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Thursday, May 30, 2024

The best baseball players you don’t know about

Vinny Pasquantino, Yandy Diaz, Mitch Keller and others among the most underrated baseball players in MLB

 

By PATRICK FIGUEROA — sports@theaggie.org

 

Each MLB season, there are a few players who perform exceptionally well, but baseball fans do not realize who they are. A quarter of the way through the 2023 season, this remains true. These under-the-radar gems have not only done well thus far, but their advanced numbers suggest that they will continue to produce throughout the season. 

 

Vinnie Pasquantino, first baseman, Kansas City Royals

The Royals are off to a slow start to the 2023 season — they have only won 12 of their 42 games. Yet, Vinnie Pasquantino, also known as “The Pasquatch,” has been a lone bright spot for the young team. Since his call up to the majors in 2022, Pasquantino has been an offensive asset with a good on-base percentage and great bat-to-ball skills. 

Through 41 games this season, Pasquantino has seven home runs, 19 RBI and 42 hits. He walks more than he strikes out with an 11.4% walk rate (BB%) and 10.2% strikeout rate (K%), according to Fangraphs. He sits at a 0.848 on-base-plus-slugging (OPS) and 134 weighted runs created plus (wRC+). When examining Statcast, he ranks 80th percentile or better in the following categories: hard-hit percentage, expected weighted on-base average (xwOBA), expected batting average (xBA), expected slugging percentage (xSLG), K% and whiff percentage.

 

Yandy Diaz, first baseman, Tampa Bay Rays 

While the Rays do have widely-recognized stars like shortstop Wander Franco and outfielder Randy Arozarena, Yandy Diaz has been a major contributor to the team that has the most wins in baseball (31) so far this year. The once mildly powerful third baseman has already hit 10 home runs through 39 games this season. The most home runs he had in a single season prior to this year was 14 home runs in 2019. 

Diaz is striking out at a higher rate than last season (10.8% last year compared to 14.9% this year), but he is producing the most he has in his entire career, according to Fangraphs. So far, Diaz has had 45 hits, 24 RBI and 1.021 OPS. He currently ranks 80th percentile in barrel percentage after ranking 20th percentile last year. His soft-contact percentage decreased from 14% in 2022 to 8.6%, while his hard-contact percentage increased from 35.5% to 44%. 

 

Mitch Keller, starting pitcher, Pittsburgh Pirates

The Pirates had a strong start to their season after finishing April with a record of 20-9. Despite the team cooling down, Keller continues to build on his breakout season. Through nine starts, Keller has a 2.38 earned run average (ERA), 69 strikeouts and 1.024 walks-plus-hits-per-inning (WHIP). His strikeout total currently ranks fourth among active starters in MLB. 

Previously ranked among the worst starting pitchers in MLB in 2021, Keller turned his career around by improving in some major statistical categories. He improved his K% from 20.1% in 2022 to 30.1% this season. Additionally, two of his most-used pitches, the four-seam fastball and sinker, have more vertical and horizontal movement than last year, generating negative run value on these pitches.

 

Adolis Garcia, outfielder, Texas Rangers

Coming into this season, the Rangers had high expectations for improvement after finishing last season 68-94. They revamped their entire roster in the off-season, expecting their free-agent signings to improve the team’s success. They might not have expected Garcia, who was already on the team for the previous three seasons, to be as major a contributor for the Rangers this year as he has been though. The team currently has the best record in the American League (AL) West through 43 games (26-17).

 Garcia has 13 home runs, 46 RBI and 0.861 OPS through 42 games this season. One area of growth most notable for Garcia is that he is making better swing decisions. He is swinging less and making more contact than during previous seasons. As a result, he is also striking out less than in prior seasons. Ranking 94th percentile in average exit velocity and 92nd percentile in barrel percentage, he has the third most home runs in MLB this season. 

 

Yennier Cano, relief pitcher, Baltimore Orioles 

The Orioles improved immensely last season, narrowly missing the playoffs with a record of 83-79. They have continued to build upon their success with the second-best record in MLB (28-15) this year. Their bullpen has the best ERA in MLB, yet Cano stands out the most, having not given up a single run through 21.2 innings. Of the 67 batters he’s faced, only five of them have managed to reach base. 

Cano struggled with a 11.50 ERA last season. However, with some mechanical adjustments, he transformed his sinker into one of the best pitches in MLB, adding an extra six inches of vertical movement from last season. As a result, his sinker has -10 run value, and he is striking out 37.3% of batters faced. With such success, Cano leads all relief pitchers in Fangraph’s Wins Above Replacement (fWAR). 

 

Alex Verdugo, outfielder, Boston Red Sox 

The former Dodgers’ top-prospect Alex Verdugo, who was traded to the Red Sox for star outfielder Mookie Betts, is beginning to reach his potential. Through 43 games, he has 51 hits, five home runs, 18 RBI and 0.877 OPS. Red Sox fans have been waiting for this type of production since he last flashed his potential in 2019 and 2020. 

Verdugo has significantly improved his on-base percentage (OBP) from 0.328 in 2022 to 0.380 this season. He has also improved his defense in right field. Last season, he ranked 13th percentile in outs above average (OAA) and 43rd percentile in outfielder jump. This year, he ranks 86th percentile in OAA and 91st percentile in outfielder jump. The Red Sox needs Verdugo to continue performing at this level in a competitive AL East. 

 

It’s been a strong start for each of these under-the-radar players. If they continue to perform as expected, they can gain the recognition that they deserve as star players and lose the “underrated” label.

Written by: Patrick Figueroa — sports@theaggie.org