Baseball is not officially back until people start having player rank debates given a weird set of parameters. Thus, the official start of the 2017 MLB season began on Monday when ESPN’s Sam Miller wrote about which player MLB executives would want to start a franchise with if statistics did not exist. The eye test making a furious comeback to determine the best players in baseball.
The issues with coming up with such a list are many. The statistics have become an embedded portion of the knowledge of the game, so any fan or executive cannot completely separate the bias from creating such a list. Should there be an emphasis on personal fascination with a particular style of play, batting stance, or attitude? Are there bad players who would be considered good – or even great- under such a system? Which good players would become undervalued due to elite traits that are more difficult to notice?
Regardless, wasting time discussing such opinions is as much a part of baseball as a wooden bat, so here are the rules set by Miller.
What if some ministry of information outlawed the collection of baseball statistics and we were all left to judge players exclusively by what we saw, what we perceived and what we remembered? Who would be perceived as the best player in baseball?
Miller’s article also included a list of 24 players used as answers by the 15 executives and writers he posed this hypothetical question. That list became fodder for the discussion to continue in social media as Baseball Prospectus’ Jeff Long noted one of the more obvious exclusions. Many more from across baseball chimed in with some of their own favorites.
Sam Miller asked who you would start a franchise with if no stats existed and nobody said Manny Machado. pic.twitter.com/HDpWfBRpba
— Jeff Long (@JeffLongBP) February 21, 2017
Miller focused on three categories for types of answers he received. The utter anarchy category (too much information to be able to sort without stats), good filters category (scouts could still do decent picking out best especially Mike Trout), and wow filter (hardest throwers, longest home run hitters would be noticed most). The focus on the answers rather than the players though might be misplaced. Instead, focusing on how the players themselves might get categorized could lead to more interesting results.
Here is one way to do such a player-based categorization.
One tool jaw droppers
Mark Trumbo, Khris Davis, and Chris Carter lead with the farmboy raw power. Even guys like Todd Frazier and Mike Napoli could make this list if seen on the correct day or if the highlight packages showed off the moonshot home runs more than the line drive doubles and fence-scraping dingers of others. An interesting question would be if these slugggers would get more acclaim (and money) than the guys like Edwin Encarnacion who have more actual value to scoring runs.
Billy Hamilton deserves his own place here. Assuming some baseline for ability to hit being closer to below average (2016) than horrific (2015), then Hamilton’s speed could be gawked over. His speed lends itself to baserunning, defense, and a better chance at infield singles. The singular tool already elevates him in the eyes of many for potential, so it is not a stretch to think it might even moreso if no one could combat against with proven numbers.
Ender Inciarte and Joe Panik make elite contact. They would probably be thought of lesser than those monster home run guys, but some scouts have kept an eye for the Ichiro Suzuki class of player. The ability for the bat to find the ball is valued with or without statistics. Jose Ramirez is just below these guys in his contact rate, but without having access to the numbers, maybe playing on the contending Indians with his fantastic hair and spring-loaded helmet makes him known as the contact king?
There are so many good defensive players that this category would be reserved for players who can hit, but the true beauty in watching them play is on the defensive end of the spectrum. Francisco Lindor, Nolan Arenado, Alex Gordon, Jason Heyward, and Buster Posey all deserve some mention. Whereas players such as Andrelton Simmons and Kevin Kiermeier would need to play for a consistent contender to earn an Ozzie Smith type following.
Looks can kill
Physical intimidation would put an immediate visual bias in favor of certain players. If you are picking a baseball pickup league and Giancarlo Stanton is standing next to Jose Ramirez with no other indication of their ability to play baseball, then who would you pick? The man-beast of Stanton would be the obvious choice whose stature is only matched by Bryce Harper, Kris Bryant, and perhaps Nelson Cruz or Matt Weiters.
Mike Trout, Paul Goldschmidt, Manny Machado, Josh Donaldson, Corey Seager, and Anthony Rizzo are amazing talents. There are players who will stand out whether or not statistics are present. Some players are just good at nearly everything and can do so with great consistency; at the plate, on the basepaths, in the field. The sweet, sweet swings that each of these players possesses certainly would not hurt matters. Each will be thought of as among the best by all who love baseball.
Pitchers who strike out many batters will always get the most exposure. The image of Max Scherzer blowing a fastball past a flailing hitter needs no accompanying statistic for those who witness the event. Others add additional flair to their strikeouts; Noah Syndergaard’s hair and Madison Bumgarner’s batting prowess the most obvious examples. It would be interesting if a guy like Robbie Ray gets noticed more with the pesky focus on things such as how many runs he gives up.
Would pitchers such as Clayton Kershaw and Felix Hernandez be quickly forgotten if they started to fade? Or would an established name help them hold on far longer than they should like an offensive lineman receiving ProBowl bids?
Off speed masters
Not all pitchers strike batters by relying on blazing fastballs. John Lackey and Justin Verlander would still be known for their sliders. Corey Kluber and Jeff Samardzija their curves. Kyle Hendricks changeup would be studied, and there would still be a fascination with R.A. Dickey’s knuckler.
Relievers might welcome the post-stat world the most. No more reliance on the archaic save or pitcher win to decide who is best in limited-inning stints. Andrew Miller and Dellin Betances would have been valued high even earlier. Kenley Jansen, Zach Britton, Craig Kimbrel, and Edwin Diaz still feared.
So, who did I miss? What players are those who would benefit the most from a stat-less existance whose value determined solely by watching them play?