The Nominees for MLB's Most Underrated Players of the 2021 Season

Zachary D. Rymer@zachrymerMLB Lead WriterSeptember 7, 2021

The Nominees for MLB's Most Underrated Players of the 2021 Season

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    Let's give Wade Miley the credit he deserves.
    Let's give Wade Miley the credit he deserves.Jeff Dean/Associated Press

    Enough about Shohei Ohtani, Vladimir Guerrero Jr. and Fernando Tatis Jr. already. It's about time some of the lesser-hyped stars in Major League Baseball got their due credit.

    So, we've come to present our nominees for the 10 most underrated players of the 2021 MLB season.

    Our only rules in compiling this list were that it couldn't include any 2021 All-Stars or anyone from our recent list of upward-trending stars. The former was sort of an obvious stipulation, while the latter was necessitated by the reality that we already gave those guys the attention they deserve.

    Please note that this is not a ranking. This is more of an Oscars-style list that will start with five hitters and conclude with five pitchers.  

INF/OF Enrique Hernandez, Boston Red Sox

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    Michael Dwyer/Associated Press

    2021 Stats: 112 G, 483 PA, 17 HR, 1 SB, .258 AVG, .346 OBP, .465 SLG, 114 OPS+, 4.3 rWAR

    Going in reverse order, the Boston Red Sox's best position players in terms of WAR are J.D. Martinez, Rafael Devers, Xander Bogaerts and...Enrique Hernandez?

    As he's coming off winning a Fielding Bible Award for the Los Angeles Dodgers in 2020, it's no surprise that the 30-year-old has accrued a good chunk of his value in the field. He's specifically excelled in center field, where he boasts 11 defensive runs saved and six outs above average.

    Hernandez's secret as a defender? He gets better jumps on the ball than any other outfielder, up to and even including three-time Gold Glover Kevin Kiermaier.

    Though Hernandez had a slow start on the other side of the ball, he's been a different hitter since settling into the leadoff spot June 27. In 51 games since then, he's a .297/.409/.563 hitter with 11 homers. That's Joey Votto-level stuff, folks.

    If he can pick up where he left off after he comes off the COVID-19 injured list, Hernandez may find himself as the recipient of some down-ballot MVP votes.    

CF Starling Marte, Oakland Athletics

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    Charles Rex Arbogast/Associated Press

    2021 Stats: 97 G, 425 PA, 10 HR, 42 SB, .316 AVG, .394 OBP, .458 SLG, 135 OPS+4.4 rWAR

    Though rookie left-hander Trevor Rogers was the only Miami Marlin named to the National League All-Star squad, the team may have sent two players to Denver if Starling Marte hadn't broken a rib in April.

    Albeit in only 53 games, the 32-year-old finish the first half with a solid .271/.382/.411 line with six home runs and 17 stolen bases. Such numbers also painted him as an obvious trade chip, so the Marlins cashed him in on July 28 in a deal with the Oakland Athletics.

    Bully for the A's, who've ended up with perhaps the best trade acquisition of any team. All Marte has done for them is hit .336/.373/.471 with three homers and a whopping 20 steals in 33 games.

    As evidenced by his 10th-percentile exit velocity, there's at least one reason to doubt the veracity of Marte's numbers. This nonetheless isn't the first time he's finagled a BABIP as high as .380, and he's showing better patience than ever in the form of a career-best 9.2 walk percentage.

    Factoring in that Marte is also safely in the black defensively with six outs above average, he's ultimately having as good a season as any of the league's center fielders.   

LF Tyler O'Neill, St. Louis Cardinals

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    Jeff Roberson/Associated Press

    2021 Stats: 112 G, 431 PA, 23 HR, 10 SB, .273 AVG, .343 OBP, .509 SLG, 134 OPS+, 4.2 rWAR

    With all respect to Paul Goldschmidt, Nolan Arenado and The Forever Catcher himself, Yadier Molina, Tyler O'Neill has arguably been the St. Louis Cardinals' most dynamic player in 2021.

    Lest there was any lingering doubt about O'Neill's defense after he captured a Gold Glove in 2020, he's tallied three outs above average and is faring even better with ultimate zone rating (6.6) and defensive runs saved (nine) this season.

    It's not just that the 26-year-old is an good fly-ball catcher. He also has more arm than your typical left fielder, something that former teammate Kolten Wong learned the hard way back on August 17.

    As was the case in O'Neill's first three seasons with St. Louis, strikeouts have remained his biggest offensive flaw, as he's whiffed in 32 percent of his plate appearances in 2021. But what contact he does make is decidedly loud, as his exit velocity and hard-hit rate are both in the 97th percentile.

    So in addition to another Gold Glove, there's a real chance of O'Neill ultimately exiting 2021 with the first 30-homer season of his career.     

2B/SS Jorge Polanco, Minnesota Twins

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    Mary Altaffer/Associated Press

    2021 Stats: 128 G, 548 PA, 27 HR, 10 SB, .283 AVG, .340 OBP, .519 SLG, 136 OPS+, 5.1 rWAR

    The Minnesota Twins' season described in one word? Disaster. In two words? Unmitigated disaster.

    But, hey, at least Jorge Polanco is back to looking like a cornerstone player.

    He was an All-Star for the first time in 2019 en route to a .295/.356/.485 slash line and 22 home runs. Yet that year was also marked by a relatively modest second half, so his fall from grace seemed to be complete as he struggled throughout last year's shortened season.

    That grace is now back because, while Polanco has always been pretty good at making contact, he's simply making better contact in 2021. His 89.2 mph exit velocity is easily the best of his career, and he already has more barrels this season (40) than he had throughout 153 games two years ago (35).

    Polanco has also saved his best work for pressure situations, compiling a .950 OPS in high-leverage spots and not one, not two, not three, but four walk-off hits. When a guy is having a season like that at the plate, his iffy defense is that much easier to forgive.  

RF Kyle Tucker, Houston Astros

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    Gregory Bull/Associated Press

    2021 Stats: 115 G, 466 PA, 24 HR, 12 SB, .286 AVG, .344 OBP, .538 SLG, 137 OPS+, 4.0 rWAR

    The Houston Astros sent three hitters to the All-Star Game in July, and it may have been five if there were enough room for Yuli Gurriel and Yordan Alvarez.

    As for Kyle Tucker, at the time the 24-year-old's stat line was still feeling the weight of a difficult April. But while that made it hard to stump for him as an All-Star in July, the following is not hyperbole: He's one of the best hitters in baseball right now.

    By way of a .316/.375/.586 line, Tucker has the third-best wRC+ in the league since May. He's likewise near the top of the overall leaderboard for xwOBA, which looks at both the quantity and quality of a hitter's contact.

    To those ends, Tucker is only striking out 15.9 percent of the time with an exit velocity and a hard-hit rate in the 86th and 87th percentiles, respectively. Though he's done most of his damage against right-handers, he also has a respectable .808 OPS against southpaws.

    Throw in how OAA, DRS and UZR all rate Tucker's right field defense as above-average, and he's yet another unsung hero who should get some down-ballot MVP votes.    

RHP Raisel Iglesias, Los Angeles Angels

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    Mark J. Terrill/Associated Press

    2021 Stats: 56 G, 51 GF, 61.0 IP, 42 H (10 HR), 92 K, 9 BB, 2.66 ERA, 169 ERA+, 2.3 rWAR

    Though the Los Angeles Angels pitching staff has been characteristically not good in 2021, it does feature one player having an all-time great season and perhaps the best relief pitcher in MLB.

    Yes, Raisel Iglesias belongs in that conversation. More so than you might think, anyway, and that has to do with how his results undersell the true quality of his performance. Among qualified hurlers, only Jacob deGrom and Corbin Burnes have him beat in expected ERA.

    That points in part to how Iglesias is striking out 39.7 percent of opposing batters, which puts him in the top five among relievers. Also key, though, is how batters are hitting the ball at an average of just 86.2 mph when they do make contact against the 31-year-old. That's in the 92nd percentile.

    Contrary to other closers, batters just can't sit on anything when they face Iglesias. In his four-seamer, slider and changeup, he has three pitches that he throws regularly. All three are nasty, with expected batting averages in the .100s.

    Let's end with a tip for teams struggling with their bullpens right now: Come the winter, Iglesias will be a free agent.

LHP Wade Miley, Cincinnati Reds

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    Aaron Doster/Associated Press

    2021 Stats: 25 G, 25 GS, 148.2 IP, 142 H (13 HR), 114 K, 47 BB, 2.97 ERA, 158 ERA+, 5.7 rWAR

    Regardless of what stats you value, we can probably agree that the front-runners for the National League Cy Young Award are guys like Burnes, Brandon Woodruff, Walker Buehler, Zack Wheeler and Max Scherzer.

    Of those guys, however, only Wheeler has Wade Miley beat in wins above replacement.

    Sort of like when Ben Zobrist led the American League in WAR back in 2009, this might feel like just one of those occasional WAR oddities. It's not as if Miley is an especially flashy pitcher, after all. Heck, the dude barely has a better strikeout rate than Zach Davies.

    Yet by way of his sharp command and a six-pitch mix that allows him to show hitters all sorts of different speeds and movements, what Miley can do is avoid the fat part of the bat. His ground-ball percentage is within the top 10 for qualified starters, and his 85.8 mph exit velocity is in the 94th percentile.

    The general picture here is that Miley truly pitches, while everyone else throws. It's good to know there's still room in Major League Baseball for guys like him.  

LHP Robbie Ray, Toronto Blue Jays

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    Elaine Thompson/Associated Press

    2021 Stats: 27 G, 27 GS, 166.0 IP, 124 H (25 HR), 212 K, 41 BB, 2.60 ERA, 172 ERA+, 6.8 rWAR

    OK, so, maybe calling Robbie Ray underrated at this point is like saying that Citizen Kane is a good movie, actually. But it's not against the rules either.

    Indeed, Ray missed out on being named an All-Star. He certainly could have been, given that he finished the first half with a 3.13 ERA and 130 strikeouts in 100.2 innings. His only real blemish was the long ball, of which he'd given up 20 already.

    No matter. The 29-year-old has been on an absolute tear of late with a 1.70 ERA and 99 strikeouts in 79.1 innings over his last 12 starts. Thus is he strengthening a case for the AL Cy Young Award that's also bolstered by AL-best marks for ERA, ERA+ and innings.

    Not bad for a guy who had a 6.62 ERA in 2020, yet that guy was also never the real Robbie Ray. He tried to streamline his mechanics to avoid more walks, but the effort instead resulted in him struggling with consistency all season.

    It's safe to say Ray is out of that rut. WAR-wise, he's having the best season of any pitcher in 2021 and the best year by a Toronto Blue Jays hurler since Roy Halladay in 2009.

LHP Ranger Suarez, Philadelphia Phillies

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    Derik Hamilton/Associated Press

    2021 Stats: 38 G, 7 GS, 72.0 IP, 45 H (3 HR), 72 K, 29 BB, 1.38 ERA, 296 ERA+, 4.0 rWAR

    No Philadelphia Phillies pitcher is having a better season than Wheeler, which certainly places on the "not at all" side of the surprising spectrum. 

    Still, this is no excuse to lose sight of the year that Ranger Suarez is having. Because as good as he was in relief, he's been nearly as good since he moved into Philly's starting rotation August 2:

    • Reliever: 1.12 ERA in 40.1 IP
    • Starter: 1.71 ERA in 31.2 IP

    The 26-year-old's money pitch is a changeup that just sort of dies right as it's entering the hitting zone, resulting in a whiff rate just south of 40 percent. He can also dial his four-seamer and sinker up to the mid-90s, and, like his changeup, both pitches are holding opposing batters to a .100-something average.

    If the NL Cy Young Award race was determined entirely by rWAR, Suarez would be on track to finish 10th in it. Impressive stuff, considering that he's made only seven starts all season.    

LHP Julio Urias, Los Angeles Dodgers

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    John Hefti/Associated Press

    2021 Stats: 27 G, 27 GS, 156.1 IP, 132 H (19 HR), 168 K, 32 BB, 3.11 ERA, 128 ERA+, 2.9 rWAR

    Come October, the Dodgers could line up Buehler, Scherzer and a hopefully healthy Clayton Kershaw in their rotation. Or, two guys with six combined Cy Youngs and a leading contender for this year's award.

    It'll be hard to blame them, though, if they ultimately favor Julio Urias over Kershaw.

    After securing the last out of the World Series in 2020, the 25-year-old has finally broken all the way out in 2021. And he's only getting better, as his last 12 outings have yielded a 1.98 ERA.

    It was possible to worry about Urias before he began this hot stretch. He's always been a spin-rate guy, after all, so it was a tad alarming when his spin rate took a dive as he gave up six runs in four innings on June 21, the first day of MLB's sticky-stuff ban.

    On the whole, however, there's only a 44 RPM difference between Urias' spin before the ban and his spin after it. That's to say his nastiness is genuine and that there's therefore nothing keeping him from getting his share of Cy Young votes.

               

    Stats courtesy of Baseball Reference, FanGraphs and Baseball Savant.

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