We’re suckers for nostalgia. When Major League Baseball finally curbed its draconian highlight policy and released a few dribs and drabs of video, we rejoiced at being able to watch Cecil Fielder hit moon shots and Bo Jackson play like a superhero. When MLB finally began showing full games on YouTube, we quit our jobs, crammed a thousand Pop-Tarts into our mouths, and watched Sandy Koufax and Bob Gibson break batters’ hearts.
Given what happened to some of baseball’s brightest stars this year, it’s easy to understand our desire to cling to the past. Ryan Braun, one of the 10 best players on the planet, got busted for PEDs. Matt Kemp, the all-world outfielder Braun beat out for MVP honors just two years ago, was pummeled by injuries. Younger players suffered setbacks as well: Matt Harvey, the pitcher who evoked comparisons to Dwight Gooden and Tom Seaver, snapped one ligament and became linked to Tommy John instead. Manny Machado, the third baseman who reminded us of Brooks Robinson, got knocked out by a brutal knee injury and was told to feel fortunate that he’d only be out for six months. Even the game’s best talents can fall from grace that quickly.
Welcome to the second edition of Grantland’s MLB Trade Value Rankings, where we’ll try to make sense of it all by addressing the question that fuels so many bar-room debates: Would you trade this guy for that guy? Answering that requires engaging in a thought experiment. We must first assume that every team has made every player available via trade. Then, we must take contracts into account. Baseball players tend to peak in their mid-to-late twenties, but that’s also when they start to get expensive. That means baseball’s ideal commodity is either a player who’s already performing like a star in his early twenties, or a player who has signed a long-term deal that locks him up through his arbitration years plus a few years of would-be free agency, saving his team money and pledging his prime seasons to that same club. Or better yet, both.
This year’s rankings reflect the many rapid and seismic changes in player value that have occurred over the past 12 months. They also reflect the changing landscape for available talent. Fewer stars are making it to free agency, as teams are spending huge dollars to prevent them from bolting. In the past two years, we’ve seen big-revenue teams like the Red Sox, Giants, Tigers, and Cardinals re-up star players who are well into their thirties. Medium- and small-revenue clubs are starting to do the same. The Mariners and Reds — and even the lowest-revenue team in the majors, the Rays — have shelled out nine figures to keep superstars from testing the open market. That has made finding elite available players a monumental challenge, even for teams with gobs of money to spend; just ask the 2013 Yankees. The sport’s massive influx of cash, including the additional $26 million per season every team will get from the national TV contract kicking in next year, only compounds the issue of teams having overstuffed war chests and nowhere to spend the money. To reflect that new reality, we’re dialing back on cheap youngsters with star potential and cranking up the guys who are already stars. The assumption: GMs would give up 18 prospects and a first-born child to get their hands on one of these 50 beasts. As such, it’s not necessarily a deal-breaker if a stud player offers only a couple years of service time or is signed to a mega-dollar deal; that will affect his relative standing, but it won’t keep him off the list entirely.
The result of this many-pronged exercise is not a list of baseball’s 50 best players. Rather, it’s a look at the sport’s 50 most attractive trade candidates. A team like the Dodgers, which didn’t think twice about spending a quarter-billion dollars and a bunch of prospects to get one and a half good players, will attach different value to different players than a team like the Marlins, which is in rebuilding, penny-pinching mode. We spoke to talent evaluators from teams in both leagues and big and small markets alike to get their take on the 50 most valuable trade commodities in the game, and to reconcile those different points of view. But in the end, this is still our list. Last year, we were more bearish than most on Jered Weaver (good call), and more bullish than most on Jason Heyward (bad call). (You can review all of last year’s hits and misses here and here.)
One final note on lingo: If we talk about someone as a “four-win player,” that refers to Wins Above Replacement, not to a player’s win-loss record, which is a deeply flawed and often misleading stat. For a primer on WAR and the other advanced stats that appear in these columns, check out Grantland’s baseball dictionary. Last year’s ranking appears in parentheses after each player’s name.
Trade Value Rules
1. Contracts matter. Max Scherzer is a better pitcher than Gerrit Cole, but Scherzer will be eligible for free agency at the end of next season, while Cole isn’t even arbitration-eligible yet and will be under team control through 2019.
2. Age matters. Bartolo Colon and Jose Fernandez put up fairly similar numbers in 2013, but Colon is 40 and likely won’t be pitching for too much longer, while Fernandez is just 21 and could very well get better.
3. It’s all relative. Pretend every team started shopping every player as a trade candidate. Who would attract the biggest return from any one of the other 29 clubs? For instance, if we’re comparing the trade value of Paul Goldschmidt and Andrelton Simmons, we’re not concerned that the Braves have an excellent first baseman of their own in Freddie Freeman, or that the Diamondbacks already have a promising young shortstop in Didi Gregorius. What we want to know is this: If every team were allowed to bid on Goldschmidt and Simmons, which player would net the greater return?
4. Positional scarcity matters. If a shortstop and first baseman put up comparable offensive numbers, the shortstop is the more valuable player, since it’s much tougher to find a player with the defensive chops to handle short than it is to find one who can man first. That’s already reflected in Wins Above Replacement (which you’ll see referenced throughout these rankings), but it bears repeating.
5. Defense, park factors, and other variables not immediately apparent in superficial stats matter. These are not fantasy baseball rankings, so a player who hits 30 home runs isn’t necessarily more valuable than one who hits 20, or even five.
6. Major leaguers only. Baseball teams place great value on top prospects, since those players offer the twin virtues of great potential and low price. But going through every minor league level for every team can muddy matters for non-prospect hounds. So we’ll stick to players who have appeared in at least one major league game. That means Xander Bogaerts and Wil Myers are eligible for this list, but Byron Buxton and Miguel Sano (both of whom would otherwise be strong top-50 contenders) are not.
7. The list runs in reverse order. If Felix Hernandez is no. 20 on this list, it means the Mariners wouldn’t trade him for anyone ranked 21 to 50, but would have to at least consider swapping him for the players ranked 19 to 1.
See Ya: Players Who Fell Out of the Top 50
Jered Weaver (no. 50 last year) won 20 games in 2012, but looked like a prime regression candidate in 2013 due to injury concerns and a diminishing fastball, and did indeed decline … Wade Miley (49) nearly won NL Rookie of the Year honors in 2012; he pitched pretty well in 2013, but not well enough to remain ranked … Chase Headley (48) took a big step back in 2013, and now has just one year left before free agency … Matt Holliday (47) is still one of the best hitters in the game, but he’s also entering his age-34 season and makes a lot of money, and thus falls a smidge short of making this year’s list … Elvis Andrus (46) signed a $120 million contract extension, then suddenly became one of the worst hitters in the league; he’s only 25, so there’s plenty of time for a rebound, but he’s not top-50 material right now.
Meanwhile, it’s time to retire Keith Law’s brilliant “Sliced bread is actually the best thing since Matt Wieters“ (41) meme … Desmond Jennings (39) improved his power, batting eye, and contact skills in 2013 and offers four more years of team control, so leaving him off this (stacked) list could wind up looking really stupid … Justin Upton (38) might have already delivered his best season, and his brother was the worst outfielder in the NL last season, ruining another excellent meme … Austin Jackson (37) is a perfectly fine ballplayer who’s just two years away from free agency … Adam Jones (36) cracked 30 home runs in each of the past two seasons, which is why he’s won two straight Gold Gloves that he absolutely did not deserve; he’s a very good player, but his shaky defense and too-frequent outmaking — combined with a loaded field this year — knocked him off the list … Alex Gordon (34) is yet another twentysomething outfielder knocked out of the top 50, in this case largely due to some major regression on balls in play.
Mike Moustakas (32) needed a big jump in his second-half numbers just to end up at .233/.287/.364 in 2013 … Ben Zobrist (30) has just two option years left on the deal he signed with the Rays while under the influence of Andrew Friedman’s mind control; Zobrist will continue to haunt those who hate the WAR stat until the end of days … Johnny Cueto (28) got hurt … Jose Bautista (25) did too, again; he could still hit a zillion home runs if he could stay upright for 150 games, though … Starlin Castro (24) started hitting like Rey Ordonez, but at least he decapitated fewer people with throws into the third row … Matt Kemp (22) went in the span of two years from being the best player in the league to someone the Dodgers would give away for a discounted price; effing injuries, man … Brett Lawrie (21) and Dylan Bundy (20) are Exhibits A and B for why we shouldn’t overrate prospects until they actually start producing; and yes, I’m a terrible, Canadian-loving homer … Aroldis Chapman (17) crushed statheads’ collective dreams by remaining in the bullpen; even the best relief pitchers aren’t as valuable as the best starting pitchers or position players (shout-out to angry Craig Kimbrel fans; love you guys!) … Jason Heyward (10) still looks capable of becoming a star, but with just two years left until free agency, that might happen after he’s left the Braves.
This Year’s Honorable Mentions
Shelby Miller, SP, St. Louis Cardinals (not ranked last year): Through his first 14 starts of 2013, Miller struck out 96 batters, walked just 19, allowed just six homers, limited opponents to a .204/.256/.307 line, and posted a 2.08 ERA, looking like the best rookie in the league. He faded in the second half, which isn’t that unusual for a pitcher tossing more innings than ever before. Then the Curious Case of the Disappearing Shelby happened, with the Cardinals opting to use Bob Forsch, Dane Iorg, and a plate of toasted ravioli rather than put Miller in a postseason game. Manager Mike Matheny claimed it was because the Cards were saving Miller for a long-relief spot, only that never happened and Miller got progressively more rusty until it became untenable to use him. OK, now read this surreal New York Times wedding announcement (ATTENTION, KATIE BAKES!). Not exactly reassuring.
Maybe we’re overreacting to Miller’s role (or lack thereof) in a small number of high-profile games. But when it comes to pitchers, it’s best to bet the under on both health and sustained success. Position players are more reliable commodities, which is why you’ll see more of them ranked highly on this list. And it’s why Miller will need to prove himself again to instill real confidence.
Michael Wacha, SP, St. Louis Cardinals (NR); Sonny Gray, SP, Oakland A’s (NR); Julio Teheran, SP, Atlanta Braves (NR): Here we have three more 2013 rookie pitchers who also nearly made the cut. Wacha and Gray both looked unhittable at times after their summer call-ups — quite literally in Wacha’s case, as he went 8⅔ innings before allowing a hit in his final start of the regular season. Consider their Honorable Mention status a case of healthy skepticism until we see another successful and injury-free year. For Wacha, that includes seeing if he can develop a viable breaking pitch to go with his excellent fastball-changeup combo. As for Teheran, he got lost in the shuffle of a loaded NL Rookie of the Year race but still pitched well for the Braves, firing 30 starts with a 3.20 ERA and a strikeout-to-walk rate near 4-to-1.
Derek Holland, SP, Texas Rangers (honorable mention last year); Mike Minor, SP, Atlanta Braves (NR): These excellent left-handers figure to help their teams at a low cost for the next several years. The Braves control Minor’s rights through 2017, giving them a durable lefty with excellent command to team with Teheran, Kris Medlen, and Brandon Beachy to form one of the most promising young rotations in the game. Holland is coming off a breakout season in which he ranked among the league leaders in innings pitched, strikeouts, and ERA. He’s also one of three Rangers starters signed to a team-friendly contract, along with Martin Perez (who nearly made the cut here) and Yu Darvish. Considering what pitchers like Jason Vargas and Phil Hughes are making on the open market these days, the $28.5 million Holland is guaranteed seems like a steal.
Brandon Belt, 1B, San Francisco Giants (NR); Eric Hosmer, 1B, Kansas City Royals (NR): Both players should be valuable building blocks moving forward, as they’re under team control through 2017 and possess diverse and impressive skill sets. A segment of Giants fans have had it out for Belt from the beginning, not appreciating his on-base skills or slick defense. Belt might never hit 25 homers as long as he plays in the home run graveyard that is AT&T Park, but he has developed into one of the best all-around first basemen in the game. Meanwhile, like many of his Royals teammates, Hosmer had a miserable first half in 2013, then delivered a big second half, hoisting his season line to .302/.353/.448. He’s just 24 years old, and he has produced the kind of minor league track record and steady improvement in the majors that suggest big things ahead.
Christian Yelich, OF, Miami Marlins (NR): Will he hit lefties? He didn’t during his otherwise stellar minor league career, and he hit just .165 against them in his first taste of the big leagues. Still, the tools are there for this precocious prospect, who turns 22 on Thursday. The Marlins might have another top homegrown player on their hands.
Starling Marte, OF, Pittsburgh Pirates (NR): He’s probably no. 51 on the list. In his first full season in the big leagues, Marte cranked out 48 extra-base hits, swiped 41 bases, and played terrific defense in left field. He also can’t test free-agent waters for five more years. He missed a top-50 spot primarily because he strikes out nearly five times more often than he walks. Still, he’s only 25, so there’s room for improvement. Andrew McCutchen could have a star as his outfield wingman through 2018.
Alex Cobb, SP, Tampa Bay Rays (NR): Consider Cobb this year’s going-off-the-reservation pick. Cobb looks like James Shields right before Shields developed into a top-of-the-rotation starter. Cobb wields command over three plus pitches: a fastball with good movement, a hammer curve, and a heartbreaking changeup. That’s the Shields starter kit. Cobb’s aggregate 2013 numbers don’t jump off the page because he missed two months after getting hit in the head by a screaming line drive back to the mound against the Royals, but he recovered well, ending the year by striking out nearly a batter an inning while ranking among the league leaders with a 56 percent ground ball rate. He did all of that while pitching in the AL East, which ranked as the highest-scoring division in baseball last season. The Rays control Cobb’s rights for four more years, and Cobb could be poised for a big breakout in 2014, assuming he gets to 200 innings.
Group 1: Please Send Hate Mail to firstname.lastname@example.org
50. Ryan Braun, OF, Milwaukee Brewers (6): What the hell should we do with this guy? A year ago, Braun’s blend of power, speed, durability, perennially high batting average, and relative youth made him look like a great future bet for the Hall of Fame. Now, after a season marred by a 65-game PED suspension, no one knows what to expect. Is Braun still a major bargain at $113 million over the next seven years (with a $15 million mutual option in 2021) given his incredible track record from 2007 through 2012 and the jarring lack of available big-time players? Or do we now have to question everything Braun has accomplished to this point and assume that at age 30, without the benefit of performance-enhancing drugs, he’s a potential albatross with the added burden of being a possible distraction to his team? Here’s what an AL executive had to say about Braun:
I love Braun. I think he’s easily a top 5-10 guy if you only consider the performance and contract. There are some real concerns, though: Is the 100-point drop-off in his slugging in 2013 related to the rules he broke? Is it more small-sample related, and was he just unlucky? Was he under incredible pressure, hurting his performance, and now that the pressure might be off a bit, will he bounce back? Will we see the 2011 and 2012 Ryan Braun again? He projects to be a star again … but of course projection systems don’t take what he did into account.
The note about pressure, and what projection systems struggle to consider, seems germane here. As much as we dedicate ourselves to studying the quantifiable around these parts, it’s naive to think that off-field issues don’t affect player performance. It’s also extremely difficult to predict how those issues might affect a given player. Our semi-educated guess says that Braun is and will be a very good player with or without help, and that he’ll be able to tune out everything around him well enough to become an excellent player again in 2014. But no one can say for sure what’s going to happen. Ranking him here amounts to a median projection between the disaster scenario and a return to an MVP-caliber level. A year from now, he’ll likely rank either much higher or much lower, but not particularly close to this spot.
(We weren’t kidding about the hate mail, or any other kind of mail. Send your favorite Braun-related insults, feedback on guys we missed or shouldn’t have added, and any other Trade Value comments to the above email address.)
Group 2: Don’t Know Them? You Will Soon
49. Jean Segura, SS, Milwaukee Brewers (NR): A bunch of young shortstops made this list, because finding players who can handle the defensive rigors of the position while also hitting well is tougher than at other spots in the field, and because we’re seeing a boom in shortstop prospects. Segura would’ve ranked higher had we done this list at the All-Star break, as he hit .325/.363/.487 in the first half, with 30 extra-base hits (including 11 homers) in 372 at-bats. He tanked in the second half, hitting just .241/.268/.315, with 12 extra-base hits (one homer) in 216 at-bats. Segura hit well in the minors (.313/.367/.439 in 1,755 plate appearances) and is just 23 years old, which allows us to be optimistic that he’ll improve on his 2013 second half. If he can provide even league-average offense to go with sound defense and 40-steal speed, he’ll be a key piece to a potentially dangerous Brewers lineup.
48. Kyle Seager, 3B, Seattle Mariners (NR): His numbers don’t jump off the box score, but when evaluating any Mariners hitter, we need to account for park effects. The M’s brought in the fences before the 2013 season, which for one year turned Safeco Field into something close to a neutral park. Still, the (relatively small sample of) data we have suggests that Safeco still suppresses home runs. So, for a player in his age-24 and age-25 seasons to rack up 42 total homers in that environment, especially given the scarcity1 of quality big league third basemen … that’s impressive.
And while Seager may not have the big name normally attached to a top Trade Value player, other teams aren’t sleeping on the guy. As one NL executive said: “This guy is really underrated; they don’t have anybody in that lineup and it’s a tough hitter’s park, and all he does is put up numbers.” An AL exec, meanwhile, called Seager “one of the best young pure hitters I saw this year.”
Group 3: Affordable Power
47. Edwin Encarnacion, 1B/3B/DH, Toronto Blue Jays (NR): Alex Anthopoulos might be struggling to build a pitching staff, but the guy sure knows how to lock up power hitters at a discount. Even with injuries, Bautista’s five-year, $65 million deal looks like it’ll go down as a bargain once it’s up. And one season into Encarnacion’s three-year, $29 million contract (with a club option for $10 million in Year 4), it’s clear the Jays got another steal. Encarnacion brings zero defensive value, but he’s a legitimate 40-homer hitter at a time when that kind of power is exceedingly rare. Here’s the leaderboard for most home runs hit in 2012 and 2013:
Prettay, prettaaaaaaayyy good.
46. Adrian Beltre, 3B, Texas Rangers (HM): Beltre was underranked last year. He might not seem particularly cheap, with $51 million owed over the next three seasons,2 but think about the woeful lack of viable third-base options available on the open market, then consider what a big-money team might pay Beltre. Since leaving Safeco Field, a ballpark that seemed custom-engineered to destroy right-handed power hitters like Beltre, he’s produced four straight seasons of numbers worthy of fringe MVP consideration:
Though Beltre turns 35 just after Opening Day in 2014, few players have aged more gracefully in the past few years. One could argue that he’s not quite the same defensive wizard that he used to be, but as long as he keeps hitting .300-plus and slugging .500-plus, he’ll be a highly desirable player.
45. Carlos Santana, C/1B/DH, Cleveland Indians (43): He’s one of the worst defensive catchers and one of the worst baserunners in baseball. Those two things don’t matter much when you hit like Santana does. Santana hit .268/.377/.455 in 2013, piling up 642 plate appearances. He got all of those at-bats thanks to a formula the Indians have been following for years: Give Santana enough starts behind the plate to make his offense shine compared to his weak-hitting peers at catcher, but DH him a bunch and give him a few starts at first base so he doesn’t have to take a bunch of days off like a typical catcher would, and so that his shaky defense doesn’t hurt the team too much. It’s a delicate balance, with the Indians slowly scaling back on Santana’s catching time; his 84 games played at the position in 2013 were his lowest total since 2010. The good news is that he has a strong enough bat to handle playing first or DH more frequently, he’s just 27 years old, and he’s a steal at three years, $18 million (or four years, $30 million, assuming the Indians pick up his option year).
44. Jonathan Lucroy, C, Milwaukee Brewers (NR): The Brewers owe Lucroy a total of $9 million over the next three years, or $14.25 million over the next four assuming they pick up his option in 2017. Here’s a list of the things Lucroy would have to do to fail to earn that contract:
1. Hit .024 with 400 strikeouts and 968 errors
2. Suffer a career-ending stubbed toe tomorrow
3. Say the word “Smaug” 17,227 times in a row until someone stabs him
This dirt-cheap contract isn’t going to a pedestrian player. Over the past two seasons, Lucroy has hit .295/.350/.477. He’s a master at pitch-framing, leading the majors in runs saved via that method over the past four seasons, with nearly twice as many as any other catcher aside from Jose Molina. Lucroy played in 147 games in 2013, making his injuries the year before look like an aberration, especially after he played in 136 games in 2011. He’s just 27 years old with improving skills, including posting one of the best contact rates for any NL hitter last season and a career-high 18 homers in 2013. Given the flashier names around Lucroy on this list, he might seem out of place at first glance. But if anything, this ranking feels a little low.
43. Jay Bruce, OF, Cincinnati Reds (35): Figuring out player value would be a lot easier if everyone developed the same way: break into the majors in early twenties, improve in mid-twenties, peak in late twenties, start to decline in early thirties. They don’t. There are players like Bruce, who put up a big season at 23 and then plateaued; if anything, Bruce has regressed a bit, striking out more in 2013 than in any other season. But Bruce is still just 26, and he might very well have more to offer, whether it’s improving his contact skills (and thus raising his batting average), drawing more walks, or maybe even taking the next step up in power to become a 40-homer guy. And he might: Bruce has increased his doubles total in each of the past five years, going from 15 to 23 to 27 to 35 to 43. If a few of those start sneaking over the fence, we could see 40 homers very soon.
If this is as good as Bruce gets, the Reds will get their money’s worth at $47.5 million over the next four years (assuming they pick up his $13 million option in 2017), given that they’ve had a big-swinging right fielder with 30 or more homers in each of the past three seasons. And if he breaks out, Bruce will rank among the game’s most underpaid players with similar levels of service time.
Group 4: Jordan Zimmermann Didn’t Miss by Much
42. Ian Desmond, SS, Washington Nationals (40): He has just two years of controllable service time left. Still, if the Nationals made Desmond — a five-win shortstop in his prime who boasts power, speed, and defensive skill — available for trade, 20 teams would text Mike Rizzo within 10 seconds.
41. Gio Gonzalez, SP, Washington Nationals (11): Gonzalez’s outstanding 2012 season looks like an outlier considering his 2010, 2011, and 2013 seasons are almost identical. That makes him a very good pitcher, but not necessarily a great one. That also makes the four years and $43.5 million he has left on his contract (minus the $12 million player option for 2018) a good deal, but not necessarily a great one.
Group 5: Lightly Regarded Diamondbacks Lefties Are the New Market Inefficiency
40. Patrick Corbin, SP, Arizona Diamondbacks (NR): The danger here is that Corbin is another Wade Miley, a fellow lefty starter with decent upside who burst onto the scene with a huge first full season, then looked a lot closer to a league-average pitcher in Year 2. Corbin isn’t in exactly the same spot, though: His strikeout rate sits a tick above league-average for a starter, and he’s got a more effective put-away pitch than Miley does, wielding one of the most effective sliders in the league. Corbin has also made believers out of talent evaluators who initially considered him a lesser prospect than fellow Arizona pitchers Trevor Bauer, Tyler Skaggs, and Archie Bradley. Said one AL team rep: “At times [Corbin] was the best pitcher in baseball in 2013, with stuff to back it up.” That, coupled with five years of team control, seals Corbin’s spot on this list.
Group 6: If the Braves Could Get a Decent 2B, They’d Have One Hell of an Infield
39. Andrelton Simmons, SS, Atlanta Braves (45): Simmons is the man who broke advanced stats. According to Baseball-Reference.com, over the first 206 games of Simmons’s career — basically one and a quarter seasons — he was worth just slightly fewer than eight Defensive Wins Above Replacement. Not total Wins Above Replacement. Defense only. Calculate that on a per-game basis, and Simmons’s defense alone makes him as valuable as Chris Davis was in 2013; yes, the Chris Davis who hit 53 homers and knocked in 138 runs last season.
Advanced defensive stats like Defensive Runs Saved and Ultimate Zone Rating are by no means perfect gauges of defensive value. Ideally, we’d have three years of data to examine instead of one and a quarter. Even with larger sample sizes, those metrics can’t be as reliable as a play-by-play-based system like FIELDf/x.3 But watch Simmons on a daily basis and it’s not hard to admit that we’re witnessing a historically great gloveman — if not the best defensive shortstop of all time, then at least the best since Ozzie Smith. Simmons has a long swing that’s full of holes, and it’s possible he might never hit. But if we’re really talking about a shortstop who’s worth anything close to six wins a year (or five, or four, or even three) with his glove alone, Simmons doesn’t really need to hit that much to be one of the best players in the game.
Since we have nothing more to add here, please enjoy this compilation of Simmons brilliance.
And these 25 minutes and 41 seconds of defensive bliss:
38. Freddie Freeman, 1B, Atlanta Braves (HM): He didn’t cause anywhere near as many protractor assaults as Miguel Cabrera, but Freeman was also a polarizing player. Freeman’s numbers with runners in scoring position were obscene this season, as he hit .443/.541/.695 in those spots versus .276/.348/.424 with the bases empty. Even the biggest Freeman fan would admit a split like that isn’t remotely sustainable, while analytical types also wonder if Freeman can sustain anything close to the .371 batting average on balls in play he posted in 2013. The league average on balls in play in 2013 was just .297, and Freeman’s BABIP in 2012 was .295. Freeman is also one of the slowest players in the league, making him a poor bet to get the kind of boost speedy slap hitters like Ichiro Suzuki would on infield hits. Freeman’s walk rate and power numbers were virtually identical in 2012 and ’13, but Freeman hit .319/.396/.501 in 2013 compared to just .259/.340/.456 in 2012, thanks almost entirely to that 76-point jump in BABIP. So which is the real Freddie?
It might be closer to the 2013 version than most think. Over the past two seasons, Freeman owns the third-highest line-drive rate among all qualified hitters, at 26.3 percent, trailing only Joey Votto and James Loney. Line drives obviously fall in for hits far more often than ground balls or fly balls; batters hit .674 on line drives put in play in 2013 compared to .240 for ground balls and just .182 for fly balls. So if Freeman really does have a knack for hitting more line drives than almost anyone else, he’ll probably keep hitting for high averages.4
While a slow-footed first baseman might seem like an ideal candidate for defensive shifts, which tend to suppress batting average on balls in play, it turns out they’re not necessarily a great idea against Freeman. In 2013, he lashed 33 percent of his hits on pitches on the outer half of the plate to the opposite field. That’s not quite Tony Gwynnesque, but it’s still better than the league average of 30.5 percent. This 2013 spray chart illustrates how Freeman hits to all fields:
In short, Freeman really is a very good hitter. He’s also a better-than-average fielder, just 24 years old, and offers three years of team control. On this particular matter, the statheads and the traditionalists can live in harmony after all. Kumbaya.
Group 7: The Out-of-Nowhere 2013 MVP Candidates; Can They Do It Again?
37. Matt Carpenter, 2B/3B, St. Louis Cardinals (NR); 36. Josh Donaldson, 3B, Oakland A’s (NR): Carpenter was a super utility guy with doubles power, playable defense, minimal speed, excellent on-base skills, and a 13th-round pedigree. Donaldson was a converted catcher who’d put up good minor league numbers in hitter-friendly ballparks/leagues, then struggled to hit his weight in his first extended run of big league play in 2012. In 2013, they emerged as top-five MVP candidates in their respective leagues.
Like many other Cardinals, Carpenter lashed a million line drives all over the ballpark in 2013. He combined that with plenty of walks, few strikeouts, a league-leading 55 doubles, and no injuries to post a .318/.392/.481 line in 717 golden plate appearances, emerging as a suddenly terrifying leadoff hitter. Meanwhile, Donaldson was one of the best defensive third basemen in the league, showing excellent range and instincts at a new position. He coupled that glove with a .301/.384/.499 line and 24 homers in a terrible park for hitters, delivering a monstrous season.
With Carpenter offering four more years of team control and Donaldson five, they could rank even higher on this list. However, the out-of-nowhere nature of both players’ breakouts gives us some pause. They delivered something close to 99th-percentile outcomes for both health and batted balls in 2013, so even in a best-case-scenario projection, some regression toward the mean seems assured, because that’s just how baseball (and life) works. There’s real talent here, and both St. Louis and Oakland should thank the Flying Spaghetti Monster that they have these guys on their rosters. If Carpenter and Donaldson can replicate their performances, they’ll earn better rankings next year.
This article was updated to correct the year Matt Carpenter and Josh Donaldson were MVP candidates.