Which MLB Skills Are Still Being Undervalued in Free Agency?

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Which MLB Skills Are Still Being Undervalued in Free Agency?

With the Major League Baseball market now open and free agents able to sign contracts with any of the 30 teams, money is about to get spent and players are about to get paid.

A lot of the dollars doled out, though, may not wind up making, well, a lot of sense.

That's because teams will be chasing after the very same top-tier players, like Robinson Cano, Jacoby Ellsbury and Ervin Santana, as well as focusing on many of the traditional statistics and skills like home runs and ERA.

As a whole, though, folks in and around baseball have gotten savvier when it comes to identifying overlooked aspects of the game. A little book that turned into a feature film might have had something to do with that, as has the ensuing rise of sabermetrics and the marrying of stats and scouts in the sport.

But that doesn't mean there aren't still some market inefficiencies, overlooked on-the-field tools and underappreciated elements of the game, all of which can result in certain players being undervalued in free agency.

In a piece that's well worth reading and will have some overlap here, fellow MLB Lead Writer Zachary Rymer recently delved into how teams can unearth free-agent diamonds in the rough.

Similarly, what follows below is a broader look at some skills that haven't quite yet earned their proper due on the market, as well as an example or three of players who fit that mold.

 

Platoon Performance

Mr. Rymer touched on this one in his story, but it's worth reiterating because teams have been more open to employing this strategy by deploying players who excel at batting against opposite-handed pitchers. In fact, the Oakland Athletics, who were the focus of Moneyball, the book alluded to above, are one such club that has taken to using this approach, as Jack Moore wrote for Sports On Earth in October:

The Athletics were [once again in 2013] a team built around players with clear weaknesses, and it once again was clear they weren't going to win without acknowledging and planning for these weaknesses. As such, the Athletics practically fielded two different teams against left-handers and right-handers, using the same lineup on consecutive days just five times.

The point is to put hitters in position to thrive (i.e., a lefty hitter facing a righty pitcher) and avoid situations where they struggle (i.e., a lefty hitter facing a lefty pitcher), which can be done by "partnering" them with a hitter who brings the opposite advantage.

Platoon splits aren't exactly a new concept, but teams have been learning how to make better use of appropriate matchups in recent years.

Christian Petersen/Getty Images
Jason Kubel against righties? Great. Against lefties? Not so much.

The reason this is an undervalued trait is because a player with wide-ranging splits—like lefty-swinging Jason Kubel, who sports an .823 OPS against righties but a .679 OPS against southpaws in his career—is inherently flawed and thus cheaper to bring aboard.

Examples from this year's free-agent class: Kubel, Justin Morneau, Chris Young, David Murphy, Eric Chavez

 

Defense and/or Versatility

These two skills tend to go hand-in-hand, although they don't always go together. For instance, just because a player is a versatile defender doesn't mean he's a good one. Put another way: Not everyone is Ben Zobrist.

There is value in versatility, just like there is in strong defense. But because teams generally prefer to have each player handle a particular position and also favor offensive performance, those who are above-average with the leather can be overlooked.

Elsa/Getty Images
Mark Ellis has been one of the best defenders at second base over the past decade.

To be sure, clubs have been getting much more hip to D over the past handful of seasons. Relying on proven defensive stalwarts at key spots, implementing shifts and taking advantage of nuances like pitch-framing have been a big part of the turnarounds by previously long-suffering franchises like the Tampa Bay Rays and Pittsburgh Pirates, among others.

But many of the defensive metrics—and thus their acceptance—remain in the early stages. As such, players who are known more for their gloves than their bats don't exactly land massive contracts upon reaching free agency.

Examples from this year's free-agent class: Carlos Ruiz, Mark Ellis, Nick Punto, Kelly Johnson, Skip Schumaker

 

Productive Baserunning

To be clear, this is not entirely about stolen bases. Rather, the art of baserunning includes all aspects of being on the basepaths, from tagging up on deep fly balls to going from first to third on base hits to advancing on pitches in the dirt.

What's interesting here is that elite base stealers have on occasion been overpaid, which usually happens when the signing team focuses too much on their ability to pilfer a bag (see: Carl Crawford).

As sabermetrics have shown, the actual value produced by the stolen base compared to other actions on offense isn't all that great, and a player's success rate needs to be above a certain threshold (about 75 percent) to be worthwhile.

But players who possess both fast feet and heady heads on the bases can be underappreciated. Hey, chicks dig the long ball—not the ability to score from first on a double.

Examples from this year's free-agent class: Rajai Davis, Nate McLouth

 

Making Contact

You've no doubt noticed that baseball's pendulum has swung from the offensive era of the late 1990s and early 2000s to the pitching-dominated game we've witnessed the past few years.

What coincides with both of those things? That's right: Strikeouts. Batters swinging harder and caring less about missing, as well as hurlers finding more and more ways to make them do so, has resulted in a noticeable jump in strikeouts.

To wit, the past six seasons have brought about the six highest strikeout percentages in baseball history, per FanGraphs, and in 2012 and 2013, batters whiffed nearly 20 percent of the time. In other words, one out of every five men to step to the dish will be heading back to the dugout after strike three.

Mike Ehrmann/Getty Images
In 598 plate appearances in his career-reviving 2013, James Loney struck out only 77 times.

Think it might be useful to have a guy around who can, you know, put the bat on the ball even if he's not smacking it over the fence when he does?

Examples from this year's free-agent class: Omar Infante, James Loney, A.J. Pierzynski

 

Getting Ground Balls

As we just mentioned, the strikeout has become a rather prominent part of baseball. They are, after all, the surest way for a pitcher to get an out.

Ground balls, however, are often a more efficient way to get an out. Not only does a hurler who gets grounders frequently require fewer pitches to record a 6-3 than a K, he also typically surrenders fewer home runs and racks up more double plays.

Better still, because whiffs are all the rage, ground-ballers cost a lot less in free agency.

Examples from this year's free-agent class: Tim Hudson, Paul Maholm, Roberto Hernandez, Jake Westbrook, Scott Downs

 

Health and Durability

Don't be fooled: Staying on the field can be considered a skill.

It may not be as predictable as some of the others that have been discussed, but it's proved by the fact that there is such a thing as the "injury-prone" label. 

Obviously, injuries and freak things can happen to anyone, but some players are just better than others at avoiding missed time.

Sometimes, though, teams get caught up in the potential of what an injury-prone player might do if he could just manage to stay healthy enough (think: Josh Johnson), rather than simply buy into what a typically durable player has done—and should continue to do—by playing 150 games or making 30 starts.

Point being, there is value in actually playing, and it can be underrated, even when paying millions for a player to, you know, play.

Take a stab at these two questions: How many pitchers threw 200 innings in 2013? And how many players reached 150 games this year?

The answers: 36 and 61. That means only one starting pitcher threw 200 frames and just two players made it into 150 games on a per-team basis.

Even if the durable free agents aren't much better than average, they can bring stability. And not having to worry about relying on the bench or finding rotation replacements is something about which every general manager dreams.

Examples from this year's free-agent class: Bronson Arroyo, Scott Feldman, Jason Vargas, A.J. Pierzynski, James Loney

John Sommers II/Getty Images
Bronson Arroyo has thrown 200 innings in eight of the last nine seasons.

 

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