MLB Metrics 101: The 10 Most Underrated Stars of Baseball

Zachary D. Rymer@zachrymerMLB Lead WriterMay 25, 2017

MLB Metrics 101: The 10 Most Underrated Stars of Baseball

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    Mitchell Layton/Getty Images

    A few weeks ago, Bleacher Report's MLB Metrics 101 series incited a rabble with a countdown of the most overrated stars in Major League Baseball.

    Now it's time to consider the other, less controversial side of that coin.

    Hello, and welcome back. This week's topic is the 10 most underrated stars in MLB. These are the ground rules:

    • No MVP, Cy Young or Rookie of the Year winners.
    • No players with more than one All-Star selection.
    • Hitters must have at least 2,000 career plate appearances.
    • Pitchers must have at least 100 career starts.
    • Only active players as of 2016 are allowed.

    This turns up a list of 182 qualified players. Read on for more on how they've been sorted.

Methodology

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    Duane Burleson/Getty Images

    Identifying the most overrated stars in MLB required weighing the reputation-boosting accolades like awards and All-Star appearances.

    There's no need to do that this time around. If a player made the cut based on the requirements listed in the intro, then he made the cut, period.

    From here, the thing to do is consider each player's overall body of work and his best work equally. The same formula that applied to overrated stars once again applies here:

    • Calculate a player's average WAR per season (not including 2017)
    • Calculate a player's average WAR in his three best seasons
    • Add the two figures together and find the average

    The end result is a little number called "Normal/Prime WAR."

    Throw in one last stipulation of a minimum of 2.0 WAR—FanGraphs defines that as the baseline for a "solid starter"—in 2016, and here's the question: Which unheralded players have the highest Normal/Prime WARs?

    For some players, this will mean retroactively giving credit for peak performances that are now in the past. But that's OK. Being late to give great players their due credit beats never giving them their due credit.

    For a look at the complete results, go here. Otherwise, it's on to honorable mentions and then the top 10.

Honorable Mentions

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    Joe Sargent/Getty Images

    Ryan Zimmerman, Washington Nationals (4.4 Normal/Prime WAR)

    It's hard to underrate Ryan Zimmerman this season. He's hitting the ball so hard you'd swear he has some kind of grudge against cowhide.

    The crime is how much he was overlooked in his heyday. An average season for him between 2006 and 2013 included an .827 OPS and 22 home runs, and he accumulated more WAR than all but one National League third baseman. He deserved better than a single All-Star selection.

    Starling Marte, Pittsburgh Pirates (4.8 Normal/Prime WAR)

    Among outfielders, only Mike Trout produced more WAR than Starling Marte between 2013 and 2016. On performance alone, he was basically a superstar.

    But in light of his suspension for performance-enhancing drugs, that reputation is on hold. The same goes for any appreciation of it.

    Jason Heyward, Chicago Cubs (5.5 Normal/Prime WAR)

    It's a pity that Jason Heyward was so bad last season, producing only 1.5 WAR. Otherwise, he'd be a shoo-in for the honor of baseball's most underrated player.

    Between 2010 and 2015, all Heyward did was win three Gold Gloves, average a .784 OPS with 16 homers and 14 steals, and produce 31.1 WAR. Only seven players did better. Yet he was an All-Star just once.

10. Christian Yelich, Miami Marlins

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    Ron Elkman/Sports Imagery/Getty Images
    Career WAR2016 WARNormal/Prime War
    13.95.33.8

    Typically, the thing to do in an "most underrated" slideshow is rant and rave at ungrateful ingrates for not recognizing greatness when it's right in front of their noses.

    But it's actually understandable that Christian Yelich isn't a bigger star.

    Although he was a top prospect when he came up in 2013, he wasn't billed as a must-see phenom. Nor did he look like one in his first three seasons. He hit a solid .290, but with only 20 homers and 47 stolen bases. Arguably his biggest claim to fame was his defense, which earned him a Gold Glove in 2014.

    Nonetheless, Yelich quietly placed eighth among left fielders in WAR between 2013 and 2015. Then he took off in 2016.

    He kept all the skills he already had and added a lot more power in blasting 21 homers. That was him tapping into raw pop that had always been there, and it helped him boost his WAR to 5.3. That was tops among all NL outfielders.

    So the slow start Yelich is off to this season? Here's guessing it won't last.

9. John Lackey, Chicago Cubs

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    Charles Rex Arbogast/Associated Press
    Career WAR2016 WARNormal/Prime War
    37.02.54.1

    John Lackey is now in his 15th major league season. He's pitched like an ace in just one of them.

    That was back in 2007, when he pitched 224 innings and led the American League with a 3.01 ERA. For his efforts, he made the All-Star team and finished third in the Cy Young voting.

    He's otherwise been just a solid pitcher. What's remarkable, however, is how often he's been a solid pitcher.

    An average year for Lackey between 2005 and 2009 included a 3.49 ERA and 198 innings. He hit a rough patch for a few years after that but found his stride again in 2013. Between then and 2016, he averaged a 3.35 ERA and 198 innings.

    When last season came to a close, Lackey ranked 10th among active pitchers in WAR. He doesn't have the same kind of hardware as some of the guys immediately around him on that list. But in light of his talent and longevity, he doesn't look out of place in his spot.

    And of course, he also has three World Series rings. That's a nice tradeoff for his lack of individual hardware.

8. Adam Eaton, Washington Nationals

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    Matthew Stockman/Getty Images
    Career WAR2016 WARNormal/Prime War
    16.06.24.2

    Let's all take a moment to pour one out for Adam Eaton.

    His first year with the Washington Nationals was going swimmingly before he tore his ACL on April 28. He'll now have to be content to watch what could be a special season in the district.

    To boot, Eaton himself was probably headed for an overdue All-Star selection.

    He came up with the Arizona Diamondbacks in 2012 but didn't get his big break until he was traded to the Chicago White Sox ahead of the 2014 season. Over the next three years, he accumulated more WAR than all but four other outfielders.

    He did the bulk of his good work at the plate, carving out a solid .290/.362/.422 slash line. And after hitting only one home run in 2014, he turned on the power and cranked a combined 28 homers in 2015 and 2016.

    And even if he wasn't always productive, Eaton was nothing if not a bundle of energy on the bases. And where he might have been a poor center fielder, he turned into a Gold Glove-caliber right fielder last season.

    On the plus side, Eaton is only 28. Baseball likely hasn't seen the last of his stardom.

7. Lorenzo Cain, Kansas City Royals

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    Brian Davidson/Getty Images
    Career WAR2016 WARNormal/Prime War
    22.52.94.2

    To be fair, Lorenzo Cain did have a moment back in 2015.

    He was selected to start in the All-Star Game and went on to finish third in the American League MVP voting. Both honors fit him well. He had an .838 OPS, 16 home runs and 28 stolen bases. Thrown in terrific defense, and he produced enough WAR to tie for fourth in the AL.

    Nonetheless, tracing Cain's stardom back to a single season doesn't do him justice. Between 2013 and 2016, the WAR rankings for AL outfielders proceed like so:

    1. Mike Trout: 37.1
    2. Lorenzo Cain: 18.4

    Cain wasn't on Trout's level, but he was basically Diet Trout. He put up a solid .756 OPS and regularly made his presence felt on the basepaths and on defense. 

    For the latter, it's a bad joke that Cain doesn't have a Gold Glove. Among AL outfielders between 2013 and 2016, only Kevin Kiermaier accumulated more defensive runs saved.

    Since Cain is now a full-time center fielder, maybe this will be the year he finally earns some hardware for his defense. And until then, it looks like he's going to carry on as one of the AL's best outfielders.

6. Jacoby Ellsbury, New York Yankees

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    Paul Bereswill/Getty Images
    Career WAR2016 WARNormal/Prime War
    29.12.84.3

    Yeah, yeah. Jacoby Ellsbury is an easy target nowadays. That's life when you're a $153 million player who hasn't played like a $153 million player.

    There was a time, though, when he was really good.

    None more so than in 2011, when he was an All-Star, a Gold Glover, a Silver Slugger and the runner-up for the AL MVP. He had a .928 OPS and slugged 32 homers with 39 stolen bases. All while playing elite defense.

    But while that season is the high point of Ellsbury's career, it's only part of the reason he racked up more WAR than all but three center fielders between 2008 and 2014.

    He was again one of MLB's top outfielders in 2013, a year in which he also won his third AL stolen base title. It's also easy to forget that his first season with the New York Yankees in 2014 was quite good. And even in a down season in 2016, he still tied for 14th among center fielders in WAR.

    Through it all, that 2011 season is the only one in which Ellsbury had the spotlight. Apart from his frustratingly bland persona, it's hard to find excuses for that.

5. Brett Gardner, New York Yankees

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    Elsa/Getty Images
    Career WAR2016 WARNormal/Prime War
    30.23.34.3

    At long last, recognition has finally found Brett Gardner in recent years. He was an All-Star in 2015 and a Gold Glover last year.

    But at the least, this is a guy who should have many more Gold Gloves than just one.

    The only left fielder with more career defensive runs saved than Gardner is Alex Gordon. And even he wasn't in Gardner's league when he was at his defensive peak. Although he earned no hardware either year, DRS and ultimate zone rating ranked him as the best defender at any position across 2010 and 2011.

    "Brett Gardner got robbed," wrote ESPN's Mark Simon after the 2011 Gold Gloves were announced.

    With 47 in 2010 and an AL-high 49 in 2011, Gardner stole a lot of bases. Once his legs began to slow down, his bat sped up. Between 2013 and 2015, he slashed .262/.338/.412 and hit 41 home runs. 

    Overall, Gardner has been a mainstay star at a position where there aren't many mainstay stars. It's a shame he doesn't have more to show for it.

4. Brian Dozier, Minnesota Twins

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    Hannah Foslien/Getty Images
    Career WAR2016 WARNormal/Prime War
    18.56.54.4

    In fairness, Brian Dozier does have one All-Star appearance and would have a second if the two halves of his 2016 season were flipped around.

    He was merely OK in the first half, posting a .786 OPS and cranking 14 homers. He then turned into an all-engulfing fireball in the second. In 72 games, he had a .990 OPS and hit 28 homers.

    Dozier was also 18-for-20 in stolen bases in 2016 and solid on defense, to boot. Had it not been such a historic year for second basemen, his excellent season surely would have stood out more than it did.

    What Dozier was doing before 2016, however, is not to be overlooked.

    Between 2013 and 2015, his average season consisted of a .747 OPS, 23 homers, 16 steals and strong work on defense. He wasn't the top second baseman in the American League, but his 11.3 WAR at least put him in the discussion.

    It's all enough to suggest that Dozier's slow start to 2017 won't last. And if he takes off like he did in 2016, he's not going to stay underrated for much longer.

3. Jose Quintana, Chicago White Sox

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    Mitchell Layton/Getty Images
    Career WAR2016 WARNormal/Prime War
    20.55.14.5

    Former White Sox manager Robin Ventura was right about Jose Quintana.

    "I would put him in the top five. He's underrated," Ventura said last spring, per Colleen Kane of the Chicago Tribune. "Not by me or anybody in that clubhouse, but outside just because of the record."

    Quintana owned a career record of just 33-34 at the time. Even in going 13-12 in 2016, he only improved it to 46-46. So maybe Ventura had a point.

    But records, shmecords.

    Quintana should have turned heads with the 3.76 ERA he put up in 136.1 innings as a rookie in 2012. By the time he was finally selected to an All-Star Game last year, he was already well into a run as one of MLB's best left-handers.

    Between 2013 and 2016, Quintana averaged a 3.35 ERA and 204 innings. He accumulated more WAR than all but three other lefties. Among those below him were Madison Bumgarner, Jon Lester and David Price.

    Quintana has since gotten off to a slow start this year. Yet he still figures to be a hot commodity around the trade deadline. It's not the kind of renown he deserves, but it's better than nothing.

2. Andrelton Simmons, Los Angeles Angels

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    Ryan Kang/Associated Press
    Career WAR2016 WARNormal/Prime War
    21.44.24.7

    If calling Andrelton Simmons "underrated" doesn't seem quite right, that's probably because nobody disputes his reputation as a great defensive shortstop.

    But maybe his defense is even better than it gets credit for?

    Simmons did win Gold Gloves in 2013 (possibly the best defensive season ever by a shortstop) and in 2014, establishing himself as a highlight maestro in the process. But despite missing out on additional hardware in 2015 and 2016, he led his league in DRS both years.

    There's thus an argument that Simmons should have as many as four Gold Gloves on his mantle. And even if he did, he might still be underrated.

    After all, living with his superior defense doesn't require suffering woefully inferior offense—this is otherwise known as the "Brendan Ryan conundrum." With a career slash line of .261/.309/.365, Simmons is more a below-average hitter than a downright terrible hitter.

    It's easy to lose sight of him amid a new shortstop revolution headlined by Carlos Correa, Francisco Lindor, Corey Seager and Addison Russell. But as MLB's shortstop WAR leader between 2012 and 2016, Simmons is no slouch even when compared to them.

1. Kyle Seager, Seattle Mariners

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    Lindsey Wasson/Getty Images
    Career WAR2016 WARNormal/Prime War
    24.56.94.9

    Baseball hasn't been lacking for superstar third basemen in recent seasons. If it's not Kris Bryant or Josh Donaldson in the spotlight one moment, it's Manny Machado or Nolan Arenado.

    Meanwhile in Seattle, Kyle Seager sheepishly raises his hand and says, "Uh, me too."

    Of course, he might not even be the best Seager in MLB today. His younger brother is plenty good in his own right. And the older bother hasn't been completely ignored. He made an All-Star appearance and won a Gold Glove in 2014. He also placed 12th in the AL MVP voting last year.

    But in ranking sixth in the AL in WAR, Seager arguably deserved better in last year's MVP voting. And despite his infrequent accolades, only three third basemen produced more WAR between 2012 and 2016.

    An average season for Seager in this span included a .786 OPS and 25 homers. And after struggling on defense initially, he developed into one of the top defenders at the hot corner between 2014 and 2016.

    Seager has since gotten off to a slow start this season. But if a track record like his is good for anything, it's as an assurance that his struggles won't last.

    Data courtesy of Baseball-Reference.com and FanGraphs.

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