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Babe Ruth’s 100th anniversary, a baseball LeBron?, and the banged up NL Central

CINCINNATI – You might have heard LeBron James made his Decision 2.0 today, and it’s a big deal because it’s difficult to comprehend just how dominant an athlete he is.

He accounted for 2.3 percent of all basketball Wins Above Replacement last season. He’s a 21-WAR player in basketball and Jeff Sullivan has a fun read on what kind of equivalent that would be in baseball. Since, baseball plays twice as many games  as the NBA you have to imagine a 42-win baseball player … and of course there has never  been anything close to such a baseball player.

The top WAR season of all time according to Baseball Reference was Tim Keefe’s 20.0-WAR season in 1883. We all remember that campaign, right? The best post-1900 season is Walter Johnson’s 16-win year in 1925.

Baseball and basketball are of course very different sports. It’s much easier to dominate a basketball game. There are fewer people on the court and a player has the opportunity to touch the ball on dozens of possession each game. James made his decision 100 years after Babe Ruth debuted and would go on to transform baseball. Perhaps Ruth’s 1919 season is the closest will we’ll ever see to a James-type season.

Ruth led baseball with 29 home runs that season and a 1.100 OPS, single-handedly ending the deadball era. He also posted a 9-5 record with a sub-.3.00 ERA over 133 innings. That was a dominant dual-usage season … and it still fell well short of even a 15-WAR season. And as the sport becomes more specialized we’re unlikely to see such a dual-usage baseball player.

To be a 40-win baseball player you’d essentially have to have Mike Trout’s bat with Yadier Molina‘s defensive package at catcher while also being Clayton Kershaw every fifth day. That’s just not going to happen. So imagining a  baseball LeBron might be a fun thought exercise but it’s not a possibility.

Here’s where this exercise is relevant: the lack of ability of a baseball player to truly dominate the way James does in basketball is why teams like the Pirates are hesitant to commit 15+ percent of payroll to one star.

Even the greatest baseball player has a relatively limited impact compared to the greatest basketball star (or NFL quarterback). Baseball is in many ways an individual game, but in this sense, it is one of the more team-oriented games we  have.

 

THE BANGED UP NL CENTRAL

The NL Central Division has become a tight race and and injury attrition might very well determine it.

The Pirates have a significant injury with Gerrit Cole, who will not come off the DL when he is eligible on July 20th, Clint Hurdle said on Friday.

The Reds are without the right-side of their infield in Brandon Phillips (out six weeks following hand surgery) and Joey Votto (back on the DL with a quad injury).

The Cardinals have been dealt the biggest blow to data among the four contenders in the division. You can make the argument that Molina is the division’s most important player. And now he’s gone for 8-12 weeks. Not only does Molina have a cannon arm and a well above-average bat at catcher, he’s also an elite pitch framer and earns rave reviews for his worth with the Cardinals’ staff. At the moment, the Cardinals are also  down an elite arm in Michael Wacha. It’s a tough break for the Cards. But it’s an opportunity for the rest of the division.

Assuming Cole returns to the rotation in early August, the Pirate might have an opportunity here as they have some pitching depth and the least amount of significant injury to their every day lineup.

-TS

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