When we were assigned to write a Moneyball-inspired post, I immediately thought of Nick Swisher. Not only is Moneyball about seeing value in traditionally undervalued places, but Swish became a member of the A's organization right in the heart of Billy Beane's success as a GM.
If you haven't read Michael Lewis' book about Beane's running of the Oakland organization, I'll give you a quick primer. In order for the small-market A's to compete with the big boys spending boatloads of money (namely, the Yankees and Red Sox), they had to find "inefficiencies" in the market. What Beane found, thanks largely to sabermetrics, was that traditional statistics (primarily batting average, speed and contact ability) and scouts put too much emphasis on the wrong aspects of players' games. What they found was that on-base percentage and power were undervalued compared to the aforementioned stats, and correlated more with actually scoring runs. (And they could live with all the strikeouts those guys tallied, because they were going deep into counts and swinging for the fences.) So Beane, working with a $40 million payroll (the third lowest in MLB), won 103 games in 2002, tied with the Yankees for the most in baseball. And in the midst of that season came a typical Moneyball draft: lots of college players headlined by a Three True Outcome (HR, BB, K) machine named Nick Swisher.
According to Moneyball, Billy Beane was so infatuated with Swisher that he avoided scouting him in person so he wouldn't "show his hand" to other teams... Beane "wanted to fly across the country to watch a few of Swisher's games, but his scouting department told him that if he did, word would quickly spread to the rest of Major League Baseball that Billy Beane was onto Nick Swisher... 'Operation Shutdown,' the scouts called their project to keep Billy as far away from Swisher as they could."
Beane spoke of [Swisher] "in the needy tone of a man who has been restrained for too long from seeing his beloved..."
The young outfielder batted .323/.450/.613 at Ohio State and went 16th overall to Beane's A's. Oakland owned seven draft picks prior to the second round that year, and used the first for Swish (and the second for Joe Blanton, FYI). All seven picks were collegiate players, another Moneyball theme; since they have a higher rate of reaching the big leagues, a team with a lower payroll has to take fewer risks, and that includes their draft strategy, where instead of taking a high-risk/high-reward type (usually a high-schooler), they'll opt for the safer pedigree of the NCAA.
So Swisher continued his Moneyball-type ways moving through the A's system. In 320 minor league games, he posted a .261/.381/.476 line with 300 strikeouts, eerily similar to his ML line over 1000+ games (.254/.360/.467 and 923 K's). As you can see, his IsoD (isolated discipline) and OBP remained very good and consistent from level to level. But because of their low payroll, the A's traded him after he signed a lucrative long-term contract. The White Sox were (very) willing takers, trading Gio Gonzalez (y'all know about him), Fautino De Los Santos (a fire-balling reliever) and Ryan Sweeney (a serviceable outfielder) for one of Billy Beane's favorites.
After a tumultuous season on the South Side (I blame Ozzie Guillen), Brian Cashman got Swisher (and Kanekoa Texeira) for 50 cents on the dollar, sending Wilson Betemit, Jeff Marquez and Jhonny Nunez to Chicago. Swish has been a stalwart in rightfield since then, and has gone somewhat under the radar despite being a very solid and affordable addition thanks to playing next to the likes of Derek Jeter, A-Rod, Mark Teixeira, Mo Rivera and CC Sabathia. Despite consecutive seasons of 3.2 and 4.2 fWAR (which was a career best) with the Yanks, 2011 is shaping up as another career year (he's already at 4.2 fWAR), due to a large boost in his defensive prowess.
After an awful start to the season (.649 OPS through May) when it looked like his 2012 club option would be declined, Swish turned it on (.933 OPS since May), and is right on pace for a typical Swisher-esque season.
So Nick Swisher earns my vote as the Yankees' most underrated player of 2011. He has exhibited the classic Moneyball-type skills (OBP, power, K's, college pedigree) while being underpaid and versatile enough to play a solid outfield, firstbase and - when needed - relief pitcher.