The 2012 MLB Season gets underway this week (no, as far as I’m concerned, those games in Japan last week don’t count), and apparently even die-hard hockey fans in Toronto are starting to get excited. So I thought this would be the perfect time to take a look at some players who might end up playing pivotal roles for their teams down the stretch. But instead of focusing on the superstars like Pujols and Fielder who switched teams and “altered the balance of power” (or so we’ve been told about a million times), I thought it would be more fun to discuss the important players you hardly ever hear about.
So today, I bring you baseball’s underrated starting nine. I’m not saying these are guys you haven’t heard of; serious baseball fans will certainly recognize every name. But these are guys who probably aren’t fully appreciated by most fans—not yet, anyway.
So let’s get started.
Hunter Pence has flown under the radar the last several years because he's played for the absolutely terrible Houston Astros. Of course, now that he plays for the Phillies, I'm sure he'll be overrated in no time. In any case, here are the right fielder's numbers for the last three years.
2009: .282 Ave, 25 HRs, 116 OPS+
2010: .282 Ave, 25 HRs, 112 OPS+
2011: .314, 22 HRs, 138 OPS+
Those are some consistently great numbers that should help keep the Phillies at the top of the NL East for at least one more year.
9. Right Field: Hunter Pence
McCutchen is another player trapped in the bottom of the NL Central in recent years. But mark my words: this Pittsburgh Pirate will probably play for the Yankees or some other rich team one day. As of now, however, he's definitely underrated.
Last year, at the age of 24, McCutchen cracked 23 HRs and swiped 23 bases, and got on base at a .364 clip. That was good for a fantastic 5 WAR (Wins Above Replacement) and 127 OPS+.
If you aren't familiar with WAR and OPS+, they basically measure a player against other players. A WAR of 0 and an OPS+ of 100 are considered average. So McCutchen is doing pretty good for himself.
8. Center Field: Andrew McCutchen
The Yankees' Brett Gardner stole 49 bases last year with a 83% success rate. The total was the second highest in the league, but the leader (Michael Bourne) only had a success rate of 81%. So Gardner is a real threat on the base paths. When you factor in his career .353 on-base percentage, he makes one hell of a leadoff hitter—if he actually gets to bat leadoff.
But Gardner's real value is his fielding. He's not only the best left fielder in baseball by a long shot. He's probably the best fielder at any position. Last season he had a defensive WAR (which measures the number of wins a player adds to his team by his defense alone) of 3.2. The next closest player had a 2.1. That's a big difference.
Another important defensive state is Defensive Runs Saved. It measures...well, obviously, the number of runs a players saves with his defense over a season. In 2011, Gardner saved 22. The only other player to save 22 was a center fielder (Austin Jackson), and center fielders have a lot more opportunities to be save runs.
Honorable mention to the Kansas City Royals' Alex Gordon, who is also an excellent and little appreciated left fielder. It was a close call between Gordon and Gardner for the left field spot on my underrated starting nine.
7. Left Field: Brett Gardner
Over the last two years, only four shortstops in all of baseball have a higher WAR than the Blue Jays Yunel Escobar (6.4). Two of them are superstars Jose Reyes (9.1) and Troy Tulowitzki (12.7). But how many people outside Toronto (his current town) and Atlanta (his former town) know who Escobar is? No, he's not on the same level as the other two guys I just mentioned, but 6.4 WAR is All-Star calibre.
(Note: I also considered Elvis Andrus for this spot on the underrated starting nine. But since he's been to the World Series the last two years, I don't know how underrated he is anymore. He might just be appropriately rated.)
6. Shortstop: Yunel Escobar
If the Nationals finally have their breakout season this year, it will certainly be thanks at least in part to third baseman Ryan Zimmerman. The guy has been the starting third baseman for the Nationals since 2006, when he was just 21. In that span, he's hit .289/.355/.443 with an OPS+ of 120. In 2009 and 2010 he hit 33 and 25 HRs respectively with 5.2 and 5.3 WAR. (He was injured for a lot of last season, so we're not counting that.)
More importantly, Zimmerman may be the best fielding third baseman not named Adrian Beltre. If this guy played for a good team, he'd already have a couple Gold Gloves (since Beltre plays in the AL and Zimmerman in the NL).
5. Third Base: Ryan Zimmerman
The Rays' second baseman is one of the best kept secrets in baseball thanks to the fact that he plays in the same division as Robinson Cano and Dustin Pedroia. But the numbers don't lie. Although 2010 was a down year for the guy, in 2009 and 2011, Zobrist's WAR was 7.0 and 5.1. His OPS+ in those seasons was 149 and 132—way above replacement level production. And yet the guy makes a modest $4.5 million per year because he doesn't play in New York, Boston, or LA.
4. Second Base: Ben Zobrist
Paul Konerko is the most underrated first baseman in baseball. That's because the White Sox slugger never puts up outrageous numbers. Just consistently great numbers.
Over the last two seasons, in which the ageless wonder was 34 and 35 years old, the guy hit 70 HRs, hit .306/.391/.551, and drove in 216 runs for an OPS+ of 152. That puts him just below the likes of Pujols, Votto, and Gonzalez, but above extremely wealthy first basemen like Mark Teixeira and Ryan Howard.
3. First Base: Paul Konerko
Alex Avila had an insane 2011 campaign. And yet he's not even the most famous catcher on his team. That honor goes to Tiger Victor Martinez.
So what kinds of numbers did Avila put up last year? How about .295/.389/.506 with 19 home runs and an OPS+ of 143—best among all major league catchers. But I guess because he doesn't have a cool name like Buster Posey, people aren't as interested as this hot hitting catcher.
2. Catcher: Alex Avila
The starting pitcher of our underrated starting 9 is the Milwaukee Brewers Yovani Gallardo. Now, to be fair, this is a guy who hasn't quite put it all together for a single spectacular year. But the kid is just 26, and his three "non-spectacular" seasons as a starter have resulted in a career 3.63 ERA. So he'd be at least the #2 starter on most teams in the league, and the #1 starter on more than a few. Last season he was 10th in all of baseball in Ks, and 8th in K/9 innings. The guy simply has nasty stuff, and once he gets everything figured out, he's going to be a perennial Cy Young contender.