To jump to the individual positions, click here: Left field | Center field | Right field
More positions: C | 1B | 2B | SS | 3B | OF | SP | RP
As our tier ratings series begins to wind down, we come to the outfielders. That means, of course, it’s Mike Trout Day.
Trout’s status as “best player in the game” has been touted for so long now that it’s almost a cliché. It’s also a hard notion to challenge. Even in evidence-based estimates like these, his edge is just too large to allow room for a good debate. The Boston Red Sox’s Mookie Betts is probably better positioned to challenge Trout’s reign than any other player. But my forecasts have Trout with a 1.5 hWAR edge over Betts, which is to say that he’s 1.5 hWAR ahead of every other player in the majors.
ESPN+: Doolittle’s positional tiers
How do the best at each position rank and what tier of production do they fit in?
Positions:C | 1B | 2B | SS | 3B | OF | SP | RP
Betts had a better season than Trout last year. He had a better season than anyone in the majors, a declaration that few Red Sox fans would challenge and probably not many New York Yankees fans would either. However, that’s a separate thing from claiming that Betts has usurped Trout’s status as the game’s best player. That sort of changeover doesn’t happen overnight.
I decided to get at this topic by looking at how long best-in-the-game players have generally held the title, and how Trout stacks up historically. He first began to be touted as the game’s best way back in 2012 — his first full season in the majors. That wasn’t a consensus feeling right off the bat, but it wasn’t long before that idea spread from coast to coast.
Many of those who defended Miguel Cabrera’s selection as the 2012 American League MVP — just because he happened to become baseball’s first Triple Crown winner in 45 years — really didn’t argue that Cabrera was better than Trout, just that he had a better year. The same dynamic was in play in 2013, when Cabrera again outpointed Trout for MVP. By that point, however, the idea that Trout was the best player in baseball was firmly embedded and it hasn’t really been challenged since.
That means even if we don’t anoint Trout for his rookie season, we’re still looking at a six-year window (2013 through last season) when he has been baseball’s consensus best player. That seems like a long time. To see how that compares historically, I dumped every season’s single-season win shares measurement from thebaseballgauge.com into a file and calculated five-year averages. (Note: These numbers vary slightly from the “official” win shares figures as compiled at Bill James Online.)
In other words, for each season, a player is measured by his win shares for the two preceding years, the current year, and the two years after. (Rolling averages is the statistical term.) This gives us a glimpse of who the actual best-in-game players were at a given time, regardless of what challengers might have bobbed up with a career season, while also giving us enough window to mute the effect of fluke/injury seasons. The downside with this size of a rolling window is that we can’t get a good measurement until a player’s third season. Also, we don’t have the year-after and two-years-after measurements for the last two seasons of a player’s career, nor for players from 2017 and 2018. Those future seasons haven’t happened yet. So we just count the seasons that we have. It might seem odd to consider two seasons that haven’t happened when assessing the best player in a given year, but what we’re after is a good estimate of true talent level. Hindsight helps sharpen that estimate.
Here is the progression of “Best Player in the Game” estimates for the modern era, based on these five-year win share estimates:
Players are rated statistically according to anticipated 2019 value, playing time and primary position. The core metric being used is hWAR, which stands for harmonic wins above replacement.
• The ratings are based on a cross section of projections, including my system (MLBPET), the Steamer projections from FanGraphs.com, PECOTA from BaseballProspectus.com and the Davenport projections from ClayDavenport.com.
• Using forecasts for runs created, fielding runs, pitching runs allowed, a consensus version of projected wins above replacement was calculated for each player. This consensus WAR is referred to as hWAR in the rankings.
• Data from FanGraphs for Defensive Runs Saved and Ultimate Zone Rating were incorporated into the fielding component for each position player.
• Win Probability Added data from FanGraphs was incorporated into the ratings, primarily to better capture the value of top relief pitchers.
• For players likely to spend the majority of their time this season at designated hitter, their primary position was considered to be where they’ve spent the most time on the field in recent years. The Angels’ Shohei Ohtani was included with the right fielders, as that is the position — other than pitcher — at which he appeared most often in Japan.
• Each player’s Tier status was determined by his overall MLB rank, not the rank within his base position. The idea was to give a snapshot of where the production is coming from in baseball right now. How many Tier I first basemen are there right now? What about Tier II relief pitchers? This kind of grouping gives us a sense of how players are being evaluated and deployed, and an idea what the talent pool looks like at present. The Tiers are defined as follows:
I. Franchise Guys (players ranking 1 to 15).
II. All-Stars (players ranking 16 to 60).
III. First-division regulars (players ranking 61 to 135).
IV. Second-division regulars (players ranking 136 to 270).
V. Role players (players ranking 271 to 750).
VI. Extras (everyone else).
‘BEST IN BASEBALL’ REIGNS
Cy Young, (3 years, 1899-1901)
Honus Wagner, (7 years, 1902-1908)
Ty Cobb, (3 years, 1909-1911)
Walter Johnson, (2 years, 1912-1913)
Tris Speaker, (1 year, 1914)
Ty Cobb, (6 years, 1912-1917)
Babe Ruth, (13 years, 1918-1930)
Lou Gehrig, (5 years, 1931-1935)
Mel Ott, (2 years, 1936-1937)
Joe DiMaggio, (3 years, 1938-1940)
Ted Williams, (2 years, 1941-1942)
Stan Musial, (2 years, 1943-1944)
Hal Newhouser, (1 year, 1945)
Ted Williams, (5 years, 1944-1948)
Stan Musial, (7 years, 1947-1953)
Mickey Mantle, (7 years, 1954-1960)
Willie Mays, (6 years, 1961-1966)
Hank Aaron, (1 year, 1967)
Carl Yastrzemski, (2 years, 1968-1969)
Pete Rose, (2 years, 1970-1971)
Joe Morgan, (5 years, 1972-1976)
Mike Schmidt, (8 years, 1977-1984)
Tim Raines, (1 year, 1985)
Wade Boggs, (3 years, 1986-1988)
Will Clark, (1 year, 1989)
Barry Bonds, (14 years, 1990-2003)
Albert Pujols, (7 years, 2004-2010)
Miguel Cabrera, (1 year, 2011)
Robinson Cano, (1 year, 2012)
Andrew McCutchen, (1 year, 2013)
Mike Trout, (5 years, 2014-2018)
Based on this method, there was a highly unusual power vacuum between the beginning of Pujols’ decline phase and the arrival of Trout as a superstar, though the method might be wrong to not declare Trout the best player by 2013. Still, you get a sense of the place in baseball history that Trout has already established.
This is a bit of regurgitation from the list above, but here are the only players to own a five-year reign as the game’s best player: Honus Wagner, Ty Cobb, Babe Ruth, Lou Gehrig, Ted Williams, Stan Musial, Mickey Mantle, Willie Mays, Joe Morgan, Mike Schmidt, Barry Bonds, Albert Pujols, Mike Trout. This is as Hall of Famey as a list can get.
In case you somehow missed this fact, let’s state this emphatically: Every time we get to watch Mike Trout play baseball, we are watching an all-time great. Incredibly, he’s still only 27 years old. Perhaps the Angels might want to externalize some of those internal discussions.
ESPN +The promotion of Mario Cristobal from offensive line coach/co-offensive coordinator to head coach at Oregon last year following the departure of Willie Taggart was met with mixed reviews. But, entering his second spring, Cristobal has arguably the Pac-12′s most talented roster.
The Ducks started 2018 6-1 (and probably should have beaten Stanford), but they finished 9-4 and fourth in the Pac-12 North.
With 17 starters back (10 on offense and seven on defense), including a quarterback who might have been the No. 1 overall pick in this year’s NFL draft, Oregon has a chance to get back into the national spotlight, and maybe into the College Football Playoff.
2018 record: 9-4
Spring practice start date: March 7
Spring game date: April 20
Biggest offseason position battle: All eyes will be on Ducks receivers this spring, but don’t forget about the hole at middle linebacker. The Ducks lost senior starter Kaulana Apelu, but there are a few options here. Junior Sampson Niu went from unknown to starting four games last season when Apelu went down with an injury. Niu registered 23 tackles, including three for loss and a sack. Redshirt sophomore Isaac Slade-Matautia was Apelu’s first replacement last year, but he missed the final six games with a shoulder injury. Still, he’ll get every opportunity to battle Niu for the starting spot. Dru Mathis, the No. 7 juco outside linebacker prospect, will also get a look in the middle this spring, as will ESPN 300 early enrollee Ge’Mon Eaford. ESPN 300 member Mase Funa isn’t on campus yet, but if he’s fully healthy (knee) for fall camp, he’ll push for the starting spot, too.
Strength heading into spring: The Ducks might have the Pac-12′s best offensive line, with all five starters coming back. Left guard Shane Lemieux, center Jake Hanson and Calvin Throckmorton, who has played four positions up front during his career, were 2018 All-Pac-12 members. Sophomore Penei Sewell earned all-league honorable mention — despite playing in just the first six games during the regular season — and became the first Oregon true freshman offensive lineman to start the season opener since 1997. Oregon allowed just 22 sacks last year, and its starters return almost 4,000 snaps from last season. The Ducks have solid depth (nine to 10 deep), too, starting with Brady Aiello, who started the last seven games at right tackle. More than 150 starts return, but freshman Jonah Tauanu’u will compete for the starting right tackle spot this fall, and No. 1 juco guard Malaesala Aumavae-Laulu will get a shot inside, as well.
Justin Herbert has the physical skills to be the No. 1 pick in the NFL draft, but he’ll have an inexperienced group of receivers in an offense that struggled at times last season. Christian Petersen/Getty Images
Question mark heading into spring: After losing Dillon Mitchell, who set the school’s single-season record for receiving yards (1,184), the Ducks are very young and not very productive at receiver. Getting Penn State grad transfer Juwan Johnson earlier this month was big, but there’s still a lot of development they need at wideout. Outside of junior Jaylon Redd — who caught 38 passes for 433 yards and five touchdowns last season — only senior Brenden Schooler returned at least 20 catches from 2018 (21). Redshirt freshman Bryan Addison is intriguing, with his 6-foot-5 size and the fact that he was a former ESPN 300 member. Early enrollee and former ESPN 300 member Josh Delgado will get valuable time this spring, but all eyes will be on fellow ESPN 300 freshmen Mycah Pittman and Lance Wilhoite once they get on campus.
Instant impact addition: When the No. 1 recruit in the country enrolls early, you’re going to figure out a way to get him ready to play ASAP. Defensive end Kayvon Thibodeaux is the highest-rated signee in Oregon history and arrived in Eugene at 6-foot-5 and 243 pounds. He’s already tweeted — and deleted — about how he’s better than Von Miller, so there’s that. The uber-athletic Thibodeaux recorded 54 sacks over his high school career, including 18 with five forced fumbles as a senior. He was going to play this fall regardless, but with end Jalen Jelks gone, Thibodeaux has a chance to see immediate playing time for the Ducks.
2019 game to get excited about now: Clearly it’s the season opener against Auburn at AT&T Stadium in Arlington, Texas. This certainly isn’t a make-or-break game for the Ducks when it comes to the Pac-12 title, but it could be for a shot at the playoff. If you want to make an early impression in a conference desperate for any sort of positive national attention, you have to win this game, Ducks. The Pac-12 didn’t get off to a great start when Auburn beat Washington in Atlanta last season, and this is a chance to restore some credibility. It’s a major test for the Ducks’ offense, especially up front and for quarterback Justin Herbert, and a win over an SEC team on national television would go a long way for the Ducks’ confidence in 2019.
Spring storyline to watch: What will be the evolution of coordinator Marcus Arroyo’s offense? The Ducks lost just one starter on offense (Mitchell) and still have Herbert behind center. However, there’s room for this offense to improve. Last season, Oregon was third in the Pac-12 in total offense (427.2 yards per game) and second in scoring (34.8 points per game). Both numbers were down from the previous year, but not by much. Still, this offense was held to 20 points or fewer three times (twice in Pac-12 play) last season. Fans were hard on Arroyo, but the offense certainly wasn’t terrible. Arroyo still has to figure out how to better tailor his offense completely around Herbert’s skill set. What will change and how will Arroyo adapt?