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 2017 based on their projected OPS from a highly respected Fantasy website…
1) Joey Votto, Reds 1B, .989 OPS – Still gets criticized for his plate discipline and will probably lead all of baseball in Walks (100+). Like Ted Williams, he won’t expand the strike zone to satisfy writers and broadcasters.
2) Mike Trout, Angels OF, .971 OPS – 20 years from now, people will be describing his career as “once in a generation”. His consistency and still youthful age (25) makes him the consensus #1 hitter in Fantasy drafts.
3) Miguel Cabrera, Tigers 1B, .934 OPS – Even in his mid-30’s this future Hall-of-Famer is still a force.
4) Paul Goldschmidt, D’Backs 1B, .920 OPS – Incredibly consistent performer in the batter’s box and also won a Gold Glove in 2015. Oh, by the way, he also swiped a total of over 50 bases the last two seasons.
5) Freddie Freeman, Braves 1B, .916 OPS – His age 26 season in 2016 produced a .968 OPS, so it appears that his performance has reached another level.
6) Kris Bryant, Cubs 3B, .914 OPS – Rookie of the Year in ’15, MVP in ’16…finally a prospect who exceeded the hype.
7) Nolan Arenado, Rockies 3B, .903 OPS – Yes, some of the stats are fueled by altitude, but he’s only 25 and had a .832 OPS on the road last season.
8) Bryce Harper, Nationals OF, .901 OPS – It seems like most observers are hedging their bet and projecting something between his ’15 & ’16 performances. As in, “can’t be as good as ’15 or as bad as ’16”.
9) Anthony Rizzo, Cubs 1B, .898 OPS – The face of the championship Cubbies, look for 30+ HR’s and 100+ RBI’s.
10) Josh Donaldson, Blue Jays 3B, .896 OPS – Even geniuses like Billy Beane sometimes make mistakes.
11) Nelson Cruz, Mariners OF/DH, .891 – He was doubted because of juicing, then he was too old, then his numbers were going down after moving from Baltimore to Seattle. The last two seasons, he’s hit 87 Home Runs.
12) Giancarlo Stanton, Marlins OF, .890 – Nobody questions the skill, but the over/under is probably about 475 AB’s.
Did your favorite player get left off the list? The next four are all over .875…Matt Carpenter, Edwin Encarnacion, Mookie Betts & Daniel Murphy. Or maybe some youngsters take the next step? We’ll all be watching.