Is it possible to accumulate 3,141 hits, finish with the highest career batting average since Ted Williams, make the Baseball Hall of Fame with 97.6 percent of the vote, and still be underrated?
That’s how I felt after the recent death of the great Tony Gwynn, who was one of the most beloved figures in history but wasn’t valued so highly in the eyes of the baseball writers during his 20-year career.
Gwynn was a career .338 hitter, the highest of any player who began his career after World War II. He was a terrific base-runner and an excellent right fielder with a great arm. But he never won an MVP award and finished in the top five only once. In 1994, when he batted .394 in a strike-shortened season, he was only seventh in the NL vote.
I understand that batting average has been diminished as a way to judge hitters. On-base percentage and slugging are a surer reflection of a batter’s worth. But Gwynn was a great offensive talent. Looking over the MVP vote totals from his career, I felt a renewed disgust with the inflated slugging numbers of that time.
Gwynn played at the height of the steroid era, when the public was obsessed with slugging. It overshadowed the brilliance of pure hitters like Gwynn and Wade Boggs, another Hall of Famer whose production was underappreciated in a shameful time.
Reflecting on Gwynn’s career inspired me to put together a list of underrated players, by position, at baseball’s midpoint:
Russell Martin, Pittsburgh: The Yanks let him go before the 2013 season in a rare moment of austerity. They might have made the playoffs if they’d kept him. Martin helped the Pirates snap their 21-year playoff drought. He’s a solid hitter (.264 BA, .407 on-base) and receiver who has thrown out the most base-stealers in the Bigs the last two years. The Yanks signed Brian McCann for $17 million a year to fill the void. Martin’s OPS is 140 points higher than McCann’s this season, at exactly half the money.
Brandon Moss, Oakland: A classic example of GM Billy Beane turning a journeyman into a star. Moss, 30, has found a home with the A’s. As of Sunday, he was fifth in the AL in homers (18) and sixth in RBIs (59). Since joining the A’s in 2012, he has 60 homers in 787 at-bats against righties. Among left-handed hitters, only Chris Davis has a higher HR percentage vs. righties over that time.
Jose Altuve, Astros: An All-Star last year, Altuve has come into his own. Through Saturday, the 24-year-old Venezuelan led the AL in hits (113), batting average (.343) and steals (34). He’s on pace to shatter Craig Biggio’s team record of 210 hits in a season. Altuve had more doubles (24) than strikeouts (23). He had just two errors and was second in chances among second basemen. The Jays wish they were getting such production from Jose Reyes.
Alcides Escobar, Kansas City: Another gem from Venezuela, the most underrated baseball nation. Escobar, who came to KC from Milwaukee in the Zack Greinke deal, is second among AL shortstops in fielding. He might be the best 9-hole hitter in the game. As of Sunday, he was hitting .288 with 21 doubles. He was 20-for-21 in steals. Smart, consistent player. Cousin of former big-league pitcher Kelvim Escobar.
Anthony Rendon, Washington: The Houston native has blossomed in his first full season, allowing the Nats to move Ryan Zimmerman and his balky shoulder to the outfield. Rendon, 24, is hitting .282 with 52 runs, 12 homers and a .482 slugging percentage. In June, he’s slugging .587 with six homers, including two game-tying shots. He’s fast and has good range at third.
Brett Gardner, Yankees: The sort of Yankee that Red Sox fans wish was on their team. I consider him the game’s most underrated player. An ideal leadoff man who sees a lot of pitches. He’s hitting .289 with a .360 on-base. Leads the Yanks in runs, hits and total bases. With the offense sputtering, he slugged .500 in June. One the fastest men in baseball, he’s ninth in career steals by a Yankee. A great fielder with an accurate arm.
Carlos Gomez, Milwaukee: My MVP pick at midseason in the NL. A late bloomer, Gomez became a star when he stopped over-thinking at the plate and became a free swinger. He was hitting .310 with 13 homers and 13 steals. He reached base 35 games in a row and had an 18-game hitting streak end last week. The 28-year-old Dominican is a five-tool star, one of the fastest players in the game and a Gold Glover in center.
Michael Brantley, Cleveland: He plays left for the Indians, but you can put “Dr. Smooth” anywhere in the outfield. Over the last two seasons, he has played 217 games in left without an error. He was hitting .365 in June. Overall, he was at .321 with 12 homers, 53 RBIs and 54 runs scored. He was one of two big-leaguers with 50 runs, 50 RBIs and a .300 average. Mike Trout and Giancarlo Stanton are the others.
Garrett Richards, LA Angels: At 26, in his fourth season, he’s become an ace. Richards is 8-2 with a 2.76 ERA for the surging Angels. In 101 innings, he has allowed 75 hits and fanned 99. Leads the AL in fewest hits and homers per nine allowed. Went 4-0 in June with a 1.05 ERA. At 96 mph, has the highest average velocity in the Majors.
Dallas Keuchel, Houston: The 6-foot-3 Tulsa native is 8-5 with a 2.78 ERA --nearly half his 5.15 ERA of a year ago. In 103.2 innings, Keuchel, 26, has allowed 88 hits, with 26 walks and 83 K’s. His ERA was nearly half-a-run lower until his last two starts, when he suffered wrist inflammation and was scratched from Saturday’s outing.
Wade Davis, Kansas City: After struggling as a starter in Tampa and KC, Davis found his true calling in the set-up role. In 32 games, he had given up just 15 hits and struck out 56 in 34.2 innings, a strikeout rate comparable to the Yanks’ Dellin Betances. Last Wednesday, the Dodgers snapped his streak of 20 games without allowing a run.
Sean Doolittle, Oakland: The most amazing stat in baseball? Over his last 51 innings in the regular season, Doolittle has 67 strikeouts and ONE walk. He was drafted in 2007 as a first baseman/outfielder, but took up pitching after losing two full years to knee surgeries. The hard-throwing lefty has been virtually unhittable since becoming the closer in May. He had a 24-inning scoreless streak snapped Saturday.