Who are baseball's most indispensable hitters this season?
In the wake of the news regarding his elbow injury, on Thursday I posed the question as to whether Masahiro Tanaka is the game’s most indispensable pitcher — the best relative to his supporting cast. While there exists no shortage of ways to approach such matters, I chose an objective route via Wins Above Replacement (Baseball-Reference.com version), measuring the size of the gap between each team’s top starting two starting pitchers.
Today, I’m taking a similar tack with the position players, doing so while acknowledging that the methodology is imperfect. A half-season of a single fielding metric can be quite noisy, and the sizes of the gaps from team to team are closely bunched together beyond a certain point, such that the distinctions can look like hair-splitting. Still, this is a good chance to acknowledge some superior performances, both among the obvious and those flying under the radar.
Gap: 3.7 (5.7 WAR to Charlie Blackmon 2.0)
For the first time since 2011, Tulowitzki appears as though he’ll make it through the season’s first half without a trip to the DL, and he’s put up monster numbers in doing so. His WAR, all three slash stats (.350/.441/.616) and his 177 OPS+ lead the league, while his 20 homers ranks second. Sure, he owes much of that to Coors Field, where he’s batting an insane .433/.514/.767 through 177 PA; in the exact same sample size, he’s hit .265/.367/.463 on the road. The gap between him and the rest of the Rockies might not be so big if not for the rash of injuries that cut down Nolan Arenado, Michael Cuddyer and Carlos Gonzalez; Blackmon’s overall line is good (.294/.342/.475 for a 114 OPS+), but he’s hit just .261/.309/.416 following a torrid April.
Gap: 2.3 (5.3 WAR to Erick Aybar 3.0)
Shocker, I know. Trout overcame a brief May slump to hit .310/.401/.602 en route to a league-best 181 OPS+, which pairs well with his standard-setting WAR. Furthermore, his 21 homers puts him more than two-thirds of the way to matching his career high — yes, he might still be improving. While Trout has gotten good support from several Halos hitters, it’s Aybar’s solid combination of offense (.282/.319/.415, 107 OPS+) and defense (+1 DRS) at an important position that has produced the team’s second-best WAR, not to mention the league’s best among shortstops. Initially left off the AL All-Star roster, Aybar was named as an injury replacement on Thursday — the first berth of his nine-year career — and is thus no longer bearing the brunt of Derek Jeter’s swan song.
Gap: 2.2 (3.3 WAR to Rene Rivera 1.1)
Between the pitchers and position players, this one rates as the most unexpected, because while most of the others who have surfaced in these discussions are contenders for Cy Youngs or MVPs, the same can’t be said for Smith. Which isn’t to take anything away from his strong season (.281/.383/.510 for a 158 OPS+), however out of character it is; his career OPS+ is 114, with the previous high of 122 set back in 2009. The Padres have completely collapsed around the 31-year-old outfielder; due to injuries and sheer ineptitude, no other regular has an OPS+ above 95, and the team is averaging just 2.97 runs per game. That puts San Diego in danger of becoming the first team to fall short of 500 runs over a full season since its brown-and-yellow brethren of 40 years ago, the 1972 Padres. The best of the supporting cast has been Rivera, a part-time catcher with unexpected pop (.227/.287/.439 in 146 PA). His 108 OPS+ is 46 points above his career mark, so bet on him to be overtaken soon by Chase Headley (1.0 WAR) — if the latter isn’t traded first.
4. Josh Donaldson, A’s
Gap: 1.8 (4.5 WAR to Brandon Moss 2.8)
Despite being stuck in a dreadful slump for more than a month (.158/.205/.263 in 122 PA since June 7), Donaldson’s .241/.322/.459 line with 20 homers is still good for a 118 OPS+. Between that and his outstanding defense (an eye-opening +17 DRS, as well as +13.4 UZR), his 4.6 WAR is second in the in the AL behind Trout, and that’s no fluke. Last year’s 8.0 WAR was second to Trout as well — not too shabby for a converted catcher who didn’t find a regular job until his age-26 season. Second on the team, and vital to its success as well, is yet another reclamation project in Moss, who has hit .272/.355/.524 with 19 homers while already setting a career high in WAR.
Gap: 1.7 (4.9 to Marcell Ozuna 3.2)
Limited to just 239 games over the past two seasons, Stanton is in better health this year, and the 24-year-old slugger is putting together a monster season. He’s hitting .299/.396/.548 for a 158 OPS+ — career bests in all but slugging percentage. Thanks to strong defense (+10 DRS), he’s currently second in the league in WAR only to Tulo; that figure as well as his league-leading 21 homers thus far give him a strong shot at besting his 2012 career highs in both (5.5 WAR and 37 homers). Meanwhile, the 23-year-old Ozuna has provided some complementary punch (.279/.328/.469 with 15 homers) and similarly strong defense (+11 DRS) in center, making him tops among the second bananas here, and a very respectable 11th among NL position players in WAR overall.
Gap: 1.7 (4.0 WAR to Josh Harrison 2.3)
The defending NL MVP is putting together even better slash numbers this year (.318/.415/.539) than last. His 168 OPS+ is second in the league behind Tulowitzki, and his 4.9 offensive WAR is actually first, but subpar defense (-7 DRS) bumps him down to fifth in the league overall. Meanwhile, though key cast members from among last year’s Wild Card-winning Bucs such as Starling Marte, Russell Martin and Neil Walker have fallen short in their contributions thus far, the 26-year-old Harrison has suddenly become the game’s top jack of all trades, playing mostly in rightfield but also seeing substantial time at third base, second base and leftfield. A .250/.282/.367 hitter in 575 PA through 2013, he’s batted .297/.335/.452 thus far while playing strong defense (+9 DRS) en route to perhaps the most unlikely All-Star berth among this year’s crop.