On Monday, I posted an NL Central All-Decade team, which is inherently arbitrary and pointless and rewards players for spending time in the MLB division which generally spends the second-least in the sport on player salaries. I had fun, and I hope you did, but it was inherently an exercise in provincialism. Here’s the real deal.
Here is a list of the position players who defined the decade of the 2010s in Major League Baseball. Some who create these types of lists prioritize longevity and some prefer high peaks, but when evaluating a full decade of baseball, it’s relatively simple to placate both camps. So here it goes.
1. Joey Votto, first base
Leading off for Team 2010s is Joey Votto, the decade’s best player in terms of walk rate and on-base percentage. Even though his relative lack of home run power was criticized at times by some of the crazier in Cincinnati Reds fandom and media, he still placed in the top twenty in all of Major League Baseball in dingers for the decade. His on-base qualities didn’t get the attention they deserved largely due to a lack of lineup support to drive him in for the Reds. This won’t be a problem for this lineup.
2. Mike Trout, center field
The closest thing there comes to being a discussion with regard to Mike Trout’s placement on this team is where to put him in the starting lineup. Despite not arriving in earnest in MLB until the third year of the decade, Trout finished the decade as clearly the best player of it by any reasonable measure. An eight-time All-Star and three-time American League MVP, the Angels superstar was head and shoulders above all other players in the 2010s by any measurement of WAR (the gap between first and second place among position players in fWAR would be the 84th best player of the decade). But if you’re a stickler for traditional measures, Trout finished 5th in batting average, tied for 5th in home runs, 21st in RBI (first place, Albert Pujols, spent much of the decade driving in Trout, who scored the decade’s most runs), and 15th in stolen bases.
3. Josh Donaldson, third base
After breaking through with the Oakland Athletics in 2013, the former hotshot catching prospect became one of the premier third basemen in baseball for the remainder of the 2010s. He earned his first All-Star appearance in 2014 and earned two more with the Toronto Blue Jays, where he won AL MVP in 2015. Donaldson combined premium offense and strong defense and became arguably the most consistent third baseman of what is arguably the golden age of third basemen.
4. Giancarlo Stanton, left field
He began the decade as Mike Stanton, a hotshot prospect in the minor leagues of the then-Florida Marlins, and by the end of the decade, Giancarlo Stanton was an injury-hobbled and well-compensated veteran for the New York Yankees, and in the meantime, by any name, Mr. Stanton mashed home runs. 308, to be specific, across the decade, including a decade-best 59 in 2017. And while Stanton’s absolute best seasons made his lesser seasons look relatively mediocre by comparison, he managed nine season in the 2010s with 2.6 or more WAR, a total equaled by only two position players and eclipsed by none.
5. Robinson Cano, second base
Does the average baseball fan realize just how good Robinson Cano is? I think most know he’s good–very good, in fact–but the Yankee-turned-Mariner-turned-Met was quietly the second most valuable player of the 2010s by WAR. Breaking it down further, this shouldn’t be a surprise–he was an All-Star seven times in the 2010s, a four-time Silver Slugger, a two-time Gold Glove winner, and was one of the sport’s most consistent performers until last season (it was his age-36 season, give him a break). By wRC+, Cano was a better hitter this decade than Anthony Rendon. He hit more home runs than Freddie Freeman. And he did all of this while playing above-average defense at a middle infield position.
6. Mookie Betts, right field
While Betts debuted in Major League Baseball nearly halfway through the 2010s, he made a massive impact on the Boston Red Sox almost immediately. The 2018 AL MVP, a four-time defending All-Star and Gold Glove winner, and inexplicably the subject of trade rumors, Betts saved the second most runs in right field of any player in the decade, despite fielding about half as many innings at the position as leader Jason Heyward, and offensively, Betts equaled the decade wRC+ of Matt Holliday–the two were eclipsed by only thirteen players with as many plate appearances as Betts. No player as valuable over the decade as Betts had a superior walk to strikeout ratio–Betts walked in 10.2% of plate appearances and struck out in just 12.8%. In a world in which Mike Trout didn’t exist, Betts would be a serious contender for the title of greatest baseball player alive.
7. Buster Posey, catcher
In a decade in which how we evaluate catchers changed rapidly, Posey’s reputation continued and, if anything, grew. By the softest of soft factors, Posey was a giant in the game–he was the starting catcher for three World Series champions and was well-regarded by his teammates and peers. By conventional statistics, he was similarly esteemed–he led catchers in the 2010s in hits and runs batted in and threw out the second-most attempted base stealers on the decade (while catching a far higher percentage than #1, Jonathan Lucroy). And by advanced statistics, Posey was easily the best hitter among MLB catchers (and in nearly the most plate appearances) and he was very strong in pitch framing. In total value, FanGraphs WAR has Posey as the best non-Trout position player.
8. Francisco Lindor, shortstop
Lindor is by far the latest debut in this starting lineup, having debuted in 2015, but Francisco Lindor became the best of a new generation of premier shortstops, including the likes of Carlos Correa and Corey Seager. Lindor is 19% above MLB average as a hitter, and this is at a position where players are permitted to be below-average hitters if their glove makes up for it. And if he couldn’t hit, Lindor would be a good enough fielder to justify his presence in the lineup–of the 98 shortstops to log at least 1,000 innings in the 2010s, only Andrelton Simmons and Brendan Ryan (!!!) had better rates of saving runs by Ultimate Zone Rating.
It takes a hardcore Cardinals homer to select Molina over Buster Posey, but it would take a monstrous Cardinals hater to deny that Molina is in second place. The only other catcher to merit serious MVP consideration aside from Posey, Yadier Molina was the premier defensive catcher of his era by any measurement and although he began his career as a glove-only player, he became a plus hitter throughout much of the 2010s–he trailed only Posey among catchers in hits and runs batted in.
First Base/Third Base–Miguel Cabrera
Only Mike Trout had a higher wRC+ in the 2010s than Miguel Cabrera (Cabrera was tied with Joey Votto) and while Cabrera’s offensive production cratered following the 2016 season, he was one of the sport’s most feared hitters throughout much of the decade. A two-time MVP and the first Triple Crown winner since 1967, Cabrera was a bit overexposed in his time at third base, but as a pinch hitter or potentially as a designated hitter, he is an irresistible force.
Second Base/Utility–Ben Zobrist
Ben Zobrist, primarily of the Tampa Bay Rays and Chicago Cubs but with cameos on the Oakland Athletics and Kansas City Royals, is in many ways the platonic ideal of the modern utility player. A switch-hitter with terrific on-base skills, Zobrist was arguably the most versatile fielder in the sport for the bulk of the decade–although his primary position was second base, he devoted large chunks of time to playing shortstop and right field and during the decade, Zobrist started games at every position but pitcher and catcher. But despite his nomadic nature, Zobrist still was twice an All-Star during the decade and was an above-average hitter in eight seasons, despite entering the decade in what was theoretically the end of his prime.
Third Base/Shortstop–Manny Machado
A fascinating hypothetical during Manny Machado’s successful run with the Baltimore Orioles was whether he was being miscast as a third baseman. Yes, he was a premium defensive third baseman, probably the best in the sport (the stats back me up on this, Nolan Arenado nerds), but if he can be a plus defensive shortstop, isn’t that better? Never mind–Machado is a great defensive third baseman, a good defensive shortstop, and was a firmly above-average hitter–he cleared 32 home runs in each of the final five seasons of the decade and when you can combine infield versatility with middle-of-the-order power, that’s a delightful thing to add to this team.
A five-time All-Star who was named 2013 National League MVP midway during said run with the Pittsburgh Pirates, McCutchen was the best center fielder in baseball for the first half of the 2010s (important disclaimer: Mike Trout didn’t arrive until nearly half-way through that half, and he still wasn’t that far off of the title) and combined contact, power, batting eye, and speed like few others. His defense was a slightly complicated matter–despite a Gold Glove, he wasn’t a great defensive center fielder, but he’s surely competent enough to stand as backup to Mike Trout and a good enough hitter to justify a spot in the corners.
Hope y’all enjoyed that. Pitchers come next Monday.