Posted by Jonah Gardner on May 12, 2016
Two years ago, if you asked a stranger "Who is the best player in baseball," their reaction would likely have been stunned silence. Now maybe that would have been because they had no idea who you were or why you were so passionate about baseball, but the more likely reason is that the answer was extremely obvious. Mike Trout is the best player in baseball, you weirdo.
One year ago, you'd get a slightly different response. Best Player in Baseball became a two man race thanks to the Bryce Harper's epic 2015. The Trout-Harper debate is a natural one, given the contrast they provide. Harper's game is loud, obvious, and a lot of fun, befitting his brash personality. Trout, on the other hand, is more low-key, both in terms of his off-the-field image and his on-the-field greatness. Harper is rated higher by defensive metrics, but Trout has the better reputation and plays a more important position. Trout is more known for his speed, but Harper was actually more valuable running the bases in 2015. You can go back and forth without getting any closer to answer.
There's just one problem with this debate. It may be leaving out the guy who's the actual best player in the baseball. As of this writing, Manny Machado is third in the Majors in WAR, ahead of both Trout or Harper. At 23 years old, Machado is as young as Harper and a year younger than Trout. And while early season WAR can be a little flukey (he's joined in the Top 10 by players like Adam Eaton and Dexter Fowler), there are reasons to think that Machado's success may be more than just a hot April. The Orioles' third baseman has really earned himself a seat at the table.
First of all, Machado's been playing at this level for longer than just the beginning of the season. From June 1, 2015 thru May 11 of this year, a sample that's just around 20 games shy of a full season, Machado has been 7th in the league in OPS
|4||Mike Trout||gl||24||Los Angeles||1.007|
|8||Yoenis Cespedes||gl||30||New York,Detroit||.930|
Of the players ahead of him on this list, Stanton missed significant time to injury, Ortiz is a DH, Encarnacion might as well be, and Votto seems to be declining, at one point being mired in a slump so bad that he talked about retiring. That leaves Machado, Trout, and Harper.
In that span, Machado has also been 3rd in hits and 7th in Home Runs, hitting more dingers than either Trout or Harper. This year, he leads the American League in On-Base Percentage, and the majors in Slugging Percentage and OPS.
Of course, while Machado has been arguably the best hitter in baseball this season, the longer view shows that there is still a gap between him and Harper and Trout. However, the gap is not that wide enough that it can't be up by the other facets of the game, many of which also make a strong case for Machado.
For one thing, his position gives him an edge over at least Harper. Historically, Third Base has been considered a more important defensive position than Right Field; in WAR's positional adjustments, playing 3B is worth 9 runs more than RF, meaning if the two hitters had exactly the same season, Machado's would be almost one win more valuable, by virtue of coming at 3B.
On the other hand, Center Field is more valuable than 3B, but only slightly so (the WAR positional adjustment is just a half of a run more). And that's assuming they play the position equivalently. Despite his reputation, Defensive Runs Saved has been somewhat down on Trout's defense since 2013. Over the last four years, Trout's graded out as below average in two and is just one run above average so far in 2016. Only 2015 was a positive fielding year for Trout.
Machado, on the other hand, ranks as one of the best defensive 3B in the game. Since 2012, he's had 64 defensive runs saved above average, coming in 3rd in that metric in 2015 and 2014. When you add in the fact that Machado can also hold down shortstop, the most important non-catcher defensive position, it seems reasonable to give him a sizable edge in defense over both Trout and Harper.
Of course, one of the things that have made Harper and Trout so special is the fact that they aren't just greats of the moment. Both players have been setting marks that put them in the conversation with some of the greatest players ever. What's that? You'd like me to take a moment to share some of my favorite bonkers Harper and Trout stats? Well, sure.
Let's start with Trout. Mike Trout currently ranks 23rd among active players in WAR, despite being 24 and in his 6th season. The next highest 6th year player, Josh Donaldson, ranks 52nd. The next player his age or younger, Harper, ranks 78th. According to JAWS, a stat developed by Jay Jaffe to measure a player's Hall of Fame candidacy through the average of their career WAR and their 7-year peak WAR, Trout already has a better Hall of Fame case than Hall of Fame CFs like Earle Combs and Edd Roush, despite the fact that Trout hasn't even played a 7th year. The only players with more WAR thru their age-24 seasons than Trout were Mickey Mantle and Ty Cobb, and Trout will almost certainly pass Mantle by June.
As for Harper, last season he became the 8th 22-year-old to hit 40 or more HRs in a season, and the 2nd in the AL-era to post an OPS+ of 195 or better. Remove the age restriction and Harper's 2015 is still one of the 60 best hitting seasons since 1901. In 2015, Harper was on-base 300 times (not counting errors), just the 4th time a player 22 or under accomplished that.
Those are a lot of fun, but here's the thing: Machado has his own CV of cool stats. He's just the 9th infielder in Major League history to break 20 WAR before turning 24 years old. He'll almost certainly pass Cal Ripken for 6th and even has an (very slim) shot at beating Alex Rodriguez for the most WAR by an infielder thru age 23. He's hit the 3rd most HRs by an under-24 3B and, just last season, he became the 4th person to hit 35 HRs and steal 20 bases at his age.
Machado still gets caught stealing too often (his stolen base percentage over the last two years is just 65%), and you can question how sustainable his leap has been. His approach seems a little more aggressive, as Machado cut down on his looking strike percentage (28.3% in 2015 vs 23.1% in 2016), trading some of those for swinging strikes (12.6% in 2015 vs 15.1% in 2016) and generally seeing fewer pitcher per PA (down from 3.91 to 3.55). So there's a chance the league could catch up to his new approach and find a way to attack him.
But the other part of that tradeoff has been that Machado is crushing the ball this year. His Home Run Percentage is up to 7.2% in 2016, from a career average of 3.7 and his line drive percentage is 36%, up from 25% in 2015. These will probably go down a bit as Machado comes back to Earth (for reference, in 2015 Harper's HR% was 6.4 and his LD% was 33), but there are also signs that Machado is in the midst of a breakout that, if mostly sustainable, will turn a two-way race in a three-person battle royale.
If you could pick any player from 2011-14, you'd take Trout. In 2015, you'd agonize over it, but you'd probably take Harper. But going forward, there's a real chance that Manny Machado will be better than either of them.