When you think of 2019 baseball, there’s probably a definite picture in your mind. Contact is rare but dangerous. Home runs fly out of the park at record levels on fly balls, and line drives are smashed left and right. Strikeouts are abundant, baserunners scarce. And when those runners do get on, they don’t steal very frequently, leading to a station-to-station game.
That’s a great aggregate — but who do you picture when you picture 2019 baseball? Maybe you see Mike Trout or Christian Yelich in your mind’s eye, but that’s not really right. They might be the best of 2019, but they’re certainly not the embodiment of 2019. Yelich and Trout don’t have strikeout problems that sap their on-base percentage. They hit for average and for power; heck, Yelich ended his season batting .329, and it’s not out of the question that he’ll win the batting title. That’s about as far from typical 2019 as it gets.
Not only that, but they’re both fast boys, even if Trout doesn’t steal as much as he used to. Yelich was on pace for a 50/30 season before his season-ending injury, and the fact that it would be the first such season in history should tell you that he’s not anything approaching average. Trout and Yelich are the face of baseball in 2019, but they’re not a fair representation of it.
If it’s not the game’s stars, could it be some kind of boom-or-bust slugger, a watered-down version of Nelson Cruz who sends balls out of the park often enough to offset a cover-your-eyes strikeout rate? Oakland’s Khris Davis, the .247 batting average king, is having too down of an offensive year to qualify, but what about Justin Smoak, another true-outcome-centric batter who would just as soon take a walk as swing at a pitch? He’s not really representative either! He walks 16.3% of the time, double the league average — that’s clearly no good.
To answer this specifically and arbitrarily posed question, I settled on some rules. I chose average, on-base percentage, slugging percentage, walk rate, strikeout rate, home run rate, and stolen bases per plate appearance as the statistics that I’ll use to define average. You could make an argument that including all triple-slash stats is focusing too much on batting lines, or that some batted ball data should be folded in, but for me, those don’t stand up.
Why? Well, do you know whether batting average is higher or lower now than it was 20 years ago? It’s lower, of course, and it’s not particularly close. Steals? Lower by far. Home runs are higher, slugging percentage is about the same, and strikeouts are of course way higher. Okay, now do groundball rate. It’s tough, right? As it turns out, it’s roughly the same. Pull rate is down, hard-hit rate up, and BABIP is marginally higher. My point is that these ones aren’t integral to the way I picture baseball from different eras.
Home runs and stolen bases, triple-slash stats, and plate discipline things — those I can picture, so those are what I’m measuring. With the categories settled, I calculated the league average for non-pitchers in each rate. From there, I calculated a weighted standard deviation of each statistic, so that we could include all batters but treat the stats accrued by someone with 600 plate appearances as proportionally more important than someone who only played a few games.
With this in hand, we can come up with a z-score for each statistic for each player. Without something like this, there’s no way to distinguish how normal a player is. Is 10 points of batting average a small variation? How about 10 points of slugging percentage? Is an extra strikeout here or there more aberrant than an extra walk? We can answer all those questions by normalizing them. Here’s how that looks (all stats are through September 18):
Slugging percentage varies more than batting average and OBP, which makes sense. Home run and stolen base rates vary by about the same amount, but strikeouts are far more variable than walks. That all tracks with what I expected, but it’s still good to get confirmation.
With that out of the way, we can just normalize every stat for every player and go from there. For example, the most extreme batter of the year is Johnny Davis:
That’s a bit of a gimme, though. Davis has only one plate appearance, and a 1.000/1.000/3.000 batting line is bound to be extreme. How about the most extreme hitters with at least 100 plate appearances?
There’s our old friend Yelich, emphatically not the average 2019 player. The rest is a mishmash of bad performances that caused players to lose playing time. The more you play, the less extreme your stats tend to get, which means that the easiest way to remain extreme is to be so bad your team stops playing you. That makes Yelich even wilder — he sustained it over so much longer than everyone else.
Those are players who aren’t very 2019, though. Who are the most 2019 hitters?
Pedro Severino is having an okay offensive season for the first time in his career, and he’s doing it by being near-average across the board. He’s even chipped in a few steals, making him more like the average player than most catchers. We could stop there and crown him Mister 2019, but the rest of the list is fun too.
Paul DeJong and Dansby Swanson are very “modern baseball”, shortstops with average bats who have enough pop to make their strikeouts work. Gavin Lux is already extremely average after only 49 plate appearances! That’s likely just a fluke, but what a fun result. Evan Longoria has gone from the top of the trade value list to the top of the most average list, which must be a big comedown. Brian Anderson combines average statistics with an incredibly average name — he’s a candidate for Mister Average 2019 on several fronts.
Is that as far as we can go with this silly analysis? Nope! Now that we have a framework, there’s nothing stopping us from crowning other years as well. We don’t even have to crown a player from that year — we can transport the averages and z-scores from any year to 2019 and see which 2019 player is closest to that year’s average line. What about the Little Dead Ball Era, 2014?
Honestly, it could be worse. I expected truly dire lines, batters with no power and no contact skill, all strikeouts and singles. No one is all that close to the aggregate line of 2014 — the minimum z-score is pretty high. Kevan Smith is basically a replacement level player, but his 92 wRC+ isn’t terrible for a catcher. Nick Ahmed is having an acceptable season, and Alex Gordon isn’t far behind that. Ahmed was on the 2019 list! There’s no shame in being Mister 2014, even if it means you’re probably not a great player in 2019.
Okay fine, Mister 2014 isn’t so bad. Before we finish, though, let’s run two more. How about Mister 1968, a batter whose exploits most resemble a year that got the mound lowered?
Dangit, Kevan. You’re not making my earlier pronouncement that you’re basically an okay batter look good. The no-power, low-strikeout archetype (in the Year of the Pitcher, batters struck out 14.3% of the time) is well represented here, between Jose Peraza and Yadier Molina. Buster Posey just missed this list (he’s sixth), and I can think of no sadder way to describe Buster Posey’s 2019 than “resembles the league-wide batting line from 1968.”
But it’s not all faded stars and sub-90 wRC+’s. We can find Mister 2000, the batter who looks closest to the average batting line in the highest-scoring environment since World War II. Steroids, a juiced ball, the beginning of peak Bonds — and Eric Sogard?!?
Sogard is extremely 2000, though. He doesn’t strike out much, hits for average and a decent amount of power, and swipes enough bags to be relevant. Nick Ahmed seems to have decided to just photobomb every single era, though he’s worse than average in all seven categories, albeit marginally, when compared to 2000.
My aesthetic preference, after looking at all of these, is probably for 2000. I enjoy every single one of those players’ offensive styles, if not their actual outputs, and also appreciate the irony of Eric Sogard being the player that most resembles the era we all remember for hulking sluggers.
What does this analysis say overall? I have no idea. One player looking like 2019, 2014, and 2000 baseball is interesting, and the fact that Yadier Molina and Buster Posey are performing like baseball used to look when pitchers ruled the world is certainly interesting, but there’s not really any predictive value to any of it. It’s fun to think about, though, and I think it makes me happier about the way baseball works today. Want a very 2019 player? There are many guys who can deliver what you’re looking for. Want a 1968 or 2000 player, though? We’ve got them, too! Baseball has whatever you’re looking for, if you’re willing to poke around.