Since 2014, I have been crafting an annual All-Underrated Team, and, over that time, my formula for what it means to be “underrated” has been fine-tuned so much that I fear I have painted myself into a corner.
For the uninitiated, these are the requirements to be eligible for the All-Underrated Team:
• No All-Star appearances in the player’s career
• No BBWAA awards (MVP, Cy Young or Rookie of the Year) in the player’s career
• No All-MLB Team honors in the player’s career
• No inclusion on MLB Network’s current “Top 10 Right Now!” lists
• No nine-figure contracts
• At least two years of MLB service time
If you’re reading that and thinking, “That doesn’t leave this guy much to work with,” you’re right! But rules are rules, and the benefit of those strict statutes is that it forces us to pay more attention to guys whose contributions tend to get overlooked by a wider audience.
So without any more ado or explanation, here is the 2023 All-Underrated Team.
Catcher: Eric Haase, Tigers
As described in a recent ranking of the depth at each position, the “everyday catcher” has become a bit of an endangered species in MLB of late. So the backstops who post up regularly and post good numbers and/or provide excellent defense all tend to get their due.
But Haase, a platoon catcher and occasional outfielder, has quietly compiled decent offensive numbers for the position. Among those with at least 500 plate appearances as a catcher over the last two years, Haase ranks seventh in OPS with a .753 mark. To put that in perspective, that’s just below recent Braves acquisition Sean Murphy’s .764 OPS in that span and just above Braves 2022 All-Star Travis d’Arnaud’s .749.
Haase’s 25 homers as a catcher over the last two years rank 10th at the position.
First base: Ryan Mountcastle, Orioles
Two years into his big league career, Mountcastle just barely makes our service time cut. Because of the pandemic season, he has the unusual distinction of having received AL Rookie of the Year votes twice (finishing eighth in 2020 and sixth ’21). But while his early output was recognized in that regard, he’s probably performed better than most realize.
Over the last two seasons, Mountcastle has 55 home runs. That’s more than Anthony Rizzo, Freddie Freeman, Jose Abreu, Josh Bell and other accomplished first basemen. This, despite the Camden Yards fences being moved back to the right-handed Mountcasatle’s pull side.
And there’s probably more there than the surface-level stats (.253/.307/.455 slash over those two seasons) suggest, because Mountcastle ranked in the 96th percentile in expected slugging percentage last season. He also improved to become a plus defender, per Outs Above Average (OAA), last season.
Second base: Thairo Estrada, Giants
Let go by the Yankees in early 2021 when they acquired Rougned Odor, Estrada was picked up by the Giants and has emerged as a solid utility man, with the bulk of his time coming at second base, where he seemingly solidified an everyday role by the end of last season.
Among those with at least 300 plate appearances as a second baseman last year, Estrada’s .725 OPS at the position ranked ninth. He had 38 extra-base hits, or only eight fewer than breakout All-Star Andrés Giménez of the Guardians. Estrada also was in the 75th percentile in sprint speed and 76th in OAA.
Estrada is only 27 this season, and now that he’s locking himself into a regular role in the lineup, it seems he has the potential to keep growing as a player.
Shortstop: Amed Rosario, Guardians
We recently listed Rosario as the most interesting pending free agent at shortstop, because after two years of superstars reaching free agency at short, Rosario might actually profile as the best player available at the position next offseason.
Though nobody will confuse Rosario for one of those superstars, he’s proven he can help a playoff-caliber team. In each of the last three full seasons, he’s supplied league-average offense (with OPS+ marks from 100-106) and elite speed at a premium position. In Rosario’s two seasons in Cleveland, he’s stolen 31 bases with 22 homers, 51 doubles and 15 triples. He’s actually the only player in MLB in that span with at least 20 homers, 50 doubles, 10 triples and 30 steals.
Generally speaking, Rosario plays with a hustle that rubs off on younger teammates.
Third base: Ryan McMahon, Rockies
The Rockies used to have a pretty good third baseman named Nolan Arenado. You’ve probably heard of him.
When Arenado was traded to the Cardinals prior to the 2021 season, McMahon assumed the hot corner in Colorado. And while he’s not going to win 10 straight Gold Gloves like Arenado, McMahon has proven himself a good defender. Over the last two seasons, he ranks third in OAA (19) at third base, behind only Ke’Bryan Hayes (30) and Arenado (25).
McMahon’s offensive numbers are nothing to write home about. They come out to roughly league average. But when you deliver on defense the way he has, it provides a high floor. To that point, McMahon’s total WAR over the last two years (5.5), as calculated by FanGraphs, ranks 11th among third basemen and is just ahead of the 4.9 mark posted by former Rockies infielder DJ LeMahieu in a similar number of games played.
Left field: Mark Canha, Mets
Mr. Canha’s going to have to make some room in his trophy case, because he was saluted with this honor in 2020 and, all this time later, he’s still underrated.
After making the move to the Mets as a free agent prior to 2022, Canha continued to perform at a high level offensively. He’s now logged five straight seasons with a wRC+ mark at least 15 percent better than league average. At a time when the depth of talent in left field is not particularly strong, that kind of production stands out.
Canha’s signature skill is his ability to get on base. Going back to 2019, he’s walked once every 8.33 plate appearances — the 20th-best rate in MLB among those with at least 1,500 plate appearances in that span.
Center field: Tyrone Taylor, Brewers
This guy must drive Brewers fans crazy. Last year, his OPS marks, by month, were .574 in April, .872 in May, .573 in June, .849 in July, .588 in August and .913 in September/October.
By year’s end, Taylor was sharing center field with prospect Garrett Mitchell, and in 2023, he’s probably more likely to man right field after Hunter Renfroe’s departure.
So why highlight Taylor here? Well, because, when you add it all up, his .748 OPS over the last two seasons is identical to that of recent, touted Toronto trade acquisition Daulton Varsho. Taylor logged that while playing a majority of his innings in center field, where last season he was worth the same number of OAA (5) as 2021 Gold Glove winner Michael A. Taylor. The Brewers’ Taylor also rated in the 80th percentile in sprint speed last year.
His performance might be maddening, but if he could somehow avoid some of those dramatic down months, there’s a lot to work with here.
Right field: Anthony Santander, Orioles
Santander came to the O’s as a Rule 5 Draft pickup back in 2017 and turned into one of their best everyday players. Over the last three years, his .463 slugging percentage ranks 10th among qualified outfielders, just behind Bryan Reynolds’ .473 mark.
Right field is too deep with stars for Santander to have been saluted at the Midsummer Classic, but his .771 OPS over the last four years is identical to that of All-Star teammate Cedric Mullins.
Here’s the really important part (to me, anyway): You likely don’t realize that this man set a single-season American League record last year for home runs by a player who goes by the name Anthony (not Tony… that’s a completely different name, trust me), with 33.
Why people spent more time talking about Aaron Judge’s homer chase is a mystery.
Starter: Logan Webb, Giants
Webb had his capital-M Moment in the 2021 postseason, when he was terrific in two NLDS starts against the Dodgers. The Internet raved not just about his pitching but also how similar he looks to Todd from “Breaking Bad.”
So it’s not as if he’s completely under the radar.
But Webb has managed to maintain All-Underrated Team eligibility despite some magnificent numbers on the mound. Over the last two seasons, he has a 2.96 ERA, a 138 ERA+ and a 2.90 FIP in 340 2/3 innings over 59 appearances. Among those with at least 300 innings in that span, his ERA+ ranks 11th in MLB. Everyone ahead of him on the list has been an All-MLB selection and/or All-Star. Webb’s time will come.
Reliever: Scott Barlow, Royals
It’s hard to become a household name when you’re a reliever on an out-of-contention club, so we don’t fault the wider world for not recognizing what Barlow has brought to the table for the Royals.
But when you zoom out, you see this impressive stat: Among relievers with at least 140 innings pitched from 2021-22, Barlow’s 189 ERA+ is bested only by the Guardians’ elite closer Emmanuel Clase (309). In that span, Barlow has posted a 2.30 ERA with 168 strikeouts and 40 saves. His five two-inning saves in that span are the most in MLB.
Last season, Barlow had one of the best chase rates (37.2%) and opponent hard-hit percentages (30.3%) in MLB. His most-used pitches were a slider that held opponents to a .189/.188/.306 slash and a curveball that held them to a .138/.148/.202 slash. Impressive, underrated stuff.