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, Forbes.com 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.

Most of the top players are among the highest paid. A few conspicuously are not. Jeff Kent is a case in point. Despite another terrific year (.313 batting average, 352 total bases, which was more than Bonds), Kent left San Francisco and signed with Houston. The second baseman's salary this year will be well below his station, largely due to his feuding with Bonds and the fact that he allegedly broke his wrist in a motorcycle accident, then lied about it.

Among the best players, Lance Berkman and Albert Pujols are the top two bargains in baseball, as they were in 2002. Berkman, 27, who plays left field for Houston, is starting his fourth full season in the majors and is finally making more than the league average. Still, with a salary rank of 107, he's due for a big raise either through free agency or arbitration.

Pujols, an outfielder for St. Louis, is in his third year and hits nearly about as well as Berkman, though he walks slightly less. His lack of tenure has kept his salary at "only" $900,000. The scary thing for pitchers is that he is just 23. By the time he's 25 he'll likely be signing for $10 million a year at least.

Here are baseball's ten best bargains overall. Of the best values, only Pujols also appears among the very best hitters. But each sports an FTPN substantially greater than the average, while being paid much less than average.

Baseball's Best

Bargains: Ranked By Value Differential

Player

2002 Team

Position

At Bats

FTPN

FTPN Rank

2003 Salary

Salary Rank

Value Differential

Aubrey Huff

TB

DH

454

515

32

325,000

188

156

Albert Pujols

STL

OF

590

561

15

900,000

160

145

Austin Kearns

CIN

OF

372

494

48

350,000

185

137

Brad Fullmer

ANA

DH

429

528

23

1,000,000

152

129

Alfonso Soriano

NYY

2B

696

510

35

800,000

161

126

Pat Burrell

PHI

OF

586

526

24

1,250,000

149

125

Jay Gibbons

BAL

OF

490

480

59

375,000

181

122

Mark Bellhorn

CHC

2B

445

492

52

465,000

172

120

Junior Spivey

ARI

2B

538

472

61

432,500

175

114

Brad Wilkerson

MON

OF

153

507

92

315,000

190

98

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.

For more, go to Forbes.com..