Most underrated players in baseball history for each franchise

What makes a player underrated? Could be many things: maybe he toils on a crappy team, or maybe his skills are difficult to appreciate, or perhaps the player is overshadowed by a more famous teammate. Some really good players are great (but few people realize it), while some good players are really good but not known.

The following players are the most underrated in history for each franchise.

Darrell Evans, Braves

Evans idolized Eddie Mathews as a kid, and when he showed up in Atlanta as a rookie in 1969, Mathews was his first hitting coach. Evans tells the story that when he first arrived as a young player in his first spring camp with the Braves, Mathews put his arm around him and said “You come with me.”

Mathews taught Evans the philosophy of “shrinking the strike zone.” Evans took that advice well, and when he retired from the game 21 years later he ranked eighth all-time in walks and 20th in home runs. Evans has been described by others, not inaccurately, as one of the most underrated players in baseball history.

The Tigers signed Evans to a three-year contract after the 1983 season: he was the first notable free agent the franchise ever signed. Under humorless general manager Jim Campbell, Detroit had been one of the cheapest and most conservative teams for more than two decades, and signing a veteran free agent was a very un-Tigers thing to do. Evans loved Detroit, when they announced his signing, the team held a huge press conference. “They treated me like a king,” Evans said.

The man writing the check, Detroit’s new owner, was a man named Tom Monaghan, who made his money selling pizzas. Monaghan deserves to be remembered, because he was one of the biggest dolts to ever own a team. He once called Kirk Gibson a “disgrace to the Old English D” because Gibby liked to go a few days without shaving. Monaghan hired football coach Bo Schembechler and fired Ernie Harwell. That’s about all you need to know about his baseball intellect.

After the 1984 season, when everything went right for his team and the Tigers won the World Series title in his first year as owner, Monaghan still wasn’t completely happy. And Tom Monaghan was a gazillionaire, so if he wasn’t completely happy, someone was going to hear about it. Mr. Pizza Man was upset that Evans had been signed to a three-year deal and hit only 16 home runs, so he instructed Campbell to get rid of Evans and his expensive contract. The Tigers and Yankees had a deal in place that would have sent Evans to New York for a relief pitcher. It fell through at the last second, and Evans stayed in Detroit. He won the home run crown in 1985 with 40 bombs, hit 29 the following year, earned a fourth year in Detroit and hit 34 more home runs. Monaghan never recovered from the negative press he received for firing the popular Harwell, and in 1992 he sold the Tigers to his pizza rival, Mike Ilitch.

Steve Finley, Diamondbacks

Finley was tall and thin with a long neck and not much of a chin. For most of his career he sported eye black and a three-day beard, and he was fond of wearing the mock turtlenecks that became fashionable in the 1990s. He was an emotional player, when things went well or when they spun sideways. The only category he ever led the league in was triples, which he did when he was 28 and again when he was 38 years old. He ran with long, graceful strides and had a complicated throwing motion from the outfield, where he won five Gold Gloves, the last when he was 39 years old. After his playing career, Finley became a financial advisor, helping athletes manage their money.

Bobby Grich, Orioles

If folks want to get Lou Whitaker into the Hall of Fame (and they should), then Bobby Grich should get their love too. Whitaker has 75 career WAR, and Grich has 71. Sweet Lou had a WAR7 of 37, while Bobby came in at 46. Whitaker won three Gold Glove Awards, and Grich won four. Whitaker was an All-Star five times, and Grich was named to the team six times. Lou batted leadoff for a World Championship team, and Grich played second base for five teams that went to the playoffs, and eight teams that won at least 90 games. Grich’s defensive statistics are some of the best by a second baseman.

Grich’s career ended prematurely because of a serious back injury, just like Bobby Doerr, who could also be on this list. Doerr ended up in the Hall of Fame thanks in large part to his friendship with Ted Williams, but he deserved the honor. Grich doesn’t have a buddy on the Hall of Fame committee, but he’ll need one to get his plaque.

Dwight Evans, Red Sox

Midway through his career, Evans overhauled his batting stance and approach at the plate. The Red Sox hired a new hitting coach, Walt Hriniak, a disciple of Charley Lau, who taught Evans the same techniques that transformed George Brett and others. Evans won the home run title the first season after working with Hriniak. In his 30s he hit .277 with 235 home runs, as opposed to .265 and 150 in his 20s. Dewey started to draw so many walks that the Red Sox used him as a leadoff man for a few seasons.

Stan Hack, Cubs

Hack was so respected that someone once said, “Stan Hack has as many friends in baseball as Leo Durocher has enemies.” He was in such a great mood all the time that they called him “Smiling Stan,” and it was said that once on a rare occasion when Hack was tossed from a game, the umpire apologized to him. Hack managed Ernie Banks in his first full season, and Ernie is probably the only player who was more popular in the north side of Chicago during his playing days.

Minnie Miñoso, White Sox

The folks keeping Minoso out of the Baseball Hall of Fame are failing to appreciate the full measure of his career. The Cuban-born Minoso had more than 3,000 hits in the top level leagues he played in.

It wasn’t his fault that in 1944 as a teenager in Cuba he couldn’t sign a contract to play for the Yankees or White Sox. Yet he was one of the best players on that island. It wasn’t Minnie’s fault that after he migrated to the States following World War II, he had to play in the negro leagues. Yet he was a star in that league.

It wasn’t Minoso’s fault that after he was signed by the Indians in 1948 the team thought he needed to pay his dues in the minor leagues. Minnie won an MVP award at Triple-A but still spent three years in the minors and the Indians traded him to the White Sox. He debuted in 1951 and finished fourth in American League MVP voting. He was 25 years old and clearly one of the best baseball players in the world but he was forced to travel a circuitous path to the major leagues.

Ken Griffey’s Dad, Reds

Until he suffered a leg injury, Ken Griffey was one of the fastest men in the game. He could really fly, he was faster than teammate Joe Morgan, and as fast as Lou Brock ever was. But he lost his legs a bit after an injury in 1979 and that cost him. Before the injury, Griffey would leg out a dozen or more hits per season with his speed. He could always hit, he was around .300 almost every season and was in the catbird seat in 1976 to win the batting title. On the last day of the season with his batting average at .338 and five points ahead of Bill Madlock, Griffey did not start. But word came that Madlock had three hits in Chicago so Sparky Anderson inserted Griffey into the game. He went 0-for-2 while Mad Dog got his fourth hit and won the batting crown.

The Big Red Machine, the one that steamed their way to back-to-back titles in 1975-76, had six regulars who ended their careers with at least 2,000 hits: Griffey, Johnny Bench, Tony Perez, Joe Morgan, Dave Concepcion, and Pete Rose. The Reds are the only team to ever accomplish that, for even one season.

Buddy Bell, Indians

Wins Above Replacement by Third Basemen in the 1970s:

Graig Nettles … 54.5
Mike Schmidt … 50.3
Sal Bando … 49.0
George Brett … 36.2
Ron Cey … 35.6
Darrell Evans … 32.9
Buddy Bell … 31.4
Richie Hebner … 25.3
Brooks Robinson … 23.0
Doug Rader … 19.8

Charlie Blackmon, Rockies

The Bearded One has averaged 32 homers and 86 RBI, as well as 120 runs and 191 hits from 2016 to 2019. He won a batting title and he’s gradually added more power and become a more patient hitter. But many people in the game have little or no idea how productive the outfielder has been in Denver.

John Hiller, Tigers

Back when relievers pitched three innings or maybe even four innings out of the bullpen, Hiller was a star. In 1973 the left-hander from Canada probably had the best season ever by a relief pitcher, at least by the numbers. That year he posted a ridiculous 7.9 Wins Above Replacement, on the strength of a 1.44 ERA in 125 1/3 innings, when he saved a record 38 games. Amazingly, Hiller accomplished that two seasons after he suffered a serious heart attack.

From 1972 to 1978, a revitalized Hiller posted a 2.42 ERA for the Tigers, averaging 104 innings and with a 2-to-1 strikeout-to-walk ratio. Over that span, he entered the game before the eighth innings 29 percent of the time, and more than 80 percent of the time he finished the game. They just don’t make it like him anymore.

Jose Cruz, Astros

Cruz was a line drive hitter with great speed and no glaring weaknesses. A turning point came when the 25-year old was in his fourth season with the Cardinals. Manager Red Schoendienst got Jose to switch to a shorter, lighter bat, and he took off from there.

Describing his hitting philosophy, Jose Cruz said, “I go for choppers and bloopers.” For most of his career, Cruz played in two professional baseball leagues: in the States in the spring, summer, and fall, and in his native Puerto Rico in the winter. Despite being a great player, he went relatively unnoticed outside of Houston and San Juan. “Nobody has ever written or said much about me, but I’m quiet and don’t say much myself,” Cruz said. “I just love to play baseball. I play 12 months a year and I never get tired.”

Alex Gordon, Royals

Gordon came up as a third baseman, but has evolved into the best defensive left fielder since probably Joe Rudi. He was supposed to be the “next George Brett,” and the Royals gave Gordon uniform #4 to signify his potential greatness.

There’s only one George Brett, of course, so Gordon has become a star left fielder instead. He’s won seven Gold Gloves thus far, and though he’ll be 36 in 2020, has a chance to win a few more. Gordon is still quick, has a great first step and tremendous instincts. His throwing arm is the strongest by a left fielder in a generation. He’s a fantastic player, whose skills are hard to measure with numbers.

Chuck Finley, Angels

For some reason lefthanders rarely throw good forkballs, but Chuck Finley was an exception. His forkball could be so effective, diving into the dirt like a kamikaze plane into an aircraft carrier, that twice in his career, Finley struck out four batters in an inning. No one else had ever done that. How do you strike out four batters in one inning? You toss a wild pitch or a passed ball on a strike three that allows the batter to run safely to first base. Finley always threw a lot of wild pitches: he led the league twice.

Finley was built a lot like Cole Hamels, though he was a couple inches taller at 6 foot 6 inches, but they both had long legs, long necks, and long fingers. Finley was all arms and legs with a very lean, athletic build. He fell toward third base a little like Randy Johnson did, though Finley did not throw three-quarter sidearm like Big Unit. He was handsome with long hair and a strong chin, and female fans loved him.

Jim Gilliam, Dodgers

Gilliam learned to be a ballplayer during his three seasons in the negro leagues, which is where he earned the nickname “Junior.” A veteran teammate suggested he try switch-hitting, and he honed his skills as a bunter and base stealer. By the time the Dodgers inserted him at second base (pushing Jackie Robinson to the outfield), Gilliam was a good player, especially in the field where he had excellent range. His arm was never considered strong for a second baseman, and Walter Alston was frequently frustrated at Junior’s base running gaffes, but Gilliam proved to be an important part of the Dodgers teams that won seven pennants between 1953 and 1966.

Dan Uggla, Marlins

Uggla burst onto the scene with the Marlins in 2006 and pounded out 172 hits and scored 105 runs. He also drove in 90 runs. In his first six seasons he averaged 32 homers, the most ever by a second baseman in their first six years. He aged quickly, but Uggla could really rake and he was adequate defensively.

Don Money, Brewers

Money was a very good defensive third baseman, which caught the attention of scouts in and around Washington D.C. where he grew up. But before he signed his first professional contract with the Phillies, his mother insisted that he have a backup plan, so he took the U.S. Government civil service test. He passed the test, and had he not made good in baseball, his intention was to work for the Pentagon or something like that.

His glove kept him out of government work, at one time he set a record with 86 consecutive errorless games at third base. The Phillies dealt him to Milwaukee to make way for Mike Schmidt, and the trade ended up a boon for the Brewers. Money was an All-Star four times for Milwaukee, at two different positions, second base and third. He had no big weakness, he could do everything well: he hit 25 homers one year, he went 22-for-27 in stolen base attempts another year, and he was steady with the glove. When the team signed Sal Bando, Money moved to second base and he played well. The Brewers collected good young infielders in the late 1970s: Robin Yount of course, then Paul Molitor and Jimmy Gantner arrived. In his 30s, Money was transitioned to a super sub role, and he handled it with aplomb. He stuck in Suds City for five years as a utility player, and got three starts in the 1982 World Series.

Bert Blyleven, Twins

Probably the most underrated player on this list. Blyleven’s name was on the Hall of Fame ballot fourteen times before he was elected. That’s Exhibit A in the case against baseball writers making the in-or-out decision. Blyleven struck out 3,701 batters, the third highest total in baseball history when he retired. Let me repeat: he was third all-time in strikeouts when he retired. He pitched 22 seasons and won 287 games even though he played for mostly losing teams. His career winning percentage is 37 points above that of his team, and he had 99 tough losses in his career, that’s 99 losses where he allowed 0-3 runs in six innings or more. That’s the seventh highest total in history.

Do you think the Hall of Fame voters understood the correlation between a pitcher being on mediocre teams and their won/loss record? Do you think they realized that only great pitchers are able to strike out more than 3,700 batters? Especially when they rely heavily on a breaking ball? Apparently, the voters didn’t, and Blyleven had to answer questions for 14 years about the Hall of Fame, until a group of younger voters got it right in 2011.

Jerry Grote, Mets

Grote had his best season at the age of 32, which is extremely rare for a catcher. That year he struck out 15 fewer times than he walked. It was the 1970s and Johnny Bench, Carlton Fisk, and Thurman Munson were stars. Grote was sort of a living example of what a good catcher from the 1920s looked like: decent batting average, catch about 110 games, tough to strike out, and good at handling the running game. He played in four World Series: with the Mets (as a starter) and later with the Dodgers three times as a backup to Steve Yeager.

Roy White, Yankees

Roy White was constantly being knocked for what he wasn’t. He was originally a second baseman but the Yankees had Bobby Richardson there so they shoved White to the outfield. But he was criticized for not having a strong enough arm to play the outfield. The Yankees put him at leadoff but weren’t happy because he didn’t steal enough bases. After Mickey Mantle retired White was moved to the cleanup spot and critics were irked because he didn’t hit 30 home runs. Some in the Yankees’ front office thought White was taking too many pitches, wasn’t aggressive enough. When Bill Virdon was hired as manager, he proclaimed that White would have to win a starting job. White was a nine-year veteran, two-time All-Star and the previous season he had led the team in runs scored and walks.

“There is a tendency in baseball to overlook the things you do well and dwell on the things you don’t do well,” White once said.

The strange thing? Roy White did a lot of things very well. He was a fast runner, he was athletic enough to play the outfield after having been an infielder his whole life, he could hit for power, and he was excellent at getting on base. White played in an era when batting averages were in a deep valley and run scoring was at their lowest levels since Woodrow Wilson was in the White House.

White’s career .271 average adjusts to .286 in a neutral run-scoring environment, and his on-base percentage goes from .360 to .377, his slugging percentage from .404 to .425 under the same adjustments. His career OPS+ of 121 is higher than that of Lou Brock, Pete Rose, and Don Baylor. White’s career WAR (46.7) is higher than that of Hall of Fame left fielder Heinie Manush, who batted .330. Batting averages be damned, throwing arm be damned, 100 RBIs or not, White was an excellent baseball player.

Bert Campaneris, A’s

In a clubhouse that hosted Reggie and Catfish and Rollie, the Cuban shortstop was seen but rarely heard. Yet his teammates knew how valuable he was, and in eight of his first eleven seasons, Campy received MVP votes. The Athletics made the playoffs five times with him in their lineup, usually as their leadoff man, though he walked about as often as Kim Kardashian avoids a camera.

Chase Utley, Phillies

Why is Chase Utley underrated? Or is it better to ask why he’s so underappreciated? Because even people who acknowledge he’s been a fine second baseman, aren’t aware that he rates among the best second basemen of all-time. That he deserves to rate higher than several Hall of Famers. Utley has had a better career than Frankie Frisch and Ryne Sandberg. Better than Roberto Alomar and Craig Biggio and Billy Herman, all great players. He ranks favorably with the two non-Hall of Fame second basemen who get the most support for induction: Bobby Grich and Lou Whitaker.

But how is that possible when he’s likely to conclude his career with fewer than 2,000 hits, less than 1,200 runs scored or RBIs? When Utley has a career batting average below .280? The answer lies in the fact that Utley is a near perfect baseball player. He’s not the offensive machine that Rogers Hornsby was. He’s not the defensive wizard that Alomar was. He’s not a stolen base merchant like Eddie Collins. He’s not a pure home run hitter like Jeff Kent. He wasn’t as durable as Charlie Gehringer or drewdraw as many walks as Joe Morgan. But he was excellent at everything — and we mean everything. Combine that with his two greatest strengths (more on that below) and you have one of the ten greatest second basemen in the history of baseball.

Utley was one of the best baserunners in baseball history. At his peak he was taking the extra base as much as anyone ever has, close to 70 percent of the time (going from-first-to-third on a single, first-to-home on a double, or second-to-home on a single). His stolen base percentage is the highest in history, and once over a four year stretch he was successful on 61 of 64 attempts. Utley rarely made a mental mistake in the field, he made two throwing errors in one four-year stretch and led the NL in chances per game by second basemen six times.

Utley only once topped 200 hits, but he got on base a helluva lot. He averaged 265 times on base per season for his career entering 2019. But he did some of that under the radar: walking or getting hit by a pitch 100 times per season. Utley has been hit by a pitch more than 200 times. Utley is also an excellent bunter and was one of the most aggressive baserunners of his era. Again, you name it, Utley is really, really good at it.

Now for his greatest strengths: first, Utley is one of the best second basemen at converting ground balls into outs because of his range and ability to turn the double play. His defensive skill in the middle of the infield was a great assistance to the pitchers on his teams. Second, Utley was one of the five best power hitters to ever play second. In four consecutive seasons he had at least 70 extra-base hits, and his career slugging percentage, the rate stat that is perhaps the most indicative of a great hitter, is topped by only Hornsby, Kent, Robinson Cano, Gehringer, and Jackie Robinson.

Bob Friend, Pirates

One of the most hard luck pitchers in history. Friend came up with Pittsburgh in 1951 as a twenty-year old. He was a very athletic, thickly-built righty with a good fastball. In his first five seasons, the Pirates averaged 101 losses, and in his 15 years in the Steel City, Friend only played on five winning teams. His record over his first seven years was 73-94, which comes out to a .437 winning percentage. The rest of the team went .339 during that span. Ouch.

Plop Friend onto a good team, hell even a .500 team, and he wins far more games. As it was, Friend still managed to win 197 games. He was nicknamed “Warrior,” and it fit: from 1955 to 1965, he averaged 255 innings and 13 complete games per season.

Larry Doyle, Giants

Among second baseman since 1900 who played at least 1,300 games, Doyle’s .125+ OPS (on-base percentage plus slugging adjusted to era and ballparks) ranks ninth. It rates ahead of Hall of Famers Charlie Gehringer, Tony Lazzeri, and Joe Gordon. It ranks ahead of Chase Utley, Jeff Kent, and Lou Whitaker. It’s well ahead of Ryne Sandberg and Craig Biggio. Clearly, Doyle was a valuable offensive player. But how good was he?

At the height of his career, John McGraw said of Doyle, “I would not trade him for any man playing baseball.” He won a batting title, he stole more than 30 bases in five straight seasons, he retired as the all-time leader for second basemen in hits, runs, extra-base hits, total bases, and RBIs. Also in double plays and total chances.

Doyle was important to several great teams, starring for the Giants when they won three consecutive pennants from 1911 to 1913, though they pulled a Buffalo Bills move and lost the World Series each year.

In 1912, Doyle was named Most Valuable Player of the National League. Johnny Evers won it two years later. There’s no evidence that shows Evers was a better player than Doyle, yet the former is in the Hall of Fame, and Doyle is not. You can measure with Win Shares or use Wins Above Replacement, or take more traditional stats, and the two are very close. Doyle had more career hits, runs, extra-base hits, and far more RBIs than Evers. He washed up sooner, retiring at the age of 33, while Evers was still playing regularly at the age of 35. That longevity helps Evers inch ahead of Doyle in our rankings, but the margin between the two is paper thin.

Curt Flood, Cardinals

Flood, Vada Pinson, and Frank Robinson were high school teammates at McClymonds High School in Oakland. All three were signed by the same scout, and all three signed to play for the Cincinnati Reds. Flood was the best defensive center fielder in baseball in the 1960s, and his defensive stats are every bit as impressive as Bill Mazeroski’s where for second base.

Alvin Davis, Mariners

Davis made a great first impression. He hit home runs in his first two big league games and reached base in his first 47 games in The Show. He had a Joe DiMaggio-type rookie season, hitting 34 doubles, 27 homers, and driving in 116. He was patient, he walked 97 times in his first season, one of four times he topped 90, and he walked more than he struck out in his career. He wasn’t Joe D, of course, but he was a very good hitter, winning Rookie of the Year and finishing 12th in AL MVP voting.

By 1989 the Mariners had Ken Griffey Jr. in center field and Randy Johnson in their rotation. (They also should have had 26-year old Edgar Martinez at third base, but the front office couldn’t get out of their own way and commit to one of the greatest hitters of the generation.) Davis was 28 in 1989 and still a good player, he batted over .300, had an OBP over .400 and slugged nearly .500, and he walked 101 times. He was young enough that he should have been part of the good times that were bound to come in Seattle, but within two years Davis’ career was essentially over due to back injuries. He had eight fine years with the Mariners when they were a bad team, yet he was overshadowed by other first basemen in the league like Don Mattingly, Eddie Murray, Kent Hrbek, and Wally Joyner. At his peak he was better than Joyner, and he’s worth remembering from an otherwise forgettable period in franchise history.

Rusty Greer, Rangers

All of the players on this list were underrated, but they were also beloved. Few were as popular as Rusty Greer was in Texas. The lean, quick redhead played nine years in Arlington, that’s his entire big league career.

Kevin Pillar, Blue Jays

How do you fly under the radar? Get drafted in the 32nd round out of a tiny state university in Carson, California. Pillar moved his way up the Toronto ladder and when he got to the big leagues he quickly proved to be one of the best defensive outfielders in the American League. When you view his highlight reel, it’s hard to understand how the popular Pillar never won a Gold Glove in Toronto.

Tim Wallach, Nationals

So, Wallach never played for Washington, he played for the Expos, but Montreal is where this franchise started, and that counts.

Wallach was a solid all-around player, his only weakness was running speed. He had power, hit a lot of doubles, was a dependable run producer, and he played a fine third base. He was a five-time All-Star for Montreal, won two Gold Glove awards, and two Sliver Sluggers.

He was overshadowed in Montreal by the star-studded lineup that featured Tim Raines, Andre Dawson, Gary Carter, and Al Oliver. But Wallach was a standout and a winning player, though he rarely got headlines.

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