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 1970, we find that the top five BA’s belonged to Rico Carty (.366), Alex Johnson (.329), Carl Yastrzemski (.329), Joe Torre (.325) & Manny Sanguillen (.325). Fine players all, but were they the five best hitters in baseball? Not when you consider that the two MVP winners (Johnny Bench and Boog Powell) didn’t even hit .300. Sanguillen, for example, had only 7 HR’s & 61 RBI’s.
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. Mike Trout is at #8 with .999.
With our 60-game sprint now in the books, let’s see who the best hitters in baseball were according to the numbers.
1) Juan Soto, Nationals OF, 1.185 OPS – The Nats lousy season may have clouded your view, but this is a generational talent. At age 21, he led the NL with a .351 BA and walked more times (41) than he struck out (28).
2) Freddie Freeman, Braves 1B, 1.102 OPS – One of the most consistent players in the game, he recovered from an early season IL stint to post a .341 BA. Along with Soto, he’s the only player in the top 12 to have a positive BB/K ratio (45/37).
3) Marcell Ozuna, Braves OF, 1.067 OPS – Had a mediocre 2019 with a .241 BA and .800 OPS and was probably fortunate to get a one-year, $18 Million deal in Atlanta. Now, after leading the NL in HR’s & RBI’s (18/56), he’ll be a free agent in 2021.
4) DJ LeMahieu, Yankees 2B, 1.011 OPS – Many pundits questioned his signing in the Bronx after the 2018 season, but he’s now won batting championships in both leagues…hitting .364 this season. Now, he’ll be a free agent again in 2021.
5T) Jose Ramirez, Indians 3B, .993 OPS – His first-half slump in 2019 made some fans nervous, but you need worry no longer. 17 HR’s, 46 RBI’s & 10 SB’s tell the tale.
5T) Mike Trout, Angels OF, .993 OPS – Probably still the best player in the game, but it appears that stealing bases in no longer in his quiver. In the last three seasons, the numbers have gone from 24 to 11 to 1.
5T) Dominic Smith, Mets 1B/OF, .993 OPS – Having the DH in the National League led to this player’s breakout. Had as many AB’s in 60 games as he had in 162 games last year and produced 10 HR’s with 42 RBI’s.
8) Nelson Cruz, Twins DH, .992 OPS – One of these years, he’ll finally lose to Father Time. But, at age 40 he still produced solid numbers including 16 HR’s. Another 2021 free agent.
9T) Ronald Acuna Jr., Braves OF, .987 – More hyped than Soto, his 2020 campaign was a little less consistent than his first two seasons. Let’s not forget, however, that this was his age 22 campaign.
9T) Jose Abreu, White Sox 1B, .987 OPS – Fans occasionally overlook consistent performers and get excited about the shiny new toy. At age 33, in his 7th season, he led the AL in Games Played, Hits, RBI’s, Slugging % & Total Bases.
11) Trea Turner, Nationals SS, .982 OPS – His best season at age 27 as he led the league in Hits and accumulated 12 HR’s & 12 SB’s.
12) Mike Yastrzemski, Giants OF, .968 OPS – One of those great baseball stories as the Grandson of a Hall of Famer becomes a star at age 29. Never high on the prospect list of the Orioles, he was traded to SF in March of 2019 and hasn’t looked back. In 161 games during the last two seasons he has 31 HR’s & 90 RBI’s.
Did your favorite player get left off the list? The next five are all over .940… Bryce Harper, Wil Myers, Manny Machado, Luke Voit & Corey Seager followed closely by Fernando Tatis Jr. and Mookie Betts.
As for 1970, the four players who exceeded 1.000 OPS were McCovey, Yastrzemski, Carty & Jim Hickman.