- David Schoenfield, SweetSpot blogger
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Teams make the playoffs with expected production from their stars, with young players who improve, maybe a couple rookies who step up. But on almost every playoff team, you can find a guy who came out of nowhere to offer a major contribution.
Vance Worley is one of those guys. Where would the Pittsburgh Pirates be without the journeyman right-hander? The Pirates all but wrapped up a wild-card spot with Sunday's 1-0 win over the Brewers, giving Pittsburgh the series victory and moving the Pirates into the wild-card lead with the San Francisco Giants, 4.5 games over the Milwaukee Brewers. Worley went eight innings and allowed just four hits before a sellout crowd at PNC Park, improving his season numbers to 8-4 with a 2.93 ERA over 17 appearances (16 starts).
Worley wasn't even supposed to be out there on Sunday. Charlie Morton had replaced him in the rotation earlier in the week, but Morton's hernia flared up in his start so Worley was back out there against the Brewers. Worley pounded the strike zone with 63 strikes in 82 pitches, relying on his sinking fastball, a cutter and a slider, with an occasional curve.
"A little rest was good for me," Worley said after the game. "This is the deepest I've gone into a season the last couple of years, so it gave me some time to get my feet back under me, to gather up some of the energy I used up early in the season."
Worley is a journeyman right-hander because his fastball velocity doesn't light up the radar gun, but this is a guy who has had intermittent success in his four seasons in the majors. Of course, none of that came last year with the Twins, who had acquired him from the Phillies. In 10 starts with Minnesota, Worley got pounded like few pitchers in recent history, going 1-5 with a 7.21 ERA and .381 batting average allowed -- the highest average allowed by a pitcher with at least 40 innings since Mike Torrez in 1984.
With numbers like those, it's no surprise the Pirates were able to purchase Worley from the Minnesota Twins late in spring training. There was no downside for the Pirates, and he started the year in Triple-A before joining the Pirates' rotation in mid-June when Francisco Liriano went on the disabled list. He tossed seven scoreless innings against the Miami Marlins in that game and has been solid ever since.
Worley is one member of what we'll call the All-Surprise Team. Or maybe we can call it the lucky pickup team. Should the Pirates receive credit for Worley turning into gold? Hard to say. The Twins had actually put Worley on waivers and nobody claimed him until the Pirates made the cash deal. In the end, it's still a lot of luck. I'm pretty sure the Pirates didn't envision Worley making 16 starts with a sub-3.00 ERA. Here are some other members of the lucky pickup team:
Steve Pearce, Orioles
Pearce began the season with the Baltimore Orioles (they had originally claimed him off waivers from the New York Yankees in 2012) but only appeared in three games before they released him on April 27. The Toronto Blue Jays actually claimed Pearce, but he had the right to refuse the deal and instead become a free agent and apparently had an agreement to sign back with Baltimore. Two days later, with Chris Davis injured, the Orioles re-signed him. Pearce has responded with 20 home runs in 327 at-bats -- after hitting 17 in 743 career at-bats spread out over seven previous seasons. A new, closed stance has done wonders. Among American League hitters with at least 350 plate appearances, he's fourth in wOBA behind Jose Abreu, Victor Martinez and Mike Trout.
Chris Young, Mariners
Young has faltered a bit of late, including a bad loss in a vital game against the Houston Astros on Saturday, but the big right-hander is 12-9 with a 3.65 ERA. That's one more than he had from 2009 to 2013. That the Seattle Mariners ended up with Young was a result of their own penny-pinching ways. Originally, they had signed Randy Wolf as their token veteran to fill out the back of the rotation. Wolf had made the team out of spring training but the Mariners refused to give Wolf a guaranteed full-year contract, instead insisting he sign a 45-day contract. Wolf refused and the Mariners released him, picking up Young, who had been cut by the Washington Nationals. Now that was a stroke of luck, as Wolf ended up making just four poor starts with the Marlins.
Justin Turner, Dodgers
ESPN researcher Mark Simon wrote about Turner last week. The Los Angeles Dodgers' infielder has hit .332/.397/.467 in 310 PAs while starting games at all four infield spots. The Dodgers signed him as a free agent in February after the New York Mets non-tendered him, apparently because they tired of him not running hard. The Mets saved $500,00 or so, replacing Turner's $1 million salary with a minimum-salaried player. The Dodgers got themselves one of the year's best utility infielders.
Josh Harrison, Pirates
Harrison wasn't a free pickup since he was already in the Pirates' system, but nobody could have projected the 26-year-old to have this kind of breakout season. He entered 2014 with a .250 career average in 575 PAs and actually played more in Triple-A in 2013 than with the Pirates. Now he may win a batting title.
Tanner Roark, Nationals
After beating out Ross Detwiler and others for the final spot in the Nationals' rotation, Roark has gone 14-10 with a 2.85 ERA in his first full season in the majors. The 27-year-old has actually been in the Washington system since the 2010 trade deadline, but his production this year was certainly a surprise. Plus, consider how the Nationals acquired him: For Cristian Guzman, whose major league ended that year with a .152 average in 15 games for the Rangers. Think Texas could have used Roark the past couple of seasons?
Matt Shoemaker, Angels
We've written about Shoemaker here before, so you know what kind of season he's put together, helping the Angels surge to the AL West title even after Garrett Richards went down. He's certainly the definition of free talent: The Angels signed him as an undrafted free agent out of Eastern Michigan in 2008. But consider this: Before the season, Baseball America rated the Angels' farm system the worst in the majors and Shoemaker wasn't listed as one of the team's top 30 prospects. Thirty. Riding a terrific splitter/changeup, he's 16-4 with a 3.04 ERA.
J.D. Martinez, Tigers
For all the moves the Tigers have made, this has perhaps been the biggest as Martinez has been worth 3.9 WAR with his .320/.363/.570 line with 23 home runs and 76 RBIs. Released by the Astros in spring training, Martinez made some minor tweaks to his swing and the results have obviously been impressive. After a hot start and prolonged slump, he's been red hot again in September, hitting .394 with six home runs. (Note: I missed Martinez upon first publishing the piece. Apologies to Tigers fans!)
Pat Neshek, Cardinals
The veteran reliever pitched OK in 40 innings with the A's last year, but that was also the most he had pitched since 2007. So it wasn't a surprise that teams weren't pounding down his door with offers over the winter. He finally signed a minor league contract with the Cardinals in February, with an invite to spring training. He made the team, pitched his way into a setup role and even made the All-Star team. He's 7-1 with a 1.39 ERA and a 65/8 strikeout/walk ratio.
What do these guys prove? For starters, all the analytics out there can't project every player, and that's a good reminder that players aren't robots, their statistics always predictable within a small range. And as much as we praise front offices for building a winner or criticize them for building a loser, there is still a fair amount of luck involved. It's hard to really praise the front office for any of these performances.
None of these guys may do this again next year, but that's not important now. They did it this year and helped their teams into the playoffs or into contention.