Baseball's Best Hitters and Bargains

Spring is here and that means baseball, which means statistics, including hits and homers, batting average, RBI — and salaries. This year, like every year, the top players are getting more, so it's fair to ask who's on first.

The average Major League salary for 2003 rose by 7.2 percent from a year ago to $2.56 million, according to The Associated Press. That's because the top players are making more; most players are actually making less. The Major League median salary actually fell for the second year in a row, from $975,000 in 2001 to $800,000 this year. This season, 385 of the 827 players on opening-day rosters will earn $1 million or more, down from 413 last year.

Texas Rangers shortstop Alex Rodriguez will make the most: $22 million. At the other end of the spectrum, 100 players will make the Major League minimum of $300,000. Looked at another way, the two highest-paid players, Rodriguez and Toronto Blue Jays first baseman Carlos Delgado ($18.7 million), will earn more between them than the combined total for the 125 least-paid players. In this respect, as in so many others, baseball is a metaphor for life.

A-Rod, though, just may be worth it. By our calculation, he was the fifth most-productive hitter in baseball, leading the majors in total bases with 389. He also played shortstop, appeared in every game and is even better-looking than Derek Jeter to boot. Delgado wasn't bad either, though he was barely in the top 20 among hitters, played the easiest defensive position and missed 19 games.

For the third year, ranks the Major League hitters by productivity and by value differential. We evaluate just their batting, not their defensive prowess — but who pays to watch Barry Bonds catch fly balls? Besides, when we do account for defense, the rankings change hardly at all.

To complete these rankings we created a meta-statistic called the Forbes Total Production Number (FTPN), which credits players for hits, hitting for power and bases on balls, and debits them for strikeouts. We then compared each everyday player's (minimum 370 at bats) productivity ranking to his salary ranking to record a value differential. Rodriguez, for instance, ranks first in pay and fifth in production (his FTPN was 605), for a value differential of minus 4.

The most productive hitter of all, by our ranking along with everyone else's, was Bonds. The National League Most Valuable Player hit for 322 total bases in a just 403 official at bats. He also had a single-season record 198 walks. His FTPN was 767, compared with an average FTPN for all starting players of 443.

Bonds' numbers are unheard-of for everyone but him and Babe Ruth. Bonds' FTPN was more than 120 points ahead of Cleveland's Jim Thome at 646. (Thome signed with Philadelphia in the off-season but is still only 22nd among starting position players in the salary rankings.) Rounding out the top five by FTPN are Boston's Manny Ramirez (salary rank: 3) and Pittsburgh's underrated Brian Giles (salary rank: 37).

Here are the top 20 hitters in baseball ranked by FTPN:

Minimum 370 at bats in 2002. FTPN is calculated as follows: (total bases + 0.75 x bases on balls – 0.2 strikeouts) / (at bats + bases on balls). Sources: Major League Baseball, The Associated Press.

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