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Who is the next underrated Cardinal?

Cardinals fans always seem to underrate a Cardinal - Carpenter was once one such player - who’s next in line?

National League Wild Card Game: St. Louis Cardinals v. Los Angeles Dodgers Photo by Rob Leiter/MLB Photos via Getty Images

It is no surprise when a player on your favorite team ends up being overlooked by national people. St. Louis has probably top ten exposure in baseball, but they don’t have New York or Los Angeles exposure, so some players slip through the cracks. What is a more fascinating phenomena is when Cardinals players get underrated by their own fans. People who regularly watch the Cardinals, who regularly see them play, will simply not understand that the player is better than they think.

It is a grand tradition that every Cardinal team have at least one underrated Cardinal. I am not picking on the fans who use traditional stats - back in 2011, most readers of this blog who were familiar with sabermetrics underrated the shit out of Jon Jay. That one was easy to explain. Turns out his bloop hits leading to sky high BABIPs were sustainable, at least in his prime, something nobody should have assumed.

Lance Lynn in his first couple years was VERY underrated by Cardinals fans. He went from high 3.00 ERA pitcher to low 3.00 ERA pitcher and... he was basically the same pitcher the whole time. Guarantee people who wanted him out of the rotation in the early years now complain about not resigning him. Guarantee. I was there. Trust me.

Matt Carpenter has been underrated pretty much since the year after his double-filled 7.2 fWAR season in 2013. His average fell from .318 to .272 and never got any higher and whether or not they thought he was good or not, the average Cardinal fan underrated him. This became especially true in 2017 when his average dropped to .241 and 2018 which everybody seems to want to discount as a few hot weeks. He was even underrated in 2019 in the sense that he wasn’t nearly as bad as people acted like he was - he was being compared to Fowler.

There is no question who the most underrated current Cardinal is among Cardinals fans: Paul DeJong. No question. He’s been underrated for quite some time. He is underrated for a similar, but different reason to Carpenter. With Carpenter, he posted much greater OBPs than players with his average typically did, and also looked awful on the field, but was merely below average. Paul DeJong also posts low averages, but his OBP is not really good either. No, his defense is criminally underrated. Despite his inarguably bad season with the bat, he had 1.6 fWAR in 402 PAs, or 2.4 fWAR per 600 PAs. If DeJong was valued by Cardinals fans like WAR values him, nobody would think we need to sign one of the major shortstops.

He’s completely right! If you need any evidence DeJong is underrated, see the vitriol that tweet got. For instance, in 653 PAs, Nolan Arenado was worth 4 fWAR this year. For his career, DeJong has been worth an average of 3.8 fWAR per 653 PAs. Now, obviously that is not a good comparison for a number of reasons - DeJong can’t be expected to bat 653 times, his performance is declining - but I honestly don’t think people would be looking to replace DeJong if the public viewed him as a 3+ WAR guy who may be worth less than that due to injuries - you know if the fans understood WAR as a stat at least.

(I’m not expecting a great response to this on Twitter precisely because the photo of DeJong will be the thing people see to my question)

This is a very long introduction to what my post is really about: who is the next underrated Cardinal? The transition from Carpenter to DeJong was pretty seamless. Almost as soon as Carpenter was below average for the first time in his career, DeJong had a 4.2 fWAR season with a .233 average. Multiple Cardinals can be underrated at once, but there seems to be one VERY obvious underrated Cardinal. DeJong seems destined for this role as long as he wears Birds on the Bats, but he may be traded and he’s got an option in two years that looks very likely to not be picked up if he makes it that far.

So, there is a good chance the most underrated Cardinal is in the organization. I will not speculate on free agents, having no clue at all who the Cardinals will sign. To my mind, here are the things that make a player underrated.

#1 Your defense is better than people think

Whenever you pick your answer, this should be the first thing you assess. It’s the easiest way to get people to overlook you. This was true of Carpenter, this is true of DeJong, and it was true of Jay. What the eye test tells you - is not what the numbers say. It’s an easy enough mistake to make. Jay had a noodle arm and the advanced stats said his arm was truly awful, but people way overvalue, like way way overvalue arm when valuing outfield defense (why Vlad Guerrero is a Hall of Famer actually). Carpenter looked like he was throwing with a broken arm, but he made plays enough to be playable. DeJong is an above average to elite fielder who appears to have no range at all by the eye test.

#2 You have a low average

They post the stats every time players come to the plate. The average is the thing most people see. They know what a good average is. “He’s a .300 hitter” “He’s a .250 hitter” - These are the kind of things people still say. A .230 average will always be underrated by certain fans, even if they’re not calling for that players’ head.

#3 Fans form expectations that you fail to live up to

Carlos Martinez, back when he was a consistent 3 WAR starter. Carpenter set a certain expectation that he was a high average double hitter that he was never going to stay as. His BABIP that year is still his career high (and by far). Paul DeJong came swinging out the gate and his bat has since become average and below. High expectations are killer because “you’re not fulfilling your potential” so even if you are still seen as good, you’re not as good as you could be.

#4 You are not aesthetically pleasing to watch

This is hard to quantify. It’s the only explanation I can think of for why Lynn was underrated back in the day. People didn’t enjoy watching him pitch. (Things have sure changed!). Paul DeJong, especially the bad hitter version, is just miserable to watch. I happen to like the patient approach of Carpenter, but many wish he would just swing the damn bat already. I did not particularly enjoy watching Carlos Martinez in the last few years, but some people had a problem with certain things he did even when he was good. (To be clear, my reasons have entirely to do with him not really knowing where the ball was going, which has been the case since he moved to the bullpen really).

#5 Your advanced stats say you should have better results than you do

This mostly applies to pitchers and could be reworded to say “You have a higher ERA than you probably should.” The pinnacle of Lynn hate happened when his ERA was 3.97 and his FIP was 3.28. So I guess I thought of two reasons. We know ERA is not all that great a stat - pitchers do not have as much control over their ERA as most of baseball history assumed. But ultimately, ERA is the thing most people judge pitchers for. In a hitter’s case, it’s a little trickier. DeJong had a very, very low BABIP that can be expected to improve. Again though this is nearly exclusively a pitcher category.

Alright. So with all that in mind, let’s look at the candidates to be the next underrated Cardinal.

Tommy Edman

He’s got a good start because he’s already underrated. Especially on this very blog! Interestingly though, he fits none of the criteria! That’s because he’s underrated for two not very common reasons. 1) His innings at RF, which rated below average, caused his WAR to be lower than it would be had he played the entire year at 2B. And it’s not a small difference! 2) People turned on him because he was the leadoff hitter, but him hitting leadoff actually has no effect on how good he is.

But neither of those things seem likely to continue going forward, so I suspect he won’t be underrated for long. The black hole of suck that caused him to play RF will hopefully not be there for 2022 and if what Oli Marmol has said so far is any indication about some hitters batting 1st one night and 8th another, Edman will not be the leadoff hitter most of the season (maybe against LHP).

Harrison Bader

He fits a couple criteria. He has a low average. His defense isn’t exactly underrated, people just underrate the value of a truly elite defensive centerfielder. So when he’s an 82 wRC+ hitter like he was in 2019, people think he should lose his job - but he was still an above average player that year on a rate basis. And he’s not aesthetically pleasing when he’s a bad hitter, plus people like my uncle think he’s a hot dog. Which... he kind of is. But I love him for it, not hate him.

But I feel like him being underrated is way too dependent on him being a truly bad hitter, because if he’s average or close to it, people like him as the starter. But as my dad, a Bader superfan will tell me whenever I see him, the radio is always trying to replace Bader so maybe he’s still a good answer.

Jack Flaherty

He’s not there yet, but if he ends up being merely good instead of great, people are probably going to hold it against him. Plus there’s his willingness to talk about social issues, his outspokenness against baseball’s current monetary structure, and the widespread belief that he is leaving in free agency no matter what. Lotta non-baseball reasons fans might underrate him. The potential is strong for him to be underrated, and I’d almost guarantee it if he pitches a full season in 2022 and has a higher ERA than FIP.

On the other hand, his midseason injury is almost singlehandedly credited with the collapse of the Cardinals, so he does have some wiggle room. But the potential is there.

Miles Mikolas

He set a relatively high bar then disappeared for most of two years. He looked just slightly worse than his 2019 self. That was with him missing most of two years too. I could easily see him rebounding in 2022 to a 2+ WAR season.

I am however not sure if he will remain underrated if he actually does that. I think people are certainly overlooking him though.

Dakota Hudson

He doesn’t technically qualify for any of the criteria and in fact is the inverse of #5. He might be a guy who will get better results than his advanced stats suggest. So I suppose underrated by saber nerds like myself. I’m not sure if Dakota Hudson himself is underrated though, or if he just fell into the perfect situation for the type of pitcher he is.

Ivan Herrera

My one prospect guess. He has A LOT of hype. If his bat is underwhelming and he’s replacing a Cardinal legend, I could easily see him being underrated. Most of the time, catcher defense isn’t super obvious to see. He could very well be a great defender and the average fan won’t recognize it. Eventually they will, but I think he may very well be underrated for his first couple years here. Unless he just explodes immediately, but we can’t expect that.

The rest are hard for me to imagine being underrated. I can’t ever see Paul Goldschmidt or Nolan Arenado being underrated by Cards fans. Literally ever. Goldschmidt’s back of the baseball card stats pretty much reflect his value. Arenado doesn’t walk nearly enough for his average to be too misleading. Both certainly get credit for their elite defense. Dylan Carlson does have the expectation problem, buuuut his particular brand of game doesn’t strike me as likely to be underrated - he’s not gaining value unseen by his defense or baserunning and I don’t think his average is going to be low. And even though I named three pitchers, the pitchers are probably going to be propped up by the defense.

So.... who is the next underrated Cardinal? One of my choices or someone else?