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The Most Underrated Player in A's History

The most underrated player in A's history is a fan favorite, but was also sneakily great
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Yesterday while listening to the Effectively Wild podcast, they were doing a "Stat Blast" segment talking about some of the most underrated players of all time. Their criteria was fairly simple. A player that racked up a lot of WAR (wins above replacement) and didn't receive any Gold Glove, MVP or Silver Slugger awards. This got me thinking: Who is the A's most underrated player of all time? 

It's not 100% definitive since the A's began in 1901, while the All Star Game began in 1933, MVP awards began in 1911, and the Silver Slugger has only been around since 1980, so none of these three achievements encapsulates all of A's history. Even with that being the case, there is one player in recent memory that really stands out, and that's Mark Ellis. 

If you had to guess where he ranks in WAR over the entirety of A's history, where would you place him? Sure he was a solid player and the fans loved him, but how good was he overall? Well, he ranks 21st, just behind José Canseco. Ellis finished with 26.8 bWAR across 1,056 games with the A's spanning nine seasons. Canseco played in 1,058 games with Oakland and racked up 27.2 bWAR. 

When you compare the two players by wins above replacement, and then take a look at how each player is talked about to this day (or not), it's tough to argue that Ellis isn't underrated. Heck, even Jason Giambi, who ranks 17th in franchise history, only finished with two wins more than Ellis in 1,036 games. 

On a per-game basis, Ellis was more valuable than Carney Lansford (All Star, MVP votes). He was roughly as good as Eric Chávez on that same per-game basis, too. Chávez finished with 35 WAR and Ellis would have finished at 33.5 wins over the same number of games. 

If the A's had strung together a World Series title or two, Ellis would be remembered more like how fans talk about Bert Campaneris. 

Now you may be wondering how he was so valuable when his OPS+ was below league average at 95. Of the 66 players to have accumulated 10+ WAR with the A's, Ellis ranks 60th in OPS+. Campy ranks one spot below him with a 93. The reason both players are so highly regarded is because of their defense. 

While we don't have the same ways to measure defensive ability for players of the past as we do now, according to the work that Baseball Reference has put in, Campy and Ellis rank one and two in defensive WAR on that same list. 

So why didn't Ellis get the recognition he deserved while he was playing? Part of the problem was that he played in 150+ games with Oakland just twice, and to be considered for most of these awards, you generally need to be on the field for most of the season. The first of those seasons was in 2003 when he played in 154 games and hit .248 with a .313 OBP to go along with an 81 OPS+. He finished with 2.1dWAR that season.

The winner of the Gold Glove at second base that year was Bret Boone, who was an All Star, Silver Slugger and finished 10th in the MVP voting. He also finished with 0.1 dWAR. Ellis may have had a case for that Gold Glove while Boone nearly hit .300 and crushed 35 homers. 

In 2007, Ellis played in 150 games and finished with 1.8 dWAR. That year Detroit's Plácido Polanco got the nod in a year where he was an All Star, Silver Slugger and 17th in the MVP voting. He finished with 1.6 dWAR. Not a bad showing from him, and with the defense being so close, it was probably deserved. 

Ellis' best defensive season came in 2008 when he put up 2.8 dWAR, but he played in just 117 games. Dustin Pedroia won the award (and never had a defensive season quite as good as Ellis' '08), but he was also the AL MVP the year after winning the AL Rookie of the Year the previous season. 

From 2005-2008, Mark Ellis ranked fifth in WAR among all second basemen. He was also the third-best defensive second baseman in baseball during that span. 

A's fans still love Mark Ellis, and rightfully so. But even they may not realize how truly great he was when he was playing for Oakland.