One of the fun features of the Baseball Tonight 100 is that the list provides us a starting point for popular arguments. Take underrated players. The problem with that debate is that baseball fans start from a different viewpoint, usually that the player on their favorite team is underrated. Inherent biases cloud everyone’s opinion. Well, the BBTN 100 gives us a point of comparison and one name clearly stands out to me as the most underrated player of 2016: Pittsburgh Pirates left fielder Starling Marte.
Consider where Marte ranks on our list: 74th. Not exactly an insult but ranked one spot ahead of him is Red Sox designated hitter David Ortiz. I’m not surprised Ortiz is ranked higher but he’s not a better player than Marte. He’s a better hitter, but not a better player. You want to debate that? OK, Ortiz starts with an advantage of 18 home runs. That’s a big advantage. Ortiz also drew 77 walks to Marte’s 27, in a similar number of plate appearances (Marte had 29 more PAs). Game over, right?
Not so fast. Marte hit .287 to Ortiz’s .273. Marte was hit by 19 pitches to zero for Ortiz. Marte stole 30 bases to Ortiz’s zero. On the basepaths, Marte took the extra base 42 percent of the time to 18 percent for Ortiz. Then there’s defense. Ortiz doesn’t play it while Marte won a Gold Glove with the defensive metrics to back it up. You still think Ortiz’s edge at the plate compensates for being one of the worst baserunners in the league and his absence of defensive value?
I don’t. This is exactly where the wins above replacement (WAR) measurement is best used, to compare players across different positions. Marte, with his all-around game, came in at 5.4 WAR in 2015, Ortiz at 3.2.
Our No. 72 player is Xander Bogaerts and I can give you him if you ignore that Marte has put up three excellent seasons in a row and if you project improvement from the young Red Sox shortstop or assume he’ll add power to his .320 batting average that included a .379 BABIP.
Two spots ahead of Marte is Royals first baseman Eric Hosmer. I get it, Hosmer helped the Royals win a World Series. He showed a big improvement at the plate over 2014. But a more valuable player than Marte? Nope. For starters, Hosmer barely outhit Marte: .297/.363/.459 to .287/.337/.444. Hosmer has some advantages that Ortiz lacks: He’s a much better baserunner and has won three Gold Gloves (although his defensive metrics have always been average-ish rather than superlative). But he just doesn’t provide enough offensive firepower compared to Marte. His WAR was 3.6.
Then there are the players we haven't gotten to yet who are likely to make the list: Marcus Stroman, who’s yet to even pitch a full season in the majors; Dee Gordon, who even at the max level of his projected production wasn't worth as much in WAR in 2015 as Marte; Prince Fielder, who didn't even reach Ortiz's offensive value while having no value on the bases or on defense; Yu Darvish, who I guess the voters assume will be healthy; and a whole bunch of closers.
Anyway, here’s a little factoid to help explain why Marte is so underrated. Only six position players have reached 5.0 WAR in each of the past three seasons: Mike Trout, Josh Donaldson, Miguel Cabrera, Adrian Beltre, Ian Kinsler and Marte. He’s not a one-year wonder. He’s in the prime of his career. There’s no reason to expect he won’t produce similar value in 2016.
Still not buying that Marte is underrated? He ranks 14th among position players in WAR over the past three seasons, ahead of players such as Jose Bautista, Anthony Rizzo, Alex Gordon, Troy Tulowitzki and Chris Davis -- all likely to be ranked higher on the BBTN 100.
Still not convinced? He has never made an All-Star team. Heck, Dodgers rookie Joc Pederson ended up starting the All-Star Game last year. Charlie Blackmon has been an All-Star. Pirates teammate Josh Harrison was an All-Star. Domonic Brown was an All-Star and that’s not a joke.
I wonder if Marte kind of sneaked up on us. In 2013, he hit leadoff and drove in only 35 runs. In 2014, he hit all over the Pittsburgh lineup and drove in 56 runs. Those totals don’t exactly scream attention. Last season Clint Hurdle maneuvered him between the second, fourth and fifth spots, he got more RBI opportunities (and hit better in them with a .294 average) and drove in 81 runs.
I will admit: I never expected Marte to be this good. Back in 2013 when he drew just 25 walks and struck out 138 times, I assumed that aggressive approach would eventually get exploited. The walk rate limits his offensive upside and while his HBP ability must be considered a proven skill at this point (60 HBPs in three seasons), it does expose him to potential injuries. A large chunk of his value is certainly tied to his defensive value, which could slip as soon as he loses speed.
But that’s not going to happen in 2016. Marte should continue to be an excellent all-around player. Maybe one aspect of his game doesn’t stand out: That’s why he’s underrated. The Pirates have made the playoffs the past three seasons and it’s not just because of Andrew McCutchen.