Tuesday, February 8, 2011

All Underrated Team

A couple of weeks ago ESPN's Jayson Stark released an article titled "Baseball's All Underrated Team."  Normally, I like Stark, but the article was marginally good at best.  He hit on a few players, but for the most part he missed.  Adam Dunn, Michael Cuddyer, Ian Kinsler?  I'm sorry, but it sounds like he's talking about the all overrated team, not underrated.  As a result, I decided to do a fresh take on the subject.  I think it's a pretty solid list, but it's certainly one that's up for debate.  Without further adieu, here's my version of the "All Underrated Team."

Catcher – Brian McCann
Three Year WAR Total – 15.3
WAR Performance Baseline – 5.1
2011 Projected WAR – 4.6

If I asked you to name the top three catchers in baseball, would Brian McCann’s name immediately pop into your head?  Probably not.  If I had to guess, I think most baseball fans would give some combination of Joe Mauer, Buster Posey, Russell Martin, Ivan Rodriguez, or one of the Molina brothers (hopefully Yadier and not Bengie or Jose) as their list.  They’d be wrong, but that’s ok.  Omitting McCann doesn’t make you a bad baseball fan.  It only goes to show that he’s seriously underrated. 

Choosing a perennial 4-5 win player is never an easy decision to make, but it fits with McCann.  Like most underrated baseball players, McCann doesn’t have any skills that stand out from the rest of his peers.  Instead, he’s good (but not great) at everything.  He hits for average and power, gets on base, runs the bases well for a catcher, and plays above average defense at the most difficult position on the diamond.  There’s not a lot more you can ask for out of your catcher, yet he’s consistently overlooked.  To date, despite posting three seasons with 5.0+ WAR, he’s only received MVP votes once—nine points in 2010.

First Base – Daric Barton
Three Year WAR Total – 5.8
WAR Performance Baseline – 2.3
2011 Projected WAR – 3.5

Daric Barton is a rare breed.  Unlike most first basemen who mash 30-35 home runs per season, Barton’s power skills are not that well developed.  To compensate, he uses his tremendous plate discipline, ability to draw walks, and impeccable defense (at a position not known for impressive defensive displays) to justify receiving 500-600 plate appearances at a position normally saved for power hitters.  Considering how home run crazy most fans are, it shouldn’t be a surprise that the above named skills are frequently overlooked. 

Despite only hitting 10 home runs last seasons, Barton’s walk driven .393 OBP (16.0% walk rate in 2010) helped produce 20.9 weighted runs above average (wRAA).  In case you were wondering, his 20.9 wRAA was significantly higher than the wRAAs produced by three highly paid free agent first basemen last year:  Derrek Lee (9.7), Adam LaRoche (9.1), and Carlos Pena (2.2).  Also, Ryan Howard, despite putting up 31 HR and 108 RBI, only produced 22.8 wRAA last season (or 1.9 wRAA more than Barton).  Yes, he was as productive offensively as Ryan Howard.  I’d say that makes him pretty underrated if you ask me.

Second Base – Chase Utley
Three Year WAR Total – 20.9
WAR Performance Baseline – 6.8
2011 Projected WAR – 5.5

Yeah, yeah.  I can already hear it now:  “Chase Utley is underrated?  Are you high?”  First of all, I’m not, but thank you for asking.  Secondly, the simple fact that Utley has not won a Gold Glove, despite having the highest UZR (+40.9), TZ (+32.6), and DRS (+50) ratings of any second baseman over the past three seasons, is proof enough for me. 

Utley does everything very well.  He has above average plate discipline, takes walks at a high rate, hits for average and power, runs the bases well, and (as I mentioned above) is superior defensively to every second baseman in baseball.  Furthermore, while he’s placed pretty well in MVP voting (top 15 five seasons in a row), his contributions have not been fully appreciated by the voters (highest placing was seventh).  Despite being the most productive and valuable member of the Phillies for six years running, Ultey has never won an MVP award.  Normally this wouldn’t be a big deal, but he’s watched two inferior teammates (Jimmy Rollins and Ryan Howard) win the award during that time frame. 

The fact Utley isn’t fully appreciated now by the mainstream media concerns me.  If he can put up another three or four seasons at around 5 WAR per season (which is pretty reasonable considering his skill set), Utley is a sure-fire Hall of Famer by objective standards.  Unfortunately, the BBWAA isn’t known for using objective standards when voting for the Hall of Fame.  I only hope they don’t hold their own mistakes against Utley when he becomes eligible for the Hall of Fame.

Third Base – Ryan Zimmerman
Three Year WAR Total – 16.4
WAR Performance Baseline – 5.9
2011 Projected WAR – 5.4

Brian McCann, Chase Utley, and Ryan Zimmerman.  You must think I’m crazy, but I’m not. 

Josh and I were talking about Zimmerman a week or so ago.  After debating each other for 20 minutes, he got me to agree that Zimmerman was just as talented as Evan Longoria.  Both players are in their mid-20s, hit for power, get on base, and play tremendous defense at the hot corner.  The only difference between the two is Longoria has played for some successful teams, and Zimmerman has been the cornerstone of a perennial bottom feeder. 

Last season, Zimmerman finished number four in all of baseball with 7.2 WAR, yet finished only 16th in the NL MVP voting.  Yes, you read that right.  He was more valuable than all of but three players in baseball last year, yet the writers only thought he was the 16th most valuable players in just the National League.  Simply amazing!  Even more disturbing is he finished behind the likes of Aubrey Huff, Martin Prado, Ryan Howard (who severely underproduced in 2011), Buster Posey, Brian Wilson, and Scott Rolen.  Don’t get me wrong.  They’re all nice players, but none of them came even remotely close to matching Zimmerman’s production and value from last year.  Just saying…

Shortstop – Stephen Drew
Three Year WAR Total – 9.5
WAR Performance Baseline – 3.4
2011 Projected WAR – 4.0

When you look at Stephen Drew’s stat sheet, nothing (and I mean nothing) pops out at you as being interesting or exceptional.  Unlike Daric Barton who has “plus” underrated skills like defense and on base abilities to fall back on, Drew doesn’t.  His plate discipline is solid but not great.  His power is good but underwhelming (although he has the potential to improve here).  His defense is solid, but won’t win him any awards.  He’s a good base runner, but gets caught stealing a bit too often for my liking.  When you look at him piece-by-piece, he appears to be a capable, albeit unremarkable player.  That said, when you put everything together, you get a player that’s capable of being a consistent 4.0 win player.  I’m not really sure how he does it.  Some players, for what ever reason, are capable of out performing the sum of their talents.  Stephen Drew is one of those players.

Left Field – David DeJesus
Three Year WAR Total – 8.4
WAR Performance Baseline – 2.8
2011 Projected WAR – 2.5

DeJesus is one of my favorite players.  For the first seven years of his career, he played for the Kansas City Royals.  As a result, his performance and contributions were often overlooked.  While playing in Oakland won’t likely help his stature as an underrated player, he’ll still be able to benefit from finally being able to play on a team with a legitimate chance of making the playoffs.

Outside of being a somewhat injury prone, DeJesus does just about everything right.  Like a lot of players on the list, he’s a jack of all trades, but master with none.  He has 10-15 home run pop, solid on-base skills, exceptional plate discipline, excellent base running skills (despite not being a stolen base threat), and above average defensive skills at all three outfield positions.  He does everything you’d expect a role player on a contending team would do. 

Over the last three seasons, DeJesus has provided approximately the same value Raul Ibanez, Jason Bay, and Alfonso Soriano for a fraction of the price.  Sometimes paying for the big name isn’t worth it.  This example serves as proof.

Center Field – Michael Bourn
Three Year WAR Total – 8.7
WAR Performance Baseline – 3.2
2011 Projected WAR – 3.6

Wow.  There are a lot of overrated center fielders.  With B.J. Upton, Curtis Granderson, Alex Rios, Matt Kemp, and Vernon Wells all eligible, I’ll have plenty to choose from when I write my “Most Overrated Players” column.  Unfortunately, that doesn’t help me at the moment because I’m talking about the most underrated player at each position. 

In lieu of a better option, I’ve decided to go with Astros CF Michael Bourn as my selection.  While he isn’t a bad option per se, he differs greatly from every other selection on this list.  Bourn doesn’t hit for average or power (at all); has average on base skills; and strikes out too frequently for a player hitting leadoff.  That said, Bourn has absolutely blazing speed, which not surprisingly, helps him on the base paths.  Over the last three seasons, Bourn placed among the league leaders in stolen bases with 154 in 188 attempts (82% success rate), and triples with 22.  Considering his offensive limitations, his ability to take an extra base via a steal or being able stretch a single into a double (or a double into a triple) adds considerable intrinsic value.

As good as Bourn has been on the base paths, he’s produced a sizable portion of his value on the defensive side of the ball.  Bourn’s “plus-plus” speed along with his natural instincts and route running abilities make him a fielder that scouts rave about.  While he makes his share of highlight reel catches, his defensive abilities are occasionally muted because he frequently makes difficult plays look simple.  This shouldn’t been seen as a knock.  In fact, it’s an acknowledgement of his superior abilities.  He’s so good defensively that he usually doesn’t have to dive.  When he does, it’s because he’s making a truly outstanding play.  Advanced metrics like DRS (+32) and UZR (+30.5) all like Bourn’s defensive abilities, and provide hard supporting evidence to the observational data furnished by scouts. 
Right Field – Shin-Soo Choo
Three Year WAR Total – 13.4
WAR Performance Baseline – 4.7
2011 Projected WAR – 5.0

Prior to this offseason, I would have been inclined to pick Jayson Werth as my selection for right field.  Now, that he’s signed an eye popping seven year $126M contract with the Nationals, I’m completely convinced he’s not underrated.  In fact, now he’s overrated.  Another great choice would've been J.D. Drew.  Going into his age-35 season, I'm not convinced he's a right player for this list.  Instead, I went with Shin-Soo Choo of the Cleveland Indians.

Choo is easily one of the most talented and underrated young stars in the game of baseball.  Like a lot of players on this list, he has a slew of skills in which he possesses, but does not excel.  He possesses good plate discipline, 20-25 home run power, above average speed and base running skills, solid on base abilities, and above average range defensively.  Unlike a lot of players, he contributes positively in every aspect of the game.  

Despite consecutive 5+ WAR seasons, Choo hasn't received a lot of love from those voting for the MVP award.  MVP voters tend to take a myopic view of player performance when voting.  While there are certainly exceptions to this rule, voters typically value players with high home run and RBI totals (even if one dimensional) over well rounded players with high OBP and above average defensive skills.  Clearly, this doesn't play into Choo's strengths.  While I can respect (but still despise) the manner in which BBWAA members choose to vote, I can't think of any logical reasons as to why he finished directly behind players like Delmon Young, Vladmir Guerrero, and Rafael Soriano, all of whom are inferior.  It just doesn't make any sense.  I'm not saying Choo should've been the MVP.  Far from it, in fact.  I'm just saying that it's a shame they're missing out on celebrating a good player's contribution because of faulty thought process that results in opportunity stats (RBI and saves) being unfairly rewarded.

Starting Pitcher – Jon Lester
Three Year WAR Total – 17.1
WAR Performance Baseline –5.7
2011 Projected WAR – 5.2

Jon Lester finished fourth in the Cy Young Award voting.  I was fine with that.  In fact, I placed him as the fourth best pitcher in the American League during award week last November.  That said, I'm baffled that voters placed him behind C.C. Sabathia and David Price, both whom were pitchers he outperformed.   Here's what I wrote in my piece on the AL Cy Young Award about Lester:
"Lester was my favorite for the award going into the season.  He put together nearly the kind of season I expected, except he struggled with his control at times.  This led to a lower than expected K/BB ratio, which probably cost him third place on my ballot.  Still though, Lester finished the season second in wins, ninth in ERA, fourth in xFIP, first in K/9, thirteenth in K/BB, and sixth in WAR.  Despite higher finishes in nearly every significant category, Lester always seems to fall below Sabathia on everyone's Cy Young ballot.  Can anyone explain this to me?"
I still haven't received an acceptable answer to this question.  The only thing I can come up with personal bias.  Sabathia has a longer track record; therefore, writers and fans assume he's better.  While this might be true over the long haul, the Cy Young Award is a yearly honor.  Past success should not play into the voting process.

Over the past three seasons, Lester ranks seventh in WAR (17.1), fifth in K/9 (8.72), twenty-eighth in K/BB, eleventh in ERA (3.29), ninth in FIP (3.31), and twenty-third in WHIP among all major league pitchers.  Despite his statistical dominance (which puts him in the Halladay, Sabathia, Hernandez category), he's only received Cy Young votes in one season--2010.  Again, I ask.  Can anyone explain this to me?

Closer – Joakim Soria
Three Year WAR Total – 5.5
WAR Performance Baseline – 1.9
2011 Projected WAR – 2.0

First of all, anyone nicknamed the "Mexicutioner" should be a huge star.  Unfortunately for Soria, he pitches for the bottom dwelling Kansas City Royals, so being a star is not an option.  As a result, many baseball fans don't know how good this guy is.  Soria does a lot of things very well.  He limits contact and induces strikeouts and whiffs; keeps the ball on the ground; and limits walks.  While he has command of four pitches, he relies primarily on his fastball to get outs.  Soria is one of the two or three best closers in baseball, yet rarely gets credit for it because he supposedly pitches lower stress innings for a non-contender.  That line of thinking is garbage.  According to a stat called Win Probability Added (WPA), Soria posted a 5.061 rating in 2010.  That rating is better than any season Mariano Rivera has put up since he became a closer in 1997.  

So there's my list for most underrated players in the game of baseball.  If you have a difference of opinion or an alternate take on why a particular player is underrated, I'd love to hear it.  Go ahead and leave a message in the comments section.  I will be posting another article titled "All Overrated Team" at some point in the next week, so be on the lookout for it.

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