One of the things I love most about baseball is that on any given night, anyone can play the role of hero. There aren’t “skill positions” like in football, and there are so many different elements to quantify success that it’s easy to lose sight of a variety of great players unless you are a hardcore fan.
With that in mind, here now is your (very early) 2016 “Unsung Hero” All-Star team, a shout-out to the top players by position that you probably don’t know about. I also tried to factor in success in recent years for players to validate that their early 2016 success is no fluke:
Francisco Cervelli, Pirates: It was easy to dislike Cervelli when he was a reserve backstop with the Yankees, his constant fist-pumping and demonstrations of emotion rubbing some foes the wrong way. But his infectious energy has had a big impact in the Steel City. Cervelli was acquired in a trade that has worked out well for Pittsburgh, as the Bucs sent reliever Justin Wilson to the Bronx. The durable Cervelli is off to another fine start, hitting .307 and driving in 12 runs in 25 games. He slashed .295/.370/.401 in 130 games last season, his first as a full-time starter in the league. (Honorable mention: Stephen Vogt, Athletics).
Justin Bour, Marlins: It seems like first base is one of the tougher spots to find an unsung star given that it is a notorious power position. Bour finished fifth in National League Rookie of the Year voting in 2015, as he blasted 23 home runs in 129 games. He’s off and running again in 2016, with a slash line of .276/.341/.461 and three homers and 12 RBIs. (Honorable mention: Mitch Moreland, Rangers).
Josh Harrison, Pirates: Really, Harrison could qualify at multiple positions. He is emerging as a Ben Zobrist, jack-of-all-trade types. The 5’8″ Harrison was an All-Star in 2014 (the same year I stood next to him at the team hotel and felt like I towered over him despite a three-inch height advantage), a year in which he finished ninth in NL MVP voting. Harrison combines speed (33 stolen bases since 2014) with the ability to hit for average to all fields (.286 career mark). He is off to another hot start (.320/.351/.417) in a time when the Buccos need him with Jung Ho Kang still out and Neil Walker traded to New York. (Honorable mention: Logan Forsythe, Rays).
Nick Castellanos, Tigers: To this day, Castellanos is the only player I’ve ever seen play when he was in high school, back in 2010 in Florida when I worked for the Miami Herald. Little did I know that six years later, he’d be leading the American League in hitting at .378 in 25 games. He also has four homers and 19 RBIs, deepening what was already considered one of the game’s premier lineups. Castellanos gets overshadowed by his star peers at the position like Manny Machado, Josh Donaldson, and Nolan Arenado, but is ascending fast. (Honorable mention: Justin Turner, Dodgers).
Elvis Andrus, Rangers: Andrus, an All-Star in 2010 and 2012, is the ultimate model of consistency. Count on seeing him in the lineup on any given night, as he has played in at least 145 games in each of his first seven Major League seasons. Andrus does all the little things correctly, as evidenced by three seasons in which he led the AL in sacrifice bunts. In 1,100 big-league games, he is batting .271, has stolen 218 bases, scored 582 runs, and has 33 triples. (Honorable mention: Brandon Crawford, Giants).
Brock Holt, Red Sox: Holt, like Harrison, can play just about anywhere, and his knack for the clutch and versatility supersede his statistics. Dubbed the “Brock Star” by Red Sox fans, Holt has played every position except catcher since joining the Sox in 2013, and earned an All-Star nod last year. Though his overall numbers aren’t wowing, Holt is a .299 career hitter with runners in scoring position over 306 games. (Honorable mention: Christian Yelich, Marlins).
Kevin Pillar, Blue Jays: Nicknamed “Superman” by his teammates, Pillar is a human crash-test dummy who is worth the price of admission on defense. Winning a Gold Glove is a mere formality, even though Pillar doesn’t have the hardware yet. His bat isn’t bad, either, even though he gets lost in the glow of the Jays’ star-studded lineup. Pillar played in all but three games last year, batting .278 with 12 homers and 56 RBIs while stealing 28 bases. (Honorable mention: Dexter Fowler, Cubs).
J.D. Martinez, Tigers: Like Castellanos, somehow Martinez’s excellence gets lost in Detroit’s lineup. Yet Martinez has emerged as an elite outfielder since joining the Tigers in 2014, hammering 64 homers since the start of that season. Though it’s been a bit of a slow start in 2016 (.260/.333/.400), Martinez is coming off a 38-homer campaign in which he also drove in 102 runs. He has tremendous opposite-field power, something that never translated during three mediocre years in Houston prior to joining the Tigers. (Honorable mention: Kole Calhoun, Angels).
Jose Quintana, White Sox: I think the reason Quintana never gets his due respect has been his won-loss record, which strongly belies his peripheral career numbers. Quintana entered 2016 with a mark of 33-34, but never had an ERA higher than 3.76 in any of his first four seasons. 2016 looks like his breakout campaign, as the southpaw is 4-1 with a 1.40 ERA and only one home run allowed over six starts. In four-plus seasons with the ChiSox, Quintana has allowed fewer hits than innings pitched (8.9 per 9 IP), has a walk rate of 2.3, and a home run rate of just 0.7. (Honorable mention: Drew Smyly, Rays).
Kevin Siegrist, Cardinals: I remember Siegrist bursting onto the scene as part of St. Louis’ 2013 pennant run, putting up historically good numbers against lefties. He tailed off in 2014 but stormed back last year and is off to a buzzing start in 2016. Siegrist struck out the side last night and earned his fourth win of the year when the Cards rallied for two runs in the bottom of the ninth. In three-plus years in the Majors, Siegrist is 15-6 with a 2.66 ERA, striking out 194 batters in 155 2/3 innings while allowing a mere 109 hits. And that includes a miserable 2014 campaign in which he went 1-4 with a 6.82 ERA. (Honorable mention: Sergio Romo, Giants).
Kenley Jansen, Dodgers: Why does it feel like Jansen, who pitches for a big-market, high-payroll team, is still very underrated among the game’s elite closers? His value is even greater when you consider that he is — and has been for a while — the only trustworthy pitcher in L.A.’s bullpen. His strikeout numbers are absurd — in 351 career innings, his K/9 IP ratio is 13.8. Since late 2014, he has converted 51 of his last 53 save chances, conjuring up memories of Eric Gagne’s historic run of the early 2000’s. In this his seventh season in the big leagues, Jansen has a career 2.23 ERA spanning 351 innings. He has allowed 216 hits, an eye-popping ratio of 4.1 per 9 IP. (Honorable mention: Zach Britton, Orioles).