I can tell you — and you can tell me — who the best players in baseball have been. That’s easy, but that’s not the question.
I can’t tell you — because you can’t predict baseball, not at all, not even a little bit — who the best players will be. But that’s not the question, either.
The question is who the best players are. Right now. Neither 10 minutes ago nor 10 minutes from now, but right now. It’s the transition moment between the clarity of the past and the bonkers of the future.
It’s the midnight question: Is it yesterday or is it tomorrow? No, it’s not.
10. Jose Altuve, 2B, Houston Astros: There are so many great players in baseball right now! I wasn’t prepared for how good No. 11 would have to be. Nolan Arenado, one of the dozen best defensive third baseman ever and a guy who reliably leads his league in power stats, isn’t on here. Francisco Lindor and Corey Seager and Carlos Correa, MVP-candidate shortstops, aren’t on here. The best pitcher in the American League, whomever you decide that is, isn’t on here. No Joey Votto or Anthony Rizzo, no Noah Syndergaard, no Manny Machado. Think how good Altuve must be, then.
9. Max Scherzer, RHP, Washington Nationals: When the Nationals signed him, much concern was spilled over his high innings total up to that point. How could a pitcher with so many miles on his arm survive seven more years? The flip side to that was that he’d survived so many miles; maybe he was simply unbreakable. In the two and a half years since then, Scherzer has thrown more innings than any pitcher in baseball, with the third-best ERA and the highest strikeout rate. By Game Score, he has thrown two of the three greatest starts of the past three years, and another one that ranks 12th. Those don’t even include his 20-K game. He’s more unhittable on his best day than anybody alive.
8. Buster Posey, C, San Francisco Giants: Since 2012, Posey has never ranked lower than fifth in the majors in catcher defense, according to Baseball Prospectus’ advanced measures. We know enough about catchers’ defensive contributions — pitch-framing, blocking and the baserunning game — to know that that statement alone is enough to make him one of the game’s most valuable players. Posey is also an elite hitter; not just good, but truly elite. It’s obscured by his ballpark (which squeezes offense) and his position (which limits his playing time and keeps him from round numbers), but only six players in that five-year time frame have a better OPS on the road. As a catcher. With league-best defense. Having one of his best seasons ever. He should be higher on this list, what the heck?
7. Paul Goldschmidt, 1B, Arizona Diamondbacks: In the past three years, Goldschmidt has been the game’s best defensive first baseman, its best baserunner by a huge margin and its second-best first baseman at the plate. We should all be inspired every time we remember that a fringy, one-dimensional prospect turned himself into not just a great one-dimensional player but a great everything-there-is-to-be-great-at player. The Diamondbacks are finally good again, so Goldschmidt might get to add on to his career .438/.526/.813 postseason line.
6. Kris Bryant, 3B, Chicago Cubs: “Joe Maddon hopes to relieve pressure on struggling Kris Bryant,” I read this morning, so I go check it out. Bryant has a .390 OBP and a .515 slugging percentage, a better OPS+ than George Brett had in his career, and even this month he’s got an OPS over .800. If my life depended on picking one player to hit one home run in one at-bat, I’d pick Bryant.
5. Mookie Betts, RF, Boston Red Sox: A good Betts day is the most fun you can have at a ballpark. He’ll put the ball in play four times. One will be a sharp line drive up the middle on an impossible-to-hit 0-2 pitch. One will be a double into right-center — no, wait, he’s going to stretch it, it’s going to be close, here’ll come the throw and he’ll be … safe at third! He’ll homer, and it’ll look like Little Mac using one of his stars, a towering uppercut blow from the smallest guy in the lineup. He’ll work a tough walk to keep a rally going, then he’ll steal second, then he’ll score from second on an infield single. He’ll make a leaping catch in right field on a dead sprint; he’ll cut a ball off on its way to the gap, and then he’ll gun down the runner trying to go first to third. Wins Above Replacement stick to him like he’s magnetized.
4. Bryce Harper, RF, Washington Nationals: Put Harper on this list because he’s frustrating and inconsistent but he’s also more likely than anybody in baseball to suddenly hit 74 home runs in a season. He’s more likely than anybody else to produce more WAR than Mike Trout, to have one of those 12-WAR campaigns that superstars used to have back when “replacement level” was some kid signed right off his pappy’s farm. He’s the one baseball player who might wake up one morning and remember that he has literal superpowers. Is he the fourth-best player in baseball? That’s probably the one thing he’s definitely not. He’s probably 20th or so, or he’s the very best, one or the other. We just never know which he is until the game has been played, by which point our assessment is immediately outdated.
3. Josh Donaldson, 3B, Toronto Blue Jays: Only two players in baseball have been worth at least six wins above replacement in each of the past four seasons: Trout and Donaldson, who has actually cleared seven WAR each year. It’s almost impossible to build a Hall of Fame career without piling up value and plate appearances in one’s early 20’s, but Donaldson is giving it a credible shot: Since the A’s pulled the 26-year-old out of the minors in late 2012, Donaldson has almost five more WAR than any other non-Trout player. Only 17 players have ever produced more WAR between ages 27 and 30: 14 inner-circle Hall of Famers, plus Albert Pujols, Barry Bonds and Chase Utley.
2. Clayton Kershaw, LHP, Los Angeles Dodgers: Last year, Kershaw missed more than a third of the season with a bad back, throwing only 149 innings. That’s not enough for a season to “count,” officially, which deprived Kershaw of two records: His 0.725 WHIP would have been the lowest in history, beating Pedro Martinez‘s 0.737. And his 15.6 strikeouts per walk would have been the best ratio ever, beating Phil Hughes‘ record 11.6. If history requires more innings to recognize Kershaw’s greatness, fine: His ERA in the past 1,000 innings he has thrown, as I sit here on a beautiful June morning, is 1.88. If, in his next start, he allows 80 earned runs without getting an out, he’ll still have baseball’s lowest ERA in the past half-decade.
1. Mike Trout, CF, Los Angeles Angels: I think often about two things people told me during Trout’s rookie season. The first came from Ron Washington, then the Rangers manager:
“He’s not Willie Mays. He’s a pretty good player. I think the comparisons, y’all got to stop. When he’s been here five, six years, then you can start doing that.”
Trout has been here five, six years now. He’s been better through age 25 than Mays was. Better through age 25 than anybody in history was. There are Hall of Famers Trout has already passed in career WAR. He’s good at everything, and he’s good all the time.
The other thing came from his dad, Jeff: “Relax, the 1-for-30s are coming. It’s a tough game for everybody.” Trout has still never had a 1-for-30. It is a tough game for everybody except him.