On Underrated and Overrated Players

There’s been some recent discussion in comments on these pages, particularly those involving the Circle of Greats, about underrated and overrated players.  I don’t consider myself any more qualified to determine how individual players are “rated” than anyone else, but a few years ago on my personal blog, I tried to take an objective approach to this question.  I concluded that, from 2009 through early 2011, Michael Bourn was the game’s most underrated player and Carlos Lee was its most overrated.

This study comes with many caveats, and I’d rather send you to the original post than rehash them all here, but the basic premise is this: the average fan views a player’s value in terms of batting average, home runs, and RBI, the three stats most often available in newspapers and on TV.  The best all-encompassing value metric we have available is WAR (I’m using fangraphs’ version for this study), so a player who accumulates a lot of WAR without a high batting average and a lot of dingers and ribbies is likely to be underrated.

With 2013 in the books, it’s time to take a look at the same study for the last three years.  The chart below was assembled by pulling batting average, home run, RBI, and WAR totals for every player with at least 1,000 plate appearances between 2011 and 2013, then calculating the number of standard deviations each player is from the mean in each area.  FANdev is the total of the positive or negative STDEVs in batting average, HR, and RBI, while WARdev is three times the STDEV from the mean three-year fWAR total.  U(O) is the difference- a higher number representing a more “underrated” player- one whose WAR is better than his newspaper stats.

[table id=158 /]

 

So… that guy.  I don’t think anyone here underrates Trout, though MVP voters certainly have for the last two seasons.   It’s no surprise that Zobrist, a versatile defensive player with plate discipline and some speed, shows up near the top.  Speed seems to be the common attribute among the top ten, as it factors into baserunning, non-home-run extra base hits, and defense, but doesn’t show up in homers or RBI and has a very minor impact on batting average.

At the bottom of the list, we’ve got bat-first guys with little speed or defensive value.  It seems that the positional adjustment impacts O(U) more than walks, doubles/triples, avoiding double plays, or stealing bases.  This list may represent under- and overrated players to a certain type of fan with no appreciation for the defensive spectrum, but the initiated fan probably appreciates these guys at the top of the list, as does the average non-Ruben-Amaro GM.

Here’s another chart using fangraphs’ Offensive Runs Above Average, rather than WAR.  Rather than underrated players, these are underrated hitters.

*For full disclosure, I only multiplied the STDEV of Oruns by two, not for any scientific reason, but because multiplying by three gave me results heavily influenced by Oruns- basically, the best hitters at the game at the top and the worst at the bottom. Multiplying STDEV Oruns by one put all the emphasis on the newspaper stats, yielding a list of the game’s worst hitters at the top and the best at the bottom.  Had I done the same for the chart above, Brendan Ryan and Andres Torres would have jumped to the top, with Trout dropping to sixth.  Billy Butler and Paul Konerko would have been the most overrated, with Miguel Cabrera in the seventh spot.

[table id=159 /]

 

Just about every way I tweaked the calculation, the same name came up at the top.  Trout’s combination of plate discipline and baserunning makes him so valuable that even with solid newspaper stats- almost 2 deviations above average in batting, 3/4 of a deviation about average in home runs (despite 13 fewer PA than the average player in the sample), and a few more RBI than average- makes him difficult to “rate” as highly as he deserves without advanced metrics.

The rest of the “underrated” list is populated with leadoff men who don’t get a lot of RBI opportunities and good base runners, since fangraphs recently added baserunning runs to the offensive runs figure on their dashboard.  It’s nice to see Joey Votto crack the top ten, not with speed, but with patience, as his .438 OBP since ’11 leads both leagues, far outpacing his .314 batting average.  Of course, this doesn’t settle the argument about the value of Votto’s walks when a hit would drive in a run, since WAR is context-neutral.

At the bottom, we’ve got middle-of-the-order sluggers who don’t walk much and don’t steal many bases.  And J.J. Hardy.

I won’t conclude by claiming that Mike Trout is the most underrated player in baseball.  Rather, I’ll ask readers how you might use empirical data to measure something as esoteric as “ratedness”.  WAR vs. salary or jersey sales?  Some combination of stats that aren’t used in a typical fantasy league?  Maybe something similar to the study above, but with tweaks to the calculations?

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46 Comments on "On Underrated and Overrated Players"

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Dr. Doom
Guest
Alright, Bryan. I accept your challenge. To mimic fantasy baseball, I took five categories: HR, R, RBI, SB, and H (I took H instead of BA, because I wanted them all to be cumulative). Then I set up a fake fantasy scoring system: 1 pt per hit, 2 pts per RBI or R, 5 pts per HR or SB. This way, everything is (sort of) scaled to H, such that 200 H=100 RBI=100 R=40 HR=40 SB, and a 200 H, 100 RBI, 100 R, 40 HR, 40 SB season is worth 1000 points (that’s a pretty awesome season, I think).… Read more »
MikeD
Guest

I actually think Ichiro is underrated for his career, or at the very least his value is not properly understood. An easy HOFer. (Note, I’m talking about his career, not the last few seasons.)

Dr. Doom
Guest
I wouldn’t necessarily disagree with you on that; I don’t know that “underrated” is the right word, but “unique” and “difficult to understand” ARE definitely appropriate. He’s a little like the Nolan Ryan of hitters: a REALLY different skill set with some extreme strengths (batting average, speed, arm strength) and some huge weaknesses (hitting for power, taking a walk). Also, since Cooperstown is the “Baseball Hall of Fame and Museum” and not the “Major League Baseball Hall of Fame,” I don’t understand any logical reason that Ichiro could be excluded from the Hall. That being said, Bryan asked for 2011-13.… Read more »
MikeD
Guest

Dr. Doom, thanks for the clarification. I didn’t quite realize when I first posted it was for 2011-2013. Ichiro has not been a good ballplayer these last few years, although his defense and base running are still plus, but the hitting is just so poor that he should no longer be starting.

Artie Z.
Guest
I might have started that discussion in the other thread, and while I don’t have anything substantive to contribute about methodology right now it’s difficult for me to get behind the idea of Trout being underrated. 1. While he does not have any MVP wins, he’s finished 2nd twice. He didn’t lose to George Bell or Andre Dawson – he lost to a guy who led the league in HR/RBI/AVG/SLG/OPS/TB one year, and AVG/OBP/SLG/OPS/OPS+ the next – while playing third base. Now, he may not have played 3B well, but it allowed Fielder and Martinez into the lineup without having… Read more »
Dr. Doom
Guest
True, it may seem hard to believe that Trout is undervalued. But I submit a few thoughts of my own. 1. Baseball cards are collected by people who are, in general, pretty huge baseball fans. The fact that people who value cards value Trout is no shock. My Dad follows baseball in the NL pretty closely, but I’m betting he has no idea that Mike Trout was the AL MVP runner-up the last two years. If you told him Mike Trout was better than Miguel Cabrera, he’d say, “Mike who?” I think using card collectors, HHS commenters, or Fangraphs readers… Read more »
bstar
Guest
I’ll disagree about Trout, Artie. If you’d have told me two years ago a young player was going to put up 20 WAR in his first two full seasons in the bigs, I’d have assumed he would be universally heralded as the best player in baseball and the game’s biggest star. I would have assumed there would have been tons of ink spilled about this guy, and how much he was going to achieve in his career. I don’t really think that’s happened. Considering Trout’s accomplishments the last two years, I’d say the amount of ink spilled about this guy… Read more »
Dr. Doom
Guest
Great points, bstar! Also, I would like to take this opportunity to point out that both Trout and Cabrera may be underappreciated (I’m staying away from the “underrated” word used in the article above for now) because neither of them is viewed as a baseball player. Do you know how much fun we should be (and in our best moments, are) having watching these two incredible talents? Unfortunately, for two years, they’ve each become shorthand for a way of thinking, rather than just being viewed as awesome baseball players. You practically can’t mention one without the other, and if you… Read more »
Doug
Guest

To your point, bstar.

Googling:
– Mike Trout, 4.31 million hits
– Miguel Cabrera, 7.85 million hits

Of course, Cabrera’s been around 5 times as long.

oneblankspace
Guest

About 450,000 (about 10 1/2%) of those google hits are for trout fishing with Mike, but the point is still valid.

Jeff
Guest

I can’t help but think that the reason Trout might be undervalued is the Joe Charboneau effect.

“Yeah sure, he’s been great, but wait until he flames out”

Mike Trout has been the best player in the American League for his first two years, but because he doesn’t have the previous seasons as groundwork, there’s a feeling that it won’t last. These have been Cabrera’s 10th and 11th seasons so there’s more of a perception/trust factor that this is who the player truly is.

(Angel fan here if that makes any difference)

brp
Guest
Being in the Central time zone, I can tell you that it’s really hard to follow West Coast players. Even if I was lucky enough to have Trout on my fantasy team, for example, I’m in bed by the 5th inning. I rarely see the West Coast teams play at all, and don’t necessarily look back at the prior day’s stats. The news cycle, 24-hour though it may be, still does slant toward the East Coast and NY/Boston/Chi and even Det (Miggy) get more coverage than LAA. Also, the Dodgers and ManBearPuig-mania really dominated the LA news cycle. I think… Read more »
Dr. Doom
Guest
I’m back! I did something similar for pitchers. The categories I used were IP, W, S, SO, ER, BB, and H. I shaped them into five “buckets,” and all had to be cumulative, just like the hitters. The five categories I used were IP, W+S/2, SO, IP-ER, and IP*2-(BB+H). They also had to be scaled to one another. So just as the hitters were scaled to H, I did the same, but to IP. The “ideal” season (and worth 1000 points, just like the hitters) is this: 200 IP, 20 W or 40 S, 200 SO, 50 ER (2.25 ERA),… Read more »
Dr. Doom
Guest

Whoa. I made a HUGE mistake in this. It’s not W and SV/2. It should be W*10 and SV*5. Yikes. New lists here:

The Most Overrated Pitchers
Bronson Arroyo
Ervin Santana
RA Dickey
Tim Lincecum
Yovani Gallardo
Jeremy Hellickson
James Shields
Ian Kennedy
Jason Vargas
Kyle Lohse

The Most Underrated Pitchers
Matt Harvey
David Robertson
Phil Coke
Roy Oswalt
Aaron Cook
Kevin Millwood
Javier Vazquez
Chris Carpenter
Matt Belisle
Hyun-Jin Ryu

That’s better. A lot less closer-heavy. Sorry for the boo-boo. Actually, I’m surprised that the lists are that similar, to be honest.

Darien
Guest

I was just going to ask who exactly these people are who are rating Jeremy Guthrie and Edinson Volquez very highly. 😉

Lawrence Azrin
Guest
Bryan, While I appreciate very much your effort here, I don’t think the ‘underrated’/’overrated’ discussion can be done entirely on statistics. I think that it’s more a matter of perception vs. reality; how players are popularly ranked at their position, versus serious analysis of that. For instance, 3-6 years Ryan Howard was considered perhaps the best first baseman in MLB, when he probably wasn’t in the Top-5. As you say, that’s what homers and ribbies will do for your popular reputation. As for historically – a week or two ago, I posted a lenghty analysis of “overrated”, listing three different… Read more »
Lawrence Azrin
Guest

Sorry, last sentence of paragraph three should be:

“This was a guy who was considered…”.

no statistician but
Guest
Re: Pie Traynor What’s happened, paradoxically, is that now Traynor is seriously in danger of becoming under-appreciated. I’ve just taken a look at third basemen in both leagues from the early 1920s to the mid 1930s. There’s little wonder that Traynor impressed: year after year of the steady high batting average; yes, the utterly unimportant RBIs, the high ranking in hits and triples time after time, tops or close to it in assists, put-outs, double plays, range factor, fielding percentage—again and again. His OPS+ readings of around 110 don’t seem like much, not until you compare them to what the… Read more »
Doug
Editor

There’s something to be said for being the best all-around big-leaguer at a position for a stretch of ten or twelve years.

I recall Bill James in his Abstract saying that this was (or should be) the hallmark of a HOFer. Except it wasn’t for 10 or 12 years – if I recall correctly, James just said that “at some point in his career”, a player should be generally regarded as the best at his position.

Lawrence Azrin
Guest
@18/n s b, Bill James, in his historical abstract, pointed out that until 1930 or so third base was considered a defense-first position, so (as you say), many people were impressed with a third baseman who could really hit, at least by the standards of the time. Still, there were third basemen before Traynor, such as John McGraw, Frank Baker, Larry Gardner and Bill Bradley, who were better or just as good offensive players. What’s really odd is how this perception of Traynor as the #1 third baseman-ever persisted 20/30/40/50 years after he retired in 1937.
Doug
Editor
Not nearly so scientific, but 300 HR hitters with the lowest ratio of WAR per HR yields a pretty good list of overrated sluggers. Rk Player WAR/pos HR 1 Andres Galarraga 31.6 399 2 Alfonso Soriano 28.6 406 3 Paul Konerko 28.6 434 4 Carlos Lee 28.4 358 5 Lee May 27.0 354 6 Jay Buhner 22.8 310 7 Raul Ibanez 21.2 300 8 Jermaine Dye 20.3 325 9 Jeromy Burnitz 19.7 315 10 Vinny Castilla 19.4 320 11 Joe Carter 19.3 396 12 Ryan Howard 18.9 311 13 Richie Sexson 17.9 306 14 Cecil Fielder 17.3 319 15 Dave… Read more »
brp
Guest

Joe Carter reference – DRINK!

mosc
Guest

Hahahah! Nice. Sorry, I just laughed quite a bit and wanted to give some credit where credit was due.

Lawrence Azrin
Guest

@11/Doug,

So does this mean that all but one overrated slugger (Lee May)in MLB history played after 1982? (Sarcasm turned up full)

Doug
Editor

In a way, yes Lawrence.

I did a post on the cheapening of the 300 HR milestone a while back. It used to be a very significant accomplishment, one only better hitters could achieve. So, not overly surprising that all of the earlier 300 HR hitters compiled an appreciable WAR total.

Lawrence Azrin
Guest

@42/Doug,

I’ll concede that 300+ career HR isn’t what it used to be 40/50/60 years ago, but I still find it hard to believe that _every single_ 300+ career HR guy before 1980 was more valuable than the 17 that you listed above in #11.

Looking at the 300+ career HR list, I see some pre-1980 all-bat/not-much-else guys, like Greg Luzinski, Roy Sievers, Willie Horton, Frank Howard,and Joe Adcock. Granted, not as many as on your list above.

Doug
Editor

Speaking of under-rated … Craig Gentry (just traded to Oakland from Texas) and Babe Ruth are the only players who, in their first 5 seasons:
– had 200 to 1200 PAs; and
– had a WAR total of more than 1% of PAs

Gentry has 7.7 WAR in 763 PA, only a tiny bit more than a full season, but has failed to start even 70 games in either of the past two seasons.

Joe
Guest

He may have only a tiny bit more than a full season’s worth of PA, but he has around 1800 innings in the field, close to 200 games worth. His 37 Rfield is still impressive, but this explains a little bit why he alone finds himself in the Babe’s company.

MikeD
Guest

The term overrated is extremely overrated.

It doesn’t mean anything. It’s subjective. It’s the quicksand of arguments because there is no response to the claim that really has any meaning. Overrated adds nothing to the conversation about the value of the player, which is all that matters.

Dr. Doom
Guest

… except that it’s fun to talk about (at least for some of us). It’s especially fun to attempt to quantify something that people SAY, and that SEEMS to exist. This is a job of sabermetrics – asking questions and trying to quantify things that people SAY without actually trying to PROVE. Plus, again – fun. And what’s the point of talking baseball unless it’s fun? It’s not my job. I talk baseball because it’s a good time.

Brendan Bingham
Guest

Dr D: I agree totally. Adding to the fun of exploring the gap between perception and reality is the possibility that even a player’s manager can misjudge his value and, as a result, misuse his talents. This can be manifest as poor choices about when to put a player in the lineup, where to put him in the batting order, and where to play him in the field. And when a player’s talents are not used properly, that only further muddies our perception of his value. Fun fodder for discussion indeed.

MikeD
Guest

Yet that is exactly where I have the problem. The perception is subjective, so where does the conversation even begin!

For the most part, I find if I’m having a conversation about a player and the term “overrated” gets brought up, the debate will fall apart and will no longer be based on facts.

Of course, as I say this, I regularly participate in these type of discussions, so I’m guilty on some level myself. : -)

no statistician but
Guest

Perhaps a truly meaningful discussion would be to address the issue of how WAR itself can, in certain applications, be used to under- or over-value a player’s season or career.

What am I getting at, other than my usual skepticism about the infallible sanctity of stats? See my comments at #18 on Pie Traynor for a start, while I go put on my face mask and chest protector.

tag
Guest
nsb, I’ve always liked WAR when it agrees with my perceptions and disparaged it when it doesn’t. From my Windy City perspective, two guys I’ve always thought were egregiously underrated were Santo, who’s at last starting to get some love, and Don Buford, the Ben Zobrist of his day. Santo was a little analogous to Trout, I’d say. He started putting up MVP-caliber numbers at a very young age (though not quite so young as Trout) and continued to do so for a good five, six years. He suffered, at least in Cub fans’ minds, from the sense that he… Read more »
DaveR
Guest
Here’s something off-subject that someone may want to explore: As I was checking out the stats of pitcher Greg Booker, I noticed he pitched in a lot of losing games. MANY losing games. In fact, in his 161 appearances, he only was involved in eighteen games that his team was the victor. I know this isn’t a record, but he is the definition of a quintessential mop-up man. A guy that’s on a roster only to pitch in games that innings are needed and the team doesn’t want to waste another pitcher with more talent. I found his career remarkable… Read more »
Richard Chester
Guest

From 1916 to date, in a pitcher’s first 161 game appearances, Booker’s 143 appearances in losses is a record.

DaveR
Guest

That is truly an impressive achievement! I wonder how he viewed his career. Thanks, Richard!

Voomo Zanzibar
Guest
From Booker’s b/r bullpen: Booker is the son-in-law of Jack McKeon… His major league career is unexplainable without the family relationship: Booker had terrible statistics in the minor leagues, which would have gotten any other pitcher his unconditional release, and he never did anything in the major leagues to justify his presence in The Show. His former teammate Steve Fireovid says in his book The 26th Man: “[His career] has to be the most blatant display of nepotism I’ve ever seen first hand”. But he adds: “Nobody held this against Greg. He was one of the more popular players on… Read more »
Doug
Editor

Boom-Boom Beck has the longest streak of appearances in team losses, with 46 over a span of more than 3 years (1941-44). The second-longest streak is 43 games by Thornton Kipper (1953-55). For his career, he appeared in losses in 51 of 55 games (93%).

Walker Cress has the longest streak to start a career, at 32 games. His lone win came in game #33, his last. Scott Ruffcorn and Charlie Bicknell are tied at 30 games for the longest career with ALL appearances coming in team losses.

Albanate
Guest

Someone on this site (I think) did an interesting study comparing bbref’s elo ratings to the player’s WAR…seems like an interesting way to compare actual value to perceived value.

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