Today at ESPN, I'm going to be part of a Triple Play featurette with Josh Worn and Molly Knight on the subject of baseball men who are underrated. I won't reveal here who my picks were, but I mostly played it straight: I picked a hitter and a pitcher who I think are thought of as lesser players than they really are.
The subject, though, raises all sorts of issues that I could wish were addressed by writers who take "underrated" as their subject. Worn, Knight, and I were given sixty words (or thereabouts) to explain our choices, so we couldn't exactly get into these questions there, but I think what I'm writing about here applies to those pieces you see every year by some mainstream columnist who either expresses his own opinion on which players aren't receiving enough attention or polls a fig-ton of major-league front-office executives (hopefully after the trade deadline so you don't just get GMs pumping the guys they're trying to move).
The first question is how you measure underratedness. Outside of Baseball-Reference's EloRater, I don't know of any attempts to semi-objectively measure how well-regarded players are. Surveys are conducted every year: the players and fans vote on All-Star Game inclusion, managers choose the Gold Glove winners, and writers vote for most of the other end-of-season awards. For the most part, though, these are rough measures, their utility in measuring how players are seen by the general public overwhelmed by the weirdness of the entire nation of Japan voting for Ichiro or everyone forgetting that Rafael Palmeiro is a D.H. or the baseball world's frankly bizarre beliefs regarding Michael Young. (This last was, of course, discussed by TCM about a month ago.)
The second question is also illuminated by the above list of surveys: who is doing the underrating? Are we talking about general fans? The "baseball world" (i.e. players and managers and execs and scouts)? Baseball decision-makers (basically the previous list but without players)? Subsets of fans, like just stat-nerds or just traditional fans or just casual fans? I've seen all of the above used as the implicit population of underraters, but I've rarely, if ever, seen it made explicit.
Third: how much does any of this matter? Asking which players are underpaid (which is another way of asking which players are (or were) underrated by talent evaluators and decision-makers) might be important because it can help us (and teams) identify biases and blind spots in the baseball community and thus teach us more about how our favorite game is run.
In theory, I suppose figuring out who the mass of traditional fans are underrating can identify players we think should be pushed for more attention so that they'll receive accolades like All-Star appearances and award votes (and the money that comes with those things), but that might be overrating our importance in the "enlightened" baseball fan community and, more importantly, there are only a handful of players at any given time for whom this kind of "who's underrated?" thinking can have a real effect. That is, there are players who should be All-Stars but aren't, but there are many many more players who are slightly above average but are regarded (pretending for a second that we can measure this—see above) as poor or entirely unworthy of attention. If we're honestly trying to identify underrated players and not just writing "All-Star snubs" under a different title, these players should be included. But what's the point in that? They're not All-Stars or MVPs or Rookies of the Year one way or the other. The team won't do a bobblehead of them because we blogged.
Writing about "underrated" players can be a vehicle for exploring underrated traits. If I want to write a piece about how Jack Cust was underrated by A's fans, it's really just an excuse (and a linkbait-y one at that) to explore low-average, high-walk players and why they're valuable despite not having the numbers classically associated with excellence. I don't see this done very often, though, especially since "underrated" seems to be more of a popular topic in the lamestream media than out here in the wild 'n' wooly blogosphere.
I'm not sure if I really have a point. I certainly don't think you should stop writing your "most underrated" pieces. (Buster Olney is reading this, I just know he is.) I guess what I'm asking is that if you do want to write in this area, be cognizant of the limitations of what you're doing and understand the universe in which you are working. That's doable, right?
I agree that it's a fool's errand to try to objectively evaluate how the general public rates players, but I think you're onto something with evaluating underrated traits. In this piece I wrote last year, I compared players' fWAR to their batting averages, homers, and RBIs, trying to find the most underrated player in baseball based on the assumption that players are "rated" based on the stats in the newspaper and on TV telecasts.
I think underpaid is the truest definition of underrated. A list of guy beyond the arbitration years whose valuation are much higher than their paychecks.