The 21 Best Position Players in the Game

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912px-Mike_Trout_2019.jpg

By Keith Allison from Hanover, MD, USA - Mike Trout

By Jonathan Northrop, AngelsWin.com Columnist

Watching Anthony Rendon in the World Series got me thinking about how he ranks among baseball’s superstars, and who the very best players in baseball are. Clearly the best is obvious, but what about everyone else? How would they rank? And how to rank them? What started as a fun little time-wasting personal project quickly spiralled out of hand and consumed some hours of the last few days, and resulted in an actual article. So as the offseason begins, enjoy...

A Note on Process

If you're not interested in the process and formula and just want to see the list, go ahead and skip ahead. The formula is simple, but some might find it tedious or headache-inducing. But I've enclosed it in spoilers, so as not to confuse.

Spoiler

I decided to come up with a simple formula to figure this out.  You guessed it, it is based on fWAR, aka the Fangraphs version of Wins Above Replacement. I don't think it is a perfect stat, but it is the best stat we have to ascertain overall value, at least for position players. And while I was tempted to balance it with wRC+ to make it more emphasized towards offense, I also wanted to account for the fact that "best player" doesn’t only mean “best hitter,” but must take into account all aspects of a player’s performance: hitting, baserunning, and fielding.

I decided to consider only the last three years, but wanted to weight it more towards the present. I decided on the following: One part 2019, two-thirds part 2018, and one-third part 2017 (I originally considered an even 1 + 0.5 + 0.25, but thought that over-emphasized 2019, and that the formula I ended up with was better at accounting for recent injury).

Like so, with A being the fWAR of the most recent year, in this case 2019; B being the second most recent year, or 2018; and C being the prior year, or 2017:

(1 x A) + (0.67 x B) + (0.33 x C) / 2 = Three-Year Weighted WAR

That's it. Simple and easy. Maybe not perfect, but I think it does a good job at determining and ordering the best players in baseball, as of right now. Better than just 2019 WAR, and better than 2017-19 WAR. I was tempted to adjust it with other stats, or with my own subjective perspective (as I don't entirely agree with the ordering), but I decided to refrain and keep this objective. In the case of players with insufficient data, whether due to injury or being rookies, I ignored absent years, or years in which they played very few games; in other words, I made a judgement call - so subjectivity does creep in a bit, but only in a few cases.

I also only looked at position players, as I don't think fWAR works as well for pitchers. Maybe I'll try to tackle that later.

So, on to the list.

The List

I wrote this in installments for the forum, but will share it here as one piece. It will still be presented as a countdown, from #21 to #1, and then with some odds and ends at the end.

By now you know I’m cheating: I’m offering a top 21, because while I’m OK excluding #22 Ketel Marte (for now), I cannot bear to keep José Altuve off the list.

Finally, a note of clarificationThis list is meant to answer the question about who the best players are in the game right now based upon the above weighted WAR formula; in other words, this is right now; it is not meant as a list of future value, or who I personally would take in a fantasy or real draft. The list and ordering will change (and perhaps we'll revisit it next year).

Without further ado...

 

THE TWENTY-ONE BEST POSITION PLAYERS IN BASEBALL (Going into 2020)

Note: Each player entry will include their Three-Year Weighted fWAR, team, position, and 2020 age, with a line for 2019 statistics.

1080px-José_Altuve_sliding_(35269

By Keith Allison from Hanover, MD, USA - Jose Altuve

#21: JOSÉ ALTUVE 4.7 (Astros, 2B, 30)

2019 Stats: .298/.353/.550, 138 wRC+, 3.5 WAR, 31 HR.

You might be surprised to find the Great Little One so far down this list, but Altuve has actually been on a trajectory of decline over the last couple years: from a career-best 7.6 fWAR in 2017, to 4.9 in 2018 and 3.5 this year. We've also seen his batting average plummet from .346 to .316 to .298 during that span, although with career-best power numbers in 2019 (31 HR, .252 ISO). Given his career-low .303 BABIP in 2019, chances are he bounces back at least somewhat in 2020. Altuve is interesting in that a few years ago he was pretty much this era's Tony Gwynn, with three batting titles in four years (2014, 2016-17); now he's hitting far more HR than Gwynn ever did. He's early into a mega-contract, with $29 million due each year through 2024, so it will be interesting to see how he ages. 2020 should determine if he's now "only" a very good player, or if he can maintain his place among the best in the game.

#20:  PETER ALONSO 4.8 (Mets, 1B, 25)

2019 Stats: .260/.358/.583, 143 wRC+, 4.8 WAR, 53 HR.

Talk about a rookie year. Considering the fact that he only has one year to his name, Alonso’s ranking is based entirely on his 2019 performance, so is a bit more tenuous than other players. But given his incredible season, including a rookie record 53 HR, I think he deserves inclusion. He's a classic Killebrew-esque power hitting first baseman: low average, immense power, an above average amount of walks (72) and tons of strikeouts (183). My guess is that there's more of all of the above to come. If he adds 30 points to his BA, he'll be one of the very best hitters in baseball.

#19: RONALD ACUÑA Jr. 4.8 (Braves, CF, 22)

2019 Stats: .280/.365/.518, 126 wRC+, 5.6 WAR, 41 HR, 37 SB.

Such discussion is never had on this web-site, of course, but when people talk about who might eventually surpass Mike Trout as the best player in baseball, Acuña's name is frequently mentioned. While he's far from Trout, consider that he just finished his age 21 season with 9.3 career fWAR, good for 22nd best all time through that age (Trout had already accrued more than twice that with 20.9, but this isn’t about him). Acuña is the full package, with a career line of .285/.365/.532 in his first 1202 PA: not bad for a 21-year old. If you want something to complain about, despite more HR and WAR (mostly due to more games played), his 2019 actually saw a slight drop in wRC+ from 143 to 126. But he did almost join the exclusive 40-40 club and the sky is the limit for this kid.

#18: TREVOR STORY 4.8 (Rockies, SS, 27)

2019 Stats: .294/.363/.554, 121 wRC+, 5.8 WAR, 35 HR, 23 SB.

I was surprised to see Story end up so high. While he’s been around for four years now, he’s not a star I pay a lot of attention to, although that might be because the Rockies are a team not many outside of Colorado pays attention to. But Story is very, very good, if enjoying the usual Coors-inflated numbers. After a sophomore slump in 2017, which saw his excellent rookie fWAR of 3.1 drop to 1.4, he has established himself as a bonafide star, with a 5.1 and 5.8 fWAR the last two years, with very similar stats. A nice complementary star to Colorado’s franchise player, who we’ll encounter a little later on.

#17: YASMANI GRANDAL 4.9 (Brewers, C, 31)

2019 Stats: .246/.380/.468, 121 wRC+, 5.2 WAR, 28 HR.

For those wondering why a few Angels fans keep lingering over the name “Yasmani Grandal” for possible free agent signings, this is exactly why: he’s one of the twenty best position players in the game. Grandal has quietly been consistently very good for half a decade, averaging exactly 5.0 fWAR over the last five years – incredible numbers for a catcher. And you’ve got to love that .380 OBP, based on a career-high 109 walks. According to this formula, he’s the second best catcher in baseball.

#16: MAX MUNCY 5.0 (Dodgers, 2B/1B/3B/OF, 30)

2019 Stats: .251/.374/.515, 134 wRC+, 4.8 WAR, 35 HR.

Muncy’s an unusual player, both because he plays a bunch of positions adequately, but also because he emerged relatively late in his career; after not catching on with the Athletics, he broke out at age 27 in 2018 for the Dodgers. His ranking might be a bit generous as I only included his two full seasons in the formula, but his 10 WAR over the last two years makes him one of the twenty best in the game.

#15: GEORGE SPRINGER 5.0 (Astros, OF, 30)

2019 Stats: .292/.383/.591, 156 wRC+, 6.5 WAR, 39 HR.

While Springer has been a borderline star for a few years now, he finally had the breakout year people had been expecting, with career highs in almost every category – despite only playing in 122 games. If he has a similar year next year, he could threaten the top 10.

#14: J.T. REALMUTO 5.2 (Phillies, C, 29)

2019 Stats: .275/.328/.493, 108 wRC+, 5.7 WAR, 25 HR.

According to this metric, Realmuto is the best catcher in baseball, but it is close, and Grandal has been good for longer. Add in the fact that a huge amount of Realmuto’s WAR value in 2019 came from Fangraphs’ new catcher framing stats, giving him 27.8 Defensive Runs—about half of his 5.7 WAR—and that his hitting was down from 2018, and I think you could argue that Grandal should get the edge, at least for past performance; but Realmuto is likely to be better going forward. Either way, Realmuto is one of two really good catchers in the major leagues, with everyone else far behind. Consider that over the last three years, Realmuto leads all catchers with 15.0 WAR; Grandal is a close second at 14.0, but then it drops all the way to the once-great Buster Posey at 8.9 and the erratic Gary Sanchez at 8.3.

#13: JOSÉ RAMÍREZ 5.4 (Indians, 3B, 27)

2019 Stats: .255/.327/.479, 104 wRC+, 3.3 WAR, 23 HR, 24 SB.

If we were doing this list a year ago, Ramirez would rank in the top 5 with a three-year weighted WAR of 7.0. But he started slumping in late 2018 and was absolutely terrible through half of 2019, before finding his swing in late June. Who knows what to expect next year, but from June 21 on he hit .325/.371/.703 in 229 PA, so I think it is safe to say that he’s back and will rise again up this list. Of all 21 players on this list, he had the worst 2019 season, but consider that if it was a typical year for him, he’d still be among the best 40 or so players in the game.

#12: AARON JUDGE 5.4 (Yankees, RF, 28)

2019 Stats: .272/.381/.540, 141 wRC+, 4.6 WAR, 27 HR in 102 games.

If not for injury, Judge would rank higher. After an incredible rookie year that saw him hit .284/.422/.627 with 52 HR and a major league leading 8.3 fWAR--not unlike Peter Alonso's rookie season, but with more contact and walks--earning him the Rookie of the Year Award and second place MVP, Judge played 112 and 102 games in 2018 and 2019, respectively. His rate stats dropped a bit, but if healthy he’s still one of the better hitters in the game and a top 10 player.

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By Keith Allison from Hanover, MD, USA - Aaron Judge

#11: MARCUS SEMIEN 5.4 (Athletics, SS, 29)

2019 Stats: .285/.369/.522, 137 wRC+, 7.6 WAR, 33 HR in 162 games.

Probably the most surprising name on this list—not only because he’s on this list, but how high he’s ranked. Semien has been a good player for a few years, but he became a great one in 2019. Whether or not it is sustainable is a big question, although I expect his ranking to drop a bit. Anyhow, of all the players on this list Semien's ranking makes me question the formula the most. On the other hand, it also illustrates just how good he was in 2019.

#10: XANDER BOGAERTS 5.6 (Red Sox, SS, 27)

2019 Stats: .309/.384/.555, 141 wRC+, 6.8 WAR, 33 HR in 155 games.

After being a consistently very good player for four years, Bogaerts finally broke through to superstardom. Given Mookie Betts' questionable future on the Red Sox, Bogaerts could be the face of the only franchise with four World Series championships in the 21st century for the next seven years, as he is signed through 2026. I personally think this is him maxed out and he probably won't go much higher, but will still be fixture on this list for years to come.

#9: FRANCISCO LINDOR 5.7 (Indians, SS, 26)

2019 Stats: .284/.335/.518, 114 wRC+, 4.4 WAR, 32 HR, 22 SB in 143 games.

Lindor probably had the worst season of his five-year career in 2019 (his 4.0 WAR in 2015, his rookie year, was in 99 games), but may have been hampered by a nagging calf injury that saw hm miss the first few weeks. He was still very good, but it was a slightly disappointing season compared to 2018. If he bounces back, he’ll rise a bit. He's won the crown of best shortstop in the game.

#8: MATT CHAPMAN 5.7 (Athletics, 3B, 27)

2019 Stats: .249/.342/.506, 125 wRC+, 6.1 WAR, 36 HR in 156 games.

Chapman is a very good hitter, but a great defender, likely to win his second Gold Glove in a row. He should be a fixture on this list for years to come, especially if he improves his contact rate.

#7: NOLAN ARENADO 5.8 (Rockies, 3B, 29)

2019 Stats: .315/.379/.583, 128 wRC+, 5.9 WAR, 41 HR in 155 games.

Is there any more consistent player in baseball? Arenado’s hit between 37 and 42 HR and at least 110 RBI in each of the last five years, although a comparatively more modest--but still very good--121 to 132 wRC+ during that span. Consider his 2017-19 fWARs: 5.7, 5.7, 5.9. At 29, there’s no reason to expect a down-turn in the next couple years; the Rockies certainly hope not, as he’ll be one of the highest paid players in baseball through 2025, his age 34 season.

#6: CODY BELLINGER 5.8 (Dodgers, 1B/OF, 24)

2019 Stats: .305/.406/.629, 162 wRC+, 7.8 WAR, 47 HR in 156 games.

Doesn’t it seem like the Dodgers—despite being one of the better teams of the last 15 years or so—haven’t quite been able to find that franchise player? Adrian Beltre had that ridiculously good breakout year in 2004, but then signed with the Mariners; Andre Ethier and Matt Kemp looked very promising, but after Kemp’s second-place MVP finish in 2011, he struggled with injury, and Ethier never became more than very good. And remember when Yasiel Puig was, for maybe a month, talked about as the Dodgers’ answer to Mike Trout? Corey Seager looked promising and while quite good, has been a bit disappointing. Anyhow, they may finally have their guy in Bellinger, although it is worth noting that he was two very different players in the first and second half of the year: In the first half he hit .336 with 30 HR; in the second, .261 with 17. Even splitting the difference, well, look at that stat line: Bellinger’s great, and only 24.

#5: ANTHONY RENDON 6.7 (Nationals, 3B, 30)

2019 Stats: .319/.412/.598, 154 wRC+, 7.0 WAR, 34 HR in 146 games.

Rendon has been a star for years now—with the fourth highest fWAR in baseball over the last four seasons, at 24.2—but has generally been under the radar. 2019 was his best year yet, but he’ll still likely fall to third in MVP voting. Rendon pretty much does everything except for steal bases, but he’s not slow. He’s about to become a very, very wealthy man.

#4: CHRISTIAN YELICH 7.2 (Brewers, RF, 28)

2019 Stats: .329/.429/.671, 174 wRC+, 7.8 WAR, 44 HR in 130 games.

Do you remember when the Marlins were selling off their young stars and Yelich was the guy everyone wanted? He was a good player in 2017 but not yet a great one, and the Brewers got him for an absolute steal of a package, centered on the very disappointing Lewis Brinson. Yelich became a superstar in 2018 and since then has been the second best hitter in baseball, his two-year wRC+ of 170 behind only Trout’s 185. A year from now he's a good bet to be #2 on this list.

#3: ALEX BREGMAN 7.4 (Astros, 3B, 26)

2019 Stats: .296/.423/.592, 168 wRC+, 8.5 WAR, 41 HR in 156 games.

We truly are in a golden age of third basemen—half of the top eight on this list, plus a few others in the top 30—and Bregman is the best of the lot and just keeps getting better. Oh yeah, Bregman is one of three Astros on this list, and that doesn’t include Carlos Correa or Yordan Alvarez. Anyhow, after a very good first full year in 2017, Bregman jumped to superstardom in 2018 and was even better in 2019, a bonafide MVP candidate.

#2: MOOKIE BETTS 7.7 (Red Sox, RF, 27)

2019 Stats: .295/.391/.524, 135 wRC+, 6.6 WAR, 29 HR in 150 games.

Angels fans like to bag on Mookie as being “not Trout,” but boy is this little guy a good player. Looking only at his last few odd-number seasons you’d think he was really good, but it is his last two even number years that have made people question whether he’s as good as Trout. In fact, his 2018 was—according to fWAR at 10.4—better than any Trout year, and the best year by any player since Barry Bonds. And while Trout was amazing in 2018 with a 9.8 fWAR in 140 games, Betts actually played in four fewer games. But Betts isn’t quite as consistent as Trout: since his first full season in 2015, his fWARs have been 4.8, 8.3, 5.3, 10.4, and 6.6. And it is important to note that his 185 wRC+ in 2018 was fueled by a .368 BABIP, well above his career average of .314. Chances are 2018 was a career year and that he might slip a bit in these rankings, at least below Bregman and Yelich, but Betts is a truly great player and should—at the least—remain one of the ten or so best players in the game for years to come.

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By Keith Allison from Hanover, MD, USA - Mookie Betts

#1: MIKE TROUT 8.7 (Angels, CF, 28)

2019 Stats: .291/.438/.645, 180 wRC+, 8.6 WAR, 45 HR in 134 games.

Did you expect anyone else? Trout is #1 by a solid 1.0 WAR margin. He's actually reached a new level of performance in 2017-19, with a 180, 190, and 180 wRC+, averaging 10.5 fWAR per 162 games played. The lone concern is that he's missed at least 22 games in each of the last three years. Injury kept him from 50 HR and 10 WAR in 2019 (as well as 2018), but he still managed career highs in HR, ISO, and SLG, and led the majors in WAR, if only just barely. If healthy, he should reach the 10 fWAR mark and could even have an 11 fWAR season in him over the next few years. Sit back and enjoy.

 

ADDENDUM: ODDS AND ENDS

Honorable Mentions (aka the Next Dozen)

Ketel Marte 4.5, Freddie Freeman 4.5, Javier Baez 4.4, Juan Soto 4.4, Kris Bryant 4.3, Bryce Harper 4.2, Eugenio Suarez 4.2, J.D. Martinez 4.2, Paul Goldschmidt 4.1, Manny Machado 4.0, Tommy Pham 4.0, Justin Turner 4.0.

That is a nice place to cut it off, as everyone else has a 3.9 Weighted fWAR or lower.

Surprise Absenses

Who is not mentioned in the expanded 33 Best Players (the 21 listed but 12 honorable mentions)? Well, the first name that comes to my mind is Carlos Correa, who after two 5 fWAR seasons in 2016-17, was a contender for at least the top 10. I remember people debating whether Correa or Lindor was going to be the best shortstop of the future; that seems to have been decided, at least for now. Correa’s struggles are mainly injury-related as he’s played only 185 games over the last two seasons with a total of 4.8 fWAR. If he can remain healthy, he has a chance to become the fourth Astro in the top 20.

Giancarlo Stanton also comes to mind. After a career high 59 HR and 7.3 WAR in 2017 for the Marlins, he became a merely garden-variety slugger for the Yankees the following year (38 HR, 4.3 WAR), and then missed all but 18 games in 2019. He’ll be 30 next year, so we’ll see if he can re-find his 2017 form.

A couple others I’d like to mention: Josh Donaldson had a comeback 4.9 WAR season, but is still not quite as good as his 2013-17 peak when his 34.4 fWAR was second only to You Know Who. He’ll need another two more similar seasons to sneak back on this list; at 34 that will be difficult, but possible, I suppose.

 Finally, a note on Buster Posey. Despite winning an MVP and three World Series, he may be a bit under-appreciated, at least outside of the Bay Area. As with Donaldson, he can claim to be the second best player in baseball over a chunk of years, with a 42.9 fWAR over a six-year span of 2012-17. Like many catchers, he’s been underrated, and like most catchers, he’s declined early, with a rather steap decline over the last three years, from 6.7 fWAR in 2014 to 4.7, 2.3, and 1.8 last year.  

Threats for 2021:Up-and-Comers

The youth revolution continues in baseball, with a bunch of young players establishing themselves as stars. Juan Soto, Yoan Moncada, Ozzie Albies, Jeff McNeil, Rafael Devers, Max Kepler, Yordan Alvarez, Vladimir Guerrero Jr, Bo Bichette, Keston Hiura, and Fernando Tatis Jr are among the candidates for this list a year or two from now, depending upon how they develop. Some of these guys may already be as good as players listed above, but just need the playing time to prove it.

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