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The Double Play: Most overrated and underrated players in MLB

Ben Zobrist hit .275/.354/.402 in 2013, playing second base and all three outfield positions for Tampa. (Chris O'Meara/AP)Ben Zobrist hit .275/.354/.402 in 2013, playing 2B and all three OF positions for Tampa. (Chris O'Meara/AP)

In advance of the 2014 MLB season, Cliff Corcoran and Jay Jaffe are debating some of the big questions heading into the year. Yesterday, the question was which of last year’s teams who missed the postseason would make it in 2014. Today’s topic: Which players are the most overrated and underrated in baseball? You can find all this week's Double Play posts here.

JAY: I'm never sure how to answer these overrated/underrated player things, because the inherent question is "Relative to what?" Salary? Industry insiders? Mainstream opinion? Projection systems?

At least for overrated, it's tough to remove money from the equation, so the one guy who really comes to mind is Ryan Howard. I hate to pick on him, because it's not his fault the Phillies have no concept of how players age, but via Baseball-Reference.com's version of Wins Above Replacement, he's been worth all of 1.9 WAR over the past four seasons while making $79 million (or 0.6 WAR over the past three while making $60 million). Worse, the Phillies still owe him a minimum of $85 million over the next three seasons (assuming they buy him out for $10 million in 2017). His bat has slowed down, he's unplayable against lefties (.653 OPS or lower in four of the last five seasons), he's got no mobility, and he's a disaster defensively (-33 Defensive Runs Saved, -20 UZR). It sucks because he doesn't seem like an unlikeable guy. It's painful to watch.

For underrated, I'll go with Ben Zobrist. Over the past five years, he's been the game's third-most valuable player in terms of WAR, with 32.9; only Robinson Cano (34.2) and Miguel Cabrera (33.7) are ahead of him, and not by much. His worst season in that span is 4.5 WAR; he's been in the 5-6 range twice and above eight twice. Yet all he has to show for it are two All-Star appearances and some down-ballot MVP support; he finished eighth back in 2009 and has been 16th and 18th since. People don't realize what a great player he is because Zobrist's offensive stats are suppressed somewhat by his ballpark, but he draws a ton of walks and has proven to be above-average at both second base and rightfield. Thanks to an incredibly team-friendly contract, he'll wind up making around $29.5 million from 2010-2015, which takes him though his age-33 season. Go back and look at that top-10 list for WAR in that span, and I think the next-smallest contract in effect there is Adrian Beltre's $80 million deal.

CLIFF: I tend to read the underrated/overrated question as being measured against mainstream opinion. The trouble there is, how does one measure mainstream opinion? One possible measure of that is the fan voting in the All-Star Game. Looking at the 2013 lineups, the National League's starting second baseman, Brandon Phillips, would seem to be the most overrated. Phillips finished the year ninth among NL second basemen in bWAR, but that raises another question that can be applied to Howard as well: Is it fair to call a player overrated just because he is no longer as good as he was in his prime? Two years ago, Phillips was a five-win player and easily the best second baseman in the NL.

For most overrated, let's look for a player who has never been among the best in the game but is still treated like a star: Mark Trumbo. He has awesome power and has averaged 32 home runs and 94 RBI over the last three seasons, making the All-Star team in 2012, but he has never had a three-win season according to bWAR, has a .250/.299/.469 career batting line, and has no defensive value as a first baseman who doesn't get to play very much first base (and is nothing special there when he does). Nonetheless, he was the centerpiece of a three-team trade this winter that sent significant prospects to two other teams. Trumbo is the archetype of an overrated player: Impressive counting stats, weak rate stats, lousy on-base percentage, no or negative value in the field or on the bases, and with the move to Arizona, he can add a friendly ballpark to that list.

Zobrist is a great example of a player who is the inverse of that, one whose rate stats are more impressive than his counting stats, whose value stems to a great degree from his on-base percentage, fielding, and baserunning, and whose ballpark masks his value. Another guy who fits that description is Alex Gordon, who comes with the added stigma of having appeared to be a bust early in his career. Gordon has averaged six wins above replacement over the last three years thanks to his defense, baserunning, and on-base skills, and plays in a ballpark that is unfriendly to left-handed power. Gordon has won three consecutive Gold Gloves and was an All-Star in 2013, his weakest of those three seasons (yet one worth nearly three times as much as Phillips' 2013 per bWAR), but I still think he's underrated.

I'd also like to take this opportunity to nominate every closer in baseball for overrated. That isn't to say there aren't closers who are very good or, as in the case of a Mariano Rivera or Craig Kimbrel, genuinely great at what they do. It's just that the role they are limited to doesn't give them enough opportunity to be as valuable as they are believed to be.

Mark Trumbo will take his 30-homer-plus power to Arizona this season. (Christian Petersen/Getty Images) Mark Trumbo will take his 30-homer-plus power to Arizona this season. (Christian Petersen/Getty Images)

JAY: Those are a bunch of good points and choices for over/underrated guys. In Phillips' case, the overrating has a few extra dimensions to it given the way his RBI totals tend to obscure his decline — in his own eyes, at least — and the fact that he's now not speaking to local media as part of an ongoing war because they dare criticize him. Plus on the flipside, teammate Joey Votto is the one catching flak over his patient approach and those supposedly missing RBI. Votto is another guy who could fit into the underrated category; he's a guy who has averaged .317/.434/.544 and 6.4 WAR over the past four years. He has an MVP, four All-Star appearances (two starts) and NL on-base crowns, plus a $225 million deal to show for it, so he's not exactly underrated by the definitions we've used to this point here, but it's not enough for some.

I'd say Trumbo is overrated, and I'm not a big fan of the deal where the Diamondbacks gave up on both Adam Eaton and Tyler Skaggs to get him. But even with his flaws like that .300 OBP over the past three years, he's managed to be worth 2.6 WAR per year while making a function of the league minimum salary. Of the guys who have hit at least 75 homers over the past three years, six have been worth less in WAR, all of them making much more money: Adam Dunn, Mark Reynolds, Dan Uggla, Nelson Cruz, Alfonso Soriano and Josh Willingham.

As for Gordon, that's a great choice. He's never turned into the kind of superstar that's expected of an elite prospect (second on the Baseball America list in 2007), and it took him a while to break through, but he's a valuable player, and it does seem that the Royals appreciate that.

We haven't talked about pitchers, save for your closer comment, and maybe it's a separate conversation, but I'm going to go ahead and nominate Tim Lincecum for overrated. Those two Cy Youngs are ancient history, but anybody who gets a two-year, $35 million deal coming off back-to-back sub-replacement level seasons (-1.7 and -0.6 WAR, respectively), is overrated if only by his own general manager. And if I have to pick an underrated to pair with it, I'll say David Robertson, who via WAR has been the game's second most valuable reliever over the past three seasons behind Kimbrel, delivering a 1.91 ERA and 12 strikeouts per nine. He's got big shoes to fill with Mariano Rivera's retirement, and right now he's getting paid like a good setup guy ($5.2 mil), but a year from now, his profile and paycheck are going to be a whole lot higher.

JAFFE: Booms and Busts 2014: Relief Pitchers

CLIFF: With regard to pitchers, I tend to think of Jordan Zimmermann as underrated, in large part because he has been overshadowed by the hype surrounding Stephen Strasburg, but also because of Zimmermann's own low strikeout rate. I think that changed at least a little last year, however, and you can thank his NL-leading 19 wins for that. In general, my mental list of underrated pitchers, at least the starters, all come with below-average strikeout rates. Kyle Lohse has a 120 ERA+ and 3.27 strikeout to walk ratio over the last three years. Hiroki Kuroda has similar numbers (121 ERA+, 3.34 K/BB) over the last four years. Both maintained those strong performances after moving from pitchers parks to hitters parks. Both are underrated in part because of the lack of strikeouts, but also because they were either lousy or pitching in another country in their twenties.

Robertson and Lincecum are both good calls. The skepticism about Robertson's ability to close seems absurd to me, and I might have argued that evaluations of Lincecum fall in line with his performance if not for that contract. I'll go with Zack Greinke for overrated. Yes, he posted a 2.63 ERA last year and he was incredible in his Cy Young season with the Royals, but in the three seasons in between, he posted a 106 ERA+ and his strikeout rate and strikeout-to-walk ratio have now fallen in each of the last two seasons, with the former being merely league average last year. His only All-Star appearance came in his Cy Young season, and although that might be a sign that he's not as overrated as I might think, his $147 million contract, a record for a right-handed pitcher when it was signed 15 months ago, and the temptation of many to see him as the Don Drysdale to Clayton Kershaw's Sandy Koufax say otherwise.

JAY: All good calls on the underrated. I still tend to think of Lohse as the injury-prone guy from 2009-10, but he's got three very solid years of 30+ starts in a row.

Greinke, I guess you could call him a little overrated, but I see those middle years as a reminder that single-season ERA ain't everything when it comes to evaluating pitchers. Look at the last six years of work and you have a guy with a 3.28 ERA (125 ERA+) over 202 innings a year. If the Dodgers wind up getting that for their six years (the first of which is already banked), they'll turn cartwheels, though I guess if he pitches that well, he's likely to opt out after three years (2015).

And at that, our conversation shows what I suggested up top. The fluid definitions of over- and underrated make this something that could go on all day. Which would be great if we didn't have a thousand other baseball things to get to...

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