The 2021 MLB All-Underrated team


What do you do with Jose Altuve when you are ranking the top 100 MLB players for 2021? MVP in 2017, All-Star in 2018, a career-high 31 home runs in 2019 … and then came the sign-stealing scandal, the pandemic and a terrible 2020 season in which he hit .219 (only to recover in the postseason and hit .375 with five home runs in 13 games). He turns 31 in May. Altuve comes in at No. 57 on ESPN’s annual MLB Rank list.

What do you do with Christian Yelich? The MVP and batting champ in 2018, the MVP runner-up and batting champ in 2019 … and then came the pandemic and a terrible 2020 regular season in which he hit .202 with 76 strikeouts in 58 games. Maybe the broken kneecap he suffered at the end of the 2019 season was a reason. Maybe it was just a two-month slump. Our panel of voters is expecting a return to form in 2021.

What about Marcus Semien? Third in the MVP voting in 2019, he struggled at the plate in 2020, left the A’s to sign with the Blue Jays and will move from shortstop to second base. Semien ranks No. 68.

Due to the unusual and shortened 2020 season, ranking the top 100 players was more impossible than ever. As one of the voters, I can attest to the difficulty of determining how much to weigh or ignore what happened in 2020 and then factoring in a player’s age to project what will happen in 2021. Using those final rankings as a guiding barometer, I’ve come up with an all-underrated team — those players I think will end up proving they should have been ranked higher or included in the top 100.

MLB Rank: 86

Only three catchers made our top 100 — J.T. Realmuto (27), Yasmani Grandal (85) and Smith — and Smith’s ranking is aggressive for a player with just 333 major league plate appearances. Still, if you ask me whether it’s more likely that an unranked catcher cracks next year’s top 100 or Smith cracks the top 50, I’m leaning toward Smith, who has hit .268/.363/.574 with 23 home runs in his limited big league time. He has a chance to be the best-hitting catcher in the majors since peak Buster Posey.

Compare Smith’s ranking to Bo Bichette at No. 41. Bichette has a similar number of plate appearances (340) and hit .307/.347/.549 — a higher batting average, but Smith has hit for more power, and with a superior strikeout-to-walk rate actually has the higher OBP. Both play premium defensive positions. If Bichette warrants a No. 41 ranking, I would argue Smith deserves to be higher than 86. The one catch here for his 2021 performance: The Dodgers do love Austin Barnes’ defense (remember, Barnes started four of the six World Series games, with Smith serving as the DH), so Smith might only get 400 plate appearances, especially without the DH in the National League.

MLB Rank: 82

Even though Freddie Freeman and Jose Abreu are the reigning MVP winners, first base is not a deep position, and I feel the seven who made the top 100 are accurately ranked, including the sizable gap from Freeman (top 10 overall) to Abreu, the No. 2 first baseman at 43. Does that make Abreu underrated? Not really. While he was a deserving MVP winner in 2020, Abreu hit .275/.328/.490 in 2018-19, hardly an impressive triple-slash line for a first baseman with the juiced ball and playing in a good hitters’ park. He’s also 34, making a repeat performance more unlikely (although he should again drive in a lot of runs in that lineup).

As for Voit, it’s not so much that I feel he’s underrated or necessarily deserves to be ranked 30 spots higher, but consider this comparison to Abreu and Pete Alonso, the No. 48 player:

Voit, 2018-20: 905 PAs, .278/.371/.541, 58 HRs
Alonso, 2019-20: 932 PAs, .252/.350/.559, 69 HRs
Abreu, 2019-20: 955 PAs, .293/.341/.534, 52 HRs

Voit led the American League with 22 home runs in 56 games last season. That’s a 59-homer pace over 150 games. I don’t think he’s going to hit 59, but 40 is certainly possible.

MLB Rank: Not ranked

I included these two together because they are similar players, the type who is generally underrated: They play good defense and get on base while lacking the power or stolen base numbers that make them a favorite in fantasy baseball.

Wong is the two-time reigning NL Gold Glove winner, but the Cardinals surprisingly did not pick up his $12.5 million player option for 2021, and he subsequently signed with the Brewers. Among second basemen, Wong is fourth in Baseball-Reference WAR since 2018 — ahead of Altuve. OK, maybe B-R is overvaluing Wong’s defense. FanGraphs, which doesn’t give as much value to his D, still ranks Wong sixth among second basemen (just behind Altuve). To be fair, Wong’s power evaporated in 2020 (.326 slugging), which helps explain the Cardinals’ decision, but I think the Brewers will be happy with their signing.

Fletcher should take over at second base on a full-time basis after playing all three infield positions his first three seasons. At second, he projects as the Gold Glove favorite — I would definitely take him over 2020 winner Cesar Hernandez — and I love this trend line in his OPS since 2018: .678, .734, .801. Fletcher hit .290 in 2019 and .319 in 2020 thanks to one of the best contact rates in the majors. It makes him kind of a throwback player in this era of power, but I believe he can hit .300 over a full season.

MLB Rank: Not ranked

Third base is a deep position, with 13 third basemen in our top 100, and nobody seems egregiously underrated with their slot. Cavan Biggio would have been my choice here, but he snuck in at No. 95, while Hayes understandably missed the top 100 since he has played just 24 major league games. I do have access to our super-secret voting results, and Hayes just missed making the list, but here’s my guarantee: He will be on it next season.

Hayes’ big league résumé is limited but eye-opening: He hit .376/.442/.682 with five home runs in his September call-up — he was arguably the best player in the majors the final month of the season. Granted, he rode a high BABIP and had never hit for much power in the minors, but he hit the ball hard and has followed up with an impressive spring training.

Hayes also comes with a strong defensive reputation, always his top selling point as a prospect, and that alone gives him a high floor. His contact ability means he should hit for a solid batting average. From what we saw last September and this spring, I think he can hit around .300 with 15 to 20 home runs and great defense. Hayes retains his rookie status for 2021, so he’s my pick for NL Rookie of the Year.

MLB Rank: 23

Story hasn’t exactly been ignored — he’s finished 11th, 12th and eighth in the MVP voting the past three seasons and made the All-Star team in 2018 and 2019, and he also ranked first among shortstops in MLB Network’s top 10 at each position. Still, he lagged behind former teammate Nolan Arenado in national attention and ranks behind three other shortstops on our list.

I looked at the top 25 players in our ranking and added up their Baseball-Reference and FanGraphs WAR since 2018 to see which players had the biggest difference between their WAR ranking and their MLB Rank listing. The biggest difference belonged to Max Scherzer, but that’s understandable given his age (36) and so-so performance in 2020 (3.74 ERA). Story is next, with a difference of 12 spots. He’s in his prime at 28 years old, he has power, he can run (he led the NL in steals in 2020 and is a good bet to go 30-30 in 2021), plays great defense (+20 runs saved over the past two seasons) and has done it now for three seasons in a row.

MLB Rank: Not ranked

How do the A’s do it? Despite an unglamorous roster, they’ve made three straight playoff appearances, including a division title in 2020, and only the Dodgers, Astros and Yankees have won more games since 2018. They’ve had some great players, no doubt — Matt Chapman was one of the best in the game in 2018 and 2019, and we mentioned Semien’s spectacular 2019 — but they also do it with guys like Canha. He’s hit .265/.393/.483 the past two seasons while starting games at all three outfield positions, first base and DH.

Is he a top-100 player overall? Probably not. He is, however, a perfect fit for this squad. Among players with at least 600 PAs over the past two seasons, Canha is eighth in on-base percentage and 12th in wRC+ (weighted runs created) — that wRC+ figure is higher than that of Mookie Betts, Xander Bogaerts, Ronald Acuna Jr. or Bryce Harper. In 2020, for the first time in his career, he played every day and had the best walk rate of his career (although his power declined from 2019, when he hit 26 home runs). He’s 32 but is a good athlete and should once again serve the A’s in multiple roles.

MLB Rank: Not ranked

The Padres acquired Grisham and Zach Davies for Luis Urias and Eric Lauer in a November 2019 trade with the Brewers that is looking like a huge steal (especially when factoring in that Davies helped land Yu Darvish). Grisham was a first-round pick in 2015 but developed slowly in the minors until a breakout 2019 season. He doesn’t look like a center fielder, as he’s thickly built, but the Statcast numbers support the Gold Glove he won in 2020: He ranked in the 98th percentile in outs above average among center fielders, with an 88th percentile jump rating to go with elite speed (96th percentile).

Grisham’s .251/.352/.456 line in 2020 is a classic underrated profile: mediocre batting average but good on-base skills and some pop while playing in a pitchers’ park. He was also 10-for-11 stealing bases. This is an impressive all-around player, and given that he’s 24 and was a late developer at the plate, I forecast improvement in 2021.

MLB Rank: Not ranked

There wasn’t a good veteran candidate among right fielders — if you ignore his salary, Jason Heyward has been a solid contributor the past two seasons — but Tucker is another young player I’m projecting big things from in 2021. We’ve been hearing about him as a top prospect since the Astros selected him fifth overall in 2015, but he earned only small cameos in 2018 and 2019 before finally getting a regular gig in 2020. He hit .268/.325/.512 with 27 extra-base hits in 58 games, swiping eight bases and playing good defense in left field (he moves to right field in 2021). Nonetheless, his season flew completely under the radar. Maybe it was a case of prospect fatigue. Tucker had a 30-30 season at Triple-A in 2019 and could do that in the majors. That should get him some attention.

MLB Rank: Not ranked

I’m not necessarily arguing top-100 status for Soler — a DH has to really rake to deserve that recognition – but he’s a great example of how to weigh 2019 (when he led the AL with 48 home runs) versus 2020 (when he hit .223 with eight home runs and missed much of September with an oblique injury). If we combine the two seasons, however, we get this:

Soler: .257/.348/.543, 56 HR, 132 OPS+
Marcell Ozuna: .272/.362/.525, 130 OPS+
Vladimir Guerrero Jr.: .269/.336/.442, 109 OPS+
Eloy Jimenez: .276/.321/.527, 45 HR, 123 OPS+
Shohei Ohtani: .259/.328/.466, 109 OPS+

OK, Ozuna and Jimenez are outfielders, although not good ones, and Ohtani may or may not add extra value as a pitcher, but Soler is unranked, while Ozuna comes in at No. 40, Guerrero at 55, Jimenez at 64 and Ohtani at 73. I didn’t even list Giancarlo Stanton since he has barely played the past two seasons, and he’s No. 77. The point: These players, like Soler, derive almost all their value at the plate (other than Ohtani’s pitching), and yet Soler has arguably outproduced them over the past two seasons without the same level of recognition.

MLB Rank: 51

I’m picking five starting pitchers here, all established veterans, rather than going with younger breakout candidates who failed to crack the top 100 (like Corbin Burnes and Zach Plesac, who were great in limited innings in 2020). Anyway, Nola is No. 16 among starting pitchers, yet check his rankings since 2018 in various categories (minimum 350 innings):

ERA: 8th
Innings: 2nd
Strikeouts: 6th
Strikeout rate: 12th
BA allowed: 8th
wOBA: 8th
bWAR: 2nd
fWAR: 8th

I get that Nola’s best season of the three was 2018 (17-6, 2.37 ERA), but it seems like you have to rank him higher — especially pitching in a tough pitchers’ park with a porous Phillies defense behind him.

MLB Rank: 67

I pointed this out earlier this offseason: Since the advent of the All-Star Game in 1933, among pitchers with at least 1,000 career innings to never make an All-Star team, Hendricks has the fourth-lowest ERA (and second lowest among starters). That’s underrated! He has a 3.12 career ERA, and his worst in the past five seasons was a 3.46 mark in 2019. He thrives on changing speeds and great control (eight walks in 81⅓ innings in 2020), and since he doesn’t throw 95 mph and rack up monster whiff rates, he gets overlooked.

MLB Rank: 92

At least Marquez cracked the back end of the top 100 this season after going unranked a year ago. As I pointed out in my write-up on Marquez on the list, he’s eighth among starting pitchers in road ERA since 2018. That he’s ranked even No. 92 is a reflection that we know his ERA would be lower if he didn’t have to pitch half his games in Coors Field, but I think if he pitched for the Dodgers or Cardinals, he might be mentioned in the same breath as a Walker Buehler or Jack Flaherty.

MLB Rank: Not ranked

My friends Eric Karabell and Tristan Cockcroft have had an ongoing heated discussion on the Fantasy Focus podcast about what to expect from Greinke in 2021. I’m siding with Eric here: I think Greinke will be very good. Tristan is more concerned about his age (37) and declining velocity (his four-seam fastball averaged 88.1 mph in 2020). Still, I think Greinke has more left in the tank. Nobody has started more games over the past four seasons, and while his ERA last season was 4.03, the peripherals were still strong: 2.80 FIP, 67-9 strikeout-to-walk ratio, above-average whiff rate. The combination of durability and track record means I’m not ready to bet against him just yet.

MLB Rank: Not ranked

Your classic underappreciated pitcher: He’s on a bad team, plays on the West Coast, doesn’t throw hard, doesn’t rack up the strikeouts and rarely makes the highlight reels. Here’s a stat that will likely surprise you: Since 2018, Gonzalez is tied with Greinke for the third-most wins in the majors, behind Gerrit Cole and Justin Verlander. So three guys who pitched for the Astros and one who pitched for the lowly Mariners. No, Gonzalez is not the third-best starter in baseball, but he’s durable, he pitches deep into games, he showed pinpoint command in 2020 (seven walks in 11 starts) and, yes, he wins games.

MLB Rank: Not ranked

Only two relievers cracked the top 100, Brewers teammates Josh Hader (69) and Rookie of the Year Devin Williams (94). Frankly, I’m OK with no relievers in the top 100 unless we’re talking prime Mariano Rivera or Craig Kimbrel, but if you’re going to list one, doesn’t it have to be Hendriks? Compare him to Hader over the past two seasons:

Hendriks: 7-5, 1.79 ERA, 110⅓ IP, 6 HR, 3.53 win probability added
Hader: 4-7, 2.85 ERA, 94⅔ IP, 18 HR, 3.48 win probability added

I don’t know if this is Hendriks being underrated so much as Hader being overrated. I get that Hader’s strikeout rates are ridiculous, but he’s also become extremely vulnerable to the home run. His innings per outing has declined from 1.48 in 2018 to 1.24 in 2019 to 0.90 in 2020 as he’s morphed into more of a traditional closer (and is a sign of Craig Counsell’s reluctance to use him for longer outings because of the homers). So Hendriks gets my nod as the best closer in the business based on what he’s done the past two seasons.

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