The century’s best (so far)

Yes, we’ve got eight decades to go, but let’s take a position-by-position look at the early frontrunners

Some things are entirely predictable.

If any of us make it to the year 2100 — the odds aren’t especially good, yet it could happen — we will be inundated by journalistic rankings of the century that just ended. You know the drill. The biggest news stories, the greatest leaders, the brightest celebrities.

And, of course, the best athletes in every sport imaginable.

Nobody knows what baseball will look like 80 years from now, but readers are certain to confront a slew of stories about the greatest players of the 21st century. Mike Trout, Albert Pujols, Clayton Kershaw, and Justin Verlander will be little more than names to most fans in that distant era — and dimly remembered names, at that — but they undoubtedly will be part of the conversation.

So let’s start talking.

My intention is to examine the century’s frontrunners at each position during the next few months — every other Friday, to be specific. First on the agenda are catchers, whom we’ll consider at the end of this week.

My rankings will be based on statistics for the period from 2000 through 2020. If that cuts off the most productive years of a player’s career, it’s unfortunate, yet unavoidable. My focus will be solely on performances during this century, essentially checking to see who’s in the lead as we pass the one-fifth pole.

I’m aware, by the way, that some purists insist the century began in 2001, but that makes no difference to me. I’m sticking with 2000.

My intention today isn’t to preview the rankings, but rather to unveil the ground rules for position players. The guidelines will naturally be different for pitchers, though we can deal with them at a future date. They won’t come up in the every-other-Friday rotation until mid- to late winter.

The first nine sets of rankings will be limited to players who made at least 2,500 plate appearances between 2000 and 2020, and who lined up at their designated position in at least 40% of their games. That gives us a pool of 525 players, which breaks down this way:

  • Catcher, 57 players

  • First baseman, 60 players

  • Second baseman, 63 players

  • Third baseman, 69 players

  • Shortstop, 74 players

  • Left fielder, 57 players

  • Center fielder, 72 players

  • Right fielder, 59 players

  • Designated hitter, 14 players

A player is required to spend at least 40% of his time at a given position, as I noted above, but his statistics are not similarly limited.

Joe Mauer, for example, caught 920 games for the Twins from 2004 to 2018, while also playing 603 at first base, 310 as a designated hitter, 78 as a pinch hitter, and two as an outfielder. He qualifies for these rankings as a catcher — the only position that exceeds the 40% threshold — yet his final score will be based on the statistics for all of his games.

My rating formula is designed to reward both quality and longevity, achieving this blend with a mixture of rate stats and counting stats. The 10 components will be weighted evenly. Here they are, accompanied by brief explanations:

  • Wins above replacement. The player’s total WAR for 2000 through 2020, as calculated by Baseball Reference.

  • Wins above replacement per year. A ratio of WAR per 162 games played.

  • Defensive wins above replacement. A breakout of the defensive component of WAR, again as determined by Baseball Reference.

  • Batting average. Experts may scoff at batting average, but it tells you who swings the bat most effectively, so why ignore it?

  • Slugging percentage. An ideal measure of power.

  • Bases per out. This requires some explanation. It might, in fact, be worthy of a future column by itself. But let’s confine ourselves here to the basics. BPO is a ratio of the bases that a batter reaches to the outs that he makes. It’s figured in three steps: (1) Add up the bases reached by hits, walks, hit batters, and stolen bases, as well as the number of sacrifice hits and sacrifice flies. (2) Calculate outs by subtracting hits from at-bats, then adding double plays, caught stealings, sacrifice hits, and sacrifice flies. (3) Divide bases by outs.

  • Games played. The total for 2000-2020, regardless of the position played.

  • Scoring. The total number of runs scored and runs batted in, minus home runs. (Homers count in both the R and RBI columns, which is why we make the subtraction.)

  • Scoring per year. A ratio of scoring per 162 games played.

  • Hits. The total for the 21-year period.

A player’s performance in each of these 10 statistical categories will be matched solely against the other players at his position, not the entire pool of 525. An above-average number in a given category — that is, above the average for that position — will earn a positive score, known to statisticians as a z-score. A below-average number will get a negative score.

The 10 z-scores for each player will be added to determine the standings for a position, capped by one final step to make everything easier to understand. Z-scores are expressed as lengthy, offputting decimals, so I will convert them to a 1,000-point scale. The top-rated player at a position will be pegged to 1,000, the lowest-rated to 0, and the others will fall in between, based on the relative placements of their z-scores.

But enough of all that. It’s important to lay out the rules, but it’s a lot more interesting to dive into the standings. Let’s do that on Friday, when we weigh the relative merits of the 21st century’s catchers.