A few months ago, someone asked me who the most underrated player in baseball was. After kicking around a few names, I settled on Arizona outfielder A.J. Pollock. Pollock got to the big leagues as a speed-and-defense center fielder who hit well enough to justify a regular gig, and then had his breakout year derailed last season when Johnny Cueto hit him in the hand with a fastball. Since he missed roughly half the season, it was easy to overlook his offensive improvements, but Pollock carried the added power and improved contact rate over to this season, and has developed into one of the very best outfielders in all of baseball.
But Pollock’s 2015 season has been so good that it’s hard to call him the game’s most underrated player anymore. After all, he made the All-Star team this year, and thanks to a .324 average and a decent likelihood of being honored with a Gold Glove, he’s not really flying under the radar anymore. Like Ben Zobrist and Bobby Abreu, Pollock might have been mentioned as the game’s most underrated player so many times that he’s now being properly rated.
But even with Pollock’s graduation to stardom now being pretty widely accepted, I still think the game’s most underrated player might be an outfielder for the Diamondbacks. This time, I’m going with Pollock’s teammate David Peralta.
Let’s start with Peralta’s back-story, which helps explain why he’s not exactly a household name yet. He originally signed with the Cardinals in 2005 as a 17-year-old out of Venezuela, only St. Louis saw his strong left arm and decided his best path to the majors was on the mound. Peralta made 18 uninspiring appearances for the Cardinals rookie-level club in Johnson City, Tenn., over the course of two years, then missed a couple of years following a pair of surgeries on his shoulder, and was subsequently released in 2009.
That was the end of Peralta’s career as a pitcher. As detailed in this excellent profile by Ben Reiter at Sports Illustrated, Peralta decided to give his career a second chance as an outfielder after receiving some encouragement from pitcher-turned-outfielder Rick Ankiel, and set out to try to get back to the big leagues as a hitter. That required proving to major-league teams that he actually could hit, which put him on a path to the independent leagues — including tours with the Rio Grande Valley WhiteWings, Wichita Wingnuts, and Amarillo Sox — where he did enough to get on the radar but not enough to have anyone beating his door.
Baseball America did recognize him on its list of top indy league prospects following the 2012 season, but rated him just the 11th best non-affiliated prospect that year, and included this paragraph in the introduction to the list:
A reminder that this list is not like the other league top prospect lists. The best players on this list have the potential to contribute to affiliated clubs at the minor-league level, with the best possibly making the big leagues down the road. Expecting an independent league player to eventually make a significant big league impact is usually asking too much.
Realistically, the odds were stacked against Peralta, even when the Diamondbacks agreed to sign him during the 2013 season. Like pretty much every other player coming out of the indy leagues, he was seen mostly as organizational depth, and despite being 25 years old, the D-backs sent him to A-ball to finish the season. He made it to Double-A last year, but was still much older than his competition, so while he didn’t strike out much, there wasn’t much in the way of perceived upside there.
But Pollock’s bad break proved to be Peralta’s opportunity. With their emerging star outfielder headed to the DL and no other high-level internal options around, the D-backs summoned Peralta from the minors on June 1 of last year, and he responded to the opportunity, putting up a .286/.320/.450 line in his rookie season. With a mixture of good contact skills, solid enough power and somewhat surprising speed — his nine triples tied for fifth-most in the NL last year, despite the fact he played in just 88 games — allowed him to contribute despite lacking a singular standout tool
And now in 2015, Peralta has taken yet another step forward. Peralta still isn’t a classic slugger, but by consistently hitting the ball hard, Peralta has racked up 22 doubles and another eight triples, so he’s providing more power than you’d think just by looking at the home run column. He’s also nearly doubled his walk rate, as he’s learning to lay off all the marginal pitches he was chasing a year ago, so he’s pushed his season line up to .303/.368/.520.
That line adds up to a 137 wRC+, which is currently good for seventh-best in the National League; the only players out-hitting him on a per at-bat basis this year are some guys named Harper, Votto, Goldschmidt, Rizzo, McCutchen and Gonzalez. Buster Posey is right behind Peralta, and heavily-hyped rookie Kris Bryant is a couple of spots back as well. This is some pretty nice company Peralta is keeping.
Of course, Peralta isn’t as good as Posey and doesn’t have Bryant’s upside, nor is he likely to finish high on an MVP ballot like the six guys ahead of him have, but that’s why he’s slipping into the underrated category. Peralta’s lack of youth or prominent skill have kept the hype to a minimum, but since getting the call to the big leagues, he’s produced as well as some of the highest-paid players in the game. And at the end of the day, production — not flashy tools — is what actually matters.
Peralta checks all of the boxes for a classic underrated player. He’s a solid contributor across the board with no real glaring weaknesses. He lacks a standout skill that shows up in the highlight reels. He got to the big leagues late, and his arrival was accompanied with zero fanfare. While previous indy leaguers have generally topped out as solid role players — Daniel Nava and Chris Colabello are two of the other success stories — Peralta looks like he might be blossoming into one of the better all-around outfielders in baseball.
So while Pollock and Goldschmidt receive the lion’s share of the credit for keeping Arizona around .500 this year, let’s not overlook the contributions of Peralta, who has quietly become a very nice asset for Arizona. Perhaps it’s time for him to receive enough attention that we once again have to go looking for a new most underrated player.