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It's a lot more fun to call a guy underrated than overrated.
For some reason, when I roll out my fabled reality-versus-illusion concept to explain why I called some Hall of Famer overrated, the world never seems to appreciate the subtlety of my arguments.
|Who's the most underrated second baseman of all time? Check out Jayson Stark's book excerpt.|
But when I use almost exactly the same concept to lay out how other players in our midst must be underrated, I'm hailed as some kind of freaking genius.
What's up with that, anyway?
Well, whatever's up with it, now that we've gotten through a day of immersing ourselves in overratedness, it's time to get a little more upbeat -- i.e., time to announce The 10 Most Underrated Active Players.
As with that all-overrated column you've probably been frothing over for the last 24 hours, I didn't feel compelled to have all the names in this column match the names in (CAUTION: SHAMELESS PLUG APPROACHING) my new book, "The Stark Truth: The Most Overrated and Underrated Players in Baseball History."
A good example of how those names may diverge is Craig Biggio, who is featured in the book excerpt I know you're panting to read elsewhere on this site. In the book, he's anointed the Most Underrated Second Baseman of All Time. But he isn't in this column. And here's why:
The aim of the book was to assess Biggio's career, which has definitely been underrated. But the aim of this column is to rule on who's underrated right now. And as Biggio closes in on 3,000 hits -- while hitting an un-Biggio-esque .237 -- he might be on the verge of actual over-ballyhooization. So he didn't make this list.
To learn who did, just keep on reading, because here they come -- The 10 Most Underrated Active Players in Baseball:
Oswalt is a two-time 20-game winner. He leads all active right-handers not named Pedro Martinez in winning percentage (104-50, .675). And he's the only active pitcher who can say he has never -- never -- had a season in which his winning percentage was worse than .625 or his ERA was higher than 3.50. Yet not only has he never won a Cy Young Award -- he's finished in the top three only once. Ridiculous, isn't it?
A couple of years ago, I asked his catcher, Brad Ausmus, how many people -- if I polled 10,000 Americans -- would have any idea Roy Oswalt was (at the time) coming off back-to-back 20-win seasons.
"That would depend," Ausmus chuckled, "on whether anyone on our team was among the 10,000 Americans."
OK, I retorted, suppose nobody on the Astros was among the 10,000 Americans?
"Oh," Ausmus said. "Then none."
Your honor, and members of the all-underrated jury, we rest our case.
Closer A and Closer B have both had long, distinguished careers. Closer B is considered a cinch Hall of Famer. Closer A still has folks debating whether he's Cooperstown-worthy or not.
Yet Closer A has converted 89.5 percent of his lifetime save opportunities, struck out 9.8 hitters per nine innings in his career and held those poor opposing hitters to a .207 batting average and .264 on-base percentage.
So Closer A beats Closer B in every one of these categories. Closer B's figures: 87.9 percent, 8.0 strikeouts per 9 IP, .214 average, .270 on-base.
Why, then, would anyone think that Closer A might not have Hall credentials as worthy as Closer B? Easy question. Because Closer B is Mariano Rivera, the Greatest Postseason Closer Who Ever Lived (34 saves, 0.80 ERA).
Closer A, on the other hand, is Hoffman, who once went eight years between postseason save opportunities through no fault of his own.
Now obviously, I'd have to be a major goofball to argue Hoffman has a better Hall case than Rivera. But that doesn't mean Hoffman hasn't been criminally underrated. Here's the best way to put their careers in perspective:
They have basically the same number of blown saves in their careers -- 58 for Hoffman, 57 for Rivera -- except Hoffman has had 70 more opportunities. In other words, Rivera would have to go two seasons without blowing a single save just to say he had the same save-conversion percentage as Trevor Hoffman. So can we please give this man his due already?
Player A is a National League shortstop. He is averaging a .303 batting average, 129 runs scored, 76 extra-base hits and 52 stolen bases per 162 games in his career.
Player B is also an NL shortstop. He's averaging .288, 114 runs, 60 extra-base hits and 61 steals per 162 games.
Player A is 23. So is Player B. So which one would you start your team with?
If I didn't tell you the names, I'm betting you'd take Player A, right? But now let's reverse that. Let's say I had never shown you those numbers. And then I asked if you'd rather have Ramirez (aka Player A) or Jose Reyes (Player B). Then what?
Admit it. You'd take Reyes. Heck, to be honest, I'd probably take Reyes myself. But does anybody who doesn't own a teal cap know Ramirez's numbers are actually better? Dubious. Which sums up his underratedness just about perfectly.
Since 2004, if we compare the Padres' strikeout machine to all NL starting pitchers with as many innings pitched as he has, he tops the whole league in strikeouts, strikeout ratio, WHIP and ERA. And if you enjoy swinging and missing, Jake Peavy is your man. The only NL starter who has induced that with greater frequency than Peavy (27.3 percent), according to our friends at Inside Edge, is the Phillies' Cole Hamels (27.9).
Yet Peavy is probably only about the 15th-most-talked-about pitcher in his own time zone. And anybody with that kind of greatness-to-pub ratio is a lock to make a list like this.
He's already the first left-handed pitcher since Andy Pettitte to start his career with six straight seasons of double-digit wins. He has won more games (88) than any active pitcher under 27. And the Elias Sports Bureau reports he's just the fifth pitcher to debut in the last quarter-century and reach 1,000 strikeouts before turning 27. (The others: Roger Clemens, Dwight Gooden, Pedro Martinez and Kerry Wood.)
But the real reason C.C. is on this list -- aside from that snub in the pay-to-watch survey -- is simple: He's only getting better. He's striking out more hitters (9.05 per 9 IP) than he ever has. And he's walking fewer hitters (1.6 per 9 IP) than he ever has. And that's what aces -- especially underrated aces -- are made of.
Has anybody noticed that this guy has become the first player since Rogers Hornsby to increase his batting average and home run totals five years in a row? Has anybody noticed that the only other players since 1900 to match his 2006 numbers in batting average (.305), stolen bases (58) and home runs (18) were Rickey Henderson and Joe Morgan? Has anybody noticed he's on pace to become the only player besides Ty Cobb to reach 1,000 hits, 300 steals and 100 triples before he even turns 28?
Yeah, didn't think so (outside of those 29 general managers who would love to trade for him). Well, we sure did blow his cover, didn't we?
So why Polanco? Because, when I was mulling over this list and brought up Polanco's name, one scout's instant reply was: "He should be your captain."
Players like Placido Polanco operate so far below the radar screen, you need a submarine to keep track of them. But since he arrived in Detroit on June 10, 2005, and got his chance to play every day, he has struck out less (only 49 times) than any player in baseball who has been to the plate as often as he has. And the only AL players with higher batting averages than his (.317) since then are Derek Jeter, Joe Mauer, Victor Martinez and Vladimir Guerrero. Ever heard of them?
The best way to describe Polanco, though, isn't with any number. It's with that word, "winner." He's one of those "glue" players. He glues your team together with all those little things he does. And the 2006-07 Tigers are a walking testimonial to that. Then again, so is his inclusion on this prestigious list.
But in case you haven't been paying attention, this fellow has turned into much more than just "The Greek God of Walks." The only AL first baseman outslugging him is Justin Morneau. Nobody beats him in OPS, batting average, runs scored or multihit games. And one AL executive wanted to make sure we noticed what an underrated defender he is -- so now that he mentions it, Youkilis hasn't made an error at first since last July.
Nevertheless, he still gets overshadowed by just about every position player around him, and by half the other first basemen in the league. And you'd be amazed how often "overshadowed" translates to "underrated" when you're writing columns like this one.
Nathan has converted 92 percent of his save opportunities (blowing just 11 saves in 143 chances). He has punched out nearly two hitters (301 altogether) for every one who has gotten a hit (155). And his WHIP (.97 baserunners per inning) beats any closer's in his league since then.
I was tempted to put his side-wheeling set-up man, Pat Neshek, on this team instead. But Joe Nathan is one of the most unpublicized, unhittable, totally dependable closers on earth. And nobody knows it. But with any luck, they do now.
Yeah, America has heard of him. Yeah, America knows he can thump a little. But most of America still hasn't comprehended how good he is. Heck, I rated him the third-most underrated DH of all time in the book.
Who owns the best on-base percentage (.420) and OPS (1.019) in the whole American League since 2004? The Pronkster. Who's the only hitter besides Albert Pujols to have a .300 batting average, .400 on-base percentage, .500 slugging percentage and 100 RBIs in each of the last three seasons? The Pronkster.
So what am I saying? That this fellow is a masher in the same stratosphere as Pujols, David Ortiz, Vlad Guerrero and Manny Ramirez. Except they hog all the "SportsCenter" time, while Hafner just monopolizes the All-Nickname Team. And that, ladies and gentlemen, may be the ultimate prescription for underratedness.
Jayson Stark is a senior writer for ESPN.com. His new book, "The Stark Truth: The Most Overrated and Underrated Players in Baseball History," has been published by Triumph Books and is now available in bookstores. Click here to order a copy.