Who’s the Most Underrated Player in Baseball?

Answer: Denard Span.

By one definition, at least.

If FanGraphs has one overriding purpose, it’s not, as some readers might think, to render everyone dateless. Rather, it’s to constantly ask — and attempt to answer — questions about baseball. And one of the most basic questions we ask is, “How much is [insert player’s name] worth?”

The answers are often surprising. Like, for example, two years ago, when Wins Above Replacement suggested that Ben Zobrist was the second-most valuable position player in baseball. Or how, by that same metric, we learn who’s been the real MVP in Philadelphia for the better part of the last decade.

People who read FanGraphs with some frequency have likely become accustomed to — and, hopefully, appreciate — the discrepancies between our valuation methods and more traditional ones. And those who read the site have also probably become familiar with the ways in which things like defense, positional adjustments and (now!) baserunning can affect a player’s value in sometimes dramatic ways.

Accordingly, readers probably have a sense of which players, specifically, are under- and overrated. Ben Zobrist? Generally underrated. Ryan Howard? If not overrated, per se, it’s certainly the case that he’s not flying under the radar.

There are a lot of connotations to these terms under– and overrated. The market in which a player plays and the salary he makes are certainly factors. The largest part of it, though, generally has to do with how he performs in what we might call the “fantasy stats.” Watch any but the most enlightened baseballing telecasts, and you will still be confronted by graphics sporting a player’s batting average, home runs, and RBIs. Along with those graphics, you’ll hear the voices of broadcasters (again, generally) quoting all the above, plus runs and stolen bases — and a whole bunch of other things, like batting average with runners in scoring position, that fail to address the real production of the player in question.

Me and you and most everyone we know are aware that a lot of those numbers are either heavily dependent on context (runs, RBI), prone to great variance in even season-long samples (batting average), or misunderstood in terms of risk versus reward (stolen bases) — and my guess is that most of us are able to mentally adjust and say, “Well, sure, he’s got a lot of RBIs, but his on-base skills are sub-par.”

This being FanGraphs, however, I wondered if it might be possible to measure how underrated a player is.

In what follows, I document my attempt to do just that.

In terms of measuring a player’s “true” value, the closest thing we have is WAR. Because batting average and defense, etc., require pretty large samples to become reliable — and because a player’s true talent is changing incrementally all the time, anyway — WAR isn’t perfect, but it does a lot of things well. For the purposes of “rating” players in this endeavor, therefore, I’ve used WAR.

In terms of measuring “perceived” value, what I did was take a player’s production in the five most-common fantasy categories (average, home runs, runs, RBIs and stolen bases) and put them on the WAR scale*. To do that, I found each player’s z-score (i.e. standard deviations from the mean) in each of those categories. I then added together the z-scores and multiplied that sum by a constant (in this case, 0.375) to give the z-scores the same range as the one on the WAR leaderboard. To each of these adjusted z-scores, I added the current (as of this past Friday, when I ran the numbers) average WAR of 1.18 (again, for qualified players only). This produced a number — I’ve called FAN — which is essentially like WAR, except it uses the five aforementioned categories. No defense. No positional adjustments. Nothing else.

*I’ve picked these numbers not because they’re the fantasy stats, necessarily. Rather, it seems the fantasy stats became fantasy stats because they were already a popular means to assessing value.

From there, I took the difference between each player’s WAR and his FAN. The larger the positive difference, the more underrated — that is, the more stuff that doesn’t show up in the fantasy categories.

Here are the results (again, including only qualified batters as of this past Friday):

Some notes:
• Positional adjustment (or the lack of it) definitely play a huge role here. On this list are six catchers, 3.5 shortstops (with Maicer Izturis being the half), and four center fielders. Of the 20 players on the list, only Jack Cust has spent much time on the right side of the defensive spectrum.

• Beyond the positional adjustment, a number of these players also appear on the UZR leaderboard, too. To wit: Span (1st, 10.9 UZR), Howie Kendrick (2nd, 7.6) and Alexei Ramirez (3rd, 7.2).

• Team context also seems to inform these rankings, as poor offenses allow fewer opportunities for scoring and for driving in runs. We see a number of players from the league’s lowest-scoring teams: Cameron Maybin (Padres), Span (Twins), Cust (Mariners), Brendan Ryan (Mariners), Ronny Cedeno (Pirates) — and Peter Bourjos, Izturis and Kendrick, who all are from the Angels.

As for the other term I invoke above (i.e. overrated), that’s a slightly different proposition. While the method I’ve employed here certainly can isolate the players whose fantasy-type numbers compare (more than) favorably relative to their WAR, it also makes sense that managers would put their best players in a position to drive in and score runs — and that players with higher averages and home-run totals would, in fact, likely have more runs scored and RBIs.

Accordingly, instead of referring to the players on this next list as overrated, we might more accurately say that they’re the least underrated players currently. It’s both a distinction and a difference, I promise.


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Carson Cistulli has just published a book of aphorisms called Spirited Ejaculations of a New Enthusiast.

48 Responses to “Who’s the Most Underrated Player in Baseball?”

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  1. Sky Kalkman says:

    Great stuff, Cistulli. Reminds me of something I did a few years ago, if anyone’s interested. Basically, I put offensive runs above replacement on the RBI scale and compared players’ actual RBIs to value “RBIs”. Filed under “some things never change”, Ryan Howard and Jeff Francoeur were most overrated by traditional RBIs, accumulating about 70 more than their overall product deserves. Hanley and Pujols each deserved about 50 more.


    And then I added in defense (position + fielding): http://goo.gl/qRHOn

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  2. Ben says:

    I saw the title and thought this was going to be about Mike Trout. Zing!

    Seriously though, this is good stuff. I really like that you made a legitimate attempt to quantify how a player is ‘rated.’ I was among many who didn’t care much for the ‘Forgotten Ace’ article about Dan Haren because there was simply no evidence offered for the premise. Also, for what it’s worth, much like a good statistic typically confirms what we already know but with a few surprises, I think both your top 10 and bottom 10 are full of players (Suzuki, Bourjos, Alexei / CarGo, Howard, Ibanez) who would typically have been cited off the top of the head as belonging. Well done.

    As a potential follow up, I wonder if longevity should factor in at all. IE, Howard is particularly underrated because he so consistently falls into these categories- he’s an ’empty stats’ guy, and so it builds up over time. I wonder, for instance, if Asdrubal Cabrera is really that overrated. I don’t think common fans are familiar enough with him to truly ‘rate’ him that far above his current production. It would seem that as time goes on, guys who consistently fall onto these lists year in and year out would be even more overrated.

    Again- nice work and a good read.

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    • j6takish says:

      Asdrubal is likely to suffer from the “Shin-Soo-Choo” effect. He was a very underrated player for such a long time, he’s appeared on so many of these lists that now his name is out there and his production is likely to be over rated. It happens

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  3. Yirmiyahu says:

    Good work, Carson. Span is definitely someone who surprises me every time I see him near the top of the WAR leaderboard.

    In order to level out some of the UZR issues and the fact that the season is still young, I’d be interested in seeing this list for a two or three year sample.

    Also, one thing I can’t figure out. Are all 5 traditional stats weighed evenly in the FAN rating? If so, I don’t think even your most traditional anti-saber fans rate SB’s equally to RBI’s or HR’s. I also think that traditionalists do take into account positional adjustments– they just probably don’t do it accurately. For instance, I think that CF and 3B are probably not given enough credit, while 1B and DH are probably not given enough demerits.

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  4. Seems like these lists could also be properly labeled “Players most affected by UZR fluctuations over the first few months”.

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    • Telo says:

      This x 10000000000000000

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    • Phils Goodman says:

      This is my biggest problem with positional fWAR. At least regress the UZR first.

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    • Edward says:

      … and a bunch of catchers, too. But yes, 100%.

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    • FanGraphs Supporting Member

      Actually, if I remember correctly (the numbers have changed), after those first three guys (who, yes, finished 1-3), there wasn’t another player from the “underrated” list on the UZR leaderboard until Peter Bourjos in the low-20s.

      The list would certainly look different if you removed the early UZR numbers, but not WAY different — esp. as there are a number of players at the top of the UZR list (Gardner, Pedroia, Adr. Gonzalez) who do well by FAN, as well.

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      • Oh, I wasn’t making any criticism of the methodology, just commenting on how a few of the names I saw at the top of the lists are having abnormal UZR years so far. Of course that affects things, but like you said, not drastically.

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  5. hjrrockies says:

    Charlie Blackmon

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  6. RC says:

    This doesn’t make a whole lot of sense (atleast the “Least underrated” list).

    Take Elsburry. The Fans say 4.0 WAR (according to you, it says 3.7 when I look at the fan projections?). He’s put up 2.5 WAR through 291 PA. If he continues playing at this pace, and picks up a good 650A, we’re talking about a 5.6 WAR.

    A 5.6 WAR player who the fans think is a 4WAR player is overrated?

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    • Yirmiyahu says:

      A 2.5 WAR player who the traditional fan thinks is a 4.0 WAR player. I don’t know why you projected 2.5->5.6, but failed to project 4.0->8.9.

      I think the problem is that you’re looking at the “Fans” projection from the player pages. Which is a poll of the fangraphs readership, has nothing to do with Carson’s article, and isn’t an attempt to look at value from a traditionalist’s standpoint.

      Ellsbury is overrated because a traditional fan would overrate his batting average, runs scored, and stolen bases.

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      • RC says:

        Because the 4.0 WAR that Carson is using is full season. Nobody was predicting Ellsbury to earn 8.9 WAR for the year.

        He’s earned 2.5 War in a half season he was predicted to earn 4 WAR.

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      • RC says:

        Nevermind, I understand now.

        So fangraphs is comparing War against some arbitrary stat they made up specifically to poorly grade value in some sort of arbitrary fantasy sense.


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    • Jason B says:

      You misunderstand the FAN number. It’s simply a WAR-like figure (Dubya?) using the 5 traditional roto categories and nothing more – no defense, no positional adjustments, no considerating of ‘caught stealings’ or other baserunning effects besides SB. It has nothing to do with a fan vote or rating, despite the name.

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      • RC says:

        So, essentially, they ignored the data they collected that gave us an actual idea of what fans thought of these players, and instead made up some statistic they knew would give invalid numbers?


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  7. Ousy says:

    I’ve read a lot of articles on fangraphs; this is one of my all time favorites.

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  8. Elias says:

    if UZR is in WAR, then fielding pct should be included in FAN. Gotta give the traditionalists a chance to measure defense.

    BUT, I definitely agree with comments above about UZR noise being a problem here.

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  9. Dash says:

    You have criminally underrated intangibles and overrated things we can physically observe. It’s like you’re looking at the Planeteers and left out Ma-Ti (and his monkey)!

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  10. Steve says:

    Sometimes a player is so underrated he becomes overrated, and vice versa.

    Shin-Soo Choo WAS the most underrated player in baseball. Then everyone caught onto that, including Choo himself apparently, and now he is overrated.

    Conversely, A-Rod is now the most underrated by virtue of being voted the most overrated. He’s still pretty damned good, and yet everyone is kicking dirt on his grave.

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  11. Garrett says:

    BZA is my fave fundie.

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  12. west says:

    There was a poll question yesterday during the White Sox broadcast asking who was the MVP of the team and Alexei Ramirez wasn’t even a choice. He’s the most underrated player IMO.

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  13. jrogers says:

    Is there no positional adjustment made to the FAN ratings? It seems as though the “least underrated” list is almost all 1B and corner outfielders, while the most underrated list has quite a few catchers. I’d imagine it would help to adjust the values by either the average or replacement level of their primary positions.

    I also like the idea of using fielding percentage or errors in FAN.

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  14. john says:

    Nice work. I wonder how this would look with the whole season’s worth of data.

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  15. BillWallace says:


    “Carson Cistulli says Pujols one of the most overrated players in baseball.”

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  16. michael bourne says:

    + #catchers: Under rated like VMart and Alex Avila.

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  17. Drew says:

    I’d love some of those “overrated” guys on my fantasy team right now.

    I’ve been trying to figure out how to survive with a bunch of guys on my squad that I myself apparently overrated. I’ve got Choo, Dunn, Pena, Santana and Kinsler all missing their original projections by quite a bit, which has thrown my offense down the tubes.

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  18. david says:

    jack cust? really? i guess when you provide no defense, no average, no hr, no speed, and no rbi, you’re gonna fall so far from the mean that you are underrated by the two sweetest words in the english language: “de-fault!”

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    • kick me in the GO NATS says:

      Dude avoids outs much better than the majority. Avoiding outs turns out to be pretty damn important when you crunch the numbers. So he is underrated.

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    • oscar says:

      david is an idiot. cust is vastly underrated, its just he plays in a deep position.

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  19. Yirmiyahu says:

    Btw, to answer the question posed in the title:

    Dick Allen.

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  20. BC10 says:

    Great article. I remember watching Joe Morgan being interviewed before a Phillies game on SNB last season. According to Morgan, Ryan Howard is the most under-rated player in baseball.

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  21. Brian says:

    Brett Gardner is underrated in that half of his fanbase hates him for no reason. Patience, on-base percentage, speed, and some of the best defense in the majors? Doesn’t matter! Because, uh, batting average.

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    • oscar says:

      sure hes like a centerfielder in left field, but he is dumb as a brick and bunts the ball foul or pop up bunts with 2 strikes.

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    • RC says:

      If you’re gonna have absolutely no power, and play a position further down the defensive spectrum, you really need to do better than a .351 OBP.

      The problem is, pitchers have realized that Gardner won’t swing at crap pitches, but at the same time, he can’t punish you when you throw over the plate.

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      • Steve says:

        If only there was a stat that captured all of those very things you mentioned.

        Wait, there is? And you can see it on this very site?


        Despite all of those shortcomings you mention, Gardner has still managed to rack up 1.9 WAR in about 65 games, good for #3 in all the majors.

        Not bad for the league minimum….

        But wait, I forgot that he made that dumb play that one time.

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  22. Keith_Allen says:

    It’s Don Kelly.

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  23. swansok4 says:

    This article is just another reason why Carson is my favorite writer on fangraphs. Keep up the good work!

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  24. TG says:

    I am lost. I have never seen these rating parameters before. I sure would like a definition of what they stand for. Does anyone have a place where these codes can be defined?


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