The playoffs are finally here. All the coverage will no doubt focus on the stars of the playoffs. Clayton Kershaw. Mike Trout. Miguel Cabrera. The usual suspects. The players who will supposedly propel their teams to glory. That's all well and good, but I wanted to give some attention to the unsung heroes. The "organizational cogs". The guys who showed up and didn't hurt their team. Good enough to play, but not good enough to get all the attention.
I didn't really use any stringent criteria for selecting these guys. I attempted to look at each playoff team and select the guy who most closely resembled an average player with considerable leeway. I considered only AL position players in this edition. Here they are, sorted by record.
The Los Angeles Angels of Anaheim
David Freese, 3B. In the offseason, Freese was traded to the Angels for Peter Bourjos. Fernando Salas also went to the Angels, and Randal Grichuk went to the Cardinals. Salas was a useful bullpen piece, but Freese was the main haul for the Angels. He was expected to hold down the troublesome third base position. As the season got underway, Freese was terrible. The first two months of the season (Mar/Apr and May), Freese had a 53 and 64 wRC+, respectively. It looked like the critics of the trade might be right. Then the rest of the season happened. While Cameron's criticisms are still valid, Freese was actually worth more than Bourjos this season (2.2 vs. 1.6 fWAR). DRS wasn't particularly fond of Freese's glovework (-9 DRS), but UZR was more kind (1.7 UZR). Freese actually ended the season above-average on offense (106 wRC+). It seems like the trade has worked out OK for the Angels. All they needed was for third base not to be a dumpster fire.
Nick Markakis, RF. After last season, in which Markakis was rated as a replacement-level player by fWAR, I'd assume expectations were low coming into this season. That makes his 2.5 fWAR season a little more palatable. Markakis rebounded offensively by just making better contact. His BABIP barely changed, his LD% actually went down, and his BB% and K% were fairly close to 2013. This added up to a wRC+ identical to Freese's 106. On the defensive side, Markakis hasn't had this good a season (by DRS and UZR) since 2008. By the Inside Edge stats on FanGraphs, Markakis made a few extra "Remote" and "Unlikely" plays. It doesn't take much to swing the defensive pendulum in one season. With Adam Jones and Nelson Cruz belting homers, the Orioles really didn't need Markakis to live up to his 2008 season, but it's nice that they at least got a decent version of him.
The Detroit Tigers
Alex Avila, C. Avila is definitely a case of extremes. He's got a great walk rate (13.3%), but then you might see his strikeout rate, which is pretty terrible at 33%. Somehow, Avila managed to bring an almost league average bat (97 wRC+) to a position where it is difficult to find league average bats, despite his extreme strikeout rate. Avila does not appear to be a particularly good framer, but he does the other things well. His caught stealing rate regressed back to near his career average after a dip in 2013. FanGraphs thinks he was pretty good at blocking pitches. It looks like he did everything just well enough to make this list at 2.1 fWAR.
Norichika Aoki, RF. The Royals acquired Aoki from the Brewers for lefty reliever Will Smith. This was a nice case of trading from a position of strength to fill a position of need, sacrificing the long-term control for the short-term upgrade. It worked out well for the Royals, who grabbed a 2.6 fWAR season from Aoki. Aoki was his typical high contact, low power self, but his baserunning and defense were just a bit better than in the past, though DRS and UZR significantly disagree on his defensive value. It might be hard to assess accurately his defensive value given that Lorenzo Cain and Jarrod Dyson were his center field mates, and those guys can cover a lot of ground. At any rate, Aoki brought a slightly above league average bat (104 wRC+) to a position where the Royals previously couldn't find production.
Brandon Moss, 1B/OF. Honestly, it was quite difficult to choose someone here. The A's are built on players who could all fit this list. The guy who was closest to average at 2.2 fWAR isn't on the team anymore (Cespedes). So I went with the next best choice, I suppose, in Moss, who had a 2.3 fWAR season. Moss is a lefty power bat who can play multiple positions. He seems to be a decent outfielder but a below average first baseman, which is just strange. Regardless, Moss' value is in his bat, which appears to be declining. He's in the third year of a downward trend in his wRC+, but his walk rate and strikeout rate are both improving. He still has a nice baseline from which to work, so hopefully he's hit his floor. It's hard to talk about his declining performance without mentioning his hip injury, though. It's entirely possible that Moss will recover after surgery and be closer to pre-2014 numbers. Nevertheless, his total value this year was close to 2013 and 2012. His positional flexibility is very important to the depth-focused A's, though, and he keeps the A's platoon machine going.
I'm sure this list of people can be debated, except in the Royals' case, really. The next person on their fWAR ranking is Mike Moustakas, who was below 1 fWAR. But there are plenty of other guys for the other teams who could be considered here, like Rajai Davis, Jed Lowrie, Collin Cowgill, and David Lough. While the stars get all the attention, let's not forget about these guys.
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Kevin Ruprecht is an Editor of Beyond the Box Score. He also writes at Royals Review. You can follow him on Twitter at @KevinRuprecht.