I have a fair number of friends who love to talk about baseball, as I’m sure many of you do, too. It could be sitting at the bar, chopping it up about why your favorite team has been on a 19-day slide out of first place. Or maybe it’s a late night, online chat with a good buddy in South Korea gushing about Dae-ho Lee.
Sometimes, a lengthy thread is born out of the social media ether.
That’s what happened the other day, when my buddy Mike — a Detroit Tigers fan — expounded on the greatness of Miguel Cabrera. This came moments after Cabrera had become the fifth-fastest player to 2,400 hits in major-league history.
Mike posed the question, “Best hitter of our generation?” in regards to Cabrera. Now, maybe there’s a bit of the homer in Mike suggesting that, but I couldn’t say that Cabrera isn’t the best hitter of our generation either.
So I started rooting around the statistical corners of the Internet to see what I could find out. I decided that the first of my criteria to narrow the search would be to look at right-handed hitters. I’m sure you can raise issue with that, but it isn’t an exercise of exclusion against left-handed hitters. It was more a method of investigation to compare Cabrera against his right-handed peers.
Keeping in line with Mike’s subtle favoritism (who can fault the guy?), I decided to look at Cabrera side-by-side with my favorite right-hander, Manny Ramirez. Yeah yeah, laugh it up folks. You might think Manny’s a “clubhouse cancer” or whatever, but the guy was a savant with the bat in his hands and he brought me years of joy.
Also, the guy has some pretty gorgeous career numbers. I started to notice some similarities — at least in baseline minimums — in the two hitters’ numbers.
Click-click-clicking my way over to Baseball Reference’s Play Index tool, I plugged in some requirements into the search form. It is as follows from the screen capture.
Before you start bemoaning the absence of someone such as Hank Aaron, remember this is culling from hitters in the Expansion Era only (as you can see). Thus, seven full seasons are carved out of Aaron’s totals (specifically the number of doubles he hit), leaving him ineligible to meet the search criteria. It seemed only logical to limit my search to the Expansion Era, because that goes hand-in-hand with Mike’s conjecturing about the best hitter of our generation. Keep in mind, he and I are in our early 40’s, if that helps you define ‘generation’ more fully.
Yes, I was groomed on Edgar Martinez, who could also be considered for greatest right-handed hitter honors. Yet, he didn’t make the cut here either. I even dug further into some splits, such as high leverage slash lines. He falls just a hair’s breadth short of everyone in this quartet except Alex Rodriguez. Even in Weighted Runs Created Plus (wRC+), Martinez only bests A-Rod (147 to 142 career) as well.
What I’m trying to illustrate is that there are so many numbers and you can slice the data so many ways, that this is just one such thought experiment. This should not be taken as some definitive answer to what might be an unanswerable question. I certainly hope that any comments below reflect an understanding of that.
Okay, so let’s get back to the task at hand, shall we?
What have we asked the Baseball Reference version of Deep Thought? Well, for right-handed hitters in the Expansion Era, who has amassed 400 or more home runs and 500-plus doubles in at least 6,000 plate appearances with an OPS and slugging percentage of at least .880 and .500 respectively? That was a mouthful. And luckily, the answer was not “42!”
Four names are spit out: Miguel Cabrera, Albert Pujols, Manny Ramirez, and Alex Rodriguez. Clearly my search criteria appears to favor power-hitting righties. Yet, before taking umbrage with that deduction as well, keep in mind that all four of these guys hit for high average, get on base a ton, and all fare very well in wOBA. In fact, only Rodriguez has a career wOBA below .400.
My point is that all four of these righties are incredibly potent with the bat; they hit well in many facets and for extended periods of success.
So, let’s look at some numbers, just for our collective edification, shall we?[table “” not found /]
In this table, I just wanted to play a fun little game, ranking the four players and distributing points according to ranks. First place nets four points and so on in descending order. You get the picture. In this light, Manny Ramirez is tops with 16 points, followed by Pujols with 14, Cabrera with 11, and A-Rod dead last with nine.
This is only really looking at more standard (and primarily power) numbers. And yes, I’m including OPS and OBP in the “more standard” category as they have been part of the broader statistical lexicon for quite some time now.
Additionally, this only compares them to each other; an elite quartet. This begs further investigation into how they compare to league averages in their generation. I am defining this as 1993-present, as Ramirez, the elder statesman of the bunch, debuted in 1993.
In the 24-year span from 1993 to 2016, the league average slash line has fluctuated from .265/.332/.403 in 1993 to the present’s .253/.320/.412. There’s really no need to list the numbers, as you can refer back to the screen capture to see that all four of these dudes consistently crush the league average. Again, pretty standard stuff, but it does illustrate just how good they are.
Then I got to thinking about some rate stat comparisons. How do the strikeout and walk rates of these four hitters compare to league average?
We all know that strikeout rates have been on a steady incline, throughout the so-called Steroid Era and beyond it to present day. In 1993, hitters averaged a 15.1 percent strikeout rate. That has ballooned to 21.1 percent today.
Walk rates, on the other hand, have fluctuated more than the atmospheric-breach trajectory of strikeout rates. In 1993, the league average walk rate was 8.7 percent, just barely higher than 8.3 percent so far this season. It has never been higher than 9.6 percent in 2000 and never lower than 7.6 in 2014.
How do these four cats compare to the league average? Well, hey, here’s another nifty table for you to peruse![table “” not found /]
A couple things jumped out at me while compiling all these numbers. First of all, I was surprised that Ramirez struck out that frequently, as my memory serves me differently. Then again, he does have the highest career walk rate in the bunch, so maybe that’s the “pitch recognition” skills of his I’m recalling. Secondly, Pujols is looking better than I would have thought. Even with his skill set declining into a Three True Outcomes slugger, he still fares the best overall.
Pujols’s career high strikeout rate came in his rookie season, while his bottomed-out walk rate is from last season, easily his worst non-injury-shortened season.
Ramirez only slightly bests Pujols in walk rates, but it is clear that Pujols has consistently been better than the league averages, if not just more consistent overall. This is particularly true when you look at the spread between his best and worst strikeout rates.
Lastly, let’s just take a glance at some valuative stats and then we can get on to voting. Everybody loves voting, right?!?
In this case, we’re looking at fWAR, which is FanGraphs’ version of Wins Above Replacement, and Weighted Runs Created Plus (wRC+).[table “” not found /]
Now, there’s one hitch here. Pujols’ low of 95 wRC+ is from the first 70 games of the current campaign. His true season low is 112, which is from 2013, a season marred by injury.
As for fWAR, A-Rod has played the most seasons — and most games — by far, giving him a head start. That’s not to diminish his overall value in this light, but more to contextualize some of the massive lead he has there. This also further illuminates Cabrera’s placing, as he’s the youngest of the four, with the fewest games played. Unfortunately for me, this does not represent a value commensurate with my emotional experience with Manny Ramirez.
In conclusion, I would appreciate your participation in the poll. I’d also welcome any suggestions of players (who fit the parameters laid out above) who you think might have a fair shot at topping any or all of these four mashers. Happy voting!