31 January 2011

Black Holes

These arent the most underrated players ever.  You'd have to scour the Negro, Latin and 19th century leagues for them, and I'm not feeling that ambitious. It's just a sampling of players I watched, mostly as a kid, whose current reputations for one reason or another, severely lag their objective contributions.

Stardom and reputation are funny things. They're more liquid than many fans realize.  Hank Aaron was certainly a star, but comparatively underrated in the 1970s. He may be a little overrated now. When I was young, it was a given that DiMaggio surpassed Mantle. Today, it's the other way around.

The guys on my list, except for the first entry, arent truly great. But they were really, really good, and all but forgotten now.  Stars shine bright. These are some black holes.

Frank Robinson - may be the least appreciated of the truly great position players. Right field contemporaries included Aaron, Kaline, Clemente. Elsewhere in the OF, Mays and Mantle in New York, Ted Williams winding down his career in Boston.  Then there's the whole surname thing. Frank and Brooks Robinson were routinely portrayed by media as equal partners in Orioles success, despite Frank's superiority. Except, of course, Brooks was more "clutch". 

But the Robinson who eclipsed his fame most was probably Jackie. Frank was not just one of Baltimore's "Robinsons"; he was vaguely perceived, by some anyway, as that "other" black Robinson.

Before the steroid crew came along, this double MVP landed fourth in all time homers (586).  Fourth!  Aaron, Ruth, Mays, then this guy.  A serious dude and ferocious competitor, when that didnt always endear the white sporting public. 

Kent Tekulve - tall, skinny, bespectacled Pirate reliever, Tekulve pitched 40% more innings than Lee Smith, with an identical career park adjusted ERA+ (132).  Managed "only" 184 saves due to multi inning saves and because he set up a lot, but he was superior to Smith, the equal of HOFer Bruce Sutter, and right behind the likes of Gossage and Hoffman.  He doesnt quite fit my definition of a Hall of Famer, but even conversations about great relievers virtually never include Tekulve.

Reggie Smith - when people bash Jim Rice, they often use his Boston OF mates, Dwight Evans and Fred Lynn as undervalued comps. Smith, a 60's era Red Sox RFer was better than any of them, but his stats suffered from a deadball decade. He also played in the mammoth regional shadow of Yaz. A better fielder, runner and yes, hitter, than Rice, Smith's career WAR (63.4) was higher than these HOF outfielders:

Billy Williams
Andre Dawson

Wow. Have you forgotten his name already?  The other Reggie. Reggie Smith.
Rick Reuschelhighest WAR (66.3) of any eligible pitcher not inducted in Cooperstown. On that list, he ranks 30th, between Tom Glavine and Bob Feller. He was also the fattest player I ever saw live, in 1981.

Roy White - rare for a career Yankee to be this unheralded, but White labored for some really lousy teams that NY fans abandoned. Developed in the 1960s and his home park was a killer, before the remodel. A smart and effective, but less than dominant player - much like Bernie Williams. Here's the famous White-Rice riff from Bill James.

Frank Tanana - overshadowed by Ryan on 70s Angels teams, but Tanana was clearly better between 1974-78 (30.4 WAR vs Ryan's 23.4) . Liked Atlanta, ripe banana, married Lola Falana. Later jilted by hard hearted Hannah.

Darrell Evans - another James' favorite. Often confused with Dwight Evans. Played multiple positions for medium market teams, and never really made an indelible impression. But he whopped 400 homers, scored 1300 runs and batted in the same. As good a hitter as three recent inductees, Alomar, Dawson and Rice.

John Olerud - few know it, but Olerud was a comparable hitter and glove to Mattingly - and played much longer.  His best two seasons were better than any Mattingly season, but pushing Donnie Baseball into Cooperstown has become such a cottage industry, that Olerud is best known as that guy who wore a helmet playing first.  

Honorable Mention: Kevin Appier, Bobby Grich, Lou Whittaker, Jack Clark

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