You know what’s overrated? The term “underrated.” In sports talk, people throw it around with no real regard for its exact definition ... primarily because it does not have an exact definition. How you rate a particular player might differ drastically from how somebody else rates the same player.
Thankfully, I’m here to help. The annual All-Underrated Team abides by a very specific set of rules. To be eligible for this team, a player must:
- Have at least two years of service time (we need a little time for some semblance of a “rating” to actually develop).
- Have NEVER been an All-Star.
- Have NEVER been a finalist (top three in the voting) for a BBWAA award (MVP, Cy Young or Rookie of the Year).
- Have NEVER won a Silver Slugger, Gold Glove or Reliever of the Year honor or -- this is a new wrinkle this year -- been named to an All-MLB squad.
- Have NEVER signed a contract worth $100 million or more.
Surely, we should be able to agree that if you can satisfy all of the above while still making a big impact on your ballclub, you qualify as “underrated.”
The members of the 2020 All-Underrated Team have done exactly that.
C: Christian Vázquez, Red Sox
Going back to his debut season of 2014, Christian Vázquez has compiled 36 Defensive Runs Saved (DRS), putting him in the top 10 in the big leagues in that span. To put that number in perspective, the great Yadier Molina has 26 DRS in that time frame. Vázquez is also seventh in framing runs over the course of his career.
But it wasn’t until 2019 that he asserted himself enough offensively to be the regular behind the plate in Boston. He had 23 homers, 26 doubles and was one of only four catchers in the Majors to log at least 500 plate appearances while posting a weighted runs created plus (wRC+) mark better than the league average.
1B: Yuli Gurriel, Astros
It’s, uh, a little awkward referring to any member of the 2017 Astros’ lineup as “underrated” right now. But I can attempt to defend it with the fact that Yuli Gurriel’s batting average, on-base percentage and slugging percentage were all significantly better on the road than at home that season.
And anyway, while Gurriel has logged a very solid .293/.330/.478 slash in his big league career, he’s really on this list for the growth of his defensive game, where he has remade himself as a plus defender: Per Statcast, he was -3 Outs Above Average in 2017, and +2 last year.
2B: Jonathan Villar, Marlins
When you have a 4-WAR season, as Jonathan Villar did for the Orioles in 2019, and get put on outright waivers anyway, you’re underrated! Of course, Baltimore was well within its right to make that move, because Villar’s price tag was escalating and, based on the batted-ball metrics, is not a safe bet for another season in which he notches 62 extra-base hits.
But Villar is an elite baserunner, with 98 steals over the past three seasons and an 81.7% success rate that is the best in baseball among those with at least 50 steals in that span. He’s also durable, having played in all 162 games last year.
SS: Freddy Galvis, Reds
I’m going to be honest and tell you that filling this spot without breaking any of the above rules was a real struggle. And admittedly, Freddy Galvis doesn’t bring much consistency with the bat (though he did hit 23 homers and 28 doubles last year).
But Galvis is among the most durable players in MLB, ranking sixth in games played (780) dating back to 2015. And the recently unveiled Statcast metric Infield Outs Above Average sheds new light on just how good he is at this pivotal position. He has been +12 on the OAA scale each of the past two seasons -- giving him the exact same tally in that span as Francisco Lindor. So while Reds fans have been pining for a Lindor trade all winter, they can take comfort in knowing they have as dependable a defender on their hands (especially important on a team with defensive question marks elsewhere). Now, all Galvis has to do is crank out 80 extra-base hits like Lindor, and Cincinnati will have the total package!
3B: Yoán Moncada, White Sox
For the record, Boston’s Rafael Devers also met the requirements for this team, and choosing between the two is tricky. I went with Yoán Moncada because last year he appeared on just one MVP ballot, with a distant 10th-place nod, while Devers appeared on 11 (including one fourth-place vote).
Moncada was a much-hyped prospect and a major trade piece in the Chris Sale deal, but it took him some time to find his footing in the bigs. His .315/.367/.548 slash and 64 extra-base hits in 2019 (output that did not get the attention it deserved) mean he’s not long for this list, especially now that the White Sox will have more eyes upon them. If he continues to pare down his strikeout rate, Moncada will be an absolute monster.
LF: Tommy Pham, Padres
Tommy Pham is the only returnee from the 2019 All-Underrated Team after he missed the All-Star Game (again) and got traded (again). While awards elude him, Pham can take comfort in knowing that his efforts do not go unnoticed here.
Over the past three years, Pham’s 13.6 FanGraphs-calculated WAR is seventh among all outfielders, slightly ahead of Bryce Harper’s 12.8 mark. Pham doesn’t post gaudy homer totals, but he puts up consistently good at-bats. Among all qualified hitters in that three-year span, Pham’s .381 on-base percentage ranks ninth in baseball.
CF: Mark Canha, A’s
It’s almost impossible to make an All-Underrated Team without including somebody from Oakland. The Athletics’ players are routinely under-A-ted.
Mark Canha will likely be the A’s regular in left field this year, but he made the majority of his appearances in center in place of an injured Ramón Laureano last year and gave the club a huge jolt with a .273/.396/.517 slash and 26 homers in 497 plate appearances. He was an above-average offensive contributor in 2018 (114 OPS+), as well. Not bad for a former Rule 5 guy.
RF: Max Kepler, Twins
Max Kepler is the first German-born player to truly stick in the big leagues, and he’s no novelty act. He already had impressive strike-zone judgment prior to 2019, and he managed to maintain it while simultaneously making a big power leap, adding 111 points to his slugging percentage (.408 to .519) and 83 points to his isolated power (from .184 to .267).
Over the past two seasons, Kepler’s rate of 0.67 walks per strikeout is in the top 15 in all of baseball. He’s also a good defender, ranking in the top 20 in MLB in Outs Above Average in the outfield in each of the past four seasons.
DH: Jorge Soler, Royals
One season does not a standard make, but Jorge Soler was finally healthy enough to appear in all 162 games last season and broke out with a franchise-record 48 homers and a 136 wRC+ that was the 20th-best in baseball.
It didn’t earn him a Silver Slugger, but at least it landed him here.
He’s facing another challenge this spring, recovering from left knee surgery that is expected to sideline him 6-8 weeks. Over the past three seasons, he has struck out 28.3% of batters faced, posted a 1.15 WHIP and allowed just a .644 OPS. More to the point, his 153 ERA+ is the fifth-best among those with at least 400 innings pitched in that span, trailing only Max Scherzer (167), Corey Kluber (158), Justin Verlander (156) and Jacob deGrom (156). Those guys all have multiple Cy Youngs. If Clevinger keeps this up, he’ll get his.
RP: Taylor Rogers, Twins
In 2019, left-hander Taylor Rogers took over the closer role on a 101-win Twins team by posting a 1.00 WHIP and an 8.18 strikeout-to-walk ratio that was the second-best among relievers with at least 150 batters faced. Among his 30 saves, 12 covered multiple innings. So this is one southpaw who won’t have to worry about the new three-batter minimum.
Over the past three seasons, Rogers’ 2.75 ERA ranks 13th among all relievers with at least 150 innings. By fWAR, Rogers (4.0) was the fourth-most valuable reliever in baseball in 2018-19, trailing only Kirby Yates (5.1), Josh Hader (4.9) and Felipe Vázquez (4.2).