A few weeks ago on this site, during the conversations about the best everyday player of the 1970s (see Pete Rose for the posing of the question and Joe Morgan for the consensus answer), there was some pondering about who was the most underrated player of that decade. Among the players mentioned were Ken Singleton, Bobby Murcer, Ted Simmons, and Reggie Smith. Bobby Grich and Darrell Evans also probably deserve to be part of the discussion, though a significant part of their quietly effective work was done in the 1980s.
My own opinion on who was the most underrated player of the 1970s may seem to be telegraphed by the card featured today. The truth is, I’m not sure. (I almost went with the card of Ted Simmons, who I believe—mainly because of the position he played—has a stronger Hall of Fame argument than Singleton, Smith, or Murcer.) Of course, “underrated” is a shadowy concept, as it not only judges performance but also judges recognition of that performance. With that in mind, here’s my case for Reggie Smith:
1. He was a great player.
- He was an outstanding hitter. He hit for power and average and drew a lot of walks, posting lifetime batting/on-base/slugging averages of .287/.366/.489, strong numbers that are even stronger when you consider that he spent the prime of his career in pitcher’s ballparks, and all of his career during a pitcher-friendly era. His lifetime OPS+ was 137, better than the career marks not only of Singleton, Simmons, and Murcer, but also of Johnny Bench, Joe Morgan, Tony Perez, and Carl Yastrzemski, to name four Hall of Famers from Reggie Smith’s era.
- He was an outstanding fielder. Murcer also gets points in this area, and though Simmons wasn’t considered a strong defensive catcher he rates special mention for manning that demanding and vital defensive position while still anchoring his team’s offense. The slow-footed Singleton, on the other hand, could not compare to Smith as a fielder. Smith was a Gold Glove-winning centerfielder early in his career, and was an excellent rightfielder throughout his prime. Singleton is very close to Smith as a hitter, and you could argue that he has an edge in offensive contribution to his team simply because he was able to appear in more of his team’s games than Smith, who often struggled with injuries. But Smith’s fielding, in my mind, at least brings him even with Singleton as a player.
2. He is an underrated player.
- He was always in the shadows, even on his own teams. When he first came up to the majors, with the Red Sox, he was in Carl Yastrzemski’s shadow, and during his prime on the Dodgers I don’t think he was ever considered the star of the team. I know when I was a kid I would have named Steve Garvey and Ron Cey ahead of him, Garvey because he was among the four or five biggest stars in the game, and Cey because he had a gigantic April one year that was featured in Sports Illustrated. Plus he had that nickname, The Penguin. Reggie Smith’s only nickname, as far as I knew, was “The Other Reggie.”
- My guess is that, unless you are a Cardinals fan, you may have been a little surprised by the card featured today, either not knowing or forgetting that Reggie Smith was ever on the Cardinals. In fact, he played well for them for more than two seasons (the only time he ever drove in 100 runs in a season was with the Cardinals). I guess my point is that recognized superstars don’t generally have forgotten stops in the middle of their careers.
- His own general managers didn’t really recognize his worth. He was traded twice in his career. The first trade was by the Red Sox, who sent him and a cooked Ken Tatum to the Cardinals for Rick Wise and Bernie Carbo. It wasn’t a terrible trade—Wise was a decent starting pitcher, and Bernie Carbo offered a facsimile of Smith’s offensive output, at least against righthanders—but it doesn’t reflect that Smith was a player with elite skills. The second trade was worse: the Cardinals handed Smith to the Dodgers for decent catcher Joe Ferguson and two career minor leaguers named Bob Detherage and Fred Tisdale.
- He was the “Other Reggie.” I know I’ve already mentioned this, but it bears repeating. No matter what he did, he could never become more than a whisper beside the constant neon scream that was the guy simply known as Reggie. I believe you could make a case that the Two Reggies were close to equal as players, and that there were facets of the game in which The Other Reggie was clearly superior, but I know that when I was a kid, i.e., when I was immediately and passionately involved with the baseball era in question, I would have ranked The Other Reggie far below Reggie in the hierarchy of baseball stars. I saw him as an echo of the real thing.
- His page on baseball-reference.com is not sponsored. This is not the case with any of the other players mentioned above.
I wonder if this last part is due in part to the fact that he moved around during his career. Maybe he never quite belonged to any particular fan base, so no one is around to sing his praises. So I’m singing his praises. Whose praises would you like to sing? In other words, the Nagging Question:
Who is the most underrated player of the 1970s?