You hear scouts say it all the time. Ceiling. They're talking about the best case scenario, or the best scenario that is within reason. It's impossible for me to grow wings and fly. It's possible but not at all likely that a billionaire will hand me a check for $10 million. It's reasonable, but still unlikely that this blog post will set the record for views at Beyond The Box Score. The third option is a discussion of ceiling. We talk about a specific player's potential all the time, but we rarely dream about what a true, human ceiling might be.
Mike Trout is currently testing our understanding of what we thought a player could do. No one has been this good, this young. But Trout's individual seasons are not outside the realm of comprehension. Ten win seasons are rare, but we know they happen. We've seen them happen. Two ten win seasons before age 22 pushes the limits a little further. But this is only kind of a post about Mike Trout.
Mike Trout is the living embodiment of the perfect baseball player, but Mike Trout isn't an 80 grade player across the board. He's the best player we have, and it's not really very close, but as far as we can tell, he has human characteristics. He's not a robot designed to break our metrics, or at least so we think. But if he got better, what might that look like?
What I'd like to do here is take a couple of moments to theorize about what the best possible baseball player might look like. I will approach the question in two ways, but with two caveats. This will only apply to position players, because I can't even begin to figure out a way to apply the methodology to pitchers. Second, I will assume that the scales we have created capture the true distribution of talent out in the world. In other words, a 90 grade arm does not exist and cannot exist.
First, we'll start with the theoretical scouting grades and will attempt to estimate a player's single season WAR given that they have five 80 grade tools. This is obviously an imperfect system, but I'll draw on Mark Smith's post at FanGraphs from last season that converted the 20-80 scale to actual statistics based on 2010-2012 data.
Let's start with the easy parts first. Let's assume our player participates in a full season and let's decide that he's a shortstop to achieve the maximum possible positional adjustment without dealing with the giant enigma that is catcher defense. Right there, we've already picked up about 27.5 runs of value before we add in any sort of real performance.
Smith estimates that an 80 baserunner would accumulate a BsR of about 9 over the course of a season. An 80 defender comes in somewhere between 18 and 22 runs above average, so we'll call it 20. Before we get to the plate, we have a player who is worth 56.5 runs. In other words, a league average hitter at shortstop who was also the best defender and baserunner in the league would be something like a 6 win player. That sounds about right.
Now let's add in offense, which is a little trickier because the offensive grades break up into hit tool and power, but let's take the .336 batting average and .294 ISO and try to create what that might look like in today's offensive climate. The line comes in at .336/.469/.630 if you assume a walk rate of about 20% and don't worry too much about sacrifices and such.
Taking apart 700 PA to match this exactly leads to a couple of rounding errors, but the ballpark wOBA comes in around .470 and the wRAA (or non-adjusted batting runs) is right around 85. Conforming averages to whole numbers means this is imperfect, but it's not going to miss wildly. All told, we have about 142 runs above replacement. Convert that to wins based on the 2013 numbers available at FanGraphs and we have ourselves a 15.3 win player. That's the ceiling.
This is interesting because the best season in history by a position player was Babe Ruth's 1923 season in which he was worth 15.0 WAR. That's not a bad estimate considering we used rough conversions of Smith's simple model that used 2010-2012 data.
Let's try a different approach to see if we can increase our potential ceiling. Let's take the best seasons in history (since 1901) using batting, fielding, and baserunning runs and combine them into a single player. Obviously, these are coming from different eras, so the amalgamation is going to be funky, but we're looking for the upper bound, so I'm comfortable with the potential problems.
Start with 20 replacement runs, add in Vince Coleman's 1986 baserunning season (17.6 BsR), Mark Belanger's 1975 season in which he was worth 43.7 fielding and positional runs, and then Ruth's 1923 season at the plate (120.6 batting runs via FanGraphs). That gives us a whopping 201.9 runs. Since we're combing years we'll take the average run to win ratio (9.527) to give us our 21.2 WAR estimate.
In other words, if you simultaneously had the best baserunning, defensive, and offensive season in history, you'd probably be worth something close to 20 wins above replacement. Understand there's uncertainty involved due to some of our assumptions, but we could build a plausible baseball season in which a player was worth twice as much as Mike Trout. A more realistic ceiling is probably closer to 15, but I feel good about it being somewhere between the two.
Hopefully this was interesting on it's own, but I do think there is one important implication aside from building a rough estimator of ceiling. Even when you push this thing to it's limit, the best player we could imagine is only a 20 win player. In baseball, it's really hard for one player to have the kind of impact that the best basketball player might have. This is obvious for many, but not intuitive for others who tend to be more casual fans or fans of other sports first. If the Heat lost LeBron James, they wouldn't just shave five or six wins off their total. They'd probably lose 30. In baseball, inventing a player who makes Trout look like a scrub can only swing 12% of the season compared to someone you could find in AAA.
That's crazy. Our superhuman player is only 20 wins better than Danny Worth, and getting to that superhuman player was pretty difficult. This makes you think about how small the difference is between terrible and great in baseball and why the games are so entertaining. Even the worst teams manage to win and the best teams manage to lose, and this illustrates why that's the case.
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All statistics courtesy of FanGraphs.
Neil Weinberg is the Associate Managing Editor at Beyond The Box Score, a contributor to Gammons Daily, and can also be found writing enthusiastically about the Detroit Tigers at New English D. You can follow and interact with him on Twitter at @NeilWeinberg44.