Ben Zobrist and the 25 Most Underrated Hitters in MLB Right Now

Ely SussmanCorrespondent IJanuary 29, 2013

Ben Zobrist and the 25 Most Underrated Hitters in MLB Right Now

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    MLB hitters can be deemed underrated when fans and franchises fail to properly acknowledge their offensive excellence. There's still time to influence their opinions before the 2013 season opens.

    Generally, all of them provide value that isn't easily perceived with the naked eye or through traditional statistics. Being situated in a small market obviously limits exposure, as does maintaining a low-key personality on a star-laden roster.

    We habitually ignore position when analyzing production at the plate. In reality, it's important to compare individuals to others of similar stature and defensive responsibilities.

    Ben Zobrist and the following players ought to be more widely appreciated.

Jason Bay (Seattle Mariners)

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    Baseball fans continue to hold a poor opinion of Jason Bay for the way he underachieved with the New York Mets. Even after he signed a major league deal with the Seattle Mariners, many of us view him as completely useless.

    That simply isn't the case.

    He continues to run the bases aggressively and hit for ample power against pitchers of either handedness. Bay's swing, specifically, seems tailor-made to take advantage of the shrinking Safeco Field dimensions, which will primarily affect left field.

    Injuries and a high strikeout rate have always been obstacles. He should rebound from a .165/.237/.299 batting line, regardless.

Kelly Shoppach (Seattle Mariners)

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    Kelly Shoppach fooled us in 2008 when he seemed capable of being a full-time catcher.

    With that said, his .185/.285/.340 batting line as a member of the Tampa Bay Rays was also misleading.

    The newly-signed Seattle Mariners catcher—via ESPN.com's Jerry Crasnick—is an excellent option in certain situations: versus lefties and as a pinch-hitter.

Reed Johnson (Atlanta Braves)

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    Reed Johnson's days as an everyday outfielder are long gone, but he continues to terrorize left-handed pitching. He batted .311 against that breed of arm in 2012.

    The Atlanta Braves re-signed him for a fraction of the guaranteed money that Jonny Gomes and Scott Hairston received.

    Johnson's aforementioned platoon split and speed out of the batter's box compensate for his lack of power.

Wilson Ramos (Washington Nationals)

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    Wilson Ramos was an important piece of the Washington Nationals' offense in 2011 (.779 OPS). He entered his sophomore season as primary catcher, but never returned to the field after suffering a torn ACL.

    The team thrived after acquiring Kurt Suzuki in early August.

    It won't take long, however, for Ramos to blast himself back into the starting lineup

Alejandro De Aza (Chicago White Sox)

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    While we all focused on competitive teams in late 2011, Alejandro De Aza was establishing himself on the scuffling Chicago White Sox.

    Of course, De Aza regressed in a full season's worth of MLB plate appearances, yet he never needed to be removed from the No. 1 spot.

    The key was avoiding extended slumps. In every series that De Aza appeared, he reached base at least once.

Daniel Murphy (New York Mets)

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    Daniel Murphy has never truly been comfortable in the field.

    The New York Mets worked with him tirelessly because it's imperative to get his above-average bat in the lineup.

    He rarely goes deep or draws walks, but his consistent, contact swing works wonders from the No. 2 spot.

Carlos Lee (Free Agent)

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    Carlos Pena and Luke Scott have jobs, but not Carlos Lee?

    Hopefully, it's because he wants to retire. He would make a better designated hitter than either of the aforementioned veterans.

    With diminished power and an expanded waist, Lee won't be mistaken for an All-Star. He keeps driving in runs, however, due to the fact that he seldom swings and misses.

    Durability is huge, too. Lee has made just two trips to the disabled list in the past decade.

Carlos Santana (Cleveland Indians)

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    The switch-hitting catcher experienced zero success against southpaws in his rookie season. He adjusted in 2011, only to find that right-handers had figured him out.

    Finally, as Carlos Santana approaches his 27th birthday, he has become a matchup nightmare.

    Handedness did not affect his slugging at all last summer. He also shows the plate discipline to take first base if there isn't anything appetizing to swing at.

    The Cleveland Indians might have gone winless following the All-Star break had Santana never found his groove.

    New additions Mark Reynolds and Nick Swisher will be productive, but this homegrown hitter is still the focal point.

Neil Walker (Pittsburgh Pirates)

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    Neil Walker is admittedly a flawed offensive player. He looks over-matched against southpaws and doesn't draw enough walks.

    But all things considered, he's much more effective than we collectively give him credit for.

    Few other middle infielders would belittle his lifetime .280/.339/.424 batting line. Plus, Walker is maintaining those percentages despite spending half his time in the pitcher's paradise of PNC Park.

Paul Konerko (Chicago White Sox)

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    Gray hairs have sprouted on Paul Konerko's chin, but his performance certainly hasn't dipped.

    The longtime Chicago White Sox captain was every bit as productive in 2012 as he was a dozen years prior. Actually, he reaches base more frequently in the twilight of his career.

    While other elderly corner infielders are breaking down (Todd Helton, Alex Rodriguez, etc.), Konerko continues making All-Star rosters.

Freddie Freeman (Atlanta Braves)

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    Of all the hitters to amass at least 90 RBI in 2012, Freddie Freeman of the Atlanta Braves is easily the most unheralded.

    People paid attention the previous season when he finished runner-up in NL Rookie of the Year voting.

    It's not obvious at first glance, but Freeman continued to develop as a sophomore.

    He posted a near-identical OPS despite being less fortunate on balls in play. Vision problems affected him for most of May, or else the first baseman could have made significant improvements in terms of home runs and slugging.

Brett Lawrie (Toronto Blue Jays)

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    Brett Lawrie had a frustrating sophomore season.

    Toronto Blue Jays' starting pitchers often put the team at early deficits. Because of that and injuries up and down the lineup, opponents pounded the strike zone against Lawrie and forced him to battle through ugly counts.

    Then the young third baseman dealt with his own physical problems, affecting his calf and ribs.

    His tools should be on full display in 2013 with better protection in the batting order and fewer aches and pains.

Billy Butler (Kansas City Royals)

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    Billy Butler can finally add "AL All-Star" to his resume.

    It's disappointing, though, that the fans didn't select him during a year when the Midsummer Classic was held at Kauffman Stadium. Instead, he was chosen by manager Ron Washington, who was obligated to represent every team on the roster.

    The former top prospect stretched many of his doubles into home runs this past season. Butler has several more prime years ahead of him.

Kyle Seager (Seattle Mariners)

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    Pre-2013 Safeco Field was considered a hitter's hell and Kyle Seager's home/road splits—via Baseball-Reference.com—attest to that.

    Seager has actually been intimidating at the heart of the Seattle Mariners' lineup when venturing away from the Pacific Northwest.

    He is both a power source and base-stealing threat with the potential to bring his .328/.401/.474 minor league batting line to the majors.

Brett Gardner (New York Yankees)

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    In 2011, Brett Gardner tied for the American League lead in stolen bases. He would have taken sole possession of first place last season had his campaign not been derailed by a nagging elbow injury.

    His knack for getting into scoring position makes the New York Yankees' lineup almost cyclical. Players atop the batting order get plenty more RBI opportunities when Gardner draws walks and turns grounders into infield hits. No wonder the team has amassed at least 850 runs in each of his full seasons.

    Judging by his late-September and playoff appearances, the elbow is not bothering him anymore.

Salvador Perez (Kansas City Royals)

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    Reluctance to take pitches can be a fatal flaw.

    The future seems bright for Salvador Perez, however, because of his smooth swing mechanics.

    Perez has added power at each stage of his professional career. In the near future, he could leapfrog Joe Mauer and become the American League's top offensive catcher.

    For the time being, he's still relatively unknown.

Nick Markakis (Baltimore Orioles)

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    The 2012 Baltimore Orioles completed their miracle run to the playoffs without Nick Markakis.

    He looked human for the first time and spent chunks of the season on the disabled list for wrist surgery and a fractured thumb in June and September, respectively.

    But this 29-year-old is the steadiest offensive player in the organization. The Baltimore Orioles won't find themselves in contention again without his keen eye at the plate and onslaught of doubles.

    It's surprisingly to see that he hasn't earned an All-Star selection yet.

Adrian Beltre (Texas Rangers)

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    Everybody knows Adrian Beltre, who has placed in the top 15 in three straight AL MVP races.

    But few of us realize that he is among the best offensive third basemen in baseball history.

    The ability to put any ball in play with authority lets him get away with being impatient. Falling behind in the count does not hurt his confidence and producing with two outs is his specialty.

    Since joining the Texas Rangers in 2011, Beltre has been the most valuable member of their lineup.

Carlos Quentin (San Diego Padres)

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    Carlos Quentin does not get plunked 26 times per 162 games by accident. There's a method to his madness.

    He has extraordinary power to left field and realizes that he can pull more pitches into the bleachers by standing closer to the plate.

    Inside offerings aren't going to stay fair, anyway. Quentin might as well use them to boost his on-base percentage.

    The Southern California native doesn't mindlessly swing for the fences. In fact, his strikeout rate has been better than the league average for five consecutive seasons.

A.J. Ellis (Los Angeles Dodgers)

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    Typical MLB seasons feature a few standout offensive catchers.

    In that sense, the National League was totally abnormal in 2012.

    Miguel Montero had impressive, desert-aided stats, while Jonathan Lucroy, Yadier Molina, Buster Posey and Carlos Ruiz all enjoyed career years. Even NL rookies Rob Brantly, Yasmani Grandal and Wilin Rosario flaunted their offensive skills.

    Very quietly, A.J. Ellis made the most of his first everyday opportunity.

    The 31-year-old led the Los Angeles Dodgers with a .373 on-base percentage. Batting eighth—directly in front of the pitcher—inflated that statistic, but let's give him credit for seldom swinging early in the count and contributing 34 extra-base hits.

    His underdog story is refreshingly different from those of L.A.'s other position players.

Norichika Aoki (Milwaukee Brewers)

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    The Milwaukee Brewers bought low on Norichika Aoki a year ago coming off the weakest season of his Japanese career. 

    What an epic rebound.

    Many assumed the 5'9" outfielder was a small-ball reserve player. But on top of his 30 stolen bases, timely bunts and other productive outs, Aoki totaled 51 extra-base hits in his U.S. debut (more than Dexter Fowler or Torii Hunter).

    He quickly made that city forget about Nyjer Morgan.

Austin Jackson (Detroit Tigers)

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    Aside from Mike Trout, you won't find a better lead-off hitter in baseball today.

    Yes, Austin Jackson has surpassed international stars like Derek Jeter and Jose Reyes. The soon-to-be 26-year-old is a more legitimate power threat who understands the importance of making opposing starters throw extra pitches.

    Jackson was a .331/.414/.544 hitter through mid-May before an abdominal injury forced him out of the limelight. Otherwise, we'd already be very familiar with him.

Allen Craig (St. Louis Cardinals)

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    Allen Craig is that guy who took over for Lance Berkman last summer as he recuperated from knee injuries.

    The late-bloomer filled in admirably. He gradually cooled off after a fiery start, but still finished with the second-best OPS on the St. Louis Cardinals. 

    Also, Craig has responded in high-leverage situations.

    With runners in scoring position in 2012, the first baseman/outfielder posted a gaudy .400/.450/.680 batting line. Let's not forget about the postseason, where he slugged .488 overall and launched three home runs in his only World Series appearance.

Erick Aybar (Los Angeles Angels)

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    The Los Angeles Angels rewarded Erick Aybar's excellence with a $35 million extension last April.

    He showed his appreciation with a superb season that BaseballReference.com and FanGraphs valued at 4.0 WAR and 3.4 WAR, respectively.

    Since 2011, Derek Jeter is the only full-time American League shortstop with a higher batting average, and nobody at the position has been a more efficient base-stealer over that span.

    Aybar always gets overlooked on an All-Star laden roster.

Ben Zobrist (Tampa Bay Rays)

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    Sabermetricians already adore Ben Zobrist.

    Now it's time for everyone else to hop aboard the bandwagon.

    For one, he has terrific durability. Only 13 MLB players have played more games since 2009.

    Zobrist's consistency in that span also deserves acclaim. While many of baseball's elite suffer through lengthy slumps (e.g. Josh Hamilton and Albert Pujols), this undercover superstar has finished just one of the past 24 regular-season months with a sub-.600 OPS. Starting at seven different positions evidently does not distract him.

    The infielder/outfielder perennially cracks AL top-10 lists in on-base percentage and offensive WAR.

    The Tampa Bay Rays reap amazing benefits from Zobrist and he's only midway through a team-friendly extension. By exercising club options, they can retain him through 2015 for a total of $20 million (For comparison's sake, Ryan Howard will make that much next summer.).

    No hitter gets so little love despite doing so much for his lineup.