MLB's All-Underrated Team After 2015's Opening Month

Zachary D. Rymer@zachrymerMLB Lead WriterApril 26, 2015

MLB's All-Underrated Team After 2015's Opening Month

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    Chris Archer has been downright sterling so far.
    Chris Archer has been downright sterling so far.Kim Klement-USA TODAY Sports

    We're close to being a full month into the 2015 Major League Baseball season. So by now, you should have already noticed who the big stars are.

    But enough about them. Let's focus on the lesser-known stars instead.

    There are more than enough of those to go around, but we're going to narrow things down to the best of the best who aren't getting the attention they deserve. We'll do this by ruling out guys who have previously been All-Stars, and by prioritizing small-market players and guys lost in the shadows of bigger stars on their own teams.

    The final count: nine underrated position players, one underrated starting pitcher, one underrated relief ace and, in all, one heck of an underrated team. Step into the box whenever you're ready.

Catcher: Stephen Vogt, Oakland A's

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    Peter G. Aiken-USA TODAY Sports

    You know who the big stars are at catcher, and some of them are off to hot starts. But no catcher has been as hot as Stephen Vogt, and it's not even that close.

    Through 17 games, Vogt is crushing the ball to the tune of a .364 average and 1.111 OPS. In terms of adjusted offense, his lead over other qualified catchers is huge. That's no mirage, as Vogt has been combining a patient approach (10.9 BB%) with lots of contact (14.1 K%) and, according to Mark Simon of ESPN Stats & Info, lots of hard contact.

    And Vogt hasn't just been getting it done on offense. According to Baseball Prospectus, he's also been one of baseball's elite strike-framers in the early goings.

    In all, this is great for a guy who got his first big break last year at the age of 29. Even he knows that he's looking like a classic Billy Beane misfit-toy kind of find, as he told Ben Reiter of Sports Illustrated that he's "a stereotypical Oakland A."

    They do have a knack for finding the good ones. And in Vogt, it looks like they've found a very good one.

    Honorable Mentions: Caleb Joseph, Nick Hundley

First Base: Yonder Alonso, San Diego Padres

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    Jake Roth-USA TODAY Sports

    There's no shortage of star power at first base, and a lot of it is already raking. Joey Votto, Adrian Gonzalez, Paul Goldschmidt, Miguel Cabrera, Lucas Duda and Jose Abreu are all killing the ball.

    Also...Yonder Alonso?

    Yup, him too. After two straight injury-marred seasons, Alonso is lighting it up in 2015. Through 18 games, he's hitting .371 with a .943 OPS, putting him sixth among first basemen in adjusted offense. A lot of that has come from working excellent at-bats, as he's mixing a 13.5 percent walk rate with a 13.5 percent strikeout rate.

    Ask the man himself, however, and he'll tell you the real difference this year is simply being healthy.

    "Honestly, I just feel good," he told Jeff Sanders of the San Diego Union-Tribune. "I'm feeling healthy. I'm just trying to put good swings in with a line-drive approach. If it's a homer, it's a homer, but that's the last thing I'm thinking about. I'm a gap-to-gap guy. I'm a doubles guy. I'm a base-hit guy."

    He's definitely been just that, and so far it's made him the best hitter in a lineup that also includes Matt Kemp, Justin Upton and Wil Myers.

    So say it with me now: Alons-y, Alonso!

    Honorable Mentions: Adam Lind, Ike Davis

Second Base: Devon Travis, Toronto Blue Jays

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    John E. Sokolowski-USA TODAY Sports

    At second base, the early leaderboards seem to be populated with the usual suspects. Among those off to surprisingly hot starts are Johnny Giavotella, DJ LeMahieu and Logan Forsythe.

    But one thing they and all other second basemen have in common is this: They're looking up at Devon Travis.

    The Toronto Blue Jays rookie is hitting .383 in his first 17 games, with a 1.172 OPS and five home runs, production that's blowing away all other second basemen. He has hit the ball legitimately hard too, as Mark Simon's most recent leaderboard put him among the top 10 hardest hitters in baseball.

    "He's got some pop in that bat," Toronto skipper John Gibbons told Jamie Ross of MLB.com. "He's got a good compact swing with some power there. He's not going to be a home run hitter, but he'll hit his share."

    He's certainly hit his share early. And with heavy hitters like Jose Bautista, Edwin Encarnacion and Russell Martin all off to sluggish starts offensively, the Blue Jays have needed it.

    Honorable Mentions: Giavotella, LeMahieu, Forsythe

Third Base: Mike Moustakas, Kansas City Royals

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    Peter G. Aiken-USA TODAY Sports

    Whether you're talking Josh Donaldson, Matt Carpenter or Nolan Arenado, the tops of the third base leaderboards are well-populated with established stars.

    But they also feature a guy who was really the laughingstock of the third base ranks not too long ago: Mike Moustakas.

    After disappointing to the tune of a .236 average and .668 OPS in his first four seasons in the bigs, Moustakas is finally making good on his old top-prospect hype by hitting .309 with an .875 OPS and three home runs in his first 17 games.

    In compiling these numbers, he's looked like a completely different hitter. Moustakas' strikeout rate is way down, and he's made a staggering improvement with his ability to go the other way to left field. So to speak, he's no longer losing plate appearances to whiffs and shifts.

    And that's not all he's doing. According to defensive runs saved, he's also been playing quality defense at third base. Put that together with his offense, and you get a guy who's been easily the game's top two-way third baseman in the early going.

    Honorable Mentions: Cody Asche, Jake Lamb

Shortstop: Zack Cozart, Cincinnati Reds

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    Jeff Hanisch-USA TODAY Sports

    Not unlike second base, it seems like the shortstop leaderboards contain only unusual suspects. Among those off to hot starts are Jose Iglesias, Freddy Galvis, Marcus Semien and Adeiny Hechavarria.

    But they're all bowing to Zack Cozart, which is about as big a surprise as there is in the early part of the season.

    As evidenced by his .643 OPS over the last three seasons, Cozart typically doesn't do much hitting. But here he is batting .306 with an .898 OPS and four homers—which is the same number of dingers he hit in all of 2014—in his first 17 games.

    As for where all this is coming from, Cozart credited Cincinnati Reds Hall of Famer Barry Larkin. As he told C. Trent Rosecrans of the Cincinnati Enquirer, Larkin's advice to "crush the inside part of the ball" made immediate sense to Cozart.

    Meanwhile, Cozart didn't need any advice on fielding. He's tended to rate as a Gold Glove-caliber defender at short, and he is once again so far this year.

    So, meet the Cozart of 2015: new, improved and dangerous.

    Honorable Mention: Iglesias, Galvis, Semien, Hechavarria

Left Field: Corey Dickerson, Colorado Rockies

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    Chris Humphreys-USA TODAY Sports

    You don't need to look too far to find a big name on the left field leaderboards. Matt Holliday, Justin Upton and Yoenis Cespedes lead the established stars who have already busted out the rakes.

    Then there's Corey Dickerson, who has basically picked up where he left off.

    Lost in the wreckage that was the Colorado Rockies' 2014 season was a star-making performance by Dickerson. In 131 games, he hit .312 with a .931 OPS and 24 homers. He has carried that hot hitting right on over to 2015, as he's batting .317 with a 1.003 OPS and five homers in 18 games. Among left fielders, only Upton beats him in adjusted offense.

    As you'd expect, Dickerson is getting quite the boost from Coors Field. But with a line-drive rate that's trending ever-upward and an approach that favors production up the middle, let there be no doubt that Dickerson's bat boasts some legit talent.

    It's also looking like he can field his position. After rating as a spotty defender in 2014, defensive runs saved is liking what it's seeing from Dickerson in 2015. Between that and his offense, there's been no one better in left fielder than him early on.

    Honorable Mentions: Ender Inciarte, Nori Aoki

Center Field: A.J. Pollock, Arizona Diamondbacks

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    Jake Roth-USA TODAY Sports

    Let's get this out there: No center fielder has been better than Lorenzo Cain. But since what he's doing is a continuation of a star-making turn last October, the "underrated" label doesn't fit him so well.

    It fits a lot better on A.J. Pollock, who's establishing himself as one of the true hidden gems in baseball.

    Few seemed to notice when Pollock authored a strong two-way breakthrough back in 2013, and fewer still seemed to notice when he hit .302 with an .851 OPS while playing superb defense in center field in about half a season's worth of work in 2014. But now, he's doing even better.

    Through 17 games, Pollock is raking to the tune of a .344 average and an .840 OPS, which makes him one of the better offensive center fielders in the league. He's also been one of the best on defense, as he entered Saturday trailing only Cain in defensive runs saved.

    In putting up these numbers, Pollock has been fun to watch. He has the bat control to spray base hits in all directions, and he plays center field with as much or more energy than any other center fielder. Befitting his background, he plays like a former non-top-prospect with a chip on his shoulder.

    Along with Paul Goldschmidt and Archie Bradley, now you have three reasons to watch Diamondbacks games.

    Honorable Mentions: Sam Fuld, Kevin Kiermaier

Right Field: Kole Calhoun, Los Angeles Angels

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    Richard Mackson-USA TODAY Sports

    There's no shortage of star power at the top of the leaderboards for right fielders. To name just a few, Nelson Cruz, Giancarlo Stanton, Matt Kemp and Bryce Harper have been killing it so far in 2015.

    But much more quietly, so has Kole Calhoun.

    He tends to get lost in Mike Trout's shadow atop the Los Angeles Angels lineup, but he's actually matching Trout step for step in the early going. He's hitting .309 with a .901 OPS and three home runs in 15 games. That makes him nearly Trout's equal in adjusted offense, not to mention third among right fielders, behind only Cruz and Stanton. 

    Calhoun has achieved his hot start mainly on a steady diet of ropes. No right fielder has hit line drives more frequently than he has, which is as good a way as any to keep the hits coming.

    And he isn't just getting it done on offense. Though nobody is going to mistake Calhoun for the second coming of Roberto Clemente, defensive runs saved has him pegged as an above-average defender thus far.

    So it's quite the outfield the Angels have there. In center field is the game's best player, and in right field is one of 2015's most overlooked gems.

    Honorable Mentions: Nick Markakis, Steven Souza Jr.

Designated Hitter: Kendrys Morales, Kansas City Royals

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    Peter G. Aiken-USA TODAY Sports

    There aren't many designated hitters to choose from, and even fewer that one could call "underrated," especially with guys like Alex Rodriguez and Billy Butler lighting up the leaderboards early on.

    But right there with them is Kendrys Morales. It doesn't seem like he's being talked about all that much, probably because of what happened with him last year.

    The 2014 season was a disaster for Morales, as he signed late and ended up hitting just .218 with a .612 OPS in 98 games. He's currently putting that performance behind him by hitting .319 with an .860 OPS in 17 games, making the two-year, $17 million contract he signed with the Royals look like an absolute steal.

    When asked to explain his hot hitting earlier this month, Morales refused to take too much credit.

    "I'm going to defer it to the club," he said through an interpreter to Jeffrey Flanagan of MLB.com. "Everyone is seeing the ball well right now. It's a team effort, and that's how we approach it."

    True, but it also looks like Morales has his timing back. Case in point, Brooks Baseball has him hitting .372 against fastballs after hitting them at just a .250 clip in his shortened 2014 season.

    Whatever the case, he looks like Kendrys Morales again.

    Honorable Mentions: Jimmy Paredes, David DeJesus

Starting Pitcher: Chris Archer, Tampa Bay Rays

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    O'Meara/Associated Press

    If you want to go off ERA, a ton of underrated pitchers are walking the MLB landscape in the early going: Nick Martinez, Dallas Keuchel, Anthony DeSclafani and Trevor Bauer.

    But let's go with a guy with a super-low ERA who actually deserves to have one: Chris Archer.

    A solid player before 2015, Archer is pitching like a true ace so far this year. He has a 1.07 ERA in four starts, and what distinguishes that from the other sub-1.10 ERAs out there is that Archer's also comes with sub-3.00 marks in the FIP and xFIP categories.

    That has a lot to do with how Archer is owning the strikeout and walk categories with 10.7 strikeouts per nine innings and 1.8 walks per nine innings. As Brooks Baseball can show, this looks like a product of Archer simplifying his arsenal. Rather than mixing things up, he's trusting his hard four-seamer and excellent slider.

    This is also paying off with soft contact. Archer not only has a ground-ball rate near 60 percent but also an infield fly-ball rate over 13 percent. Put those two together, and you get a sense of how difficult it's been for batters to even hit his pitches out of the infield.

    In all, he's quickly moving up the Archer power rankings. It may not be long before he catches Sterling.

    Honorable Mentions: Martinez, Keuchel, DeSclafani, Bauer, Jake Odorizzi, Collin McHugh

Relief Ace: Shawn Tolleson, Texas Rangers

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    Brad Loper/Associated Press

    Among the relief aces who have been amazing so far this season are Aroldis Chapman, Andrew Miller, Wade Davis and David Robertson.

    But you know who they are. You might not know who Shawn Tolleson is, and that's something that needs to change right...now.

    Tolleson has been nigh untouchable in his first seven appearances out of the Rangers bullpen, allowing only one earned run on three hits in 7.1 innings. He's also struck out 11 and has yet to walk a batter.

    Thus, it's no wonder only Robertson tops him in both FIP and xFIP. But what those numbers don't really shine a light on is just how hard it's been to square Tolleson up when contact is made. Of the 15 balls put in play against him, eight have been either ground balls or pop-ups.

    The trick to Tolleson's early success? Nothing special, really. Brooks Baseball shows a lot of whiffs on high fastballs and a changeup that, so far, nobody has been able to hit.

    Tolleson quietly posted a respectable 2.76 ERA in 64 appearances for the Rangers last season. What he's doing so far this year is showing that his 2014 performance was the polar opposite of a fluke.

    Honorable Mentions: Yimi Garcia, Aaron Barrett, Brad Boxberger, Chris Martin, Adam Ottavino

    Note: Stats courtesy of Baseball-Reference.com and FanGraphs unless otherwise noted/linked.

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