Who Were the Best MLB Hitters of the Decade?

Joel Reuter@JoelReuterBRFeatured ColumnistDecember 27, 2019

Who Were the Best MLB Hitters of the Decade?

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    Bleacher Report recently released its MLB All-Decade Team for the 2010s, highlighting the best all-around player at each position over the past 10 years.

    Today, we shift our focus solely to the offensive side of things.

    The goal was to identify the 10 best hitters of the past decade, and accomplishing that required a mix of objectively digesting stats and subjectively weighing resumes with different levels of length and achievement.

    On the next slide, you'll find a quick rundown of the methodology behind narrowing the field of candidates and a handful of honorable mentions before we dive into the top 10.

    Let's get to it.

Methodology and Honorable Mentions

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    Andrew McCutchen
    Andrew McCutchenJustin K. Aller/Getty Images

    The first step was to narrow the field to qualified players. We did that by first eliminating anyone who did not play at least 810 games during the 2010s, which is the equivalent of half the decade.

    That narrowed the list of candidates to 187 players.

    The next step was to whittle that down to only the truly above-average hitters, so any players with an OPS+ lower than 125 were bumped, which notably eliminated Matt Kemp (123 OPS+), Nolan Arenado (122 OPS+) and Albert Pujols (121 OPS+).

    That narrowed the remaining field to 29 players.

    From there, a more subjective approach was taken to selecting the 10 players who would make the final list, with full statistical body of work, importance to team success and consistency of performance all taken into account.

    Here are the 19 who didn't make the cut for our top 10, listed alphabetically:

    • Jose Abreu
    • Jose Bautista
    • Ryan Braun
    • Robinson Cano
    • Matt Carpenter
    • Yoenis Cespedes
    • Edwin Encarnacion
    • Prince Fielder
    • Adrian Gonzalez
    • Bryce Harper
    • Matt Holliday
    • J.D. Martinez
    • Andrew McCutchen
    • David Ortiz
    • Anthony Rendon
    • Anthony Rizzo
    • Giancarlo Stanton
    • Justin Turner
    • Christian Yelich

10. Buster Posey

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    Nick Wass/Associated Press

    Buster Posey hit .302/.371/.458 during the 2010s, and he did so while enduring 8,359.2 innings behind the plate, sixth-most of any catcher during the decade.

    There have been just 17 different catchers in MLB history who have put together a .300/.400/.500 season while recording enough plate appearances to qualify for the batting title. Posey is part of that list, having hit .336/.408/.549 for a National League-leading 171 OPS+ during his NL MVP season in 2012.

    His .336 average that year also won him the NL batting title, and he stands as one of just four catchers in either league to accomplish that feat, joining Bubbles Hargrave (1926), Ernie Lombardi (1938, 1942) and Joe Mauer (2006, 2008, 2009).

    Despite the day-to-day grind of catching and a significant leg injury, Posey still finished the decade with a 128 OPS+ over 5,136 plate appearances. 

    Those numbers are a bit lower than the others on this list, and they're admittedly lower than a few guys who were left off. However, at his peak, there is little question Posey deserved to be called one of the 10 best hitters of the decade.

9. Adrian Beltre

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    Adrian Beltre was a career .270/.325/.453 hitter coming off a disappointing contract year with the Seattle Mariners when he signed with the Boston Red Sox on a one-year, $9 million deal ahead of the 2010 season.

    That would prove to be a turning point in his career.

    He hit .321/.365/.553 with 79 extra-base hits and a 141 OPS+ in what would be his lone season with the Red Sox before joining the Texas Rangers, with whom he would spend the final eight seasons of his soon-to-be Hall of Fame career.

    During his time in Texas, he batted .304/.357/.509 and hit 199 home runs, including back-to-back 30-homer, 100-RBI seasons to kick off his time in a Rangers uniform. His best year of the decade came in 2012 when he hit .321/.359/.561 for a 139 OPS+ with 36 home runs and 102 RBI to finish third in AL MVP voting.

    While his power faded later in his career, he still had enough bat-to-ball skills to hit .312/.383/.532 with 40 extra-base hits in 389 plate appearances during his age-38 season in 2017.

8. Josh Donaldson

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    A bit of a late bloomer, Josh Donaldson did not become an everyday player until his age-27 season in 2013 while playing for the Oakland Athletics.

    He hit .301/.384/.499 for a 145 OPS+ with 37 doubles and 24 home runs to finish third in the American League MVP voting during that breakout season, and that proved to be just the tip of the iceberg.

    An ill-advised trade following the 2014 season sent him to the Toronto Blue Jays, and in his first season north of the border, he posted a 151 OPS+ and slugged a career-high 41 home runs while leading the AL in RBI (123), runs scored (122) and total bases (352) to win MVP honors.

    After an injury-plagued 2018 season saw his time with the Blue Jays come to an end, he signed a one-year, $23 million deal with the Atlanta Braves in an effort to rebuild his stock. He did just that with a 127 OPS+ and 37 home runs for the NL East champions, vaulting himself to the upper echelon of 2019-20 MLB free agents.

    Donaldson might not have the same full body of work that some of the decade's other top hitters produced. But at his best, his combination of power and on-base ability made him one of baseball's most dangerous offensive players.

7. Nelson Cruz

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    Winslow Townson/Associated Press

    Nelson Cruz was never a perennial contender for the batting title, though he did finish among the top 10 AL hitters in both 2015 (.302, eighth) and 2019 (.311, sixth).

    Instead, he earns a spot on this list for his remarkably consistent power production.

    Playing for the Texas Rangers, Baltimore Orioles, Seattle Mariners and Minnesota Twins, Cruz launched an impressive 346 home runs during the 2010s, putting him ahead of Edwin Encarnacion (335) and Giancarlo Stanton (308) for the No. 1 spot on that list.

    He's seemingly gotten better with age, averaging 41 home runs over the past six seasons, including arguably his best campaign of the decade as a 38-year-old in 2019 when he posted a 166 OPS+ with 41 home runs and 108 RBI for the upstart Twins.

    His .281/.350/.538 line for the decade shows he was more than just an all-or-nothing slugger, and his 22.4 percent strikeout rate at a time when strikeouts have reached an all-time high speaks to an underrated hit tool that is often overshadowed by his prodigious power.

6. Freddie Freeman

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    Freddie Freeman broke into the majors as a 20-year-old in 2010 for a contending Atlanta Braves team, then he endured a sweeping rebuild before coming out on the other side as the leader of a young squad that has won back-to-back NL East titles and looks well-positioned for long-term success.

    He made the jump from productive to elite during the 2013 season when he hit .319/.396/.501 with 23 home runs and 109 RBI, raising his OPS+ from 113 to 147 in the process.

    Since the start of that breakout season, he's been a .300/.390/.520 hitter, good for a 144 OPS+, and he has finished in the top 10 of the NL MVP voting four different times.

    After leading the NL in hits (191) and doubles (44) during the 2018 season, he took his power production to new heights this past go-round, setting personal bests with 38 home runs and 121 RBI while hitting in the middle of the lineup for a 97-win Braves team.

    Still just 30 years old, Freeman is in the prime of his career, and there might still be an MVP season somewhere in there before all is said and done.

    As a career .293/.379/.504 hitter, there's no doubt he deserves a spot among the 10 best hitters of the decade, though he falls just short of the top five.

5. Paul Goldschmidt

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    An eighth-round pick in the 2009 MLB draft who never appeared on a Baseball America Top 100 prospects list, Paul Goldschmidt has certainly exceeded expectations.

    After a solid first full season in the majors, he exploded for a .302/.401/.551 line in 2013, leading the NL in OPS (.952), OPS+ (160), home runs (36), RBI (125) and total bases (332) to finish as runner-up in the league's MVP voting.

    Since the start of that season, he's hit .295/.397/.531 for a 144 OPS+ and averaged 34 doubles, 31 home runs and 100 RBI despite playing just 109 games in 2014 when he suffered a fractured hand.

    He was traded to the St. Louis Cardinals prior to the 2019 season, and it took him some time to adjust to his new surroundings, resulting in a somewhat disappointing .260/.346/.476 line and 113 OPS+. However, he still finished with 34 home runs and 97 RBI, and he picked things up after the All-Star break, so there's no reason not to expect big things during his age-32 efforts in 2020.

    For the decade, he hit .292/.391/.524 for a 141 OPS+ with 243 home runs and 807 RBI, even adding 127 steals for good measure. That's enough to put him just ahead of Freeman (137 OPS+) for the No. 5 spot.

4. Jose Altuve

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    Alex Gallardo/Associated Press

    It took a few years for Jose Altuve to develop into the player he is today, and he didn't become a full-time player until the 2012 season. Otherwise, he might rank a bit higher on this list.

    After hitting a combined .285/.323/.377 for a 92 OPS+ through the 2013 season, he broke out with a .341/.377/.453 line to win his first AL batting title in 2014, leading the league in hits (225) and steals (56) along the way. He would add two more batting titles in 2016 and 2017 while leading the AL in hits for four straight seasons from 2014 to 2017.

    The final year of that stretch saw him post a career-high .346 batting average with 204 hits, 39 doubles, 24 home runs, 81 RBI, 112 runs scored and 32 steals to win AL MVP honors. He added a .310/.388/.634 line with seven home runs in 18 postseason games to help lead the Houston Astros to a World Series title.

    All told, Altuve finished the decade hitting .315/.364/.463 for a 127 OPS+, and the six-year stretch since 2014 has seen him rake to the tune of a .327/.380/.497 line and a 140 OPS+.

3. Joey Votto

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    Starting with an NL MVP award in 2010 when he hit .324/.424/.600 with 37 home runs and 113 RBI, Joey Votto has been an on-base machine.

    He led the NL in on-base percentage seven times during the 2010s, including a ridiculous .474 OBP in 2012 when he walked 94 times in 111 games. For the decade as a whole, he posted a .428 on-base percentage.

    His career mark stands at .421, which is the top mark among active players and would be good for 17th on the all-time list if he were to retire today.

    At times, Votto was knocked for being too patient while serving in a run-production role in the middle of the Cincinnati Reds lineup. But it's hard to call someone who hit .306/.428/.516 for a 152 OPS+ over the past 10 seasons anything other than one of the best hitters of his era.

    Those numbers are also dragged down a bit by a disappointing 2019 season in which he hit just .261/.357/.411 for a 98 OPS+. It was the first time in his career he dipped below triple digits.

    Now that he's 36 years old, it's fair to wonder whether we've seen the last of elite-level Votto. Regardless, this list is about the last 10 years, not the future. He's done more than enough to warrant the No. 3 spot in these rankings.

2. Miguel Cabrera

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    For the first seven seasons of the decade, Miguel Cabrera was one of the most productive hitters not just of the 2010s, but throughout baseball history.

    During that span, he hit .330/.414/.582 for a 169 OPS+, winning four batting titles and two AL MVP awards for his efforts. He also became the first player since 1967 to win the Triple Crown when he batted .330 with 44 home runs and 139 RBI during the 2012 season.

    Few players have ever possessed his combination of hit tool and raw power. Aside from the impressive counting numbers and batting titles, he also carried a 16.2 percent strikeout rate for the decade, which is remarkably low for a traditional power hitter.

    Alas, Father Time has caught up with him

    Over the past three seasons, he has a pedestrian 99 OPS+. And with his age-37 season awaiting in 2020, it's unlikely he's going to reverse that trend over the final four years and $124 million of his current contract.

    That takes nothing away from what he accomplished at the start of the decade, though, and he's an easy choice for the No. 2 spot on this list.

1. Mike Trout

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    He didn't debut until the 2011 season, and he didn't become a full-time player until the following year. But Mike Trout is still an easy choice for the No. 1 spot on this list.

    Simply put, he's a once-in-a-generation player.

    He's had an OPS+ of at least 168 in each of the past eight seasons, leading the majors in that category six times during that span. His 176 career mark leads all active players and ranks fifth on the all-time list, trailing only Babe Ruth (206), Ted Williams (190), Barry Bonds (182) and Lou Gehrig (179).

    The 28-year-old was on his way to the best performance of his career in 2019 before season-ending surgery on his foot prematurely ended his campaign on Sept. 7. He still slugged a career-high 45 home runs in 134 games, earning his third AL MVP in the process.

    What will the 2020s hold for Trout?

    It's not completely out of the question to think he could be No. 1 on this list again 10 years from now as he continues to carve out his place among the sport's all-time greats.

                     

    All stats courtesy of Baseball Reference and FanGraphs, unless otherwise noted.

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