The Nominees for MLB’s Most Underrated Players of the 2021 Season

Bleacher Report

Enough about Shohei Ohtani, Vladimir Guerrero Jr. and Fernando Tatis Jr. already. It's about time some of the lesser-hyped stars in Major League Baseball got their due credit.

So, we've come to present our nominees for the 10 most underrated players of the 2021 MLB season.

Our only rules in compiling this list were that it couldn't include any 2021 All-Stars or anyone from our recent list of upward-trending stars. The former was sort of an obvious stipulation, while the latter was necessitated by the reality that we already gave those guys the attention they deserve.

Please note that this is not a ranking. This is more of an Oscars-style list that will start with five hitters and conclude with five pitchers.  

 

INF/OF Enrique Hernandez, Boston Red Sox

2021 Stats: 112 G, 483 PA, 17 HR, 1 SB, .258 AVG, .346 OBP, .465 SLG, 114 OPS+, 4.3 rWAR

Going in reverse order, the Boston Red Sox's best position players in terms of WAR are J.D. Martinez, Rafael Devers, Xander Bogaerts and…Enrique Hernandez?

As he's coming off winning a Fielding Bible Award for the Los Angeles Dodgers in 2020, it's no surprise that the 30-year-old has accrued a good chunk of his value in the field. He's specifically excelled in center field, where he boasts 11 defensive runs saved and six outs above average.

Hernandez's secret as a defender? He gets better jumps on the ball than any other outfielder, up to and even including three-time Gold Glover Kevin Kiermaier.

Though Hernandez had a slow start on the other side of the ball, he's been a different hitter since settling into the leadoff spot June 27. In 51 games since then, he's a .297/.409/.563 hitter with 11 homers. That's Joey Votto-level stuff, folks.

If he can pick up where he left off after he comes off the COVID-19 injured list, Hernandez may find himself as the recipient of some down-ballot MVP votes.    

 

CF Starling Marte, Oakland Athletics

2021 Stats: 97 G, 425 PA, 10 HR, 42 SB, .316 AVG, .394 OBP, .458 SLG, 135 OPS+, 4.4 rWAR

Though rookie left-hander Trevor Rogers was the only Miami Marlin named to the National League All-Star squad, the team may have sent two players to Denver if Starling Marte hadn't broken a rib in April.

Albeit in only 53 games, the 32-year-old finish the first half with a solid .271/.382/.411 line with six home runs and 17 stolen bases. Such numbers also painted him as an obvious trade chip, so the Marlins cashed him in on July 28 in a deal with the Oakland Athletics.

Bully for the A's, who've ended up with perhaps the best trade acquisition of any team. All Marte has done for them is hit .336/.373/.471 with three homers and a whopping 20 steals in 33 games.

As evidenced by his 10th-percentile exit velocity, there's at least one reason to doubt the veracity of Marte's numbers. This nonetheless isn't the first time he's finagled a BABIP as high as .380, and he's showing better patience than ever in the form of a career-best 9.2 walk percentage.

Factoring in that Marte is also safely in the black defensively with six outs above average, he's ultimately having as good a season as any of the league's center fielders.   

 

LF Tyler O'Neill, St. Louis Cardinals

2021 Stats: 112 G, 431 PA, 23 HR, 10 SB, .273 AVG, .343 OBP, .509 SLG, 134 OPS+, 4.2 rWAR

With all respect to Paul Goldschmidt, Nolan Arenado and The Forever Catcher himself, Yadier Molina, Tyler O'Neill has arguably been the St. Louis Cardinals' most dynamic player in 2021.

Lest there was any lingering doubt about O'Neill's defense after he captured a Gold Glove in 2020, he's tallied three outs above average and is faring even better with ultimate zone rating (6.6) and defensive runs saved (nine) this season.

It's not just that the 26-year-old is an good fly-ball catcher. He also has more arm than your typical left fielder, something that former teammate Kolten Wong learned the hard way back on August 17.

As was the case in O'Neill's first three seasons with St. Louis, strikeouts have remained his biggest offensive flaw, as he's whiffed in 32 percent of his plate appearances in 2021. But what contact he does make is decidedly loud, as his exit velocity and hard-hit rate are both in the 97th percentile.

So in addition to another Gold Glove, there's a real chance of O'Neill ultimately exiting 2021 with the first 30-homer season of his career.     

 

2B/SS Jorge Polanco, Minnesota Twins

2021 Stats: 128 G, 548 PA, 27 HR, 10 SB, .283 AVG, .340 OBP, .519 SLG, 136 OPS+, 5.1 rWAR

The Minnesota Twins' season described in one word? Disaster. In two words? Unmitigated disaster.

But, hey, at least Jorge Polanco is back to looking like a cornerstone player.

He was an All-Star for the first time in 2019 en route to a .295/.356/.485 slash line and 22 home runs. Yet that year was also marked by a relatively modest second half, so his fall from grace seemed to be complete as he struggled throughout last year's shortened season.

That grace is now back because, while Polanco has always been pretty good at making contact, he's simply making better contact in 2021. His 89.2 mph exit velocity is easily the best of his career, and he already has more barrels this season (40) than he had throughout 153 games two years ago (35).

Polanco has also saved his best work for pressure situations, compiling a .950 OPS in high-leverage spots and not one, not two, not three, but four walk-off hits. When a guy is having a season like that at the plate, his iffy defense is that much easier to forgive.  

#baseball, #professional

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