The Greatest Active…

Doug’s doing all the heavy lifting around here this spring, and acquitting himself admirably, but I thought I’d lend a hand.  I don’t have much of substance to offer, but here’s a frivolity I adapted from my own site.

Who are the greatest active players in Major League Baseball?  Are they the guys with the most career WAR?  The guys who have never turned in a bad season?  The guys who had the highest peaks?  I think we’d all agree the answer is a combination of those three things, perhaps weighted toward the former.  I developed a simple formula using fangraphs WAR to combine accumulated value, consistency, and peak:

Career WAR/10
plus
Career WAR/150 games played (30 starts for starting pitchers)
plus
Peak WAR season/2

In theory, the “greatness score” generated by this formula includes an accumulated value factor weighted slightly more than anything else (since it represents more than a year’s WAR for anyone who’s played more than 10 seasons), about one season’s WAR (assuming the average player plays 150 games per season) for average value throughout a player’s career, and a half season’s WAR for peak value (narrowly defined).  All WAR values are as of the end of the 2014 season.

I’ll leave relief pitcher evaluation to someone else, since I’m not convinced WAR is a strong measure of their greatness, particularly in a single season, when usage may vary tremendously.  Starting pitchers who accumulated value as relievers get an extra boost here, since those games aren’t included in the denominator of their “per 30 starts” calc.  I don’t think any of the results below are skewed by this, though, as most of the game’s best active starters have been starters their whole careers.

Here are the results, by position:

Greatest Active Catcher

Joe Mauer

[table id=243 /]

 

If you want an actual active catcher, you can’t go wrong with Posey, who’s likely to pass Mauer by this metric in the next year or two, assuming he stays healthy.  Mauer, though, has played catcher in 83% of his career innings fielded, so he belongs here, and I think it’s fair to assume a big-league rookie would be more in awe of Mauer’s greatness than Posey’s.

Greatest Active First Baseman

Albert Pujols

[table id=244 /]

 

Pujols is second overall in greatness score, so it should come as no surprise that he would top this list, but the margins by which he destroys Cabrera in every category are impressive.  We’re watching an all-time great at first base for the Tigers, but peak Pujols was in another league.  In fact, Cabrera’s personal-best 7.4-WAR season would rank as the weakest season in Pujols’s seven-year prime (2003-2009).

Ortiz is counted here because I limited the field to players with at least three seasons played and eight career WAR, and no other qualifier has played more than half of his games at designated hitter.  As brilliant as Ortiz’s career has been- and his postseason numbers may boost him ahead of Teixeira in perceived greatness- if I’m picking a DH for my all-greatness team, it’s Miguel Cabrera.  If we’re looking strictly at first basemen, Adrian Gonzalez would be fifth at 9.97.

Greatest Active Second Baseman

Chase Utley

[table id=245 /]

 

Utley’s far ahead of the field, but it’s interesting to see how closely the next four guys, who are all between 31 and 33, are bunched.  Would you have guessed that Pedroia and Zobrist would both rank ahead of Cano?

Greatest Active Shortstop

Alex Rodriguez

[table id=246 /]

 

It’s looking more and more certain that Rodriguez will retire with more games played as a shortstop than as a third baseman.  At either position, he laps the field, easily the greatest active player by this measure, or simply by accumulated WAR.  Like Rodriguez, Hanley Ramirez looks like he’ll be a designated hitter before too long, but he should retire with more games played at short than anywhere else, and he’s likely to assume the top spot on this list upon ARod’s retirement.

This is morbid, but Tulowitzki may finish his career with more than 5 WAR/150 games played (better than Ripken’s 4.6 or Jeter’s 3.9) and fewer than 40 WAR (Jim Fregosi had 44).  Let’s hope that doesn’t happen.

Greatest Active Third Baseman

Adrian Beltre

[table id=247 /]

 

My initial analysis had ARod at third, which gave third base four of the top ten greatness scores among all players.  We’ve come a long way, from a time when Pie Traynor was considered by some to be the greatest third baseman ever to an era when Schmidt, Brett, and Boggs can give way to Chipper, Rolen, and Beltre, who are in turn replaced with Longoria, Donaldson, and Machado.

Greatest Active Outfield

Mike Trout
Carlos Beltran
Andrew McCutchen

[table id=248 /]

 

That’s right- the greatest active outfielder, by this measure, was two years old when the greatest active player made his MLB debut in July of 1994.  In three (almost) full seasons, Trout accumulated enough career value (29.4 WAR) to place him tenth among outfielders, .2 wins behind 13-year veteran Coco Crisp for ninth.  Not only is his 10.5-WAR season in 2013 the best by any active player, but his 139-game call-up in 2012 is also more valuable than any season recorded by any active player.  Among actives with at least 8 career WAR, Trout’s 8.95 WAR per 150 games played is 37% more than Rodriguez’s second-place figure and 53% better than any other outfielder’s count.  If it feels like Trout hasn’t been around long-enough to hold the title, consider this: if Trout regresses to a league-average level (2 WAR in 150 games) for the next three seasons, at 26, he’ll still have been worth 5.93 WAR per 150, more than any other active outfielder.

McCutchen’s presence ahead of Ichiro and Holliday may speak to my overweighting of per-150 and peak values, but he’s been remarkably good in his relatively young career and is likely to overtake Beltran for second by this measure this year or next.

For the record, Bryce Harper’s 7.50 greatness score ranks 27th among outfielders, but his 39-game start to 2015 would be enough to move him up five spots if I updated the data through today.  Here’s guessing he’ll be close to the top fifteen by the end of this season (cracking 15th place would take between 8 and 9 WAR and subpar seasons from a few guys in his way).

Greatest Active Starting Rotation

CC Sabathia
Clayton Kershaw
Cliff Lee
Justin Verlander
Felix Hernandez

[table id=249 /]

 

Pitching is a fickle profession.  The first, third, and fourth guys on this list appear to be shadows of their former selves, while the second and fifth guys are the best pitchers in their respective leagues today.  When I ran these numbers in August of 2010, Tim Lincecum ranked seventh (though I included a current year component then).  Does his fall to 13th suggest that maybe we shouldn’t expect Felix to jump to second in a few years?  Is Chris Sale, who ranks 16th, .08 greatness points behind Price, and has the highest WAR/30 starts among active pitchers, not a lock to pass the Weavers and Buehrles the way we know Harper will leapfrog the Hunters and Kemps?

Is Sabathia really the greatest active pitcher in the game?  He’s got the most career fWAR, almost nine wins ahead of Hudson.  On a rate basis, he’s ninth among qualifiers.  Four pitchers have had a single season better than his best.  Meanwhile, RA9 WAR doesn’t like him as much as FIP WAR (B-R has him worth 53.8 WAR coming into this season, behind Buehrle and Hudson.  If pitchers held up better, I would feel more confident calling Kershaw and Felix “greater” pitchers based on what they have done, are doing, and will do, but it’s a dicey preposition to risk one’s reputation on a human elbow.

Five years ago, the top three pitchers on this list were Roy Halladay, Andy Pettitte, and Johan Santana.  These guys are all retired or inactive now, and none is a shoo-in for the Hall of Fame (though each has a case).  In the interim, it appeared that Verlander was ticketed for the top of the list, but he saw his ERA jump about a run a year between 2012 and 2014 and hasn’t pitched yet in ’15.  Kershaw looks like the Trout of pitching and Hernandez may be the hurler’s equivalent of Pujols.  Time will tell whether they go Verlander’s route or Greg Maddux’s.

Enough from me.  How does this compare to your all-greatest-active team?

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35 Comments on "The Greatest Active…"

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Andrew
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It’s been widely noted especially since the arrival of Trout and Harper in the big leagues back in 2012, but we really do seem to be in an era of transition w/r/t great players in the major leagues right now. The only sure-fire Hall of Famers currently in the league are Pujols, Ichiro, and Cabrera – Beltre obviously should be a no-doubter but I won’t be surprised if he spends way too long on the ballot, and obviously A-Rod is never going to get voted in by the writers. Besides those 5, you’ve got Mauer, Utley, Wright and Beltran all… Read more »
MikeD
Guest

Right. History says there are many eventual HOFers in the game today, but the transition going on right now between the old and the new guard makes it less clear.

Jimbo
Guest

David Ortiz is an absolute lock for the Hall of Fame.

Some may think it is undeserved, but I think his post season heroics make him a deserved shoe in.

Mike L
Guest
Jimbo, I could argue on the basis of WAR that Ortiz not only isn’t a lock, but doesn’t merit HOF. But I really wonder where we are going to be in terms of rationalizing PED use by the time Ortiz is eligible. Whatever the intrinsic merits of his case might be, putting him in before McGwire, who was a superior slugger and could actually play the field, seems wrong, as does choosing him over a number of other players who are effectively barred (Sosa, Palmiero, Bonds, and eventually A-Rod) seems unjust. Ortiz may get in anyway, because he seems to… Read more »
Voomo Zanzibar
Guest

Ortiz’s regular season numbers, right now, are extremely similar to Carlos Delgado’s.

Delgado, who was a beast in October (in the one opportunity he had), was one and done on the HOF ballot this past year.

http://www.baseball-reference.com/players/o/ortizda01.shtml#batting_standard::none

http://www.baseball-reference.com/players/d/delgaca01.shtml#batting_standard::none

1281
1241

2193
2038

554 / 18 / 472
483 / 18 / 473

1550
1512

1183 / 1597
1109 / 1745

.284 / .379 / .544 / .923 / 139 / 4199
.280 / .383 / .546 / .929 / 138 / 3976

Jimbo
Guest

I think playing his career mostly in Toronto hurt Delgado HOF chances whereas there is no question Ortiz benefits from playing in Boston.

Delgado looked to be on his way to being a shoe in when his career ended abruptly and much earlier than expected based on his previous performances.

mosc
Guest

I said this on the other thread but I’m only a few months away from calling Trout a hall of famer already. He doesn’t have much left to prove in the majors. If he continues out this year like he has that’s 4 straight years of peak excellence you have to be one of the top 10 position players in history to match. I’m sold.

MikeD
Guest
Considering what he’s done the past three seasons (and so far this one), and the fact he’s still only 23, an age when many eventual HOFer’s were just arriving in the Majors, it would be surprising if he doesn’t make the HOF. That said, I thought Cesar Cedeno was a lock for the HOF after his first four seasons. If Trout gets injured, or for whatever reason takes a step down in greatness, but plays for many more years, his true greatness at the start of his career will fade. Tony Oliva, a slightly different case, might have a word… Read more »
Lawrence Azrin
Guest

@4;

One area where Trout has a large advantage over Cedeno and Oliva (and everyone else) is that no other MLB player has started off so well in the MVP voting their first three full years – 2nd, 2nd, 1st. …And a lot of people think he should’ve been first all _three_ years.

By contrast (MVP voting a player’s first three years):
Tony Oliva: 4th/ 2nd/ 6th
Ceaser Cedeno: (off-ballot)/6th/11th

The best I could come up to before Trout:
Albert Pujols: 4th/ 2nd/ 4th

ALSO of NOTE:
Stan Musial: 12-1-4
Ted Williams: 4-14-2
Joe DiMaggio: 8-2-6

David P
Guest

Trout actually has the most career WAR ever through age 22 (28.2 vs 25.2 for Ty Cobb).

Staying ahead of Cobb through age 23 will be tough…he’ll need about 8.0 WAR this year. Hardly impossible but neither is it a guarantee.

I’d say the biggest concern going forward for Trout are injuries, particularly as a Centerfielder. What if the rest of his career looks like Fred Lynn? He’s end up with about 70-80 career WAR. More than enough to warrant HOF consideration but he’d but hurt by a decade or more of failed expectations.

mosc
Guest

It’s not like Trout isn’t full of talent and I disagree that serious injury would cost some serious value accumulation over the coming years. It’s that I disagree he hasn’t already made nearly a HOF worth accumulation of value. He’s on pace for 8.7 WAR in 2015 so far. Not like that’s unexpected, he’s averaged 9.3 WAR/year the past 3 combined. Assuming he gets 8.7 WAR he’d be up to 37.3 WAR career and a WAA over 28. That’s a Koufax like historic peak and if that’s all he EVER did, I’d vote for him.

Artie Z.
Guest
I was talking about Trout with a friend of mine the other day (a big college baseball fan, but a more casual MLB fan), and he was talking about who he thought were some of the great young MLB players. He started talking about McCutchen alongside Trout and Harper, and I mentioned that McCutchen was a little bit older (more in the prime of his career, at least by typical age measures). Then he started talking about what happens when Trout gets to his prime years … At that point I mentioned that if Trout gets BETTER during the “typical”… Read more »
Brent
Guest
Not to change the subject but Beltre on the list above prompts me to ask if he is the third baseman on the All-Time Team of Players Never to Win the World Series. (the outfield is great, of course, Bonds, Cobb, T. Williams). The infield isn’t quite as good. Lajoie is a good choice at 2nd (or Carew if Napoleon is too long ago). At First Base, you could cheat and put Yaz on the team. The shortstop would be Yount or Vaughan? The catcher would be Carlton Fisk? The pitchers wouldn’t be as good as the lineup. By WAR,… Read more »
e pluribus munu
Guest

Great post, Bryan, and great to see you return and give Doug some company.

Your metric’s an interesting one. It tries to do two things at once: compare “great” careers alongside “on track to be great” careers. (Of course, with an outlier like Trout, these merge.)

By themselves, the charts seem misleading for that reason, but as prompts for your comments and the discussion here (and, I imagine, on your own website), they are much more intriguing than a simple, static ranking. Very engaging stuff, and I hope you’ll keep adding to the mix here.

Doug
Editor
Interesting approach, Bryan. I like where you have Ichiro positioned just ahead of Holliday and Ellsbury, both of whom (I’m assuming) will likely pass Suzuki before they’re done. While I agree Ichiro is likely a shoo-in for the HOF, unfortunately that won’t be the case for the other two. It’s unfortunate that Holliday didn’t get an earlier shot. As it is, his age 24 start means that, in all likelihood, he’ll fall short of the 60 career WAR that’s probably needed for even an outside shot at HOF consideration. Still, he’s been remarkably consistent with 9 straight qualifying seasons, all… Read more »
oneblankspace
Guest

I saw T.Hunter at #15 on the list.

Jimbo
Guest

Interesting Torii Hunter stat I noticed.

He’s turning 40 this year, and working on his 10th consecutive season with an OPS+ equal or higher than his career OPS+

That’s gotta be a pretty rare and odd thing to acheive.

SO while his fielding has consistently declined, his hitting hasn’t really shown any decline as of yet.

bstar
Guest

Good find, Jimbo.

But I found someone who had a better streak to end his career: Roberto Clemente. Clemente’s seasonal OPS+ exceeded his career mark the last 15 years of his career. That’s got to be the record.

Jimbo
Guest

The thing for Hunter is that his OPS has stayed relatively constant while league averages have continued to drop.

He might end his career with 2600+ hits I would’ve never expected that earlier in his career.

Richard Chester
Guest

Both Clemente and Hunter had relatively low values of OPS+ in their first few years in the majors.

Jimbo
Guest

Actually Clementes streak to end his career was only 10 seasons, which Hunter could tie this year.

bstar
Guest

I was doing his seasonal OPS+ vs. his career OPS+ at that point in his career.

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