This week the theme across SB Nation is underdogs and underrated players and underappreciated players, and really and adjective that you can think of that starts with “under.” For us at OTM, we are going to use this chance to look back at the four championship rosters and discuss three underrated players from those championship runs. Now, it should be noted that this is an inherently subjective exercise. I think we (collectively, as a sports-watching society) have a tendency to view underrated as an objective measure, but it relies on both our personal perceptions of a players abilities and/or contributions as well as our personal perceptions of how they are rated by the community at large. I say that because some of the players in this series may just be players that I was underrating, and I’m just trying to get ahead of that.
We finish up our look at underrated players from this century’s champions with a team that won it all just a couple of years ago. All of these teams have presented their own unique challenges when looking for underrated players, and this 2018 squad presents two of them. For one thing, it was so damn recent. Properly rating and contextualizing a player’s performance becomes more difficult as the years go by, but generally speaking we at least think we are rating players properly in real time. If not, we’d rate them differently, right? So, that’s an issue. Also, this team was stupid good, and when a team is stupid good the players tend to get respect. That said, I did find three players to talk about here. Or, actually four because I cheated a bit.
Hector Velázquez/Brian Johnson
We’ll start with the cheating, because I find it very difficult to separate these two guys. This is not the first time I’ve talked about the role filled by Velázquez and Johnson, but I think it’s an important point on roster building. That is, versatility is not just something that is possessed by and to be valued from position players. We all know that a baseball season is a marathon and not a sprint, and we also know that pitchers have a wacky tendency to get injured. Something about throwing projectiles close to 90 miles per hour on a regular basis doesn’t agree with elbows, it turns out. Because of those facts, teams need lots of pitchers to fill in both in the rotation and the bullpen. Throw in the inevitable short outings from even the best rotation, and having guys who can fill any role you need is incredibly valuable.
That’s what Velázquez and Johnson both did in 2018. The former threw a total of 85 innings, starting eight games, finishing 15 and coming out in relief for a total of 39 appearances. He was trusted in all of those roles and rewarded Alex Cora with a 3.18 ERA. Johnson, meanwhile, tossed 99 1⁄3 innings with 13 starts, 10 games finished and 25 total relief appearances, and pitched to a 4.17 ERA. On pure talent, neither of these guys blows you away. There’s a reason they weren’t full-time starters. They also combined for as many innings in that postseason as me. But you have to get to the postseason first, and to do that you need players who can do whatever is asked whenever it’s needed throughout the long grind of the regular season. I feel very confident saying the Red Sox don’t sniff 108 wins without having both of these guys serving as highly competent swing men.
That 2018 Red Sox team was loaded enough that there aren’t really any players from that roster who are looked down upon. Kinsler comes pretty damn close, though. For one thing, if the Red Sox had ended up losing that World Series to the Dodgers, Kinsler no doubt would have been one of the goats given his excruciating error in the 13th inning of Game Three. There’s also the fact that he was acquired at the trade deadline for Ty Buttrey, who has turned into a damn good reliever for the Angels. Throw in that Kinsler was, frankly, bat at the plate for the Red Sox with a 64 OPS+, and it’s not hard to see why he’s not looked at in the most favorable light on this roster.
So, why is he on this list? Well, for one thing most of the other players are appreciated, so he has an advantage there. But also, he did serve an important role on that roster. Longtime readers of the site will know I’m not one to disparage Eduardo Núñez, one of my favorite players in recent team history. There’s absolutely no denying that he was an abomination at second base defensively, though. Brock Holt, who also got time there, was just average, too. The Red Sox just weren’t getting the defense they needed at that position, and it was one of the major issues on the roster. Kinsler’s shortcomings probably overshadowed it a bit, but his ability to come in and stabilize an up-the-middle position down the stretch — he won the Gold Glove that year — made the final two months probably a bit less stressful than they may have been without him.
I mean, you knew he was going to make this list, right? It is my not-so-well-hidden opinion that Barnes is perpetually underrated, and I think his contributions to that championship run certainly don’t get enough shine. The big righty was easily the second best reliever on the team during the regular season and really came into his own that year as a strikeout machine. He struck out a whopping 14 per nine that season, and was really dominant throughout the entire season except for a stretch in August. Obviously you can’t just throw away a pitcher’s worst month and say he was great, but I think with relievers and seemingly Barnes in particular, those worst months tend to get more shine than they should.
Where Barnes really gets underrated, however, is his contribution to the postseason run. When we talk about Red Sox relievers during that run, the conversation is dominated by A) Craig Kimbrel giving us all heart attacks, B) the starters stepping up when needed on their off-days, and C) Joe Kelly coming out and basically getting himself a multi-year deal just with the postseason performance alone. Barnes was a force during that run too, though, and the reason Kimbrel had all those chances to give us heart attacks is because Barnes did the job in front of him. He pitched in ten games that October, allowing just one run (1.04 ERA) with nine strikeouts and six walks. The control issues there, just like in his career in general, make it easy to forget that even with the free passes this guy is absolutely dominant the majority of the time, and that was true in the postseason and most of 2018 in general.