Most Underrated Hitters and Best Value Players of 2014

By Jonway West 11.14.14

Last week, I talked about the most surprising pitcher of 2014, both good and bad. This week, using Steamer projections, I will talk about the hitter that over-performed the most, as well as the one that under-performed the most. I will also throw in the two most valuable players to their teams this year.

Most underrated hitter of 2014 (measured by wOBA, qualified batters):

Michael Brantley, Indians (Projected wOBA: .315, Actual: .391)

Once the second-to-last throw-in from the Milwaukee Brewers for CC Sabathia (whatever happened to Matt LaPorta?), Brantley went from league average hitter to elite hitter in one season, with close to the same luck (although his BABIP jumped 30 points, his line drive rate went up 3 percent and his xBABIP stayed exactly the same). Brantley breakout has been fun, unexpected by purists and statheads alike, and speaks to a skill set we may look for as contact rates plummet around baseball.

Brantley has long been regarded for one great skill: lots of contact. He was fifth in the league in contact rate, and this has been his strong suit since he was a minor leaguer. While in years past the contact was meager, this year he started driving the ball a ton more, and stopped swinging at non-strikes as much (heck, he has even walked a fair amount!). And while his HR/FB and Infield fly ball rates are considerably fluky, his approach, patience, and line-drive ability are here to stay. So while 20 homers may not be his calling card, he appears to be an awesome value at the MLB level for a few more years.

Outstanding contact hitters like Brantley are starting to become a hot commodity

Outstanding contact hitters like Brantley are starting to become a hot commodity

Guys with Brantley’s skill set have played baseball as long as baseball has been around, and for the last 20 years have been left to rot in the minors. MLB managers don’t like hearing that the new call-up hit 14 homers in thousands of major league at bats, and doesn’t rate out with an elite hit, defense or speed tool. But making contact is becoming increasingly rare in the MLB, and guys like Brantley (and Matt Carpenter) will make a living off of patient contact rates. In fact, I see this becoming a focus of player development, as the pendulum swings away from “3-true-outcome” miseries at the plate.

Honorable mentions: Victor Martinez, Josh Harrison, Charlie Blackmon

Most Overrated Hitter of 2014:

Chris Davis, Indians (Projected wOBA: .373, Actual: .308)

Chris Davis struggled in every way imaginable in 2014, compounded by the fact that he was suspended for the last month of the season, as well as the playoffs, for using a banned substance. This came after repeated accusations and denials of using PEDs in the past. I don’t take much of a stance on the issue, but there is no denying that the suspension hurt the image and credibility he built in 2013.

Former Mariners executive Tony Blengino wrote a great piece about the demise of Chris Davis. As the article points out, Davis fit the bill of so many who get chances in the majors – “light-tower power” as the saying goes – but Davis’ case seemed special. Known for his work ethic, it seemed he had found the ability to consistently crush hard contact. Unfortunately, as the article points out, the margin for error of the extreme fly ball/k rate sluggers is so low, that the power tool needs to remain elite. It’s why Henry Rodriguez and Rob Deer aren’t talked about all that much in baseball circles.

2014 was NOT all smiles for Chris Davis

2014 was NOT all smiles for Chris Davis

In addition to the statistical abnormalities that make up Davis’ track record, his plight also speaks to the fickle nature of the ‘power tool’ that scouts crave. Since it is so closely tied to the hit tool, it can be impossible to separate at the highest level. Davis still has elite ability to strike a baseball with authority; no PED nor K rate can take that away. Unfortunately, he may not last long in the Majors if the hit tool cannot accompany that power, something that hasn’t happened his entire career outside May-June 2013.

Honorable mentions: Corey Hart, Carlos Quinten, Nick Swisher, Will Venable

Most valuable players, 2014:

Corey Kluber, Indians ($ per win: $70,400)

Josh Harrison, Pirates ($ per win: $104,600)

Yes, yes, I know that Mike Trout (deservedly) and Clayton Kershaw (mostly deservedly [Andrew McCutchen for President!]) won the MVPs this year, but let’s look at who was truly the most valuable player for their franchise. What is most valuable to a team is high value for low cost. I wanted to show who had the largest bang-for-buck in the majors, and Kluber and Harrison take the cake!

Both players made darn near the MLB minimum, at $513k for Kluber and $514k for Harrison. Both also completed phenomenal sophomore campaigns. Kluber (and that beautiful cutter) has been a statistician’s darling for a year and a half now. This year, his FIP was just over half of league average all while keeping high GB rate. He even accomplished his Cy Young Season with one of the worst defenses in baseball this year. His accolades are more deserved than alarming to those in the know.

Harrison, on the other hand, was never even in the Pirates top-30 prospect list. Harrison is small with middling skill sets, and managed to rake this past year without any remarkable peripherals (.353 BABIP!!). He also provided that bat with position flexibility, as he started all over the diamond for the Pirates, who surprisingly finished 4th in the NL in runs. It will be interesting to see if Harrison can catch lightning in a bottle next year, and I for one am rooting for the former 6th round pick.

I also want to mention that Mike Trout, the two time defending champ of this award, broke baseball economy with his 2012-2013 performance. Additionally, the 2012 runner-up Giancarlo Stanton might sign a $300 million deal. Kluber and Harrison might not appear to be as glamorous as the past few notables, but they could have big paydays in their near future.

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