I spend a somewhat embarrassing amount of time obsessing about who the best active baseball players are. Statistics can tell us who’s having the best season or who has brought the most value to his teams throughout his career, but the idea of “best right now” is a little more nebulous. Is Jose Reyes better than Hanley Ramirez now, or is he just having a better season? How long does Clayton Kershaw have to be as great as he’s been this year before we consider him among the game’s elite pitchers?
This ties in well with another of my obsessions: music. It’s downright impossible to objectively rank the talents and accomplishments of musicians, but as many hours as I’ve spent dreaming up baseball player rankings, I’ve spent much more time ranking my favorite albums, songs, and artists. I’m not sure whether the upcoming exercise is an effort to add objectivity to a debate about great art or an attempt to celebrate the subjectivity of a debate about great athletes, but I couldn’t help but combine these two passions.
I made lists of the 20 best active baseball players and the 20 best active bands, in my opinion, and matched each player to a band based on some abstract similarity. Depending on your tastes, this list is either enhanced or marred by subjectivity. You may think Cole Hamels should have made the baseball list or My Morning Jacket should have made the music list, and I’d love to hear your opinions in the comments below, but at the moment, I’m more concerned with how they match up.
If you’re looking for Kanye West or Bon Iver (or Lady Gaga), keep in mind that this is a list of bands, not solo artists. Also, neither list is ranked here; they’re just the 20 best in some order. Without further ado:
Albert Pujols = Radiohead
For most of a decade, Pujols has been the best player in baseball, winning three MVP awards and probably deserving five or six. He’s aging, and we don’t know whether his mediocre 2011 is a sign of his decline or just an anomaly.
Radiohead has been the best band in the world for over a decade, releasing possibly the best album in three different years, and records worthy of best album discussion five or six times. We don’t know what to expect of the player or the band going foward, but even if they’re done as elite performers, they’re both firmly established among the best ever at what they do.
Adrian Gonzalez = Arcade Fire
Gonzalez has been a great player since 2006 and one of the best in the world since 2009, but because he played half his games in the vast pastures of Petco Park, only those who were paying attention knew how good he was.
Arcade Fire put out perhaps the best album of the decade, “Funeral,” in 2004, but because they come from Canada and Kanye West never produced a single for them, only those who were paying attention knew how good they were. In 2010, Arcade Fire’s “The Suburbs” won the Album of the Year Grammy and Gonzalez was traded to the friendly confines of Fenway Park.
And there were no more secrets.
Troy Tulowitzki = The Decemberists
Tulowitzki was a great player in 2007 and 2009, but suffered injuries in 2008 and early 2010 that kept him off the field. He came back last summer and crushed the ball for two months, continuing that hot streak into spring of 2011, only to fall back to earth slightly this summer. When he’s hot, Tulowitzki is the best player in baseball. When he’s hurt, those of us not on Mountain time tend to forget he exists.
Similarly, the Decemberists are capable of making some of the best music there is. “Picaresque” and “The Crane Wife” were stunning displays of unabashed pretention. “The Hazards of Love” must have been the result of an ACL tear or a broken wrist, but this year’s “The King is Dead” reestablished the Decemberists as a must-hear band.
Evan Longoria = The Shins
Evan Longoria was a hyped uberprospect long before he donned a glove for the Rays. Since he cracked the major league roster, he’s done nothing but deliver, making a strong case as the American League’s best player.
The Shins burst on the scene with a flourish, announcing their place when Garden State‘s Andrew Largeman declared that they’ll “change your life”. They’ve done nothing but deliver since, each of their three studio albums a neopsychedelic triumph.
Jose Bautista = Grizzly Bear
Bautista shuttled from team to team for five years before changing his swing and reinventing his game in 2010, introducing himself to the casual fan with 54 home runs.
Grizzly Bear debuted in the same year (2004), but never distinguished themselves from much of the Brooklyn indie scene until 2009’s otherworldly “Veckatimest”, whose lead single “Two Weeks” might be the song of the century so far. With all due respect to Barry Bonds (if he’s due any), Bautista’s 2011 has been the season of the century so far.
Alex Rodriguez = Wilco
Among the best players in the game throughout his twenties, Rodriguez has made several trips to the disabled list in his thirties. While he’s still elite when he’s on the field, he hasn’t had an MVP-caliber season since 2007.
Throughout the late ’90s and early ’00s, Wilco could be counted on for a classic album with every release. 2007’s “Sky Blue Sky” was their first misstep, and while they may have another great album in them, I see more DL trips in their future.
Robinson Cano = Modest Mouse
Everyone knows Robinson Cano is a great player. He hits for average, hits for power, and has some speed.
Modest Mouse is similarly in the spotlight. Several years into their career, their hits are mainstream radio fodder and their deep cuts are indie rock favorites.
Dustin Pedroia = Belle and Sebastian
What you may not know is that in the time both Pedroia and Cano have been everyday players, Pedroia has consistently been the better player. Cano may look like an athlete, while Pedroia looks more like a shoeshine boy, but Pedroia hits better (.369 career wOBA vs .357) and fields better (34 career fielding runs saved vs. negative 40).
Another thing you may not know is that Belle and Sebastian has been around since 1996, just as long as Modest Mouse, has put out seven studio albums, as has Modest Mouse, and has been consistently better than Modest Mouse. Modest Mouse may sound like rock stars, while Belle and Sebastian sound more fit to sing Sesame Street jingles, but the Scots make better music. I can’t point to any stats here, but I challenge you to listen to “If You’re Feeling Sinister” and disagree.
Ben Zobrist = The Walkmen
There’s a third second baseman who deserves a mention. I was surprised to see that Zobrist trails only Pujols and Longoria in fWAR since 2009 among position players, but Zobrist is a strong, versatile defender with a patient approach and some power (149 extra base hits since 2009).
The Walkmen live just as far under the radar as Zobrist, but they’ve put out six great albums, peaking with the masterfully understated “You and Me” in 2008.
Miguel Cabrera = Spoon
Cabrera has one skill: hitting. Fortunately for the Tigers, he’s about as good at it as anyone else in baseball, as his .391 career OBP and .552 career slugging percentage indicate.
Spoon has one skill: making straightforward rock albums. And they’re about as good as anyone at crafting catchy rock hits like “The Way We Get By” and “The Underdog”.
Andrew McCutchen = Fleet Foxes
At 24, McCutchen is the youngest player on my list. He already hits for average and power, plays a smooth center field, and steals bases at a great rate.
Fleet Foxes are barely two albums into their career, and are already regarded among the elite, having followed up their brilliantly folky self-titled debut with the more mature, esoteric “Helplessness Blues”. Expect big things from McCutchen and the Fleet Foxes over the next decade.
Matt Kemp = The Black Keys
Kemp is a gifted athlete with enormous potential who plays in the Hollywood spotlight. He’s been hyped for years and is finally coming through with a huge season in 2011, leading a pack of MVP contenders.
The Black Keys have had rock legend potential for even longer than Kemp has, making accessible blues-rock for a decade now. They broke through, to some extent, with 2010’s hard-rocking “Brothers”.
Joey Votto = Vampire Weekend
I have no idea why Joey Votto is like Vampire Weekend, but I couldn’t leave either off my list, as Votto is clearly one of the 20 best players in MLB and Vampire Weekend is one of my favorite bands. Both are young and should be in the spotlight for years. And Votto has kind of vampirey eyebrows.
Roy Halladay = OutKast
We can’t make a list of great baseball players without some pitchers, and there’s no arguing that Halladay is the best pitcher in the National League, if not all of baseball, right now.
As hard as it is to compare Halladay’s pitching numbers to Pujols’s or Longoria’s hitting numbers, it’s just as hard to compare OutKast’s brilliant hip-hop canon to Radiohead’s rock output. Halladay and OutKast are both the best at what they do. While OutKast may technically be broken up, its members continue to put out genre-defining masterpieces, the same way that Halladay continues to make National League hitters look as foolish as he made American League hitters look during the Blue Jays portion of his career.
Cliff Lee = The Roots
Another of the Phillies’ four aces, Lee has been in the league for ten years now, but didn’t become a great pitcher until 2008 (though he won 18 games in 2005). Lee won the Cy Young Award in ’08, and his hard work paid off when he signed with the Phillies in ’09 and became a postseason sensation, winning more huge October games with the Rangers in 2010.
The Roots toiled in relative obscurity throughout the 1990s, won their first Grammy for the single “You Got Me” in 1999, then became the foremost hip-hop band of the 2000s, achieving fame as Jimmy Fallon’s official “Late Night” house band in 2009 and winning three more Grammys in 2011.
Felix Hernandez = The National
At 25, Hernandez has already won a Cy Young Award and established himself as one of the game’s most dominant pitchers, his repertoire a stunning combination of power and beauty.
I’m all out of hip-hop “bands” to compare to pitchers, but The National are five albums into their career and grow stronger with each one. Matt Berninger’s rich baritone combines with the group’s lush orchestration the way Hernandez’s high-90s heat combines with the movement and placement of his cadre of off-speed pitches to baffle hitters.
Tim Lincecum = Of Montreal
Both freaks. Both geniuses.
Zack Greinke = Broken Social Scene
Grienke comes at you with everything. He’s got a high-90s fastball, and a devastating slider, and he’ll occasionally mix in a 50-mph curve that makes batters swing about half an hour before it hits the catcher’s mitt. He’s a bit of an enigma, showing great promise in his early twenties before nearly quitting baseball due to a social anxiety disorder, then coming back to win a Cy Young Award before being traded to the Brewers and missing his first month with the team due to a basketball injury.
Broken Social Scene claims eleven members, but moves guest musicians in and out of recordings like George Steinbrenner changed managers in the Billy Martin era. Their output is similarly unpredictable, mixing arena rock with jazzy instrumentals and experimental genre studies.
Justin Verlander = Deerhunter
Verlander is menacing on the mound, throwing 100 mph late into games, striking out a batter per inning, and building a case this year as the best pitcher in the American League.
Deerhunter frontman Bradford Cox is an exceedingly skinny 6’4″ with long and spindly limbs. His band’s music is similarly menacing, alternating slow, contemplative musings with bursts of noise and feedback. Deerhunter’s “Halcyon Digest” was, in my opinion, the best album released last year, perhaps as brilliant as Verlander’s two no-hitters.
CC Sabathia = The Flaming Lips
It seems like Sabathia has been around forever, making the playoffs with three different teams and blowing away hitters in both leagues. Given his nearly 300-pound frame, it’s surprising that Sabathia has aged so well. Among active pitchers, he trails only Halladay, Tim Hudson, and the ageless Tim Wakefield in wins.
If we could establish a metric encompassing the cumulative value of a band’s full catalog, The Flaming Lips might lead all active bands. Their 15 studio albums over the past 25 years have rewarded listeners in myriad ways, from the ambitious four-disc experiment “Zaireeka” to the crowd-pleasing “Yoshimi Battles the Pink Robots” to the space-traveling “Embryonic”. Like Sabathia’s weight, The Flaming Lips’ oddness made them an unlikely candidate to sell out shows 25 years into their career, but they keep putting out great music.
And a few more player-band comparisons beyond the top 20:
Ryan Braun probably deserved to make the list, but his bond to the Beastie Boys based on religion seemed weak. Besides, I established that hip-hop groups were more like pitchers, for some reason. Given their longevity, maybe the Beastie Boys are actually Tim Wakefield. Clayton Kershaw would have made the list if not for Sabathia’s recent unhittable stretch, but I had no idea what band to match him to.
To read about other players who just missed the cut, click here.
Ichiro = The Strokes
Both enormous sensations when they hit the American scene in 2001. Both have produced steadily solid work in the decade since. Still, after 2001, I expected more of both of them.
Ken Griffey, Jr. = The White Stripes
Once at the pinnacle of their fields, each retired recently and made me feel old for having been a fan.
Ryan Howard = Dave Matthews Band
Because fans tend to obsess so much over a single skill (home runs; blending of unique instruments in rock ballads), that we neglect their significant shortcomings (strikeouts, defense, mostly unlistenable albums since “Under the Table and Dreaming”) and pay way too much to watch them play.
Derek Jeter = U2
Because they both earned their place among the all-time greats, but are both wildly overrated and obscenely overpaid in their twilight years based on past accomplishments.
John Lackey = Black Eyed Peas
Because both were once very good, then got very rich, then got very, very bad.
Yuniesky Betancourt = Train
Because both are so awful I don’t know why so many teams/radio stations keep playing them.