Some crazy tweeter, whose name will not be identified because I have happily suppressed it, recently called Aaron Judge one of the best five power hitters of all time. Or something like that. Anyway, Darryl Strawberry was #2 on that list along with Barry Bonds, Mark McGwire, and one other player. I’m told this savant possesses a Hall of Fame vote. Great. Just great.
In another question that initially struck me as odd, someone asked if Aaron Judge is the best player in baseball. At first, this notion seemed almost as ludicrous at the one above. Then I got to thinking about it. After all, when the comment was made, Judge did lead all of baseball in WAR. And if we trust WAR…
Do we trust WAR?
Yes, yes we should. It’s flawed, but it’s easily the best omnibus statistic we have. It does an excellent, if imperfect, job identifying the best players in the game. And if we trust WAR, we have to trust those who employ it most, the folks at BBREF. They say, “We present the WAR values with decimal places because this relates the WAR value back to the runs contributed (as one win is about ten runs), but you should not take any full-season difference between two players of less than one to two wins to be definitive (especially when the defensive metrics are included).”
Do we trust it? Yes. Generally. Just understand that small differences don’t necessarily mean anything.
Is ten weeks enough to show you’re the best?
Um, no. It’s not even close. You don’t think we should have a running ten-week WAR contest by which we determine the game’s best player, do you? Of course not. While a month isn’t ten weeks, the NL player of the month this April was Ryan Zimmerman. This is a guy who was worth 0.0 WAR over the past three seasons! He’s up to 2.5 WAR as I write this and seems to have rediscovered his health, his swing, or something else. But what do you think we should trust, only April 2017 or April 2014-September 2016 to predict how good a player will be moving forward? You guessed it.
How long is long enough?
I am quite certain of my answer to the first two questions. To this one, not so much. It does take more than half a year or a year though. Stealing an idea from the Rob Neyer/Eddie Esptein book, Baseball Dynasties, a player needs to be more than a one-year wonder to be considered the best in the game, at least in my opinion. Over the course of just one year BABIP or HR/FB or injuries could all go a player’s way. That’s much less likely over two years.
Bryce Harper was dynamic in 2015, posting 9.9 WAR. However, in the years surrounding that he totaled just 2.6 WAR. Josh Hamilton put up 8.7 WAR in 2010, yet only 4.3 total in the surrounding years. Jose Rijo, Teddy Higuera, and Mark Fidrych have also led the majors in WAR for one year. We shouldn’t have called any of them the best in the game at any point. The list goes on.
So a year isn’t long enough, at least not for me. On the other hand, if you lead your league in WAR two consecutive years, you’re probably the best player in the game at that point. Mike Trout, Albert Pujols, Alex Rodriguez, Barry Bonds, Ken Griffey, Rickey Henderson, Wade Boggs, Tony Gwynn, Mike Schmidt, Joe Morgan, Rod Carew, Carl Yastrzemski, Willie Mays, Mickey Mantle, Jackie Robinson, Ted Williams, Stuffy Stirnweiss (during WWII), Stan Musial, Johnny Mize, Joe DiMaggio, Lou Gehrig, Rogers Hornsby, Babe Ruth, Ty Cobb, Honus Wagner, Nap Lajoie, Hughie Jennings, Jack Glasscock, Dan Brouthers, Cap Anson, and Ross Barnes. I think that’s the full list. At least it’s close. And I think we can generally agree that those guys could be called the best position player in baseball at different times.
Is two year exactly right? I don’t know. Maybe. But I don’t think it can be less.
A player doesn’t have to lead the league for two straight years, necessarily, to wear the crown. But let’s remove hypotheticals for a moment. Mike Trout had led the AL in WAR five years running (and all of MLB three of those five), plus he was leading MLB this year at the time of his injury. So no, Aaron Judge is not the best player in baseball. Even if we figure out in 15 months that he’s been the best for two years running – and I don’t think we will – he can’t be the best by my reckoning until at least April of 2019. At least until then, that title belongs to Mike Trout.