MLB's best player may not be who you think

January 8th, 2024

Who is the best player in baseball right now? Well, that’s easy. It’s . There are either 700 million or 460 million reasons to believe so, and he just led the Majors in combined Wins Above Replacement, with 10.0. He won the AL MVP, his second, unanimously, despite not even playing after Sept. 3. Case closed. Can you imagine it being anyone else? Of course it’s him.

Or, at least, it would be him, if he were fully healthy. Ohtani, the two-way superstar, the athlete who transcends sports in a way few other baseball players of recent vintage have, reaches a level that no other player alive can touch. But Ohtani, the injured pitcher, the extremely good designated hitter, is merely one of the best players in baseball, not the best – at least for 2024, and possibly beyond, until he proves he’s healthy enough to pitch regularly again or find himself playing the outfield.

So if it's not going to be Ohtani, then who? It’s a difficult question to answer.

When we last did this three-plus years ago, back in the summer of 2020, the question was framed around , who was at the time clearly the best in the game, and how long he might retain that crown. Using three-year recency-weighted Wins Above Replacement (WAR) – chosen because a single season shouldn’t be enough to be The Best, and some amount of track record matters – Trout had been the best player in the game at the end of seven consecutive three-year windows, third most only to Babe Ruth (nine) and Willie Mays (eight). When we talk about how he’s going to be one of the best players of all time, that’s the kind of thing we’re talking about.

We knew that wouldn’t last forever, but what we didn’t realize back then was that Trout’s reign had essentially already ended. It wasn’t due to performance, which remains at a high level. It was due to availability. Due to a variety of injuries, Trout has played only 290 games (out of a possible 546) over the last four seasons. He remains a star, but he’s not The Best Player In Baseball.  took over the crown after that 2020 season, and Ohtani has then owned it, by our method, after each of the last two seasons.

He'd have kept it, too, if not for the elbow injury. So as Trout once took the title from Justin Verlander, who took it from a brief reign by Roy Halladay, who inherited it from a long run by Albert Pujols, the title in 2024 is likely going to belong to someone else. But who? Looking back, it’s Ohtani. Looking ahead, it gets murky.

If we repeat the same method we used in 2020, to take the last three years of WAR and weight them 60/30/10 by recency, we find this list:

  • 9.8 WAR Ohtani
  • 7.3 WAR Betts
  • 6.9 WAR Marcus Semien
  • 6.8 WAR Freddie Freeman
  • 6.5 WAR Aaron Judge
  • 6.1 WAR Ronald Acuña Jr.

As we've said: The title should be Ohtani’s, and by the method we’ve constructed – as well as the hype, and the contract – he is, no questions asked.

But we know he’s not coming near 9-10 WAR as a designated hitter next year, because 6-7 WAR is about as high as a player with no defensive value can add, and so it’s difficult to think he’d maintain that position. So if it’s not Ohtani, then who?

Maybe it should be Acuña, the defending unanimous NL MVP, who is hurt a little here in a three-year look because of all the time he missed in 2021 due to a knee injury. Maybe it should be Judge, the unanimous 2022 AL MVP, who is hurt a little here because of all the time he missed in 2023 due to a toe injury. Maybe it should be Betts, who essentially tied Acuña in WAR last year, and has the best non-Ohtani three-year weighted WAR. Or maybe it should be someone who doesn’t even have three years yet in the Majors, like, say, Julio Rodríguez.

All good points, and it underscores how there's no obvious Trout solution. Let’s try to look at this from two different ways.

1. What if we just look back at the last two years, not three?

We’d chosen three years as the window rather than two in deference to the fact that some amount of track record seems necessary before you can be anointed The Best, but we’ve had some truly tremendous rookies appear over the last two seasons. (We’re still looking for players who have managed at least two full seasons, so check back next time, Corbin Carroll and Gunnar Henderson.)

If we look at the last two seasons and give 2023 two-thirds of the weight, we end up with this:

  • 9.8 WAR Ohtani
  • 7.6 WAR Betts
  • 6.8 WAR Semien
  • 6.5 WAR Judge
  • 6.3 WAR Acuña Jr.
  • 6.2 WAR Freeman
  • 6.0 WAR Matt Olson
  • 6.0 WAR Austin Riley

Set aside Ohtani, and we’re left with Betts by a nice margin. Acuña lags here a little because in 2022 he missed the first month coming back from his knee injury and then had what would be considered a good-not-great season (2.7 WAR) before his massive 2023 (8.2 WAR). It’s probably not fair to expect him to repeat 2023 again, but it’s more than fair to expect he’s closer to that player than the one we saw in 2022. So, let’s try it another way.

2. What if we roll in projections for 2024?

This time, we’ll keep the original three-year window, and just take 2024 Steamer projections – which have Acuña at the top – and assume that’s what the player will actually do for this upcoming season, combined with what we saw in 2022 and ‘23, each weighted less as time goes by.

  • 7.2 WAR Acuña Jr.
  • 6.7 WAR Betts
  • 6.5 WAR Ohtani
  • 6.3 WAR Judge
  • 6.2 WAR Soto
  • 5.6 WAR Rodríguez
  • 5.5 WAR Corey Seager

Finally, Ohtani isn't at the top. Finally, this gets Rodríguez in the conversation, at least, though not quite at the head of the class.

So who is The Best Player in Baseball going to be in 2024? It's Acuña ... unless it's Betts ... and if that sounds a whole lot like the 2023 NL MVP discussion until the final few weeks of the season, we hear you.

In fact, it’s actually easy to see both of them being even better in 2024, at least through a WAR lens. Betts’ move to second base will make him look more valuable, given how much harder it is to get offense out of second than right field, and which the projections may not have fully baked in yet. Meanwhile, Acuña's value has been hurt by poor defensive metrics that are almost entirely about bad non-error mistakes -- which can be read as a positive, in that those aren’t a lack of skill and can more easily be cleaned up.

It's Betts vs. Acuña. It's Acuña vs. Betts. The MVP race is one thing. The title of The Best is quite another.