Welcome back to Gnats of the Week! It’s the series where I pick the most clutch, influential and unexpected performances by under-the-radar MLB players in the past week. You won’t see Ronald Acuña Jr. or Jacob deGrom on this list—unless they’re on the opposition. You won’t even see Joey Gallo. Only the truly mediocre qualify, and the more anonymous the better.
What is a gnat? Simply put, they’re irritants. You know the type: little-known rookies and overlooked veterans who come out of nowhere to torment your team on a given night. Think of Steve Pearce erupting against the Dodgers in the 2018 World Series, or Pat Borders, who won fall classic MVP in 1992 after producing negative WAR the year before. It’s all about the unexpected.
These players are delightful stories—unless of course, they’re playing your team. Then they’re the most daggum annoying thing you’ve ever seen. That’s just the way of the gnats.
Since this series is now bi-weekly, any performance(s) from the past two weeks are fair game. However, you may see some slight recency bias in the name of keeping things topical. And winning, of course, is still very important.
This week on the gnattle ranch, a pair of young outfielders break onto the scene and a veteran catcher finally gets his moment in the sun.
- Anthony Alford: 2-4, HR, game-tying run vs. Nats last Friday (4-3 W)
- Jose Siri: 6-12, 2 HR, 5 RBI, 3 R, SB vs. Rangers this week
- Janson Junk: 4.1 IP, 3 H, 1 ER, 2 Ks vs. White Sox on Wednesday (3-2 W)
Third Runner-Up: Manny Piña
2-3, 2 HR vs. Cubs on Saturday (6-4 W)
As the primary backup catcher for the Brewers this season, Manny Piña has shown some pop: he’s hit a career-high 12 home runs in just 186 plate appearances, after all. At 1.6 fWAR, he’s not been bad at all. But here’s the thing: half of those homers — and one-fourth of his hits on the year– have come in three games. I smell gnat all over that sentence.
The first game of note came on July 29, when he hit two long balls in a 12-0 win over the Pirates (earning an honorable mention spot on that week’s GOTW in the process). The second one came two weeks later in Chicago, when he hit two more and drove in six in a 17-4 win over the Cubs (impressive, but low-leverage).
The third game, which finally earned him a spot on this list, was last night. Facing the Cubs again, Piña went 2-3 with two homers, a walk, and one of the best all-around “F-you” nights I’ve seen in some time. Here’s the second bomb, which proved to be the game-winner for the Brew Crew in their 6-4 playoffs-clinching victory:
MANNY PIÑA AGAIN!!
The @Brewers are trying to clinch tonight! pic.twitter.com/YE7vCQU2U5
— FOX Sports: MLB (@MLBONFOX) September 19, 2021
On top of that, he’s giving us something else to look forward to in the playoffs:
Manny Piña vowed that if the Brewers win the World Series, he will go out on the field and sing Hotel California.
— Adam McCalvy (@AdamMcCalvy) September 19, 2021
Sure, the Cubs aren’t great. But as far as leverage goes, you can’t ask for much more than that. Welcome to the front page, bud.
Second Runner-Up: Kyle Isbel
3-4, first career HR, 2 RBI, 3 R vs. Frankie Montas, A’s on Tuesday
The no. 6-rated prospect in the Royals organization, Kyle Isbel has been largely overshadowed in farm system reviews by bigger names like Bobby Witt Jr. and Nick Pratto. Still, he started his career hot back in April, recording five hits in his first two Major League games. But after slumping through the rest of the month (4-25 with 13 strikeouts), “Chasin’ Isbel” was demoted to Triple-A Omaha, where he hit .269 in 105 games this season.
A week ago, Isbel was called back up to replace Michael A. Taylor, who had a family medical emergency. Here’s a cool story about what fueled his return. In his second game back Isbel went 3-4, turning a 6-0 deficit vs. Frankie Montas and the A’s into a dramatic 10-7 win. This helped:
Kyle Isbel hits a line drive out to right for his first @MLB homer. pic.twitter.com/wzkN0TokNj
— MLB Pipeline (@MLBPipeline) September 15, 2021
Career dinger no.1 traveled just 373 feet, but it helped secure a massive comeback victory. It’s safe to say he savored the moment:
Kyle Isbel on hitting his first major league home run: "It's not even explainable. It was a blessing for sure. I'm just happy I could help the team win."#Royals pic.twitter.com/gCW1ikkafJ
— Bally Sports Kansas City (@BallySportsKC) September 15, 2021
Way to go, kid. Now about that ball…
The fan negotiated to get a Salvador Perez autographed baseball in exchange for Kyle Isbel’s first career big-league home run. https://t.co/N5FWfNWZWT
— Jessica Kleinschmidt (@KleinschmidtJD) September 15, 2021
Did they try offering him free cracker jacks?
First Runner-Up: Lane Thomas
22-71 (.310), 5 HR, 9 XBH, 16 RBI, 156 wRC+ since Sept. 1
It’s hard to overstate just how bad Lane Thomas was for the Cardinals last year. Out of the 442 position players with 40 or more plate appearances, his OPS+ of 24 ranked 424th. He was arguably even worse in St. Louis this year, posting an OPS+ of 13 in 58 PAs. The Cards ended up flipping him to the Gnats at the deadline in the desperation deal for Jon Lester, which tells you all you need to know about their opinion of this guy.
But since coming over to the nation’s capital. It’s been a different story for Thomas. Check out this line from the ever-optimistic folks running the Nationals Twitter account:
Lane Thomas has reached base safely in 18 of his last 19 games.
If he maintained the production from his first 31 games as a Washington National for a full 162-game season…
120 runs scored#NATITUDE pic.twitter.com/PXTiWAiY8R
— Washington Nationals (@Nationals) September 19, 2021
In the past three weeks, Thomas has recorded eight multi-hit games, including his first five home runs of the entire season. In less than a month, Thomas has already tied his career-high for homers in a season. Here’s one of them:
Lane Thomas – Washington Nationals (5) pic.twitter.com/6NmHnEHUHf
— MLB HR Videos (@MLBHRVideos) September 18, 2021
Sunday’s game will be Thomas’ 32nd in a
GNats uniform, equaling his total with St. Louis this year. In that time, he’s amassed a 184 WRC+ and an OPS+ of 155. I don’t know what the record for biggest OPS+ differential between two clubs in one season is, but I feel like 122 has to put him up there. Keep living up to the gnat brand, Lane.
GNAT OF THE WEEK: Seth Beer
4-8, HR, 2B, 3 RBI, .556 OBP vs. Mariners last weekend (MLB debut)
Full disclosure: by virtue of his name, Mr. Beer had a solid head start to make this list before he even played an MLB game. But after joining the exclusive HR-in-first-AB club last weekend, he all but cemented the top spot.
First career at-bat. First career hit. First career homer.
Welcome to the show, Seth Beer. pic.twitter.com/TlsFG7TTaj
— MLB (@MLB) September 11, 2021
The moment was all the more important for history because it gave us this instant classic of a caption:
Welcome to the major leagues with beer. pic.twitter.com/RZ4smGzmgx
— MLB Closed Captioning (@mlb_cc) September 11, 2021
Beer filled his pint-sized cup of tea in the bigs with three more hits on the weekend, including a double and RBI single in Sunday’s 5-4 win to clinch a series victory. That’s peak gnat performance. Unfortunately, he landed on the IL with a shoulder injury a week later, halting his quest for the record books (namely, most beer-based puns in one article).
I can only hope he’s resting up for a big return, catching plenty of fish, and of course, enjoying a few cold ones. He’s earned it.
Photos by Gerry Angus, Leslie Plaza Johnson & Nick Wosika/Icon Sportswire | Adapted by Michael Packard (@designsbypack on Twitter & IG)