For the longest time (well, 2005 to at least 2009), Chase Utley was indisputably the most underrated player in baseball. In that five-year period, he never finished outside of third in rWAR among NL position players, yet never finished higher than eighth in the MVP voting. He led Phillies position players in rWAR in each of those years (and even in an injury-shortened 2010), and finished behind at least one such Phillies position player in the MVP voting each time; in 2005, before Ryan Howard was around full time to grab all the attention somehow, it was Pat Burrell. Pat Burrell!
Now, of course, Utley has missed 168 games since 2010, including all 62 of them so far this year. So today, the day when Utley finally starts his class-A rehab stint, seemed like a good day to revisit the question of who is the current holder of Utley’s former title. Who is the new most underrated player in baseball?
Most of the other contenders have become casualties, too. Before the start of 2011, strong cases were made for Ryan Zimmerman and Shin-Soo Choo; in the 1.4 seasons since, the first of those has missed around 70 games and hit just .275/.344/.416 (108 OPS+) while putting up 2.3 WAR when he has played, and the second has missed even more games, played only a little bit better, and been arrested on a DUI charge. I think you could’ve made a case for Evan Longoria (everyone knows he’s good, but few realize he has/had a strong case for best player in the AL), but he’s now missed 66 games since the start of ’11 himself. Ian Kinsler had a case, but his usually stellar defensive numbers are way down according to all the metrics so far…which may not mean much, but then, it’s pretty much all his case rests on. And now that he’s been to the Series twice in a row, I think most people know he’s pretty good by now anyway. Ben Zobrist seems to make his case approximately every other year, and it doesn’t look like this is one of those years.
So we need a whole new list, I think. A list of guys who (for the most part) are so underrated, people aren’t really talking about them as underrated yet. I’m sure ten different people could come up with ten equally valid lists, but here’s my attempt at naming the top five candidates, in no particular order:
Jordan Zimmermann: OK, “no particular order” is a stretch; Zimmermann comes first because it’s Zimmermann that made me think of this. I tweeted the other day that I thought he belonged in the “current most-underrated-player discussion,” and I do. One good way to be underrated is to wear the same uniform as someone else who does what you do but flashier. Howard hit more homers and knocked in more runners than Utley (largely because Utley was always getting on base for him, but that’s so not the point right now); Zimmermann has Stephen Strasburg striking out a ton of batters and, well, in this case, just being better than him. But it’s no shame not to be Strasburg, and since the start of 2011, Zimmermann has managed a 3.09 ERA (125 ERA+) in 38 starts, 238.2 innings. The underlying numbers don’t quite match the raw numbers, but they’re not hugely far off, either (unlike, say, Jeremy Hellickson). He’s not flashy, he’s just good, and he seems to still be getting better, and he’s only just turned 26. Zimmermann probably figures to spend the next 4-6 years (if the Nats can extend him) as the nominal #3 behind Strasburg and Gio Gonzalez (who is also just 26), but he’s looking a lot more like a really, really great #2. This is just a team that could be scary-good for a good long while now.
Michael Bourn: He was a bit of a joke at first. In 2008, the Astros somehow let Bourn play 138 games, batting 514 times — he hit leadoff or #2 in 89 of those 138 — while he hit .229/.288/.300 (59 OPS+), putting up -0.7 WAR and calling to mind the likes of Tom Goodwin and Brian Hunter. So it was easy to miss the fact that, almost immediately thereafter, Bourn’s offense shot up to something around average, with good baserunning and what has generally been rated by observers and all the metrics as stellar centerfield defense. Since 2010, he’s 14th among position players in both fWAR and rWAR — which may not sound like much, but the vast majority of players on both sides of him on the lists, going down to, say, spot 40 are so, are players who you would’ve thought were much better than Bourn is. Then in 2012 he’s been through the roof, neck-and-neck with Joey Votto according to both measures for the title of best player in baseball to date.
Elvis Andrus: Actually a fairly similar story to Bourn’s, just not as far along: Andrus was bad offensively in his rookie year of 2009, then was even worse in 2010 (batting .265 and slugging just .301, an almost incomprehensible .036 ISO). He jumped up to near-average in 2011, though, jumping up to a 96 wRC+ after his previous two seasons’ 86 and 77, and so far in 2012 has taken yet another step forward, with a .294/.372/.400 line good for a 114 wRC+. He provides defense at baseball’s most important position that is, at least, good (it looks spectacular), and it all comes together to form a 4-WAR player (by each of Fangraphs’, Baseball-Reference’s and Baseball Prospectus’) methods who is on pace for something more like 5 or 5.5 in 2012. Add to his slow start the fact that he’s overshadowed on his own team, fairly or not, by Hamilton, Kinsler, Beltre, Young and Napoli, at the very least, and you’ve got a very underrated player.
Matt Wieters: Until he actually hits .311/.395/.544 with 31 HR, as PECOTA thought he would in 2009 before he’d played his first big-league game, Wieters is always going to have a bit of a “bust” aura around him. It wasn’t just PECOTA, of course; everybody seemed to think he’d be an immediate superstar, “Joe Mauer with power,” etc., etc. Well, that didn’t happen, and still hasn’t happened, but Wieters has been a better-than-average catcher offensively since day one, and since 2011, he’s been better than average, period: his .260/.331/.450 in 777 PA in that span good for an OPS+ of 113. And he’s done it with possibly the best catcher defense in the league. He was second in the majors among catchers in fWAR last year, at 5.0 (behind Mike Napoli), and third in rWAR at 4.8 (behind Napoli and just behind Alex Avila), and he’s in line for about the same performance this year. Wieters is 26 and might still have plenty of room to grow as a hitter, but even if he doesn’t, he may well be the best catcher in baseball as it is.
It’s also worth noting that per this list, of all 130 players ever drafted as catcher, only 77 (59%) have made the big leagues, and of those who have, their average career total is 7.9 rWAR, and that’s buoyed by a number of guys who weren’t really catchers by the time they did most of their damage — Craig Biggio, Dale Murphy, Paul Konerko, Jayson Werth. Wieters is already at 9.8, so you could argue that in some sense, he could retire tomorrow and already have exceeded reasonable expectations. Ben Davis was once drafted second overall, fercrissakes.
Carlos Beltran: Beltran has certainly appeared on these sorts of lists before, but it’s been a long time. After losing his speed and the bulk of his defensive abilities through two injury-wrecked years in 2009 and 2010, Beltran looked pretty done. Since the start of 2011, he’s seventh in the majors in OPS+ and in wRC+: the latter list goes Kemp, Braun, Cabrera, Bautista, Votto, then Fielder and Beltran, with Ortiz, Konerko and Hamilton behind. That’s some pretty great company, and the 154 wRC+ he’s managed in that period — at ages 34 and 35 and with questionable knees — is better than his previous single-season high (151 in 2006). I don’t think Beltran is actually the most underrated player at this point, but he deserves something of a lifetime pass on lists like these, and I just can’t believe I haven’t heard more about the work he’s been doing this season.
So from that list (or your own, if you’re so inclined), who’s the most underrated player in baseball today? I very nearly talked myself into going with Wieters up there, but I think I’m going to have to say it’s Bourn. He’s become one of the best players in baseball (very nearly the best this season, if you buy into the numbers), the best player on what currently looks like a very likely playoff team, and a lot of people still seem to look at him like he’s a glorified defensive sub who can run fast. There’s no prime-career Chase Utley right now when it comes to be underappreciated, but all these guys seem to me to be getting a lot less than their due, and I think Bourn is the least appropriately valued of the lot.