MLB's All-Underrated Team Heading into 2021 Season

Martin FennFeatured Columnist IMarch 12, 2021

MLB's All-Underrated Team Heading into 2021 Season

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    Lynne Sladky/Associated Press

    There are almost always those MLB players who do not quite get the credit they deserve.

    Some players have the misfortune of flying under the radar in smaller markets or being stuck on losing organizations. Others might be afterthoughts at positions full of elite talent.

    Earlier this week, we made projections for what essentially amounts to the All-MLB team. But that list is made up of superstar players and household names. What about the other end of the spectrum?

    The following players comprise our All-Underrated team for the 2021 season. Players were chosen based on a general lack of national popularity with statistical backgrounds bolstering each case. Ultimately, though, there is a good deal of subjectivity that goes into these selections.

Honorable Mentions

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    Ross D. Franklin/Associated Press

    Catcher: Travis d’Arnaud

    First Base: Christian Walker

    Second Base: Cesar Hernandez

    Shortstop: Paul DeJong

    Third Base: Gio Urshela

    Left Field: Jesse Winker

    Center Field: Aaron Hicks

    Right Field: Kole Calhoun

    Starting Pitchers: Kenta Maeda, German Marquez, Kevin Gausman, Marco Gonzales

    Relief Pitchers: Tyler Clippard, Richard Rodriguez

Catcher: Christian Vazquez, Boston Red Sox

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    Brynn Anderson/Associated Press

    Christian Vazquez has been one of the best backstops in baseball over the last two seasons, yet he does not seem to get the same acclaim as other top catchers.

    Vazquez burst onto the scene as the Boston Red Sox's everyday catcher in 2019, hitting .276 with 23 homers and a .798 OPS. He made strides again in 2020, hitting .283 with seven homers, an .801 OPS and a career-high 114 OPS+.

    The 30-year-old is no slouch behind the plate, either. Vazquez threw out 38 percent of would-be base-stealers in 2019 and was 4 percent above the league average with a 30 percent caught-stealing rate in 2020.

    Boston's rotation was horrendous in 2020, but Vazquez managed to steal some strikes for his pitchers. He ranked fourth in pitch-framing one season after ranking fifth in the same category.

    Vazquez's emergence places him third among all catchers in fWAR since the start of 2019, behind J.T. Realmuto and Yasmani Grandal.

    It will be fascinating to see how the Red Sox handle their starting catcher in 2021. Vazquez could be a free agent in 2022 (team option) and could be a major trade asset should Boston struggle in advance of the deadline. For his part, he has said he wants to stay in Beantown.

First Base: Brandon Belt, San Francisco Giants

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    Jeff Chiu/Associated Press

    Brandon Belt's rankings among first basemen (min. 170 plate appearances) in 2020: fourth in fWAR and second in both weighted runs created plus (wRC+) and OPS (1.015).

    The San Francisco Giants veteran was magnificent, bumping his walk rate to a career-high 16.8 percent while also ranking in the 96th percentile in barrel rate and expected slugging. 

    There is no doubt 2020 was the best year of Belt's career. But he has been an excellent first baseman for a decade now. He has an .810 career OPS and 122 career OPS+. He's had an OPS+ below 110 just once since 2012. He has a tremendous feel for the strike zone and quick hands inside to utilize his pull power.

    Belt's excellent discipline and command of the plate have helped him rank in the 90th percentile or higher in expected wOBA in four of the last six seasons. He has ranked in the 90th percentile or higher in expected ISO in three of the last six seasons. 

    Moreover, Belt is a strong defender at first. He ranked in the 68th percentile in outs above average in 2020 and has ranked as high as the 96th percentile (2017). He also ranks second among first basemen in defensive runs saved in the last three seasons.

    The Giants lifer is another potential trade target to watch as he is on an expiring contract.

Second Base: Jonathan Schoop, Detroit Tigers

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    Scott Kane/Associated Press

    Jonathan Schoop's exit velocities and hard-hit rates are not the most encouraging metrics. But his track record says he is a guy who can drive the ball out of the yard and play excellent defense at second base.

    The 29-year-old hit 21 or more homers in every season between 2016 and 2019. He was on a similar pace in 2020, hitting .278 with eight homers and a .799 OPS over the course of the shortened season.

    Schoop strikes out a lot, especially for a guy who does not walk much. But he even made gains in that department in 2020, making huge percentile leaps in both strikeout and whiff rates.

    Defensively, Schoop ranked in the 80th percentile or higher in outs above average in each of the last four seasons, including the 91st percentile in 2020. 

    Yet despite his pop and glove, he played for four teams in three seasons. He re-upped with the Tigers for 2021, but only on a one-year deal. He plays a solid second base and could lend a young Detroit team some positional versatility.

Shortstop: Jose Iglesias, Los Angeles Angels

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    Matt York/Associated Press

    Jose Iglesias is more than just a defensive wizard. 

    The veteran shortstop has made gains at the plate in each of the last three seasons. His batting average rose from .269 in 2018 to .288 in 2019, and his OPS climbed from .699 to .724. But he really exploded in 2020. 

    Iglesias hit .373 with 17 doubles and a .956 OPS in 39 games. The 31-year-old still did not hit the ball incredibly hard but posted new career highs in barrel rate (3.2 percent), average exit velocity (86.2 mph) and hard-hit rate (36.5 percent).

    Those gains are important considering Iglesias makes tons of contact. He ranked in the 97th percentile in whiff rate and the 98th percentile in strikeout rate. He will get his share of hits even if the power numbers regress closer to his mean in 2021. 

    The defense remains superb. Iglesias experienced a slight "decline" in 2020, ranking in the 78th percentile in outs above average. But he ranked in the 95th percentile in 2019 and is generally playing at a high level.

    Iglesias played himself into being a trade asset for the Baltimore Orioles this past season. He has a similar skill set to the guy he replaces in Los Angeles, Andrelton Simmons, and will look to bolster the Angels' playoff hopes in 2021.

Third Base: Brian Anderson, Miami Marlins

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    Nam Y. Huh/Associated Press

    Brian Anderson finished fourth in National League Rookie of the Year voting in 2018. He has an OPS of at least .810 in each of the last two seasons.

    Alas, third base is a loaded position, and Anderson plays for a Miami Marlins club still trying to get a foothold in the NL East.

    Still, he's a legitimate talent at the hot corner. He hit 20 homers and 33 doubles in 2019 and then clubbed 11 round-trippers over 59 games in 2020. He also had a career-high 119 OPS+ this past season.

    The 27-year-old has made large strides as a defensive third baseman. Anderson had minus-three defensive runs saved and ranked in the 12th percentile in outs above average during his rookie season. But he has posted a combined 12 defensive runs saved at the hot corner in the past two years, also ranking in the 85th percentile in outs above average in 2020.

    We are talking about a guy who can hit for power and play multiple positions. Indeed, Anderson posted exceptional defensive metrics in right field in his first two seasons.

    He might not have the same star power or gravitas as other third basemen around the league, but he has been a top-10 guy at the position (by fWAR) since 2018. He deserves more praise.

Left Field: Mark Canha, Oakland Athletics

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    Matt York/Associated Press

    Here is the list of qualified outfielders with a higher wRC+ than Mark Canha in the last two seasons: Mike Trout, Christian Yelich, Juan Soto, George Springer and Cody Bellinger.

    That's elite company. But it never feels like the Oakland Athletic can sneak his way into the conversation of top outfielders. Part of that is the 32-year-old's career arc. 

    Canha broke through in earnest after becoming a Rule 5 pick, hitting 16 homers in a strong debut campaign in 2015. But a hip injury ended his season prematurely one year later, and he played just 57 games in 2017. No matter, the San Jose native would get back to business.

    Canha hit 17 homers with a .778 OPS in 2018. He followed that with an outstanding 2019 in which he hit 26 homers with a .913 OPS and 146 OPS+ in fewer than 500 plate appearances.

    While the power numbers dipped in 2020, Canha still had a 126 OPS+. He also continued to prove himself as one of the best on-base guys in baseball. He has now ranked in the 91st percentile or higher in walk rate in each of the last two seasons. 

    Canha gets on base, can hit for power and runs well, and he's an above-average defender in the corner spots. Let's see what he can do in 2021 now that he finally has a full-time opportunity.

Center Field: Ian Happ, Chicago Cubs

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    Nam Y. Huh/Associated Press

    Ian Happ is another guy with a strange arc.

    The Chicago Cubs' 2015 first-round pick made his MLB debut in 2017, hitting 24 homers with an .842 OPS. But a whopping 36.1 percent strikeout rate in 2018 eventually resulted in him spending the majority of 2019 in the minors. 

    Chicago might have held him at Triple-A Iowa too long. Happ hit .264 with 11 homers and an .898 OPS in 58 games after he was called up in late July 2019. That stretch basically earned him the starting center field job in 2020, and he followed with another strong season.

    The 26-year-old hit 12 homers to go with an .866 OPS and 131 OPS+. He ranked in the 84th percentile in average exit velocity and 89th percentile in hard-hit rate. He also saw a rise in walk rate with just a slight uptick in strikeout rate, as well as a substantial rise in line drive percentage.

    Given his exit velocities and prior barrel rates, Happ could be all the more dangerous in 2021 if he has more success lifting the ball. He had a 47.1 percent ground ball rate but also had an enormous 27.3 percent home run-to-fly ball ratio.

    Happ appears ready to make the Cubs' center field spot his own over the course of a full 162-game season. He has to grow defensively, but he has the speed and instincts to be an asset in the outfield.

Right Field: Nick Castellanos, Cincinnati Reds

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    Aaron Doster/Associated Press

    Nick Castellanos has been one of the more productive right fielders in baseball since 2016.

    The Cincinnati Reds right fielder has a .281/.333/.502 slash and a 119 wRC+ in that stretch. His 355 RBI rank seventh among qualified right fielders, though J.D. Martinez (primarily a DH) and George Springer (CF) are two of the names ahead of him. He is eighth in slugging during the same timeframe. 

    Castellanos' 2020 struggles might be slightly deceptive, as well. He hit .225 but had a .272 expected batting average. He ranked in the 82nd percentile in average exit velocity, 83rd percentile in hard-hit rate and 95th percentile in barrel percentage. Plus, he still managed to hit 14 homers.

    If Castellanos can cut down on the punch-outs in 2021—career-high 28.5 percent strikeout rate last season—he should be a serious threat in the middle of Cincinnati's order. The Reds will certainly need him to be a run-producer if they hope to emerge from the NL Central.

    Castellanos is a woeful defender. He doesn't walk a ton. Still, the numbers show he has been among the most productive right fielders at the plate. The 29-year-old might just be entering his prime.

Starting Pitcher: Kyle Hendricks, Chicago Cubs

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    Jae C. Hong/Associated Press

    Kyle Hendricks is destined to be eternally underrated.

    Power pitchers with electric fastballs and wipeout breaking stuff tend to make headlines in the modern age. Conversely, Hendricks is a finesse pitcher whose 87.4 mph average fastball ranked toward the bottom of all qualified hurlers in terms of velocity.

    But make no mistake: Class is always in session with the Professor. Hendricks keeps hitters guessing with a changeup he can move both ways and throw in any count. That off-speed sets up the fastball. The heater gets on hitters deceptively fast, especially when Hendricks goes upstairs. 

    Hendricks' arsenal helps him induce loads of soft contact. He ranked in the 90th percentile or higher in average exit velocity in each season between 2016 and 2019. He ranked in the 87th percentile in that category in 2020, as well as the 82nd percentile in hard-hit rate.

    That soft contact produced more results last summer. Hendricks had a 2.88 ERA and 1.00 WHIP in 2020. He led MLB in walks per nine innings (0.9) and led the NL in strikeout-to-walk ratio (8.0).

    The 31-year-old ranks 15th among qualified starters in fWAR and 10th in ERA since he debuted in 2014. He has a 3.12 career ERA and a 1.11 WHIP.

    Maybe Hendricks' underrated status is more befitting of his stoic and unflinching nature on the mound. But it is high time he gets more consideration as one of the best pitchers in the game.

Relief Pitcher: Raisel Iglesias, Los Angeles Angels

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    Aaron Doster/Associated Press

    Being a relief pitcher is usually a pretty thankless job, so a lot of bullpen guys are worthy of more praise.

    But let's go with Raisel Iglesias, who is coming off a career year and was essentially traded to the Los Angeles Angels for a mere pittance.

    Iglesias was exceptional in 2020, posting a 2.74 ERA in 23.0 innings and notching eight saves. He had a career-best 1.84 fielding independent pitching mark (FIP) as the homer rate plummeted.

    That last part is especially important. Iglesias gave up 1.5 homers per nine innings in 2018 and 1.6 jacks per nine in 2019. But the 31-year-old ranked in the 79th percentile in average exit velocity and 93rd percentile in hard-hit rate in 2020, resulting in just 0.4 homers per nine. 

    Iglesias has devastating stuff. He complements a live fastball with a wipeout slider and excellent changeup. The former Cincinnati Red ranked in the 96th percentile in whiff rate in 2020 and has ranked in the 91st percentile or higher in that category during each of the last three seasons. 

    Let's not forget Iglesias had 30-plus saves in both 2018 and 2019. He will own the ninth inning in L.A. and could firmly establish himself as one of the best relievers in baseball.


    All stats obtained via Baseball Reference, Baseball Savant or FanGraphs, unless otherwise noted.