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Players having great seasons under the radar

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Yesterday, I watched a myriad of defensive highlights from Angels shortstop Andrelton Simmons (who also homered). Curious, I looked up his stats and found him among the leaders in Wins Above Replacement. And then I found a handful of other players having great seasons and realized I’ve hardly heard anything about them. Let this be my contribution towards raising them into the spotlight.

Andrelton Simmons (Angels): The 27-year-old is having the best offensive season of his career. He posted a .751 OPS in his rookie season, but that spanned only 49 games. From 2013-16, he had an aggregate .664 OPS. His defense never wavered, of course, which is why he kept getting regular playing time and why the Angels were eager to trade for him in November 2015. This season, however, he’s been a terrific hitter, batting .292/.345/.451 with 13 home runs, 57 RBI, 62 runs scored, and 17 stolen bases in 502 plate appearances. He’s four home runs away from matching a career-high. Simmons is 11th in baseball in FanGraphs’ version of WAR, heavily predicated on the valuation of his defense, but it’s not too outlandish for me to believe Simmons has added nearly two wins above replacement on defense alone. While Jose Altuve, Aaron Judge, and Mike Trout will fight for the lion’s share of AL MVP votes, Simmons could get some down ballot consideration.

Gio Gonzalez (Nationals): Gonzalez nearly threw a no-hitter earlier this season against the Marlins, which brought some eyeballs to his stat line. Still, he hasn’t been talked about much somehow. He’s 12-5 with a 2.39 ERA and a  150/62 K/BB ratio in 162 innings. It’s nothing new for Gonzalez, as he won 21 games with a 2.89 ERA en route to finishing third in Cy Young balloting in 2012. There’s also some reason to believe Gonzalez’s performance is in some part due to great fortune as his batting average on balls in play is about 50 points below league average and his rate of stranding runners on base is more than 11 percent higher than his career average. Clayton Kershaw and Max Scherzer have had better seasons and will be the first and second place finishers in this year’s balloting, but Gonzalez is looking at likely finishing third again, which is no small feat.

Aaron Nola (Phillies): After a dismal June 16 start against the Diamondbacks, Nola stood with a disappointing 4.76 ERA. After the first two innings of last Thursday’s start against the Giants, he briefly brought it under 3.00. Currently, it’s at 3.26 along with a 128/38 K/BB ratio in 124 1/3 innings. Since that June 16 start, he’s made 11 starts with a composite 2.21 ERA across 73 1/3 innings. The right-hander out of LSU showed promise in his rookie year in 2015, then struggled last year before succumbing to injury. Finally, it’s appearing that Nola is showing the promise the Phillies believed in when they took him in the first round (seventh overall) in the 2014 draft. Perhaps more importantly, he looks like a pitcher the Phillies can build around. If there’s one thing the Phillies have lacked since trading Cole Hamels, it’s a starter capable of throwing seven or eight innings and holding the opposition to one or two runs.

Chris Taylor (Dodgers): On a team that features Clayton Kershaw, Kenley Jansen, Corey Seager, Cody Bellinger, Justin Turner, Alex Wood, and recently added Yu Darvish, it’s understandable that Taylor would slip under the radar. He’s played five different positions this season — left field, second base, center field, third base, and shortstop — while batting .311/.383/.549 with 17 home runs, 58 RBI, 69 runs scored, and 14 stolen bases in 413 plate appearances. He’s played average to above-average defense at most of those positions, which is why his 4.6 fWAR ranks 13th in baseball and 10th in the National League. Before the Dodgers acquired him from the Mariners last June in a very little talked about trade, Taylor had been a weak-hitting utilityman. Now, he’s the starting center fielder for baseball’s best team.

Felipe Rivero (Pirates): The Pirates acquired Rivero from the Nationals last year in the Mark Melancon trade. It worked out well for the Buccos. Though the club sits at a disappointing 60-64 in fourth place in the NL Central, Rivero has been a bright spot, owning a major league best 1.31 ERA with 14 saves and a 73/16 K/BB ratio in 61 2/3 innings. The lefty took over the closer’s role when Tony Watson began to struggle in the first half. While Rivero has been terrific against right-handed hitters, limiting them to a .547 OPS, he’s been death to lefties (.227 OPS). After the season, Rivero will be eligible for arbitration for the first of four years, so it wouldn’t be shocking if he got traded at some point, but for now, they’ll enjoy his outstanding 2017 campaign.

And That Happened: Thursday’s Scores and Highlights

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Here are the scores. Here are the highlights:

Cubs 5, Brewers 3: An absolute dagger of a loss for the Brewers. Chicago took a 2-0 lead early and Milwaukee fought back to take a 3-2 lead in the eighth. In the ninth Ian Happ reached on a grounder on which he should have been out — no error was called, Jeremy Jeffress just couldn’t get to the bag in time — and then Javier Baez tied things up singling Happ in with two outs. In the 10th, Kris Bryant hit a two-run homer on a high fastball that probably didn’t do everything Oliver Drake wanted it to do. Wade Davis got the final five outs of the game, in the ninth and tenth, striking out four Brewers. Chicago is now four and a half games ahead of the Brewers in the Central. Milwaukee will have to win the final three games of this series to have any shot at the division. They do remain only one back in the Wild Card, however, because Colorado keeps losing.

Dodgers 5, Phillies 4: Philly took a 4-2 lead thanks to rookie sensations Nick Williams and Rhys Hoskins, but old men Curtis Granderson and Andre Ethier — still alive! who knew?! — homered in the six than seventh innings, respectively, to tie it up. The Dodgers’ own rookie sensation Cody Bellinger drove in the eventual winning run with a groundout in the seventh. With that win the Dodgers clinch at least a tie for the NL West title. They can pop champagne corks with either a win tonight or a Dbacks loss. Bad news though: Justin Turner got a bruised thumb when he was hit by a pitch from Mark Leiter Jr. in the first. X-rays were negative and he’s day-to-day, but that kind of thing can linger.

Indians 4, Angels 1: Francisco Lindor hit a three-run homer in the fifth to break a 1-1 tie and the Indians win yet again. That’s 27 of 28 now. They’re only a game behind the Dodgers for the best record in baseball which, as we’ve noted recently, matters now that home field in the World Series is determined by non-stupid means.

Orioles 3, Rays 1: Gabriel Ynoa — who, apropos of nothing, has one of the more satisfying last names to both read and pronounce in all of baseball — tossed eight innings of five-hit, one-run ball. Manny Machado hit a two-run homer and Trey Mancini knocked in a run, both coming in the first innings, for all of Baltimore’s scoring. Tampa Bay threatened in the ninth. It wasn’t anywhere near as good a threat as the one Kim Jong Un issued to Trump yesterday — really, all politics aside, that thing reads fantastically — so the O’s were able to extinguish the fire.

Royals 1, Blue Jays 0: Jason Vargas and four relievers allowed two hits and no runs to beat J.A. Happ and three relievers who allowed eight hits and one run. Melky Cabrera‘s third inning RBI single was the game’s only scoring. Can you imagine what any pitcher from before, say, 1980, must think about a 1-0 game featuring a two-hit shutout that required nine pitchers?

Twins 12, Tigers 1: The Twins had been on a mini-skid before last night, but the Tigers pitching staff will always cure what ails ya. Joe Mauer and Jorge Polanco had three hits each and four different Twins batters knocked in two runs. The Twins now have a two and a half game lead for the second Wild Card with ten days left in the season.

Cardinals 8, Reds 5: Scott Schebler hit two homers for the Reds but it was not enough to overcome the Cards. Dexter Fowler had three hits and drove in two. He was 7-for-13 with two home runs and six RBI in the three-game series, swept by St. Louis. The Cards, who were swept by the Cubs last weekend, are still alive for the Wild Card, though, sitting a game and a half back of Colorado and a half game back of Milwaukee.

Braves 3, Nationals 2: R.A. Dickey allowed two runs over eight innings to pick up his 10th win on the year. After the game he said, “I’d be lying to say I didn’t have some emotions about it. This could be my last start ever at a home venue.” So there’s a decent chance he retires after the season. Part of me hopes he doesn’t — knuckleballers can and should pitch forever and he does have a team option the Braves are likely to pick up for 2018 — but he’s got kids and stuff and it’d be totally understandable if he decided he was done.

White Sox 3, Astros 1: White Sox starter Carson Fulmer lasted one third of an inning before leaving with a blister so seven relievers covered the rest of the game, allowing only one run to the best offense in baseball. Dallas Keuchel walked in one run and allowed another to score on a double play to earn the loss. Tim Anderson hit an insurance home run in the eighth.

Rangers 4, Mariners 2: Cole Hamels allowed only one run over eight innings pitched and was backed by Adrian Beltre and Shin-Soo Choo homers and a Carlos Gomez two-run double. The Mariners have been part of the Wild Card conversation for much of the season but now they’re closer to last place in the AL West (4.5 games) than they are to the second Wild Card (5 games).

Padres 3, Rockies 0: Clayton Richard, fresh off of his two-year contract extension, tamed the Rockies, shutting them out for seven and a third, scattering seven hits. Christian Villanueva homered and drove in two. The Rockies have dropped four straight and have the Brewers and Cards breathing down their necks for the second Wild Card.

Padres, Mariners join list of teams to extend netting

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The Reds announced earlier that they plan to extend the protective netting at Great American Ball Park in time for Opening Day next season. You can add the Padres and Mariners to what will surely be a growing list.

A young fan was struck in the face by a foul ball at Yankee Stadium on Wednesday, which gave new life to the netting debate. Some fans and media types think Major League Baseball is not doing enough to protect fans. While Major League Baseball has issued guidelines for protective netting, it is ultimately up to the teams to decide just how much netting to use.