Today marks the final installment, for now, of my series about the most underrated baseball player of each decade. (When I know more about 19th century baseball than the cursory amount that I do, I’ll write something. My thought, by the way, is that many 19th century ballplayers are underrated and that we’re just re-discovering them via Baseball Reference.)
Now, let’s turn our attention to an era still settling.
1990-99: Barry Bonds
It sounds crazy, I know, to suggest a player who won three National League MVPs and eight Gold Gloves in a decade was anything but one of the most celebrated players of it. I should clarify.
This project has primarily been about identifying players who look underrated in the historic rear view. Bonds qualifies here because the steroid-addled caricature he created for himself in his final seasons obscures everything he was before. Now, when anyone mentions Bonds, it’s to marvel over the freakish stats he offered from 2001 through 2004 or, conversely, to denounce his Hall of Fame candidacy. (In the interest of full disclosure, I figure in the former group.)
I’d like to see more focus on what Bonds did over his first 13 seasons, 1986 through 1998, before it’s generally assumed he began taking steroids. Heck, make it 1990 through 1998. In those seasons alone, Bonds accomplished more than many players in Cooperstown: those three MVPs, 76.1 Wins Above Replacement and 112 defensive runs saved (second-best in baseball for those years behind, get this, Sammy Sosa.) Bonds packaged this with averages from 1990-98 of 36 home runs, 36 steals and a .305/.438/.600 slash. It’s not the best peak in baseball history, but it also isn’t far off.
Honorable mention: Craig Biggio, who will be lambasted as one of the worst defensive Hall of Famers when his 3,000 hits get him enshrined. Biggio cost his team 100 defensive runs lifetime which will rank worst among Hall of Famers, at least until someone like Dick Allen, Derek Jeter or Gary Sheffield goes in. Thing is, Biggio was a valuable fielder during the ’90s. He cost the Astros one defensive run for the decade while providing offense that surely totaled more aggregate value than a slick-gloved infielder with no bat.
2000-09: Scott Rolen
Seemingly every baseball generation has its underrated third basemen. Graig Nettles and Darrell Evans came up in yesterday’s post. There’s also Buddy Bell, Ron Santo, Ken Boyer and a range of other third basemen who hit respectably and offered superb, if under-appreciated, defensive value. It’s tough for a third baseman if they don’t have Mike Schmidt’s power, George Brett’s batting average, or Brooks Robinson’s highlight reel glove. The best they can generally hope for is a belated nod from the Veterans Committee.
The two third basemen in recent years who’ve seemed poised to join Nettles, Evans and company in underrated purgatory are Adrian Beltre and Scott Rolen. Beltre’s lucky. He’ll likely get into Cooperstown on the writers ballot, thanks to a late career renaissance with the Rangers that has pushed him near 3,000 hits and a .300 lifetime batting average. I wonder if Rolen might be in the same boat if he’d spent more time at the Ballpark in Arlington; his slash in just 34 plate appearances there is .419/.471/.742.
Regardless, Rolen has borderline Hall of Fame numbers for a third baseman and quietly did much of it the first decade of the 2000s. Among Rolen’s accolades from 2000 through 2009: 48.3 WAR, 127 defensive runs saved and a .285/.368/.497 slash. In spite of it all, Rolen will be lucky to top 15 percent his first time on the writers ballot.
Honorable mention: Bobby Abreu, who fell just short of a .300/.400/.500 slash for the first decade of the 2000s. Abreu’s quietly wrapping up his career as we speak, his best years a distant memory. He reminds me a bit of Reggie Smith, another eternally underrated outfielder. If there’s any indication from Smith’s showing on the Hall of Fame ballot– 0.7 percent of the vote in 1988, one of the weaker ballots in recent memory– Abreu doesn’t have much to look forward to in five years.
2010-now: Jason Heyward
Heyward turned 25 on August 9, and to a frustrated Braves fan, their right fielder has struggled since finishing runner-up in NL Rookie of the Year voting in 2010. There’s the .261 lifetime batting average and the ever-fluctuating power numbers, including a .386 slugging percentage this season. Thus far, Heyward has mostly seemed to offer tantalizing glimpses of what he might become. He certainly has gone all-but-unrewarded since that first season, save for a Gold Glove two years ago.
Look past Heyward’s garish traditional stats, though, and a brightly talented player emerges, one who’s averaged All Star-level WAR since the beginning of his career. His 5.5 WAR this season is seventh-best in the majors. Heyward’s 96 defensive runs saved are also best in baseball, by a wide margin, over the past five seasons. I assume Heyward’s best years are in front of him. I also count him as one of the few players 25 and under who already has a shot at Cooperstown.
Honorable mention: “Anyone who plays for the A’s,” my girlfriend said after I told her about this project. I’ll zero in on Oakland’s bullpen past closer Sean Doolittle. Featuring obscure castoffs and salvage projects like Dan Otero and Eric O’Flaherty, A’s relievers have a collective 2.85 ERA and 1.07 WHIP this season. Like Oakland’s more celebrated starting rotation, there’s tremendous depth in the bullpen (plus a couple of talented relievers on the 40-man roster who could get September call-ups.) It’s just a challenge for any non-A’s fan to name one of these guys.