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9 super-subs making an impact for contenders

August 24, 2018

The subject was the bloated nature of the modern-day bullpen and how the once-unthinkable proposition of a 13-man pitching staff has become baseball's new norm.Orioles skipper Buck Showalter -- his observational insights into what makes a contending club dulled not the slightest by the fact that he happens to be

The subject was the bloated nature of the modern-day bullpen and how the once-unthinkable proposition of a 13-man pitching staff has become baseball's new norm.
Orioles skipper Buck Showalter -- his observational insights into what makes a contending club dulled not the slightest by the fact that he happens to be managing a non-contending club -- made the salient point that to survive in the standings in 2018, with pitchers often taking up the majority of 25-man roster spots, you'd better have a guy who can do the work of multiple men. Maybe he plays every day, but at multiple spots. Or maybe he's a super-sub who can fill in just about anywhere at any time and give you a quality at-bat and/or speed off the bench.
"A regular irregular," Showalter said. "All the good teams have that guy."
With that in mind, here's a look at nine -- I suppose you could call it a "not-necessarily-starting nine" -- of the regular irregulars who have made an impact in the playoff races this year (so, to be clear, we're only drawing from contending clubs for this list).
Charlie Culberson (Culby), Braves
Freddie Freeman (you know, the guy widely considered a compelling National League MVP candidate) has called Culberson "the MVP of our team." That speaks to how highly he's valued on this surprise NL East squad, for whom he's made 34 appearances at the four infield spots, 30 in the outfield, 29 as a pinch-hitter and three as a pinch-runner.
In addition to playing all over the diamond, Culberson became the first player in team history to have two pinch-hit, game-ending home runs in the same season. This from the same guy who, prior to a trade last offseason, hit the walk-off homer for the Dodgers in Vin Scully's last game in 2016 and filled in admirably for an injured Corey Seager in the '17 NLCS. You can't spell "CLUTCH" without a C, a U, an L, another C and an H, and, in case you're having trouble following this pained correlation, those just so happen to be the first three letters of Culberson's last name and the first two letters of his first!

Chad Pinder (Chi), A's
One thing Bob Melvin loves about this surprise A's squad is the unselfishness abundant on his roster, and the 26-year-old Pinder, who has played every position other than first base and catcher (though he did catch growing up), is a great example.
Pinder's at a formative stage of his career and could perhaps take on a more pronounced role with this club in future seasons. But for now, he takes pride in giving Oakland quality defense (his arm is an asset in the outfield) and decent power (his .171 isolated power mark is above the league average).

Daniel Descalso (Scals), D-backs
Back in early April, when Jake Lamb suffered his initial shoulder injury, the veteran Descalso flourished in a rare opportunity as an everyday player, posting an .855 OPS in the season's first two months.
Eventually, Lamb returned, so Descalso went back to roving. Later, when Lamb was re-injured and needed season-ending shoulder surgery, the D-backs acquired Eduardo Escobar. So for the majority of the season, Descalso has been the infield utility type he was expected to be. But the 31-year-old's plate production has never been better (his .843 OPS, 119 OPS+ and 33 extra-base hits are all career highs), and he gives the Snakes a dependable bat off the bench.

Ian Happ (Happer), Cubs
Teammate Benjamin Zobrist essentially redefined the utility role in his time with Tampa Bay, and the 37-year-old is still doing a super job as a superutility type here in 2018, almost evenly splitting his time between second base and the outfield.
But while Zobrist is a national household name, Happ is the lesser-known 24-year-old maturing within the context of Joe Maddon's always-evolving lineups. Happ is a switch-hitter with power from both sides, he's a part of the outfield rotation, he can fill in at second base and he's seen some time at third with Kristopher Bryant on the shelf. Like others, his starts will likely be impacted by the recent arrival of Daniel Murphy, but he's delivered a .368 average and 1.237 OPS in 24 appearances as a pinch-hitter this season.

Brock Holt (Brockstar), Red Sox
Holt had a productive first half (.289 average, .363 on-base percentage) before tailing off some in the second, but he's still a really important cog in the machine that is these 2018 Red Sox. Manager Alex Cora called him a "bridge guy" in the Boston clubhouse (not because he plays bridge but because he relates well to everybody).
Despite not venturing into the outfield until 2014, Holt has progressed enough as a defender there that Cora felt comfortable giving him the difficult assignment of handling right field when Mookie Betts was briefly banged up earlier this season. And the injury issues that have hampered the infield this season (Dustin Pedroia, Ian Kinsler and Rafael Devers) have made Holt's availability at second and third important. He's also hit .429 with a 1.186 OPS in 15 appearances as a defensive substitute.

Marwin Gonzalez (Margo), Astros
Gonzalez's importance in the 2017 World Series run was well-documented. His regression from the offensive heights of '17 has been steep (the OPS has fallen from .907 to .720) and, really, not at all unexpected, given his prior offensive track record.
But Gonzalez nonetheless has still managed to bring league average production while manning every position other than pitcher and catcher. He has made the second-most starts in this injury-riddled lineup, and that's kind of the point -- injuries to Jose Altuve and Carlos Correa only added to his importance on the roster. And his power stroke has returned in August (his six homers this month match his grand total from the previous four months).

Yairo Munoz (Palito), Cardinals
The Cards got this guy in the Stephen Piscotty deal over the winter. He lit up Spring Training, scuffled when the lights went on for real and was briefly demoted to Triple-A. But Paul DeJong's fractured hand in May created a new opportunity, and Munoz has taken advantage. He handled short while DeJong was away, then, upon DeJong's return, took on a utility role in which he's seen time all over the infield and outfield.
Since his May 19 return to the Majors, he's put up a solid .299/.360/.448 slash. In short, he's been a vital piece of the fabric of this surging St. Louis squad.

Enrique Hernandez (Kiké), Dodgers
Hernandez mashed lefties last season, with 25 of his 41 hits off southpaws going for extra bases. It proved to be a precursor to his three-homer heroics in the Dodgers' NLCS clincher.
For whatever reason, his numbers this season have been better against righties than lefties. But the bottom line is that Hernandez has logged more than 140 innings apiece at shortstop, second base and center field (while also seeing some time in the infield and outfield corners) and turned in a wRC+ and OPS+ marks that are essentially league average. That's solid contribution, and Hernandez augments it with wonderfully weird engagement photos.

Hernan Perez (Pepper), Brewers
Perez plays everywhere but catcher, with passable defense in the infield and above-average defense in the outfield. Occasional power. Good speed. Hits lefties well (.853 OPS in 97 plate appearances this season). There are Brewers fans who bemoan the prolonged roster presence of a player with a sub-.300 on-base percentage. But this is precisely the kind of player Showalter was talking about. Short benches simply magnify the importance of players like Perez.

Anthony Castrovince has been a reporter for MLB.com since 2004. Read his columns, listen to his podcast and follow him on Twitter at @Castrovince.