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The Most Underrated Players of all time

April 27, 2023

XI.  Introduction to the Underrated

            See, when a player is under-honored you can just say that he is underrated, because under-honored and underrated mean sort of the same thing, and "underrated" is non-controversial.  Nobody will be mad at you for saying that somebody is underrated.  On the other hand, when somebody is over-honored you have to tiptoe around it to try to keep from being knee-capped by his fans. 

            I also needed to insert an explanation of something here.  Not all of the Awards which are included in this study came into existence at the same time.   In 1940 there was no Rookie of the Year Award, there were no Gold Gloves, and I haven’t been able to find a record of the earlier World Series MVPs, although I know that such an award existed, and actually I know where I could find it if I had the time to rummage through 20 or 30 books. 

            Anyway, because the awards are not absolutely the same over time, there are some of you out there who are linear thinkers and who are desperate to write to tell me that the players from before 1958 are at a competitive disadvantage in this accounting because there was no Gold Glove for them to win.  That’s actually the reason I generally don’t open series like this up for posts until the series is done—because the linear thinkers in the audience will hijack the discussion with points which are only true or relevant if you don’t think about them.  Probably somebody has already lodged that complaint on one of the discussion boards, I would guess. 

            The reality is that the bias goes the other way.   The "awards bias" is actually in the favor of the older players, not against them.  There are at least two factors in play, one working against the older players, the other one in favor of them.   The larger factor is the second one.  

            The second one is that the leagues basically doubled in size between 1960 and 2000, going from 16 major league teams to 30.  The expansions mean that more players were competing for the same number of awards.   In 1960 there were 128 regular-position jobs in the majors, and two MVP Awards.  In 2000 there were 248 regular-position jobs, but still only two MVP Awards.  The All Star teams expanded a little bit and the Gold Gloves were added, but the additional awards did not nearly keep pace with the expansions, so the later players were disadvantaged in that way.  

            In this study there were 118 players who were born in the 1910s, the 1920s or the 1930s, which would mean that they played mostly in the 1930s, 1940s, 1950s and 1960s.  Those who were born in the 1910s were over-honored, relative to the standards of the study, by 9%.  Those born in the 1920s were over-honored by 22%, and those born in the 1930s by 14%. 

            Those born in 1940 or after were under-honored.  Those born in the 1940s were under-honored by 11%, in the 1950s by 7%, in the 1960s by 6%, and in the 1970s by 8% so far; there are some players born in the 1950s, 1960s and 1970s who are still good candidates for Hall of Fame selection, so those numbers will move when guys like Dale Murphy, Dick Allen, Barry Bonds, Gary Sheffield and Lou Whitaker are Cooperstownized; not predicting specifically who will be elected, but some players will.   Dave Parker and Keith Hernandez.   For that matter, some players born before 1940 will still be elected to the Hall of Fame, but more from those born in the 1950s and 1960s.  Anyway, biases of that scale are of no real significance; there is no real reason to waste time worrying about them.  Just accept that the world is what it is, and Mo Vaughn.  (Move on.  One time when I was with the Red Sox, Allard Baird was running a meeting, and he said "Let’s move on," but it came out sounding like he said "Let’s Mo Vaughn.")

            Linear thinkers are people who will draw direct inferences about the effects of A, without acknowledging the off-setting effects of B, C, and D.  Almost all "influences" of that nature exist in a large field of competing influences, some going in one direction and one in the other.  So long as one of those effects is not greatly larger than the others, the effects will most often negate one another, leaving the center about where it was before. The linear thinkers don’t see the field; they only see the pathway cut through the field by whatever it is they are focused on.  Linear thinkers twenty years ago would rant about expansion diluting the quality of play in the major leagues, without acknowledging (a) the increases in the population, (b) the huge increases in international scouting, or (c) the gradual and progressive crumbling of the color line, beginning relatively close in time to the first expansion, and not reaching completion until the 1960s.   Linear thinkers didn’t think Negro League Players should go into the Hall of Fame or didn’t think they could be considered the equals of Babe Ruth and Ty Cobb, because of issues with their statistical records, but not giving weight to the costs of perpetuating racist attitudes of the past, and not thinking logically about the implications of the greatness of the players who came OUT of the Negro Leagues directly into the white leagues.

            Unfortunately, analytics is very prone to linear thinking.   An example I always think of of linear was Leonard Koppett, who did some primitive analytics 50+ years ago.  He did make contributions toward the field.   Koppett—who I greatly admired until I actually met him—argued that, rather than adopting the DH rule, what baseball should have done was to simply eliminate the pitcher’s batting, and have the other eight hitters bat in rotation.   I pointed out to him that this would allow leadoff hitters to get 820, 830 plate appearances a season, and that that would obliterate all existing standards by which we (then) evaluated hitters.  Old records would disappear, as some hitter would get 280, 285 hits in a season.  The number of players driving in or scoring 100 runs would more than double.   The number driving in 120 would quadruple. When I pointed this out to him, however, he ticked off every change that he could remember in the game—the 162-game schedule rather than 154, the DH rule, the use of more relief pitchers, night baseball, expansion, travel by airplane, new ballparks, etc.—and said that these had already destroyed the old standards, so that didn’t matter.  What he could not be persuaded to see, because Leonard never shut up when there was an ear lobe in the room, was that these effects generally offset one another, so that the effect was not cumulative; rather, each effect competed with the others, mostly offsetting.  But because THAT change would be larger than the others, it would dominate the result.

            Almost all political activists are linear thinkers.  All people who think they know what the government SHOULD do are linear thinkers.  The issues are too complex for complete understanding.  You can only achieve the illusion that you understand the issue by focusing on one element of the problem and ignoring the valid offsets.  With some exceptions, I am sure, any time you are certain you are right about an issue in the political sphere, you are relying on linear logic. 



XII.  The Horribly Underrated


1.     Darrell Evans, 30 to 307. 

Evans has been widely recognized as an underrated player, so I don’t need to spend a lot of time on that.  The essential reasons that he was/is underrated are (1) that he was a low-average, high-secondary average player, and that type is always underrated, and (2) that although he was a very, very good defensive third baseman when he was young, Mike Schmidt owned the NL Gold Glove at third base in his era, so he never got much credit for his glove.  People will also tell you that his home run power was exaggerated by playing in Atlanta, although in reality his home/road career splits are smaller than average.  .806 OPS at home, .788 on the road.  


2.     Bobby Abreu, 35 to 334. 

Again, widely recognized as an underrated player, and I’ll try to focus more on those not on all of the sabermetric lists of underrated players.

Bobby Abreu and Vladimir Guerrero are the most perfect matched set of underrated/overrated stars in major league history.  They played the same position (right field) in the same years, both debuting in 1996.  Vladimir was a visually stunning athlete, a big, strong man with a fantastic arm.   He had a one-of-a-kind physique, looking almost half-human, and an absolutely unique interpretation of the strike zone.  His approach at the plate was that if he could see the ball, he could hit it. 

In addition to that Vladimir—who was a great player—concentrated his excellence into the triad of stats that dominated the evaluation of hitters for 100 years—home runs, batting average and RBI.   He hit almost 60% more home runs than Abreu (449 to 288), hit for an average 27 points higher (.318 to .291), and drove in a few more runs (10% more.) 

Abreu, shorter and stockier than Vladimir, visually less interesting, was a vastly better percentage player.  He stole more than twice as many bases as Vladimir (400 to 181), with a much better stolen base percentage.   He grounded in many fewer double plays (165-277), hit more doubles and triples, and drew twice as many walks (1476 to 737).  Despite the lower batting average, he was on base more, his on base percentage 16 points higher (.395 to .379.   Vladimir’s on base percentage was good; Bobby’s was great.)  He scored more runs.  In the field he committed barely over half as many errors as Vladimir (73 to 125), and he actually threw out more runners than Vlad—nicknamed Vlad the Impaler for his ability to throw—but Abreu actually recorded ten more assists from the outfield (136 to 126).  He earned almost as much money as Vladimir did, 99% as much.  

But in terms of public recognition, it was John Wayne against John Marley (look him up.)  Percentage players don’t get celebrated for doing little things consistently well, and Abreu also broke up his profile by playing for twice as many teams (six to three.)  Win Shares and WAR both place Abreu on a slightly higher platform than Guerrero (356 to 324 and 60.2 to 59.5).  I wouldn’t take that too seriously; Bobby played a few more games, and accumulated a few more hang-around points.  Let us say they were even.   But in the honors category, Vladimir cleaned his clock, 420 to 35. 

Bobby will pick up another 100-and-some points when he is eventually put into the Hall of Fame, which I have little doubt that he will be.  The public discussion lags behind the analytical evaluations, but it follows.  The case for Bobby Abreu is too strong to be overlooked forever. 


3.     Tony Phillips (0 to 162).

Tony Phillips was the best player in our study who received absolutely no star recognition—no All Star teams, no significant MVP support, no awards.   The one major reason for that is that his best seasons all came after he transitioned into a Ben Zobrist-type role, a regular who plays wherever he is needed today.  Being a regular without a position, he was not a candidate for a Gold Glove at any position.  I am proud to say that I helped to repair that oversight for today’s players, leading the creation of a multi-position award for the Fielding Bible Awards, but that came 15 years too late for Tony Phillips. 

Not that Tony was the first player to do that; people would say about Gil McDougald that when he played shortstop, he was the best shortstop in the league, when he played third, he was the best third baseman in the league, and when he played second base, he was the best second baseman in the league.  I never saw Gil McDougald, but Tony was the best defensive player I ever saw at playing any position on the field.  (Zobrist second.)  Without being identified with a single position, he was not going to pick up any Gold Gloves, and also, if he was not a second baseman, he could not be the All Star second baseman.  His role on the team did not align with the way that All Star teams are chosen.  Without being a Gold Glover, without being an All Star, he just didn’t exist as far as the MVP voters were concerned. 

As an offensive player as well, he focused on the things that fans pay the least attention to:  getting on base and scoring runs.  You become a star by hitting home runs and driving in runs.  Tony did have some power, hitting 160 home runs in his career and as many as 27 in a season, but he never started a game in the cleanup position.  He started games in every slot in the lineup except the RBI slots, 4th and 5th.  Baseball Reference says that the most similar player to him was Eddie Yost.  He did too many other things to be called The Walking Man, like Eddie Yost, but he drew A LOT of walks.  He led the league in walks twice, walked 100 or more times five times.  He also hit for a decent average, .266, had some power, and he was fast.  He had 2,023 hits, but 2,496 secondary bases—1,319 on walks, 940 on extra bases, 177 on stolen bases.  He scored 119 runs, 119 again, 114, 113.  The 114 led the league.  His career high would have been 1994; he scored almost 100 that year despite a strike that wiped out 30% of his season. 

He was exactly four months younger than Rickey Henderson and came up in the Oakland system, so the leadoff role was not an option for him as a young player.   It would be interesting to know whether he and Rickey were friends.  His defense got him to the majors in decent order; his offense was a surprise to everybody.    He did all of the things that nobody paid much attention to, but they win games for you. 

He played most of his career in pitcher’s parks.  His career OPS was 30 points HIGHER on the road than it was in his home parks. 

When the SABR convention was in Oakland in 1985, Phillips came by the hotel where the convention was to look me up and say hello.  It was the first time anyone of note had ever done something like that.  I much appreciated that, and if I had followed through on that as I probably should have, we could have become friends.  I am bad about that kind of thing, really terrible.  There is a skill set there that I just don’t have. 

Phillips was the same age as Willie McGee, an MVP with a similar body.   McGee earned more money in his career than Phillips, and Willie was a good player, but Tony Phillips was quite a bit better—50% better by WAR, 20% better by Win Shares.   He was three years younger than Dale Murphy, and he beat Murphy in career WAR, 50.9 to 46.5.  Murphy beat him Honors Summary Points, 310 to nothing.  I don’t endorse the notion that he was a better player than Murphy; that’s just what WAR says. 

 I don’t know that I ever really "got" Tony until late in his career.  Late in his career, trying to catch on with somebody, I saw a spring training game in which he played four different positions and made incredible defensive plays at all four.  That’s what they do to you when you’re a non-roster player in spring training; they play you all over the field to see what you can do.  I regret, in retrospect, that I didn’t do more to appreciate his skills when he was active, but there is a skill set there that I just don’t have. 


4.     Johnny Damon (23 to 218)

I was very surprised to see Johnny on the list, having overlooked the fact that he was underrated.  He was SO underrated, I guess, that even the people who look for underrated players didn’t find him. 

Johnny was born in Kansas, came up with the Royals when I was still a Royals fan, and signed with the Red Sox a few months before I joined them, so it is hard to see how I had overlooked him.  Hiding in plain sight.   He had almost 3,000 hits, within 10%.  He scored 100 runs ten times, nine straight times.  He hit 200+ home runs, stole 400 bases.  He would rank as one of the greatest leadoff men of all time, but the only things he was really known for were long hair and a ridiculously bad throwing arm.   See comments below (Rick Monday). 


5.     Rafael Palmeiro (116 to 468). 

Palmeiro wasn’t underrated; he was discounted.   People know what he did, I think; he just didn’t get too much credit for it because people didn’t like the way he did it. 


6.     Brian Giles (18 to 186)

Had four straight years of 35 to 39 homers with batting averages of .315, .315, .309 and .298.  Walked an average of 111 times a season in there, and hit 35, 37, 37 and 37 doubles.  Nobody paid any attention.  It was the steroid era.  There were different standards.


7.     Jose Cruz (51 to 278)

I wrote about Cruz being underrated all through the 1980s.  He was tremendously underrated in part because he played his best years in the worst hitter’s park in baseball in that era, the Houston Astrodome.  

He hit 106 career homers on the road, only 59 at home, but actually his career numbers at home are not terrible; not great, but not terrible.  In 1981 he hit .247 with 3 homers at home, .283 with 10 homers on the road, and more than twice as many RBI on the road as at home.  In 1984 he hit .276 with no homers at home, .344 with 12 home runs on the road and, again, more than twice as many RBI on the road as at home.  He drove in 65 runs in 80 games on the road.  Mike Schmidt and Gary Carter tied for the league lead in RBI, with 106; neither one of them was close to Cruz’s total on the road.

The other reason he was underrated is that his career got off to a slow start, as he fizzled in St. Louis before being traded to Houston.  First impressions make a huge difference in how a player in evaluated, how he is seen.  Again, that is something that I did not fully appreciate until doing this study, and seeing the patterns in who is underrated and who is over.


8.     Brett Butler (12 and 171)

People who FINISH things are always over-credited in all sports, I think, and those who create situations are overlooked.   A player who scores runs in baseball is a little like a point guard in basketball who doesn’t score points, but creates situations for others to finish.  Butler scored 100 runs six times, twice in the AL and four times in the NL.  He led the league twice in hits, three times in triples.  He had a .400 on base percentage three times.  He hit more triples than any player of his generation except Willie Wilson and George Brett.  It seems like quite a few accomplishments for a player whose only significant awards were for community service and for exemplifying the spirit of Lou Gehrig. 

I wonder if you could demonstrate that awards in baseball are disproportionately awarded to BIGGER men, taller and heavier.  It seems like a reasonable thesis.   I used Butler earlier as a counter-point to Dale Murphy, who was vastly more heavily recognized than Butler, but not actually a better player.  Butler was 5-10, Murphy 6-4.   Bobby Abreu was three inches shorter than Vladimir Guerrero.  Tony Phillips was a small man.   There might be a pattern there, might not.   Might be worth a look.


9.     Rusty Staub, 72 and 307. 

Staub was a very popular player both in Montreal (1969 – 1971 and 1979) and New York (1972 – 1975 and 1981 – 1985).   Growing up in a strong family in New Orleans, he was an urbane, witty and sophisticated man.  He was immensely popular in Montreal in part because he played great there, but also in part because, growing up in New Orleans, he spoke French and identified strongly with French culture.  In Montreal he dated the manager of a successful restaurant, who led him down a path that resulted in his owning and managing two successful restaurants in New York as his career wound down.  He started two charitable foundations, one raising money for the widows of first responders who were killed in the line of duty, the other providing food for deprived children.  He broadcast Met games for several years, along with Tim McCarver and others.

While his immense popularity with the press and with fans did not pay off in major awards, he did receive many local and regional awards.  He was the first player to have his number retired by the Expos. 

Repeating myself here; I wrote much of this a year ago.   Staub and Harold Baines do not show up in this study as similar players, but they are profoundly similar.  Both men were left-handed hitting outfielders, both standing 6-foot-2.  Baines’ top two positions by games played were DH and right field; Staub, because he played mostly in the National League, were right field and DH.  Both had the arm to play right field but had average major league speed when they were 21, below average by the time they were 27.  Both were major league regulars at very young ages, because their hitting talents matured as amateurs, way ahead of everybody else.   Staub played on an amateur team that won a National Championship, and he was a major league regular at age 19.  Baines was the first player taken in the amateur draft.  

Both had many good years but no great ones.  Both lost their speed and their throwing arms by the time they were 30. Each man drove in 100 runs three times, but neither ever scored 100 runs or even came real close to it.   Staub had 2,716 career hits; Baines had 2,866.  They were the same player, basically; Baines’ numbers are a little bit bigger because the DH rule was there for him, while Staub came to the majors ten years before the DH rule was adopted and spent his declining years in the NL, so he was limited to pinch hitting, but he would pinch hit almost 500 times.  Both WAR and Win Shares think that Staub was the better player 45.8 to 38.8 (WAR) and 358 to 307 (Win Shares.) 

Baines’ made the Hall of Fame essentially because the White Sox organized a campaign to get him elected.  This turned out to be controversial, and that card was perhaps overplayed; he wasn’t the best Hall of Fame selection available to the voters, but he wasn’t Bill Mazeroski, either.   The controversy was largely driven by people who knew what his WAR was, and thought that they knew everything there was to know. 


10.           Willie Davis (59 to 264). 

Davis’ name never appeared on a Hall of Fame ballot, either as an oversight or a deliberate slight by whoever drew up the ballot.  He is generally regarded as the best player ever who was never even listed on a Hall of Fame Ballot.   He had 322 career Win Shares and 60.7 WAR, both of those being Hall of Fame numbers.  The most similar player in our system is Vada Pinson—also underrated.   His body was like that of Willie Wilson or Byron Buxton, and (like those men) he was the fastest player in baseball in his time.  

He is underrated for two reasons.  His prime years were in Los Angeles in the years 1963 to 1968, which was perhaps the most difficult place and time for a hitter in the history of baseball.  His career batting average was 14 points higher on the road than at home, and he hit 60% more home runs on the road.  Those numbers somewhat understate the problem.  From 1963 to 1968 batting numbers were severely depressed everywhere, with league batting averages generally in the .240s, league ERAs generally under 3.50.   In that league, the Dodgers had park run factors of 84, 78, 76, 86, 73 and 77—the lowest in the league literally every season.  As a 22-year-old the year before that era started (1962), Davis hit .285 with 21 homers, 85 RBI, 10 triples and 100+ runs scored.  Once that era ended he hit .300 every year for several years.

The other reason he was historically underrated is that people just did not like him.  I am quite sure he must hold the all-time record for "ex-teammates who took shots at him in their biographies."  Everybody who was anybody on that team wrote a biography, and they almost all found some occasion to belittle Willie for something.  I’m not saying that he deserved it or didn’t; I don’t know.  


11.            Roy White (23 to 173)

Sub- Hall of Fame Level, and I have written before about how underrated he was.  He was a small, quiet man who had a very even balance of skills—decent batting average, a little power, some speed, pretty good defense, pretty long career.   Specialists are always overrated; players who do everything pretty well are often underrated. 

I have a method to measure the extent to which a player is a specialist, and the extent to which is a muti-talented player.  I don’t believe I have ever published that method.  There are two challenges for it:  one, that it is difficult to measure a player’s arm with historic data, and arm strength is a key skill, so that’s kind of a gray area.  The other challenge is the popularity of the "five-tool player" reference.  Five tool player is an over-simplified reference, leaving out things like strike zone judgement, consistency, durability defensive reliability, base-running judgement, and specialized defensive skills.  There are a lot of things that matter for a player that are not listed in the five tools.  It is difficult to write about something when the discussion is dominated by a not-very-helpful frame of reference.


12.           Lou Whitaker (136 over 440)


Already discussed several times. 


13.            Eddie Yost (15 over 150)

Also already discussed.  Yost’s special skill, of course, was the ability to get on base (and score runs) by not swinging at borderline pitches.   That is the MOST underrated skill in baseball, and most underrated players are strong in that.   Most overrated players—Mazeroski, Bobby Richardson, etc.—are weak in that area. 

In the first 30 years of baseball history, walks for hitters were not even tabulated.   Nobody knew how much a player walked; literally, nobody.  It wasn’t figured.  The numbers that you see now for players like Yank Robinson, Roy Thomas and Topsy Hartsel are numbers that were calculated years later from game scoresheets, which DID record batter’s walks; they just did not add them up. 

When John Heydler (National League President) added Batter’s Walks to the stats published by the league, about 1912, he did so with an explanation that these were just given for what they were worth, since the pitcher’s control or lack of control was what determined when a walk occurred, and the batter just walked more if he happened to be at the plate.  The belief that walks are controlled by the pitcher, not the batter, was the dominant belief in baseball when I became a professional writer in 1975, and it still exists now, although it is now a recessive model of thought.   At the time that Yost played the basic reference guides did not publish batter’s walks or published them separately from the rest of the official stats, in a section with things like grounding into a double play and sacrifice flies.  They were a secondary, non-essential category.  

The Baseball Register, however, would make a special effort to publish Yost’s walks; they would publish HIS, but not anyone else’s, because that was what he was known for.   Some of this was not oversight, but a value judgment.  Drawing a walk is not an athletic achievement, not an active achievement.  It is a passive achievement, accomplished by patience, judgement and strategy, rather than by strength, speed or agility.  Some people actively discriminate against the skill because it is not athletic.   Scouts generally paid no attention to walks until about 2010. 


14.            Mel Ott.   (358 to 889) 

The only underrated heavily underrated superstar in our study.   The extent to which he underperformed in MVP voting is phenomenal.  He had the highest WAR in the National League in 1932, finished 10th in the MVP voting.  In 1933 he was 8th in the League in WAR, and playing for the league champions, but not mentioned at all in the MVP voting.   In 1934 he was fifth but 20th, and on and on, virtually ALWAYS underperforming his real value in MVP votes.  Again, a very small man. 


15.            Ron Fairly (16 and 147)

Played in the same park as Willie Davis much of his career, and also broke up his image by moving between first base and the outfield although he was a pretty good outfielder and an excellent defensive first baseman.  Playing time density was very low.  He was a pretty-good-at-everything guy, rather than a specialist, and he walked a lot.  He was kind of a perfect storm of all the things that will cause you to be underrated, except that he did play in LA and did play in some World Series. 


16.            Gene Woodling (8 and 111)

A fantastic hitter, truly a Hall of Fame level hitter if you’re speaking strictly of the level of performance.  He created more runs per 27 outs than Enos Slaughter, Minnie Minoso or Billy Williams.  He was one of Casey Stengel’s platoon players.  Of course, creating runs at that level as a platoon player is not QUITE the same as creating that number of runs as an everyday player, but Woodling could really hit. 

You know something I noticed for the first time some time in the last year?  Gene Woodling and Smoky Burgess are like the same guy.  The first thing I noticed is that they actually look alike.  This started when I saw a picture of Gene Woodling, and at first took it to be a picture of Smoky Burgess, or the other way around, I’m not quite sure.   They both had round faces and bright blue eyes.  They were both short and squat; Burgess is listed in the record books at 5-8, 185, Woodling at 5-9, 195.  They were both left-handed hitters, and they hit out of the same weird crouch, bent over from the waist, I presume to protect down and away.  They were both platoon players, and they were both phenomenal hitters. 

They were both overweight, but you couldn’t tell it by their aging patterns.  Burgess hit .313 an on base percentage over .400 in his next-to-last season, when he was 39 years old.  Woodling hit .313 with an on base percentage over .400 in his next-to-last season, when he was 38.   Woodling’s on base percentage was over .400 several times.  Neither one was by reputation a good defensive player.  What really got me, though, was their minor league batting records; even those are almost exactly the same.  Burgess in the minors in 1948 hit .386 with 22 homers, 102 RBI.  Woodling in the minors in 1948 hit .386 with 22 homers, 107 RBI.   Woodling when he was 17 years old hit .398 in the minors.  The next year, in a little higher league, he hit .375.   Burgess, when he was 17, hit a mere .325 in the minors.

Platoon players almost never win honors, no matter what they hit, because they have low-density playing time, thus fall short of the standards of a good player.  The most famous of Casey’s platoon outfielders were Woodling and Hank Bauer, both World War II veterans.  Bauer was famous for being tough.  He was a Marine in World War II.  He was taller than Woodling, and he had a gravelly voice and he could get loud and he was in some famous fights.  But Woodling, according to his teammates, was every bit as tough as Bauer was.  He smiled a lot more and had a softer tone, but if you screwed up on the field, you didn’t hear about it from Bauer or Woodling; you heard about it from Bauer AND Woodling.   He took a loss the way a gorilla takes a punch in the chest.  He hated being platooned, and he wasn’t afraid to say so.  If Casey pinch hit for him because of a pitching change, the guy who pinch hit had better deliver or Casey was going to hear about it.    

After Woodling hit .398 and .375 in the low minors, there was a war that needed to be fought before Woodling had a chance to play in the majors.  He struggled in his first shot in the majors, the only time in his life he didn’t hit well.  But if a couple of things had gone right for him, if he had been able to get to the majors when he was 20 years old and if they hadn’t made him a platoon player, he might very well be in the Hall of Fame. 


17.            Toby Harrah (46 and 183)

An odd player who did everything well, but not all at the same time.  He hit 27 home runs in a season, 25, 21, 20, but in other seasons he hit 5 and 2 and 10 and 9.   He led the league in walks one year, 109, and in another year walked 113 times in 126 games; in other years he didn’t walk much.  He stole 31 bases one year; in other years he would steal 8 and 10.  He came up as a shortstop, played 800+ games as a shortstop, but 1000+ at third base. 

Ted Williams was his first major league manager.  He and Teddy didn’t see eye to eye, and Harrah became one of the leaders of "the Underminers Club", dedicated to getting Williams fired.  Later in his career, in the field he played too shallow, particularly at third base; he believed in "cutting down the cone", meaning that he came in to reduce the side-to-side movement of the ball off the bat.   It doesn’t make any sense, because if you back up about three steps you have more time to react, and you gain more than you lose.  If you look at his range numbers on Baseball Reference he looks terrible, but it wasn’t really that he was a bad fielder; it was really that he reduced his own range by playing too close to the plate, didn’t have time to react. 

He was born in 1948, the same year at Ron Cey, both third basemen and with very similar WAR and Win Shares.  Cey earned twice as many honors (97 to 46)—and Cey was very seriously under-honored. 


18.            Jimmie Wynn (62 and 203)

Another little guy, he had both power and speed, and he held the National League record for walks in a season until Barry Bonds broke it.   He was originally signed by the Reds, and played extremely well his first year in the minors in the Reds’ system, but the Reds failed to protect him on some minor league roster, I think some codicil in the Rule 5 regulation, and the Astros stole him in a Winter Meetings draft.  They had him and Joe Morgan at the same time—both small, powerful players who walked a LOT, hit homers and stole bases.  Contrast him with Fred Lynn, Wynn and Lynn.   Both center fielders, Lynn played a few more games, 2% more.  Lynn had 50.2 WAR and 280 Win Shares; Wynn had 10% more WAR and 10% more Win Shares, more or less (55.7 and 305).  Lynn won 340% more honors, 274 to 62. 


19.            Rick Monday, 16 and 119. 

The contrasting player, again, is Fred Lynn, and that is because none of the other comparable center fielders (Amos Otis, Bobby Murcer, Curt Flood) is over-honored.  They all tend to fall on this side of the ledger. 

You may remember that in the article posted on Tuesday I pointed out that among the top 20 overrated players, there were 3 at every position except only two third basemen and no center fielders at all.  On the twenty most underrated list we have the same indication; there are no catchers who show up on the under-honored list:


Catchers                    0

First Basemen          1

Second Basemen    2

Third Basemen        3

Shortstops                0

Left Fielders             4

Center Fielders        6

Right Fielders           4


            So we have MORE underrated center fielders than at any other position, and fewer overrated players.  Interesting.  If center fielders are systematically underrated, I have never been aware of it before.


20.             Jose Cardenal (0 and 86)

Another center fielder. . .he came up as a center fielder and played more games in center than at any other position.   He had a BIG season in the minor leagues, and came to the majors as one of the first in what would prove to be a long line of "next Willie Mayses".  He was Bert Campaneris’ first cousin.  In 1965, which was the first year as a regular for either one of them, they were 1-2 in the league in stolen bases, and then they were 1 and 2 again in 1968, Campy leading both times.  

Cardenal earned NO significant honors in his career, none at all.  He had more Win Shares than any other player in the study with no awards, other than Tony Phillips.   Like Campy and Phillips, he was a very small man.

XIII.  The Seriously Underrated

1.      JD Drew 13 and 110

2.     Willie Randolph  (97 and 256)

3.     Graig Nettles (122 and 302)

It is worthy of a note that two  or three of the best players on Steinbrenner’s first great Yankee team were seriously underrated—Randolph and Nettles.  The honors went to Munson and Sparky Lyle and Reggie; Randolph and Nettles and Roy White were just there watching the team win, I guess. 


4.     John Olerud (86 and 236)

5.     Wally Moses (16 and 112)

6.     Vada Pinson (97 and 250)

If Vada Pinson was elected to the Hall of Fame tomorrow, he would still be under-honored.  The same with John Olerud, Randolph and Nettles.

7.     Ken Griffey Sr. (27 and 129)

8.     Don Buford (8 and 94)

A fascinating little player, five foot 7 inches tall.  His father was killed in a shooting accident when he was a small boy, and his mother moved to him to LA.  He grew up in the tough parts of LA. He was a terrific football player in high school, but college football programs weren’t interested in him because of his size.  He attended Los Angeles City College, where he was a JuCo All-American, which got him some offers from good football programs.  He selected USC on a promise that he could play baseball there as well as football.  In 1957 he led the Trojans in rushing AND interceptions, not to mention kickoff return yardage and punt return yardage.  He played a little baseball; the Trojans won the college World Series, and Buford played well but not very much. Ron Fairly was the star of that team; Fairly was the Dodgers’ regular center fielder by that fall, and played well although it took him (Fairly) several years to consolidate his status after that. 

The NFL thought Buford was too small, probably was, and he had to scrap to find a place to continue his athletic career.  He finally caught on with the White Sox.  He was 23 years old by the time he played his first professional game.  In 1963 he had a great year for Indianapolis, International League, hitting .336 with 206 hits, 41 doubles, 42 stolen bases.  He was named the International League MVP—an award also won by many major league players, several future Hall of Famers.  Physically, he was similar to Joe Morgan and Jimmie Wynn, just surfacing in the Houston system.   Morgan would be the International League MVP the next year.   

   Before his rookie season Buford was named in an AP poll as the top rookie of the season.  He was now 27 years old, five to six years behind schedule, perhaps. It turned out to be one of the greatest seasons ever for rookies, with Tony Oliva and Dick Allen both having historic years, and at least 15 rookies having rookie seasons that meet or exceed normal rookie-of-the-year standards—Jim Ray Hart, Rico Carty, Wally Bunker, Tony Conigliaro, Dick Green, Bob Lee, many others.   Buford was buried behind all of those guys, although he played well enough. 

He was playing in Chicago, where the manager (Al Lopez) would quite literally take the next day’s baseballs and put them in a freezer overnight.  It was like hitting a cantaloupe.  If you hit it hard you could make it roll all the way to the shortstop, you were doing pretty good.   In 1966 Buford played 163 games for a team with a park index of 82 in a league that hit .240.  In 1967 they had a park index of 81 in a league that hit .236 and had a league ERA of 3.23.  In 1965 Buford had one of the most notable seasons ever in the obscure category of ‘hiding an MVP candidate behind really ordinary numbers."  He hit .283 with 10 homers, 47 RBI.  The season is evaluated at 30 Win Shares, 6.9 WAR.   The MVP had 32 Win Shares and 7.2 WAR.  Buford was one of the three best players in the league.  He finished 25th in the MVP voting.   

The next year he led the league in stolen bases.  After the 1967 season he was traded to Baltimore as part of the package to bring Luis Aparicio back to Chicago.   The White Sox, trading the underrated Buford for the overrated Aparicio, dropped from 89-63 to 65-97; just a coincidence, no doubt. 

Buford his first year in Baltimore, 1968, played 58 games at second, 48 in center field, 22 in left field, and a few at other positions.  His batting stats improved sharply, to .282 with 15 homers, 27 stolen bases.  He had only 426 at bats, but according to Baseball Reference he was the third-best player on the team, ahead of Boog Powell, Mark Belanger, Davey Johnson, Frank Robinson and Paul Blair.   Earl Weaver took over the team in mid-season, and installed Buford as the more or less regular left fielder and leadoff man.  He was probably the best leadoff man in baseball for the next three years.  He had on base percentages over .400, and scored 99 runs a year—99, 99, 99.  He never played more than 144 games, never started more than 139.   In 1971, playing only 122 games, he scored his regular 99 runs, which led the American League that year.  Buford was 4th in the league in on base percentage, and 9th in slugging percentage.  The Orioles won over 100 games every year, and won a World Championship.

Buford never finished higher than 15th in MVP voting.

9.     Mark Grace (71 and 205)

10.Bobby Grich (155 and 352)

I was surprised that Grich didn’t make the "most underrated" list, but he didn’t.   He was close, though.

The Orioles, a talent factory at that time, had the International League’s MVP in 1966 (Mike Epstein), 1968 (Merv Rettenmund), 1970 (Roger Freed), 1971 (Grich) and 1973 (Jim Fuller.)  That’s the essential reason that Don Buford was not able to break through as a true regular, despite playing at an all-star level for four years. 

11.Steve Finley (16 and 108)

12.Reggie Smith (112 and 268)

13.Bill Doran (0 and 76)

14.Jack Clark (88 and 226)

15.Bill Bruton (0 and 76)

16.Carney Lansford (9 and 126)

17.Norm Cash (96 and 236)

18.Bob Watson (16 and 96)

19.Tom Haller (24 and 105)

20.Buddy Bell (115 and 257)

21.Ryan Klesko (8 and 82)

22.Willie Wilson (43 and 135)

23.Darrell Porter (49 and 142)

24.Carlos Delgado (75 and 191)

25.Felipe Alou (49 and 142)


XIV.  The Significantly Underrated

1.     Indian Bob Johnson (92 and 217)

2.     Gary Matthews (38 and 121)

3.     Eddie Mathews (417 and 689)

4.     Dick McAuliffe (42 and 126)

5.     Bert Campaneris (84 and 200)

6.     Elbie Fletcher (15 and 82)

7.     Joe Adcock (33 and 109)

8.     Tim Raines (262 and 438)

9.     Andy Seminick (15 and 78)

10. Gene Tenace (40 and 120)

11.  Jim Northrup (0 and 51)

12.  Kenny Lofton (139 and 265)

13.  Barry Bonds (793 and 1124)

14. Mark McLemore (0 and 48)

15.Carl Furillo (36 and 109)

16. Junior Gilliam (58 and 142)

17.Dwight Evans (209 and 348)

18.Rickey Henderson (566 and 784)

19.Woodie Held (0 and 46)

20.Gary Sheffield (261 and 405)

21.Rico Carty (29 and 93)

22.Sal Bando (118 and 214)

23.Tim Salmon (42 and 112)

24.Mike Hargrove (28 and 89)

25.Dick Green (0 and 36)

26. Bernie Williams (106 and 192)

27.Bobby Thomson (34 and 97)

28.Gary Gaetti (58 and 131)

29.Gregg Zaun (0 and 36)

30.Horace Clarke (0 and 36)

Three of these 30 are in the Hall of Fame.  

Six more reasonably could be—Bob Johnson, Campaneris, Lofton, Bonds, Evans, Sheffield and Sal Bando. 

Three were guys who played here and there, wherever their team needed them—Mark McLemore, Junior Gilliam and Woodie Held.

Many of them were guys who walked a lot—Gary Matthews, Eddie Mathews, Dick McAuliffe, Raines, Tenace, Jim Gilliam, Evans, Rickey, Mike Hargrove, Bernie Williams.  A lot of pennants in there, a lot of World Series Championships.    Seems like everybody on the list had some of those, except Horace Clarke. 


And then there is NotGaetti. 


XV.  The Slightly Underrated


1.      Luke Appling (325 and 461)

2.     Jay Bell (45 and 110)

3.     Ron Cey (97 and 178)

4.     Trot Nixon (0 and 35)

5.     Richie Ashburn (202 and 312)

6.     Arky Vaughan (294 and 421)

7.     Rennie Stennett (0 and 34)

8.     Bill Russell (38 and 98)

9.     Doug DeCinces (42 and 103)

10.Lou Gehrig (608 and 757)

11.Pete Rose (489 and 626)

12.Craig Biggio (377 and 494)

13.Jeff Conine (16 and 60)

14.Wally Berger (78 and 145)

15.Tim McCarver (53 and 110)

16.Johnny Callison (62 and 121)

17.Lee Maye (0 and 30)

18.Bill Madlock (63 and 123)

Surely the only four-time batting champion in baseball history who was underrated.

19.Ken Singleton (98 and 168)

20.Hal Morris (0 and 30)

21.Charlie Keller (64 and 121)

22.Will Clark (177 and 257)

23.Bob Elliott (137 and 211)

24.Duke Sims (0 and 27)

25.Don Money (39 and 84)

26.Ben Zobrist (59 and 111)

27.Ed Charles (0 and 27)

28.Hank Aaron (934 and 1050)

29.Carlton Fisk (419 and 506)

30.Bob Allison (51 and 98)

31.Rico Petrocelli (49 and 95)

32.Rich Aurelia (15 and 46)

33.Tom Brookens (0 and 24)

34.Jerry Lumpe (8 and 36)

35.Andy Pafko (69 and 118)

36.Jim Fregosi (102 and 159)

37.Jose Oquendo (0 and 24)

As I mentioned Monday, at the start of this series I googled lists of underrated players, just to build this list of 310 players to be included in the study.  For some reason, Jose Oquendo popped up on like four lists of underrated players.   What?   Why in the hell would anyone cite Jose Oquendo, of all people, as underrated?   Why not Felix Millan, or Jose Lind, or Donn Clendenonn, or. . .well, anybody.    It just seemed random.

I know why this happened, of course.  Somebody put him on a list, and other people cribbed on his list.  Happens all the time.  But I thought. . .well, OK, I’ll run the numbers.  And sure enough, he’s a little bit underrated. 

38.Paul Konerko (63 and 110)

39.Davey Lopez (82 and 133)

40.Jeff Bagwell (374 and 450) 

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