As Major League Baseball heads into the second half of its season chatter increases about the frontrunners for various end-of-year awards. Although these awards recognize some of the greatest players in the game, there are others who toil in relative obscurity despite their own excellent production. They are not overlooked because of unfairness, but rather because of playing in smaller markets, manning a position with many high profile players, or because their intangibles just don’t leap off the page like some sexier stats do. My All-Underrated Team includes the following:
Catcher- A.J. Pierzynski- Chicago White Sox: Pierzynski has seemingly been around forever and is enjoying his finest statistical season in year 15 of his major league career. He is just an average defensive catcher, but is hitting .287 with 16 home runs and 50 RBI, while ranking 5th among all catchers with a 2.3 offensive WAR*. Despite his production, he was not named an All-Star this season, but a majority of teams in the majors would love to have a player like him behind the plate.
First Base- Paul Konerko- Chicago White Sox: Some might say that Konerko is so underrated that he is overrated, but he is nothing if not consistent. In his previous 13 full seasons entering 2012, he averaged 30 home runs and 95 RBI. He has continued producing this year, hitting a blistering .335 in 91 games, with 16 home runs and 49 RBI. His current OPS+ of 149 represents the second best figure of his career. Even with his consistently excellent production, he is rarely mentioned in the same breath as other top first basemen in baseball.
Second Base- Aaron Hill- Arizona Diamondbacks: When Hill struggled to finish 2010 with a batting average over .200, it appeared his best days were behind him. However, a 2011 mid-season trade to Arizona seems to have invigorated him and he hasn’t looked back since, re-establishing himself as one of the best all-around second basemen in the game. In 94 games so far this year, he is tied with Neal Walker for a National League second baseman best 2.4 offensive WAR, while hitting .304 with 13 home runs, 46 RBI, and 8 steals. He is good at most facets of the game and great at none, making him easy to be overlooked.
Shortstop- Alcides Escobar- Kansas City Royals: Always known as a flashy defensive player, Escobar is finally seeing his bat catching up. He is hitting a career best .301 in 97 games, with 16 steals. While not a power hitter, his 23 doubles and 4 home runs are indicative of increased pop, and putting him on pace for a career high .414 slugging percentage. He gets little national exposure manning short for the second division Royals despite having become one of the best at his position.
Third Base- Chase Headley- San Diego Padres: Nothing about his game stands out, but Headley provides across the board consistency at the hot corner. In addition to playing solid defense, he’s hitting .265 with 12 home runs, 51 RBI, and 10 steals in 100 games. He is adept at getting on base, having already drawn 54 walks, contributing to his .360 OBP. There are other third basemen who are better than Headley in individual aspects of the game, but few who can match the complete package he brings to the anemic Padres lineup.
Outfield- Jason Kubel- Arizona Diamondbacks: There was a bit of head scratching this past-season when Arizona signed Kubel as a free agent, as they already had young defensive whiz Gerardo Parra ready to start. Kubel has silenced any doubters by exploding on the National League scene. In 90 games he has hit .297, with 22 home runs and a league leading 72 RBI, putting him on pace for the best season in his career. He’s a poor defensive player, but with star teammate Justin Upton struggling this year, his impact on the lineup has been invaluable.
Outfield- Michael Bourn- Atlanta Braves: Bourn used to have a reputation as a speedy defensive-minded outfielder, but what he has done this season has transcended such labels. He is arguably the best defensive outfielder in baseball and has boosted his value by seeing an increase in his offensive production. In 99 games he is hitting .298, with 28 steals, 41 RBI, and a league leading 68 runs scored. His 8 home runs, which have nearly doubled his previous career total, have been another pleasant surprise for the Braves, who have their sights set on the playoffs. His overall WAR of 4.0 compares favorably with the likes of Ryan Braun (4.5), yet he gets a fraction of the attention.
Outfield- Josh Willingham- Minnesota Twins: Much Like Kubel, Willingham doesn’t need to worry about clearing a space in his trophy case for a Gold Glove any time soon, but his personification of a professional hitter makes him an easy addition to this list. He was signed this past off-season because the Twins didn’t know what to expect from oft-injured stars Justin Morneau and Joe Maurer. While the team has struggled for wins, the fault doesn’t lie with Willingham. In 95 games he has hit .273, with 26 home runs, 76 RBI, and a .954 OPS, which represents a career best by nearly 100 points. In the past he has been known as a masher of left-handed pitching, but has consistently hit righties (.866 OPS) this year as well.
Starting Pitcher- Johnny Cueto- Cincinnati Reds: R.A. Dickey, Stephen Strasburg, and Matt Cain have all gotten the lion’s share of press in the 2012 National League Cy Young race, but it turns out that Cueto might be having a better season than all of them. He is 12-5 with a league leading 2.23 ERA and 4.6 WAR in 20 starts, while allowing only 5 home runs. Now in his 5th season, he continues getting better, as his ERA has dropped every year. Despite his dominance this year, he is rarely mentioned as a top Cy Young candidate and didn’t even make the All-Star team.
Reliever- Vinnie Pestano- Cleveland Indians: The majority of baseball fans outside of the Lake Erie region probably aren’t familiar with Pestano, but they should be, as he is one of the most dominant relievers in baseball this season. The hard throwing righty is the primary set-up man for the Indians. He is 3-0 with a 1.47 ERA in 45 appearances, and has been scored upon exactly once since May 30th. His 2.0 WAR is the same as Rafael Soriano, the Yankees’ star closer. Pestano is particularly nasty against right-handed batters, as they have just 9 hits in 73 at bats against him on the season, good for a paltry .123 average.