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 But, we’re going to focus this post on the ten most underrated players in the history of the game who are no longer active.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.