This year Dice-K is getting less attention than Jed Lowrie, but he's pitching like he invented the fastball. If his lead holds up this evening against the Orioles, he'll pick up his 15th win of the season, equaling his total from last year, despite the fact that it is only the middle of August and he missed most of June. More importantly, those fifteen victories are balanced by only two losses and an ERA (2.72) that will rank in the top ten in baseball once he gets a few more innings.
It's true that a Dice-K start is still a bit stressful for Red Sox fans. He doesn't seem to like to pitch from the wind-up and he always seems to throw a hundred pitches by the fifth inning. But it is hard to argue with the results and although he's giving up even more walks than he did in 2007, he is extraordinarily stingy with the base hits. His Opponent's Batting Average, .208, is the best in baseball for pitchers with 120+ innings. It's time to start acknowledging that he is something pretty special. These are the numbers of a legitimate Ace. Dice-K headlines my team of underrated performers from 2008.
Yadier Molina - C - St. Louis Cardinals
This is the youngest Molina's fourth full season and he is still just 25. He has long been considered among the top defensive backstops in the baseball and seem primed to pick up his first Gold Glove at the end of the season. Even more exciting for Cardinals fans is that Yadier has significantly improved his offensive contribution for the third consecutive season, hitting over .300 and posting the lowest strikeout rate in the MLB (14.6 PA/K). It remains to be seen whether he will develop power (6 HR in 2008), but regardless, Yadier now possesses enough tools to be a starting catcher in the big leagues for a decade or more, which is no small feat.
Jason Giambi - 1B - New York Yankees
Joe Girardi refuses to make him a full-time first baseman or give him consistent starts against lefties, but the Giambino has once again recovered from a modest April to post very solid overall numbers. This will be the third season since his steroid-confessing cancer-shortened 2004 in which he gets to 30 HR and post an OPS over 900. He may not be worth $20 Million, but there are very few players in baseball who can do what he does in 140 games. Next year he'll probably be doing it somewhere other than New York and I bet the mighty Yankees will have trouble filling his shoes.
Mark DeRosa - 2B/UT - Chicago Cubs
One has to wonder: if the Cubs had managed to trade for Brian Roberts this past offseason, would Mark DeRosa have seen in fewer at-bats? DeRosa has played 71 games at second base...and 72 at other places on the diamond. He has a better OPS when he plays 3B or LF than when he's up the middle, so his lack of position security hasn't really effected his hitting. DeRosa already has career highs in Runs (79), HR (14), BB (60), SB (5), and OPS (828), and needs only three more RBI to tie his career best (74). DeRosa's consistency and flexibility have allowed the Cubs to whether injuries to Soriano and Lee, as well as spell Aramis Ramirez and Kosuke Fukudome. Jim Hendry was heavily criticized when he gave DeRosa $13 Million for three years going into 2007, but DeRosa has had the two best years of his career, all things considered, and looks like a deal this season ($4.5 Million) compared to Orlando Hudson ($6.25 M), Brian Roberts ($6.3 M), and Jeff Kent ($9 M).
An honorable mention needs to be made for Placido Polanco, perennially underrated, who is once again hitting well above .300 for Detroit and playing stellar defense for the same price as DeRosa.
Melvin Mora - 3B - Baltimore Orioles
After a second consecutive sub-par season in 2007, it looked like Mora's days as a regular might be nearing their end, but he has rebounded in a big way this year, helping to Orioles to remain respectable during their significant rebuilding process. He is going to attain the 100-RBI plateau for only the second time in his career and the first since 2004 and may make a run at his career mark for homers (27) as well. At this time last year, Mora looked like more contract baggage that the Orioles would be unable to unload, but if he can match this numbers for only $9 Million in 2009, Mora would be a outright steal for a contender who needs 3B help (Dodgers, Twins, Mariners, etc.).
Jhonny Peralta - SS - Cleveland Indians
Only Hanley Ramirez (929) and Jose Reyes (851) have posted better OPS numbers than Jhonny Picks (815) in 2008. He is way ahead of AL All-Star favorites Derek Jeter (760) and Michael Young (751). He is second among shortstops in HR (19) and tops in RBI (67), despite playing for a team that has really struggled to score runs at times this season. There has been some speculation about how much longer Peralta will remain a shortstop, with slick-fielding Asdrubel Cabrera already looking fairly comfortable at the major-league level, but Peralta fielding statistics have been well above the league average the last two seasons. He is under contract until 2010 for a very reasonable price and he is only 26. If the Indians want to supplant him, they could probably get a great return on the trade market while allowing him to remain at his favored position.
Raul Ibanez - LF - Seattle Mariners
Ibanez seems to be a candidate for the all-underrated team every season, partially because his impressive tools don't include the 30-HR power common amongst corner outfielders. Ibanez is, however, on his way to his third consecutive 100-RBI season, despite the Mariners terrible offense and he may set career marks in doubles, average, and OPS. Ibanez will be a free agent this offseason and his age (36) might scare teams away from a long-term contract. But, he clearly still has a lot to offer on offense, especially for a team who won't rely on him as their primary middle-of-the-order presence.
Curtis Granderson - CF - Detroit Tigers
It would be hard to duplicate the season he had in 2007, but because of Detroit's disappointing performance as a team and his early-season injury, people seem to have completely forgotten about one of the most exciting young players in the game. In some ways, Granderson is actually showing improvement over last year (a scary thought) as his walk rate and OBP have gone up, while his strikeout rate has gone down, and his average and slugging have remained essentially the same. In far fewer at-bats than last year, he's still on pace for around 20 HR and 100 runs scored.
Andre Ethier - RF - Los Angeles Dodgers
He's the least well-known name in the flabbergasting Dodger outfield rotation that now features Manny Ramirez, Andruw Jones, Matt Kemp, and Juan Pierre, but with the exception of Manny, who hit most of his dingers in Boston, Ethier has as manny homers as any of them (tied with Kemp for the team lead at 15). Ethier doesn't have Kemp's raw tools, but he has better plate discipline (38 BB/66 K/393 AB compared to 35/123/463 for Kemp) and shows a fair amount of power. Unlike Grady Little, who never seemed to believe in Ethier, Joe Torre has continued to favor him over his veteran alternatives (Pierre and Jones).
Fred Lewis - DH/OF - San Francisco Giants
As a bit of an honorable mention, I'd like to bring Fred Lewis to your attention. He's been asked to fill some pretty big shoes, taking over for Barry Bonds in left field. Last season, many scouts thought he was a pretty borderline prospect, even after his much-publicized cycle. However, the Giants chose to give him an everyday shot this season (what did they have to lose?) and it seems to have paid off. He looks like Granderson-lite, hitting out of the leadoff spot. He's got great speed, power to all fields, and hits for a decent average (.284), but also has a propensity to strikeout (114 K). Granderson raised his OBP in each of his first three seasons. If Lewis can do the same, while developing 15-20 HR power, he will be a very valuable part of San Francisco's new look.