On the shelf in my office is the 1985 edition of “The Bill James Historical Baseball Abstract”. It wasn’t the first material of his that I read and certainly not the last, but it looks down at me with a reminder of the era in which this fan transitioned from old-school to analytic. After all, the inaugural “Rotisserie League Baseball” book had come out in 1984 and our home league (which is still going strong) started that April.
As a kid looking at the backs of baseball cards and reading Street & Smith’s preview issue along with “Who’s Who In Baseball”, the statistics we learned were the ones they gave us. Batting Average (BA), Home Runs (HR), Runs Batted In (RBI’s) were what we used to determine if a player was fair, good or great. The back of Mickey Mantle’s 1959 Topps card doesn’t even tell you how many Stolen Bases (SB’s) he had the previous season. The 1961 Who’s Who did include SB’s but nothing so exotic as Slugging Percentage (SLG) or On-Base Percentage (OBP).
So, now that at least 30 years has passed in the debate between tradition and analytics, maybe we can finally agree on the validity of one stat. No, I’m not going to try and sway you about Wins Above Replacement (WAR) because that glazed look in your eyes tells me it’s a hopeless task. As with Capt. Queeg in the Caine Mutiny, I’m going to “prove beyond the shadow of a doubt…with geometric logic, that a valid stat does exist”.
In his book, “Ahead Of The Curve”, Brian Kenny writes that Bill James #1 revolutionary theory about baseball is that getting on base is the most important thing in offense. It seems to make sense intuitively, but OBP was never on baseball cards, in magazines or listed in the Sporting News. After all, how did Eddie Yost of the Tigers lead the AL in Runs Scored (115) in 1959 at age 32 with a BA of only .278? Simple…he led the AL in OBP at .435. No player was going to get benched if he got on base 40% of the time, but writers and broadcasters paid no attention because it wasn’t a mainstream stat. Over 40 years later, Billy Beane and the A’s, followed quickly by the Red Sox, found that OBP was under-valued in the game along with the players who provided those quality numbers. The 2002 Athletics had eight offensive players with an OBP of .348 or better and they won 103 games with a small-market payroll. The 2004 Red Sox broke the “Curse of the Bambino” with eleven (11) hitters having a .365 OBP or higher.
Old-school fans and pundits still weren’t convinced and argued that OBP diminished the contribution of power hitters because those HR’s they hit were worth three more bases than a walk. That brings us to a slightly more traditional stat – Slugging Percentage. SLG tells us how many total bases a hitter has accumulated compared to his amount of plate appearances. After all, Roger Maris & Mickey Mantle led the AL in SLG in ’60 & ’61, so what could be more fair to power hitters?
That brings us to the stat that really matters when analyzing major league hitters. If you take OBP and add it to SLG, a player is rewarded for both his on-base skills and power production. The result is On-Base + Slugging (OPS) and even though we never spotted it on the back of a baseball card, it is the number that tells the tale. How do we know? Because there are only seven players with a lifetime OPS over 1.000…Babe Ruth, Ted Williams, Lou Gehrig, Barry Bonds, Jimmie Foxx, Hank Greenberg & Rogers Hornsby…Mike Trout is eighth at .999. Others in top 20 include Mickey Mantle, Joe DiMaggio, Stan Musial, Frank Thomas, Johnny Mize & Jim Thome. Even old-school fans have to admit that there aren’t any flukes on that list.
Other than Trout, the three best active players are Joey Votto (.944), Miguel Cabrera (.937) & Albert Pujols (.931). As all are in their declining years, the numbers won’t get any better.
So, in today’s game, you’ll see what is called the “slash line” for an offensive player. It looks like .252/.322/.433 (BA/OBP/SLG), which is the average production for all major league hitters through July 26th. By adding the last two numbers, you arrive at the OPS of .755. While the OBP hasn’t changed much in recent years, the juiced baseball has increased the SLG by 4% since the last time we did this analysis in 2016.
In late-July of 2019, who are the best offensive players in the game based on OPS? Let’s look at the top ten…
1) Christian Yelich, Brewers OF…1.136 – Last year’s NL MVP is at it again in his age 27 season…he’s leading the league with 35 HR’s
2) Cody Bellinger, Dodgers OF…1.108 – The best player on the best team…and he’s only 23 years old.
3) Mike Trout, Angels OF…1.107 – At age 27, this player is so good, he’s almost taken for granted. This will be his 3rd MVP award.
4) Anthony Rendon, Nats 3B…1.010- Great timing for this 29 year-old All-Star, he’ll be a free agent after the season.
5) Nelson Cruz, Twins DH….988 – Even at 39, “Boomstick” hasn’t slowed down.
6) Josh Bell, Pirates 1B….974 – Lots of pundits thought he didn’t exhibit the skills to be a top-rated corner infielder…he has 86 RBI’s with two months to go.
7) Pete Alonso, Mets 1B….973 – Looks like a slugger and performs like one…this rookie has 34 HR’s.
8) Xander Bogaerts, Red Sox SS….973 – 2018 was great but 2019 is even better…at age 26.
9) Kris Bryant, Cubs 3B….972 – It seems like he isn’t having that good of a season but batting 2nd in the line-up takes advantage of his on-base skills (.408 OBP).
10) Charlie Blackmom, Rockies OF….966 – No doubt helped by altitude, but he’s a solid performer.
Now, of course, we could also discuss OPS+, which adjusts the figure based on the ballparks. OK, I see that “deer in the headlights” look, we’ll talk about it some other time.