Lists of baseball’s most underrated players are often interesting and thought-provoking exercises, because by definition they focus on players that tend to get less attention than they should. However, there isn’t an easy way to definitively say how players are “rated” by baseball followers. Writers often just list off players who have the attributes that they are looking for (grit, plate discipline, small market players, etc.), which isn’t a bad way of doing it.
However, there is a more scientific way of approaching a list like this. We could look at how many people are doing Google searches for specific players. It wouldn’t exactly tell us what players are most underrated, but it can tell us which players should be getting more attention; these two things are very tightly correlated. The key difference is that plenty of players get attention for things that don’t necessarily mean they are considered good players. Ryan Braun got a lot of attention during his steroid drama, Robinson Cano was heavily talked about during free agency, and people search for Carlos Santana because of this and this. But when good players draw very little interest from fans, they’re probably underrated. But the term I’ll use is under-popular.
Using Google’s Adwords Keyword Tool, I gathered the data on every player who has achieved a WAR of at least 3.0 since the beginning of the 2013 season. A regression model with those 132 players showed that an additional 1 WAR was worth 6,000 Google searches per month – not too shabby.
Here is a plot of these players, with the expected amount of Google searches on the horizontal axis, and the actual amount of searches on the vertical. While the keyword tool was incredibly useful, it rounds numbers when they get too high, and you can see a handful of players were rounded off to exactly 165,000 searches per month (FYI, these players were Mike Trout, Miguel Cabrera, David Ortiz, Robinson Cano, Bryce Harper, and Yasiel Puig). Derek Jeter has roughly double that amount, but his WAR did not qualify him for this list.
There are a lot of players who have played very well the last two years who are by no means household names. Welington Castillo has put up 3.8 WAR since the start of 2013, A.J. Pollock has been worth 6.1 wins, and Brian Dozier 5.8. In order to really measure who the most under-popular players are, I’ll use two methods. The first is just to simply subtract how many Google searches were expected and how many there really were.
According to this measurement, Josh Donaldson is the most under-popular player in baseball, because he should have been looked up 53,000 times per month more often than he was (68k vs. 15k). That’s a big difference. There are some excellent players on this list, with many players who have an argument as the best or one of the few best players at their position. But for the most part, these are well known players who should just be more well known.
A different way to measure under-popularity, and the way I think is more telling, is to find the ratio between expected and actual searches, as opposed to just subtracting. For instance, is Edwin Encarnacion more under-popular than, say, Luis Valbuena? Encarnacion should have gotten 41,000 searches per month, but actually only got 18,000. Valbuena, however, played like someone who should have been searched 20,000 times, but was only Googled 2,400 per month. Since I believe Valbuena’s numbers are more out of whack, I prefer the second method.
Here are the top 20 players using that measurement, where we see how many times a player was searched as a percentage of how many times you would expect them to be:
Jarrod Dyson has quietly become a well above average baseball player. In about 800 career PA, Dyson has a WAR of 6.8. That is All-Star level production. His elite fielding and baserunning skills (which have combined to be worth more than 3 wins these last two years) make his wRC+ of 91 more than acceptable.
A.J. Pollock appears high on both lists, and for great reason. This year he is quietly hitting .316/.366/.554, after putting up 3.6 WAR last year.
This method of establishing players who deserve more credit for their play certainly has some flaws. WAR is not the only way to measure how good a player is, and Google searches are not a perfect representation of how popular or famous players are. However, it takes away the guess work and opinions from the standard underrated player lists, and in that there is some value.
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