The New Most Underrated Player

Last August, I wrote a post at FanGraphs that labeled Giants center fielder Angel Pagan as The Most Underrated Player in Baseball. He then went on to fame in October and fortune in free agency, so coming off a World Series title and a $40 million contract, it’s probably time for him to pass the torch. There are a few pretty good players who don’t get enough respect, but given that he just placed 175th in the BBTN 500, I don’t think anyone in the game is currently more underrated than Erick Aybar.

Aybar seems to fly under the radar for many of the same reasons as Pagan. He’s a good hitter relative to his peers at an up the middle position, but he’s not the kind of dynamic offensive player who shows up on Sportscenter a lot. Rather than being excellent at any one thing, he’s solid at a number of things, and excels in areas that people pay little attention to, such as running the bases. And, of course, he’s been overshadowed by more famous teammates for practically his entire career, and given that he’s now on the same team as Mike Trout, that’s not likely to change any time soon.

But just because Aybar isn’t the most famous member of the Angels line-up doesn’t mean that we should continue to overlook his contributions. Over the last four years, Aybar has posted a 99 wRC+ (league average is 100, and league average for shortstops is 86), and as most teams in baseball can attest, it is not easy to find a guy who can hold his own with the bat while also defending the shortstop position. For Aybar, though, what he does at the plate is just the start of his offensive value.

Over the last four years, Aybar has accrued 16 runs of baserunning value, according to the metrics we use on FanGraphs to evaluate base stealing and advancing when a teammate puts the ball in play. That’s good for 18th best in baseball during that stretch, and has added nearly two wins of value to the Angels during that stretch. And using the last four years of data might actually underrate Aybar’s current baserunning skills — in 2009/2010, he was just 36 for 51 in stealing bases, but he’s 50 for 60 over the last two years. As his base stealing has improved, so has his overall value, and he’s been worth +7.6 WAR over the last two seasons alone, putting him 5th overall among shortstops during that stretch.

Still not convinced? Here’s Aybar’s performance — in batting, fielding, and baserunning — over the last two years compared to Derek Jeter:

Name Batting Base Running Fielding WAR
Erick Aybar 12.2 9.5 (1.0) 7.6
Derek Jeter 22.5 (0.8) (21.7) 5.5

Jeter’s been a slightly better hitter even after you account for their home parks, but Aybar wipes out the entire offensive advantage just through the difference in baserunning, meaning that they’ve essentially been equals in terms of producing runs over the last two seasons. When it comes to saving them, Aybar is clearly superior, and though he’ll never The Captain, he’s pretty clearly a better shortstop now than the Yankees superstar.

This isn’t intended as a knock against Jeter, who is still a very good player in his own right, but simply serves to show that Aybar’s performance is nothing to sneeze at. He might not be a big time power hitter, but then again, neither is Jeter. Shortstops who make a lot of contact, get a bunch of doubles, and can run when they get on base can produce a lot of value even if they aren’t pulling the ball into the stands on a regular basis.

And yet, Aybar remains underappreciated. He’s never been named to an All-Star team, nor has ever even received a single down ballot MVP vote. Last spring, he signed a four year contract extension that kept him off the free agent market for the grand total of $36 million, giving him the same average annual value in salary that Cody Ross got this winter.

The Angels have just announced that Aybar is going to hit second in the order this year, putting him in between Trout and Pujols, so he might get more attention than he has in previous years, and don’t be too shocked if he takes another step forward offensively with Trout opening up the right side of the infield for him on a regular basis. Of course, any step forward offensively now would just elevate him from good player to a legitimate star, so perhaps we can start giving him credit for being a key part of the Angels success now?

Oh, and if you were wondering, my other two finalists for the title also play in the West – David Murphy of the Rangers and Trevor Cahill of the Diamondbacks. Murphy’s been tagged with the fourth outfielder label but is more than capable of playing everyday on a good Texas team, and with Hamilton gone to Anaheim, he’s going to get his chance to prove it in 2013. Cahill hasn’t been able to repeat his flukey 2.74 ERA from 2010 again, and might be seen as something of a letdown for those who thought that was sustainable, but he’s still been an above average starter and increased both his strikeout rate and ground ball rate last year — it’s not easy to move both of those things up at the same time, suggesting that Cahill might be in line for even more improvement headed into his age-25 season.

But while Murphy and Cahill are good players, they’re still not as good as Aybar. And that’s why, at the end of the day, he’s now the most underrated player in baseball.

Dave is the Managing Editor of FanGraphs.

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Nice article. I’ve always been a bit of a fan of Aybar, and I agree that he seems to be overlooked when people talk about shortstops.