Lately I've been wondering whether John Danks is the least appreciated player in baseball. You know that he's the best pitcher and perhaps the best player on the Chicago White Sox, and given the recent run that has seen Chicago take over first place in the American League Central while making up 11 games in the standings in a little over a month, that is saying something. You also know that this is nothing new, that he's a strong young pitcher who gets strikeouts and avoids walks and does all the other good things that pitchers should do.
You may not realize, though, that in five games this year Danks has thrown at least seven innings while allowing two or fewer hits. Or that he rates in the top 10 in home runs allowed per nine while pitching in the best home run park in baseball. Or that he ranks sixth among all pitchers in Wins Above Replacement since the beginning of the 2008 season. Given all this, the differences between Danks and, say, Jon Lester of the Boston Red Sox seem rather fine, especially considering that Danks, 25, is younger by a year. You wouldn't know it by his low profile.
So it seems, at least. But how to prove it? I happen to live on the South Side of Chicago, and so of course I will tend to think that various White Sox get less love than they deserve, for the same reason that people who live in the Bronx will insist in all seriousness that the national press corps fails Derek Jeter by not showing him the love and admiration he deserves. It's a simple matter of proximity bias. Vague feelings, it's clear, aren't enough here. We need pseudo-science.
To see whether Danks is, in fact, underhyped, I devised a simple test. I took every player in baseball who has run up at least seven WAR since the beginning of the 2008 season, a fairly generous cutoff that demands just two seasons' worth of above average play over the last two and a half years. (There were 105 such players.) I then ranked their WAR against the size of the market in which they play and against how many hits turn up on a Google search of their name, and averaged the resulting numbers.
This is obviously a rough approximation of quality-to-hype ratio, but the results look right, and one can only demand so much of pseudo-science. Caveats aside, here are the 10 most underhyped players in baseball, along with their numbers since the beginning of the 2008 season.
10) Franklin Gutierrez, Seattle Mariners, .266/.327/.401, 9.3 WAR
Having played in the relatively small towns of Cleveland and Seattle for fairly lousy teams, and having run up most of his value with his glove, Gutierrez is the perfect picture of the underappreciated player. Last year, as the keystone of a mildly famed Mariners defense, he earned not a single MVP vote.
9) Matt Garza, Tampa Bay Rays, 29-26, 3.96 ERA, 8 WAR
Garza may not quite be an ace, but he's an uncommonly valuable pitcher and part of the main line of young Rays who have been making life miserable for the Yankees and Red Sox over the last three years. If he finds his form over the rest of this season, the Rays will be all the more devilishly tough.
8) Joakim Soria, Kansas City Royals, 98 SV, 1.98 ERA, 7.7 WAR
One would think that a 26-year-old closer who has been striking out better than one man per inning and has never run up an ERA worse than 2.48 would get a bit of love, but Soria plays for the Royals, and closing in Kansas City answers the old riddle about the sound of one hand clapping.
Tied-6) Ben Zobrist, Tampa Bay Rays, .282/.384/.485, 9.9 WAR
Shin-Soo Choo, Cleveland Indians, .299/.394/.501, 12.4 WAR
These two are delights. Zobrist is the Rays' (apparently literal) secret weapon, a player who can and does handle every position on the field save the battery spots while hitting like a good first baseman. Choo, meanwhile, has simply evolved into one of the best hitters in the game.
5) Kurt Suzuki, Oakland A's, .273/.327/.399, 7.5 WAR
Suzuki is rarely mentioned as one of the game's elite young catchers, and maybe that's right, but an extremely durable backstop who doesn't embarrass himself at the plate, handles the position and makes next to no money is quite the commodity.
4) Jeremy Guthrie, Baltimore Orioles, 23-39, 4.41 ERA, 8.3 WAR
Guthrie led the league in losses last year, and he's doing it again this year. How can a pitcher who's 13-27 over the last two years be underhyped? Simple -- whatever his winning percentage, he's reliably average and pitches his six innings every five days. The lack of a pitcher as good could cost a team such as the Phillies the pennant this year; it's not Guthrie's fault that he plays for a team that can't score any runs.
Tied-2) Ryan Ludwick, St. Louis Cardinals, .281/.350/.515, 8.5 WAR
David DeJesus, Kansas City Royals, .300/.364/.443, 9.9 WAR
Missouri outfielders are apparently able to stay anonymous no matter what they do. Ludwick is one of the great Cardinals triumphs of the last few years, a washed-out prospect who turned in a nearly MVP-caliber 2008 and has kept chipping along since. DeJesus suffers from comparison to Royals predecessors like Carlos Beltran, Johnny Damon and Jermaine Dye, but he's a fine player with a balanced game who would improve nearly any contender's outfield.
1) Paul Maholm, Pittsburgh Pirates, 23-25, 4.05 ERA, 7 WAR
"Ace of the Pittsburgh Pirates" is something like "President of the National One-Armed Paperhangers Association" on the list of job titles likely to get you much attention, and in truth Maholm is more a dead average pitcher than a gem of a ballplayer waiting for his deserved turn in the national spotlight. What's true of Guthrie, though, is true of Maholm: Pennants are lost for want of a pitcher of this caliber, and judging by our rough metric almost no one has heard of him (his 137,000 Google hits were the least of any player save Guthrie). That seems a shame.
So what of John Danks? By this method, he appears not to be one of the least hyped players in baseball. Take that strictly as a function of his playing in Chicago, though. Given his 14.5 WAR since 2008 and the 230,000 hits a Google search on his name returns, he actually has the third-lowest ratio of performance to search engine fame in baseball. It may not be fair, but that's life on the South Side.
On the other end of affairs, by the way, are probably the least surprising names imaginable. Coming in as the most hyped players in baseball are, in order, Alex Rodriguez, Derek Jeter and David Wright. You might not say they're exactly overhyped -- all are magnificent on the field. Hopefully all can agree, though, that Paul Maholm and Jeremy Guthrie deserve some fraction of the ink and electrons that they get.