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 1969, we find that the top five BA’s belonged to Pete Rose (.347), Roberto Clemente (.345), Cleon Jones (.339), Rod Carew (.331) & Matty Alou (.330). Fine players all, but were they the five best hitters in baseball? Not when you consider that the two MVP winners (Willie McCovey and Harmon Killebrew) finished 6th & “down the track” in batting average. Jones, for example, had only 12 HR’s & 75 RBI’s. Even OBP (On-Base Percentage) would have been a better gauge, as the top five were McCovey (.453), Jim Wynn (.436), Rose (.428), Killebrew (.427) & Rusty Staub (.426).
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 hitters for 2019 that could have an OPS of .900 or better…based on the projections from a highly respected Fantasy website.
1) Mike Trout, Angels OF, 1.044 OPS – 20 years from now, people will be describing his career as “once in a generation”. His consistency and still youthful age (27) makes him the consensus #1 hitter in Fantasy drafts. His lifetime number is .990…9th place all-time.
2) J.D. Martinez, Red Sox OF-DH, .980 OPS – It’s not often in today’s game where $110 Million seems like a bargain, but this slugger had 130 RBI’s in 2018.
3) Mookie Betts, Red Sox OF, .952 OPS – The AL MVP is only 26 and seems to get better every season.
4) Nolan Arendao, Rockies 3B, .933 OPS – The highest paid arbitration-eligible player in history at $26 Million, the question is if Colorado can find a way to keep him after 2019.
5) Aaron Judge, Yankees OF, .925 OPS – Only played 112 games last season and still produced a 5.5 WAR (Wins Above Replacement)…won’t turn 27 until after opening day.
6) Jose Ramirez, Indians 2B/3B, .925 OPS – A versatile player with incredible skills and he’s also in his prime at age 26.
7) Joey Votto, Reds 1B, .920 OPS – Had a sub-par year at age 34, so was it a blip on the radar screen or the beginning of a decline?
8) Paul Goldschmidt, Cardinals 1B, .910 OPS – Six consecutive All-Star appearances and now in a new environment. His age-31 season will lead to free agency and it should be interesting to watch.
9) Justin Turner, Dodgers 3B, .907 OPS – Only played 103 games in ’18, but the skills didn’t diminish. His age (34) is offset by his old-school plate discipline (47 BB, 57 K’s).
10) Freddie Freeman, Braves 1B, .904 OPS – One of the most consistent hitters in the game, he even added a Gold Glove last season…and, he’s still in his 20’s!
11) Christian Yelich, Brewers OF, .900 OPS – The NL MVP at age 26, he seems slightly better than Lewis Brinson.
Did your favorite player get left off the list? The next five are all over .885…Daniel Murphy, Juan Soto, Bryce Harper, Giancarlo Stanton & Shohei Ohtani. Or maybe some youngsters take the next step? We’ll all be watching.
As for 1969, the four players who exceeded 1.000 OPS were McCovey, Reggie Jackson, Killebrew & Hank Aaron.