Which baseball players get short shrift when talking about the game's best? Here's the first half of a list of the most underrated players in MLB.
In this article, we will all argue about the meaning of the word "underrated."
What is an underrated baseball player? Is it the respectable player who never makes an All-Star team, never signs a deal longer than two years, and often finds himself fighting for a job in the spring? Is it the occasional All-Star who never gets MVP votes? Is it the perennial All-Star who never wins the MVP, like Robinson Cano? Is it Clayton Kershaw because there was a period of two straight days last week where you weren't paying attention to him?
My definition: Dunno, and I make it up as I go along.
Or, to be less glib, it's all of the above. It's the Supreme Court definition of obscenity: I know it when I see it. There's a feeling of je ne sais notice that goes along with the player, good, great or otherwise. The only thing I'm pretty sure of is that players who have won the All-Star voting in recent years aren't eligible. That's a clear popularity contest, and the popularity eliminates players from consideration. Sorry, Josh Donaldson.
Here, then, is part one of my 10-most underrated players in baseball. It's split into two parts because a) I'm long-winded and b) somehow it's already the afternoon on both coasts, not because I want twice the clicks. But if you could click on today's and tomorrow's several times, you'd be a real sport.
10. Old Man Jimmy Rollins
Not the guy who won an MVP. He probably wasn't overrated, but he was certainly rated. He wasn't going to sneak by you. Old Man Jimmy Rollins, though, has been overlooked for a few years.
The average and OBP might be down, but the power, defense, and baserunning make for one of the better shortstops in the league.
Since 2009, Rollins has had an OPS+ over 100 just once, and that was a 101 mark in 2011. He's made over $58 million in those six seasons, so it's not like he's been neglected. The combination of the less-than-impressive surface stats and the disintegration of the Philadelphia Phillies, though, makes him so easy to overlook. In those six seasons, he's been quite good, with a string of two- or three-win seasons. The average and OBP might be down, but the power, defense, and baserunning make for one of the better shortstops in the league.
One of the more underrated shortstops in the league, that is. I blame Ryan Howard, the expensive homegrown Phillie who really is quite awful now. Or the entire organization for being funny. Rollins is 35 and likely to get worse, and soon. His blip last season is why he didn't rack up enough WAR to crack the top-10 in shortstops over the last three years, but he's back there this year.
He's good. Really, really good. You knew that, but at some point you forgot and assumed that he turned into a pile of Phillies along with the rest of the roster.
9. Kyle Lohse
It's far too easy to glom onto young, emerging players for a list like this. It's what Fake George Will called the exhilarating tension between being and becoming. We're always waiting for the new, hot thing. Sometimes, though, the boring, old thing is just as exciting. The most Cardinals of all pitchers was weaponized and turned against them in a postwar parable for the digital age.
Lohse is a control maven who pitches to contact, which is, well, I fell asleep writing that sentence. But he's not boring in the awful Twins way; he's actually good. He's one of the 25-most valuable pitchers in baseball over the last three years, matching up favorably with pitchers like Johnny Cueto, Zack Greinke, and Adam Wainwright.
The Brewers picked Lohse up to bolster a thin, young rotation that has somehow morphed into a formidable, young rotation. The gamble of giving a draft pick to a divisional rival -- used on a teenager who will probably destroy the Brewers one day -- is working out, at least in the short term.
Kyle Lohse does the Lohse-amotion.(Benny Sieu-USA TODAY Sports)
8. Cody Allen
Take it. Don't cheat.
Take the quiz.
Wait, fantasy baseball players don't count. People who pay attention to saves at all: do not take that quiz. You'll futz up the results.
I knew, but it took me a while to find out. There's a new generation of hyper-strikeout, late-inning goofballs like Aroldis Chapman, Craig Kimbrel, and Greg Holland. Allen fits right in, if somewhat unremarkably. He throws 95, usually, not 100 or 103 like some of those guys. He has a nifty breaking ball, but it's nothing that's going to show up as a GIF in your Facebook feed. He's struck out a third of the batters he's faced this year, and he gets hitters to an 0-2 count a remarkable 32 percent of the time. He's an excellent reliever, but he gets almost no attention.
He's famous now, though. That's what this list will do. Kind of a starmaker, here, even though all I want to do is write about baseball.
7. Lorenzo Cain
There's a column coming soon from me on the brilliant wheeling and dealing of Dayton dfaonsd. The brilliant wheeling and dealing of Dayton Mooorrrrrdfnd. Huh. Looks like my brain isn't prepared for that column yet. In the meantime, just look at that dandy Zack Greinke deal. There were 100 different ways a normal team could have screwed that up, and 500 more that were native only to the Royals. Yet they got a couple solid regulars out of the deal. Low-cost, high-reward regulars.
Lorenzo Cain (Jesse Johnson-USA TODAY Sports)
Lorenzo Cain (Jesse Johnson-USA TODAY Sports)
Cain is one of them, and if you're not aware of his background, it's worth reading. Here's a passage about him in high school:
The rules of the game were foreign, too. On a hard-hit grounder to the shortstop, he might stand in place at first base. On a pop to left, he might sprint all the way to third. He could not differentiate between the bases and home plate.
The story gets better and better, too. It's led to Cain playing one of the best center fields in baseball, and his bat catching up with his glove. He's hitting .297/.335/.406, good for a 105 OPS+. Those are fine numbers, sure, but you have to force yourself to remember it's 2014, which is a lot closer to 1968 than 2000 when it comes to the run-scoring environment. Put him on the 2000 Royals, and you might have a .330 hitter, someone who clearly stands out.
As is, he's a shining example of the platinum-glove, high-swing, plus-tools center fielder who is probably more valuable than you think. That's a genre helped made popular by ...
6. Austin Jackson
Oh, you knew he was good. He's been on national TV enough in October to make the name recognizable. But he's never made an All-Star team. More than that, everyone sure seemed just fine with trading him away to get David Price. There was a lot of "That's it?" when the Price deal was announced, partially because the attention was split three ways in the deal, but also because Jackson was widely perceived as a good-not-great piece that you deal for a great-not-good pitcher like Price every time.
We should be careful with the good-not-great label, though. There have been just 12 position players worth three or more WAR in each of the last four seasons. Most of the names you would expect: Andrew McCutchen, Dustin Pedroia, Matt Holliday, Robinson Cano, Miguel Cabrera, and Jose Bautista, for example. Jackson is on the list. He hasn't been okay for a short time. He's been good for an extended period of time...
...That is, if you buy into his defensive stats. Juan Lagares isn't going to make this list because I just can't fathom a center fielder being that much better than his peers, even though he should probably bump Rollins off. Jackson's gaudiest seasons came with the support of defensive numbers like that, and those numbers are slipping. Jackson hasn't been one of the best defensive outfielders in baseball this year, but considering he's still just 27, I'm comfortable ignoring that until there's more supporting evidence.
Jackson has never won a Gold Glove, either. See? You thought you had him rated just fine, but he's probably better than we all think. Or thought. The Mariners death fog is going to melt his offensive skills and spit an Endy Chavez clone out the other side. Until that happens, remember the good times. They were probably better than you think.
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