The MLB is filled with stars both young and old, every year new talent shines as older veterans fade into retirement. When comparing players, it is very easy to get carried away by comparing players of different eras, or to compare players in their prime vs. players past their prime. To avoid these discrepancies, we’ll take a look at some of the best players in today’s game while focusing on the prime years of said players. This strategy helps keep debates focused on the current style of play, as well as giving the deserved respect to the veterans. For those who are unfamiliar with baseball analytics, here are some phrases to note throughout the discussion.
WAR: Wins Above Replacement. Essentially a metric used to determine a player’s impact on a team’s chances of winning.
ERA: Earned Run Average. A metric pertaining to pitchers, this number shows how many runs a pitcher gives up on a nine inning basis.
OBP: On Base Percentage. A calculation of a player’s ability to get on the base path. A combination of their batting average and their walks divided by plate appearances
SLG: Slugging Percentage. A calculation of the amount of total bases a player reaches per at bat. A home run is worth four times as much as a single, this helps to show the amount and quality of extra base hits a player achieves.
OPS: On Base Percentage plus Slugging Percentage. A player’s overall ability to get on base plus the amount of total bases they achieve.
5.) Shohei Ohtani
Shohei Ohtani is a unicorn. He is every child’s ultimate dream. Ohtani is an all-star caliber pitcher as well as an all-star caliber batter, something that is rarely seen beyond the high school level. As these kids get older, they specialize in one side of the game while the other side rots. The product is either an elite hitter or pitcher, but never both. Ohtani is elite in both categories, and is the only player to do so in the last 100 years since Babe Ruth. Although Ohtani is still in the early stages of his career, he has already done enough to garner elite status. After winning the MVP award in 2021, Ohtani is arguably having an even better season in 2022. Over the past two seasons Ohtani has had a WAR above nine, something that the likes of David Ortiz, Clayton Kershaw, Max Scherzer, Justin Verlander, and Derek Jeter have never done. Albert Pujols and Ken Griffey Jr. have accomplished this feat only twice each yet Ohtani has done it twice in only five seasons. After hitting 46 home runs in 2021 followed by posting a 2.47 ERA in 2022 as well as a league leading 11.9 K/9 (strikeouts per nine innings pitched) Ohtani is undoubtedly in a class of his own.
4.) Miguel Cabrera
Miguel Cabrera had a 12-year stretch from 2005 to 2016 in which he had a batting average over .300 11 times, and he batted over .320 nine of those seasons. In 2012 Cabrera had a 200 hit triple crown winning MVP season. Cabrera followed that up with another MVP season in which he led both the National League and the American League in batting average, OBP, SLG, and OPS. Cabrera has hit below .300 for each of his last six seasons, yet his career batting average is still comfortably above the .300 mark, showing how truly dominant he was during his prime.
3.) Mike Trout
Mike Trout exploded onto the scene as a rookie in 2012, running away with the Rookie of the Year award, finished second in MVP voting, and also posted the highest WAR grade of any rookie in MLB history at 10.5 Wins Above Replacement. From 2012 to 2019 (eight years) Trout was an all-star every year and finished top two in MVP voting an astonishing seven times, winning the award in three of those instances. A very unique characteristic of Trout’s greatness is the fact that you didn’t really know what you were going to get from him on a year-to-year basis, but you knew he would be elite. An example of this can be seen when you compare three of Trout’s seasons over this eight-year span.
In 2012, Trout posted his highest batting average of his prime, .326, while also posting a career high in stolen bases with 49. He became one of the 43 players in MLB history to join the illustrious 30/30 club, which means he had at least 30 home runs as well as 30 stolen bases. In 2014, Trout had his lowest batting average in his prime, .287, and also led the league in strikeouts with 184, a career high. Yet, Trout still won MVP in 2014 because he also led the league in runs scored, RBIs, and total bases. In 2019, Trout again won MVP while showing off his power with a career high 45 home runs, and he led the league in OBP, SLG, OPS, and times intentionally walked. Trout is a rare five tool player and excels in all aspects of the game. You never know when he’ll send a shot over the fence, or when he’ll slap a single down and proceed to torch the base paths.
2.) Clayton Kershaw
Although Kershaw remains a staple of the Los Angeles Dodgers rotation, people seem to have already forgotten just how dominant Kershaw was in his prime. From 2011 to 2017 Clayton Kershaw was unquestionably the best pitcher in baseball, leading the league in ERA for five years, led the league in strikeouts for three years, and led the league in complete game shutouts three times as well. It is very common to see a pitcher specialize in one strategy, usually either as a strikeout specialist or a ground ball pitcher. Kershaw was able to dominate in all aspects of the mound and has the accolades to prove it. Over this seven-year span, Kershaw finished top five in Cy Young voting every year and won the Cy Young award on three occasions, including an MVP trophy in 2014. Typically speaking, an MLB pitcher with a sub 4.00 ERA is considered a good pitcher. Those with sub 3.00 ERA are considered elite. Well, Kershaw had three seasons in which he posted sub 2.00 ERA which is absurd!! To do this for a single year is incredible, but to be able to do it three times in a span of four years is unheard of. Over this seven-year span, Kershaw had an ERA of 2.10. Any pitcher can only dream of having a 2.10 ERA for a full season, Kershaw did that over a course of seven years.
1.) Albert Pujols
Albert Pujols had a 10-year span to start his career in which he absolutely dominated year after year. Starting in his rookie season in 2001 to 2010, Pujols had a batting average no less than .312 in any season, he also had an OPS rating of 1.000 or more in eight of those 10 seasons. Over this span Pujols averaged 40.8 home runs per season as well as an average of 123 RBIs while also never hitting less than 103 RBIs in any year. Over these prime 10 years, Pujols accrued three MVP trophies as well as five more seasons in which he finished top four in MVP voting. He won Rookie of the Year, six Silver Slugger awards, two Gold Gloves, and nine All-Star Team appearances. Ironically, the one season in which Pujols was not voted as an all-star, he actually finished second in MVP voting. Similar to Kershaw, Pujols dominated at the highest level for a very long time. A pillar of consistency, Albert Pujols was a force to be reckoned with, and he has reminded the world of that through his vintage performance this season.
Maybe the most incredible statistic pertaining to these five players, is that three of them played together on the same team and never made the playoffs during that span. Shohei Ohtani, Mike Trout, and Albert Pujols all previously played on the Los Angeles Angels together, yet they have nothing to show for it. That being said, baseball is a team sport and this outcome does not reflect or tarnish any of their greatness.