Ian Kinsler was the most valuable player on the 2011 Rangers according to both FanGraphs and Baseball Prospectus. FanGraphs rated Kinsler as the sixth-most valuable position player in baseball, while Prospectus had him as the sixth-most valuable player in baseball, period (just to display my bias, check out who is number four on BP’s leader board).
But Kinsler is rarely, if ever, mentioned as an elite player. In fact, Kinsler embodies many of the traits that usually lead to a player being underrated. So I present to you an initial draft of Ian Kinsler’s Guide to Being Underrated.
Step #1: Play with much more famous teammates.
Look, obviously Kinsler has not been better than Josh Hamilton over the last few seasons. Oh, wait. Yes, much of that relies on defensive ratings, but that Kinsler could even be in the same ballpark with America’s Greatest Tragically-Flawed Hero For Some Reason has to be surprising to some readers. For all of the chatter about the Rangers’ on-again-off-again contract talks with Josh Hamilton, very little has been said about Kinsler’s contract also being up after 2012 (partly due to the club option in 2013 that everyone expects the Rangers to pick up).
It is not just the Hamilton Effect, though. Do I really need to get into the Michael Young thing for the readers of Getting Blanked? For me, the highlight of the 2011 playoffs was some announcer (I am pretty sure it was Joe Buck) saying that “Michael Young never complains.”
Step #2: Have newcomers steal your spotlight.
I am a fan of both Mike Napoli, who broke out in Texas after years of being jerked around by the Angels, and Adrian Beltre, himself one of the more underrated players in the game (indeed, I would say he is a much better player as Kinsler, but not as underrated, if that makes sense). Both came to Texas this season, had monster years, and thus got much of the rest of the spotlight that was not taken up by Hamilton and Young. Sorry, Ian.
Snide side note: I turned on a 2011 playoff game late and the first thing I heard from one of the announcers right after Beltre made a big play was that Beltre “was a big complement to Michael Young this year.” Tremendous.
Step #3: Do not give notable quotes to the media.
Kinsler probably has his moments, but the fact that I cannot think of any (other than being mentioned in the latest Hamilton brouhaha) speaks for itself.
Step #4: Do not play for a team on the coasts.
The Rangers actually play in a pretty “big market,” and have a nice new TV contract, but let’s face it, there is a reason he does not get the attention that Dustin Pedroia or Robinson Cano receive despite being practically just as valuable the last few years (poor Ben Zobrist).
Step #5: Be named “Ian.”
Step #6: Provide a substantial chunk of value through fielding.
Fielding has garnered more attention in recent years due to the rise of “advanced” defensive metrics, but relative to a hitter of equivalent-value, a fielder is rarely going to get proportional attention. This is not to say that fielding metrics are anywhere as close reliable as hitting metrics — they are not. Fieldling is a piece of the “Underrated Kinsler puzzle,” though. It probably is not helped by Kinsler not having the greatest reputation as a fielder when he first came up, but the various metrics as well as amateur scouts have all been generally impressed with Kinsler’s glove.
Step #7: Lead off and score runs rather than hit in the middle of the order and drive them in.
The Rangers somehow figured out after the 2010 season that whatever his other gifts, giving Elvis Andrus the most plate appearances out of all their hitters was not a great idea. Ian Kinsler got the call and, of course, it worked. Sure, he was not the ideal lead off man in some people’s eyes, but, well, those people are idiots. In any case, I think it is pretty obvious that with rare exceptions, lead off hitters do not get as much credit for their contributions as middle-of-the-order hitters.
Step #8: Provide offensive value through secondary skills rather than hitting for average.
This is another area in which much progress has been made over the last decade, but like being a lead off hitter, some people just cannot get it through their heads. Indeed, there is a connection here, as I have addressed elsewhere: if you have two players with equal overall on-base skills, the better choice for hitting leadoff is the one who takes more walks rather than hits for average.
Kinsler especially looks “bad” in batting average compared to his offensively-minded teammates. The Rangers do have a number of good hitters, but other than Kinsler and Napoli, few of them take many walks, and Napoli had a BABIP surge in 2011. Kinsler does not strike out much, either (indeed, he walked 18 more times than he struck out in2011), but he has never had a very high BABIP due at least in part to a high rate of pop-ups.
Despite that, he still manages a good on-base percentage and hits for good power. He is also an efficient base stealer and does a great job at taking the extra bag. But really, how good can a guy with a .255 batting average be, right? Sigh.
Step #9: Play second base.
This is a big one, and one of the main inspirations behind this post. Second base superstars have received recognition before. Pedroia and Cano do not suffer from a dearth of attention, although as I mentioned above, this probably has a great deal to do with where they play. Of course, they are excellent players, too, but so is the relatively-unrecognized Kinsler.
As a group, though, second basemen are under-recognized. Matt Swartz’ recent research shows that second base has been the worst-compensated position relative to its contributions over the last few seasons. From a historical angle, along with his low batting average, the under-appreciation of second basemen a big reason why, e.g., Bobby Grich is not in the Hall of Fame.
Being a second baseman rather than a shortstop is another reason why Kinsler’s fielding gets over-looked in favor of his double play partner Elvis Andrus. A slick-fielding shortstop almost always gets more attention than a second baseman. Unless you are Bill Mazeroski, I guess, one of the most overrated players in baseball history. Seriously, Maz is in the Hall? He could not hold Willie Randolph’s jock, much less Bobby Grich’s. Learn to turn the double play, kids, don’t worry about anything else.
Perhaps the best way to show how underrated second baseman can be is a concrete example from recent years: Chase Utley. Have you ever heard Utley’s name mentioned as one of the best players in baseball? Probably not, and that is unfortunate. The usual qualifications aside, according to one measure, the best non-Pujols player in baseball since 2005 has been… Chase Utley. That’s right, including Utley’s last couple injury-marred years, fWAR has Utley being better than A-Rod (even if you narrow it down to 2005-2009), Roy Halladay, CC Sabathia, Miguel Cabrera, and the rest. Utley was at the top of his game when the Phillies won two pennants and the World Series. He plays in a big market. It was not all his great fielding and base running — he hit for power and average in the middle of a (formerly) stacked lineup.
Yet, not only was Utley underrated on a league-wide level in his prime, but many seemed to consider him second-fiddle to these good-but-clearly-not-as-good-as-Utley teammates: 1) Ryan Howard, the 2006 National League MVP despite being less valuable than Utley; and 2) Jimmy Rollins, the 2007 National League MVP despite being, well, you know. Howard had some great seasons that are now overshadowed by his insanely foolish (from the team’s perspective) contract, and Rollins is a tremendous player that I have always liked. But their back-to-back MVP awards in the midst of their teammate Utley’s incredible run of great seasons makes the point almost by itself.
Chase Utley is not quite a Hall of Famer in my book, at least not yet, but he has been a great player. Ian Kinsler is also an excellent player, but he is no Chase Utley. So if Chase Utley has never received the proper recognition despite doing, well, pretty much everything, what chance does Ian Kinsler have?