Yesterday, the venerable Joe Posnanski sent out this message on Twitter.
The most underrated player in baseball is easy: Alex Gordon … so underrated nobody even talks about him being underrated.
— Joe Posnanski (@JPosnanski) September 5, 2012
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.
Dave is the Managing Editor of FanGraphs.