Archive for June, 2011

Andrew McCutchen’s Bondsian Path

The Pittsburgh Pirates got a rare turn in the spotlight last week. In picking UCLA starting pitcher Gerrit Cole first overall in the amateur draft, the Bucs gave the baseball world a chance to imagine the hulking, 6-foot-4 right-hander anchoring a winning rotation. A half-decade from now, Cole and last year’s highly-touted high school phenoms Jameson Taillon and Stetson Allie could lead one of the best pitching staffs in the game.

But Pittsburgh could become a contender much sooner than that. Because right now, Andrew McCutchen looks a little like a young Barry Bonds.

The next Pirates superstar
Through three years of his career, Andrew McCutchen is producing a lot like Barry Bonds did when he was in Pittsburgh.

McCutchen broke into the big leagues at an age almost a full year older than Bonds was when he made his debut; that’s not insignificant in baseball terms. Still, the accompanying chart shows that the righty-swinging center fielder and lefty-swinging left fielder put up fairly comparable numbers early in their respective careers. Even more remarkable: In his third full season McCutchen is on pace to shatter what Bonds did in his third campaign.

McCutchen’s progression starts with his bat. He’s hiked his walk rate to career-high levels, and now walks once for every eight times up. His isolated slugging, a measure of power which subtracts batting average from slugging percentage, has jumped to a career-best .202. He’s continued his early-career trends of rarely swinging at pitches outside the strike zone and even more rarely swinging and missing — just 6.3 percent of the time, a strong 21st best among qualified National League hitters. A player who walks, hits for power and makes frequent contact is a very rare breed; McCutchen joins Prince Fielder, Albert Pujols, Troy Tulowitzki and Todd Helton as the only players to rank in the top 30 of isolated slugging, walk rate and swinging strike rate.

A less reliable, though still somewhat encouraging trend is a potential uptick in his defense. Ultimate Zone Rating works best when viewed in a three-year sample. That makes McCutchen’s current blistering pace (he’s on pace to produce nearly a win and a half with his defense alone this year) look almost as strange as last season’s UZR total, when he supposedly cost the Pirates nearly a win and a half. Still, other fielding metrics also suggest a big improvement in McCutchen’s glovework. That wouldn’t be an unreasonable development, given he still has the youth and athleticism to range after balls, while gaining experience and sharpening his defensive instincts.

Add up his contributions and McCutchen ranks fourth in MLB in wins above replacement. He’s been especially hot lately: McCutchen’s 2.5 WAR in the past 30 days makes him the most valuable player in the majors over that stretch.

The best news for the Bucs is that they’re not just a one-man team. The Pirates can thank several other young contributors for the team’s near-.500 record this season. McCutchen’s outfield mate Jose Tabata sports a .363 OBP and ranks among the league’s stolen base leaders. Neil Walker’s batting average is down some 40 points from last year, but he still ranks second on the team in homers, offering impressive pop from second base. Acknowledging the smaller sample size, the Pirates’ team fielding also looks much improved from last season, when they finished last in team UZR.

That defensive proficiency has made life considerably easier for Pittsburgh’s stable of mostly no-name pitchers. Jeff Karstens leads the starting rotation with a sub-3.00 ERA and a strikeout-to-walk ratio of nearly 4-to-1. Charlie Morton’s league-leading ground ball rate has also fueled baseball’s lowest home run rate, allowing him to flourish despite subpar strikeout numbers. Joel Hanrahan quietly has developed into one of the top closers in baseball. Jose Veras and Chris Resop have been quality setup men with big strikeout numbers. Going forward, the Pirates will need a couple more of their prospects to pan out like McCutchen has. Pedro Alvarez, for one, has been a major disappointment to this point, while Cole, Taillon and Allie have yet to advance beyond Class A. That said, there’s hope in Pittsburgh even if there are still a lot of unknowns.

What the Bucs do know is that they have a star in McCutchen, a player who could continue the franchise’s legacy of great outfielders, following in the footsteps of the Waner brothers, Kiner, Clemente, Stargell and, yes, the home run king. The likelihood of McCutchen’s career panning out just like Bonds’ did is nearly zero. To have a player whose first three seasons inspire enough hope to justify mentioning the two in the same sentence, though? For a Pirates team that hasn’t a winning season in nearly two decades, that’s an encouraging thought.

Huff and Tejada Holding Back Giants

Given enough high-quality bats, even a playoff-bound team can absorb below-average production at a few positions. Yet the San Francisco Giants faced, and continue to face, a more perilous situation: They’re not only getting below-average production from Aubrey Huff and Miguel Tejada.

The lineup wasn’t particularly strong to start, and with the loss of Buster Posey for the season, it’s that much weaker. While their pitching has kept them atop the NL West to this point, the voids on offense, which now include catcher in addition to first base and shortstop, could catch up with them.

Between Huff and Tejada, Tejada presents the bigger problem. His current production, a .231 wOBA, ranks third to last among all qualified MLB hitters, and last in the National League. On defense he’s been just as bad, especially at shortstop, where he already sports a minus-3.2 UZR, which puts him on pace for minus-19.6 runs in 150 games. That is, his defense alone, if he continued playing shortstop full-time, could cost his team nearly two full wins by itself. He has played a bit better at third base, but with the injured Pablo Sandoval due to return, Tejada won’t earn much time there. Added up, his woes amount to minus-0.8 WAR, which ranks fourth worst in baseball.

While Huff has hit a considerable deal better than Tejada, he has produced a less valuable season overall. His minus-1.0 WAR ranks second worst in baseball, though it comes more heavily from the defensive side. The good news is that much of that negative value comes from his time in the outfield earlier in the season. The bad news is that his minus-8.3 UZR in the outfield is a remarkably poor mark, and a signal that moving him out there in favor of rookie first baseman Brandon Belt, when he returns from injury, is not a productive option. At first base he has actually been fine, per UZR, but his offense has dragged down his value. His .290 wOBA ranks fifth worst among his peers at first base.

Normally we might expect improvement from both Huff and Tejada, given that they’ve produced quality numbers in the past. But both face circumstances that temper those expectations. Tejada is currently 37 years old and has experienced declining production in recent years. He produced a quality season in 2009, a contract year, but other than that he has produced a wOBA of .313 or below in the past four seasons, with the previous low point coming in 2010. Huff is a bit younger at 34, but he has a history of poor seasons mixed among his good ones. Last year he exceeded expectations with a .388 wOBA, but the Giants were only able to sign him cheaply because he produced a .297 wOBA in 2009. He has a number of other seasons in which he produced below-average numbers for a first baseman, so there is precedent for this kind of season.

It does seem odd that a first-place team has remained there despite these two offensive black holes. The Giants do have the pitching to carry them most of the way, but they’re going to need offensive production at some point this year. Unfortunately for them, there is not a long list of playoff teams that have dealt with two players quite as bad as Tejada and Huff. The closest might be the 2006 Athletics, with Dan Johnson (.308 wOBA) at first base and Bobby Crosby (.286 wOBA) at shortstop. Similarly, the 2005 Padres had Phil Nevin (.293 wOBA) at first base and Sean Burroughs (.280 wOBA) at third. Last year the AL champion Texas Rangers had Elvis Andrus (.298 wOBA) at shortstop and a collection of first basemen that produced a .299 wOBA. But while it has been done before, there is something that stands out about those teams.

The 2005 Padres, 2006 Athletics and 2010 Rangers all made changes eventually. While the Rangers stuck with Andrus at short, they moved Mitch Moreland to first base, where they finally got some semblance of production. The 2005 Padres replaced Burroughs with Joe Randa, who produced a .300 wOBA for them, and Nevin with a combination of Mark Sweeney, Xavier Nady and Robert Fick. They didn’t produce league-average numbers at first base, but they produced far better than Nevin. The 2006 Athletics eventually moved Marco Scutaro into the shortstop spot, and his .307 wOBA dwarfed Crosby’s. They also moved Nick Swisher to first base, where his .368 wOBA helped tremendously.

The Giants, too, figure to make changes. But unlike the Padres, Athletics and Rangers, they have contractual obligations standing in the way. They invested $6.5 million in Tejada this past winter, so to release him now would be to realize considerable negative value. Converting WAR to dollars, he would cost the Giants a net $10.1 million, the $6.5 million for the contract plus $3.6 million in negative value.

They also re-signed Huff this past offseason, to a two-year, $22 million contract. That makes his release less likely, but the Giants could still make a change. They have demonstrated a willingness to do so in the past, pulling Barry Zito from the rotation and benching Aaron Rowand; both of them had more money remaining on their contracts than Huff. The Giants also have the benefit of an in-house replacement in Brandon Belt, once he returns from injury.

With a pitching staff that ranks among the league’s best, the Giants can deal with an average offense. Unfortunately, the presence of both Huff and Tejada drags down their run scoring, and without Posey it could get to dangerous levels. Few teams have made it very far with two similarly unproductive players, but there is still time for change. The Giants have a few options in replacing Huff and Tejada, thus restoring some order on offense. It won’t be easy, considering the investments they made. But at some point they have to consider the players sunk costs and make moves with a focus on repeating as NL West champs.

Pujols, Fielder, and Free Agent Decisions

This winter, five franchises will face the same decision — is it time to say goodbye to one of the cornerstones of their team? As Jayson Stark discusses in a piece today, the St. Louis Cardinals, Milwaukee Brewers, Philadelphia Phillies, New York Mets and Boston Red Sox all have a star player on the roster who is eligible for free agency this winter, and if they want to keep their rosters intact, they’ll have to pony up a long-term contract in order to make it happen.

Paying for the second half of a player’s career can often be a dangerous proposition. Using wins above replacement, we’ve decided to look back at similar historical players and see how well they held up after the same point in their careers. After all, those who don’t learn from history …

Albert Pujols, 1B, Cardinals

It’s only fitting that the most comparable player to Pujols is Stan Musial, the man who stands in Pujols’ way for the title of “Greatest Cardinal of All Time.” Through their age-31 seasons, there is little to distinguish one from the other. From 1941-52, Musial collected 87.3 wins above replacement, while Pujols is presently at 84.7, and will likely finish the season with a number very close to Musial’s mark.

Musial sustained his greatness from age 32 through 37, giving the Cardinals six more excellent seasons before finally succumbing to the effects of aging and losing most of his value. While Pujols has been rumored to be seeking a deal as long as 10 years, even the best players in the game’s history had a hard time holding off a decline into their early 40s. However, as Musial showed, great players can decline from their peak performance and still be among the best players in the league, and the Cardinals could get enough value from Pujols at the beginning of a long-term deal to justify overpaying him at the end of it.

Verdict: Keep him. In 15 years, they can build another statue outside the ballpark, and these two can forever be linked together as the best players in franchise history.

Prince Fielder, 1B, Brewers

It’s hard to find good comparables for Fielder because most athletes his size end up in the NFL. However, when the Brewers sit down to decide whether they should commit to Fielder for the rest of his career, they would do well to remember Mo Vaughn. Also a super-sized slugging first baseman, Vaughn developed at a later age than Fielder did but had a similar skill set and physique.

Unfortunately for the Angels, that physique helped to wreck his knees shortly after they gave him a monstrous free-agent contract, and he was essentially finished as an impact player after his age-30 season. Fielder is just 27 and has worked hard to keep himself in better condition, but he’s still a very large human being, and his defense will likely demand a shift to DH at some point in the not-too-distant future.

Verdict: Let him go. The Brewers don’t have the luxury of using a DH, and while they will miss his bat dearly, he’s not the kind of player that a National League team should be committing to long-term.

Jose Reyes, SS, Mets

If it weren’t for the injuries, this would be an easy call, as Reyes is one of the game’s best players when he’s completely healthy. However, leg injuries to players whose game is based around speed can be scary, and Reyes has had two lost years in the prime of his career. He’s bouncing back in a big way this season, however, and if he were surrounded by some more talented teammates, he’d be among the leading candidates for National League MVP.

If the Mets need reassurance that early career health problems can be overcome, they should look no further than Barry Larkin, a remarkably similar player who also struggled to stay on the field in his 20s. While he was never the most durable player in the game, he remained excellent while on the field through his age-35 season.

Verdict: Keep him. He will always present a health risk, but dynamic shortstops are in short supply, and it could take the Mets years to find a player who could fill Reyes’ shoes.

David Ortiz, DH, Boston

After being written off as over the hill in 2009, Ortiz has come back with a vengeance and re-asserted himself as one of the game’s best hitters. At age 35, however, the end is somewhat near with Ortiz, and the Red Sox will have to figure out just how much longer he’ll be able to fight off Father Time.

Like Fielder, Ortiz is also hard to find a comparable player for, but Andres Galarraga’s late career resurgence does offer some similarities. He looked like he was on his way out of baseball before thundering back to life at age 35, the first of a three-year run as one of the game’s best hitters. Amazingly enough, his best season came at age 37 immediately after leaving Colorado and returning to sea level. We’ll never know how long he could have kept it up, as a cancerous tumor cost him his age 38 season and he wasn’t the same upon returning. However, Galarraga showed that big sluggers can revive their careers with more than a one-year fluke, and Boston fans should be encouraged that Ortiz has stopped striking out this year.

Verdict: Keep him. The Red Sox need his bat, he’s beloved in Boston, and his new ability to avoid striking out suggests that he’s not anywhere near finished yet.

Jimmy Rollins, SS, Phillies

There’s no question that Rollins is not what he was a few years ago. He’s almost certainly never going to hit 30 home runs in a season again, as the power looks to be gone and never coming back. However, as a switch-hitter with speed and elite contact skills, Rollins could continue to be a productive player well into his 30s.

Tony Fernandez never had Rollins’ power, but his skill set was similar to the one Rollins is showing now, and he also plateaued not long after turning 30. However, even as his speed waned, his ability to hit for a high average while holding down a spot on the infield made him a useful piece on championship-caliber teams. Rollins can still play shortstop and has enough left in the tank to stay there for a few more years. While he’s more of a league-average hitter now than the dynamic offensive player he was previously, he has the skills to stave off serious decline.

Verdict: Keep him. The Phillies have already committed long-term deals to Ryan Howard and Cliff Lee, so now would be a silly time to start sacrificing the present in the name of fiscal responsibility.

Trevor Bauer and Seven Days Rest

Trevor Bauer’s 3-1 win over Fresno State on Saturday looked no different than any of his other starts this year. The UCLA right-hander fanned 14 batters, walked two, yielded just six hits, hiked his season record to 13-2, dropped his ERA to 1.25 and tallied his ninth straight complete game. The skinny 20-year-old flashed another number, though, that was right in line with his season average, one that has MLB draft hounds wincing even as Bauer looks ready to be a top-10 pick: 133 pitches.

The rise in pitch count awareness across all levels of baseball makes people panic when they see a college pitcher racking up 130-plus pitches per start; doubly so when the guy doing it skews much closer to Tim Lincecum than Roger Clemens at 6-foot-1, and only 175 pounds. But Bauer’s situation is different. He pitches just once a week, taking the mound every Saturday for the Bruins. Meanwhile, the benefits to his team are huge: Every Saturday, UCLA knows it has one of the nation’s best pitchers ready to go nine innings and give the bullpen a day off.

All of which makes us wonder: Why doesn’t a major league team try that? Mostly because it’s hard, and looks risky.

“The team trainer and pitching coach have to know the pitcher’s quality of strength, quality of conditioning, what kind of a workload he can handle,” said Glenn Fleisig, research director for the American Sports Medicine Institute and an expert in pitching biomechanics. “You have to choose the right guy, then monitor him very closely.”

Nobody knows his body better than Bauer, and he has shown a unique ability to carry the burden of a heavy workload while at UCLA. He’s a rabid student of pitching, learning the value of pitch sequencing, as well as effective velocity (a pitch looks faster when released a couple of feet closer to home plate, making a long-striding delivery and big arm extension advantages for pitchers who can pull it off). Like Lincecum, Bauer relies on flexibility and athleticism more than brute strength to generate velocity and movement on his pitches. He works out with medicine balls and resistance bands, and steers clear of the weight room.

“Bauer is trained to do this,” said UCLA manager John Savage, “this” referring both to his pitcher’s unique workout habits and his ability to throw complete games nearly at will. “He can handle the baseball better than anyone. You’ll see him playing Hacky Sack with a baseball like it’s connected to his toe. I compare him to Pete Maravich.”

If anyone would know about developing elite pitchers, it’s Savage. Another Savage pupil, Bauer’s teammate Gerrit Cole, is likely to be the No. 1 overall pick in Monday night’s draft. Another Savage protege, Mark Prior, held the Pac-10 strikeout record for a decade with 202 K’s … until Bauer rang up his 203rd batter of the season Saturday.

Not just any pitcher can successfully adopt the Bauer model of 130 pitches once a week, Savage said. Using Inside Edge’s statistical analysis, Savage found that Bauer’s fastball velocity often increased in the later innings of games; you’d want a big league pitcher to show a similar tendency, or at least maintain similar velocity throughout his start. The other thing that helps Bauer go deep into games is his six-pitch repertoire. Even the third or fourth time through the lineup, opposing hitters still don’t know what they’ll see from Bauer. If a pitcher can’t throw that many pitches for strikes, he’d better have one pitch — think Mariano Rivera’s cutter — that hitters might know is coming but still can’t hit.

A pitcher able and willing to take on the Bauer model of pitching could help his team in multiple ways. Giving the bullpen a night off once a week would not only keep relievers fresher, but also allow a team to lean more heavily on its better arms the rest of the week, with less risk of shoving lesser pitchers into high-leverage situations. An open-minded team with weak back-end starters could get even more creative. Assuming a now-typical seven-man major league bullpen, that team could limit starts for its crummy fifth starter and run out, say, three rested relievers for three innings each, every fifth day.

Many caveats apply, though.

Since the last few major league teams transitioned from four-man to five-man rotations in the 1980s, we’ve seen very little experimentation with that model. Any team that tried to break the mold would face heavy scrutiny, and any manager who tried something radically different would need a general manager willing to back his decision. Also, even the best pitchers have a bad day once in a while; a manager might have to occasionally pull his once-a-week ace, both to give his team a better chance to win and to avoid a lousy day turning into a 180-pitch nightmare.

Then there are salary considerations, which already contribute to managers leaving in struggling starters through five innings, and using closers only in save situations. Would a starting pitcher embrace a system that might limit him to 26 starts a season, giving him fewer opportunities to win games? Or would teams worry that a system which encourages a pitcher to throw 20-plus complete games a season might lead to higher asking prices during salary arbitration and free agency discussions?

The biggest concern would be managing workload and preventing injuries. A starter who throws 26 nine-inning starts in a season would total 234 innings, around what aces like Roy Halladay and CC Sabathia typically produce already. Would spacing out those innings differently make injuries more likely? More broadly, are five-man rotations the best way to handle a pitching staff?

“There’s no science or medicine that says every fifth day is the answer — it’s really just trial and error over the years,” Fleisig said. “Pitch counts shouldn’t be used as a rule, either, but rather as a guide for when a guy might be running out of steam. There’s no rule that says you can’t try things, no rule that says every team has to do the same thing.”

What you want to watch, Fleisig said, are microtears. Every time a pitcher pitches, a weekend warrior goes for a three-mile run, or a bodybuilder bench-presses, he develops soreness — the body’s way of alerting you to little tears in your ligaments and tendons. The body recovers, repairs those tears, and gets stronger between workouts, or in a pitcher’s case, between starts. If you work out too hard, you can develop tears too big to repair. But there’s no rule that says that point should be 100 pitches, Fleisig said; some pitchers might need to be pulled earlier; others a lot later.

Savage closely tracks each inning Bauer throws, looking for high-stress innings or even high-stress batters who potentially create the kind of fatigue that could prove harmful down the road. So far, pushing to 130 pitches or more hasn’t resulted in injuries or ineffectiveness for Bauer.

That might be doable for certain big league pitchers too, Fleisig said. “You could get those microtears from 130 pitches and be good to go five, six, or seven days later, sure.”


“With some guys, 130 pitches might take you well past the point of fatigue. You develop tears that are too big. After that, you can wait five, 10, 20, even 100 days and still not be recovered.”

If fortune really does favor the bold, maybe we’ll see a major league team go this route one day. Who knows? Maybe the guy who’ll make it work will be the prototype: Trevor Bauer himself.

R.A. Dickey’s Issues

It’s all too easy to diagnose the Mets’ problem this season: Their pitching has been a nightmare. With them sitting in fourth place in the National League East at 27-31, their offense has been passable, ranking 15th in the majors in runs scored despite missing David Wright and Ike Davis for extended periods of time. Meanwhile, their 4.33 team ERA ranks as the third worst in the NL ahead of only the Cubs and Astros. They already have had to use seven different starting pitchers in games, and they have had two starters — Chris Capuano and Mike Pelfrey — post ERAs of more than 5.00 while throwing 25 percent of the team’s total innings pitched.

This should come as little surprise to Mets fans, as the team entered the season with a very uncertain, risk-filled rotation. But while they expected some pitchers to struggle this year, there’s one player the Mets were counting on to bolster the front end of their rotation: R.A. Dickey.

Upon arriving in New York last year, Dickey immediately became a favorite among Mets fans. How could you hate the guy? He’s a knuckleballer — a journeyman pitcher who had never had extended success before in his career. He is well spoken and humble, and his name makes the 11-year-old in each of us smirk. He finished 2010 with a 2.84 ERA in 174 innings pitched, and the Mets rewarded him with a two-year, $7.8 million contract in the offseason. If their rotation was going to be a mess, at least they would have one spot they could feel comfortable about.

Well, so much for that. Dickey has struggled early this season, posting a 4.39 ERA. His walk rate has increased, he’s allowing more hits and home runs, and he’s not getting batters to swing and miss on pitches quite as often. So what’s wrong with him? Was his success last season a mere mirage, or is there reason to believe he will improve going forward? Have no fear, Mets fans — the Dickey you know and love is only a slight adjustment away.

To understand Dickey’s troubles so far this season, it helps to understand his pitch repertoire. Unlike fellow knuckleballer Tim Wakefield, Dickey essentially has three pitches: a slow knuckleball, a fast knuckleball and a sinker. His slow knuckleball ranges around 76 to 79 mph, while his fast knuckler has been known to peak in the mid-to-low 80s. He throws both knuckleballs equally often, although he uses his slow knuckler early in counts and his fast as a knockout pitch, and together they account for around 80 percent of his pitches. The remaining 20 percent of the time, Dickey throws his sinking fastball, which averages around 84 mph — compared to Wakefield, Dickey throws heat.

This added velocity on his knuckleball causes batters to hit a large number of ground balls; when combined with his sinker, this fast knuckleball gives Dickey a 56 percent ground ball rate — a very high rate. Ground balls are a very good outcome for a pitcher to get, as they result in hits only around 23 percent of the time and have a very low likelihood of turning into an extra-base hit.

This season, Dickey’s pitching repertoire has remained nearly exactly the same as last year. He is still throwing his fast and slow knuckleballs in similar counts and in the same proportion, and his fastball has remained as effective as last year. As such, his problem stems from the one thing that has changed slightly from last season: his knuckleball’s movement.

The knuckleball’s strength is also its Achilles’ heel: It’s totally unpredictable. When a pitcher releases a knuckler, he typically aims for the middle of the strike zone, since he has no way of knowing in which direction the pitch will break. But while knuckleball pitchers can’t control a knuckler’s movement, they can control how much it breaks. Depending on how they release the pitch, they can subtly influence whether the pitch breaks only a handful of inches or if it dances a full foot away from where the pitcher was aiming.

As Dickey has stated in the past, finding the optimal break on a knuckleball is a lot like finding your golf swing: It’s more a matter of feel than anything. Make the pitch break too much, and it will end up outside the zone. But if you don’t make the pitch break enough, you are essentially leaving the batter a juicy 78 mph fat one over the heart of the plate, begging for him to crush it.

For whatever reason, Dickey’s knuckleballs are not dancing as much right now. Last season, the majority of his knuckleballs ended up breaking 10 inches or less; this season, they are breaking around 7 inches or less. On one hand, this is a good thing — Dickey has thrown around 5 percent more first-pitch strikes this season, and his pitches are finding the zone more often. But if his knuckler doesn’t dance enough, it also makes it much easier to hit. Six of his seven home runs allowed have come off knuckleballs, with four of them sitting right over the heart of the plate. And when batters hit a ball in play against Dickey, it’s falling for a hit 32 percent of the time, which speaks partly to bad luck and partly to batters hitting the ball hard off him.

Although Dickey’s ERA this season is considerably higher than what he posted last season, he’s not that far from recapturing his success. While he is unlikely to post another ERA in the 2s, there is no reason he can’t continue to be an above-average pitcher for the Mets, eating innings and posting an ERA in the mid-to-high 3s. All he needs to do is rediscover his touch with his knuckleball and get it dancing a little more.

The Underrated Alexei Ramirez

When it comes to shortstops, the National League is stacked. Troy Tulowitzki is generally accepted to be one of the game’s best players, and it was no surprise when he was selected first overall in ESPN’s Franchise Player Draft on Wednesday. The NL also boasts Hanley Ramirez, Jimmy Rollins and a revitalized Jose Reyes for those who like guys who can run, and Stephen Drew’s production at the position is one of the reasons the Diamondbacks are surprising contenders in the NL West. Toss in 21-year-old Starlin Castro, and there will be some tough decisions to be made when it comes time to pick who will represent the Senior Circuit at the position in next month’s All-Star Game.

Over in the American League, however, it’s a different story. Derek Jeter is the big name but his skills have eroded to the point that he’s barely contributing anymore, and the rest of the teams in the Junior Circuit field shortstops who are mostly anonymous to the national public. However, there’s one shortstop in the AL who deserves more recognition than he’s received to date and has shown that he’s good enough to hang with the big boys at the position.

Alexei Ramirez has quietly become the best player on the White Sox and is perhaps the best-kept secret in all of baseball. How underrated is he? He’s not even in the top five in voting at the position for next month’s All-Star Game, although at this point, he’s clearly the best shortstop the AL has to offer.

Since the beginning of the 2009 season, when the White Sox shifted him across the bag from second base to shortstop, Ramirez has posted the highest UZR of any player at the position in either league, even ahead of defensive specialists such as Cesar Izturis, Elvis Andrus and Brendan Ryan.

And unlike that trio, Ramirez can actually hit.

He’s not quite Tulowitzki at the plate, but Ramirez has legitimate power; he averaged 18 home runs per season during his first three years in the big leagues. He combines above-average power with quality contact skills, allowing him to avoid strikeouts and keep his batting average at a more than respectable level. Ramirez has never been the most patient hitter at the plate, but he’s nearly doubled his walk rate from last year, and he’s currently only seven walks away from tying his entire 2010 total.

Even as offense around the league has decreased the past few years, Ramirez has continued to improve, and he is now on pace to have the best season of his career. In fact, the 2.7 wins above replacement that he has accumulated so far this season is second only to Reyes among shortstops in MLB. This isn’t just a flukey hot start to the season, either — Ramirez has been legitimately terrific for several years now.

Since the beginning of the 2009 season, Ramirez has posted 9.3 WAR, the fourth-highest total of any shortstop in baseball, American League or National League. The only players ahead of him? Tulowitzki, Ramirez and Jeter, and I doubt you’ll find too many people who think that Jeter is still a high-quality player at this point in his career.

And yet, Ramirez is never mentioned as one of the best in the league at the position. Perhaps it is partially due to the fact that he spent his rookie year as a poor defensive second baseman who made a lot of mental mistakes, or maybe it’s just that he doesn’t fit the mold of a high-profile player. He doesn’t have the flair of Reyes or make as many highlight-reel plays as Andrus, but the reality is that Ramirez has produced at an elite level since moving to the position.

Reyes is going to cash in on the scarcity of shortstops in baseball this winter when he lands a monster contract as a free agent, but his signing will only continue to reinforce how valuable Ramirez is to the White Sox. After getting away with paying him just a total of $6.3 million over the first four years of his career (including just $2.75 million this season), the White Sox were able to lock up the next four years of his career for a total of just $32.5 million, a fraction of what Reyes will get in the free-agent market this winter, and just a drop in the bucket compared to the massive 10-year, $157 million contract the Rockies gave Tulowitzki.

Not only is Ramirez producing an an All-Star level for the White Sox, he’s doing so while earning a fraction of what he’s worth, and the contract extension he signed will keep it that way for the foreseeable future. Underappreciated and underpaid, Ramirez is truly one of the game’s hidden gems.