Reprinted from The Bill James Handbook 2022
- Who is the best hitter in baseball?
- It’s still Mike Trout.
That was easy. Are we done here?
We here at Sports Info Solutions have maintained a “World’s #1 pitcher” list for 10 or 15 years, which is based on Game Scores. The ranking scores are adjusted every day. If a pitcher pitches a good game, he moves up; if he has a poor game, he moves down.
A year ago and some, I developed a system of Game Scores for Batters. Well then, somebody asked, why don’t we do a World’s Number One Batter system?
I agreed to try it, and here is the first publication of that effort. I modified the system as necessary to make it work for hitters, and I will probably need to tweak it some more in the future. A batter’s score is adjusted more cautiously than a pitcher’s, since batters play every day rather than every fifth day. A pitcher’s score drops after a few days of inactivity, whereas a batter’s score does not, since batting ability is much more stable than pitching ability. A batter’s score drops between seasons so that the batter has to re-establish his level of ability every season, but it doesn’t drop by nearly as much as a pitcher’s score drops. The systems are the same, but different.
To be honest, 2021 wasn’t a great year to push the Go button on the new system. Mike Trout started the season with a big lead, followed by Mookie Betts and Freddie Freeman:
|START OF SEASON|
|8||Ronald Acuña Jr.||537|
Trout came out red hot, even for Mike Trout. Through May 1 he was hitting .429 with an .805 slugging percentage and a 1.332 OPS. He had widened his lead to 47 points, while the list behind him had already churned to a significant extent.
|May 1, 2021|
|2||Ronald Acuña Jr.||558|
Then, however, Trout went into a 6-for-40 slump. By May 18 his score had dropped 16 points:
|May 18, 2021|
|6||Ronald Acuña Jr.||549|
And then, of course, Trout’s season ended. This locked his score in place, but it allowed plenty of time for other hitters to make a run at him. Mookie Betts appeared at that time to be best positioned to make that run, and then Ronald Acuña did.
On May 7 Fernando Tatis was hitting just .218, and had a ranking score of 524, which put him in 20th place. He started blasting homers and having 4-hit games, however, and a 2-homer, 6-RBI game on May 23 lifted him into the top 10. By June 23 Tatis was in third place. On June 25 he hit three home runs. This pushed him ahead of Acuña, making him the #2 man, Trout’s top competitor:
|June 25, 2021|
|2||Fernando Tatis Jr.||570|
|3||Ronald Acuña Jr.||560|
|8||Vladimir Guerrero Jr.||546|
Tatis had gained 46 points in five weeks. He needed only 19 more to claim the position as baseball’s best hitter. He homered on June 30, pushing him to 572. He stayed in that range, moved up slowly. By August 15 he was at 579:
|August 15, 2021|
|2||Fernando Tatis Jr.||579|
|5||Ronald Acuña Jr.||565|
And where, you might ask, is the pitcher dude, Ohtani? Why isn’t he on this list? Why isn’t he #1 on the list?
Shohei Ohtani ranked #85 on April 12 and dropped to #92 on Apr 20 before he started to rip. He climbed into the top 80 on April 25, and into the top 70 the following day. He was in the top 60 by May 7. He reached the top 50 on May 18, the same day that Trout went out for the year. On June 18 he was in the top 40; on June 20, in the top 30. By June 29 he was in the top 20. By July 18 we had him ranked as the #13 hitter in baseball.
And then he stopped hitting. He didn’t COMPLETELY stop hitting, of course, but in June and July he hit .295 with 22 homers, 42 RBI. From August 1 to the end of the season he hit .216 with 9 homers and 18 RBI. He started to slide down the list. By the end of the season he had dropped back to 42nd place.
This is just about hitting. Being a hitter/pitcher doesn’t help you at all; this is just a hitter’s ranking. A similar story is Vladimir Guerrero Jr. He started the season ranked 111th, but he started out a-wallopin’. He moved into the top 90 on April 9, into the top 80 on April 10, into the top 70 on April 15, into the top 60 on April 17. A couple of hot weeks, and he has passed half the list of hitters who were around him, because that is all that it takes when you are in that territory. On April 27 he hit 3 home runs and drove in 7 runs, which put him not only into the Top 50, but into the top 40. He flattened out a little, but he moved into the top 30 on May 19, and into the top 20 on May 25. On June 12 he moved into the #10 spot, then 9, 8, 7, 6, 5. By July 7 he was ranked as the #5 hitter in baseball.
In that time period, I heard several reporters say that Guerrero was probably the best hitter in baseball now. But like Ohtani, that was as high as he got in 2021; he started to slip after that, and wound up the season ranked 12th.
Vladimir may in fact be the best hitter in baseball, or Shohei might, but I want to see them prove it before I put them there. There is always a sensation of the moment, and there are always people who want to say that the sensation of the moment is the brightest star in the firmament. But I look at it this way: that the variations in performance within each player’s career are significantly larger than the actual differences in skill levels. That means, when you think about it, that it is rarely true that the player who is playing the best right now, over the last two weeks or the last two months.…it is rarely true that the player who is playing the best right now is actually the best player. You need to be skeptical. If one of these men is actually the best hitter in baseball, 2022 will give them another chance to prove it.
But Mike Trout actually did NOT hold the #1 spot until the end of the season. There’s this young fella, Juan Soto. Juan Soto did not start out the season in the 90s. He started the season #6. He drifted a little bit after that, dropping as low as the 16th spot on the list on June 28. He was back in the top 10 by early July. By mid-July he was 5th. On August 30th he was 6th.
And then he got hot. He homered and drove in 4 runs on September 2. He homered again on the third. Beginning September 7 he had 29 hits in 16 games. On September 23, he moved ahead of Trout, to be ranked as the #1 hitter in baseball.
|September 23, 2021|
|3||Fernando Tatis Jr.||574|
|7||Ronald Acuña Jr.||565|
|8||Vladimir Guerrero Jr.||563|
And all of a sudden, out of nowhere, he was an MVP candidate. He finished the season in a 3-for-28 slump, which put the static Mr. Trout back in first place;
|End of Season|
|6||Ronald Acuña Jr.||565|
|7||Fernando Tatis Jr.||565|
By the end of 2022 any of those men may be the best hitter in baseball, or Ohtani might, or Guerrero might. My money would be on Soto, but Mike Trout is Mike Trout. He’s probably got a few hits in him.