- Jayson Stark, Senior Writer, ESPN.com
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I never set out to be The Ultimate Czar of Overratedness and Underratedness.
It just happened.
One minute, I was merely an ordinary guy, typing his Rumblings and Grumblings. The next, I was pounding on a keyboard, bound for authorhood.
Now, 60,000 words of pounding later, I'm the official author of "The Stark Truth: The Most Overrated and Underrated Players in Baseball History."
And along the way, I came to understand a lot more about the concepts of overratedness and underratedness than I used to. I understand they're not as clear-cut as they seem on the radio, anyway.
So before I kick off my list of the 10 most overrated active players, I need to explain what I mean when I call somebody overrated.
It doesn't mean he stinks. It doesn't mean he should be clearing tables at Pizza Hut. It doesn't mean his current team should release him. It doesn't mean his former teams should sue him to try to recover all the money they once paid him.
It doesn't mean any of that, at least to me.
Overratedness -- like underratedness -- is all relative, remember. It's about perception. It's about illusion. It's about myths. It's about assumptions we tend to make about all kinds of players -- assumptions that sometimes turn out not to match up real well with a condition best described as "reality."
So the question I kept aspiring to answer as I wrote my book -- and as I wrote this companion column -- was this:
How does the perception of this player match up with the kind of player he really is (or was)?
That's all I was interested in. Really. Just because I call a guy overrated, it doesn't mean I hate him. Or I'm out to get him. Or I've been seeking revenge for precisely 12 years, 2 months and 17 days -- ever since he blew me off when I was waiting around to ask him how come he dropped a popup one night.
I don't operate like that.
In fact, if the players on this overrated list really think it all through, they'll realize that, in a way, it's almost a compliment to be called overrated. You can't be overrated unless millions of people are walking the streets of America, thinking you're good, right?
So because of that theory of relativity, you can be a great player and still be overrated. You can be a Hall of Famer and still be overrated. Maybe it doesn't work that way in everybody's book. But it works that way in my book. Remember now, I'm an illusion-versus-reality kind of guy. Kinda like David Copperfield.
Oh. And one more thing we need to get straight before you start typing those "are-you-some-kind-of-knucklehead" e-mails: I'm really not the Ultimate Czar of Overratedness and Underratedness. I'm just the guy who wrote the book.
Your opinion is as good as mine. Maybe not as exhaustively researched. But you sure have a right to it. So I don't pretend to settle these debates. I just start them. Simply providing a valuable public service by allowing you, the American sports fan, to do what you enjoy most about sports:
OK, here they come -- the 10 most overrated active players in baseball. Some of these players made it into my book. Some didn't. On the other hand, some guys who were in the book didn't make this list. The difference? The book was mostly about assessing careers. This column is more about where these players stand on the illusion/reality meter right now. Got that? All righty then, here we go:
San Francisco Giants
No. 1 -- Barry Zito
As I said in the book, "overpaid" isn't always the same thing as "overrated." But it definitely works in Zito's case.
Not that it's some kind of disgrace for any team to say it employs this guy. Never misses a start. Logs those innings. Snaps off those picturesque curveballs. Leads the league in likability. And we admire him for all of those qualities.
But should he really be the proud owner of the most humongous pitching contract in history (seven years, $126 million)? For all those who think that answer is yes, better peruse these facts first:
Since his Cy Young season in 2002 (23-5, 2.75 ERA), Zito has a higher ERA than Carl Pavano, a lower strikeout rate than Mark Redman and a lousier WHIP than Odalis Perez. And his current 32-30 strikeout-walk ratio (143rd among the 155 starting pitchers with at least 20 innings this year) tells you he now does more nibbling than chef Paul Prudhomme. So why is this man making $18 million a year again?
Boston Red Sox
No. 2 -- J.D. Drew
Nobody denies that Drew has massive talent oozing out of his eyebrows. You can tell because he entered this season as one of only 13 active players with a career slugging percentage over .500 and an on-base percentage over .390.
But now the bad news: Those other dozen players have made a combined 70 All-Star teams (and all have made at least two apiece). And Drew has made, well, zero.
It sure is funny how all that talent has added up to just one 30-homer season, only one 100-RBI season, a .180 lifetime average in seven postseason series, no All-Star at-bats, nearly 400 games missed with a massive assortment of injuries and a $14 million a year paycheck. Let's just say this guy is realllly fortunate the Red Sox's great start has obscured his messy .169 average since April 21 -- because so far, the occupants of Fenway have been shockingly patient with him.
No. 3 -- Andruw Jones
I'm not going to devote a lot of space in this column to Jones. I'll leave it to the accompanying book excerpt to cover that one. But in case no one has noticed, Andruw's trend line hasn't reversed much this year, either. He's 18th of 23 qualifying center fielders in zone rating. He's on pace to strike out nearly 190 times. And he has had nearly twice as many multi-strikeout games (16) as multihit games (eight) so far.
For the record, I like Andruw. He could play for my team any time. And he's one of the best center fielders I've ever laid eyeballs on. But the idea behind this project is to point out the difference between how we perceive a player and how he's actually playing. And Andruw is not the same player he used to be.
Los Angeles Dodgers
No. 4 -- Juan Pierre
Speed guys aren't automatically overrated. (See Reyes, Jose for more details.) But for years now, we've been getting way too worked up about players whose mere ability to bring their legs with them to first base can make a pitcher want to call his therapist between pitches.
And that brings us to Pierre, a fellow so likable, it pains me to put him on this list. How can you not like a guy who loves baseball so much, he beats the grounds crew to the ballpark?
But I've been listening to GMs (mostly American League GMs) gripe for so long that Pierre is as overrated as any player in baseball, I'm finally ready to concede.
It was easier to argue the other side in 2003, the year Pierre and the Marlins won the World Series. That year, Pierre walked 55 times, struck out only 35 times, got 204 hits, reached base more than any leadoff man in baseball and led the league in steals.
But leadoff hitters with .303 on-base percentages, who are on pace to walk 31 times in 748 trips to the plate -- i.e., the Juan Pierre presently playing out the first season of his five-year, $44 million contract with the Dodgers -- they're overrated. When Pierre reaches first in the late innings of a close game, he's still a game-changer. But think how much more often he would reach first if he actually walked three times a week instead of once.
New York Yankees
No. 5 -- Bobby Abreu
Boy, do people love arguing about this fellow. Who can blame them?
The folks who only peruse Abreu's numbers don't just wonder what he's doing on this list. They wonder when he's getting inducted into the Hall of Fame. How multitalented is Bobby Abreu? Well, he does happen to be the only active player with a .300 career batting average, a .400 on-base percentage, 200 homers and 250 stolen bases. And his .909 career OPS tops the OPS of Sammy Sosa, Chase Utley, Derrek Lee and many, many, many other famed batsmiths out there.
But there sure are a lot of people who watched him in Philadelphia who think Abreu is the poster boy for an unquantifiable division of the All-Overrated Team -- players who mysteriously seem to be less than the sum of their spectacular numbers.
When people battle me on this guy, I always sum it up this way: As great as Bobby Abreu can be, he lacks that all-important Derek Jeter gene. There is no voice in his head, screaming: "This ball has to be caught." Or: "That runner on third has to be driven in." In Philadelphia, where he was the centerpiece of the franchise, that one flaw showed up way too glaringly. Now, in New York, as the Yankees flounder, they're getting aggravated over the same stuff. Funny how that happens.
San Diego Padres
No. 6 -- Brian Giles
Remember back when Giles was a perennial 37-homer, 100-RBI, .600-slugging walk machine in Pittsburgh? What happened to that Brian Giles?
That one-time .600 slugging percentage didn't even make it to .400 last season -- and has submerged below .350 in 2007. And that quick, 37-homer bat mostly ropes balls the other way now -- leaving us with a guy who has as many homers this year as Kip Wells (one).
Not to suggest that Brian Giles isn't still a really useful player. Still cranks out tough at-bats and walks 100 times. Still gaps 35-40 doubles a year. But there's a difference between a star player and a useful player. And it's a difference that can propel a guy right onto an overrated list just like this one.
No. 7 -- Alfonso Soriano
When I did a quick all-active overrated poll of my friends in the baseball business, I was amazed at how many of them nominated Soriano. But wait. Remember, back in the Barry Zito section of this extravaganza, where we kicked around the similarity between "overpaid" and "overrated"? Well, the size of Soriano's paycheck has obviously gotten some folks' attention, too.
Is he a man with a spectacular array of talents? Of course. But here's how he wound up in this group: Last season, when he was driving for those Super Lotto dollars in Washington, he was a 46-homer, 41-steal, 95-RBI, .911-OPS kind of dynamo. This season, his first in Chicago after cashing in, he's on pace for a 16-homer, 29-steal, 37-RBI, .800-OPS kind of year. And when you sign on the dotted line for eight years, $136 million, people tend to notice that. Why is that, anyhow?
No. 8 -- Richie Sexson
Sexson and Adam Dunn fit into a category of overratedness I figured I'd better get to in this column someplace: Guys We Love Because They Can Pulverize A Baseball About 900 Feet.
But Sexson wound up winning this not-so-coveted spot for a couple of reasons: (1) He's the 10th-highest-paid player in the whole sport this year (at $15.5 million). And (2) he's hitting only a buck-77, with more strikeouts (32) than hits and homers combined (30). At least Dunn -- while he hasn't done that Ichiro impression he was forecasting -- is at .258, with 11 homers and seven steals, in between the whiffs.
No. 9 -- Bob Wickman
Whoa. Almost made it through this whole list without including a closer. Can't do that. If the save is the most overrated stat in baseball -- and it is -- then we need somebody on this team to embody that.
A scout nominated Wickman, and I'm still not sure if he belongs. But what the heck. He, Mike Gonzalez and Rafael Soriano have gotten massive credit for the salvation of the Braves' bullpen. But like the hitters who make all those outs against Wickman, I often ask myself: How the heck does he do it?
His WHIP this year is a messy 1.73 baserunners per inning. He's averaging nearly 20 pitches an inning. And he has handed out as many walks as strikeouts (10). But he has walked that tightrope and survived to tell about it. The saves (6-for-8) are there. So life seems good. But it definitely isn't as serene up close as it is from afar. Does that make him overrated? Hey, it does now. He's in this column, right?
No. 10 -- Jeff Suppan
Back when Suppan was just a dependable back-of-the-rotation arm on a team like the Cardinals, he was probably underrated. But nothing can mess with a guy's underratedness like (a) a big postseason series against a team from New York; and (b) a hefty free-agent contract from a team that doesn't exactly hand those deals out like bobbleheads.
So poof. Here he is, on the overrated list -- though just barely. It's never fun to throw a wonderful guy like Jeff Suppan into a list like this. But that NLCS MVP award and those dollar signs (all 42 million of them) have painted an exaggerated portrait of what he really is.
He has never had a season in which he gave up fewer hits than innings pitched. His career strikeout rate is just 5.04 per nine innings. And, in fact, the only other active pitcher who has made 150 starts, has a career strikeout ratio lower than Suppan's, and has a higher WHIP and opponents' batting average than Suppan is (holy, schmoly) Josh Fogg.
In other words, put this guy on a team that catches all those balls he puts in play and scores plenty of runs, and his inning-eating dependability looks like a good thing. Put him on a team like the ones Fogg has pitched for, and he suddenly looks pretty ordinary. So we'll give Suppan credit for picking the right teams to work for. Unfortunately, it's just not enough credit to keep him off our All-Overrated Team.
Jayson Stark is a senior writer for ESPN.com. His new book, "The Stark Truth: The Most Overrated and Underrated Players in Baseball History," has been published by Triumph Books and is now available in bookstores. Click here to order a copy.