How should we define a baseball 'superstar'?

Does Harper, for all of his name recognition, qualify?

May 15th, 2018

Bill James asks a fascinating question over at his website: "What is a Superstar?"
Well, he actually titles the article "So what is a Superstar, zactly?" And, being Bill, he dives deep -- really deep, super deep -- into all sorts of thoughts about what makes a superstar, how many superstars you might expect in baseball at any one time, what are the accomplishments you would expect from a superstar, and so on.
This is what Bill James does. He loathes the ineffable, the ethereal, the bullhockey. He loathes nonsense. To him, just saying, "This guy's a superstar and this guy isn't," without defining terms and studying the idea, is just nonsense.
The essay and study are a lot of fun, but as so often happens, these things end up being about one point. In this case, the point is a question: Is a superstar? Many people would instinctively and without hesitation say, "Yes." Bill James believes that not only is Harper not a superstar, it's really not all that close a call.
There are numerous ideas at play here, but I think the most interesting one is James' reasonable contention that a superstar has to do lots of superstar things, and his more controversial view that, so far in his career, Harper has done surprisingly few superstar things.
Bill makes a list of 21 "Star Accomplishments." They range from setting a major record down to hitting .300 for a season. Having at least four Wins Above Replacement is a Star Accomplishment. A .500 slugging percentage is a Star Accomplishment. Driving in 100 runs, scoring 100 runs, winning a Gold Glove or an MVP Award, hitting 30 homers and stealing 30 bases in the same season -- all of these, and more, are Star Accomplishments, and the player gets a certain amount of credit for each of them in Bill's system.
So who are the superstars by his system?
Well, as you might expect, has the most Star Points with 109. is next at 87. has an amazing 45 Star Points at age 25, and that's with him finishing second in American League MVP Award voting three times.
Bill ranks the players not by total Star Points, but by Star Points per 162-game season. has the highest Star Point ratio, which is no surprise since he has played just one full season, and it was a crazy good season. He hit 52 home runs, led the league in runs scored, drove in 114 runs, won the Rookie of the Year award, etc. He piled up 10 Star Points. His ratio is 8.9.
The Top 5 ratios
• Judge: 10 Star Points, 8.9 ratio
• Trout: 45 Star Points, 7.9 ratio
• Pujols: 109 Star Points, 6.9 ratio
• Cabrera: 87 Star Points, 6.3 ratio
: 5 Star Points, 6.1 ratio
The Bellinger one is quirky because he did not even play a full season but still put up enough points to climb high on the list. It might be better to skip him for now and move on to , who is next on the list. He has 26 Star Points, a 5.9 ratio.
And Harper? Well, the problem is that he has really only had one season in the big leagues where he accumulated significant Star Points. Harper's 2015 season was extraordinary by any measure: he hit .330, led the league in homers and runs, had 10.0 WAR, won the National League MVP Award; it was a Star Point bonanza.

Trouble is: That's about it. Harper picked up a few points here and there for his four other All-Star appearances and his NL Rookie of the Year Award, but in all, he has accumulated just 19 Star Points, which is fewer than numerous players, including Josh Donaldson (21), (27) and (29). Harper's 4.0 ratio ranks 16th in baseball. And Bill's point is that it is hard to call the the 16th-most accomplished player a superstar.
The counterargument is that "superstar," at least by some definitions, goes well beyond Star Accomplishments. James does get this; he tells a fun story about his family having the chance to see Ray Charles perform and how they didn't particularly care for the genre of music, but when you have a chance to see Charles perform, you do it (they actually did not do it, and regretted it). That's a superstar.
And that is where Harper's supporters rush in. Yes, his career has been erratic, and he's been hurt a lot, but he still inspires deeper feelings than maybe anybody in the game. People love Harper. People loathe him. People outside of baseball know him. I love the All-Star Game introductions, because I love to see how people respond to the players. Joey Votto is a much more accomplished player than Harper at this point in their careers, but the response to Votto tends to be tepid, polite, understated.
The crowd blows up in cheers and boos for Harper.
Bill calls that hype and writes, "I don't like hype. It has always been my belief that it is our responsibility to see through the hype." I think he's partly right.
I also think think that if someone was visiting from another country, and she wanted to know what this "game of baseball" is, I would take her to see or Max Scherzer pitch. I would take her to see Trout play. I would have her watch Judge hit bombs, watch Altuve in full motion, watch or do everything, watch the legend Pujols in his final years. And yes, absolutely, I'd take her to watch Harper play. True, he's still more promise than achievement. But Harper might do something legendary at any point. I have a feeling I'll be telling my grandkids about him.
Something unusual happened in Saturday's Cleveland-Kansas City game. The Tribe's shortstop, , hit two doubles and two home runs in the game.

But wait. The same thing happened in Friday's Cubs-White Sox game. hit two doubles and two home runs in the game.

This is nuts. That combination -- two doubles and two home runs -- is a rarity. It happens roughly half as often as the cycle. Since 1969, there have been 154 cycles in the Major Leagues. There have only been 85 two-double, two-homer games. Maybe the problem is that the two-double, two-homer game doesn't have a cool name like cycle. What if we called it the "even dozen" because every hit is an even number of bases, and it all adds up to 12 total bases? Well, think about it at least and get back to me.
In the meantime, let me tell you: The even dozen used to be a very rare day. It only happened eight times in the entire decade of the 1970s, and only 11 times in the '80s. But lately, it has become crazy common. The most even dozens in a single season is six, but already this year, barely six weeks into the season, there have been three.
Lindor went 4-for-4 with four runs and two RBIs on Saturday.
Contreras went 4-for-5 with two runs scored and seven RBIs on Friday.
And DJ LeMahieu went 4-for-5 with two runs and four RBIs on April 12.

In case you are wondering, only four players in baseball history have hit two triples and two homers in the same game. Two of them are all-time greats. Lou Gehrig did it against the White Sox in 1928. Willie Mays went 5-for-5 with a single, two triples, two homers, four runs and four RBIs in a game against the Dodgers in '58.
The other two -- well, a fine player named Lew Fonseca did it for Cleveland in 1929. Fonseca was a good hitter; he won a batting title that year. But it's quite astonishing that he hit two home runs in the same game. Fonseca only hit six home runs that whole season and 31 in his entire 12-year career.
The other is Dmitri Young, who pulled off the even dozen for the Tigers against the Orioles in 2003. That Detroit team went 49-113 that season; Young was by far the team's best player; he basically had to do everything alone. This game was a pretty fair illustration of the whole season. Young's first homer opened the scoring. His first triple put the Tigers ahead, 4-0. His next homer gave the O's a 5-0 lead. And then his final triple came after Detroit blew the lead; it broke a 6-6 tie in the ninth and proved to be the game-winning run.
Keep an eye on Cleveland's Josh Tomlin tonight. He has long been one of my favorite pitchers in the game because I like pitchers who find a way in the big leagues without much stuff. Tomlin's fastball is in the mid-to-upper 80s. His curveball has been sporadic, his changeup just OK. Tomlin has tinkered with a cutter and with trying to get more sink on his fastball and with anything else he can think of, which is why he's the kind of guy you can root for. He's always searching. He's always battling. He's always fighting the odds.

This year, though, has been scary bad. Tomlin has given up 13 home runs in 25 2/3 innings. That's almost unbelievable.
You don't want to do that math on it. At that pace, a pitcher would allow more than 100 home runs in a 200-inning season. Of course, no pitcher would ever be allowed to throw 200 innings at that pace, so the question is: Can Tomlin find a way to keep the ball in the yard? It will be tough. He doesn't get strikeouts. Tomlin is a fly-ball pitcher with a history of allowing the long ball (though not like this). His curveball is in one of its down phases.
Tomlin has had two games already this season when he allowed four homers in a game. The record for a season is three. You get the feeling that Tomlin is pitching for his career tonight and his next few times out.