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 1971, we find that the top five BA’s belonged to Joe Torre (.363), Ralph Garr (.343), Glenn Beckert (.341), Roberto Clemente (.341) & Tony Oliva (.337). Fine players all, but were they the five best hitters in baseball? Not when you consider that Sal Bando finished 2nd in the AL MVP voting to a Pitcher (Vida Blue) and hit .271 while Willie Stargell was the runner-up to Torre in the NL while hitting .295. Beckert had 2 HR’s & 42 RBI’s while Garr contributed 9 HR’s & 44 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 three other hitters with a number over 1.00… Hank Greenberg, Rogers Hornsby and Mike Trout.
With our 2021 regular season now in the books, let’s see who the best hitters in baseball were according to the numbers.
1) Bryce Harper, Phillies OF, 1.044 OPS – Fans have a tendency to feel that he’s overrated and overpaid. The actual results disagree, as he had 35 HR’s, 101 Runs and 84 RBI’s. In today’s game where plate discipline is a forgotten art, he also walked 100 times. This was his best OPS since the MVP season of 2015.
2) Vladimir Guerrero Jr, Blue Jays 1B, 1.002 OPS – Only 22, he led the AL in HR’s with 48 and OBP with .401
3) Juan Soto, Nationals OF, .999 OPS –Arguably the best of the game’s great young players, he’s putting up historic numbers. Also only 22, his .465 OBP is off-the charts. And, how about 145 BB and only 93 K’s? His lifetime OBP is the same as Ty Cobb!
4) Fernando Tatis Jr., Padres SS, .975 OPS –You guessed it, he’s 22 years old. Led the NL in HR’s (42) despite missing over 30 games.
5) Shohei Ohtani, Angels DH, .965 OPS – 46 HR’s & 28 SB’s would be impressive enough even if he didn’t also post a 9-2 record on the mound.
6) Nick Castellanos, Reds OF, .939 OPS – 100 RBI’s and his first All-Star appearance.
7) Joey Votto, Reds 1B/OF, .938 OPS –No one saw this coming at age 37, it was his best number since 2017. His lifetime OPS of .937 is second to Trout among active players.
8) Kyle Tucker, Astros OF, .917 OPS –Doesn’t match the hype of Correa, Altuve and Bergman but this is an outstanding young player (he’s 24).
9) Aaron Judge, Yankees OF, .916 –He’ll be a free agent in 2023…how big is your wallet?
10T) Bryan Reynolds, Pirates OF, .912 OPS –When you play for a lousy team, it’s easy to be under the radar.
10T) Tyler O’Neill, Cardinals OF, .912 OPS –Entering his prime at age 26, just a little less “swing & miss” will make him a star.
Did your favorite player get left off the list? The next three are all over .900… Matt Olson, Trea Turner & C.J. Cron.
As for 1971, the two players who exceeded 1.000 OPS were Henry Aaron and Willie Stargell.