Underrated is Overrated

March 12, 2016

A lot of the things I’m complaining about here can be swept under the large fringed rug called "nomenclature." When I say I don’t care for the way All-Star teams are chosen, or the way Most Valuable Player Awards are distributed, the first part of my complaint is that I don’t really know (nor does anyone) what exactly an All-Star roster is for, or in what sense we mean "Valuable," without which we’re not really able to discuss the question intelligently, and certainly not to any consensus.

Now, some folks appreciate the vagueness in such issues. They enjoy a good discussion stemming from a fundamental disagreement on the premises of that discussion. I tend to see "vagueness" as a problem. It almost prevents us from even having a discussion of "underrated" players, managers, teams, meatball sandwiches, and almost anything else that we can under-rate.

After all, who is "we"? If you underrate a player, and I overrate that same player, each for subjective reasons of our own, including gobsmacking ignorance, how likely is it that any discussion of that player’s rating is going to be fruitful? The word "underrated" assumes that we’ve agreed on some general rating system at some point in the past, but the only thing we can all agree on is that we agree on nothing. So discussions of "underrated" tend to be circular and baffling and frustrating because we’re all talking about different things every time we use the term.

If you took the most highly rated player in the history of baseball—let’s stipulate, just for the purposes of discussion here, that that’s Babe Ruth —you might claim that, even rated #1 all-time, he’s actually underrated, because most people don’t really account for his excellence as a pitcher, other than as an afterthought, before he got started as a hitter, nor do most people recognize exactly how Ruth’s hitting revolutionized the game, brought it into the public consciousness, and how the combination of his unusually great talent and his outrageous persona drew attention to the game that it had never had before or since. Coming at the time it did, immediately following the Black Sox scandal, the attention drawn to Ruth’s achievements may well have rescued the game itself from a fatal blow to its integrity and reputation. Without Ruth, MLB may well rank lower in Americans’ estimation even today, 100 years after his MLB career began, than boxing or wrestling or tiddlywinks.

Etc.  I could go on and on in this vein, but that’s a plausible argument: Babe Ruth is actually vastly underrated, even with the top rating ever. You could also, however, make the equally plausible claim that Ruth is very badly over-rated. Sure, he excelled in the 1920s, but we don’t realize how much baseball has improved incrementally over the past century—a reincarnated Ruth might not even be perceived now as a very good player. Bill has argued that his pitching career was winding down around the time he left the mound for the outfield, so he got to pitch during the dead-ball era, and then got to hit precisely as the lively ball entered the game, a pretty fortuitous confluence of events. He’d probably be forced to play DH (he was never regarded as an excellent outfielder, even in his own time, and certainly less so as he got older), his conditioning was very poor by modern standards, he might be on the DL, or suspended for substance abuse, a large portion of his career, maybe permanently: Ruth today might be rated somewhere around the level of an Adam Dunn, or perhaps a Joey Votto at best—a good player, maybe a perennial All-Star, but no way the consensus Greatest Player of All Time. Which means we’re seriously over-rating Babe Ruth.

Now I can’t say which is these extreme lines of reasoning is the more persuasive, but you’ve got to admit that these two arguments collectively take in an awful lot of room. In modern baseball, you still run across arguments for the same player being simultaneously under-rated and over-rated, or if not exactly simultaneously, then sequentially—usually under-rated first, then after years of being acclaimed for his under-rated play, being called "over-rated" because of the recognition he gets for being under-rated. As Joe Rudi observed, "I get a lot of ink for not getting a lot of ink." Derek Jeter comes to mind (slowly I turned, step by step…) for his fans screaming about how under-rated he is in the faces of everyone else screaming about how over-rated he is. The end result of all this screaming, probably, besides all the ice cream it causes to appear, is to rate Jeter exactly right if we consider everybody’s voice in this parley equally valid.

With that noted, maybe it’s time to revisit the subject of "under-rated" in the objective sense that Bill described in his seminal essay on Darrell Evans (p. 546 ff., the 2nd hardbound Historical Abstract) and why he felt Evans was the most under-rated player of all-time:  which factors make someone systematically under- or over-rated?  Let’s kick this study off with "under-rated," further limiting ourselves (for now) to a small group of players who seem by objective standards to fall into that category.  Here’s a checklist, including Bill’s major points, and elaborating on them:

1.       How strongly is the player identified with one team and one league? Evans was swapped back and forth from NL teams to AL teams and vice-versa often enough, Bill argued, to make it difficult for fans to identify him a Brave or as a Tiger or whatever.

2.       Were his teams, apart from his own play, highly publicized?

3.       Is he identified with one position, or was he moved around the diamond? It’s been suggested here that this may be a reason that Tony Phillips or Ben Zobrist or Daniel Murphy doesn’t get the attention he deserves—defensive versatility may help each player’s team but harm the player’s individual reputation.

4.       Likewise, did he move around the batting order? Probably less important than positional stability, because everyone moves around the batting order more frequently than he moves around the diamond, this question really boils down to: did he have consistent batting skills? Was he the kind of player who would go 25 HRs and 90 RBI with a .250 BA one year, and the next year go 15/60/.320?  Inconsistency of this sort makes it harder for a player to become known as one thing or the other.  Would a lifetime .300 batter would do better if he was in the .285-.315 range rather than in the .240-.360 range? Or a 500 HR guy who hit 30-35 dingers for 17 years rather than a guy who hit 20-45 HRs per year? Maybe, maybe not. I don’t know if that sort of consistency helps or hurts batters. If consistent numbers seem positive for batters, inconsistency for pitchers seems to be positive:  the conventional wisdom says that consistent 15-game winners, like Don Sutton, get weaker support for the HoF than someone like Steve Carlton, who has about the same number of career wins but better (and worse) individual seasons than Sutton. Still, "Anything which ‘breaks up’ a player’s career tends to cause him to be underrated," as Bill says (p. 546).  Maybe the next question is a better way of approaching this issue.

5.       Did the player have one or two primary offensive skills that are easily understood, or were his skills diverse and in areas of play that most fans don’t recognize so easily? Bill has cited another Evans, Dewey Evans, for being underrated because he did so many small things well rather than one or two big things well. His comparison of Craig Biggio to Ken Griffey, Jr. also makes this argument, I think, though Griffey’s defensive stats are as positive as Biggio’s. The key issue in the Biggio-Griffey comparison was that Biggio’s Win Shares were, surprisingly, better than Griffey’s, suggesting that maybe this issue should be phrased as "Did he have better traditional slash numbers or better sabermetric numbers?"

6.       Along those lines, did he have a lot of defensive value, a part of the game that lacks the more commonly accepted stats that offense has?

7.       Did he have bad luck in winning honors that attract publicity? IOW, if he finished in the top ten Cy Young Award results multiple times without winning the CYA, that might not get the acclaim that winning the CYA once would get, even if it represents greater value than a single win. Likewise with All-Star teams, MVP awards, Gold Gloves, etc.  Consistently "good" but never "great" could contribute to a player being under-rated.

8.       Was he a good interview? This includes such variables as speaking English as a second language,  having an unphotogenic face,  being inarticulate or unsociable or shy. I don’t doubt that racism  and xenophobia are real factors here, too, if only in the negative: i.e., being a clean-cut, glib white guy definitely works in your favor.

9.       Did he play in a media center for much of his career? Again, returning to one of Bill’s points about Darrell Evans was that, playing in Detroit, S.F., and Atlanta, he got the shaft. This point probably belongs next to my point 2), maybe as point 2A.

10.   Did his teams play in the post-season a lot? Jeter-haters enjoy pointing out that if he’d played for a last-place team exactly as well as he played for the Yankees, no one would even know his name. (The Jeter-haters Club meets on a bi-weekly basis, by the way, and we have cool t-shirts and buttons printed up to identify each other easily.)  Jeter-lovers, on the other hand, enjoy arguing back that if Jeter had played his entire career for the Cubs or Orioles, they’d have won several World Series in the past twenty-five years. In any event, it’s hard to argue the point that post-season play doesn’t enter into how the general public thinks of a player.

11.   Or maybe 10A: how did he perform in post-season play? This is certainly an argument in favor of Carlos Beltran, David Ortiz, and Don Larsen’s being over-rated, and Ted Williams and Barry Bonds  under-rated (at least until Bonds broke out of his post-season slump).  As Bonds and Hank Bauer indicate, you can get a rep in small samples that are viewed on nationwide TV which (eventually, if you get lucky enough to expand that small sample) can be completely turned around.

12.   Bill included this one verbatim: "Driving in runs is over-rated; scoring runs is under-rated."

13.   Did his park(s) work against him?

14.   Did his era work against him?

15.   Was he misused by his manager(s) or organization(s)? This one doesn’t appear on Bill’s list (which had only ten questions) but did appear in his essay about why we tend not to think of Gil McDougald as a big star. Not only did Yankee Stadium de-emphasize his power, and McDougald’s defensive versatility help muddy our impression of him, but Stengel’s bench and the Yankee organization’s depth allowed the Yankees the luxury of resting McDougald enough to cost him considerable at-bats every season. A teammate of McDougald, Elston Howard, is the poster boy for organizational abuse: Howard probably could have played full-time nearly a decade before he became the Yankees’ full-time catcher—if we don’t regard him as a great player, that’s probably the single largest reason why.

16.   Related to Howard’s delay in landing a starting job, I think under-rated players’ careers tend to get off to an unusually slow start at a relatively advanced age, because we form opinions quickly and only slowly move off those first impressions as the facts slowly move contrary to our expectations. For example, I’d say that David Wright may be a little over-rated at this point, since he had very impressive numbers early in his career—his numbers have fallen as his career has advanced, but I think Wright is still benefitting from all the positive attention he earned in his twenties. Contrarily, I think Edwin Encarnation’s rating suffers from his career starting slowly. They were born about two weeks apart, both broke in at age 22 as NL 3b men, and through 2008, Wright had out-homered Encarnation 130-66; the past few years, Encarnation has gone well ahead of Wright in  lifetime HRs but I think there’s still more buzz about Wright making the HoF than Encarnation will ever get. Run their careers backwards, and I think that pattern might be reversed as well.

 

There are probably more factors to add to Bill’s original list, and to my revised list above, but let’s start here. Objectively, which player today has more YES answers to the above questions, and is thereby underrated? To spare me the task of going through all 30 rosters, I began by looking at the rosters of only those teams that have largely finished out of the money the past few seasons and which play in small markets—there are of course underrated players on winning teams and big-market teams, but I’m going to start small, with only the AL (the league I’m least familiar with), only those teams that finished out of the playoffs for the past two seasons, only small-market teams, and only one non-pitching player per team (in parentheses, following the team name) : Tampa Bay (Logan Forsythe), Minnesota (Brian Dozier), Chicago (Adam Eaton),  Cleveland (Jason Kipnis), and Seattle (Kyle Seager).

Let’s start by recognizing right off the bat that this is just a start: I’m probably overlooking some underrated position players on these AL small-market teams but I’m counting on readers who follow these teams to suggest players I’ve missed.  I’m interested in hearing from those who follow these teams closely, whether they disagree or agree with these assessments:

 

Logan Forsythe:  7 yes, 4 no

1)      Has split between SD and Tampa, so YES. ("YES" answers basically translate into "Yes, he’s under-rated by this standard," whatever the wording in the actual question suggests.)

2)      All of these players get a YES for question #2

3)      NO, he’s played 3/4ths of his games at 2B

4)      He’s batted everywhere, with 200-299 ABs at 5 different slots, so YES

5)      Last year was his first year with any power, jury is out? I’ll leave this NEUTRAL for now

6)      No honors that I could see defensively, and his raw numbers at 2B seem unexceptional, so NO.

7)      I think I need to pass on this one—it takes more exposure to their media markets than I have

8)      He seems to be a white guy, so I‘ll give a tentative NO

9)      San Diego and Tampa Bay?  YES

10)   Zero career post-season games, so YES

11)   See above—N/A

12)   6/5 more runs than ribbies, so a narrow YES

13)   Petco seems to favor pitchers, Tropicana leans that way, so YES

14)   We seem to be in a post-steroids era lull, so I’m going with a NO for all these guys on this one

15)   I need to PASS on this—but those who follow the manager can fill us in on whether he’s helped or hurt by his managers or organization

16)   Last year was his first qualifying year for the batting title at age 28, so YES. Let’s establish an arbitrary but reasonable standard here: first season as regular before age 24 gets a NO, 24-25 gets a NEUTRAL, and 26 or older gets a YES, ok?

 

Brian Dozier:   6 Yes,  6 No

1)      Has played for the Twins his entire career, so NO

2)      All of these players get a YES for question #2

3)      Mainly SS (first partial year, he played 2B) so NO

4)      NO, a top of the order guy but see next question:

5)      Pretty bad OBP for a #1 and #2 hitter, but pretty good power. He’ll probably move downward in the order if that trend continues. I’ll mark this NEUTRAL for now.

6)      Seems to have good range numbers at 2B –I’ll mark this YES.

7)      PASS

8)      ‘Nuther white guy, NO

9)      Minneapolis?  YES

10)   Zero career post-season games, so YES

11)   See above—N/A

12)   5/4 more runs than ribbies, so YES

13)   Target field seems to favor batters slightly, so NO

14)   We seem to be in a post-steroids era lull, so I’m going with a NO for all these guys on this one

15)   I need to PASS on this question, too—but those who follow the manager can fill us in on whether he’s helped or hurt by his managers or organization

16)   first full season at 26, so I’ll lean towards YES

 

Adam Eaton  5 Yes,  6 No

1)      split between Arizona and Chicago, YES

2)      All of these players get a YES for question #2

3)      CF all the way, so NO

4)      NO, pure leadoff batter

5)      Improved his power numbers last season, but jury’s still out, I guess NEUTRAL for now.

6)      Seems middle of the road for a CFer –I’ll mark this a NO.

7)      PASS

8)      Looks white to me, another NO. Does it hurt his rep or help it that some people (me) might have confused him with the Adam Eaton who pitched in MLB from 2000-2009? How about the Alfred Eaton who was the protagonist of John O’Hara’s novel FROM THE TERRACE?

9)      Chicago? Big city, but doesn’t get the attention it deserves-- YES

10)   Zero career post-season games, so YES

11)   See above—N/A

12)   Almost exactly 2/1 run/ribbies, so a big YES

13)   Cellular seems dead-neutral, so NO

14)   We seem to be in a post-steroids era lull, so I’m going with a NO for all these guys on this one

15)   I need to PASS on this question, too—but those who follow the manager can fill us in on whether he’s helped or hurt by his managers or organization

16)   first full season at 25, so I’ll lean towards NEUTRAL

 

Jason Kipnis       5 Yes,  5 No

1)      has played for the Indians his entire career, so NO

2)      All of these players get a YES for question #2

3)      Pure 2B-man, so NO

4)      Pretty even split between leadoff, #2 and #3—he’s strictly a top-of-the-order guy, but very evenly divided. This one seems 50/50.  NEUTRAL

5)      A lot of room between his best power numbers and his worst, his best batting average and his worst, his best SB/CS and his worst so far—I’ll mark this a YES

6)      Neither a defensive wizard nor a defensive dud at 2B –I’ll mark this NEUTRAL.

7)      PASS

8)      ‘Nuther white guy, NO

9)      Cleveland? Oh, my, YES

10)   4 career post-season ABs (in 2011), so NO, not really

11)   See above—0 hits, I’d call this NEUTRAL

12)   Almost 4/3 more runs than ribbies, so a mild YES

13)   Progressive Field seems to favor pitchers slightly, so another mild YES

14)   We seem to be in a post-steroids era lull, so I’m going with a NO for all these guys on this one

15)   I need to PASS on this question, too—but those who follow the manager can fill us in on whether he’s helped or hurt by his managers or organization

16)   first full season at 25, so I’ll lean towards NEUTRAL

 

Kyle Seager:  6 Yes,  6 No

1)      has played for Seattle all six seasons, so NO

2)      YES

3)      NO, he’s pretty much played 3B his entire career

4)      He’s batted everywhere but leadoff, with most appearances at #s 2, 3 and 5 so I’d say YES

5)      He’s had good slash numbers so I’d say NO

6)      I don’t know defense in the AL very well, but he’s won a Gold Glove  and has above-league range and fielding percentage, so I’d lean towards YES

7)      PASS

8)      Still ‘nuther white guy, NO

9)      Seattle is NOT a media center, so YES

10)   Zero career post-season games, so YES

11)   See above—N/A

12)   More ribbies than runs, so NO

13)   Seattle seems to be a pitchers’ park, so YES

14)   NO

15)   I need to PASS on this again—but those who follow the manager can fill us in on whether he’s been helped or hurt by his managers or organization

16)   24, which gets a NEUTRAL

 

So by this standard (very provisional) our most underrated player (so far) appears to be Logan Forsythe. Of course we’re only getting started, and I may, depending on your feedback, revise the questionnaire and start over before we move on to the NL, big-market teams, pitchers, etc.  Looking back, it seems to me that question #12 should be quantified: there are a few more runs scored than RBIs in MLB generally, so I should figure out strict limits for a NEUTRAL average range, and then have quantified YES or NO answers for R/RBI ratios above or below that range. And obviously I need help on question #7, which I included but then realized I had no idea how to answer it—are any of these guys especially media friendly? Especially bad interviews, or otherwise terrible at marketing themselves?  Also I could use feedback on question #15, and on the accuracy of my assessments (and my tabulating) from those who’ve actually seen these guys play.

In general, I’ve gone for players who are in their late twenties here, which may be jumping the gun a bit (Darrell Evans had retired after a long career when Bill assessed his underratedness), but I’d like to track this stuff in mid-career, see if we can ID anyone whose general rating doesn’t match up with his quality, and see if that holds up. Of course, if anyone would like to suggest some older position players, particularly on the teams included here (again, Tampa Bay, Chicago, Cleveland, Minnesota and Seattle) who qualify according to the questionnaire, please feel free to make that argument.

Think of this as a provisional worksheet, rather than a finished product. I’m hoping that we can refine these questions a little, see how the revised worksheet operates on the NL, try to work one up for pitchers or players on more successful teams, maybe try our new worksheets on the AL again,  etc. and eventually keep a running tab on players who are objectively under-rated. As ever, I look forward to your feedback.

 
 

COMMENTS (9 Comments, most recent shown first)

Steven Goldleaf
Interesting comment, Marc. I'll take some of your hyperbole literally: if we put an end to a discussion which is pointless and foolish, is that a bad thing? If the answer is "Who can ever know?" then why discuss it? Let's talk about useful things that we can define instead. If every era is relative, and unknowable, then rating players is a waste of time altogether. I'd rather talk truth intelligently than nonsense endlessly.

Not that I'm saying the subject of "greatest player ever" is nonsense, or foolish, or useless, or pointless, just that it may be. I'm not sure which side I come down most heavily on.
9:05 AM Mar 16th
 
Marc Schneider
One thing that has always bothered me in discussing players is something that Steve alluded to re Babe Ruth and the era he played in. IMO, you can only compare players to others in the era he played in. Would Ruth have been as good if he played today? Probably not, but so what? To me, you have to look to players in terms of the impact they had in their generation? One could argue that the worst player in MLB today might be better than a great player in the 1930s for a variety of factors. Maybe so, but, again, who cares? If you do it the other way, there is literally no way to ever talk about the greatest player ever, because the greatest player ever has probably not been born because athletes always improve. Saying that Babe Ruth was overrated because of the era he played in (which I know Steve didn't say) basically puts an end to all discussion.
10:04 AM Mar 14th
 
JohnPontoon
Nice article. I'll cheekily retort that Seattle IS a media center, it's just that the medium is video gaming.
10:21 PM Mar 12th
 
Steven Goldleaf
Not to go all "defensive Mets' fan" on you, Steve, since as you know I am pretty offensive and no longer a Mets' fan, but some of Murphy's value derives from his versatility. I think one of his virtues this off-season was teams' knowing that he could do okay at second, probably hit enough to play first if needed, and his best position is third. He's no Phillips or Zobrist, but he can play several positions with varying levels of competence, and with his .650 offense and .450 defense still make a real contribution to a winning team. (Those are estimates, of course, and you can substitute "slightly below average" for ".450" and "pretty darned good" for ".650" if you like.)
5:28 PM Mar 12th
 
steve161
A college mate of mine liked to refer to Yankee Stadium as The House That Built Ruth. Point being, since nobody is perfect, you can always seize on the imperfections to knock him down. Who was it, who when told that, if Ted Williams had played in the Bronx, he'd have broken Ruth's records, replied simply: Gehrig didn't.

And I had to chuckle at the juxtaposition of Tony Phillips, Ben Zobrist and Daniel Murphy. What distinguishes the first two is that they played multiple positions well.​
5:04 PM Mar 12th
 
DEK1966
Responding to pintopelota's comment, I don't think that Mr. James was giving Gil McDougald, for instance, credit for things he didn't do. He was simply pointing out that his true value was not recognized because of the way he was used. He was not perceived as a star because he was not hitting 25-30 home runs a year. But this is a question of perception, not actual value. This is not the same as crediting McDougald for things he didn't actually do.
1:27 PM Mar 12th
 
Gfletch
This line from your article got me to thinking:

"I don’t doubt that racism and xenophobia are real factors here, too, if only in the negative: i.e., being a clean-cut, glib white guy definitely works in your favor."

Reading this I found, to my dismay, that I tend to automatically assume a greater degree of athleticism if I see a ball player who is black, rather than white. Consciously and intellectually I easily get past this, but still...

Anyway, good luck on your project.
12:45 PM Mar 12th
 
pintopelota
Great article. I think a few of these could go either way, a couple I think it's the other way around. for number 4, this has to do with seasonal impact and winning pennants, a point Mr. James once made in reference to Campanella. For #5, I simply disagree. Well rounded players like Jeter and Griffey are always overrated compared to one dimensional slugger types like Manny and Thome. #6 I also disagree with. Defensive excellence leads a player to be overrated in many cases. Look at Ozzie Smith vs. Trammel, or Visquel vs. Renteria, or Heyward vs. Pence. In all these cases, the public seems to favor the defensive wiz over the run production guy. For #15, I strongly disagree. What happened happened. If a player is misused and it leads to less production by that player, well, tough. The player doesn't receive credit for what might have happened. If a manager uses a player well, and he produces, he should get credit for that. I don't think that makes him overrated. Mr. James makes a similar argument with regard to Lefty Grove, and I just don't think it holds water. If a player is kept in the minors, it's the same as injury. You can't get credit for what didn't happen. Lastly, players that come up early are not overrated; they're underrated. The more expectation a player has to live up to, the more it seems like he is underperforming in the public eye. Therefore, top prospects like are often seen as failures even if they have good careers. Look at Mantle. Probably a top ten player or better, and most of what you hear makes it sound like some kinda "what might have been" story. Same with Upton brothers. Fine players (at least till BJ went all Melvin) but always seen as disappointments.​
10:26 AM Mar 12th
 
MWeddell
Thanks for another fine article.

My first reaction is that playing well in the post-season makes a player under-rated, not over-rated, because WAR calculations typically don't pick up those contributions. That comment might pertain only to how statistically-oriented fans view the player.​
9:53 AM Mar 12th
 
 
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