drop from .308 to its current .273.
That being said, Davis has been an integral part of the Orioles' success in 2012. His average and 12 home runs put him second on the team behind Adam Jones, his 31 RBI place him third behind Jones and Matt Wieters.
Boston Red Sox: Mike Aviles, IF
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2012 Stats: .266/.285/.426, 9 HR, 41 RBI, 8-for-12 SB
While his average and on-base percentage are lower than you'd like, it sure seems as if Adrian Gonzalez was spot on when he told me that Aviles would have a breakout season in 2012. Aviles, 31, is on pace to shatter his career highs in nearly every offensive category, and he's done so while bouncing around the Red Sox lineup.
His 41 RBI are more than any other shortstop in baseball, leading the Chicago Cubs' Starlin Castro by three, while the Cleveland Indians' Asdrubal Cabrera sits eight back among AL shortstops. Aviles' prowess with the bat and his ability to play solid, consistent defense has made him an invaluable, yet overlooked member of the 2012 Red Sox.
Chicago Cubs: Reed Johnson, OF
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2012 Stats: .289/.348/.413, 2 HR, 11 RBI
Generally only in the lineup against left-handed pitchers, 35-year-old Reed Johnson is quietly putting together another solid season, his second with the Chicago Cubs.
Johnson is a legitimate utility outfielder, with the ability to play all three outfield positions well. And he's the kind of scrappy veteran player that every team needs, whether it's for his experience on the field or his influence on younger players in the clubhouse.
Chicago White Sox: Jesse Crain, RHP
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2012 Stats: 24 G, 2-1, 2.38 ERA, 1.10 WHIP, 22.2 IP, 11.12 K/9, 5 Holds, 0-for-3 SV
Having his best season since he was a rookie with the Minnesota Twins in 2004, 30-year-old Jesse Crain has been an important piece out of the bullpen for manager Robin Ventura and the Chicago White Sox.
As one of the team's primary setup men, Crain went the entire month of May without allowing a scoring run. While he's hit a rough patch in June, allowing four earned runs (he has six on the entire season), Crain is a crafty veteran who has flown under the radar nearly all season for the White Sox.
Cincinnati Reds: Ryan Hanigan, C
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2012 Stats: .289/.369/.352, 1 HR, 7 RBI
Heading into the 2012 season, the focus was on ballyhooed rookie backstop Devin Mesoraco and how he was the Reds' catcher of the future. Yet it's 31-year-old Ryan Hanigan who has received the bulk of the playing time from skipper Dusty Baker, starting 41 games to Mesoraco's 28.
While he's not an offensive powerhouse by any means, Hanigan's .289 batting average and .369 on-base percentage trail only perennial MVP candidate Joey Votto on the Reds. If he had the requisite number of at-bats to qualify, his on-base percentage would rank 13th among all catchers in the game, ahead of notables such as Buster Posey, Mike Napoli and Carlos Santana.
Cleveland Indians: Michael Brantley, CF
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2012 Stats: .283/.319/.390, 1 HR, 33 RBI, 9-for-14 SB
One of the pieces that the Indians received from the Milwaukee Brewers in exchange for CC Sabathia in 2008, 25-year-old Michael Brantley has taken another step in the right direction with his development in 2012.
Brantley's approach at the plate has resulted in him recording at least one hit in 28 of his last 30 games, and his penchant for making highlight-reel plays in center field look effortless have earned him the nickname "Dr. Smooth," a completely appropriate moniker.
If or when Grady Sizemore returns to action for the Tribe, you can bet that he won't be seeing much, if any, time in center. That patch of grass belongs to Brantley.
Colorado Rockies: Matt Belisle, RHP
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2012 Stats: 36 G, 3-2, 2.08 ERA, 1.18 WHIP, 39 IP, 7.15 K/9, 8 Holds, 0-for-3 SV
A nine-year veteran, 32-year-old Matt Belisle is having the best season of his career setting up Rockies closer Rafael Betancourt.
Belisle has allowed only two earned runs over his last 16 appearances dating back to May 22nd, and the only home run he's allowed in 2012 (to former Rockies infielder Clint Barmes) surprisingly didn't come at Coors Field.
He's been a bright spot in an otherwise disappointing 2012 campaign for the Rockies.
Detroit Tigers: Brayan Villarreal, RHP
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2012 Stats: 20 G, 3-1, 1.16 ERA, 0.86 WHIP, 23.1 IP, 13.11 K/9, 2 Holds
It wasn't until his 10th appearance of the season, on June 1st against the New York Yankees that 25-year-old Brayan Villarreal gave up his first earned run of the season. While he's allowed two more since then, there is no question that Villarreal has been an irreplaceable piece of the Tigers bullpen.
Could he be the next closer in Detroit? Jim Leyland thinks so, as he told Chris Iott of MLive.com:
"I think it's way too early to put him in that situation, People are going to get all hung up on Villarreal right now. He's way too young for that. Do I think he has the equipment? Yes. But a lot of people don't realize there's not only a physical stress that goes along with closing a game out, but there's a mental stress, too."
With Jose Valverde having an off year and set to become a free agent at the end of the season, it will be interesting to note if Leyland gives Villarreal some ninth-inning work as the season progresses—as it could be a sign of things to come in 2013.
Houston Astros: Wesley Wright, LHP
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2012 Stats: 37 G, 0-1, 3.74 ERA, 1.34 WHIP, 21.2 IP, 8.72 K/9, 9 Holds
That'd be Wesley Wright, the 27-year-old southpaw who leads the Houston Astros with nine holds on the season.
As one of the team's primary setup men, along with Brandon Lyon, Wright has been highly effective against left-handed batters, holding them to a batting line of .185/.267/.296 while striking out 20 of the 60 who have stepped to the plate against him.
Kansas City Royals: Alcides Escobar, SS
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2012 Stats: .300/.340/.389, 1 HR, 19 RBI, 12-for-14 SB
While everyone is busy talking about the young guns in the Royals lineup, namely the struggling Eric Hosmer and the blossoming Mike Moustakas, 25-year-old Alcides Escobar has quietly gone about his business and become one of the up-and-coming shortstops in all of baseball.
Escobar leads the Royals in batting average, is fourth on the team in on-base percentage, and his 12 stolen bases tie him with Jared Dyson for the team lead.
When you consider that the Royals have already used four different players at second base, the fact that Escobar has been able to turn 47 double plays, fifth most in the AL, is pretty impressive.
Los Angeles Angels of Anaheim: Ernesto Frieri, RHP
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2012 Stats (With LAA): 21 G, 0-0, 0.00 ERA, 0.823 WHIP, 20.2 IP, 15.68 K/9, 5 Holds, 8-of-8 SV
Think the Padres would like a redo on this trade?
Acquired by the Angels at the beginning of May to bolster their beleaguered bullpen, 26-year-old Ernesto Frieri has been virtually un-hittable in the Angels bullpen, whether it be as a setup man or closer.
Now firmly entrenched as the Halos closer, Frieri has struck out at least one batter in 19 of his 21 appearances for skipper Mike Scioscia. Perhaps Frieri isn't really an "unsung hero" at this point, but considering that nobody outside of San Diego knew who he was entering the season, we'll include him anyway.
Los Angeles Dodgers: Jerry Hairston Jr., IF/OF
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2012 Stats: .306/.387/.425, 2 HR, 18 RBI, 1-for-2 SB
The ultimate utility player, 36-year-old Jerry Hairston Jr. has spent time at six different positions for the Dodgers so far in 2012 and has produced regardless of where he is on the field.
His .306 average is second on the Dodgers, trailing only the injured Matt Kemp. With the number of injuries that the Dodgers have dealt with so far, manager Don Mattingly has had to use multiple lineups, moving players in and out of spots they normally aren't accustomed to, including Hairston.
But the 15-year veteran is happy to hit wherever he's needed, though he does have a preference:
"Obviously it's not ideal when I'm hitting fourth -- not that I can't do it -- but he has to mix and match every day with all the guys that we have out of the lineup, I just hope he puts me back in the three-hole: I went 5-for-5 there."
Miami Marlins: Randy Choate, LHP
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2012 Stats: 35 G, 0-0, 2.49 ERA, 0.97 WHIP, 21.2 IP, 7.89 K/9, 12 Holds, 1-for-1 SV
As with some of the other players on this list, Randy Choate started the season hot before running into some trouble in June—but that doesn't change the fact that the 36-year-old has been a big part of the Marlins' success.
Through the first two months of the season, spanning 26 appearances, Choate allowed only one earned run while holding the opposition to a .113/.226/.151 batting line.
Since the start of June, it's been a different story. Choate has allowed five earned runs, albeit four came in one appearance against the Boston Red Sox. For the month, opponents are hitting 292/.346/.333 against the sidearm specialist.
Milwaukee Brewers: Norichika Aoki, of
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2012 Stats: .280/.344/.429, 3 HR, 12 RBI, 9-for-11 SB
Signed by the Brewers this winter, 30-year-old Japanese import Norichika Aoki has been a pleasant surprise for the Brew Crew.
Aoki has spent time at all three outfield positions and fielded each one well. Not a slugger, nearly 20 percent of Aoki's hits on the season have gone for extra bases, as his speed allows him to stretch line drives and test opposing outfielders' arms.
Minnesota Twins: Jared Burton, RHP
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2012 Stats: 30 G, 1-0, 3.10 ERA, 0.86 WHIP, 29 IP, 9.00 K/9, 11 Holds, 0-for-1 SV
While Minnesota's starting rotation has been an unmitigated disaster in 2012, their bullpen has fared quite well, largely in part to the efforts of players like Jared Burton.
Burton, 31, spent his entire major league career with the Cincinnati Reds before signing with the Twins as a free agent this winter. His 11 holds lead the team and find him tied for eighth in the American League.
Over his last 12 outings, Burton has posted an ERA of 0.73 while striking out 13 batters in 12.1 innings pitched.
New York Mets: Scott Hairston, of
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2012 Stats: .270/.313/.553, 9 HR, 27 RBI, 3-for-4 SB
Like his brother Jerry, 32-year-old Scott Hairston has been an under-the-radar hero in 2012. Mets skipper Terry Collins has used Hairston at all three outfield positions and his faith has paid off.
Hairston's nine homers are second on the team to only Lucas Duda, and his ability to play multiple positions gives the Mets the flexibility that they've needed with injuries to players like Andres Torres and Jason Bay.
New York Yankees: Cody Eppley, RHP
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2012 Stats: 22 G, 0-0. 2.50 ERA, 1.28 WHIP, 18 IP, 4.5 K/9, 4 Holds
Picked up by the Yankees off waivers from the Texas Rangers at the beginning of the season, 26-year-old Cody Eppley has become an integral part of the Yankees bullpen, one that has been decimated by injury.
He has not allowed a run in his past nine appearances, holding opposing batters to a .167/.231/.208 batting line. And it stands to reason that he could keep his spot in the Yankees 'pen even after players like David Aardsma and Joba Chamberlain return from the disabled list.
Oakland A's: Ryan Cook, RHP
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2012 Stats: 31 G, 2-2. 1.71 ERA, 0.98 WHIP, 31.2 IP, 9.38 K/9, 11 Holds, 4-for-6 SV
Acquired as part of the package the A's received in exchange for Trevor Cahill this past winter, 24-year-old Ryan Cook has taken the reins as the closer in Oakland.
Up until this past Friday, when the San Francisco Giants tagged him for four runs in the ninth inning, Cook had allowed only two earned runs all season. Even with that performance, Cook's ERA and WHIP rank among the best from AL relievers.
Philadelphia Phillies: Juan Pierre, LF
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2012 Stats: .328/.367/.398, 1 HR, 15 RBI, 16-for-18 SB
An afterthought when the Phillies signed him to a minor-league contract in the winter, 34-year-old Juan Pierre was supposed to be the team's fourth outfielder, playing sparingly.
Instead, he's supplanted John Mayberry Jr. as the team's starting left fielder, and he's taking advantage of his spot in the lineup. Batting second, between Jimmy Rollins and Hunter Pence, Pierre has been making solid contact, resulting in his highest on-base percentage since 2004 and causing mayhem on the bases when he reaches.
His 16 stolen bases rank fifth in the National League and ninth in all of baseball.
Pittsburgh Pirates: Jason Grilli, RHP
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2012 Stats: 30 G, 1-2, 1.88 ERA, 1.05 WHIP, 28.2 IP, 14.13 K/9, 17 Holds, 1-for-2 SV
There may not be a better setup man in baseball this season than 35-year-old veteran Jason Grilli, whose 17 holds place him second amongst qualified relievers, trailing Cleveland's Vinnie Pestano by only one.
Over his last 21 appearances, spanning 20.2 innings pitched, Grilli has allowed only three earned runs and 11 hits, resulting in a 1.31 ERA and batters posting an anemic .155/.294/.225 batting line against the 10-year veteran.
San Diego Padres: Chris Denorfia, LF/RF
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2012 Stats: .286/.353/.435, 2 HR, 10 RBI, 4-for-7 SB
All 31-year-old outfielder Chris Denorfia has done since joining the San Diego Padres in 2010 is produce, and while he's not a superstar, he's been a consistent contributor to the Padres offense in each of the past three seasons.
His .286 average trails only Carlos Quentin among Padres regulars, and while his playing time is sure to wane as the Padres continue to get healthy, he has been outstanding in the field, yet to commit an error in any of the three outfield spots.
San Francisco Giants: Angel Pagan, CF
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2012 Stats: .300/.344/.430, 5 HR, 25 RBI, 12-of-14 SB
Who would have thought that a pair of former New York outfielders would be leading the way for the San Francisco Giants offense in 2012?
While Melky Cabrera has stolen the headlines, 30-year-old Angel Pagan has gone about his business without much fanfare. His defense has been questionable, but there's no questioning his performance at the plate.
His 81 hits on the season have him tied for 18th in all of baseball with Ichiro Suzuki and Elvis Andrus, and they place him 12th in the National League. Among qualified center fielders, Pagan sits fourth in the game and third in the National League.
Seattle Mariners: Lucas Luetge, LHP
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2012 Stats: 28 G, 1-0, 1.47 ERA, 1.36 WHIP, 18.1 IP, 8.35 K/9, 4 Holds
Much has been made of the young starting pitchers that the Mariners have coming up through their farm system, namely James Paxton, Taijuan Walker and Danny Hultzen.
Yet while that trio remains in the minors, 25-year-old rookie southpaw Lucas Luetge has taken the league by storm. Pitching out of the Mariners bullpen, Luetge has allowed a total of three earned runs on the season, and they came in back-to-back appearances from June 19th to June 20th.
Whether he has the stuff to eventually become a closer remains to be seen, but Luetge's success speaks well for the Mariners' ability to mold pitchers as they work their way up the system.
St. Louis Cardinals: Mitchell Boggs, RHP
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2012 Stats: 32 G, 1-1, 2.23 ERA, 1.02 WHIP, 32.1 IP, 6.96 K/9, 10 Holds
A five-year vet, 28-year-old Mitchell Boggs has established himself as a quality middle reliever, though outside of St. Louis you'd be hard-pressed to find someone who knew who he was. More likely, if you were to ask someone who Boggs was, the answer would be "Wade's brother/son," which is not the case.
While lefties have fared better against Boggs than hitters from the right side of the plate, it really hasn't made much difference this year. Batters are posting a miserable .209/.289/.287 batting line against the Cardinals reliever.
Tampa Bay Rays: Jeff Keppinger, IF
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2012 Stats: .333/.364/.441, 2 HR, 11 RBI
An unheralded signing by the Rays this winter, 32-year-old Jeff Keppinger has continued to do what he's always done—provide a consistent bat at the plate and a consistent glove in the field.
Rays skipper Joe Maddon has used Keppinger at first base, second base, third base and as a designated hitter thus far, and chances are he'll see some time at shortstop before the season's over.
Keppinger, who missed a month of the season with a broken toe, returned to action June 23rd against the Philadelphia Phillies and showed no rust. He went 5-for-5 with a double, a run scored and three RBI in Tampa's losing effort.
Texas Rangers: David Murphy, LF
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2012 Stats: .280/.371/.474, 7 HR, 25 RBI, 6-for-7 SB
David Murphy has been an under-the-radar player for most of his career, yet he consistently puts up quality numbers in whatever role he's been handed, whether it be as a starter or reserve.
A seven-year veteran, Murphy's .371 on-base percentage places him third amongst Rangers regulars, trailing only Josh Hamilton and Elvis Andrus.
Toronto Blue Jays: Darren Oliver, RHP
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2012 Stats: 29 G, 2-2, 1.42 ERA, 0.91 WHIP, 9.59 K/9, 6 Holds
If the first reaction you had when seeing Darren Oliver's name was "It can't be that Darren Oliver," you're wrong.
It is that Darren Oliver, the Oliver who broke into the major leagues with the Texas Rangers in 1993. Now 41 years old and a veteran of 19 major league seasons, Oliver is undergoing a rebirth in Toronto. As one of their two primary setup men, Oliver having the best season of his career.
Washington Nationals: Sean Burnett, LHP
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2012 Stats: 31 G, 0-0, 1.04 ERA, 0.88 WHIP, 26 IP, 8.65 K/9, 14 Holds, 2-for-2 SV
With their All-Star setup man Tyler Clippard forced into the closer's role due to injuries, someone needed to step up and help fill Clippard's spot in the eighth inning.
One of those to grab the bull by the horns has been 28-year-old Sean Burnett, who has allowed a total of three earned runs on the season. His 14 holds place him eighth among NL relievers.