The Most Underrated Player In Baseball

Yesterday, the venerable Joe Posnanski sent out this message on Twitter.

Posanski’s right about Alex Gordon being better than people think, as his arm makes him a real weapon in the outfield and he’s developed into a pretty good hitter after a disappointing start to his career. There’s no question that Gordon is an underrated player, as his particular set of skills aren’t as sexy as some others, and of course he plays in relative obscurity in Kansas City.

But, at the same time, Gordon simply falls in line with the typical formula of underrated players. Small market, bad team, good but not great hitter, strong defense at a corner position – these types of players are always underrated. So, in that sense, it’s not really Gordon that’s underrated as much as it is his particular combination of skillset and geography. And for me, that’s a little less interesting. If we knew that Gordon would get more press if he simply played for a winning team or in a more prominent market, then Gordon isn’t so much “the most underrated player” as he is a victim of the media coverage of lousy midwest franchises.

In thinking about Posnanski’s tweet, I wondered if we could tease out the geography and team record aspects, and try to find out which player is perhaps the most underrated based simply on his own merits, rather than because he plays in obscurity due to the failings of his teammates or because of his current zip code. What we’re looking for is a good player who doesn’t get much recognition for his value despite playing on either a winning team or in a major media market with significant television exposure and national coverage.

Looking through the list, there are some decent candidates. People still don’t give Adrian Beltre his due credit, but he did sign a $90 million contract with Texas and has made three straight All-Star teams, so he’s getting a decent amount of recognition. There seems to be less talk about Hiroki Kuroda than you might expect from a guy who has had an excellent — if somewhat brief — career in Los Angeles and New York, so he’s in the conversation. Shane Victorino is another good candidate, having been overshadowed by bigger names on the Philies, but he finished 13th in the MVP voting last year and has gone to a few All-Star games, so he’s not a total unknown either.

However, the more I thought about it, the more I realized there’s one guy who fits the bill perfectly. He’s played for three teams in his seven year career, each of whom play in a major media market. He’s currently a vital cog on a first place team, and yet his performance has gone mostly overlooked. He’s one of the better available pieces in the often disparaged class of 2013 free agents, but MLBTradeRumors hasn’t written about him since June. He’s a really good player on a winning team who has spent his entire career playing in front of large audiences, and yet, he’s still off most people’s radar. In terms of production in environments where that should garner you some recognition, there is perhaps no player in baseball more underrated than Angel Pagan.

Over the last four years, Pagan has accumulated just over 2,100 plate appearances and produced +12.9 WAR, or an average of +3.7 WAR per 600 PA. Some other players in MLB who have averaged between +3.5 and +4.0 WAR per 600 PA over the last four years: Mark Teixeira, Jay Bruce, and Curtis Granderson. I think you might hear a little bit more about them than you do about Pagan.

This isn’t even a case like Gordon’s where a lot of his value is tied up in league-best fielding marks by UZR – Pagan’s UZR over the last four years is just +8 while splitting his time between all three outfield positions, so his value has come despite being regarded as just as slightly above average defender. In reality, Pagan is just a good all-around player who produces value in every aspect of the game.

His 110 wRC+ this year is an exact match for the average he’s put up over the last four years, which puts him ahead of the likes of Michael Bourn (108) and B.J. Upton (105), the two center fielders who get the most attention for their upcoming free agency this winter. It also puts him in the same territory as guys like Adam Jones (111) and Derek Jeter (113), both of whom are recognized as valuable contributors because of their ability to produce offense at an up-the-middle position.

In addition to being an above average hitter and an above average fielder, Pagan is also an excellent baserunner, which is an area that is often overlooked in producing value. Since the start of the 2009 season, he’s stolen 106 bases — 7th most in the majors — while only getting caught 30 times, a success rate of 78%. He’s also added +11 runs in baserunning value aside from his SB/CS totals, ranking him in the top ten in the majors over the last four years.

He’s an above average hitter, an above average fielder, an excellent baserunner, a switch-hitter who can produce from both sides of the plate, and he’s currently one of the main reasons the San Francisco Giants are in first place in the NL West. And yet, Angel Pagan continues to toil in relative obscurity. For those reasons, and with all due respect to Alex Gordon, I nominate Pagan as the most underrated player in baseball today.



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Dave is the Managing Editor of FanGraphs.



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maxjusttyped
Member
maxjusttyped

Currently? Gordon certainly has a case. In this “era” of baseball though, it has to be Mark Buehrle. There’s a very realistic chance he finishes his career with 70+ WAR.

MauerPower
Member

I guess it depends on which WAR you prefer. I prefer BR WAR for pitchers, and based off that he has 48.5 WAR. Still good, but not 65-70 WAR good.

maxjusttyped
Member
maxjusttyped

For what it’s worth, ZIPS has Buehrle finishing his career right at 70 WAR. Given the way he pitches, I’d say it’s reasonable to expect that he ages gracefully. But with pitchers, you never really know.

MauerPower
Member

And my apologies, I didn’t realize Buehrle had 47 fWAR. my bad on that one. Where did you find ZiPS projections for the rest of his career?

maxjusttyped
Member
maxjusttyped

I asked Dan Szymborski (ZIPS creator) on twitter. Again, for what it’s worth, he said he liked Buehrle to outperform his ZIPS projection. He said he expects Buehrle to finish with ~25 more career WAR. (https://es.twitter.com/DSzymborski/status/241356358954401793)

ASURay
Guest
ASURay

Buehrle has definitely been consistent throughout his career, but his career FIP is pretty average, and he just got paid to the tune of $58 million over four years. At his current performance level, he stands to fall short of giving the Marlins their money’s worth. In order to get to 70 WAR, he’d have to maintain his 2009-2011 production level until he’s 39 or 40. Unlikely.

Michael
Guest
Michael

Who cares about his FIP? The man’s pitched about ~2650 innings in the majors, if his FIP doesn’t match his ERA, that’s a skill. The end. You cannot write off that many innings as an aberration.

If the model diverges with reality, there’s something wrong with the model, not with reality.

Further, he’s never been to the DL, never missed a start, and has pitched into the 6th inning and given his teams quality starts in an insane percentage of his starts.

ASURay
Guest
ASURay

Buehrle has made around $30 million in his career, which another $40 million or so in guaranteed money yet to come. Pagan stands at around $6 million. Buehrle has averaged 3.9 WAR/ season for his career and holds an ERA-/FIP- of 84 and 93, respectively. Pagan, meanwhile, has posted an average of around 3 WAR per season (I tried to account for all of his partial seasons), while posting a wRC+ of 105. Buehrle has performed better, but has also been recognized for it in terms of money and accolades (4x AS, 3x GG, once in the Top 5 in CY voting). Pagan has never been voted an AS/GG, despite the fact that his best year (2010), wasn’t that far off from Buehrle’s best (2005).

payroll
Member
payroll

See RA9-wins

The Ronin
Guest
The Ronin

If the model diverges with reality, there’s something wrong with the model, not with reality.

Absolutely love this line!!!! I think all of us statistically inclined people need to remember this from time to time.

NS
Guest
NS

The man’s pitched about ~2650 innings in the majors, if his FIP doesn’t match his ERA, that’s a skill. The end.

No, not the end. Not even a beginning. That is not an argument.

http://www.fangraphs.com/blogs/index.php/a-random-walk-with-fip/

If the model diverges with reality, there’s something wrong with the model, not with reality.

Begging the effing question. The assumption here is that ERA=reality, which is just absurd. It blows my mind that someone could write these words without realizing it.

ERA is – wait for it – a model. And if it’s adjusted RA you’re talking about (e.g. rWAR), that’s an even more complex model.

Want to make a case that one model is superior to the other? Go ahead. It can certainly be done and it makes for very interesting discussion. But spare everyone your hollow, circular, and self-defeating lists of conclusions.

diegosanchez
Guest
diegosanchez

I wasn’t aware that this was the personal attacks section of fangraphs.

NS
Guest
NS

Which part of that was a personal attack? The characterization of his conclusions? That’s personal?

pebohead
Member
pebohead

Whoa, a post saying that ERA is superior to FIP has +33?? Did Fangraphs get bought by bleacher report?

ASURay
Guest
ASURay

I respect Dan’s work, but I’m confused as to why he would say that. Buehrle has averaged 3.5 WAR/yr. over the past three years (using Fangraph’s WAR). Going back five years, he’s averaged 3.76 WAR. He’s on pace to finish at around 2.3 WAR this year, which would put him around 48.2 WAR for his career. He would need another 21.8 WAR to get to 70. Even using the more optimistic 3.76 value, he’d need to pitch 5.76 more seasons while maintaining that level of production. He’ll turn 34 during spring training next year. Assuming some age-related decline, he’ll probably have to stay productive into his 40s to get to 70 WAR. As to his value, using a $5 million / WAR criteria, he’ll need to average 2.9 WAR per season to give Miami their money’s worth. His projected 2.3 WAR total for this year doesn’t exactly put him off to the greatest start.

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