It is time for the most underrated baseball column of the year -- the 2021 All-Underrated Team.
But what does it mean to be underrated, anyway?
In years past, we’ve filled out this team with guys who have never been All-Stars, major award finalists or nine-figure contract recipients, among other qualifications. This year -- because life these days is complicated enough as it is -- we’re going to keep it simple: The 2021 team is comprised of players who did not land on MLB Network’s “Top 10 Players Right Now” at their particular position (you can find those lists here, and note that designated hitter is not one of the positions filled).
We are also limiting the list to players with at least two years of service time, so that they’ve had some time to establish themselves.
Catcher: Christian Vázquez, BOS
Vázquez is our All-Underrated backstop in back-to-back years. He’s earned this prestigious honor with a solid .278/.327/.472 slash over the past two seasons, while ranking eighth among catchers with at least 1,000 innings in defensive runs saved (six), third in framing runs (17.0) and third in FanGraphs wins above replacement (4.9).
Considering Vázquez is one of only three catchers with at least 700 plate appearances in the past two years (Yasmani Grandal and J.T. Realmuto), there’s really no justification for leaving him out of the Top 10. But at least he has a home here!
First base: Brandon Belt, SF
The 32-year-old Belt has had an underappreciated career, in general. He’s rarely provided the kind of power traditionally associated with his position, but his home park has a lot to do with that. Though he’s battled some health issues over the years, Belt has consistently been an above-average offensive performer who makes good contact and has plate discipline.
But it wasn’t until the 2020 season that Belt belted the ball like a prototypical power-hitting first baseman. His .591 slugging percentage was the best of his career by 110 points, and his expected SLG was even higher (.598). Combine that with one of the highest walk rates in the big leagues (16.8 percent), and Belt was the total offensive package.
Over the past two seasons, Fletcher has a .356 on-base percentage driven by a high-contact approach (his 91.3 percent contact rate and 3.2 percent whiff rate in that span are both the best in baseball). Sometimes that’s literally a high-contact approach, such as when he doubled on a Mike Fiers pitch that was almost above his head. Fletcher can play all over and he mostly manned short in 2020, but he’s penciled in as the Halos’ regular at second base this season.
Shortstop: Paul DeJong, STL
We are in a golden age of shortstop stars, so there’s no shame in not cracking the Top 10 (heck, Marcus Semien didn’t crack it just one year after finishing third in the American League MVP Award voting). But DeJong is worth highlighting here. He’s run into some bad luck since his runner-up finish in the National League Rookie of the Year Award voting in 2017 -- first with a power-sapping broken hand in '18 and then with a COVID-19 battle in '20. He’s also been miscast at times as a middle-of-the-order hitter in a Cardinals lineup that lacked length.
But if we strike the COVID-affected 2020 season from the record, we see a guy who put up excellent defensive metrics in '19 (12 outs above average) with league-average offense and an improved walk rate. DeJong should benefit from the Nolan Arenado addition, and both the ZiPS and Steamer projections see him as a Top-12 shortstop in WAR in '21.
Third base: Rafael Devers, BOS
The shortstop crop is golden, and third base ain’t so bad, either. So a Top 10 list at the hot corner is a source of hot debate. But it says here that Devers got snubbed. Granted, in 2020, his offensive numbers (.793 OPS, 110 OPS+) tumbled from their huge '19 heights (.916 OPS, 133 OPS+). And his 14 errors in 475 innings were alarming.
But look, if you had to play behind that Red Sox pitching staff last year, you’d probably make some mental mistakes, too. We’re in a mulligan-giving mood when it comes to the bizarre, shortened season and you can’t shake the memory of Devers compiling a Major League-high 359 total bases in 2019. He’s only 24 years old, he’ll benefit from the return of manager Alex Cora, and he remains a star in the making.
Left field: Adam Duvall, MIA
To be frank, this is not exactly the deepest position in MLB. And so it’s hard to come up with any snubs from the MLB Network Top 10 announcement. We could perhaps put Kyle Schwarber or Joc Pederson here, but the word “underrated” just didn’t feel right next to their names.
Spotlight, then, on the 32-year-old Duvall, who has no business in the Top 10 list, but looks like a nice low-key signing by the Marlins at one year and $5 million guaranteed. Over the past two seasons with the Braves, Duvall had a 117 weighted runs created plus (that’s 17 percent better than league average) with 26 homers in 310 at-bats. And in his career, he’s been a real plus in left, with 42 defensive runs saved going back to 2014 (fourth-best among left fielders in that span, per FanGraphs).
Center field: Aaron Hicks, NYY
Hicks was far from the flashiest addition by the Yankees in recent years, but he’s been among the best. In the past four seasons, Hicks' .824 OPS as a center fielder is the fourth-best among those with at least 900 plate appearances at the position in that span, behind only Mike Trout (1.091), Charlie Blackmon (.931) and George Springer (.877).
Hicks missed much of 2019 because of Tommy John surgery, but he rebounded well in '20, with a 123 wRC+ due primarily to his discerning eye (his outside-the-zone swing rate of 14.6 percent was second-best in the bigs). As he ventures into his age-31 season, it could be that Hicks’ declining defensive metrics and power numbers catch up to him. But for now, at another position short on stars, he fits the underrated bill.
Right field: Nick Castellanos, CIN
Looking purely at the rate stats, Castellanos’ .281/.333/.502 slash over the past five seasons is somewhat comparable to George Springer’s .273/.363/.500.
Castellanos is a much streakier hitter than Springer and he grades out negatively in the advanced defensive metrics. But we bring him up here because it’s deceptively easy to label his first season in Cincinnati a failure. His batting average fell 64 points (from .289 to .225) and his OPS dropped 79 points (from .863 to .784), yet his average exit velocity (91 mph), hard-hit percentage (46.7 percent), expected SLG (.542) and barrel percentage (16 percent) were all excellent, and his 7.9 percent walk rate was the best of his career. Given a large enough sample, this guy performs.
Starter: Germán Márquez, COL
With only 10 starters on the MLB Network list, there are a ton of accomplished, All-Star arms who qualify here. So we’re going with a guy who fits the true spirit of the squad. Márquez has never been an All-Star and has never received even down-ballot Cy Young Award love. The only Award he’s won was a Silver Slugger, in 2018.
But over the past four seasons, only 14 pitchers have a higher FanGraphs WAR than Márquez’s 12.2 mark. We shouldn’t have to point out that Coors Field affects his numbers. He has a 5.10 ERA at home and a 3.51 mark on the road in his career. His 118 career ERA+ (or 18 percent better than league average) is a better approximation of his impact. He’s also been durable, with 613 2/3 innings since 2017, including an NL-high 81 2/3 innings in '20. With a 140 ERA+ in 13 starts last year, Márquez was at his best. He’s entering his age-26 season, so he could continue to get better.
Reliever: Yusmeiro Petit, free agent
Relievers come and go, yet Petit remains. He’s been around since 2006 and has filled a variety of roles on a variety of clubs. But he’s settled into a nice existence as a reliable long man, with a 2.74 ERA over the past four seasons. His 0.87 WHIP over the past two seasons is nearly identical to that of former teammate Liam Hendriks, who was deservedly No. 1 on the MLB Network list.
Petit does not belong on that list, and at age 36 with some iffy peripherals (that prevented him from being at the forefront of free agency), he might not come close to repeating his 1.66 ERA from 2020. But he’s another guy deceptively easy to overlook, a guy who hasn’t let below-average velocity prevent him from providing 154 multi-inning outings since the beginning of '14 (48 more than anyone else in that span).