Davis has zero career saves in 120 relief appearances. In three seasons as a starter for Tampa Bay and Kansas City, Davis was generally lousy, allowing a 4.57 ERA and a .341 wOBA against, which means that basically every hitter he faced performed like St. Louis’s powerful Matt Adams has all year.
When you look at that, you might wonder why we should even care about Davis, and the answer is easy: He’s one of the most dominant relievers in baseball. Since moving to the bullpen, he’s added several miles per hour onto his nasty fastball; he’s allowed only five earned runs all season, and since four of those came in April, that means that (as of Sept. 2) he’s on a run of 49 games and 51 innings having let in just one run, a minuscule 0.18 ERA in that span.
The Royals, of course, have the outstanding Greg Holland as their closer, and little reason to move him out of the role, so while Holland racks up the saves, Davis works as his setup man. Fortunately, we know now that saves totals are overrated — they owe as much to opportunity as talent — and Davis has actually outperformed his better-known teammate in nearly every way, including striking out more and allowing zero home runs. If Kansas City decides to move the increasingly expensive Holland this winter, they’ll have an easy alternative to step in.
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Lagares doesn’t hit a lot. He doesn’t have much power. He doesn’t even steal many bases. He does one thing, and he does it exceptionally well: play defense. He does it so well, in fact, that even the various defensive metrics, which don’t always align with one another, all agree that Lagares is doing something spectacular in Citi Field.
By DRS (Defensive Runs Saved) over the last two years, Lagares is easily the best outfielder in baseball, and second only to Atlanta’s Andrelton Simmons overall. DRS has been around since 2003, and Lagares is the first player to ever put up back-to-back years of at least 25 Defensive Runs Saved. By UZR/150, he’s No. 1 overall. By FanGraphs’ home-brewed “defense” metric, which assigns more importance to players who do well at critical positions like center and shortstop, Lagares is again the best outfielder and second only to Simmons overall.
Lagares has speed and great instincts in the outfield, obviously, but as a former shortstop, he also has a strong arm. That’s part of why his assists total has dropped from 15 last year to four this year. It’s not because he’s not making the throws; it’s because runners no longer wish to challenge him. As the Mets and their young pitching look to turn the franchise around, having Lagares in center catching absolutely everything will be a big part of their success.
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What makes a ballplayer “underrated?” There’s not really any one definition, of course. You can’t simply go to one of the major stats sites and click the “underrated” tab, though that seems like a fun project for the future. You can be underrated if you aren’t very well-known outside of your home market; you can be underrated if you’re doing great things on a bad team that no one pays attention to; you can be underrated if the things you’re good at aren’t respected by the traditional-yet-outdated numbers like RBI, saves, etc. An “underrated” list is always more fun than an “overrated” list, because you’re sharing hidden gems of greatness, rather than trying to show why a big star really isn’t all that good.
What follows is a lineup of The Most Underrated Players in Baseball. This is, obviously, a subjective list. It almost has to be, by definition, and the only rule is that if you made the All-Star team this year, you aren’t underrated. So with apologies to Jonathan Lucroy and Jose Altuve, who were All-Stars yet probably still don’t get the respect they deserve, 2014’s most underappreciated players are:
SP — Hyun-jin Ryu
RP — Wade Davis
C — Yan Gomes
1B — Lucas Duda
2B — Brian Dozier
3B — Anthony Rendon
SS — Jhonny Peralta
LF — Brett Gardner
CF — Juan Lagares
RF — Jason Heyward
If that group of players were an actual team, they’d be an incredibly dangerous one, yet each of those players hasn’t quite received the national attention they deserve — like a few other players we know about — for some of the reasons stated above. Today, we’ll focus on three of them.
***all statistics accurate as of September 2
Follow Mike on Twitter at @mike_petriello