The Greatest Active…

In my post about pitcher wins, I was tempted to refer to CC Sabathia as “possibly the greatest active pitcher”, but with Roy Halladay and Johan Santana still active (and in the case of the former, still great), I decided to avoid the epithet. It’s interesting to note that four of the game’s greatest pitchers of all-time (Clemens, Maddux, Pedro, and the Big Unit) all left the game in the past few years, as did most of the next tier (Glavine, Schilling, Kevin Brown, Smoltz…), making it a little less obvious who the greatest active pitcher is. Similarly, with Bonds out of the game and Griffey and the Big Hurt retiring this summer, the greatest active position player is subject to some debate.

This tangent did get me thinking, though, about what makes a baseball player the greatest active player at his position. Accumulated statistics? An otherworldly peak? Sustained excellence for a few years?

If tasked with selecting the best active players, I would probably limit my stat base to the last three seasons, likely assigning the most weight to the current season and the least to two years ago. The word greatest, however, especially in sports, comes with an all-time context. I wouldn’t argue that the greatest pitcher is the guy with the most career wins or strikeouts (what Jamie Moyer has done in his 40s is a remarkable achievement, but he’s never been better than, say, Roy Oswalt). I wouldn’t argue that the greatest hitter is the guy with the best OPS this season (though I might take Miguel Cabrera over anyone else for one at-bat with the game on the line). But I do believe that all-time accomplishments and current success are both elements of the “greatest active” argument.

For the sake of this exercise, I’ll measure greatness like this, using fangraphs as a source:

Career WAR/10
plus
Career WAR/150 games played (30 starts for starting pitchers)
plus
Peak WAR season/2
plus
Current season WAR/4

This way, our final number includes an accumulated value factor weighted slightly more than anything else (since it represents more than a year’s WAR for anyone who’s played more than 10 seasons), about one season’s WAR (assuming the average player plays 150 games per season) for average value throughout a player’s career, a half season’s WAR for peak value and almost a quarter season’s war for current value, which matters in this discussion, but not to such an extent that a bad 2010 shouldn’t eliminate an aging candidate.

Just for fun, and to see if my formula passes the naked eye test, I’ll take a guess as to what the results might look like.

Greatest Active Pitcher
Johan Santana (with Halladay second)

Greatest Active Catcher
Ivan Rodriguez (with nobody close)

Greatest Active First Baseman
Jim Thome (with Todd Helton standing by in case we can’t count Thome as a first baseman anymore)

Greatest Active Second Baseman
Chase Utley (wouldn’t it be interesting if Placido Polanco was 2nd and the Phillies had the top 2 second basemen and the top two pitchers named Roy?)

Greatest Active Third Baseman
Alex Rodriguez (or Chipper Jones, if ARod’s a shortstop)

Greatest Active Shortstop
Derek Jeter (unless ARod counts as a shortstop)

Greatest Active Outfield
Manny Ramirez
Vlad Guerrero (throw in Ichiro if we count Vlad as a DH)
Bobby Abreu

How do these guesses compare to the formula’s results? I threw 111 active players into a database, dropped in some numbers from fangraphs, and came up with this:

Greatest Active Pitcher
Roy Halladay

Halladay’s position at the top didn’t surprise me, but his margin of victory did. His 17.63 score was almost 20% better than any other pitcher. Halladay’s career WAR of 61.5 is second to Andy Pettitte among active pitchers. His 5.86 WAR/30 starts is better than anyone I studied. His peak season of 8 WAR was topped only last year, by both Zack Greinke and Tim Lincecum.

Andy Pettitte was second, which shouldn’t surprise me, since he’s been around forever, was the ace of all those championship staffs and a capable #2 or #3 guy on all those $200 million, 100-win teams this past decade.

Santana was a close third, with Sabathia, Oswalt, Greinke, and Lincecum within a point.
Greinke’s and Lincecum’s positions made me wonder if I put too much weight on recent results, but on closer examination, these guys deserve it. Both have incredible numbers per 30 starts, with Lincecum behind only Halladay and Greinke behind only those two and Santana. Any conversation about the best current pitcher would start with those two (and include Halladay and Felix Hernandez), so why shouldn’t they be considered among the greatest active pitchers?

Greatest Active Catcher
Ivan Rodriguez

This is no surprise, but I didn’t think it would be this close. Joe Mauer’s four recent MVP-worthy campaigns and Jorge Posada’s long history as an above-average (and sometimes great-hitting) catcher put them second and third, respectively, both within 1.6 points of Pudge.

Greatest Active First Baseman
Albert Pujols

I don’t know why I thought this would go to anyone but Pujols. Thome and Helton have been around longer, but neither has accumulated as many WAR, has an average value within 35% of Pujols’s, or has had a season anything like Pujols’s 9.5 WAR in 2003 (or his 9.3 in 2008, for that matter). Pujols is within a point and a half of the greatest active player (I imagine you know by now who that will be), and barring injury, will almost certainly be the greatest active player within a few years.

Lance Berkman finished fourth (after the three men I named above) and would be very close to the top three outfielders if we counted him there.

Greatest Active Second Baseman
Chase Utley

And it’s not even close. Utley’s 15.5 score is almost 5 points better than any other second baseman. Even if we counted Alfonso Soriano here, Utley would be the greatest by 37 percent.

Placido Polanco finished third, in a veritable tie with Dustin Pedroia. I suppose if I tinkered with the formula to give more weight to accumulated stats and less to peak value, Polanco might be the second greatest active second baseman. It would probably be even more apt to say that there’s only one great second baseman in the game today, but that Pedroia, Robinson Cano, and Brandon Phillips may someday make it a group.

Greatest Active Third Baseman
Alex Rodriguez

We’ve got a lot of great third baseman playing right now, but this one wasn’t close. ARod’s 23.2 WAR make him a clear choice for the greatest active player.

Chipper Jones had a higher score than anyone but ARod and Pujols. If we counted ARod as a shortstop or Chipper as an outfielder, Larry Jones would be on our all-greatest active team. As it is, he’ll have to settle for an at-bat off the bench.

Adrian Beltre, based largely on his monstrous 2004 season (the only double-digit WAR season any active player has put up), had a better score than any catcher and was essentially tied with the top shortstop and second baseman. David Wright’s fourth-place score of 14.51 may clear the “great” threshold as well.

Greatest Active Shortstop
Derek Jeter

You knew this was coming, right? With no disrespect to Utley and Jeter, there really aren’t a lot of great middle infielders in the game right now. Hanley Ramirez was 2.5 points behind Jeter based on an impressive 5.7 WAR/150 games, which trails only Pujols, ARod, and Utley among position players. After that, it’s a long way to Miguel Tejada, Jimmy Rollins, and Omar “please don’t call him a Hall of Famer” Vizquel.

Greatest Active Outfield
Andruw Jones
Jim Edmonds
Manny Ramirez

I didn’t see this coming. I suppose I shouldn’t be too surprised that WAR likes two slick-fielding, power-hitting centerfielders who have been around forever. I’m a little surprised they both finished higher than Manny, but Manny’s defense helps to explain that. This isn’t all about longevity, as both Jones and Edmonds had 8.3-WAR seasons (Edmonds in 2004, Jones in 2005). No other active outfielder can say that except JD Drew, who scored an 8.5 in 2004.

Drew finished fifth, just behind Vlad Guerrero and just ahead of Bobby Abreu. Those on the “Ichiro is overrated” bandwagon may feel vindicated when they learn that my formula considers him just the seventh-greatest active outfielder, behind two other rightfielders, and closer to Mike Cameron and Grady Sizemore than Andrew Jones and Jim Edmonds.

Greatest Active Designated Hitter
David Ortiz

This is a tough one, as WAR doesn’t look too highly upon those who don’t wear gloves. If we considered Thome, Guerrero or Jason Giambi a DH, they would all finish well ahead of Ortiz, through I doubt any of them accumulated as many WAR while designated hitting as Big Papi did. I’ll leave Ortiz off my all-greatest active lineup:

1. Derek Jeter, ss
2. Chase Utley, 2b
3. Albert Pujols, 1b
4. Alex Rodriguez, 3b
5. Manny Ramirez, lf
6. Jim Thome, dh
7. Andruw Jones, cf
8. Jim Edmonds, rf
9. Ivan Rodriguez, c
Roy Halladay, p

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5 Responses to The Greatest Active…

  1. Ryan says:

    Interesting post… I think that team certainly passes the eye test, but in a couple years most of those guys will be retired. Who do you think are the best active players, period? Not by accumulative stats, but how they’ll be viewed at the end of their careers? In other words, I think nobody bumps Pujols or Utley off, but how long before Mauer overtakes Pudge if he keeps playing like he is? How about Hanley, or Wright?

    Pitchers are tougher I think, and are clearly more fragile and unpredictable,, but you came to almost the exact conclusion as the NY Times on Thursday… Check out the link below. It’s on deserving Cy Young candidates this year, and guess who wind up on top: Felix and Halladay.

    http://bats.blogs.nytimes.com/2010/09/02/keeping-score-determining-a-most-valuable-pitcher/

    • Bryan says:

      Ryan, I think “Best Active” is a much easier study, and one that’s done all the time. It’s pretty clear that Pujols, Mauer, and Hanley are the best at their positions right now, although Miguel Cabrera may have a case at first based on his results in the tougher league.

      Second and third are more interesting. Cano and Pedroia may already be passing Utley in current talent, and both might someday have accomplished more, but not any time soon. ARod might be the sixth or seventh best 3b in the game right now. I’d certainly put Longoria and Zimmerman ahead of Wright.

      Outfielders are not so easy. Crawford, Holliday, Hamilton? Ryan Braun’s probably the best hitter and Franklin Gutierrez is the best hitter, but neither has the other’s skill. Seems like Matt Kemp could be in this group if he cared enough. Justin Upton and Colby Rasmus could be on the way. I’ll throw some numbers at this question one of these days.

      It’s hard to tell who will take the greatest torch when Edmonds and Jones retire. We’ve got some of the best infielders in the history of the game playing right now, but no Mays, Mantle, and Snider in the outfield.

      As for pitchers, I wish I’d made your point about a great pitcher’s shelf life on my original post. I mentioned Halladay, Hernandez, Greinke, and Lincecum as candidates for the Best Active Pitcher title. Probably need to throw in Cliff Lee and Adam Wainwright. Three years ago, the group would’ve included Brandon Webb and Jake Peavy. Six years ago it was Santana and a few furlongs to the rest of the pack. Three years from now, we might be talking about Mat Latos and Brian Matusz and remembering Ubaldo Jimenez the way we vaguely recall Webb’s greatness now. This game produces a lot more Daniel Cabreras and Bryan Bullingtons than Tim Hudsons and Roy

      Thanks for commenting.

  2. Nick says:

    I caught a White Sox game over the weekend. It completely blew my mind that Andruw Jones was still playing in the majors. I thought he retired to Curacao already.
    And now for my Philly-centric spin. Bobby Abreu doesn’t deserve a spot in the “current best” outfield. It’s because of that phony Gold Glove that he won while in Philly that skewed everything. I’m convinced. People here lost a lot of faith in the baseball writers that year. Bobby A cares about defense only marginally more than Manny. He’s the Derek Jeter of outfielders: makes plays but lacks range and has a good throw.
    Thank you for the mention of the Phillies having the 2 best Roys and 2 best second basemen (kinda).

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