Who's the best player in baseball?

Leon Halip

On Monday, I pointed out that Ben Zobrist, over the last four seasons, paced all of baseball in combined Wins Above Replacement.

[Pause to let that sink in.]

On Saturday, I pointed out that MLB Network recently aired some cockamamie show where they ranked the top 100 players in baseball, and Zobrist didn't make the cut.

I haven't been this outraged since that politician I don't like said that thing I disagree with.

Anyway, in Monday's post I referred to a Bill James essay, "Baseball's Best Player," where he asks the question ...

Who is the best player in baseball? I don't mean who had the best year or who is having the best year, but just ... who is the best player? Who was the best player in 1972? Who was the best player in 1935?

It is the most basic of baseball debates, the simplest and the most pervasive—and, I suppose because of that, it is a question rarely faced squarely in sabermetrics. It seems too simple to discuss. We are more interested in the shadings of value between Garrett Anderson and Mike Cameron, between Jacques Jones and Juan Pierre, between Quinton McCracken and Bobby Estalella, than in bringing our analytical arms to bear on the fairly obvious.

Here's everything I remember about Bobby Estalella: 1) He was a catcher who walked a lot and never really stuck anywhere, and 2) he had a dad or uncle or brother who was in the majors. He might have been a 3rd-generation MLB'er, now that I think of it. Let's see how I did ... [consults ultranet] ... He played 310 games for six different teams, and he did walk a lot—his OBP was 100 points higher than his batting average. His grandpa played during WWII, but not his dad or uncle or brother. And I forgot, if I ever knew, that he was in the Mitchell Report, the MLB-commissioned blacklist of people who used non-sanctioned sports drugs before they were against the rules. So we know he's a human garbage monster.

End of digression. Using Win Shares, Bill figured the "Established Value" of every player from 1901 thru 2003. The formula for Established Value is ...

.40 times his Win Shares in the most recent season, plus .30 times his Win Shares in the previous season, plus .20 times his Win Shares in the season before that, plus .10 times his Win Shares in the season before that.

You can read the whole thing here, if you're a Bill James Online subscriber (which you really ought to be).

Nearly a decade has passed since Bill wrote that article, and I wanted to know who baseball's best players were since then. And I especially wanted to know who the best player is today, right this very minute. So I figured the Established Value for a shit ton of players, substituting Wins Above Replacement (Baseball-Reference version) for Win Shares, mostly because it was easier. Although, I do prefer rWAR to fWAR and WARP, because I think Defensive Runs Saved is ... oh, who am I kidding? You already jumped to the end, didn't you?

2004

Rank                EWAR
1 Barry Bonds 10.3
2 Alex Rodriguez 7.9
3 Albert Pujols 7.5
4 Curt Schilling 7.3
5 Todd Helton 7.0
6 Scott Rolen 6.7
7 Ichiro Suzuki 6.6
8 Jim Edmonds 6.4
9 Pedro Martinez 6.2
10 Carlos Beltran 5.7
10 Bobby Abreu 5.7

Bonds was the best player in baseball every year from 1992 to 2004, according to Established Value, except for 1999 (Bagwell) and 2000 (Giambi).

2005

Rank                EWAR
1 Alex Rodriguez 8.3
2 Albert Pujols 8.0
3 Pedro Martinez 6.4
4 Johan Santana 6.3
4 Barry Bonds 6.3
6 Todd Helton 6.0
7 Miguel Tejada 5.8
8 Jim Edmonds 5.6
8 Ichiro Suzuki 5.6
8 Roger Clemens 5.6

Note: WAR likes pitchers more than Win Shares. This might be important later.

2006

Rank                EWAR
1 Albert Pujols 8.2
2 Johan Santana 7.0
3 Alex Rodriguez 6.7
4 Carlos Beltran 5.9
5 Ichiro Suzuki 5.5
6 Chase Utley 5.4
6 Carlos Zambrano 5.4
8 Brandon Webb 5.2
8 Miguel Tejada 5.2
8 Andruw Jones 5.2

2007

Rank                EWAR
1 Albert Pujols 8.3
2 Alex Rodriguez 7.5
3 Chase Utley 6.8
4 Johan Santana 6.3
5 Roy Oswalt 5.7
5 Carlos Beltran 5.7
5 Brandon Webb 5.7
8 David Ortiz 5.5
8 David Wright 5.5
8 Grady Sizemore 5.5
10 Ichiro Suzuki 5.4

2008

Rank                EWAR
1 Albert Pujols 8.6
2 Chase Utley 8.0
3 Alex Rodriguez 7.1
4 Johan Santana 6.3
4 David Wright 6.3
6 Chipper Jones 6.1
6 Carlos Beltran 6.1
8 Mark Teixeira 5.9
8 Grady Sizemore 5.9
10 Brandon Webb 5.8

2009

Rank                EWAR
1 Albert Pujols 9.0
2 Chase Utley 8.1
3 Hanley Ramirez 6.1
4 Zack Greinke 6.0
5 C.C. Sabathia 5.9
5 Joe Mauer 5.9
7 Alex Rodriguez 5.8
8 Mark Teixeira 5.6
8 Roy Halladay 5.6
8 Tim Lincecum 5.5

Through age 30, Chase Utley was a much better player than Craig Biggio. Hasn't played a full season since 2009.

2010

Rank                EWAR
1 Albert Pujols 8.4
2 Chase Utley 7.2
3 Roy Halladay 6.8
4 Evan Longoria 6.0
5 Joe Mauer 5.9
6 Kevin Youkilis 5.6
7 Zack Greinke 5.5
7 Felix Hernandez 5.5
9 Ryan Zimmerman 5.5
9 Matt Holliday 5.5

Sure, Albert Pujols is one of the all-time greats, but he'll always be a "trader" to the folks back home.

2011

Rank                EWAR
1 Roy Halladay 7.8
2 Albert Pujols 7.0
2 Evan Longoria 7.0
4 Ben Zobrist 6.4
5 Ryan Braun 6.3
6 C.C. Sabathia 6.0
7 Miguel Cabrera 5.9
8 Dustin Pedroia 5.8
9 Justin Verlander 5.7
9 Joey Votto 5.7
9 Chase Utley 5.7

2012

Rank                EWAR
1 Justin Verlander 6.9
2 Robinson Cano 6.8
3 Ryan Braun 6.7
4 Miguel Cabrera 6.6
5 Ben Zobrist 6.4
6 Adrian Beltre 6.1
7 Clayton Kershaw 5.9
7 Joey Votto 5.9
9 Albert Pujols 5.8
10 Dustin Pedroia 5.4

Is Justin Verlander the best player in baseball? It's hard to say. There just isn't enough precision in the numbers to say for certain he's better than Cano, Braun, or Cabrera. Hell, I think I might rather have Andrew McCutchen or Matt Kemp on my team than Verlander, or any pitcher. Even with the historically high strikeout rates we all enjoy today, I'm not sure a pitcher, throwing fewer than 250 innings, can be as valuable as the very best position players. But I've been wrong before.

I'll also note that the Established WAR numbers for the top players were not terribly high last season. Mike Trout could top the list next year, even with only two seasons under his belt. If he puts up a 6 or 7 WAR season in 2013, I'd be very comfortable saying he's the best player in baseball. Until then, I really don't have any idea who the best player in baseball is.

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