Patrick: Welcome to Bleacher Bums. I’m Patrick.
Derrik: And I’m Derrik.
Patrick: We are in the home stretch of the 2023 Major League Baseball regular season, and more teams than ever are vying for a playoff spot. With only a few weeks left, Derrik and I wanted to revisit our annual tradition of spotlighting a few underrated contributors on these playoff-bound teams – the guys who will get their teams over the hump. I’m covering three guys from the American League and Derrik has three guys from the National League. Derrik, you go first.
Derrik: I’ll start with my pick for a player out of the NL East. Since we are doing three players, I picked one from each division. For the East, I’ve decided to go with Michael Tonkin from the Atlanta Braves. It was hard to pick someone who is under the radar on the Braves, but Tonkin has been a solid piece in their bullpen that has gotten solid results. In 33 appearances, Tonkin has pitched 64 innings with a 3.38 ERA, 4.02 FIP, and a 3.96 SIERA. For the most part this year, Tonkin has been a solid multi-inning reliever. He has had the occasional game here and there when he gives up a couple runs, but as a guy in the long reliever kind of role, he has been a nice piece for the Braves.
Patrick: When a guy with numbers like that is maybe the fifth-best guy in that ‘pen, you have a filthy pitching staff.
Derrik: Exactly. Add in the fact that just about everyone else on the Braves is mostly known and he made for the perfect pick as an underrated piece on a playoff-bound team.
Patrick: I’ll start with the East as well, choosing another pitcher in Orioles starter Dean Kremer. I’m cheating a bit from the jump because I’m not sure how “underrated” he is, as everyone following the O’s knows how important he’s been, but his success is directly tied into team success in a crazy way. In his 12 wins, he has a 2.10 ERA and has averaged over six innings per start. In his 5 losses, he has absolutely melted down, pitching to the tune of an 8.53 ERA. If this team wants to win important games, they need Dr. Jekyll and not Mr. Hyde.
Derrik: I would say Kremer is probably underrated by the more casual baseball audience that isn’t as focused on the Orioles, so it’s a fine pick.
Patrick: He definitely isn’t a household name.
Derrik: I would’ve picked someone from the Red Sox because why not?
Derrik: Regardless, I want to know who you’re picking next as an underrated player.
Patrick: In the Central division, I’m stuck with choosing someone from the Minnesota Twins. I’m going with catcher Ryan Jeffers. He almost lost his job to the $30 million man (and our old friend) Christian Vázquez, but Vázqy has played like crap this year while Jeffers has led MLB catchers in OPS! Catch this: in games that are “late and close” (as defined by Baseball Reference, “any plate appearance from the seventh inning on in which the batting team is either in a tie game, ahead by one run or has the potential tying run on deck.”) he has a 1.049 OPS. In tie games, it’s 1.163, and when down by one run, it’s 1.007. Minnesota won’t make it very far in the playoffs, so their only chance of winning games is by winning close ones. They’re gonna have to rely on backup/platoon Jeffers to do that. His OPS is over .900 when he hits in the bottom third of the order! There’s a case to be made that he’s their best hitter!
Derrik: Jeffers is a really solid pick. For my pick in the NL Central, I first want to shout out Abner Uribe from the Brewers, who I almost went with…
Derrik: …but I decided to go with Reds outfielder Will Benson. Benson is basically putting up the numbers that Jesse Winker put up when he was with the Reds. In 79 games this year, Benson has a slash line of .271/. 371/.491 for an .862 OPS and a 129 wRC+. In just under 250 plate appearances, Benson has 11 doubles, 6 triples, and 8 homers, as well as 14 stolen bases. He does have extreme platoon splits, but that is something the Reds are probably fine with. He is hitting .290/.395/.536 against righties, giving him a .931 OPS and a 147 wRC+. And in his last 220 plate appearances, Benson is hitting .300 with an OPS over .950. He’s been really good for the Reds, and they got him this offseason from a Cleveland team that could desperately use the offense Benson is giving Cincinnati.
Patrick: You’re counting on Cincy being a playoff team?
Derrik: They are only half a game out of a Wild Card spot as of writing this, so they are clearly still in the playoff picture.
Patrick: Whatever you say. My last pick comes out of the American League West. There are three (real) teams in contention here, but I’m gonna head to Texas. I’m obsessed with the “other lefty,” the southpaw that isn’t the go-to. How and when are they used? It’s one of the weirdest roles in the sports. I’m going with the other other lefty, Brock Burke. We know that Aroldis Chapman will get the save opportunities, and although he’s having a down year, Will Smith (not that Will Smith…or that Will Smith) has a history of playoff success, beating Houston (of all teams) in 2021 by closing out Game 6 of the World Series. Meanwhile, Burke has been really solid. He’s a bridge guy, as 35 of his 42 appearances have come in the 6th/7th/8th innings, with 24 of them going multiple innings. He’s only lost two games, both in May, while his ERA sits at 3.33. Availability for relievers in the playoffs is never guaranteed, and Texas has three legitimate lefties they can turn to.
Derrik: Burke is a nice pick, and one thing that you didn’t mention is that he’s only walked seven hitters this year. That’s pretty good.
Derrik: For my last pick, I’m going to the Dodgers to pick a former Texas Ranger. This guy also beat the Rangers in a World Series. I’m going with Lance Lynn. Yes, he’s a known name, but he’s been much better with the Dodgers than the total season stats will show. In 21 starts with the White Sox, he had a 6.47 ERA and a 5.10 FIP. The encouraging thing was that he had a 3.94 SIERA. Since the Dodgers acquired him, he has had 5 starts and has a 2.03 ERA. The FIP is still high at 4.69, but not as high, and the SIERA is somewhat similar at 4.30. The big difference for Lance Lynn has been the difference in how often he throws certain pitches. Lynn is now throwing his fastball 62% of the time (up from 54% with CHW), he’s throwing his slider 10% (up from 4%), and he’s throwing his curveball 13% of the time (up from 8%). Those changes, along with the fact that Lynn has cut his walks in half, are why Lynn has had success with the Dodgers instead of continuing the struggles he showed with the White Sox. And since the Dodgers have four starters on the IL, as well as two rookies in their rotation, Lynn’s veteran presence and experience makes him so valuable to the Dodgers.
Patrick: Shoutout to his partner-in-trade Joe Kelly! Anyway, I’m still reeling from the fact that you think Cincinnati is legit. Quick! Predict the NL Central division winner!
Derrik: Milwaukee is winning the division, but Cincy can make it in as a Wild Card. I’m not giving up on them making it.
Patrick: Only time will tell. Until then, I’m Patrick…
Derrik: And I’m Derrik…
Patrick: And we’re a couple of Bleacher Bums.