How This Year’s Best Players Compare to History by Jeff Sullivan September 28, 2017 Yesterday afternoon, Dave told me he was going to write about the National League MVP. Specifically, he said he was going to write about how there’s just no real good way to pick a winner, because all the best players are almost equally good. Here is the post. It went live in the morning. It’s all sensible, and it does a good job of laying out the landscape. I said to Dave it would be possible to compare this year’s crop of the best players to how the crops have looked throughout baseball history. I added that I could look into it if he won’t. His response, and I quote: “I won’t.” So now here I am! I’m running through some quick analyses, going back to the start of the integration era in 1947. I’ve prepared plots to examine all of Major League Baseball, and I’ve prepared plots specific to the American and National Leagues. Off we go. Everything in here, by the way, is based on WAR. As imperfect as it is, especially in the earlier decades of baseball history, there’s no better way of summing up player value in one number. I did this for purposes of simplicity, and so, with that in mind, let’s start simple. Here is the highest player WAR, each year, since 1947. There are a few games left this season, so we could see a bump. Aaron Judge leads the majors in WAR, at 7.8, and maybe he’ll get to 8.0 by the end of the weekend. Maybe someone else will pass him by. No matter what, this year is fairly unusual — the average high WAR over the several decades is 9.7, with a median of 9.6. The last time the highest WAR was under 8 was 2014, when Mike Trout finished at 7.9. That’s not very long ago. But before that, it hadn’t happened since 1994, when the season was cut short. Before that, it hadn’t happened since 1981, when the season was also cut short. As great as Judge has been, he wouldn’t be No. 1 in most seasons. It’s too bad that Trout had to get injured. Let’s make the numbers a little more complicated. The graph, too. On this plot, you see three lines. One shows the WAR difference between first place and second. One shows the standard deviation of the five highest WARs. The last shows the standard deviation of the ten highest WARs. Unsurprisingly, because the best player’s WAR is relatively low, there’s a relatively small spread between first and second. The spread this year is 0.1 WAR; the average is a full win higher than that. The standard deviation of the top five WAR figures is smaller than the average, and the smallest since 2009. The standard deviation of the top ten WAR figures is also smaller than the average, and the smallest since…ever! Or, at least, 1947. By this measure, we’ve never before had such a tightly-grouped top-10. It goes from Judge, at 7.8, down to Charlie Blackmon and Giancarlo Stanton, at 6.4. That’s for all of MLB. To get league-specific, let’s start with the AL. Again, here are the high WARs. Both the average and the median are 8.9. Compared to that, this year’s top player has been underwhelming. As recently as 2008, though, there was a worse top player, when Grady Sizemore finished at 7.4. And then, in 2004, Ichiro Suzuki finished at 7.1. Judge is likely to clear that by almost a win. Not the worst season ever! Moving on, now, to the more complicated stuff. The usual difference between the best and second-best player has been about 1.2 wins. The gap right now is just 0.1 WAR, which is the same as it was two years ago. Looking at the spread among the top five players, the standard deviation is half of the average, although it was lower as recently as 2008. Looking at the spread among the top ten players, the standard deviation is right on the average. The spread among the top ten players has been normal. It stretches from Judge, at 7.8, to Mookie Betts and/or Carlos Carrasco, at 5.0. We’ll wrap up with the NL. Here are the high WARs. Do you know who leads the National League in WAR? It’s Kris Bryant, at 6.7. And, it’s Joey Votto, at 6.7. And, it’s Anthony Rendon, at 6.7. All of them are great, but still, this year is atypical, because the average high WAR over the whole span has been 9.0. The last time someone led the NL with such a low WAR was 1988, when Andy Van Slyke finished at 6.4. Since then, no one has led with a WAR lower than 2010 Votto’s 7.0. As you probably already knew, the best players in the NL are all bunched up. It’s further revealed in the following plot. The average distance between first and second has been 1.0 WAR, with a median of 0.7. At this point, this year, we’re looking at double zeroes. It’s the same as the difference between second and third. So then, think about the spread among the top five players. The standard deviation is 0.2 WAR. The average is 1.0. There’s never before been less top-five spread, at least since 1947. What about looking at the top ten players? The current standard deviation is 0.5 WAR, while the average is 1.1. The standard deviation has only before been lower in 1988 and 2010. That is, we’re looking at a total of 71 baseball seasons, and among the top ten players in each year in the NL, this year has the third-lowest spread. Depending on how you look at it, then, either this is the most even year in modern NL history, or it’s just close to it. As far as WAR is concerned, there’s never been so little difference among the top five players, and there’s seldom been so little difference among the top ten. Not that MVP voting should just come down to a list of the best WARs in the first place, but if you figure that voting and WAR have a pretty strong relationship, you can see why this year’s NL MVP voting results are likely to be mixed. No one has singularly emerged; plenty of players all have compelling arguments. I don’t think we can expect much separation over just the final few days, with all but one playoff spot locked up. Van Slyke didn’t win the NL MVP in 1988. He finished fourth, without a first-place vote. Kirk Gibson finished first, although the first-place votes were spread among three names. In 2010, somewhat surprisingly, Votto won, and it was almost unanimous, with just one first-place vote escaping to Albert Pujols. Even though Votto wasn’t head and shoulders above the rest of the field, the voting results put him on a pedestal. I guess it’s possible that, this year, the voters could all rally behind one single player. It’s happened before, and it could happen again. Nothing, I suppose, should be taken for granted. But I still find picking an NL favorite virtually impossible. Good luck to the people who will actually have a voice.