The Underrated Path

Underrated is fundamentally a subjective term. That word means different things to different people and that’s okay. For me, it’s a player whose value on the field is not fully understood, appreciated, or noticed. Not by the press who covers him, the fans that watch, or the evaluators who pay him.

With more and more advanced metrics becoming readily available and accessible to everyone you would think that it would be harder for a superstar to get miscategorized but it still happens, in every major team sport, all of the time.

Why this happens largely depends on the individual and the sport we’re talking about but I wanted to explore some of the main reasons why even a Hall of Fame caliber player can seemingly fall short of the acclaim and accolades his career would warrant. Here is my unscientific look at what traits can lead to being underrated. This piece will focus on baseball but many of these characteristics are applicable across the board.

Lack of pedigree: A player can find himself on the underrated path before he even plays a major league game. There is a lot of emphasis on prospect status now, even the most casual fan can name the top prospects or draft choices for his or her team. If you are a mid-to-late round draft pick or not rated highly on any of the top 100 prospect lists you already have a lot to overcome when it comes to public and media perception. Even if you play well at the major league level it well take several years of sustained success to overcome the inherent bias against you.

Late Bloomers: First impressions are lasting and not everyone is a superstar right away. Many players struggle for several years before eventually finding their groove. Even if they eventually develop themselves into an elite player those early struggles leave an impression particularly on Hall of Fame voters who are rather harsh on late bloomers.

Market size: This one is rather straight forward it’s harder to get attention playing in Milwaukee than it is in New York. Regardless of how good a player actually is his accomplishments can get overlooked if not enough people physically see or cover them.

No black ink: This is a big one. People gravitate towards league leaders, players who dominate a particular category or possess that one defining elite ability. Leading the league in home runs is nice but it’s also impressive to finish in the top ten and to do so repeatedly. Not being the best at any one thing but doing several things well is a sure fire way to fall short on the vaunted sniff test. The reverse is also very true here. Ryan Howard was for a time an excellent power hitter but wasn’t capable of much else. He had black ink, he won a MVP award, but even at his best he was never better than his underrated teammate Chase Utley.

No major awards: Hall of Fame voters in particular like to reward players that they have already heaped individual awards on. A star player with no MVP or Cy Young awards runs the risk of being perceived as “good not great.”

No championships or postseason success: This one is fairly straightforward people like winners & champions. Greatness for some is measured by their postseason success. Those who haven’t played much in the postseason or struggled when they did not only might become underrated but also unfairly classified as a “choker.”

Overshadowed by a better or more famous teammate: Reggie Smith was really good but not as good as Carl Yastrzemski. Curt Schilling ranks in the top 30 all time in pitcher fWAR & bWAR and top 10 in DRA WARP but still trails his former teammate Randy Johnson by a significant margin in all three. Not being the best player on your team means you suffer from comparisons, daily. That’s unfair but even more unfair is when a player is overshadowed by a more famous teammate, even though that teammate may not be a better player. Fame can be obtained in all sorts of ways, it’s a weird a thing in general. I guess an example here is Josh Hamilton. Hamilton was legitimately great in 2010 and his story leading up to that MVP season made him a nationally known figure. However, the following two seasons when Hamilton was hailed as the face of the franchise and widely considered the Rangers best player he wasn’t. Adrian Beltre was more valuable than Hamilton both years. Beltre is just starting to get his due but he spent much of his career in the shadow of more accomplished and or more famous (Ichiro, Ortiz, Hamilton) teammates.

Played for several teams: This one is pretty basic and becoming less and less important but fans tend to gravitate towards players who were drafted by their organization, came up through that system, and became a star for their team. Playing your entire career for one team has become increasingly rare but it’s still one of those silly things that can enhance the perception of a star.

Just for fun here’s a quick list of some notable athletes that have played for multiple franchises: Gretzky, Jordon, Bonds, Rice, Manning, Favre, Montana, E. Smith, Shaq, Lebron, A-Rod, Jagr, Roy, Clemens, Maddux, Pedro, R. Johnson, R. Henderson, Pujols. Players change teams, a lot. People need to get over that.

No clear primary position: Historically, players who bounced around the field were tough to categorize especially when it came to Hall of Fame voting. However, like the previous entry this is becoming less of an issue. All-in-one encompassing metrics like WAR help identify overall value, even if that value comes from multiple positions.

Million dollar men: Athletes make a lot of money and this inherently bothers some people. When an athlete is rewarded with a big contract particularly one on the free agent market, expectations run high. Fans think they’re getting a franchise savior, a perennial All-Star, or at the very least a more exiting product on the field. Some times this happens, and everyone is happy but on numerous occasions the free agent market proves to be an overpay. Kevin Brown had some outstanding seasons after becoming baseball’s first one hundred million dollar man but he had some bad ones too and the memories of those have a tendency to overshadow the good. Joe Mauer can relate.

Off the field scandal: Some athletes do terrible things off the field. On the field many cheat in one way or another, some do both. It’s not that we should overlook these things but these players tend to get underrated or undervalued when returning from their scandals. Aroldis Chapman did a horrible thing, he is a bad guy and should be in prison. That said, he’s still one of the best relievers in the baseball and the Yankees acquired him for basically nothing. Ryan Braun tested positive for steroids, lied about it, got off, than got caught again. Most people just think of steroids when Braun’s name comes up but he’s still one of the better players in the game. His reputation is that of a guy whose numbers were just inflated by PEDs and who hasn’t been a star player since but that isn’t reality.

Failure after breakout: Adrian Beltre had one of the best seasons a third basemen ever produced in 2004. He posted a 9.5 WAR (though we didn’t know that then) he also led the league in home runs, slashed .334/.388/.629 made the All-Star team, and was rewarded with a 5 year $64 million dollar deal from the Mariners that offseason. The problem with going to Seattle was that he now played in a park notorious for suppressing offensive production and even when adjusting his numbers to his new environment he simply wasn’t as good as he was the year before. He wasn’t even close. He was labeled a bust, his great season in 2004 perceived as a fluke, and by the time his contract expired in 2009 the Mariners and their fans were happy to let him go. Since then Beltre has been roughly 30% above average at the plate and he has continued to play outstanding defensive. He has a career bWAR of 86, 423 home runs, and 2,828 hits. He will eventually have to write a Hall of Fame induction speech but for some his career in Seattle is still what defines him. Carlos Beltran found himself in a similar situation after the 2004 season. He was a star player and a postseason hero that year, he signed a lucrative free agent contract with the Mets and struggled his first year in New York. He had several great seasons afterwards, and his career numbers are only matched by all-time greats but he still carries that baggage of his sloppy first impression.

Reversing many of these things is a good look at how someone can become overrated but that’s another list for another day.

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