Originally posted on Fangraphs  |  Last updated 9/11/12

Commander Dave Cameron already declared Angel Pagan the most underrated player in baseball last week, but when you shift the universe from league to a team, things change. Ask a Giants fan how great Pagan has been this year, for example, and you’ll probably get as much gushing as you’ll get for a newcomer. On the other hand, you might be able to ask that same fan about Gregor Blanco and get nothing but a shrug in response.

That’s too bad, because Blanco might be the most underrated player on the Giants.

It’s really the same formula that gave Pagan his star-sized value with less-than-star looking stats: do things that don’t show up in your traditional box score like defense, patience, and base-running. Of course, none of what Blanco does is on the same scale as his outfield running mate, but here’s why we’ve narrowed our focus.

The fact is, Blanco has put up two wins above replacement, and that’s a traditional bench mark for an average player. If this was a team without holes in the field, he might be an extra bit and an extra bit alone, but the Giants began the season with a platoon situation in right field and are ending the season with a missing star in left field. Blanco’s average work has been a boon in multiple times of need.

It might be easy to look at this shark’s fielding number and dismiss his WAR total as a one-year blip dependent on the vagaries of an oscillating single statistic. But something important happened this year for the first time: Blanco was shifted primarily to the corner outfield. He will log more than three-quarters of his innings at the corners for the first time in his career. Now we can look back at his scratch defensive numbers in a new light. He was a scratch center fielder, and it’s not a stretch at all to call him a plus corner outfielder. The eye test agrees, and also suggests Blanco should be manning right — especially because of a dangerous triples alley — and that Hunter Pence should be handling the easier left field in AT&T park.

The rest of the package is about the same as it’s ever been. He has patience — his 11.8% walk rate is second only to Brandon Belt‘s among the regulars — and doesn’t reach at balls outside the zone. His career reach rate (22.0%, average is usually around 28%) is in the best fifty since 2008 among batters with more than 1000 plate appearances.

And Blanco adds value on the basepaths as a high-success base stealer (87.5% success rate this season). It’s worth a note to say that he does so with fewer high-leverage gaffes than Pagan seems to find himself enjoying from time to time. He’s a great fourth outfielder, and, according to the numbers this year, an average third outfielder if pressed into service.

Of course, he strikes out a little too much for a guy with less-than-average power (23.3% this year, 20% is average), and that has kept his batting average down this year. But maybe this doesn’t have to be. Despite having a better-than-average swinging strike rate (7.4%, 8.5% is average) Blanco is striking out at a career-worst rate. It might have something to do with his career-high swinging strike three rate (16.5%, last year it was 8.5%). For some reason, his whiffs have come with two strikes this season, and that’s no lock to continue, given his history. And this is not to say he’s without flaws.

When Melky Cabrera got his news, the Giants turned to a collection of outfielders including Blanco and Justin Christian (and maybe some Brett Pill action) to replace him. Nobody seemed enthused about the group, so the team continued to pursue high-priced Alfonso Soriano. That didn’t work out, so the Giants went to the scrap heap of mid-season free agents and found Xavier Nady to be the savior. Then Nady hurt himself in the middle of some terrible defensive play in left field. Now the Giants have turned back to Gregor Blanco, seemingly with no other place to go.

You know what, though? It’s been since 2008 since Nady was above replacement. And Soriano might be a three-and-a-half-to-four win player at this point, but he’s paid $18 million a year. Blanco? He’ll put up a win and a half less than Soriano while costing $516,000 — and he’s under team control for another three years.

It’s those kind of numbers that make this often forgotten, but usually useful outfielder the most under-rated Giant.


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