Compiling this season's all-underrated team
Latos, Zobrist, Encarnacion part of a talented group that deserves more recognition
There was a time -- and it was not that long ago -- when Shin-Soo Choo was routinely labeled "underrated." A Sports Illustrated player poll in 2011 dubbed him the most underrated player in baseball. Opposing managers would routinely use the U-word when sizing up Choo's skills. When the Reds acquired him in a trade with the Indians before the '13 season, it was viewed as a shrewd move that targeted the underrated aspect of on-base percentage.
Well, $130 million in appraisal by the Texas Rangers later, it's safe to say Choo is underrated no more.
This got me thinking, though, about the current state of rate. And so I bring to you my own version of the 2014 all-underrated team.
My goal here was to stay away from the guys with the monster contracts. Or guys with multiple All-Star appearances or major awards. I certainly wanted to stay away from guys with less than three years of service time, as they have not yet built up enough track record to be overrated or underrated.
I merely wanted to give some love to some players who, either as a product of their location or the quality of their club or the depth of stars at their particular position, have remained somewhat under the radar despite performances above the norm.
Here are my picks, and feel free to add your own:
C: Jonathan Lucroy, Brewers
Lucroy just barely cracks my service-time threshold, and he makes this list because of the way he's drastically exceeded expectations as the Brewers' full-time catcher. Where once there was question about Lucroy's long-term outlook behind the plate, he's proven to be a major offensive force the last two years and an excellent pitch-framer.
Aside from breaking his hand with a dropped suitcase in 2012 and enduring a miserable start to the '13 season, Lucroy has been a potent run producer. His weighted on-base average of .357 since the start of 2012 ranks fifth among catchers, just ahead of Carlos Ruiz and Carlos Santana. More pertinently, Lucroy rebounded considerably after that slow start last season, posting a .302/.362/.505 line with 15 home runs and 62 RBIs from June 1 through the end of the season.
1B: Edwin Encarnacion, Blue Jays
So much of this, clearly, is based upon perception. And north of the border, I'm sure there's a greater appreciation for what Encarnacion has done the last few years than there is stateside. Casual fans should know Encarnacion, who made the All-Star team for the first time in 2013, has provided a staggering amount of power production for the Blue Jays in recent seasons. But they might not realize that dating back to the midway point of the 2011 season, the only guy in baseball with more home runs than Encarnacion (89) is Miguel Cabrera (100). And even if you know that, you might not realize that over the last two seasons, Encarnacion eclipsed teammate Jose Bautista in slugging percentage (.546 to .515) and weighted on-base average (.392 to .374).
What's remarkable about Encarnacion is the improvement he's made in plate discipline, with his walk rate leaping from 8.1 percent in 2011 to 13 percent in '12 and holding steady at 13.2 percent last year. Encarnacion hit a respectable .272 last season despite an abnormally low .246 batting average on balls in play. He struck out just 62 times last season, a remarkable achievement when paired with his 36 home runs.
Entering his age-31 season, Encarnacion isn't expected to regress in 2014. In fact, if the Blue Jays get their act together elsewhere, we could be talking about him as a legit American League MVP Award candidate eight months from now. Not bad for a guy the Blue Jays locked up with an affordable extension in '12 -- one that will pay him a $9 million salary this season, a meager sum in today's marketplace.
2B: Ben Zobrist, Rays
I checked with SUA, the Society for Underrated Athletes (a group that doesn't get nearly enough recognition), and was told I'm not allowed to publish this article without mentioning Zobrist. So here you go.
Now, granted, maybe Zobrist has appeared on so many "underrated" lists (if you do a Google search for "Ben Zobrist underrated," Google breaks) that he's begun to feel a little, you know, rated. Jim Leyland hand-picked him for the AL All-Star team last year despite a subpar first half. That's not exactly ordinary for the underrated.
But in a winter in which Robinson Cano got 10 years and $240 million, I feel comfortable spreading a little more love to Zobrist, who will make a measly $7 million this season. The WAR stat (a metric practically invented for a guy like Zobrist, whose value lies in his versatility and adaptability) actually gives Zobrist (29.7) a higher mark than Cano (29.4) over the last five seasons. Granted, not all of those games came at second base for Zobrist, but it has been his primary position, and nobody has embodied the Rays' unorthodox success these many years better than Zobrist.
SS: Erick Aybar, Angels
Aybar is one of those guys who doesn't do anything spectacularly well but is solid in enough areas to hold his own at a premium position. Though his offensive numbers did regress slightly in 2013, Aybar has perfectly fit Mike Scioscia's small-ball mentality (even as the lineup around him has substantially shifted away from that strategy) by putting the ball in play and letting his legs work for him. He's amassed at least 31 doubles in each of the last three seasons, and, according to FanGraphs, he has added 18.8 runs' worth of baserunning value since 2009, the fourth most among shortstops in that span. In fact, the FanGraphs-calculated WAR that Aybar has recorded in that five-year span is eighth among shortstops, sandwiched between Jimmy Rollins (14.9) and Derek Jeter (13.8).
3B: Chase Headley, Padres
Honestly, this was the toughest position on this list to address. Adrian Beltre's often referred to as "underrated," but the four top-10 MVP finishes, four Gold Gloves and three All-Star appearances would insist otherwise. Josh Donaldson's magnificent 2013 season was overshadowed by Cabrera's output, but it was Donaldson's first full season. Kyle Seager's blossomed into quite a big leaguer, but he's only been around two full years. Maybe Evan Longoria or Ryan Zimmerman (who will actually see time at first this year) don't get as much national love as they deserve, but they are $100 million men.
So, yeah, I'm going with Headley here, even though his massive 2012 season briefly landed him in the ranks of the overrated. There was so much expected of Headley after that output (which made him one of the most talked-about trade targets in baseball), and he fell well short of those expectations in an injury-plagued 2013.
But I think if we briefly put aside 2012, when he exploded with 31 homers and 115 RBIs, and limit ourselves to looking at Headley's career norms, we see a guy who has had a strong and steady career at the hot corner. And while there are probably a lot of people (read: fantasy baseball owners) down on Headley right about now, the simple fact is that a majority of Major League teams would sign up for those norms (a .269/.350/.415 slash line) in a heartbeat. Heck, as disappointing as Headley's 2013 might have been deemed to be, he still put up the sixth-highest WAR mark among Major League third basemen.
LF: Alex Gordon, Royals
He's won a Gold Glove each of the last three seasons, so I'm kind of breaking my own rules here, from an awards standpoint. But come on, it's worth it. Only two players who have logged significant time in left since 2011 -- when Gordon settled into the position and broke away from "bust" status -- have posted a higher WAR in that span: Mike Trout and Ryan Braun.
Gordon had a career big league slash line of .244/.328/.405 after 1,642 plate appearances. He was almost 27 years old by that point. Ordinarily, that's a good point to punt on all reasonable expectation that a player will live up to the kind of expectations that had once been placed upon Gordon. But in the time since, he's amassed a .287/.357/.459 line and a weighted on-base average (.355) just below that of Josh Hamilton (.358). Gordon drove in 81 runs last season, while serving primarily as a leadoff hitter. And with Norichika Aoki aboard, he should be in line to up that total in a middle-of-the-order slot.
CF: Coco Crisp, A's
Another tough position to fill in these conditions, unless you want to just break all the rules and give it to Trout by virtue of the fact that somebody actually put him seventh on their AL MVP Award ballot last year.
But I'm going to give the nod to Crisp, who has had a really, really solid career (he's accumulated six three-win seasons, per Baseball Reference's WAR calculation) without any major accolades, save for a couple down-ballot AL MVP Award votes in 2013.
Crisp has been a key instigator for the A's offense on two playoff clubs the last two years, he provides above-average defense, and he's always been a viable speed threat, when healthy. Actually, Crisp's steals total took a tumble last season, but he more than offset that with a sudden burst of power, giving him his first 20-20 season.
RF: Alex Rios, Rangers
Rios was a back-to-back All-Star back in the day (2006 and '07, to be exact), and he got a big extension (seven years, $70 million) at that point. So what is he doing on the All-Underrated team? Simple. Rios became so abysmally bad, and his contract became such an albatross (when the White Sox willingly took it on in a 2009 waiver claim, they were universally laughed at) that many people overlook just how productive he's been the last few years.
With 20-homer power and a career-best 42 steals last year (fourth most in the Majors), Rios is a double threat, who profiled as one of the 10 most productive outfielders in all of baseball each of the last two seasons. The Rangers obviously took notice, which is why they acquired Rios in a midseason trade last summer, and it's tempting to think what he can accomplish in a full season in Arlington and on a Rangers team that loves to run.
Of course, given Rios' inconsistent career trajectory, it's possibly he could crash in 2014, in which case we'll just slide him from the Underrated to the Overrated folder.
Starting pitcher: Mat Latos, Reds
Among those with at least 500 innings pitched since the beginning of 2010, Latos' first full season, only 15 guys have a better ERA than Latos' 3.27 mark, and all 15 of those guys have had at least an All-Star selection, something that has eluded Latos to date. He did receive down-ballot National League Cy Young Award support in his breakout 2010 campaign, and his role as a major acquisition by the Reds before the 2012 season obviously upped his national profile. But Latos is just 26 and has established himself as one of the more steady starters in the game, with room perhaps to improve.
Hiroki Kuroda also gets a shoutout here, even though he's a Yankee and Yankees, by nature, are difficult to underrate. He actually has the same ERA as Latos in that same 2010-13 span and, like Latos, has never been placed on the All-Star platform. The Yanks are extremely fortunate that Kuroda does those year-to-year contracts to stick around.
Closer: Greg Holland, Royals
The closer role itself is drastically overrated, and it's very much a "here today, gone tomorrow" proposition (much like the "underrated" label itself). But over the last three seasons, Holland has amassed a 7.2 WAR, second only to that of Craig Kimbrel (8.7), without anywhere near as much pub. Good on ya, Greg.