Six Baseball Players are Way Better Than Anyone Else: The Hitters

Posted: 04/24/2016 by levcohen in Baseball

One of the central debates in sports, from the time they became mainstream until the day they go away, is a debate over who the best player in any given sport is. Sometimes, the answer is obvious (like LeBron James or Sidney Crosby for much of the last decade), which really limits the extent of any actual debate (although it doesn’t stop contrarians from popping up every so often), while sometimes there is a real question over who the best player in any given sport is. In baseball right now, there is a real debate, a change given that Mike Trout has held the Best Player in Baseball tag for nearly half a decade now. But now Bryce Harper has entered the discussion with a bang (46 bangs, in fact, in the past calendar year). Either Trout or Harper is definitely the best player, or at least the best hitter, in baseball. But everyone talks about those two, so I won’t. Instead, let’s talk about the top tier of baseball players. Trout and Harper are obviously in that tier, but I think four other players are clearly a step ahead of anyone else. Those four players are Josh Donaldson, Manny Machado, Clayton Kershaw, and Jake Arrieta. Instead of trying to rank the six, let’s just celebrate the amazingness of the two outfielders and the two third basemen today and the two pitchers tomorrow.

Trout and Harper: Why do we have to choose?
In the first three years of his career, Bryce Harper was a good but not great hitter. The power he was expected to have wasn’t really there, as he hit just 22, 20, and 13 homers in his first three seasons. He walked a moderate amount and struck out a lot while hitting between .270-.274 in the three seasons. Then, in his age-22 season last year, the light switch turned on for Harper. The no-brainer top overall pick in the 2010 draft suddenly became the player everyone thought he could be, hitting .330/.460/.649 while adding 9.5 WAR. The missing power? Missing no more (42 homers). The strikeouts are still there, but they were accompanied by a 19% walk rate last year, second in baseball to Joey Votto. Add in his hot start to this season, and Harper is hitting .335/.457/.682 with 10.1 WAR in the past calendar year. It’s clear that he’s here to stay, but what has he done to become such a scary player to pitch to? Well, as you would imagine by the walk rate, his plate discipline improved. While in 2014 Harper swung at 35.7% of pitches outside of the zone, last year that number shrunk to 28.2%. But even more than an improvement in plate discipline, Harper’s improvement has been the result of a change in approach at the plate. What do you do when you want to start hitting for more power? Well, hitting the ball in the air more and pulling it more seems like a good start, and that’s exactly what Harper has done. Tapping into his raw power, his pull rate has increased from 38.9% two years ago to 45.4% last year to 50% this season. Instead of being a hit-to-all-fields hitter in the mold of Mike Trout (career 35% pull, 36% up the middle, 29% opposite field), Harper has realized that his best skill is pure power and that he can bully pitchers by smoking pitches to right field. He’s also realized that he should be hitting the ball in the air and not on the ground. His ground ball rate has gone from 43.6% to 38.5% to 28.3% while his fly ball rate has increased from 34.6% to 39.3% to 56.6%. In the span of a single offseason, Harper went from being a fringe All-Star to one of the best players in baseball and certainly the best pure hitter in the sport. While he’s still fairly slow (although he has three steals already this season) and a poor defender, his bat alone puts him in the top tier.

Meanwhile, Mike Trout is a 24-year-old who’s been the presumptive top player in baseball for four+ years. No big deal, right? I don’t want to talk about Trout much, because I’ve already done so and because everyone knows how good he is. Instead, let me just post a chart from baseball-reference that shows the 10 most similar players to Trout through their respective age-23 seasons. Here’s a link for a cleaner version. Keep in mind that baseball-reference has a different method for WAR calculation than Fangraphs, whose numbers I usually use and who has Trout at 33.6 WAR right now.

 Sim  Player              From  To Yrs  WAR   G    AB    R    H   2B  3B  HR  RBI  BB   SO    BA   OBP   SLG   SB   CS OPS+ 
+---++-------------------+---------+--+-----+----+-----+----+----+---+---+---+----+----+----+-----+-----+-----+----+---+----+
      Mike Trout          2011-2015  5  37.9  652  2448  477  744 143  32 139  397  361  647  .304  .397  .559  113  21  169
 941* Mickey Mantle       1951-1955  5  29.7  658  2411  510  719 114  38 121  445  412  479  .298  .400  .528   33  15  155
 936* Frank Robinson      1956-1959  4  23.5  596  2277  415  680 112  21 134  366  239  360  .299  .374  .543   46  15  137
 933* Ken Griffey         1989-1993  5  30.1  734  2747  424  832 170  15 132  453  318  404  .303  .375  .520   77  38  146
 930* Hank Aaron          1954-1957  4  22.6  579  2294  387  718 125  35 110  399  171  212  .313  .360  .542    8   8  143
 916  Miguel Cabrera      2003-2006  4  15.0  563  2106  358  654 145   8 104  404  243  465  .311  .384  .535   15  10  141
 912* Orlando Cepeda      1958-1961  4  16.9  602  2362  366  731 137  15 122  439  135  366  .309  .351  .535   65  34  137
 902* Jimmie Foxx         1925-1931  7  25.5  656  2165  461  710 126  48 116  498  344  281  .328  .421  .591   26  27  154
 902* Mel Ott             1926-1932  7  31.4  831  2787  582  895 159  30 153  608  462  210  .321  .421  .564   37 ---  153
 900  Vada Pinson         1958-1962  5  24.6  644  2622  466  807 156  36  80  340  197  343  .308  .357  .486  104  37  122
 893* Al Kaline           1953-1958  6  27.5  768  2857  436  880 137  32  98  450  272  247  .308  .368  .481   41  27  127
+---++-------------------+---------+--+-----+----+-----+----+----+---+---+---+----+----+----+-----+-----+-----+----+---+----+
 Average of all 10 Players           5  24.7  663  2462  440  762 138  27 117  440  279  336  .310  .384  .531   45  21  139
 Avg of all 9 Retired Players        5  25.7  674  2502  449  774 137  30 118  444  283  322  .310  .383  .530   48  22  141

W0w. Eight of these 10 guys are Hall of Famers, while Miguel Cabrera will surely join that list eventually. But Trout isn’t just a likely Hall of Famer, he’s also way way way better than anyone on this list. He’s a full, MVP-caliber season’s worth of WAR (7.8) above Ken Griffey Jr., the #2 guy. He’s behind only Mel Ott in homers, he’s first in steals, and he’s first in OPS+. And that’s just his hitting stats, because let’s not forget that Trout is also a very good defender. He’s on track to become one of the best players in baseball history.

Donaldson and Machado
In 2013, Josh Donaldson came out of nowhere. He was a member of the Oakland Athletics, which isn’t surprising. He was a first round pick (the 48th pick in the 2007 draft), sure, but he had spent nearly three full seasons in AAA with only a .840 OPS to show for it. He seemed liked the classic AAAA player. Before 2013, the then-26-year-old had contributed just 1.2 career WAR. Then came a 7.6, a 6.5, and an 8.7, accompanied by fourth, eighth, and first place finishes in the AL MVP race. Now on the Blue Jays, Donaldson has kept things rolling this year and now has added 8.8 WAR in the last calendar year, fourth only to Trout, Harper, and Kershaw. Until last year, Donaldson was the prototypical very-good player who hit 20-30 homers, added a lot of defensive value, and got on base at a good clip. But then he hit 41 homers last year without losing any of his batting average (.297), plate discipline, or defense, and, voila, he won the MVP. This year, he’s already hit seven homers and has a .307 average, numbers that lead me to believe that his season last year aren’t a fluke. Unlike Harper, Donaldson didn’t make any huge changes. His pull and fly ball rates stayed steady, and he actually started swinging at a few more pitches out of the zone as he got pitched more carefully to. The difference for the Jays’ third baseman was simple: he started hitting fly balls harder and further, pulling his HR/fly ball rate from 14.6% to 21.8% to this year’s unsustainable 30.4%. His defensive prowess and ability to put the ball in play while drawing walks already make him an All-Star, but it’s Donaldson’s new power stroke that put him comfortably into the top tier. He’d easily be considered the best third baseman in baseball if not for…

Manny Machado didn’t come out of nowhere. He was the third pick of the 2010 draft and immediately started drawing comparisons to a guy named Alex Rodriguez. A slick fielding shortstop, Machado’s path to the big leagues was blocked by J.J. Hardy, so the Orioles moved him to third base and called him up for the stretch run of the 2012 season, a year in which he looked incredibly raw offensively but already established himself as one of the best defensive third basemen in baseball. Three+ years later, Machado’s solidified his place atop the defensive elite even while continuing to play out of position as the Orioles gave Hardy an extension. Over the past three calendar years, Machado has added 49.9 runs on the defensive side of the ball (per Fangraphs), third only to Andrelton Simmons and Lorenzo Cain. But until last year, his value came almost entirely on the merit of his defense. No longer. Last season, he had a monster .286/.359/.502 season with 35 homers and 20 steals. And until today, he’d accumulated a hit in every game this season. Even after his 0-fer today, Machado’s hitting .380/.436/.746 and is second in baseball in WAR at 1.6. Two seasons after being just an average hitter, he’s one of the best, which, along with his defensive skill, makes him one of the best players in the league. Machado’s simply a more selective hitter now, a common development for a young player to make. In 2014, he swung at 36.1% of the pitches that came in out of the zone and at 50.8% of all pitches; last year, he offered at 25.7% of the non-strikes he faced and 43.6% of all pitches. When you lay off on bad pitches, you get ahead of the count, and when you get ahead in the count, you have a much better chance of making good contact. A few years ago, Machado grounded out a lot, and when you put the ball on the ground, you’re unlikely to earn more than a handful of singles. Now? He just smokes the ball, and a Manny Machado who smokes the ball is a guy who, by the time he moves to shortstop as I think he will at some point, will be established as a top-three player in baseball.

Tomorrow: Kershaw and Arrieta

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