One of my favorite things to do in the MLB offseason is to look at player projections for 2023, specifically ones that had bad years in the previous season. But, since the release of StatCast, we now have expected statistics VS actual statistics for every MLB player. This means we can look at the previous year and see which players significantly underperformed their StatCast outputs.
Here I chose one player from each position on the diamond, including designated hitter and starting pitcher, plus relief pitcher for good measure. Most of these players were towards the top of the leaderboards in terms of better expected stats vs their actual stats. Others are players I personally just like a lot who I believe suffered from bad luck in 2022.
Without further ado, here are my 11 most underrated MLB players I’ll be watching to succeed in the 2023 Major League Baseball season.
Sean Murphy (Atlanta Braves)
Despite being one of the best catchers in the league almost entirely on defense alone, Murphy underperformed StatCast batted ball expectations in both 2021 and 2022. Moving to an offense-neutral home park and getting away from the second worst park for offense in baseball should allow Murphy to produce closer to expected stats in a positive way. Also, being in a far stronger lineup with likely more opportunities with runners on base means likely better pitches for him to see.
While the Atlanta Braves gave up a half-dozen players to acquire Murphy, his three remaining contract years should be worth what they gave up. His defense alone will make the Braves an even better team than they already were. Acquiring Murphy also helps cover some of the on-field production they lost by Dansby Swanson signing with the Chicago Cubs.
Ryan Mountcastle (Baltimore Orioles)
Among regular first basemen, Mountcastle had the largest difference between his expected stats and actual stats in 2022. Imagine if he had been the above average hitter his quality of contact suggested he could be! The Orioles were themselves a pleasant surprise in 2022 as a winning ball club, and Mountcastle improving his plate discipline in any meaningful way could unlock star potential here. He’s already a plus defender at 1st base, so the Orioles could have a serious breakout candidate here.
Jorge Polanco (Minnesota Twins)
Perhaps there is some MLB the Show 22 bias here, as Polanco has consistently been great for me in that game, but Polanco is a very underrated player in real life. Most people know he has pop and hits well enough to justify his meh defense at the keystone. But, he has developed such great discipline and still Polanco was a bit unlucky with batted balls in 2022.
Even better is that the similar hitter profiles mention 2018 Marcus Semien and 2019 Jose Ramirez, both good years that came just before big seasons. Sure, Jose Reyes last decent season in MLB is among those, too. But there could still be a breakout here. The Twins would really appreciate that. I see more Semien than Reyes in Polanco, for sure, and I know I’m not alone.
While StatCast shows potential positive regression for the Dodger’s Max Muncy after his lousy year, I decided to go with a player with similar StatCast expected wOBA among third baseman who is yet to break out in Alec Bohm. Poor defense aside, if Bohm takes a few more walks and can cut down the chases just a bit, he is likely going to be a nice surprise on an already loaded Phillies offense. He is still slated to be their starting third baseman, after all.
While Muncy certainly is likely for a bounceback, I can’t really call Muncy underrated, as he exploded onto the scene a few years ago already. Bohm is probably the last piece the Phillies need to step up for them to return to the World Series once again. He’s never going to be the next Mike Schmidt or anything, and definitely not the next Scott Rolen, but he has a chance of being an above-average regular even with iffy defense.
Corey Seager (Texas Rangers)
StatCast suggests a number of shortstops were unlucky with their hits falling in during the 2022 season, but none were unlucky nearly as much as $300 million man Corey Seager. Sure, his defense and raw power alone made him worthy of his salary, but still StatCast suggests his expected batting average was 38 points higher than his actual .245 average. He whiffs more than you’d like, but that contract shouldn’t look nearly as bad in 2023 with just slightly better luck.
Considering the outlay the Rangers made for Jacob DeGrom this offseason, the Rangers really need their other big-money guys in Seager and Semien to step it up. Unfortunately for the Rangers, Seager looks good, but Semien doesn’t. But Semien’s decline is for another article.
Tyler O’Neill (St. Louis Cardinals)
While Jesse winker had much worse batted ball luck while playing mostly as a left fielder, Winker played hurt for so much of 2022. After being traded, he will spend most of 2023 likely as the primary DH for the Milwaukee Brewers. Also, Winker has already been a solid player for years, and moving to DH likely full-time going forward, thanks to the DH being permanently installed in the National League, we need an actual regular left fielder for 2023.
Tyler O’Neill is my pick here for an underrated player to watch. He is a fast runner and above average defender who should’ve hit a lot better in 2022. O’Neill’s batted ball data suggests he was hovering back and forth between league average when his actual performance at the plate was awful for the majority of the season. He turned things around in the last couple of months, showing signs that he’s the 20 HR and 20 SB threat he was long regarded to be. With the rule changes being quite favorable to stolen base threats, if O’Neill can just get on base a bit more, and he walks at a decent clip already, he could turn singles into doubles much more quickly than you might expect.
Max Kepler (Minnesota Twins)
Again, this may be MLB the Show bias, but Kepler is definitely underrated. He was always clutch for me in my back-to-back World Series wins with the Twins in March to October. While his hitting was inconsistent, I kept him around mostly for his defense and he hit more than a few clutch home runs for me, too.
While he’s typically a right fielder, StatCast suggest he could very capably play center field defense if he had to, as he’s one of the best outfield defenders by Outs Above Average in right field. Kepler is especially handy to keep around considering how fragile Twins star center fielder Byron Buxton has proven to be. (This came up quite a bit in the Show for me this year.)
In any case, Kepler leads all regular right fielders in 2022 in StatCast expected vs actual stats. Yes, his batted ball data suggests he tailed off later in the year, but his very unfortunate .666 OPS in 2022 isn’t a true reflection of his skills. I doubt he will hit 20 bombs for sure in 2023, but he’s at least an above average hitter given the chance.
Bryan de la Cruz
The Marlins may have something here in de La Cruz. His free-swinging ways led to a very slow start, but his expected wOBA skyrocketed as the season progressed. He can also control the baserunning game with his cannon of a right arm, although he isn’t yet a great fielder overall. He seems to be a 25 HR threat for sure and I don’t hear anyone talking about him.
While looking for diamonds in the rough with Fangraphs 2023 projections is for another article, I will point out that Bryan de la Cruz projects to be a slightly below-average regular in 2023, even while being an above average hitter who can pop 15 HR in about 120 games. His StatCast rankings in quality of contact suggests that this is a very conservative projection, especially if he improves defensively going forward. He could very easily be a league-average player in 2023, with a chance to breakout not impossible at all.
Carlos Santana (Pittsburgh Pirates)
Many baseball analysts thought the one-year deal that the Pirates gave Santana was a mistake. But StatCast seems to back up their optimism. Santana owned the second largest difference among first baseman in expected to actual 2022 stats, behind the aforementioned Mountcastle. That’s to say he was unlucky and should’ve been an above average producer at the plate.
While he will likely still get reps at first base, as he still defends well, I put Santana in the DH slot because I didn’t see any other DHs that are super underrated right now to mention. Also, the Pirates are likely to DH him fairly regularly as they see what they can get out of Ji-Man Choi and Connor Joe. FanGraphs projections aren’t nearly as optimistic on Santana, but even then, he’s still well worth a $7 million outlay just for the veteran presence.
George Kirby (Seattle Mariners)
I have a weird thing about guys named George being on my sports teams on PC and console, as they always seem to do better than expected for me. I have no clue why this might be. In any case, George Kirby was already very good for the Mariners, although he struggled a bit at the end of the year and looked much more league average.
Still, StatCast suggests Kirby was actually even better than his results indicated, even if his overall StatCast rankings are all over the place. Still his expected wOBA for 2022 put him between Padres ace Joe Musgrove and teammate Luis Castillo. So, congrats Mariners fans: Kirby looks to be a good one. I’m definitely looking forward to seeing how Kirby progresses.
Trevor Stephan (Cleveland Guardians)
I don’t want to mention MLB the Show bias again, but the StatCast expected numbers back me up here with Trevor Stephan. For expected stats, Stephan pitched to the same quality of contact as Kenley Jansen and Adam Ottavino. Jansen just got $32 million from the Red Sox, and Ottavino banked $14.5 million to resign with the Mets.
Stephan’s results certainly weren’t bad at all, but he posted results similar to Brock Burke or Garrett Whitlock. The latter is expected to be a starter in 2023 and Burke is a good but unexciting middle reliever. But Stephan has stuff that on some teams would make him the best candidate for closer. Of course, the Guardians have Emmanuel Clase, but I digress. Stephan is really good.
Who are you looking forward to breaking out in 2023? While I fully expect that there are names we aren’t even considering now, it’s nice to see that there are some names who may make their teams very glad they stuck with them just by believing in the StatCast data.