50 years ago, if a baseball fan was asked who the best hitters were, the only significant resource would have been the sports section of the Sunday newspaper. Somewhere in the back pages, there was a long, slender list in very small type showing all current major league players. And those players were ranked by their BA (Batting Average) because that had historically been the benchmark for position players.
Looking back at 1966, we find that the top five BA’s belonged to Matty Alou (.342), Manny Mota (.332), Felipe Alou (.327), Rico Carty (.326) & Dick Allen (.317). Fine players all, but were they the five best hitters in baseball? Not when you consider that the two MVP winners (Roberto Clemente and Frank Robinson) finished 6th & 7th. Matty Alou, for example, had 2 HR’s & 27 RBI’s in 535 AB’s. Even OBP (On-Base Percentage) would have been a better gauge, as the top five were Ron Santo (.412), Joe Morgan (.410), Robinson (.410), Allen (.396) & Al Kaline (.392).
As modern baseball analytics have evolved, one of the most accepted statistics has become OPS (On-Base % + Slugging %). Not only does it prioritize getting on base, it also adds the concept of moving more runners around the bases. After all, Slugging Percentage is defined as Total Bases /At Bats. Old school fans might question the veracity of the stat but baseball history tells the tale. The five highest lifetime OPS numbers belong to Babe Ruth (1.16), Ted Williams (1.12), Lou Gehrig (1.08), Barry Bonds (1.05) & Jimmie Foxx (1.04). There are only two other hitters with a number over 1.00… Hank Greenberg and Rogers Hornsby.
With Spring Training around the corner, here’s one Duck’s opinion on the top dozen hitters for 2016 and their projected OPS…
1) Bryce Harper, Nats OF, .982 OPS – At age 23, he’s proved the hype was real back when he graced the cover of SI at age 16. Barring injury, 35 HR’s & 100 RBI’s with a .300 BA should be the norm.
2) Mike Trout, Angels OF, .976 OPS – 20 years from now, people will be describing his career as “once in a generation”. Almost the exact projection as Harper, but he could steal a few more bases and bring back a few opponent HR’s from over the fence.
3) Paul Goldschmidt, D’Backs 1B, .947 OPS – Incredibly consistent performer in the batter’s box and also won a Gold Glove in 2015.
4) Giancarlo Stanton, Marlins OF, .937 OPS – We say this every year, but it all comes down to him staying on the field…150 games will produce 40+ HR’s.
5) Miguel Cabrera, Tigers 1B, .936 OPS – Finally showed a slight decline last season at age 32, but he’s a bona fide Hall of Fame candidate.
6) Joey Votto, Reds 1B, .928 OPS – Still gets criticized for his plate discipline and will lead all of baseball in Walks (100+). Like Ted Williams, he won’t expand the strike zone to satisfy writers and broadcasters.
7) Edwin Encarnacion, Blue Jays 1B, .901 – Part of Toronto’s three-headed monster, he’s heading into his age 33 season but with that line-up, opposing teams can’t pitch around him.
8) Andrew McCutchen, Pirates OF, .898 OPS – Still under 30, he has power, speed and plate discipline…and also plays a great CF.
9) Anthony Rizzo, Cubs 1B, .885 OPS – The face of the new-age Cubbies, he’ll hit 30+ HR’s and add double-digit SB’s.
10) Jose Bautista, Blue Jays OF, .879 OPS – Another mid-30’s slugger in Toronto’s line-up, both he and Encarnacion have better projected OPS figures that the AL MVP Josh Donaldson, who finished just out of the top 12 at .866.
11) Jose Abreu, White Sox 1B, .870 – Entering his 3rd big league campaign at age 29, he could get even better. 30+ HR’s and 100+ RBI’s seems like a lock.
12) Nolan Arenado, Rockies 3B, .870 – His numbers are slightly inflated due to the thin air in Denver, but they still count. In addition, he’s only 25 and won the 2015 Gold Glove at the hot corner.
Did your favorite player get left off the list? Maybe Chris Davis makes good on his new contract? Or youngsters like Kris Bryant, Mookie Betts or Miguel Sano take the next step? Or players coming back from injury such as Freddie Freeman and Yasiel Puig prove their worth. We’ll all be watching.