It’s been about two months since MLB shut down due to the coronavirus, and we’ve spent the time without baseball reflecting on it. We’ve assembled our ideal rotations, analyzed the impact of a lost season and considered the effect a prolonged suspension of play could have on legacies.
Now it’s time to look at the most under-appreciated players in baseball, a group that includes former MVPs, Rookies of the Year and two brothers. These are each team’s most underrated player:
Trey Mancini has been the lone bright spot in Baltimore as the Orioles work through what’s bound to be a long rebuild. The 28-year-old outfielder finished third in the 2017 AL Rookie of the Year voting—behind unanimous winner Aaron Judge and runner up Andrew Benintendi—when he hit 24 home runs. Last season, Mancini batted .291 with 35 home runs and a 135 OPS+, meaning he was a 35% better hitter than league average.
He’s both Baltimore’s best player and its most overlooked. Mancini has yet to make an All-Star team, and he will not play in ‘20 even if baseball does return from the coronavirus pandemic. Mancini had a health scare earlier this year when he underwent surgery for stage 3 colon cancer on March 12—the same day MLB shut down. The procedure was successful, but chemotherapy treatments in the coming months will keep him from playing until next year.
Boston Red Sox
Only two of the five Red Sox starters from the 2018 championship team will pitch for them in ‘20—Eduardo Rodríguez and Nathan Eovaldi. While Eovaldi got the big payday following the World Series, Rodriguez is the better pitcher. Last year, he finished sixth in the AL Cy Young voting after going 19-6 with a 3.81 ERA and 213 strikeouts over 203 1/3 innings.
New York Yankees
Turn on WFAN any day during a normal offseason and you’ll hear at least a few angry callers shout about the Yankees needing to trade Gary Sánchez. Why? You don’t trade a catcher who hits 30-plus homers per year.
Catchers with consistent power are as valuable and rare as home run-hitting middle infielders were 30 years ago. Yet Sánchez is viewed by many as an underachiever because he’s yet to match the production he provided as a rookie. He’s also missed time each year with injuries and struggled with passed balls.
In 62 games last season through the end of June, Sánchez hit .261/.330/.588 with 23 homers. He played hurt through most of July and his performance slipped before finally landing on the injured list on the 24th. He came back for good on Aug. 10 and raked the rest of the way: .242/.364/.576 with 10 homers in 29 games.
When we evaluate Aaron Judge’s 2017 rookie season, we consider the month or so stretching from mid-July to mid-August an outlier and not representative of his overall season; his performance dipped drastically but he was playing through a shoulder injury. He returned to form once he was healthy.
Let’s look at Sánchez’s 2019 season the same way. Taking out what he did in July, Sanchez hit .255/.340/.585 with 33 homers in 91 games, or one home run every three games. There is never a good reason to trade a catcher who can hit like that.
Tampa Bay Rays
José Martínez has been one of the game’s most undervalued hitters since he came into the league. In three-plus seasons with the Cardinals, Martínez is slashing .298/.363/.458 with a 119 OPS+.
Martínez’s poor defense limited his playing time in St. Louis, but now in the American League, he is expected to get more consistent at-bats with the Rays as a designated hitter. His numbers against lefties are especially impressive—a .331 lifetime average with a .976 OPS.
Toronto Blue Jays
The Blue Jays are led by the young trio of Vladimir Guerrero Jr., Cavan Biggio and Bo Bichette. But let’s not overlook Lourdes Gurriel Jr. After coming up from the minors in late May of last season, Gurriel hit .292/.339/.580 with 20 home runs in 71 games.
Chicago White Sox
Like Toronto, the White Sox also boast some of baseball’s best young talent. While we understandably devote our attention to Yoán Moncada, Luis Robert and Eloy Jiménez, we should also throw some love José Abreu’s way.
Abreu has never replicated the offensive dominance of his 2014 season, when he won the AL Rookie of the Year award, but his consistency over his six-year career is remarkable. He’s hit at least 30 home runs four times and had at least 100 RBIs in all but one season.
Injuries limited Mike Clevinger to 21 starts last season, but he’s still been among the most effective starters in the AL over the last three seasons. Since 2017, Clevinger is 38-18 with a 2.96 ERA, and one of five pitchers in that span to start at least 70 games and have a 150 or better ERA+. The other four pitchers— Max Scherzer, Justin Verlander, Jacob deGrom and Clayton Kershaw—have combined to win 10 Cy Young Awards in their careers. Clevinger has never even received a Cy Young vote.
Yeah, the Tigers are going to be bad. Most of their players are just bad, and properly rated so. One player who deserves a longer look, though, is C.J. Cron. The first baseman hit 30 home runs for the Rays in 2018 and then had 25 more in 135 games last season with the Twins.
Kansas City Royals
Jorge Soler led the American League with 48 home runs last season, yet he was not an All-Star and received just one MVP vote. His breakout season came while playing for a bad team in a small market, making it much easier for fans to overlook him. It wasn’t just home runs either. Soler played in all 162 games, drove in 117 runs and had a .922 OPS.
In four of the last five seasons, at least one of the two MVPs has been a right fielder. Yet Max Kepler is an afterthought at the position, despite his emergence the last two seasons.
In that span, Kepler ranks seventh in WAR among right fielders, per FanGraphs, behind four MVPs, Aaron Judge and George Springer. Kepler hit 36 homers last year, the second most on a Twins team that hit more than any other club in baseball history. He’s also a great defensive outfielder. In 1,111 innings last season, Kepler had eight defensive runs saved (four in center and four in right) and did not make an error.
Michael Brantley is one of baseball’s steadiest hitters, which works to his disadvantage when it comes to recognition. He doesn’t have 30-homer power and he’s not going to be a Hall of Famer. But that shouldn’t diminish what he’s done. Since his breakout 2014 season, Brantley has the second best batting average (.311) among hitters who’ve played in at least 600 games.
Los Angeles Angels
Andrelton Simmons is the greatest defensive shortstop baseball has seen since at least Ozzie Smith.
Defensive runs saved dates back to 2002. Simmons’s 193 DRS is 74 runs better than the next best mark, per Fangraphs. Baseball Reference has backtracked its Total Zone Runs metric to 1953. Already, Simmons has accumulated 109 total zone runs in his eight seasons, which is good for No. 8 on the all-time list for shortstops. He is the only shortstop worth at least 70 total zone runs to play fewer than 10 years.
So why is he underrated? Simmons has been a league-average hitter (100 or better OPS+) just three times in eight seasons, and two of those three have come within the last three years. It’s not unusual for an elite defensive player to become a better hitter as he gets older. Smith didn’t become a league-average hitter until his age-30 season, and he had an OPS+ above 100 just four times in his career (his lifetime OPS+ is 87). That hasn’t impacted how highly we think of The Wizard, a first-ballot Hall of Famer.
Perhaps no A’s player is more under-appreciated on the national stage than Matt Olson.
Olson injured his right hand against the Mariners in the second game of last year. He had surgery and didn’t play again until May 7. Despite missing six weeks of the season, Olson still led all AL first basemen with 36 home runs and 5.4 WAR (per Baseball Reference’s calculation). A premiere defender and power hitter, Olson still has not yet gotten the recognition he deserves. In three seasons, the 26-year-old has already won two Gold Gloves and smacked 89 homers. He has yet to make an All-Star team and has received just one MVP vote.
Only four players have hit at least 20 home runs in each of the last eight seasons. The first three—Mike Trout, Edwin Encarnación and Nelson Cruz—are pretty easy guesses. You probably wouldn’t get the fourth person if you were given 10 guesses. That’s exactly why Kyle Seager is so underrated.
Lance Lynn is not only the Rangers’ most underrated player, but he’s also the league’s most underrated starting pitcher since debuting in 2011. Among pitchers to start at least 220 games in that span, Lynn ranks 12th with a 115 ERA+ and seventh in K/9 (8.89).
Last year, Lynn put together his best season yet. In 33 starts, he went 16-11 with a 3.67 ERA. His 7.5 WAR ranked second in the AL (behind his teammate Mike Minor), and he finished fifth for the Cy Young—making ‘19 the first time in his career Lynn ever received a single Cy Young vote.
There are four active players with at least 2,000 hits. The first two, Albert Pujols and Miguel Cabrera, are no-doubt Hall of Famers, and the third, Robinson Canó, would be if he didn’t get suspended for PEDs. The fourth is Nick Markakis.
Markakis won't be a Hall of Famer, but he’s still a really good and consistent player. He’s played at least 155 games in all but three of his 14 seasons. He’s recorded at least 180 hits in a season seven times, and he’s a three-time Gold Glove winner.
Since making his MLB debut with the Astros in 2013, Jonathan Villar is one of six players to steal at least 200 bases. His success is notable considering stolen bases are becoming increasingly rare. In ‘19, there were 2,280 stolen bases in MLB. That’s the fewest in a single season since ‘94, when the season ended the second week of August because of the players' strike.
Villar has also started at six different positions, with catcher and first base being the only bounds to his defensive versatility.
New York Mets
Before Pete Alonso and Jeff McNeil, Michael Conforto was the exciting young hitter bringing hope to Mets fans. After debuting midway through the 2015 season, Conforto hit .270 with nine homers and a 130 OPS+ in 56 games to help lead the Mets to the NL pennant.
A victim of the sophomore slump in ‘16, Conforto returned to form in ‘17 when he had 27 home runs and a 148 OPS+ in 109 games. Over the last two seasons, he’s averaged 152 games, 31 homers and a 125 OPS+.
He doesn’t have a fun animal nickname like Polar Bear or Flying Squirrel, but Conforto is an integral part of the Mets lineup, even if his accomplishments are overshadowed by Alonso and McNeil.
The best way to describe Bryce Harper is overhyped and underrated. We set unrealistic expectations for the teenage superstar and made it almost inevitable that he would fall short of them.
But Harper not fulfilling his preordained destiny as “Baseball’s Chosen One” does not mean he hasn’t had an exceptional start to his career. Only 23 players in MLB history have had more WAR through their age-26 seasons than Harper.
Because Harper hasn’t been as good as we thought he’d be, we forget that he is still one of the best players in baseball—and that he still could be one of the best players in baseball history by the time his career is finished.
It’s quite possible that Patrick Corbin is the best lefthanded starting pitcher in baseball, which is remarkable considering he’s the third-best starting pitcher in the Nationals’ rotation.
Over the last three seasons, Corbin has struck out 662 batters, good for seventh best in MLB. Only Chris Sale has more strikeouts (763) than Corbin among lefties in that span. Since ‘17 Corbin is also the only lefty to start at least 90 games, strike out more than 600 batters and post an ERA under 4.00.
Over the last four seasons, Kyle Hendricks’s 142 ERA+ is the fourth best among starters with at least 700 innings pitched. The other three pitchers? Max Scherzer, Justin Verlander and Jacob deGrom.
Eugenio Suárez is the most underrated power hitter in baseball. Mike Trout is the only player with more homers (84) than Suárez (83) over the past two seasons.
Brandon Woodruff could be the best Brewers starter since Zack Greinke. Woodruff’s sample size is limited, but he was great for Milwaukee last season, his first as a full-time starter. In 23 starts, Woodruff went 11-3 with a 3.62 ERA and 10.6 K/9.
Had the Pirates not been so irrelevant last season, we probably would have heard more about outfielder Bryan Reynolds, who finished fourth for the NL Rookie of the Year award. Reynolds had 4.1 WAR, per Baseball Reference, and slashed .314/.377/.503 with 16 homers.
St. Louis Cardinals
Paul DeJong hit 30 home runs and had 26 defensive runs saved last season, and he ranked fifth among shortstops with 5.3 WAR, per Baseball Reference. Over the last three years, Francisco Lindor and Trevor Story are the only shortstops with more homers than DeJong (74).
Ketel Marte was one of the best players in baseball last year. He had 7.2 WAR and slashed .329/.389/.592 with 32 homers, good for a fourth-place finish for the NL MVP award. But the switch-hitting center fielder and middle infielder has nowhere near the same recognition as the other nine players to finish in the top-10.
It’s a shame German Márquez pitches at Coors Field. He’s been one of the better starting pitchers since he was a rookie in 2017, but his success has been harder to recognize because of where he plays his home games. Márquez has the 14th-most WAR among starting pitchers over the last three seasons, according to Baseball Reference. His career 4.32 ERA is inflated because of his 5.01 ERA at home, compared to the more reasonable 3.72 ERA he has in road games.
Los Angeles Dodgers
Remember when we all considered a 23-year-old Corey Seager one of the best players in baseball? He posted consecutive 5+ WAR seasons to start his career. But in early ‘18 he tore his UCL and needed Tommy John surgery. He missed all of that season and it took him part of last year to fully recover. Now, it seems we’ve forgotten about Seager, who’s still one of the best shortstops, if not overall players, in baseball.
San Diego Padres
The Padres perhaps made the most under-the-radar deal of the offseason when they acquired Tommy Pham from the Rays. The week before hosting the Winter Meetings, San Diego traded Hunter Renfroe and, in the words of Rays pitcher Blake Snell, a “slap-dick prospect,” to Tampa Bay in exchange for one of the best left fielders in baseball.
Since 2017, no left fielder has more WAR than Pham’s 13.6, per FanGraphs. Among qualified left fielders, he ranks seventh in batting average (.284), third in on-base percentage (.381), third in weighted on-base average (.367) and fourth in wRC+ (132).
San Francisco Giants
Two seasons was all it took for Buster Posey to go from a superstar catcher to a baseball afterthought. Why? His decline in performance has coincided with the Giants’ descent into irrelevance. Posey had the worst offensive year of his career in ‘19 and it’s clear he’s no longer the player he was in his 20s. But he’s still Buster Posey, a great defensive catcher and a productive hitter.
Over the last three seasons, Posey’s 8.9 WAR ranks third among qualified catchers, according to Fangraphs, ahead of notable backstops Gary Sánchez (8.3), Yadier Molina (6.0) and Willson Contreras (5.8) and behind only Yasmani Grandal (15.0) and J.T. Realmuto (14.0)—both of whom are widely regarded as the two best at the position.