When following baseball, it’s very easy to get caught up in the “sexy” statistics like home runs, batting average, ERA, wins, saves, etc. Generally, these are the guys who make the big bucks and are all over SportsCenter. And yet, there are guys who don’t provide much, if anything, in these statistical categories, and as such, tend to go unnoticed by the casual fan community. However, these are the guys that win you ballgames. These are the guys that make a big difference in the standings. Specifically, I was using WAR (Wins Above Replacement), a measure of player value, as my main metric here. For a quick refresher on WAR, check out this article. Enjoy!
Catcher – Yadier Molina, St. Louis Cardinals
While he’s not the offensively adept catcher most fans would prefer for their team, he’s also not the black hole at the plate that many believe him to be. His solid batting average and walk rate generally leave him with a very nice on-base percentage (average .345 since ’07) and he really doesn’t strike out much (career 9.5%). He’s not exactly Mike Piazza power-wise (career 3.67 SLG%), but he more than makes up for that with his defensive prowess. He’s lead the majors in fewest stolen bases allowed every year since 2008 and is currently tied with Baltimore’s Matt Wieters for that honor again this season. Basically, he’s replaced Ivan Rodriguez as the most feared defensive catcher in the bigs. He’s also great at blocking balls in the dirt and does an excellent job of handling the Cards’ pitching staff. He might not hit for power, but he’ll do almost everything else.
First Base – Gaby Sanchez, Florida Marlins
I talked a bit about Sanchez in my last “MLB Roundup”, but I still don’t think people are taking notice. This guy is legit. His current batting average (.354) is probably going to come down due to a high BABIP, but I doubt it falls all the way back to the .270’s where he sat for most of last year. Combine this with a 3% uptick in his walk rate (now 12%) and he’s going to have an excellent on-base percentage. He’s never going to be a big-time homer run guy, but remember that he plays in a big park. I could certainly see him hitting around 25 homers in his prime and he’s going to hit a ton of doubles, so there should be plenty of power to stick at first. His defense was about average last year, but he’s shown a reduction in errors so far this season and that’s really helped. Just a very solid middle of the order run producer.
Second Base – Brandon Phillips, Cincinnati Reds
It’s these kind of consistent, across the board type of players that tend to be underrated. Phillips isn’t really outstanding in any one facet of the game, but he’ll give you a little bit of everything. He’s got good power for a second baseman, but he’s never hit more than 30 home runs in a season. He’s got good speed on the base paths, but he’s never stolen more than 32 bases. He’s a good run producer, but he’s never driven in 100+ runs in a season. And yet, look at his average line since 2006:
.275/.325/.447 with 21 HR, 86 R, 81 RBI, 24 SB
And all of this with good to great defense. He’s even cut his strikeout rate to below 10% this season. With age, he’ll lose a few of the homers and steals, and his defense has already regressed from great to good. But it looks like his eye is sharpening at the plate, and that’s something that normally happens in a player’s 30’s. A consistency king.
Third Base – Placido Polanco, Philadelphia Phillies
Talk about a guy who doesn’t do anything “sexy”, Polanco has been a regular since 2000 and has only 3 years with 10+ homers and 2 years with 10+ steals. So how is that a guy with very little power and very little speed can amass nearly 4 WAR (3.95 to be exact) per season over an entire decade? It’s pretty easy to see when you look at his career line. He hits for average (.303 career), he doesn’t strike out (career 7.2%) and he’s an excellent defender (career UZR 108.6!). He’s your prototypical #2 hitter who handles the bat extremely well and puts up a solid on-base percentage. When you hear the term “grinder”, you should automatically think of Polanco.
Shortstop – Alexei Ramirez, Chicago White Sox
It’s easy to look at Ramirez’s line and quickly toss him aside. However, these days quality shortstops are hard to come by. Sure, you’ve got offensive juggernauts like Colorado’s Troy Tulowitzki and Florida’s Hanley Ramirez, but past them, there’s really not many players at the position who are credible both at the plate and in the field (some would argue Ramirez is not even credible in the field). And with shortstop being such an important defensive position, the value of defense here cannot be overstated. If I told you Ramirez was the 4th most valuable shortstop in the majors since moving to the position in 2009, would you believe me? Well he is (8.7 WAR), sitting behind only Tulowitzki (14 WAR), Ramirez (12.3 WAR) and Derek Jeter (10.5 WAR). According to UZR, he’s also the best defender at the position during that time period. So, good power (average 18 HR per season), solid speed (13 SB per season) and great defense. What’s not to like?
Outfield – Denard Span, Minnesota Twins
Great leadoff hitters are few and far between these days. If you’re an MLB manager, there are two things you’re looking for out of your leadoff guy: on-base ability and speed. That’s really it. And to be honest, speed is really a luxury. What you need is a guy who can get on-base in front of your big boppers in the middle of the order. And here we have Denard Span. If you throw out his 2010 season (.331 OBP), which looks like an anomaly, he’s got seasonal on-base percentages of .387 in 2008, .392 in 2009 and .368 so far in 2011. That’s pretty darn good. Throw in an average of 22 steals per season and good defense in centerfield and you’ve got yourself a very nice player.
Outfield – Michael Bourn, Houston Astros
Speed. Bourn might have more than anyone in the league today. Since becoming a regular for Houston in 2008, he’s averaged 51 steals per season. He puts a ton of pressure on opposing pitching staffs, making things easier for the guys hitting behind him. He’s posts solid on-base percentages (.354, .341 the past two seasons) and if he could cut the strikeouts, those would go up even more. He’s got almost no power, but his defense in center is superb. On a team with big-time middle of the order hitters, he would probably be a household name by now. Noticing a trend here with the outfielders? If you’re not, you will after the next entry.
Outfield – Shane Victorino, Philadelphia Phillies
If the Phillies were half as smart as everyone makes them out to be, this guy would have been hitting leadoff for the last five years instead of Jimmy Rollins and his career .329 on-base percentage. Instead, Victorino, a prototypical leadoff guy, has spent most of his career languishing at the bottom of the order. He gets on-base (career .341 OBP with a big outlier in 2010) and has speed to burn (33 steals per season since 2007). He’s also a very good defender in centerfield and is no slouch in the power department (14 homers per season since 2007). Someone tell Charlie Manuel there’s a lineup change needed.
Utility – Ben Zobrist, Tampa Bay Rays
Zobrist isn’t a utility guy in the fantasy baseball sense (a guy who has no position). He’s a utility guy in the true baseball sense of the word: a guy who can capably play almost any position. Since becoming a full-time player in 2009, Zobrist has started games at second (161), right field (97), centerfield (14), first base (11), shortstop (6), left field (2) and third (2). Basically, he’s played everywhere but catcher and pitcher. But he’s not your typical utility guy with the bat. He’s got good pop and speed and a very healthy walk rate. I think people underrate him because he’s fallen back a little after his monster 2009 season (8.6 WAR). However, he was hampered last year by bad luck (.273 BABIP) and he’s had a nice rebound so far this season, especially in the power department. The guy is a huge asset to the Rays, both at the plate and in the field.
Starting Pitcher – Matt Cain, San Francisco Giants
This guy should win a Cy Young one of these years, but I wouldn’t be surprised if it never happens. He’s outshined by Tim Lincecum on his own team and just generally does not get much attention in the national media. Heck, even after the Giants’ World Series victory last year, this guy still seems to be flying under the radar. Why? He’s got a career ERA of 3.45 and has averaged 210 innings pitched since becoming a full-time major league starter. He’s truly elite and no one seems to notice. His career strikeout rate (7.42 K/9) is good, not great, as is his walk rate (3.33 BB/9 and dropping). Where Cain really shines though is in his ability to prevent hits. Most sabermetricians would consider a BABIP of .266 a fluke, but when it happens over a six-year period, it’s not a fluke. The guys got great stuff and knows how to pitch to contact. He’s an absolute workhorse, flying under the radar because his win totals which are lacking due to a pop-gun offense.
Starting Pitcher – Gavin Floyd, Chicago White Sox
Floyd has never lived up to the immense hype that he received while in the Phillies’ organization, and I think that’s the main reason he’s been underrated. Guys tend to be called “overrated” for so long, that they eventually become underrated. No, he might not be an ace, but he’s averaged 13 wins per season since becoming a full-time starter for the Sox and his ratios (especially the FIP’s) have all continued to move in the right direction since then. He’s usually been the victim of horrible first halves, followed by post-All-Star break brilliance that makes you think he’s a frontline guy. Not this season. Floyd has started out extremely well (3.29 xFIP) and if he hits his usual hot streak after the mid-summer classic, he might be that frontline guy we’ve all been expecting. The stuff is there, it’s just a matter of putting it all together, which he appears to be doing.
Starting Pitcher – Wandy Rodriguez, Houston Astros
I labeled him a fluke after his out-of-nowhere 2008, but after repeats in 2009 and 2010, I’m a believer. He’s a bit of a late bloomer (now 32), but he’s always had stuff (7.71 K/9) and quality lefties are hard to find. Recently he’s done a great job of paring down the walk rate (2.18 BB/9 this year). Playing in Houston keeps his win totals down and his exposure minimal, but make no mistake, he’s an excellent pitcher. The Astros made a very wise move locking him up through 2014. He could net them a huge prospect package if they decide to move him at some point.
Starting Pitcher – Hiroki Kuroda, Los Angeles Dodgers
He doesn’t have overpowering stuff (career 6.59 K/9), he doesn’t win a ton of games (average 9 per season), he’s had a few injuries and he’s a bit long in the tooth (36). If that’s not the perfect storm of pitching underratedness, I don’t know what is. The guy simply gets hitters out (career 3.54 ERA). He’s not a frontline guy, but he’s a lot closer to being that type of pitcher than most people think. He keeps the walks down (2.09 BB/9) and for a guy with marginal stuff, he does a pretty darn good job of limiting hits. If he can simply stay healthy, he’ll be a very good pitcher for a few more seasons. It’s a shame he didn’t come over to the states sooner.
Starting Pitcher – Jordan Zimmermann, Washington Nationals
I might be jumping the gun a bit with this one, but I can’t help myself. Zimmermann has been completely swallowed up by the Strasburg hype and rarely gets the mention he deserves. He’s every bit as good as most of the other young pitchers in the majors, possessing great stuff, control and mound presence. I’m a little concerned about the K rate so far this year (6.63 K/9), but the fastball velocity is certainly there (93.2 mph), so I expect the strikeouts to come. The real encouraging thing is the improvement in control (1.99 BB/9). That’s an elite number. Nationals fans, be patient. Zimmermann and Strasburg could very well be the best 1-2 punch in the majors in a few seasons. And that idea is not as far-fetched as some might think.
Left-handed Reliever – Jonny Venters, Atlanta Braves
I think most fans assume that if a reliever isn’t a closer, he can’t possibly be that good. Well take a look at Venters. He’s got one save on the season and if you think he’s not elite, you’re blind. The guy has followed up his outstanding rookie season last year (83 IP, 1.95 ERA, 10.08 K/9) with an even better second year. His ERA (0.59), FIP (2.25) and xFIP (2.47) are all lower than last year. Sure, his K rate has dropped a bit (8.22 K/9), but he’s also sharpened the control (2.93 BB/9, down from 4.23 last year). He’s no lefty specialist either, as he’s just as tough on righties (.181 batting average against) as lefties (.171 BAA). An absolutely devastating late-inning reliever. In all honesty, he’s more valuable in his current role, being used in the highest leverage situations, regardless of the inning.
Right-handed Reliever – Mike Adams, San Diego Padres
Relievers have a tendency to see their performance fluctuate a good amount from year to year. That’s what happens when you pitch a smaller number of innings. So there’s something to be said for consistency. Adams had some bumps early in his career, but since coming to San Diego in 2008, he’s been outstanding. In those 3+ years, he’s never had an ERA over 2.48, he’s averaged well over 10 K/9 innings and his control has been exceptional. He’s a bit old (33 in July), but he’s got outstanding stuff and doesn’t have a ton of mileage on his arm. If the Padres decide to move closer Heath Bell (and they should), Adams could very well move into the closer role. And he should flourish there.