One of the cool things about Major League Baseball is that, probably more than in any other professional sports league, players seemingly come out of nowhere to have productive seasons.
Every year, there are always the guys nobody though could do it or the guys who have had to reinvent themselves in order to make an impact on a big league club.
This 2012 season is no different. There have been a number of guys who fit this bill.
Alejandro De Aza has solidified center field and the leadoff spot for the White Sox, a major reason why Chicago is in first place.
Heck, we’ve even seen a 37-year old knuckleballer dominate the National League. He’s just one of the few though, as there are guys at each position who have gone from baseball rags to riches and are making a name for themselves in 2012.
Catcher: AJ Ellis (Dodgers)
You don’t typically see 18th round picks become MLB starters at age 31, but that’s what AJ Ellis has done.
Despite the lower draft standing, he’s hit for average at every level. He split the past two seasons between AAA and the majors, and hit well in just over 200 plate appearances with the Dodgers in a backup role.
Given that this was supposed to be a transition/rebuilding year for the Dodgers, they figured Ellis would be a good stop-gap guy until a better option came along. Instead, Ellis has become maybe the most surprising story on the MLB’s most surprising team, and LA may have found a catching option for the future.
First Base: Bryan LaHair (Cubs)
In a season full of frustrations for the Cubs, LaHair has been one of the few bright spots.
When someone is 29 and hasn’t been able to break through in the big leagues, usually one of two things happen: he goes to play overseas or stops playing all together.
LaHair, however, is different.
After putting up insane numbers in AAA in 2011, the Cubs decided to give him the job as everyday first baseman in 2012, or at least until Anthony Rizzo was ready. Instead, LaHair came out of the gate on fire and has vaulted himself into potential All Star consideration with 13 home runs.
He’s tailed off a bit from a hot start (average down to .286) and he does struggle against lefthanders, but he’s done enough for the Cubs to give him a look in right field, a signal that they may want to keep him around for the long haul.
Second Base: Jose Altuve (Astros)
If you ask someone who doesn’t know Jose Altuve what sport they think he plays just by looking at him, their guess might be a jockey in horseracing.
Well, the 5’7 (and hardly that) Altuve doesn’t race horses for a living. He races around the basepaths, and he’s been doing an awful lot of that in 2012.
Altuve has hit no matter where he’s played since signing with the Astros organization in 2006, but experts and scouts alike doubted Altuve because of his height. Also, when he got called up to the big leagues in the middle of last season at just age 21, the knock on him was that he was being rushed. Altuve responded to that by hitting .276 in 57 games last season, and he has now built on that by hitting .309 this season.
Not bad for someone who was rushed up here and is too short.
Shortstop: Elliot Johnson (Rays)
Johnson is a guy Rays fans probably were a bit angry to see on the Opening Day roster, as he failed miserably in his 2008 and 2011 MLB stints.
Johnson was then pushed into a starting role this season when Evan Longoria went down and when Tampa Bay’s shortstops didn’t produce. He’s responded by hitting .264, stealing 11 bases, and garnering a .733 OPS that holds its own amongst MLB shortstops.
Advanced numbers like UZR suggest he’s been bad defensively, but regardless, he’s filled a hole at short for Tampa that’s been gaping for pretty much their entire existence.
Third Base: Trevor Plouffe (Twins)
Many of you are probably thinking “Where’s Will Middlebrooks?” right now. But Middlebrooks is a top Red Sox prospect. While maybe it wasn’t expected to happen so soon, Boston expected Middlebrooks to become a force in their lineup in the not-so-distant future.
The same cannot be said for Plouffe, especially from an offensive standpoint.
Coming up through the Twins system as a shortstop, Pluoffe was regarded as their top defensive prospect and a potential utility infield piece. In 2010 and 2011, he looked like that, as he hit just .146 and .238 in those years.
But in 2012, he’s hit 15 home runs, with 14 of those coming since May 16th. Even though his average is a bit low at .246, Plouffe’s definitely producing in a way no one thought he would, at any point in his career.
Outfield: Quintin Berry (Tigers)
Berry is the first guy on this list to have made his MLB debut this season. Given where he was just two years ago, that’s a surprise in of itself.
A fifth-round pick in 2006 by the Phillies, Berry struggled to get past AA in Philadelphia’s system and was cut in the middle of the 2010 season. He found himself with the Tigers’ AAA affiliate Toledo Mud Hens to begin 2012 after not being able to breakthrough AA for all but four games.
After Austin Jackson went down, the Tigers were forced to call up the 27-year old Berry, who was hitting at a .270 clip with Toledo. Detroit hoped he could just hold his own until Jackson came back and then the journeyman could return to the minors. Instead, Berry is hitting above .300 and is now starting alongside Jackson in the outfield.
Outfield: Kirk Nieuwenhuis (Mets)
Nieuwenhuis always been that guy every system has: doesn’t have any glaring flaws, but no standout strengths either. Usually, those guys become nice bench players, and scouts have given him that distinction by ranking him around eighth or ninth in terms of Mets prospects heading into 2012.
However, Nieuwenhuis has hit .281 as the starting centerfielder with the Mets this season with decent pop (seven home runs and a .763 OPS).
The Mets have some more promising outfield prospects coming up through their system, but if Nieuwenhuis keeps producing, those guys may have to fight a bit harder than what was originally thought.
Outfield: Alejandro De Aza (White Sox)
Once a top prospect with the Marlins, De Aza was given the starting job in center field in 2007. However, after struggling mightily in that role and severely injuring his ankle, De Aza found himself in the Sox farm system.
De Aza appears to have been motivated by the Marlins’ giving up on him, as he hit above .300 in AAA in 2010 and 2011. Likewise, he hit .300 as a September call-up in 2010 and .329 in a bit more extended MLB look in 2011.
Given that, the Sox decided to let De Aza start in center field this season, ostensibly as a stop-gap option. However, with a .293 average, 14 steals, a .775 OPS, and solid defense, the 28-year old outfielder may be a staple in Chicago’s lineup for the next few seasons.
Pitcher: R.A. Dickey (Mets)
If you couldn’t guess who I was referring to in the second paragraph of this article, well, it’s R.A.
Believe it or not, this is R.A. Dickey’s 10th big league season, and he had 41 career wins going into 2012. Combine that with the fact that he threw over 200 innings for the Mets last season and won 11 games for them in 2010, and you’re probably wondering how he “came out of nowhere.”
Well, did you think he’d be 11-1 with an ERA at 2.31?
Yeah, that’s what I thought.
Dickey’s story is such an intriguing one because it’s so simple: it just took him a long time to bloom.
The knuckleballer was given up on in Texas after having his K/BB ratio dropping below one. He found himself in New York after short stays in Seattle and Minnesota, and now, he’s mastered the pitch.
That K/BB ratio is at 4.42 this season (an insane number for a knuckleballer), and his BB% has been at about six percent since joining the Mets. That’s lower than Hoyt Wilhelm’s career percentage, who many believe was the best knuckleballer of all-time.
What other players have come out of nowhere and surprised you with their play this season?