This idea was triggered while watching Adrian Gonzalez on Sunday night against the Cubs. Gonzalez went 4-for-4 in the game to move his average up to .342 on the season. It was after his final at-bat that I began to wonder if I was looking at the best hitter in baseball.
Sounds hyperbolic at first, no? But then I thought about it and realized that -- on May 22, 2011 -- there was no hitter that was a no-brainer pick over Gonzalez.
So I decided to dig a little deeper (never forget that you are dealing with a hell of a bloodhound), putting together a list of what I thought were the 50 best hitters in the game today. That group was eventually knocked down to 10, and in true WEEI.com fashion are listed here for your enjoyment/aggravation/way to kill 15 minutes on the throne.
To the list we go ...
10. Ryan Braun
As much as I like Prince Fielder, if the Brewers were indeed stuck in a Sophie's Choice spot they picked the right guy to lock up for the next decade. Quick, name me a great 280-pound hitter in his mid-30's (Cecil Fielder -- I think a pretty good test case -- was done as a true impact player by age 32). Braun, who already has three .300 seasons, three 30 HR seasons and three 100-RBI seasons in his first four years, just doesn't walk enough for me -- averages 54 a season -- to be considered a real candidate for the title of Best Hitter in Baseball.
Look, he's never going to hit 40 homers, or knock in 130 runs. If you just glance at his baseball-reference page nothing jumps out and demands that you take him seriously as a truly great hitter. In his career he has led the league in exactly one category -- sacrifice flies in 2006 (11). But Youkilis is a guy who came along at the right time. Unlike, say, a Bobby Grich or Darrell Evans, Youkilis puts up his .400 OBP and and .950 OPS in a time where that means at as much to most baseball folks as .300/30/100 meant 20 years ago. He's on pace for 114 walks this season, which would be most by a Sox player since Wade Boggs in 1988 (125).
8. Joey Votto
Votto may never have a season that matches 2010 (.600 slugging percentage is 45 points higher than his career total), but that's OK, just like it's OK that Dustin Pedroia will never be as good as he was in 2008. Votto was still a hugely productive player before last season. Maybe he doesn't hit 37 homers again -- his previous high was 25 and he's on pace for 21 this season -- but he walks a ton (91 last year, on pace for 127 this year) and is a career .315 hitter.
At some point, the money wasted on John Lackey and Carl Crawford (overpaid by half, let's not forget that the Sox were bidding against themselves) has to catch up, right? There will be a free agent (or trade possibility) that the Sox just won't be able to swing simply based on payroll. With Gonzalez already in the fold, I wonder if the Sox would cough up $150 million for Fielder to DH (I suspect they might), but I have to think another monster contract is probably off the table for the next couple of years.
There was always an idea that Holliday might be a product of Coors Field -- not unfair, his career OPS was 1.051 at Colorado, .867 on the road during his career with the Rockies -- but he's been an even better hitter since joining the Cardinals (after a 93-game stop in Oakland), putting up a line of .328/.404/.553 in his 261 games (his career line with the Rockies was .319/.386/.552 in 698 games). He's off to another terrific start in 2011 -- third in slugging, third in OBP, first in batting average -- and looks like a solid bet to win his fifth Silver Slugger award (which is kind of like winning five People's Choice Awards, I guess).
Wouldn't be surprised if he was winning his third MVP in 2016, wouldn't be surprised if he was out of baseball in 2016.
4. Jose Bautista
I'm sorry, it's hard for me to look at Bautista's career numbers before and after 2010 and not come to the conclusion that something else other than adjustments in his batting stance and a new attitude might be the reason he's hitting home runs at this pace. Total baseball McCarthyism, I understand, but this is the real world. But the facts are the facts: The guy has hit 73 home runs since the beginning of the 2010 season and no one else has more than 49 (Paul Konerko).
3. Adrian Gonzalez
When I compared the Red Sox and Yankees position-by-position before the season started, I gave the Sox a major edge at first base and wrote the following as the reason why Gonzalez was the easy choice over Mark Teixeira:
Gonzalez: 308 at-bats, 20 HRs, 59 RBI, .315 BA, .980 OPS
Teixeira: 309 at-bats, 14 HRs, 44 RBI, .227 BA, .728 OPS
Too small a sample size? How about the career road numbers?
Gonzalez: .303 BA, .376 OBP, .568 slugging
Teixeira: .267 BA, .363 OBP, .489 slugging
Gonzalez has played in a hideous hitter's park during his career, stuck in the middle of a lineup filled with Tadahito Iguchi's and Jody Gerut's and Chase Headley's. In 2009 Adrian Gonzalez led the National League with 119 walks, finished fifth with 40 homers and fifth with an OPS of .958. He did all this for a Padres team that finished second-to-last in the NL in runs scored. No regular (other than Gonzalez) had a slugging percentage that even equaled the league average.
We're not spending a lot of time talking about Gonzalez's shoulder now, but the rest seems about right. This was a guy buried in Petco Park. Now that he's out and we've seen him for a couple of months I think everything -- including a Triple Crown -- is a possibility.
The most similar hitter to Cabrera, ages 22-24, was Hank Aaron. From 25-26 it was Ken Griffey, Jr. Age 27, Frank Robinson. Since 2005 he has finished sixth, fourth, ninth, ninth, fifth and second in OPS (he's third in 2011) and no worse than ninth in RBI in that same span. There are some legitimate demons going on in his life, it seems, so it's hard to predict how this is going to turn out. But there is no question that we are looking at a potential 600-HR, 3,000-hit kind of player in Cabrera, who should be just entering his prime.
Slow start, but come on. This is still the standard. Fourth all-time in slugging, fifth in OPS, seventh in OPS+ (behind Ruth, Williams, Bonds, Gehrig, Hornsby and Mantle -- no other active player is in the top 40). Only Bonds and Musial have more career MVP shares. When his career is over, this will be one of the half-dozen best hitters in the history of the game, and he's just 31 years old.
(And I still think he ends up with the Yankees next year. Call it 10 years, $280 million.)