Most Underrated Players All-Time

Since I’ve already done a post on underrated players that are still active, I won’t include any of them on this list – although Chipper Jones might very well deserve to be on both.  But, we’re going to focus this post on the ten most underrated players in the history of the game who are no longer active.  In no particular order, here are my top 10:

1. Christy Mathewson – In 1936, the first class was inducted into the Hall of Fame.  The biggest names in the history of the sport were inducted that year:  Ruth, Cobb, Wagner, Walter Johnson . . . and Mathewson.  In fact, Mathewson received more votes than Johnson – a guy many believe to be the best pitcher in history.  Consider this: other names that were on that first ballot that didn’t get elected include Cy Young, Rogers Hornsby, Lou Gehrig and Jimmie Foxx.  Mathewson won 373 games – 3rd most all-time.  In fact, he won that many games in considerable less time than either of the two ahead of him on the all-time list (Young & Johnson – who played 22 & 21 years, respectively), playing just 17 seasons, averaging almost 22 wins per year.  Had he lasted as long as either Young or Johnson, he certainly would have been ahead of Johnson, and might have been able to challenge Young for the most wins of all time.  His career ERA was 2.13.  He struck out over 2,500.  By today’s standards, he would have won no less than 4 Cy Young awards (’05 & ’08 – when he won the pitcher’s triple crown, and ’11 & ’13 – when he finished 2nd & 4th, respectively, in the MVP voting – the highest placed pitcher each time).

2. Tris Speaker – Speaker played during the rise of Babe Ruth, and therefore went virtually unnoticed.  But, when you look at the list of players (both pitchers and batters) that are ranked in the top-10 all-time in career WAR, you’ll see the usual names of Ruth, Aaron, Bonds, Cy Young, etc.  And, right there with them is Tris Speaker.  Speaker only won one “MVP” award (or the closest equivalent to it) – in 1912, when he was just 24 years old.  Unfortunately for him, from 1915-1921, there was no award given out, which was during his prime years.  But, he most likely would have won any such award at least once more, in 1916 when he led the American League in hits, doubles, average, OBP, SLG, and OPS.  Of course, there’s no way to be certain.   But, Speaker was a career .345 hitter (4th all-time), with 3,514 hits (5th all-time), and 792 doubles (most all-time – almost 50 more than 2nd place Pete Rose, in about 4,000 fewer at-bats!).  And, in spite of the fact that he clearly didn’t mind swinging the bat, he has the second best all-time BB/K ratio in history (5.20), with 1381 walks, and just 395 strikeouts in 22 seasons.

3. Hank Greenberg – another player overshadowed by a well-known Yankee, Greenberg played in Detroit while DiMaggio was getting all the attention in New York.  In fact, Greenberg and DiMaggio’s careers are remarkably similar.  Both lost significant time to the war (each only played in all or part of 13 seasons), causing their totals to be much lower than they otherwise would have been.  DiMaggio ended up with about 1,600 more at-bats, because Greenberg also struggled with some injuries.  Yet, DiMaggio only hit 30 more career home runs (361-331), and DiMaggio’s career slash line (.325/.398/.579) is actually a step behind Greenberg’s (.313/.412/.605).  Prior to the war and injury, in his first 7 full seasons, Greenberg’s average season was 35 HR, 141 RBI, .326/.418/.625.  That’s a 1.043 OPS over 7 seasons!  He finished his career with a 1.017 OPS – 6th all-time.

4. Jimmie Foxx – I guess the theme for now is “guys that were overlooked because of the Yankees.”  Foxx is another oft-forgotten legend who was overshadowed by both Ruth and DiMaggio, because of the years he played.  But, you know what neither one of those guys ever did?  Win back-to-back MVP’s.  And, Foxx nearly did it twice!  First, he accomplished the feat (something done by only 11 others in history) in ’32 and ’33, winning the Triple Crown in ’33.  Then, he nearly pulled it off again in ’38 and ’39, winning it in ’38, and finishing 2nd in ’39 to DiMaggio.  534 career home runs (17th all-time), 1922 rbi’s (8th all-time), and a career slash line of .325/.428/.609 – which gives him the 5th highest career OPS behind only Ruth, Ted Williams, Gehrig & Bonds.

5. Frank Thomas – no drug habits; no brash personality; no family members in the game; playing for the far less-favored team in the city.  Kinda dull right?  Especially for the ’90’s.  When your competition for attention is Ken Griffey, Jr., Barry Bonds, and the like, you might come across as fairly mundane.  But, Thomas managed to put together one of the greatest careers anyone had during the “steroid era” – despite never having his name linked to PED’s.  For the first 7 seasons beyond his rookie campaign, Thomas never finished below 8th in MVP voting – winning back-to-back awards in ’93-’94, and finishing 3rd in ’91 & ’97.  He would add a 2nd place finish in 2000, and a 4th place finish in 2006, at the ripe old age of 38.  521 career home runs in 19 seasons (18th all-time – only Mike Schmidt and Mickey Mantle accomplished as much in fewer seasons without the aid of PED’s), 1704 rbi (22nd all-time), and a career slash line of .301/.419/.555.

6. Greg Maddux – it’s hard to imagine how a guy with 4 Cy Young awards could be considered underrated.  But, I’m not sure we ever really appreciated Greg Maddux for all that he was.  Listed at 6 feet tall, and 170 lbs., with glasses that appeared like they were 3 inches thick, this guy was anything but intimidating.  No batter feared Maddux the way they did the Randy Johnsons or Roger Clemens’ of the era.  Yet, it was Maddux who won 355 games (8th all-time – and the only one that high to have pitched anytime in the last 5 decades!).  Do we really recognize how big of a deal that is?  Johnson retired with 303.  Glavine with 305.  And, at that point many were saying we might never see another 300-win pitcher, because of the way the game has changed.  How many 350-win pitchers do you think you’ll see in your lifetime?  Or your children’s lifetime?  Or your grandchildren’s lifetime?  Maddux won an unprecedented 4 consecutive Cy Young awards (and finished in the top-5 five more times), struck out 3,371 (10th all-time), and as if all that wasn’t enough he set the record for most Gold Gloves won by any single player at any position, with 18 (13 in a row from ’90-’02)!

7. Mel Ott – you start looking down the list of the records like home runs, RBI, career WAR, and you see the names you expect to see – Ruth, Williams, Aaron, Cobb, Mantle, etc.  Then, you get down to around #15 on the career WAR list, and you see a name you may have never even heard before – Mel Ott?  Who??  Who’s this guy ranked ahead of Rickey Henderson, Carl Yastrzemski and Joe DiMaggio?  Unfortunately for Ott, he played on the wrong team in New York – the Giants.  In 22 years, Ott’s team only made it into the playoffs 3 times, winning one world series in 1933, when he was just 24 years old.  But, in spite of going without much fanfare, Ott was one of the most consistent players of his era – averaging right around 30 HR, 100 RBI, and a .300 average for nearly his entire career.  He never won an MVP, which is a shame because he was so good so many years, yet just a hair behind the winner, or was simply overlooked by the voters.  Led the league in home runs 6 times (511 for his career), walks 6 times (1708 for his career – 9th all-time), and subsequently led in OBP 4 times.  And, despite having only led the league in RBI once, he finished with 1860 – 12th all-time.

8. Rogers Hornsby – the list of greatest single-season WAR scores is an interesting way to compare great seasons across different eras and players.  It’s no surprise that the three highest scores belong to Babe Ruth.  But, who would you expect at #4? Ted Williams? Hank Aaron? Mickey Mantle?  Nope.  It’s Rogers Hornsby.  In fact, of the 50 best single-season WAR’s in the history of the game, Hornsby’s name appears 6 times!  That’s as many as Ty Cobb & Ted Williams combined!  Only Babe Ruth’s name appears more often.  There was no MVP award the first nine seasons of Hornsby’s career, or else he would have won at least one more than he did (2 wins, and two more top-3 finishes) – in 1922, when he won the first of two Triple Crowns.  He also most likely would have won in ’21 (led the league in runs, hits, doubles, triples, RBI, average, OBP, SLG, OPS, and was two behind the HR leader).  Hornsby’s career .358 average is second only to Ty Cobb, and he hit over .400 for a season on three different occasions.  He’s the only player ever to bat over .400 and hit 40+ home runs in a season.  Unfortunately, his career took a nose-dive after he turned 33, and he only played in 274 games over the next 8 seasons.  He’s still one of only 7 players in history with a career OPS over 1.000.

9. Bob Feller – many recognize him as an all-time great pitcher, and a clear HOFer.  But, I believe that if he hadn’t lost the better part of 4 seasons to WWII (during his prime), he might be considered in the discussion of the 2-3 greatest pitchers of all-time.  He led the league in wins each of the 3 seasons leading up to the war, and each of the 2 seasons following.  He led the league in strikeouts for 4 seasons leading up to the war, and 3 seasons after.  There was no Cy Young award, or else he absolutely would have won it in ’39, ’40 & ’41 (he finished 2nd or 3rd in MVP voting each of those years – higher than any other pitcher), and who knows how many times during the war years.  Just imagine: if you took his average number of wins and strikeouts the seasons surrounding the war, and plugged those into the war years, you’re looking at a pitcher with 350+ wins, and 3,500+ strikeouts.  Only Walter Johnson can legitimately lay claim to such a feat (Clemens drops off that list when you add the word legitimate).

10. Jack Morris – 300 wins? no.  3,000 K’s? no.  But was Jack Morris a Hall of Fame pitcher?  Absolutely.  250 wins in 16 seasons as a starter – that’s right in the same neighborhood as Bob Gibson and Juan Marichal, and if he’d been able to start as many years as most, that 16-win average would have put him right at 300 wins.  2,478 career strikeouts – well ahead of the likes of Jim Palmer, and Catfish Hunter.    Five times he finished in the top-5 in Cy Young voting.  He never won, but neither did Juan Marichal, Don Sutton, Phil Niekro or Bert Blyleven – all of whom are in the HOF.  And, Morris was unfortunate enough to be pitching during the hey-day of pre-PED-Roger Clemens, and Rollie Fingers, and Dennis Eckersley.  And, how Morris didn’t win multiple Gold Gloves I’ll never understand.  He had a perfect 1.000 fielding pct. in ’81, ’87 & ’91, and lost each time to guys who committed errors in similar numbers of chances as Morris.  In ’80, ’88, ’89,  and ’92, he lost the Gold Glove to guys with worse fielding pct., and each of those but ’92, the winner also had a lower range score!  So, he should have about 6 Gold Gloves to his name, in addition to the wins and K’s.  All this is before pointing out he was the ace of the staff for 3 World Series champions, and the World Series MVP in ’91, when he had the second greatest pitching performance in World Series history (you can’t beat Larsen’s perfect game) – pitching 10 scoreless innings in game 7, giving the Twins the 1-0 victory.  How he has been passed over for the last 13 years for the HOF, I’ll never understand.

7 thoughts on “Most Underrated Players All-Time

  1. The most underrated player ever is Roberto Clemente…all the sabr stats accumulated vs. home run derby hurlers is meaningless. Clemente is the very best defensive outfielder ever(there isn’t a stat for # of times even the fastest runner wouldn’t challenge his arm or to quote Einstein ‘what counts can’t always be counted’!!! Baseball is seriously flawed it should recognize that outfield assists are the RAREIST act in the game yet they get rewarded less than a can of corn double play!!! On the other hand, Roberto Clemente is the greatest hitter in history vs. hall of fame pitching which is also UNEARTHLY RARE and makes for greater value as teams advance further towards the World Series. Hitting 50 homers a season and coming up empty against great pitching in the fall classic is sadly the norm….Clemente hit in all 14 world series games he played which included at least 9 of those games against 20 game winners. I’d rather have watched Clemente in defeat than any of the other ‘mythical’ all century dudes in victory…after all, this is ultimately about entertainment NOT VICTORY UBER ALLES.

    1. While I certainly respect Roberto Clemente as one of the greatest (if not THE greatest) right fielders of all time, I have two problems with your argument: 1. I hardly think you could call Clemente “underrated.” He’s frequently listed as one of the greatest to ever play the game. You might feel he doesn’t get quite the respect he deserves (it seems you would possibly consider him at or near the top of the greatest all-time list), but keep in mind this list was compiled to consider the most underrated of all time. The guys on this list are hardly ever spoken of among the all-time greats, and almost always overlooked. 2. Your argument is anecdotal, rather than anything based on empirical information. It might sound nice, but it doesn’t really prove anything. And, that kind of argument usually leads us to overstate things. For example, your argument that Clemente is a better hitter because of his play in the World Series is overstated. He had one fantastic World Series in 1971 against the Orioles who happened to have 4 20-game winners that season (only one of whom is a HOFer – another part of your poor argument). In all of his remaining postseason games (of which there were 19), he hit just .282 with a .317 OBP and 19 K’s, while facing a 20-game winner in only one of those games. Just because you think certain stats are overrated because you think the pitching pool has been depleted in recent years (though, that certainly can’t be argued the last several years), doesn’t mean you should exaggerate the accomplishments of a player whom you obviously are biased toward. Clemente was a phenomenal right fielder, and might be overlooked on occasion because so much of his value was in his fielding. But, let’s not get carried away.

      1. BDill,

        “Let’s not get carried away” you say. Well, when an individual is considered the very best player ever by so many (Sparky Anderson, Maury Wills, Rusty Staub, Richie Ashburn and 2nd best according to Willie Mays and numerous others (Google: Roberto Clemente-BR Bullpen) and a unknown, unnamed group pulls him off of an all century team because of some unidentified nonsense than that warrants a relentless response!”Your argument is anecdotal rather than anything based on empirical information’ you say. I’ll indulge you here,though I know rule #1 of Sabr is always defer to the NUMBERS …it is the safest default, right? According to retrosheet Clemente hit .309 against Hall of Fame pitching…with just under 1300 at bats. As far as the World Series records go, he was 4 for 9 against Jim Palmer(single,double,triple and homer) and was 3 for 8 vs. Whitey Ford in the ’60 series!!!
        Either Mays or Clemente are baseball’s most complete position players and if that doesn’t indicate where I place him than you should by now see why he is the most underrated of all time in my book. Baseball peaked by the mid seventies as in the top of the bell curve,what came before 1960ish and after ’75 well that’s what marketing is for!! Can you say ‘baby boomers were the last subset to play baseball almost to exclusion’. Even a non Sabr dude realizes the sheer monster numbers of participants dwarfed any time period before or after; by the mid seventies it was OVER..blame it on Donkey Kong,Asteriods.football,basketball or Bad Parenting take your pick. I think they call this simple logic, Speaking of logic Sabr dudes are somewhat mystified how Clemente’s stats ‘peaked’ so late in his career.I offer this, ’til Stargell,Oliver, Robertson arrived he was flying solo aka no protection in the line up in a ballpark considered an AIRPORT(Thank you Duke), Mays had McCovery,Cepeda, Jim RAy Hart etc. Aaron had Adcock,Mathews etc. ,Ruth,Mantle,Bench and others had an entire army. I’ll leave you with this…If baseball had not put up outfield walls would Clemente be the most valuable player ever…use some logic now!

      2. Well, I’m going to reply just this one last time, because this isn’t really getting anywhere. Let’s go through your argument in favor of Clemente piece by piece. You claim he’s “considered the very best player ever by so many” and proceed to list four random people. That’s great. I could come up with a list of people that also would say he’s not even in the top 10. Just throwing other people’s opinions into the mix doesn’t help us resolve the issue – it’s still just opinion. “He hit .309 against HOF pitching.” That’s very good. But is he at the top of that list? I doubt it – though, I can’t prove it, because I’ve had no luck looking up this obscure statistic. “he was 4 for 9 against Jim Palmer . . . and was 3 for 8 vs. Whitey Ford” – okay, so that’s 4 games out of 26 he played in the postseason; 17 of his 107 AB’s. What about the other 85% of his performance? The fact still remains that he only hit .282 in his playoff games outside his monster World Series vs. Baltimore in ’71.

        “Either Mays or Clemente are baseball’s most complete position players” – honestly, you’ve now gone from biased to plain crazy. Clemente was a phenomenal right-fielder, no one could ever suggest otherwise. But, he wasn’t even a 5-tool player! His average season was .317/.359/.475/.834, 13 HR, 72 RBI, and 5 SB’s. Where are the power numbers that would liken him to anything close to Mays? Where are the stolen bases? His OBP ranks 461st for his career. His SLG ranks 215th. Mays ranks 141st and 20th in those categories all-time. Mays had more than 2.5 times the home runs that Clemente had, and more than 4 times the stolen bases. There’s a huge gap between Clemente and Mays – and that gap is full of more complete all-around players like Ted Williams, Lou Gehrig, Mickey Mantle, and Ken Griffey Jr. I will give you one statistic, though … one category Clemente is near the top for his career … grounding into double plays – he ranks 16th all-time.

        “Baseball peaked by the mid-seventies” – I have no idea what you’re trying to say here. If you’re suggesting that the number of people interested in baseball in America, or the number of Americans playing baseball peaked around that time, then okay you might be right – even though you supplied zero data to support such an argument. And without any data to back up a claim, you can’t really call anything “simple logic”. But, if your claim is that baseball’s greatness in terms of players was “over” at that point, you are sadly mistaken. Baseball had yet to see the greatest base-stealer of all-time. It had only touched the tip of the iceberg that was the career of the greatest strikeout pitcher in history. Two of the three most compelling and entertaining World Series’ in history occurred in ’91 & ’01 (according to ESPN’s ranking of all 100 World Series, on the 100th anniversary) – and, I wouldn’t be surprised if the 2011 Series broke into the top 10.

        “Sabr dudes are somewhat mystified how Clemente’s stats ‘peaked’ so late in his career” – they are?? Not sure who you’ve been talking to, but once again you’ve made a claim that can’t be backed up by any statistics – and oddly, it’s a claim about statistics. Clemente’s best years were clearly 1961-1967, the years he was 26-32 years old. After that, his numbers steadily declined like anyone else. There’s nothing to be mystified about here, that’s pretty typical peak years. His best power number years were ’66 & ’67, when he was 31 and 32 years old, which might be a little unusual. However your claim that “he was flying solo aka no protection in the line up” in the years prior to that is clearly not true. Stargell was a rookie in ’62. Robertson wasn’t playing full-time until ’71. And, I can’t find an Oliver on their roster during Clemente’s prime. Meanwhile, there was Dick Stuart (from ’59-’61 averaged 28 HR’s and an .880 OPS), Don Hoak (.800+ OPS in ’60 & ’61), Bob Skinner (20 HR, .899 OPS in ’62), Dale Long (27 HR, .812 OPS in ’56) & Frank Thomas (who averaged 28 HR, and an .810 OPS from ’55-58), just to name a few who were above-average hitters in the same lineup as Clemente that offered plenty of “protection.” Yes, some lineups were more formidable top to bottom than what the Clemente Pirates had, but all any great hitter needs is one or two good hitters behind him to produce – and Clemente definitely had that.

        “If baseball had not put up outfield walls would Clemente be the most valuable player ever…use some logic now!” – huh?? Are you suggesting outfield walls hindered Clemente? That he somehow would have caught dozens and dozens of home run balls without the walls? If so, this may be the most inflated/biased statement in your whole argument – and that’s saying something. If anything, the wall is a give/take relationship with the outfielder. Yes, it might stop him from reaching a home run that’s just barely over the fence once in a while. But, it also stops a hard-hit ball from going on and on, which allows the fielder to reach the ball quickly, and have a shot at throwing the runner out at second (something Clemente benefited from frequently). There’s simply no logic being used in such a clearly opinionated statement, so I have no idea what that’s supposed to mean. The sheer lack of data that can be used to support your claim that Clemente belongs in the top 1 or 2 spot of all-time ought to tell you something. Is he the greatest fielding right fielder of all-time? Probably so. Is he the greatest hitting right fielder of all time? – not really, when you consider Ruth, Aaron, Musial, Frank Robinson, Mel Ott and Al Kaline all played right field. So, Clemente probably belongs somewhere around the top-20 or top-25 greatest all-time players – based on the facts, rather than personal bias.

  2. “Well, when an individual is considered the very best player ever by so many (Sparky Anderson, Maury Wills, Rusty Staub, Richie Ashburn and 2nd best according to Willie Mays and numerous others (Google: Roberto Clemente-BR Bullpen) and a unknown, unnamed group pulls him off of an all century team because of some unidentified nonsense than that warrants a relentless response!”

    Umm… doesn’t the simple fact that so many people consider him so highly… well… doesn’t that eliminate him from discussions of the most underrated players?

    I mean, if he’s highly-rated by a lot of people, it is hard to call him one of the most under-rated.

    For the record, this argument also nullifies the inclusion of Greg Maddux on this list. I appreciate why he was included, but he’s just too well-regarded to be on this list. LOTS of people (more than Clemente, I’d wager) consider him a top-5 alltime starter.

  3. BDill, you obviously didn’t read the ‘total package’ section at the site:Roberto Clemente-BR bullpen or perhaps you did and dismissed it as simply anecdotal or you felt the need to polish your filibuster skills.

    1. LOL – as though I needed to spend half an hour searching through a random website looking for the one single stat you’re hanging your hat on when I have so much more on my side of the argument! And, I like how you responded to my logical reasoning based on hard evidence – poorly constructed insults. A clear sign that the argument has come to its conclusion. This will be the end of this discussion.

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