It is time for the most underrated baseball column of the year -- the 2021 All-Underrated Team.
But what does it mean to be underrated, anyway?
In years past, we’ve filled out this team with guys who have never been All-Stars, major award finalists or nine-figure contract recipients, among other qualifications. This year -- because life these days is complicated enough as it is -- we’re going to keep it simple: The 2021 team is comprised of players who did not land on MLB Network’s “Top 10 Players Right Now” at their particular position (you can find those lists here, and note that designated hitter is not one of the positions filled).
We are also limiting the list to players with at least two years of service time, so that they’ve had some time to establish themselves.
Catcher: Christian Vázquez, BOS
Vázquez is our All-Underrated backstop in back-to-back years. He’s earned this prestigious honor with a solid .278/.327/.472 slash over the past two seasons, while ranking eighth among catchers with at least 1,000 innings in defensive runs saved (six), third in framing runs (17.0) and third in FanGraphs wins above replacement (4.9).
Considering Vázquez is one of only three catchers with at least 700 plate appearances in the past two years (Yasmani Grandal and J.T. Realmuto), there’s really no justification for leaving him out of the Top 10. But at least he has a home here!
First base: Brandon Belt, SF
The 32-year-old Belt has had an underappreciated career, in general. He’s rarely provided the kind of power traditionally associated with his position, but his home park has a lot to do with that. Though he’s battled some health issues over the years, Belt has consistently been an above-average offensive performer who makes good contact and has plate discipline.
But it wasn’t until the 2020 season that Belt belted the ball like a prototypical power-hitting first baseman. His .591 slugging percentage was the best of his career by 110 points, and his expected SLG was even higher (.598). Combine that with one of the highest walk rates in the big leagues (16.8 percent), and Belt was the total offensive package.
Second base: David Fletcher, LAA
The Angels lineup is known to revolve around Mike Trout and Anthony Rendon, but Angels fans can attest that Fletcher, who is cut from the same small cloth that provided fan favorite David Eckstein, has become a vital cog.
Over the past two seasons, Fletcher has a .356 on-base percentage driven by a high-contact approach (his 91.3 percent contact rate and 3.2 percent whiff rate in that span are both the best in baseball). Sometimes that’s literally a high-contact approach, such as when he doubled on a Mike Fiers pitch that was almost above his head. Fletcher can play all over and he mostly manned short in 2020, but he’s penciled in as the Halos’ regular at second base this season.
Shortstop: Paul DeJong, STL
We are in a golden age of shortstop stars, so there’s no shame in not cracking the Top 10 (heck, Marcus Semien didn’t crack it just one year after finishing third in the American League MVP Award voting). But DeJong is worth highlighting here. He’s run into some bad luck since his runner-up finish in the National League Rookie of the Year Award voting in 2017 -- first with a power-sapping broken hand in '18 and then with a COVID-19 battle in '20. He’s also been miscast at times as a middle-of-the-order hitter in a Cardinals lineup that lacked length.
But if we strike the COVID-affected 2020 season from the record, we see a guy who put up excellent defensive metrics in '19 (12 outs above average) with league-average offense and an improved walk rate. DeJong should benefit from the Nolan Arenado addition, and both the ZiPS and Steamerprojections see him as a Top-12 shortstop in WAR in '21.