Last week, Graham Womack of Baseball Past and Present did a run down of the most underrated players per decade (the rest of the pieces are linked to at the bottom of that one). It was fun, and I wanted to do something quick and related. So, I decided to look at the same topic, but shifted half a decade. Basically, the only difference is that I look at decades that start with a 5 year and end with a 4 year (for example, 2005-2014). With those parameters, who are the most underrated players?
2005-2014: Chase Utley
It’s hard to argue for anyone other than Chase Utley here. Both Fangraphs and Baseball-Reference’s versions of WAR have him second in this offset decade. In both versions, he trails only Albert Pujols, 67.0-59.1 in bWAR and 59.3-57.4 in fWAR. Despite this dominance, Utley is pretty overlooked; no one ever talks about him as a Hall of Fame candidate despite ~60 WAR; never finished higher than seventh in MVP voting; ranks 185th on Baseball-Reference’s Fan EloRater behind players like Babe Herman and Cecil Cooper… It’s hard to find any method in which he feels adequately appreciated.
I have no grasp on how over- or underrated David Wright is. On one hand, he plays in New York and has earned the nickname Captain America after seven All-Star seasons. On the other hand, he’s been one of the best players in the game for a decade now and he only has one top-5 finish in MVP voting and seemingly little buzz around his Hall candidacy (for instances, he’s #214 on the EloRater, behind players like Julio Franco and Boog Powell, as well as contemporaries like Mark Teixeira). Baseball-Reference has him as the sixth best player in this timespan (47.2 WAR, behind Pujols, Utley, Miguel Cabrera, Adrian Beltre, and Robinson Cano), while Fangraphs has him fourth with 49.6 (behind just Pujols, Utley, and Cabrera).
Matt Holliday could also go here. Like Wright, he has his moments (six All-Star selections, MVP runner up in 2007). But I think people write off a lot of his early career to the work of Coors Field and forget just how good he’s been with the Cardinals. Baseball-Reference has him eleventh in WAR for our decade in question (41.6) despite hating his fielding. Fangraphs thinks he’s closer to an average left fielder, and ranks him right behind David Wright for the decade (46.3). At the very least, he’s had one of the best $100 million+ contracts in the history of the game.
A couple other players might be able to go here, like Adrian Beltre and Robinson Cano, but I think a lot of people have caught on to just how good they are as of late. Joe Mauer might qualify here if the end of his large contract blots out the good memories of early-career Mauer.
1995-2004: Kevin Brown
This was a tough one, as I flip-flopped between Brown and the runner-up. In the end, though, I stuck with my first choice. For as good a decade as the 1990s were for power hitters, there were still a number of dominant starting pitchers in the era. Players like Roger Clemens, Randy Johnson, Pedro Martinez, and the Braves’ Greg Maddux/Tom Glavine/John Smoltz ruled the scene, and guys like Curt Schilling and Mike Mussina did well enough for themselves fighting for notice. Lost in the shuffle was one of the best, though, in Kevin Brown. In this timeframe, he carried a 2.79 ERA (150 ERA+, as good as Greg Maddux) and was worth 51.2 bWAR (sixth, behind Johnson, Martinez, Schilling, Maddux, and Clemens) and 49.6 fWAR (seventh, behind those same guys in the same order and flip-flopped with Mussina). What ended up being the deciding figure for me though was that Brown only pulled 2.1% of the vote in his first appearance on the Hall ballot. However, if the next guy falls off on his first time around as well, I’d probably put him over Brown.
Honorable Mention: Jim Edmonds
It’s easy to miss since he fell just short of some milestones (1949 hits, 393 home runs) due to injuries, but Edmonds had a Hall-worthy career. From 1995-2004, he was one of the top players in baseball, with 51.6 bWAR (sixth, behind Barry Bonds, Alex Rodriguez, Jeff Bagwell, Chipper Jones, and Jim Thome) and 52.2 fWAR (fourth, behind just Bonds, A-Rod, and Bagwell). For his career, he wound up with 60.3 bWAR and 64.0 fWAR, thanks to a 132 OPS+ and his glove. Right now, he ranks 76th on the position player EloRater, right around players like George Sisler and Rod Carew, so maybe he will put up a good showing on the Hall ballot. However, Kevin Brown did pretty well on the pitcher EloRater, so maybe it means nothing.
1985-1994: Bret Saberhagen
It’s tough to pull an underrated hitter from this decade: the top of the charts are all Hall of Famers who made it in rather easily (Rickey Henderson, Wade Boggs, Cal Ripken, Jr., Ozzie Smith, Ryne Sandberg, etc.) or Barry Bonds (who still leads all hitters for a second decade). I’m trying to stay away from picking Hall members like Graham did, and all of our best hitter Hall snub candidates fall victim to our end dates (more on that in a minute).
However, pitchers are a different story. Roger Clemens was the best pitcher of this decade, no matter how you want to slice it. However, second on both lists is Saberhagen. It’s interesting to note that, even with two Cy Young Awards, Saberhagen: 1) only even placed in Cy Young voting once; 2) only made three All-Star teams (including neither of his Cy Young years); and 3) only made it on one Hall ballot, where he drew 1.3% of the vote. As I mentioned last month, the Hall has gotten awful at electing pitchers, and Saberhagen is right in that group they should be looking at again. The Hall of Stats gives him a Hall Rating of 120, while he has 59.1 bWAR and 58.9 fWAR despite an injury-shortened career
Like I said, all of these guys fall victim to our end dates. All should be in Cooperstown already, but have been ignored unfairly. However, they all rate toward the back end of the top ten hitters of this decade (B-R: Raines ninth, Whitaker eleventh, Trammell twelfth; Fangraphs: Raines seventh, Whitaker tenth, Trammell fourteenth) because they lose large chunks of their prime; in 1985, Raines was already 25, Trammell was 27, and Whitaker was 28, with playing time all the way back into the ‘70s.
1975-1984: Buddy Bell
Another one-and-done on the Hall ballot (he received 1.7% in 1995), Bell built up quite the resume on a decent bat and fantastic glove. Constantly rated one of the best fielding third basemen of all time by most advanced stats, Bell put up a career 66.1 bWAR and 61.7 fWAR, as well as a 122 Hall Rating. In his career, Bell made five All-Star games (four of which came during this decade) and peaked in MVP voting with a tenth place finish in 1979. In this ten year span, he placed fourth in both formats of WAR (behind Mike Schmidt, George Brett, and Gary Carter).
Honorable Mention: Bobby Grich
Grich falls into the same problem that Trammell, Whitaker, and Raines did in the last decade, starting this decade already at 26 and missing three of his best seasons, which leaves him towards the back of the top ten (eleventh in B-R, eighth in Fangraphs). He’s gone on to earn a reputation as one of Cooperstown’s biggest snubs, with 70.9 career bWAR and 69.1 fWAR to go with the 2.6% of the vote he got on his one Hall of Fame ballot.
1965-1974: Ron Santo
Ron Santo might be the poster boy for the underrated superstar. His story has become pretty well known at this point, with the decades-long process to garner him Hall induction only culminating two years ago after over three decades of attempts and following his death. For this decade, he was fourth in fWAR with 52.6 (behind Hank Aaron, Carl Yastrzemski, and Pete Rose) and seventh in bWAR with 51.1 (behind those three, Roberto Clemente, Joe Morgan, and Brooks Robinson, the last of whom had a mere 0.1 win lead).
Honorable Mention: Dick Allen
Unlike Santo, Allen still hasn’t overcome his underratedness to make Cooperstown yet. He was right behind Santo for the decade (fWAR-50.9, sixth; bWAR-49.5, eighth), and wound up with about 60 WAR in both versions, as well as a 115 Hall Rating. And yet, he’s right there with Utley with a 184 EloRating, he only finished in the top 15 in MVP voting three times several good seasons, and he never broke 20% of the Hall vote after hanging around for fourteen tries (and on top of that, he fell off the ballot on his first try in 1983 with 3.7% and had to be re-added to the ballot with a few other players).
We’re about halfway through, so now seems like a good place to take a break. Check back in a few days for part two!