1960-69: Mickey Mantle
I’ll go out on the proverbial limb and say Mickey Mantle is the most underrated all-time great in baseball history.
The traditional narrative gives the Commerce Comet credit as an elite player through 1964, denigrating his alcohol and injury-plagued seasons that followed while the Yankees began a historic decline. Thing is, the Yankees’ refusal to feature black players until 1955 had them heading for trouble long before they tumbled to the bottom of the American League; and Mantle remained one of the best hitters in baseball while his team began to lose, offering a 149 OPS+ over 1,928 plate appearances his final four seasons.
Adjusted stats are important for paying Mantle his due. The end of his career coincided with the greatest renaissance for pitchers since the Deadball Era, with teams averaging 3.8 runs a game Mantle’s final four seasons. Mantle also played in Yankee Stadium. As Jane Leavy’s superb Mantle biography pointed out, the most famous switch hitter in baseball history was noticeably better from the right side of the plate. Old Yankee Stadium, prior to its renovations in the 1970s, did right-handed hitters few favors.
Could Mantle have rehabbed injuries better and boozed less? Sure. But in a better ballpark and hitter’s era, his final raw numbers would have impressed more.
Honorable mention: Frank Howard, one of several ’60s hitters who might be in the Hall of Fame had they played in a more favorable era for hitters
1970-79: Graig Nettles
Nettles lasted four years on the Hall of Fame ballot, peaking at 8.3 percent of the vote in his first year, 1994. Now, he’s staked out a long-term spot in my annual project on the 50 best players not in the Hall of Fame, finishing an average of 37th each year. I doubt Nettles will get in Cooperstown anytime soon, given his 390 lifetime homers, .248 batting average and two Gold Gloves. It’s just not a sexy enough candidacy for the Veterans Committee, which relies on traditional stats over sabermetrics to make its assessment.
If defensive sabermetrics ever become a thing that could push a player into the Hall of Fame, though, Nettles might make a good test case. Nettles saved 158 runs in the ’70s, the fourth-highest total in a decade behind Brooks Robinson in the ’60s, Mark Belanger in the ’70s, and Ozzie Smith in the ’80s. Unlike Belanger and Smith, Nettles didn’t give the runs back on offense either, averaging 25 homers, 83 RBIs and a 114 OPS+, a vital member of the Yankees during their Bronx Zoo glory years.
Honorable mention: Paul Blair, maybe the best defensive outfielder in baseball for the first half of the ’70s. Blair won six consecutive Gold Gloves from 1970 through 1975, saving 97 runs and amassing 10.8 defensive WAR, each best in baseball for outfielders. With Orioles teammates Brooks Robinson, Mark Belanger and Bobby Grich, Blair might have been part of the best defense in baseball history.
1980-89: Dwight Evans
In February 2012, godfather of baseball stats Bill James wrote an open letter for Grantland arguing Dwight Evans’ case for the Hall of Fame. Calling Evans “one of the most underrated players in baseball history” James wrote:
Dwight Evans is the very unusual player who had all of his best years in his thirties. About 40 percent of baseball players have all of their best years in their twenties; about 55 percent have some of their best years in their twenties and some in their thirties. Less than 5 percent have all of their best years in their thirties. Dwight Evans is that unusual case: someone who had all of his best years in his thirties, after the public image of him as a .270 hitter with 20-homer type power was set in stone.
While James is slightly off, given that Evans racked up a career high 6.7 WAR, led the American League in homers and finished third in MVP voting at age 29 in 1981, he otherwise makes a good point. From 1982 through 1989, Evans offered a .280/.385/.496 slash while turning in just shy of 30 home runs and 100 RBIs per season. Aside from Roger Clemens and Wade Boggs, Evans is the biggest reason the Red Sox averaged 85 wins a season in those years, twice making the playoffs.
Were this better understood or had Evans matched teammate Jim Rice’s production in the 1970s, they might have gone in Cooperstown together. As it stands, I’ve no doubt many in the sabermetric would swap Evans in for Rice if given the chance.
Honorable mention: Darrell, the other Evans who got better with age during the 1980s
Tomorrow: ’90s and first decade of 2000s