Written by Bjoern Hartig
Published: 17 September 2007
The days that Roger Maris former home run record is broken with regularity may be over, but today’s game is still full of imposing sluggers that strike fear into opposing pitchers’ hearts. But among those stalwarts of slugging, who is the strongest of them all, the primus inter potens? There are several possible approaches to answer this question, and I would like to take a few traditional ones before I present my own solution.
The first way to look at the question is to consider who hits the most home runs. After all, home runs are the first and foremost manifestation of power. The number one, five and six on the all-time home run list are still active and while the names of Barry Bonds, Sammy Sosa and Ken Griffey Jr. are sure to come up when the search for the strongest baseball player of all time begins, career numbers are not helping us determine who hits the ball the hardest right now. As everyone who follows the game at least occasionally is aware, Alex Rodriguez currently leads the majors with 52 four baggers, followed by Prince Fielder of the Milwaukee Brewers with 46. Next are Adam Dunn of Cincinnati and Carlos Pena of Tampa Bay with 39 dingers each and Ryan Howard one long ball behind the duo with 38. Nobody else has hit more than 32 balls out of the park this year. So can we declare Alex Rodriguez the winner? Not so fast, first we should take a few more stats into account before we come to a conclusion.
Another way to look at punching power is slugging percentage. Slugging Percentage measures total bases per at bat, so it also takes doubles, triples and hit totals into account. Of the 166 players who currently qualify for the batting title, the player with the highest SLG is – again – Alex Rodriguez with .657, followed by – again – Prince Fielder at .623. After those two, Chipper Jones of the Atlanta Braves checks in at three with .606, only slightly ahead of Boston’s David Ortiz and Carlos Pena with .605 and .602, respectively. Everyone else slugs less than .600. While we are at it, the lowest SLG of qualifiers belongs to the Twins’ Nick Punto .257, way ahead of Omar Vizquel from San Francisco, who has the only other SLG under .300 with .297. To put Punto’s inaptitude into perspective: 137 of 165 hitters have a batting average that is higher than Nick’s slugging percentage. But lets not call Punto the weakest hitter in the majors just yet (he is definitely the worst though).
Slugging Percentage, as everyone knows, depends to a large degree on batting average and therefore is not really suitable to measure pure power. For example, both the Mets’ Shawn Green and the Braves’ Andrew Jones are slugging .414, but Green has only 8 home runs in 418 at bats while Jones has 24 long balls in 529 tries. The reason they are slugging the same is that Jones is only hitting .221 on the year while Green has a healthy average of .280.
To overcome this shortcoming of slugging percentage, isolated power (ISO) was developed. ISO measures the difference between a player’s slugging percentage and his batting average. While Green features an ISO of .134, Jones (number 121 in SLG) checks in at .193, slightly ahead of Frank Thomas (.191) and at least good enough for number 57 in the majors. So who leads the majors in ISO? It is, surprise, surprise, the good old Alex Rodriguez (.343), followed by – who would have guessed – Prince Fielder (.331). Next come Carlos Pena (.327), Adam Dunn (.295) and a new but well known name on the leaderboard, Barry Bonds (.291), edging Ryan Howard (.289) for fifth place. On the opposite end of the table, the Angels rookie right fielder Reggie Willits (.050) and former Twin now Met Luis Castillo (.051) have even lower ISOs than Nick Punto (.055).
However, while isolated power has its advantage over slugging percentage, it is still not independant from batting average. To illustrate that, lets compare Pat Burrell from Philadelphia and Seattle’s Richie Sexson. Burrell’s ISO is .252, while Sexson only managed a .194. From the look of it, Sexson hits much weaker than Burrell. However, 42 of Sexson’s only 89 hits have been for extra bases (47.2 %), which is even a bit better than Burrell’s quota (46.0 %). If you look at how many bases they got per hit, Burrell (1.96) and Sexson (1.94) are awfully close, so you can make the case that while Burrell (.264 AVG) is a better hitter than Sexson (.205) overall, they both hit the ball equally hard.
Therefore, as the final approach to the question “Who hits the strongest?”, we measure total bases per hit (TB/H). While SLG and ISO are more useful to measure how much a player has contributed with his power to his team’s offense (Burrell has no doubt been more productive than Sexson this year), TB/H is probably the best stat we have at the moment to measure pure power.* Actually, I’m going to tweak TB/H just a little bit more. I will count triples as doubles - because compared to doubles, triples are more a product of speed than power - and call the resulting stat power bases per hit (PB/H). So who has the highest PB/H in the major leagues and takes the inofficial platinum slugger award of AHP? Surprisingly, it is neither Alex Rodriguez (4th, 2.09) nor Prince Fielder (2nd, 2.12) but – fanfares – Carlos Pena (2.19). The bronze medal goes to Ryan Howard (2.10) and fifth place to Adam Dunn (2.08). Raise your hand if you would have guessed that Carlos Pena gets the most out of his hits in all of baseball.
The lead medal for the most punchless slugger goes to Luis Castillo (1.15), just ahead of Reggie Willits (1.16) and Juan Pierre (1.16). Nick Punto is sixth worst, by the way. But if you think that the bottom is only filled with borderline productive major leaguers, note that Ichiro Suzuki comes in a 163rd or 4th lowest.
Another interesting question is who gains and who loses most when comparing the PB/H list to the SLG list. There are indeed some huge differences for some players. For example, Ryan Howard jumps from number 17 in slugging to 4th in PB/H, Chris Young from Arizona goes from 63 to 7th and the aforementioned Richie Sexson storms from 137th place right into the Top 10 at number 9. As expected, Andrew Jones also leaps up the table from 121 to 16. The most notable movements into the other direction belong to David Ortiz (4th to 16th), Chipper Jones (3th to 24th), Matt Holliday of the Rockies (7th to 33rd), Hanley Ramirez from Florida (8th to 51st) and Tiger Magglio Ordonez (6th to 64th). And for the last tidbit, Jose Vidro is the lowest ranking DH at 158th (1.27). The Mariners really could not find someone with more pop than Vidro for seven millions a year?
Ok, I’m not yet finished, here are the best and worst at each position (qualified players only).
All Punching Power Team:
C: Brian McCann, Dodgers (1.72)
1B: Carlos Pena, Devil Rays (2.19)
2B: Dan Uggla, Marlins (1.94)
3B: Alex Rodriguez, Yankees (2.09)
SS: Khalil Green, Padres (1.79)
LF: Adam Dunn, Reds (2.08)
CF: Chris Young, Diamondbacks (1.97)
RF: Jermaine Dye, White Sox (1.93)
DH: Jim Thome, White Sox (1.92)
All Punchless Team:
C: Jason Kendall, Cubs (1.27)
1B: Sean Casey (1.32)
2B: Luis Castillo (1.15)
3B: Nick Punto (1.24)
SS: Omar Vizquel (1.22)
LF: Shannon Stewart (1.37)
CF: Juan Pierre (1.16)
RF: Reggie Willits (1.16)
DH: Jose Vidro, Mariners (1.27)
* I realise that PB/H is not flawless either. Lets say two players hit equally hard, but one is the better overall hitter. While both will get the same number of extra base hits of bad pitches, the better hitter will sometimes be able to get a single from a good pitch when the other hitter makes an out. As a result, the better hitter has more singles and a higher batting average, but a lower PB/H (You can now make the case that the second player’s hits are indeed hit harder on average though). Also, not every double or triple is hit hard, some just are just placed better and of course, speed also plays a role when a player tries to stretch a single into a double. Despite all these shortcomings, I still think that PB/H is the best stat to measure pure power that does not involve elaborate studies of batted ball data.