No, this isn’t a post about Shin-Soo Choo. At least I don’t think it is. It’s probably not a post about Ryan Zimmerman or Kurt Suzuki or Kila Ka’aihue either. Scores of bloggers have weighed in on the subject of underratedness. We’ve heard about how Petco Park kept Adrian Gonzalez from putting up huge numbers and how Chase Utley, like Lou Whitaker and Bobby Grich before him, does everything so well without being the best at one particular thing that he’s easy to overlook. We’ve seen Derek Jeter so consistently overrated that he was probably underrated in the middle of his career by those of us calling him overrated. I think the opposite will happen soon with Choo. So many saber-minded bloggers are hyping his underratedness that he’s probably overrated at this point in some circles.
This is my attempt to objectively determine who is the most underrated player in the game. Rather than trying to determine how every player in baseball is “rated” based on my limited media exposure and social interactions, I’ll attempt to look at the skills we overrate and underrate and create a prototypical underrated player’s stats, then try to match those stats to an actual player. I’m sure there will be some subjective decisions in the creation of my formula, but there’s certainly enough data available to find one player whose value to his team goes relatively unnoticed.
In contemplating what should go into this formula, my first thought was that I need to look at certain underappreciated outcomes- walks, hit by pitches, not grounding into double plays, net stolen bases less caught stealing, maybe doubles and triples- let’s call them the Craig Biggio outcomes- and aggregate them to find the guy who does all these little things best. Upon further examination, I’m pretty sure we know who walks a lot and we appreciate those players. Is Bobby Abreu really underrated? Kevin Youkilis? The guys who hit doubles- Evan Longoria, Miguel Cabrera, Ryan Braun, Jayson Werth- tend to be well regarded and well compensated.
A better way to look at underratedness is to see who adds the most value to his team without putting up gaudy newspaper stats. Guys with high batting averages, lots of home runs, and lots of RBI are always listed at the top of the Sunday paper stat listings, always standing out in box scores, always discussed in All-Star and MVP conversations. These are the guys who are sometimes overrated, but more often properly rated- appreciated for compiling the hits and driving in the runs that help their teams win games. Of course, hits and homers are built into the WAR formula, so the value they do add is encompassed in our best available value metric. So why not determine the players with the highest WAR and back out the batting average, RBI, and home run components?
The method I settled on was as follows: I took all players with enough plate appearances to qualify for a batting title in 2009 and 2010 and so far in 2011 and lined up their home run totals, RBI totals, batting averages, and fangraphs WAR for that 2 1/4-year period. I then found the standard deviation in each category and assigned each player a value for each stat based on the number of standard deviations his score was above or below the mean value. I took three times the resulting WAR score and subtracted the batting average, home run, and RBI scores. The median score was exactly zero, as Marlon Byrd accumulated 7.4 WAR (.17 standard deviations above the mean) with a .291 batting average (.75 over), 35 home runs (.28 under), and 166 RBI (.04 over) over that period. We’re off to a good start. As of this moment, I have not looked at the top of the list, as I don’t want the results to impact the formula. And the most underrated player in baseball is…
Michael Bourn, Astros
Bourn accumulated 11.2 WAR, more than a standard deviation better than the average player in my data set, but he did it without filling up newspaper box scores. His .275 batting average is almost exactly average (.02 deviations below) among the players I studied. He hit just five home runs and drove in just 85 runs over the specified period, both almost two deviations below average. What makes Bourn so valuable? Defense (30.2 fielding runs above average at a prime position [center field]) and baserunning (11.2 baserunning runs above average, driven by 131 steals in 157 attempts) are the primary factors. Bourn also draws walks in almost exactly 10% of his plate appearances. He hits doubles (63 in the period in question) and triples (20, fourth most in the NL), and grounded into just ten double plays in 1,326 plate appearances. Playing for a bad team in Houston also certainly contributes to Bourn’s underratedness, though that doesn’t factor into my formula.
I feel pretty good about calling Michael Bourn the most underrated player in the game, but I’d feel better knowing who the next few guys on the list are.
# Name, Team, WAR, Rated Score
1 Michael Bourn, Astros, 11.2, 6.886
2 Ben Zobrist, Rays, 14.8, 5.958
3 Evan Longoria, Rays, 16.3, 5.076
4 Chase Utley, Phillies, 13.5, 5.016
5 Elvis Andrus, Rangers, 7.3, 3.984
6 Chone Figgins, Angels/Mariners, 7.7, 3.944
7 Ryan Zimmerman, Nationals, 15.1, 3.868
This list looks pretty good to me. Zobrist gained a little fame with the Rays’ run to the ’08 World Series, but he’s been consistently and quietly good since then, playing solid defense at multiple positions, stealing bases at a high percentage (46 out of 56), and racking up 126 extra base hits, just 45 of which were home runs. We all know Longoria is great, but he’s probably been better than you think, leading the American League in bWAR last year despite batting under .300, as he has every year in his career, with just 22 home runs. Utley is a classically underrated “little bit of everything” guy, while Andrus, Figgins, and Zimmerman are all excellent fielders and baserunners who offer some offensive value in nontraditional ways.
The next two players on the list are Red Sox Carl Crawford and Dustin Pedroia. It’s hard to be overrated playing in Boston, but both are excellent fielders and baserunners who fill up scorecards beyond hits and home runs. Jose Bautista, the major league leader in WAR since the beginning of 2010, is 12th overall, while Derek Jeter and Shin-Soo Choo, somewhat poetically, are 16th and 17th, almost identically underrated.
On the other end, Carlos Lee is the most overrated player in the game by the same method. Lee accumulated just .1 WAR despite driving in 214 runs, 1.05 standard deviations above the mean. Lee’s horrid defense and baserunning and his inability (or unwillingness) to draw a walk (fewer than 6% of his plate appearances and that way) make him barely a replacement-level player. Sluggardly sluggers Ryan Howard, Vladimir Guerrero, and Jason Kubel are the next three most overrated players by this method.
It is possible that the average fan has more appreciation for defense and baserunning than my formula gives him credit for, and that I’m selling the value of sluggers short by backing out both home runs and RBI. If I remove home runs from the equation, Zobrist overtakes Bourn as the most underrated player. Bourn is still second, with Utley, Bautista, and Longoria rounding out the top five. Lee remains the most overrated, followed by Guerrero, Kubel, and Jorge Cantu. I’m not sure anyone is bowing to the altar of Jorge Cantu, and Bautista’s finally starting to get his due, so I think I prefer the original list.
You may choose to call this list “best and worst defensive and baserunning players”, but if it’s true that the average fan sees more value in batting average, home runs, and RBI, Bourn and company are the players most likely to be overlooked when fans discuss the best players in the game. Michael Bourn may be a steal in your fantasy league next year. Then again, your fantasy league probably doesn’t count stolen base percentage and isolated power.