NL East: The Seven Most Underrated Players in the Division
I did one of these for the AL East, and struggled to get to 10 players. This time it was even harder, so I just dropped the number to seven. There is one honorable mention because I wanted every team represented (sort of like the All-Star Game, which is a stupid rule so I'm not sure why I'm subscribing to it).
Anyway, these are players in the NL East who fly further under the radar than they should. Some of the names on the list aren't particularly well known beyond their team's fan-base, while other names are quite recognizable to fans, but they still deserve more love.
Honorable Mention: David Ross
Yeah, I know. He's the back-up catcher for the Braves behind Brian McCann, how much value can he have? Turns out quite a bit.
Ross does a lot with the little bit of playing time he gets. Over 145 plate appearances in 2010, Ross posted a line of .289/.392/.479 with a wOBA of .378 (that's weighted on-base average, a stat that takes into account the cumulative hitting performance and is assessed the same way you would assess on-base percentage). The 1.6 WAR he posted last season made him more valuable to the Braves than Kurt Suzuki was to the A's with 299 less plate appearances, and Ross' 2009 WAR of 2.0 made him the 14th most valuable catcher in the majors that year.
Now I'm not saying David Ross should be starting (he's 34, ship kinda sailed on that one) but combined with McCann the Braves are getting between 6-7 WAR annually from the catchers position. Not bad at all.
No. 7: Mike Morse
This one is more of a hunch on my part than the others. Morse has had the "fringe" tag for most of his career. He was always a decent hitter with good pop, but his defense was limited and the bat didn't profile well for first base or a corner outfield spot.
In 2010, Morse saw limited work in a utility role with the Nationals and thrived. His .289/.352/.519 line in 293 plate appearances was very good, and if Morse can maintain those numbers over 500 or more at-bats, he can be a ML regular.
With the departure of Adam Dunn, the Nats brought in Adam LaRoche to play first, but with nothing to play for this season the team would be wise to give Morse a serious look.
No. 6: Anibal Sanchez
The difference between Sanchez's 09 and 10 seasons were for the most part minute; his performance really only improved in the following 3 ways:
1) Sanchez maintained his K/9 (strikeouts per 9 innings) while dropping his BB/9 (walks per 9) improving his K/BB rate from 1.54 to 2.24.
2) He upped the number of ground balls he induced by roughly 3 percent, and the doozy...
3) His HR/FB (home run to fly ball percentage) plummeted from 10.2 to 4.5 percent.
All of those slight (well, the home run thing wasn't so slight) improvements turned Sanchez from a 0.7 WAR player in 2009 to a 4.3 WAR player in 2010, making him worth exactly as much to the Marlins as Tommy Hanson was to the Braves.
Now most of Sanchez value is predicated on keeping the ball in the park like he did in 2010, which isn't very likely moving forward. However, if his HR/FB ratio remains in the single digits, he'll have good value as a back end of the rotation guy.
No. 5: Ricky Nolasco
It's the Marlins. Unless your name happens to be Hanley, chances are you won't get much love. Josh Johnson broke through the south Florida baseball malaise last year because he was exceptionally good, but Nolasco's work for the most part goes unnoticed.
Consider this: the last 2 seasons, Nolasco's ERA's were an unimpressive 5.06 and 4.51, but his FIP (fielding independent pitching) in those years were 3.35 and 3.86. Had the Marlins defense not been so inadequate, Nolasco's ERA would look quite a bit better.
On top of the deceptive ERA, Nolasco has maintained very good K/BB ratio's (better than Johnson's the last 2 years) and his 6.8 WAR (wins above replacement) since '09 have made him more valuable to the Marlins than Johan Sanatana was to the Mets over the same period (6.2 WAR, and both missed time due to injury).
No. 4: Carlos Ruiz
I was surprised at just how productive Ruiz was for the Phils last year. He was able to maintain his walk rate and increase the amount of contact he made while hitting, even though he swung at more pitches outside the strike zone than in previous years.
Ruiz's .302/.400/.447 line combined with his good defense made him the 3rd most valuable catcher in 2010 behind Brian McCann and Joe Mauer, but chances are you won't hear Ruiz's name in their company.
If Ruiz can be worth 4.1 WAR with only 433 plate appearances, he could become a top tier catcher with more playing time.
No. 3: Ryan Zimmerman
He's the closest thing to a superstar (if not a bona fide superstar) the Nats have and everyone knows he's good. But did you know how good?
Zimmerman's .307/.388/.510 line combined with his 13.9 UZR (ultimate zone rating, which measures defense) score made him a 7.2 WAR player last season; only Albert Pujols, Joey Votto and Josh Hamilton were more valuable in all of baseball.
In 2009, Zimmerman had a line of .292/.364/.525 and a UZR of 13.7, making him the ninth most valuable player in baseball. According to Fangraphs, only a trio of third basemen since 2006 have been worth more to their team than Zimmerman, and one of those three (Miguel Cabrera) was moved off third awhile ago.
Zimmerman's production has been elite. The hype surrounding him, not so much.
No. 2: Placido Polanco
Since 2001, only Chase Utley has been worth more wins to his team (44.3 WAR over that span) at second base than Placido Polanco has to his team(s) (36 WAR).
Polanco has never hit below .285 in any season and has reached as high as .341 (in 2007). His defense, whether at second or third, has never been below average, and in certain years has been elite for his position.
His walk rate has never been great, but he makes so much contact and strikes out so infrequently that his high BA keeps his on-base percentage respectable.
Polanco isn't a guy you fear in a line-up—in fact he's more of a nuisance than anything else—but he has more value than he's given credit for.
No. 1: Angel Pagan
I'm swallowing my pride and admitting I was wrong here—Pagan is actually a pretty good player. 2 years ago in limited duty (376 plate appearances) with the Mets, Pagan posted a .306/.350/.487 line and a UZR score of 7.0, making him a 3.0 WAR player.
At the time I was skeptical, considering Pagan's lack of production at the major league level prior to this, and his slugging percentage seemed a bit inflated. While my suspicions about the slugging percentage were justified (down to .425 in 2010) he maintained a good batting average and OBP, which coupled with his speed (37 steals) and above average defense (15.1 UZR in '10) made him worth almost 5 extra wins to the Mets over a replacement level player at the same position.
If we strictly look at WAR (which is pretty all-encompassing, hence I use it so much) Pagan has been the eleventh most valuable outfielder over the last 2 seasons; more valuable than such players as Justin Upton, Nick Swisher and J.D. Drew.
While time will tell whether or not his value can be sustained (his success is built on some tenuous things that can disappear quickly, like speed) I think it's safe to say Pagan is one of the more underrated players in the game right now.
God, that's painful to admit.