LeBron James is a basketball player. Let’s imagine a LeBron James equivalent as a baseball player.
I was talking with a friend, and we got to discussing the amount of coverage devoted to the current LeBron James free-agency sweepstakes. Neither one of us is a basketball fan, but still we’ve become aware of what’s happening, and the news is almost impossible to avoid. In thinking about why James is generating so many headlines, I can see two explanations. One, he’s an icon, and he has a polarizing history, so as the James saga turns, media companies see traffic and revenue. He’s one of the most compelling athletes on the planet. Two, and presumably more importantly, LeBron James is amazing. His decision is going to change the whole NBA landscape, because he’s incredibly, impossibly valuable, in a way that no baseball player is or could be.
If Mike Trout were a free agent, that would be a big deal — one of the very biggest deals. It doesn’t get better than Mike Trout. But Trout appears to be worth about 10 – 11 WAR. He plays just one position. He fills just one of nine slots. When James is on the floor, he’s one of five guys, and he spends very little time hurt or on the bench. And the offense can be programmed to heavily feature James’ skills, so he ends up with more opportunities. James can just about make a basketball team good, with limited assistance. Trout’s a smaller component. Oh, with Trout, the Angels have baseball’s biggest competitive advantage, but a roster of Mike Trout and 24 nothings would be a terrible roster indeed.
So, in reality, there is no LeBron James baseball equivalent. There couldn’t be. It’s practically impossible. But let’s imagine. If there were a baseball equivalent to LeBron James, what would that player look like? What kinds of numbers would a guy have to post to be as valuable as James is to a team?
All of the numbers you see below are approximations. This is intended simply for fun, and because this is intended simply for fun, we’re going to take two different approaches, because I can’t make up my mind over which is more accurate. Each approach will target a different single-season WAR. Obviously, the first step is figuring out James’ single-season value, and this is why we’ll have two approaches. One idea: last year, James was worth about 2.3% of all basketball WAR. Because a baseball season has 1,000 total WAR, that would give us a target of about 23. The other idea: James is projected for about 21 WAR. That’s over an 82-game season, so over a 162-game season, you’d be talking about almost 42 WAR. I don’t know which way to go, so I’ll go both.
Approach No. 1: create a baseball player worth about 23 WAR.
Approach No. 2: create a baseball player worth about 42 WAR.
LeBron James is insane. Let’s make some guys who’re also insane.
Approach No. 1
- Target: ~23 WAR
We’re going to begin with a foundation, and our foundation will be 2013 Mike Trout. A season ago, Trout was worth 10.4 WAR in 157 games. We need to double that, and then some. The first, easiest step: let’s have the guy play all 162 games. That boosts the WAR to 10.7.
Now let’s work on the defense. There are limitations to how valuable a defender can be, because a defender’s value is limited by the number of opportunities. Single-season UZR has peaked around +30 runs, for infielders and for outfielders. Let’s change the player’s fielding performance to +30 runs. That takes us past 13 WAR.
Now let’s make another change! This is all about making tweaks. A year ago, Trout played mostly center field, and also a bit of left field. Our imaginary player is a full-time shortstop. The WAR sneaks past 14.
Trout, last year, stole 33 bases, and was caught seven times. Let’s turn those caught steals into successful steals. And for the hell of it, let’s add another ten successful steals, too. Now the WAR’s close to 15. And hey, Trout hit nine triples! Turn those triples into homers. The WAR slides past 15.
Trout hit way more doubles than triples. He also hit more doubles than homers. Let’s also now turn all the doubles into home runs. So, all of the player’s extra-base hits are homers, under these circumstances. The WAR’s up to 18.
We’re getting there. We’re still off by five wins, but that’s nothing at this point. Let’s take…70 outs. Trout made a lot more than 70 outs. Let’s turn those 70 outs into 70 singles. Regular singles, nothing more. And, that does it. That takes our WAR just past 23. Approach No. 1 is complete: we’ve created a baseball player worth about 23 WAR in a single season.
What does it take? A literal full season of being an incredible defensive shortstop. And, to go with good baserunning, the player hits about .438/.527/.820, with a .560 wOBA. For what it’s worth, in 2002, Barry Bonds ran a full-season .544 wOBA. He was worth more than 12 WAR. Basically, you can imagine that version of Barry Bonds, but completely healthy, and unparalleled in the field. Also, better at the plate. I don’t know what to do about intentional walks, but I don’t need to make this any more complicated.
By this approach, the baseball equivalent of LeBron James is absolute peak Barry Bonds at the plate with, I don’t know, absolute peak Ozzie Smith in the field. And, presumably, this imaginary player is better both at the plate and in the field. And he doesn’t miss a single game. So.
Approach No. 2
- Target: ~42 WAR
Welp. Let’s make this maximally interesting. Sure, I could just keep adding more dingers to the guy above until the numbers match, but let’s go a different route. Four out of every five games, this player is the player featured in Approach No. 1. One out of every five games, this player is a starting pitcher who also hits like the player featured in Approach No. 1.
It’s Micah Owings crossed with God. Taking the previous WAR and multiplying by 80%, we get 18.6. Now we need to find another 23 WAR or so in 20% of the games in a season. This is going to require some breathtaking starting pitching. Let’s start with another foundation. Let’s start with 2013 Clayton Kershaw, who ran an RA9-WAR of just about 9.
Kershaw allowed 55 runs in 236 innings over 33 starts, good for an RA9 of 2.10. It’s time to go crazy. Let’s subtract 30 runs. That’s 30 runs, taken away from 55 runs. You’d think this might be simple, but it’s actually more complicated to convert to WAR, because pitchers play a large role in determining their own run environment, and the run environment determines the runs-to-wins conversion. Running through all the math, this takes us just past 14 WAR. I’m pretty sure I did it right. I’m pretty sure I at least got close.
Now, last year’s Kershaw averaged just over seven innings per start. Why not boost that up? Especially if he’s averaging under a run allowed per appearance. Let’s put him all the way up to nine innings per start, on average. The guy finishes what he starts. Now we’re looking at almost 19 WAR, and we haven’t even had to introduce some kind of four-man rotation or something.
And wait! This guy plays for a National League team, so this pitcher also hits for himself. And he doesn’t hit in the ninth spot, because he’s the best hitter on the planet, too. He averages over four plate appearances a game, batting like the imaginary player from Approach No. 1, and if you fold this in, it puts us between 23 – 24 WAR. Then you add in the WAR from the remaining four-fifths of the games and you get about 42.1. That’s precisely on target.
This approach assumes it’s fair to say a LeBron James baseball equivalent would be worth 42 WAR in a year. What would it take for a baseball player to be worth 42 WAR in a year? Based on our construction, we have a hybrid shortstop/starting pitcher. When playing the field, the guy hits better than Barry Bonds and fields better than Ozzie Smith. When pitching, the guy still hits better than Barry Bonds, and he doesn’t really ever get removed, and he allows an average of basically one run per nine innings. Craig Kimbrel has allowed an average of 1.64 runs per nine innings. This guy would be a lot better than Kimbrel, and he’d throw nine innings a game instead of one.
A potential problem: a guy who throws nine innings every five games might not have a great arm at shortstop. If you’d like to make up for that, feel free to subtract some defense and add some dingers. Or you can just pretend this guy is a wizard. Because, I mean, this is all wizardry.
The baseball equivalent of LeBron James is impossible. If he existed, he’d be sure to be underpaid, because at the usual free-agent market rates, his salary would be a whole payroll and then some. Baseball doesn’t have basketball’s maximum contract, but presumably there is some kind of line no team would ever go beyond, and these equivalents would establish that line. The LeBron James sweepstakes is generating more attention than any baseball-player sweepstakes ever could. This is because LeBron James doesn’t translate. Baseball will never have a LeBron James. It’ll have Mike Trout and Andrelton Simmons and Clayton Kershaw and Craig Kimbrel, and they’ll all be good and occupying different bodies.
A man can dream, though.
Jeff made Lookout Landing a thing, but he does not still write there about the Mariners. He does write here, sometimes about the Mariners, but usually not.