7 All-Stars who are even better than you think

July 6th, 2019

To be named a participant in the Midsummer Classic, somebody, somewhere has to have noticed your work. It’s not like you can talk yourself in at the door at the 2019 All-Star Game, so to call any of the guys on the American League or National League rosters “overlooked” or “underrated” is stretching the limits of the words.

But the fact of the matter is that some All-Star careers generate a lot more attention and interest than others. With that in mind, here are seven guys from this year’s rosters who are even better than you might realize.

(To be clear, the focus here is not on 2019 specifically but multi-year track records. And all stats included were through the month of June.)

Matt Chapman 3B, A’s (AL reserve)

Why he’s even better than you think: He’s had one of the most value-added starts to a career the game has ever seen.

Chapman’s a 2018 AL Platinum Glove Award winner whose bat has caught up to his glove (.886 OPS this season). He’s in his second full season and third year overall, and he has already accumulated a Baseball Reference-calculated Wins Above Replacement (bWAR) mark of 16.2, which is tied for the 22nd-highest bWAR mark of any player in the modern era through his third season in the bigs, per Baseball Reference’s Play Index.

Oh, but I’ve just been handed an interesting memo: Turns out, we’ve still got another half a season to play in 2019!

So Chapman’s WAR total is going to increase. He’s been worth 4.4 WAR so far in ’19. He could very well replicate his 8.2 mark from 2018, which would give him a three-year total of 20.0, on the nose. But even if his second half is, say, half as valuable as his first, he’s going to finish this year around 18 bWAR.

With all of that, here are all of the modern-era players who had at least 18 career bWAR by the end of their third big league season:

Ted Williams, 23.6

Albert Pujols, 20.8

Mike Trout, 20.1

Evan Longoria, 20.0

Kris Bryant, 19.6

Paul Waner, 19.0

Eddie Mathews, 18.6

Snuffy Stirnweiss, 18.5

Johnny Mize, 18.3

Joe DiMaggio, 18.2

Jackie Robinson, 18.1

Wade Boggs, 18.0

Not a bad list. Four -- Longoria, Bryant, Mathews and Boggs -- were full-time third basemen. Mathews and Boggs are of course Hall of Famers, while Longoria’s career will fall in the realm of very good, but not truly transcendent. The jury’s still out on Bryant, but Chapman has provided similar value to Bryant in his first three seasons, with far less fan acclaim.

Freddie Freeman, 1B, Braves (NL starter)

Why he’s even better than you think: He’s on a sneaky Hall of Fame trajectory.

Those bountiful Braves backers ensured Freeman was elected to start at first base for the NL for the second straight year. So he certainly isn’t overlooked or underrated in Atlanta.

But the general populace might not realize Freeman has the very early makings of a Cooperstown case.

Extremely necessary disclaimer: He’s got a long way to go and will have to stave off regression in his 30s, which obviously is easier said than done. But looking at his numbers through his age-29 season (with half a season to go), Freeman is in a comparable spot to where the late Hall of Famer Willie McCovey was through his age-29 season:

McCovey: .276/.369/.537, 232 HR, 628 RBI, 32.5 bWAR

Freeman: .294/.379/.504, 212 HR, 750 RBI, 36.0 bWAR

McCovey went on to finish in the top three of the NL MVP Award voting in his age-30 and age-31 seasons (and in the top 15 in his age-32 and age-33 seasons), so, again, Freeman has his work cut out for him to keep this comparison going. But the fact that we can make it at all says a lot about how good Freeman has been.

Anthony Rendon, 3B, Nationals (NL reserve)

Why he’s even better than you think: Legitimately a top-10 position player in MLB.

Within the baseball industry, there isn’t a great deal of doubt about Rendon’s ability. But apparently word hasn’t spread to enough fans, because he wasn’t even a finalist for the Starters Election on this year’s ballot, finishing a distant fifth at third base in the NL. Thankfully, the players had Rendon’s back and voted him in as a long-overdue first-time All-Star, though Rendon has elected to spend his All-Star break recovering from the nagging injuries that he says he has been playing through for weeks.

Rendon makes a concerted effort to stay out of the spotlight, but his numbers shouldn’t be ignored. Over the last six seasons, he’s compiled a 23.8 bWAR. Just for the sake of comparison, his former Nationals teammate, Bryce Harper (very much a household name) has been worth 19.5 bWAR in that same span, and that includes Harper’s monumental NL MVP Award season of 2015.

Over the last three seasons, Rendon has really upped the ante. From 2017-19, he has a .944 OPS, which ranks eighth among qualified players in that span -- higher than luminaries like Mookie Betts, Joey Votto and Paul Goldschmidt.

An even better measure of offense is Weighted Runs Created Plus, which adjusts for ballpark and the league run-scoring environment. There, Rendon’s 144 mark in that three-season span is seventh in the game, trailing only Mike Trout (185), J.D. Martinez (161), Aaron Judge (161), Christian Yelich (149), Justin Turner (146) and Freeman (145).

Carlos Santana, 1B, Indians (AL starter)

Why he’s even better than you think: One of the most productive switch-hitters we’ve ever seen.

Santana will be one of the great stories of All-Star Week. He’ll be a participant in the T-Mobile Home Run Derby and he was voted in to start the Midsummer Classic in his home park in the midst of what has been a terrific Cleveland homecoming in 2019. So the 33-year-old’s first All-Star experience will have been worth the wait.

But Santana probably shouldn’t have had to wait this long. The combination of power and on-base ability he provides from both sides of the plate is rare.

How rare? Well, here is the complete list of modern-era (since 1901) switch-hitters with at least 200 career homers and a career on-base percentage of at least .360:

Mickey Mantle: 536 homers, .421 OBP

Lance Berkman: 366, .406

Chipper Jones: 468, .406

Ken Singleton: 246, .388

Bernie Williams: 287, .381

Jorge Posada: 275, .374

Roberto Alomar: 210, .371

Mickey Tettleton: 245, .369

Reggie Smith: 314, .366

Santana: 216, .366

Mark Teixeira: 409, .360

Chili Davis: 350, .360

Victor Martinez: 246, .360

Kirby Yates, RHP, Padres (NL reliever)

Why he’s even better than you think: He’s arguably a top-five reliever in all of baseball right now.

Yates is filling the now-annual Padre All-Star Reliever Role. But he’s more than just a Friar flavor of the month.

Over the last two seasons, Yates has a 1.80 ERA and 0.88 WHIP in 100 innings pitched. Only one other pitcher in baseball has at least 45 innings pitched with an ERA under 2.00 and a WHIP under 1.00, and that’s Dodgers starter Hyun-Jin Ryu (who, incidentally, will be starting the All-Star Game for the NL).

Of course, Yates isn’t quite the inning-eating bullpen force that the Brewers’ Josh Hader (2.34 ERA, 0.756 WHIP in 123 innings in that two-season span) is. But he does have a ballpark- and league-adjusted ERA+ of 217 in this two-season span. The only others with an ERA+ that high with at least 90 innings pitched are Blake Treinen (234), Adam Ottavino (219) and Scott Oberg (219).

Yates has pitched himself into the upper echelon of relievers, less than two and a half years after the Padres claimed him on waivers from the Angels.

Zack Greinke, RHP, D-backs (NL starter) and Justin Verlander, RHP, Astros (AL starter)

Why they’re even better than you think: Few pitchers age this gracefully.

You know Greinke and Verlander as two of the great pitchers of their time, and they’ve got the two contracts with the highest average annual value for a pitcher to show for it. So, no, they are not overlooked, by any means.

But it bears pointing out that for guys this age (Verlander turned 36 in February, Greinke turns 36 in October) to keep pitching at the level they have is special.

Let’s use age 33 as the starting point, as that happens to be the point where both of these pitchers enjoyed a renaissance. In the 774 1/3 innings Verlander has pitched in the period beginning with his age-33 season, he has compiled a 145 ERA+ (or 45 percent better than league average). In the 532 innings beginning with his age-33 season, Greinke has compiled a 142 ERA+.

Greinke’s age-defying performance is even more unusual when you note that his average fastball velocity has dropped in his D-backs tenure, from 92.3 mph in 2016 to 89.9 mph this season.

Per the Baseball Reference Play Index, only nine other pitchers with at least 500 innings between their age 33-36 seasons had ERA+ marks of at least 140.

Cy Young: 173 ERA+ in 1,097 2/3 innings

Randy Johnson: 171 ERA+ in. 977 2/3 innings

Kevin Brown: 156 ERA+ in 855 innings

Roger Clemens: 151 ERA+ in 929 innings

Spud Chandler: 151 ERA+ in 623 1/3 innings

Greg Maddux: 145 ERA+ in 901 innings

Curt Schilling: 143 ERA+ in 894 1/3 innings

David Cone: 142 ERA+ in 668 innings

Lefty Grove: 142 ERA+ in 911 innings

Tommy Bridges: 141 ERA+ in 711 innings