Every season, we recognize all of the most accomplished and talented players of baseball through awards such as the MVP, the Cy Young, and others.
However, every year without fail, there are valuable players who have put up great seasons that are forgotten due to their unorthodox play styles, small market franchise bias, and a failure of fans and writers to look beyond some of the more basic statistics.
I’ve made it my goal to find the most undervalued or underrated players at each position in MLB last year, in hopes of bringing these players to light.
C – William Contreras, ATL (3.2 fWAR)
Most commonly known as the brother of Wilson Contreras, William Contreras is often looked over. He entered 2022 with only 56 MLB games under his belt, finding himself in a platoon role with Travis d’Arnaud. He took full advantage of the opportunity, as he produced the highest wRC+ (138) among all 24 catchers in MLB with at least 350 PAs.
Across his first couple seasons in his big league career, Contreras always exhibited elite exit velocities, similar to his brother. However, he was able to adjust his approach in 2022 to maximize his results. This season, he became a much more patient hitter, cutting his Swing% from 51.3% to 44.5%, while improving his Contact% from 67.8% to 68.2%. By reshaping his approach into a one with greater maturity, Contreras has launched himself into the top tier of catchers without anyone noticing.
1B – Vinnie Pasquantino, KCR (3.9 fWAR)
Never a highly-touted prospect, 2019 11th round pick Vinnie Pasquantino hit his way through the minors in only a year and a half following a short stint in rookie ball before COVID-19 ended the 2020 MiLB season. After his callup on June 28th, Vinnie hit .295/.383/.450 in 298 PAs to tune of a 137 wRC+, good for 5th among all 25 qualified MLB first baseman in that span.
He was also 6th in EV, 7th in HardHit%, and only one of two first baseman in this span to walk more than he struck out. His batted ball data is among the best in baseball so far, and he proves to be able to continue this stretch with his advanced approach.
2B – Tommy Edman, STL (4.0 fWAR)
When many people think of Tommy Edman, they see a speedy utility man for the always-tactical Cardinals. After this last season however, I don’t think it would be a stretch to say he is a top-5 second baseman. He is not one of the premier sluggers in the Cardinals lineup with a 108 wRC+, but one of its primary table-setters as his MLB best 8.4 BsR profiles best for the role.
Additionally, Edman cleans it up in the infield. Although he split some games between shortstop and second base this season, he recorded the 3rd most OOA (19) among all infielders, and boasted the 2nd best Success Rate (83.3) among all infielders. He may not have a ton of strength and he may be consistently overlooked when it comes to evaluating the Cardinals, but Tommy Edman is the backbone of the team.
SS – Ha-Seong Kim (3.9 fWAR)
When it was announced in March that Fernando Tatis Jr. would unexpectedly miss a large portion of the 2022 season with a broken wrist suffered in a motorcycle accident in the offseason, the Padres needed someone to turn to. They turned to Ha-Seong Kim to hold the fort down during this stretch, and he did not disappoint. In the 2022 campaign, he ended up starting at shortstop the entire season while posting a .251/.325/.383 slashline with a 105 wRC+.
He isn’t a masher, but he finds other ways to make himself valuable to the club, supported by his impressive 3.7 fWAR total in 150 games. Once Tatis Jr. returns for good in 2023, Kim will be a very important depth piece for the top-heavy Padres or as a sizable trade chip.
3B – Yandy Diaz, TBR (4.7 fWAR)
A true diamond in the rough, Yandy Diaz just had one of the best seasons as a third baseman that nobody heard about in standard Rays fashion. In an age when most hitters strike out incessantly without thinking to take a walk every once in a while, Diaz finds himself in rare company as one of 6 qualified hitters this season to walk more than they struck out. This approach handed him the third best wRC+ (146) among all 22 qualified third basemen in 2022.
But his plate discipline is not the only rare thing about his offensive profile. He worked his way through this season sporting an average launch angle of 7.7 degrees, which is far below average (20th percentile). Despite being an elite hitter in almost every common batted ball metric such as Barrel%, HardHit%, Avg Exit Velocity, xBA, and Max Exit Velocity, he kept his balls to line drives that peppered the right-field Tropicana Field grass all season.
RF – Lars Nootbaar, STL (3.9 fWAR)
Often gaining attention for his incredible name, many fans fail to look deeper into Lars Nootbaar’s on-field performance. On first glance, there is no glaring weakness to be found anywhere. Not in his batted ball data, his plate approach, his speed and athleticism, or his defense. He is truly a budding star in disguise as a cartoon character.
Among all 29 rookies with at least 300 PAs in 2022, Nootbaar is 1st in xwOBA, 5th in wRC+, 3rd in EV, 13th in Contact%, and 7th in fWAR. If Nootbaar can replicate his successful 2022 campaign into next season, he may find himself the right fielder for the Cardinals for years to come.
CF – Bryan De La Cruz, MIA (2.2 fWAR)
As an outfielder for one of the most offense deprived franchises in all of baseball, Bryan De La Cruz was another instance of the Marlins throwing a group of young position players at that wall to see what sticks. In 335 PAs in 2022, De La Cruz produced a .252/.294/.432 slashline accompanied by a middling 104 wRC+. However, he was victim of one of the largest gaps in MLB between wOBA (.313) and xwOBA (.355).
It’s not always a good idea to live and die by expected stats such as xwOBA, but when the expected stat is this far apart from the real stat, it may be a good idea to take note of this difference. If you compare De La Cruz’s xwOBA to all 113 other MLB outfielders with at least 300 PAs in 2022, he ranks 11th, ahead of the likes of players such as Kyle Tucker, Giancarlo Stanton, Mookie Betts, and many others.
LF – Steven Kwan, CLE (4.1 fWAR)
Although Steven Kwan may have been recognized as one of the American League’s finest rookies when he placed third in Rookie of the Year voting this year, I believe there’s more to uncover with him. He doesn’t possess a lot of power, but he creates offense in ways that almost nobody does anymore.
In 2022, he became the 20th qualified rookie to earn a 90% Contact% since the stat was born in 2007. Additionally, he became just the 8th qualified rookie in that span to walk more than he struck out. This skill set is extremely rare, and when accompanied by great speed and elite defense, I think it’s safe to say he is a top 10 outfielder in the sport.
DH – Trey Mancini, BAL/HOU (1.4 fWAR)
Ever since the Orioles moved their left field wall back 30 feet the winter preceding the 2022 season, O’s righties have had trouble slugging homers to the pull side, tugging their offensive numbers down in turn.
No player has been hit harder from this change than Trey Mancini, as he led MLB in the biggest differential between a player’s xHR (25.1) and their actual homer total (18). Those seven home runs boost a player’s offensive profile by a large margin, and should he sign with a new team in 2022, he will get some of those lost homers back.
SP – Jeffrey Springs, TBR (1.8 fWAR)
The Tampa Bay Rays have done it again. For the first three years of Jeffrey Spring’s career, he was a subpar middle reliever sporting a 5.42 ERA 84.2 innings into his career. That was until the Rays acquired him in a February trade in 2021 that sent him south of Boston to Tampa.
Immediately after placing him in the bullpen, he blossomed into a very effective relief pitcher, pitching to a 12.69 K/9 and a 2.95 xFIP in 43 appearances. This would lead the Rays to promote him to the starting rotation in 2022, following a few injuries which eliminated some of the Ray’s precious depth. He took his breakout further, following up with a 2.46 ERA and 144 strikeouts in 135.1 innings.
Digging deeper, it can be seen that an adjustment was made with his pitch arsenal. The biggest change among his three pitches would be the changeup, as it spiked in usage in 2-strike counts all the way from 28.8% in 2020 to 40.1% in 2022.
This was fueled by the drastic increase in vertical drop of his changeup from 27.8 inches in 2021 up to 34.1 inches in 2022, along with a slight horizontal movement increase. These changes allowed him to have an effective secondary pitch against righties, as he posted the 10th best RV/100 among all 61 pitchers who had at least 100 PAs with the changeup in 2022.
SP – Nick Lodolo, CIN (3.7 fWAR)
Although the Cincinnati Reds are historically an offense-heavy team, they currently possess some intriguing young arms in their rotation. Even though Nick Lodolo was only able to log 103.1 innings this year, I believe he pitched enough to reveal some of his potential as a starting pitcher, albeit in a hitter-friendly environment.
Among all 140 pitchers in 2022 to pitch at least 100 innings, Lodolo ranks 8th in K/9 (11.49), 15th in HR/FB (15.1%), and 40th in GB% (46.0%). With these data points, accompanied by his plus spin rates and pitch velocities, I believe Lodolo has the tools he needs to be an effective pitcher in one of the smallest parks, due to his ability to induce ground balls and whiffs at rates higher than almost anyone.
SP – Alex Cobb, SFG (3.1 fWAR)
In 2022, Alex Cobb started 28 games for the Giants in his first season with the Giants. He pitched 149.2 innings to a 3.73 ERA, garnering him a subpar 7-8 record on the year. This may seem like a typical output for an MLB innings-eater, but upon further inspection, Cobb pitched much more effectively than he let on.
Among all MLB starters with at least 140 innings pitched in 2022, Cobb ranked 7th in xFIP (2.89), and 12th in SIERA (3.15). These stats isolate his performance on the mound from external factors around him, as it is important to note that the Giants’ defense in 2022 was ranked 28th in MLB in runs prevented, and 28th in OOA.
Additionally, his 2022 BABIP mark of .336 is the second highest in his entire 11 year career. Cobb’s luck may have not been on his side in 2022, but he is primed to make a solid bounceback in the 2023 season.
SP – Jesus Luzardo, MIA (1.9 fWAR)
One of the latest products of the Miami pitching development, Luzardo finally looks to be on track after a quietly good 2022 season. In 18 starts this season, the lefty and his 96 mph fastball pitched 100.1 innings to the tune of a 3.12 FIP, a greatly reduced HR/FB of 11.5%, and a dominant 10.76 K/9. After an unlucky 2021 in which he suffered command issues and a low LOB%, this bounceback brings back the potential that he may be able to stick in the rotation long-term.
SP – Alex Wood, SFG (1.8 fWAR)
Joining fellow Giant pitcher Alex Cobb is lefty Alex Wood, as he also had a misunderstood season. After a productive 2021 in a year in which the Giants won 107 games, Wood stuck with the theme of the rest of the team by following up that performance with regression. But was it really a regression for Wood?
In combination with the lowest LOB% among all pitchers in MLB in 2022 with at least 130 innings, he also logged a 4.00 xERA and 3.41 xFIP, suggesting his pitching wasn’t completely to blame for the subpar 5.11 ERA and 8-12 record in 2022.
SU – Andres Muñoz, SEA (1.3 fWAR)
In a year in which Julio Rodriguez, Ty France, and others got all the love from fans and onlookers of the exciting 2022 Mariners team, Andres Muñoz was a dynamo in the Mariners’ bullpen. He helped power the M’s to their lowest bullpen FIP and xFIP since 2014.
Among all 83 relievers in MLB this season with at least 60 innings, Muñoz was 2nd in xFIP and SIERA, 3rd in K/9, and 16th in BB/9. This is absolute dominance, vying with star closers such as Emmanuel Clase, Edwin Diaz. He not only throws harder than them, he retires them at a similarly efficient rate, but is still looked over due to the lack of a closer status.
CL – Ryan Pressly, HOU (0.8 fWAR)
Finally, we’ve reached our closer, Ryan Pressly. Amidst a stellar Astros bullpen in 2022, he quietly earned 33 saves in only 50 games due to injuries throughout the season, boasting a 2.14 SIERA and 0.89 WHIP. Had he not missed around 35 games, I believe he easily could have cracked 40 saves or taken over the saves crown this year from Emmanuel Clase, who earned 42 in 77 games.
The Finished Product
With the majority of our roster filled out, it’s time to fill in the gaps in the bullpen and extrapolate our position players’ fWAR projections over the entirety of the 2023 season to see how this team stacks up against the rest of the league.
To fill out the rest of our bullpen, the remaining six players will be used from the team with the most average bullpen in baseball last year by fWAR total, the Toronto Blue Jays, with 3.0 fWAR. Because we already have Andres Muñoz and Ryan Pressly in our bullpen, we will only add three-quarters of the 3.0 fWAR total to the rest of our bullpen fWAR, which comes out as 2.25.
After extrapolating our position players’ fWAR total, adding that number to the rotation’s fWAR total, adding on the small contribution (2.25 fWAR) of the average MLB bullpen combined with Andres Muñoz and Ryan Pressly, our final fWAR total for 2023 based on Steamer’s projections adds up to about 48 fWAR.
Using Fangraphs’ model to predict how many wins during the regular season our fWAR total earns, we use a baseline of 48 wins before adding on our fWAR total, 48, which projects this club to win 96 games in the 2023 season, good enough to rival the best teams in the league.