Almost five years ago, when this blog was Kris Bryant, certain it was full of potential impact but still trying to prove it was anything more than Luis Valbuena, I wrote about the greatest active players at each position at the time. This was no scientific study- rather, it was a rumination on what “greatness” meant and how one could use Wins Above Replacement to balance accumulated value, peak talent, and current status.
Subjective as this assessment may have been, the results were solid. Could one argue against the assertion that, in 2010, Alex Rodriguez and Albert Pujols were the greatest active players in Major League Baseball? Was there a “greater” active pitcher than Roy Halladay or a “greater” catcher than Ivan Rodriguez?
I came across this post recently, almost a baseball generation later. My first impression was that both Rodriguez and Pujols have fallen ludicrously far since 2010, but that both are active, and it’s hard to imagine anyone passing them for the “greatest active” title in the five interceding years. My second thought was the that game has changed tremendously in those five years, from the tail end of an extreme hitters’ era to the heart of a pitchers’ paradise, when older players are finding it harder to secure a job, while younger players are dominating the game to an extent not familiar to most living baseball fans. There aren’t many veterans in today’s game still putting up big numbers while their Hall of Fame tickets are all-but-punched.
With all this in mind, I think it’s time to renew this analysis with current numbers. Rather than acknowledging the shortcomings of my 2010 model and trying to build a better one, I thought I would refresh the data under the same, admittedly dubious, framework.
Let’s give 2010 me the floor for a moment, shall we?
“…using fangraphs as a source:
Career WAR/150 games played (30 starts for starting pitchers)
Peak WAR season/2
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.”
“Current Season WAR”, in this case, represents complete 2014 WAR. A month’s numbers are too volatile to assign any meaning to them that may unduly influence such weighty proceedings.
As I did in the first Obama administration, when I had but a single infant at home and found a gray hair maybe once a week under the right lights, I thought I would take a guess at the results before downloading the data and pretending my conclusions were anything but speculative. Here’s a layman’s take on the greatest active lineup:
C- Joe Mauer, or Buster Posey if we want an active catcher
1B- Pujols, with Miguel Cabrera mounting a challenge
2B- Chase Utley, though Robinson Cano must be dangerously close
SS- Um… Rollins? Tulowitzki? Ok, I’ll go with Tulo, based on the per 150 factor.
3B- Rodriguez, if we count him here despite the fact that he’ll probably retire with more games played as a shortstop than as a third baseman. Adrian Beltre would make a more-than-adequate replacement.
OF- Ichiro, Beltran, and… could it be Trout, who had yet to turn three when Rodriguez made his big-league debut?
P- On accumulated value, it’s Hudson or Buehrle. On peak and current greatness, it’s Kershaw or Felix. I’ll go the middle route and take CC Sabathia.
Let’s test these assumptions against the formula established above.
Greatest Active Catcher
Mauer narrowly outpaces Buster Posey, 13.88 to 13.48, which suggests to me that the formula gives due credit to career value (Mauer’s 44.8 WAR nearly double Posey’s), rather than overcrediting Posey’s slightly higher peak, better average production (not weighed down by thirtysomething seasons at first base), or current value. Victor Martinez comes in a relatively distant third.
Greatest Active First Baseman
This one’s still a blowout. As great as Cabrera’s 2010s have been, he still lags Pujols’s impressive 6.27 WAR per 150 games, and Cabrera’s personal-best 7.4-WAR season would rank as the weakest season in Pujols’s seven-year prime (2003-2009). The resurgent Mark Teixeira noses out the sill-great Adrian Gonzalez for third. David Ortiz, easily the greatest active DH, finishes between Teixeira and Gonzalez.
Greatest Active Second Baseman
No surprise at the top, but despite how accustomed I’ve grown to seeing Ben Zobrist’s name hear the top of the annual WAR leaderboard, I’m still surprised to see him shown as “greater” than Cano, Dustin Pedroia, and Ian Kinsler, who finish third, fourth, and fifth, respectively.
Greatest Active Shortstop
The best thing to do here may be to anoint Rodriguez the greatest active shortstop and let one of the third-base runners-up take the title there, since Ramirez trails the top four at the hot corner. For now, since I designated ARod a third baseman, we’ll give the nod to Hanley, who’s hardly resembled an infielder, let alone a shortstop, of late, but whose 13.5 greatness score beats out Tulo’s 12.70, Rollins’s 12.65, and Jose Reyes’s 11.99.
Greatest Active Third Baseman
For the first 90 or so years of organized baseball, third base was such a wasteland that Pie Traynor was widely regarded as the greatest player ever to play the position. Traynor has roughly the same career WAR as Denny Lyons or Sherm Lollar. Today, according to my framework, four of the nine greatest active position players are third basemen. Even if we shift Rodriguez and his MLB-best 22.65 greatness score to shortstop and give Adrian Beltre (17.67) this title, we’re leaving David Wright (14.98) and Evan Longoria (14.57) out in the cold despite scores that would have topped the catcher or shortstop ratings or cracked a three-man outfield. Josh Donaldson and Chase Headley also crack double digits, enough for an honorable mention at most other positions.
ARod is a DH now and was a shortstop for a long and illustrious prime, so there’s an easy out, but it’s only right to acknowledge, even in the post-Chipper-and-Rolen era, that we’re still in a golden age for third basemen.
Greatest Active Outfield
That’s right- the greatest active outfielder, by this measure, was two years old when the greatest active player made his MLB debut in July of 1994. In three (almost) full seasons, Trout accumulated enough career value (29.4 WAR) to place him tenth among outfielders, .2 wins behind 13-year veteran Coco Crisp for ninth. Not only is his 10.5-WAR season in 2013 the best by any active player, but his 139-game call-up in 2012 is also more valuable than any season recorded by any active player. Among actives with at least 8 career WAR, Trout’s 8.95 WAR per 150 games played is 37% more than Rodriguez’s second-place figure and 53% better than any other outfielder’s count. If it feels like Trout hasn’t been around long-enough, consider this: if Trout regresses to a league-average level (2 WAR in 150 games) for the next three seasons, at 26, he’ll still have been worth 5.93 WAR per 150, more than any other active outfielder.
McCutchen’s a bit of a surprise on this list as well. His recent success (8.4 peak season; 6.8 last year; 5.85 WAR/150) is enough to trump Beltran’s 64 career WAR and Ichiro’s 57.3. Including their 2014 seasons, even as just 1/11th or 1/12th of the final score, may not fairly assess Ichiro’s or Beltran’s greatness, but it may be a stretch to call either “active” at this point, so I’ll accept these results.
For the record, Matt Holliday finished a very close fourth, with Ichiro and Jacoby Ellsbury close behind.
Greatest Active Pitcher
This was a close one. The reigning NL MVP rode last season’s 7.6 WAR and the highest WAR per 30 starts (5.48) to an even 15 greatness points, .96 ahead of runner-up Felix Hernandez. Felix, CC Sabathia, Zack Greinke, and Justin Verlander round out the rotation, with Cliff Lee a 20th of a point off the pace.
Here’s a roster of the greatest active players by is method, with a couple of substitutions made to get players with higher greatness scores on the team ahead of players who led their positions:
1. Andrew McCutchen, lf
2. Mike Trout, cf
3. Albert Pujols, 1b
4. Alex Rodriguez, ss
5. Miguel Cabrera, dh
6. Carlos Beltran, rf
7. Adrian Beltre, 3b
8. Joe Mauer, c
9. Chase Utley, 2b
Clayton Kershaw, p
Felix Hernandez, p
CC Sabathia, p
Zack Greinke, p
Justin Verlander, p
David Wright, if
Ben Zobrist, util
Hanley Ramirez, ph
Matt Holliday, of
Buster Posey, c
Ichiro Suzuki, pr
For the record, a few things change if we don’t include 1/4 of each player’s 2014 WAR as a component of his greatness score. To wit:
Sabathia moves to the top of the pitcher list. Cliff Lee surges ahead of Verlander, Hernandez and Greinke into third place (behind Kershaw), knocking Greinke out of the five-man rotation.
Beltran leaps ahead of McCutchen as the second-best outfielder (McCutchen hangs on to third).
Dustin Pedroia leapfrogs Zobrist and Robinson Cano into the second spot in the 2b rankings, perhaps stealing Zobrist’s utility role on my all-greatest-active team.
A final thought: of the ten players who made this list in 2010, three- Rodriguez, Pujols, and Utley- are still active and still qualify. The other seven- Derek Jeter, Manny Ramirez, Jim Thome, Andruw Jones, Jim Edmonds, Ivan Rodriguez, and Roy Halladay- are now retired. No runner-up or honorable mention from the 2010 study ranks lower at his positional list this time around than he did then, with one exception- Tim Lincecum, who ranks just 21st among starting pitchers this time around after placing seventh last time. This suggests to me that young players with high WAR/150 and current-year WAR scores are not systematically overrated by the framework.
If I try this exercise again in another five years, some things are nearly certain. Trout will be at the top of the overall list or close to it. Kershaw and Hernandez would have to fall much harder than Lincecum has to drop out of the five-man rotation. Posey seems like a sure bet to eclipse Mauer, even if Mauer’s still active then. What we don’t know is whether there’s another Trout out there- a Bryant, Harper, or Machado, perhaps, who will provide so much value over the next five years that he’ll already be among the game’s greatest active players in 2020.