So I'm watching MLB Network's "Top 10 Right Now", hosted by Brian Kenny and focusing on catchers, when Bill James shows up with his Top 10 list ...
Kenny: "Bit of a surprise here, Bill. You throw this right out at us: Ryan Hanigan of the Cincinnati Reds. Why Hanigan?"
James: "With Ben Zobrist, those two are the most underrated players in baseball. I mean, Hanigan's on-base percentage is not only good, it's very, very good. He's hit .260, .270 or better every year of his career. He walks a lot. He throws extremely well. The Cincinnati Reds' ERA with Hanigan catching last year was 3.04; when he wasn't catching, it was up around 3.8. Maybe Ben Zobrist is the most underrated player in baseball, but Ryan Hanigan may be the most underrated player in baseball."
I'll give you MLBN's list (via "the Shredder) along with mine, later. But Ryan Hanigan?
Yeah, you can make the case for him. Last season, he finished 11th among catchers in Wins Above Replacement (according to FanGraphs). This, even though he started only 98 games all season.
It's pretty clear, on the other hand, that the Cincinnati Reds don't believe that Hanigan is among the top 10 catchers in the majors; he started only 98 games all season. Oh, and they just signed Miguel Olivo; granted, it was a minor-league deal, but with Proven Veterans you never know what a manager will do. Oh, and they've also got young(ish) Devin Mesoraco, another righty-hitting catcher. He started 48 games last season.
Hanigan was real good, but at 32 he's probably peaked. And some significant measure of his value comes from things we're still not real good at measuring.
What's more interesting to me than Hanigan's playing time is the general concept of underrated. This came up when people were eulogizing Stan Musial, and I started wondering how one could measure underratedness. Like it or not (this means you, Jim Caple), you basically have to begin with some measure of all-around performance; I like Wins Above Replacement and you might like something else, but without a good measure of performance, we're nowhere.
From there, you can compare performance to things like All-Star balloting and MVP (or Cy Young) Award support. I would like to include more esoteric measures -- column inches in newspapers, or magazine covers, etc. -- but the data collection alone would be a monstrous task. I suppose that Google hits could be useful today. In fact, let's see what happens when we Google two current greats ...
Prince Fielder - 3,200,000
Ben Zobrist - 473,000
Hrmmm. That tells us something, I guess. But there are lots of reasons why one player would rank higher than another in this category. A long bout of free agency, for example. Or a recent postseason appearance. I have little doubt that Zobrist is underrated, compared to Fielder. But Googling their names doesn't tell us a great deal.
In the absence of a massive research project, then, one's underrated list will necessarily be personal, idiosyncratic, and thus singular. Especially because in today's baseball, it's really difficult to be terribly underrated. Zobrist is, because he plays different positions and isn't spectacular in anything he does; he's merely good at just about everything, which has always gone unappreciated by both the general public and most of the pundits.
Ryan Hanigan, though? It's hard for me to believe that a part-time player is the second-most underrated player in the game, unless you can make the case that management's holding him down; that he'd be an All-Star if the Reds would just play him as often as he deserves. In the meantime, though, I think I'll stick with Alex Gordon, who somehow ranks fifth in the majors in Wins Above Replacement (Wins+) over the last two seasons. Even if the method is generous -- and I will note that Baseball-Reference.com's Wins+ has him fifth, too -- dropping Gordon to 10th or 15th or 20th would still have him much higher than almost everybody in the baseball world would guess. So I'm going to go with this ranking:
1. Alex Gordon
2. Ben Zobrist
3. Austin Jackson
4. Erick Aybar
5. (You choose.)
Now, about the 10 best catchers, here was the list according to the Shredder:
10. A.J. Ellis
9. Alex Avila
8. Matt Wieters
7. Carlos Santana
6. Salvador Perez
5. Joe Mauer
4. Miguel Montero
3. Carlos Ruiz
2. Yadier Molina
1. Buster Posey
I think that's a perfectly reasonable list, actually, and it tracks pretty closely with B-R.com's Wins+ for the last two seasons, with the only notable deviations being Perez and Ellis, both for obvious reasons (limited playing time in 2011). I think you have bump Ruiz down a couple of slots, if only because we know he's going to miss most of April while serving a 25-game suspension for failing a drug test. And Perez is probably a slot or two too high, as he just doesn't have the professional track record to suggest that he's really the sixth-best catcher on earth, this very moment.
All we really know is that if you had the first pick in the catcher draft, you would probably choose Posey, and if you had the second pick you would probably take Molina. After those two, you'd have to think real hard.