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 (baker’s) dozen hitters for 2018 based on their projected OPS from a highly respected Fantasy website…
1) Mike Trout, Angels OF, 1.025 OPS – 20 years from now, people will be describing his career as “once in a generation”. His consistency and still youthful age (26) makes him the consensus #1 hitter in Fantasy drafts. His 2017 figure was the best in the game at 1.071
2) Joey Votto, Reds 1B, 1.009 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. Even at 34, he shows no signs of slowing down as he led the NL last season at 1.032
3) Giancarlo Stanton, Yankees OF, .985 OPS – A healthy season fulfilled the expectations with 59 HR’s and a 1.007 OPS. Still in his 20’s, the Bronx Bombers will love him.
4) Bryce Harper, Nationals OF, .962 OPS – Was on his way to a spectacular season in ’17 when he got injured. In 111 games, he had 29 HR’s, 87 RBI’s and a 1.008 OPS. He’s 25 and will be a free agent next year.
5) J.D. Martinez, Red Sox OF, .958 OPS – Tough to go out on a limb for someone who has only played more than 123 games once, but his 1.066 number in ’17 shows the potential.
6) Freddie Freeman, Braves 1B, .955 OPS – His age 27 season in 2017 produced a career-high .989 OPS, so it appears that his performance has reached another level.
7) Charlie Blackmon, Rockies OF, .947 OPS – Finished at 1.000 last season and led the NL in Hits, Triples, Runs & Total Bases.
8) Paul Goldschmidt, D’Backs 1B, .944 OPS – Incredibly consistent performer in the batter’s box and won his 3rd Gold Glove in 2017. Oh, by the way, he also swiped a total of over 70 bases the last three seasons. New action movie…”Goldy vs. the Humidor”.
9) Nolan Arenado, Rockies 3B, .942 OPS – Yes, some of the stats are fueled by altitude, but he won’t turn 27 until after opening day and had a .886 OPS on the road last season.
10) Aaron Judge, Yankees OF, .927 OPS – Can he repeat the breakout season? Hit 33 of his 52 HR’s at Yankee Stadium and led the AL in both Strikeouts & Walks.
11) Josh Donaldson, Blue Jays 3B, .926 OPS – Even geniuses like Billy Beane sometimes make mistakes…33 HR’s in 113 Games
12) Kris Bryant, Cubs 3B, .918 OPS – Rookie of the Year in ’15, MVP in ’16 and some thought ’17 was a disappointment. His OPS the last three years? .858, .939 & .946
13) Jose Altuve, Astros 2B, .908 OPS – The AL MVP had his best season. He has four consecutive 200 Hit campaigns and doesn’t turn 28 until May.
Did your favorite player get left off the list? The next five are all over .885…Wilson Contreras, Daniel Murphy, Anthony Rizzo, Christian Yelich & Nelson Cruz. Or maybe some youngsters take the next step? We’ll all be watching.