A baseball top 10 with a musical twist

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I spend a somewhat embarrassing amount of time obsessing about who the best active baseball players are. Statistics can tell us who’s having the best season or who has brought the most value to his teams throughout his career, but the idea of “best right now” is a little more nebulous.

Is Jose Reyes better than Hanley Ramirez now, or is he just having a better season?

How long does Clayton Kershaw have to be as great as he’s been this year before we consider him among the game’s elite pitchers?

This ties in well with another of my obsessions: music. It’s downright impossible to objectively rank the talents and accomplishments of musicians, but as many hours as I’ve spent dreaming up baseball player rankings, I’ve spent much more time ranking my favorite albums, songs, and artists. I’m not sure whether the upcoming exercise is an effort to add objectivity to a debate about great art or an attempt to celebrate the subjectivity of a debate about great athletes, but I couldn’t help but combine these two passions.

I made lists of the 10 best active baseball players and 10 of my favorite active bands and matched each player to a band based on some abstract similarity. Depending on your tastes, this list is either enhanced or marred by subjectivity. You may think Cole Hamels should have made the baseball list or My Morning Jacket should have made the music list, and I’d love to hear your opinions, but at the moment, I’m more concerned with how they match up.

If you’re looking for Kanye West or Bon Iver (or Lady Gaga), keep in mind that this is a list of bands, not solo artists. Also, neither list is ranked here; they’re just the ten best in some order. Without further ado:

Albert Pujols = Radiohead

For most of a decade, Pujols has been the best player in baseball, winning three MVP awards and probably deserving five or six. He’s aging and we don’t know whether his mediocre 2011 is a sign of his decline or just an anomaly.

Radiohead has been the best band in the world for over a decade, releasing possibly the best album in three different years, and records worthy of best album discussion five or six times. We don’t know what to expect of the player or the band going forward, but even if they’re done as elite performers, they’re both firmly established among the best ever at what they do.

Adrian Gonzalez = Arcade Fire

Gonzalez has been a great player since 2006 and one of the best in the world since 2009, but because he played half his games in the vast pastures of Petco Park, only those who were paying attention knew how good he was.

Arcade Fire put out perhaps the best album of the decade, “Funeral,” in 2004, but because they come from Canada and Kanye West never produced a single for them, only those who were paying attention knew how good they were. In 2010, Arcade Fire’s “The Suburbs” won the Album of the Year Grammy and Gonzalez was traded to the friendly confines of Fenway Park.

And there were no more secrets.

Troy Tulowitzki = The Decemberists

Tulowitzki was a great player in 2007 and 2009, but suffered injuries in 2008 and early 2010 that kept him off the field. He came back last summer and crushed the ball for two months, continuing that hot streak into spring of 2011, only to fall back to earth slightly this summer. When he’s hot, Tulowitzki is the best player in baseball. When he’s hurt, those of us not on Mountain Time tend to forget he exists.

Similarly, the Decemberists are capable of making some of the best music there is. “Picaresque” and “The Crane Wife” were stunning displays of unabashed pretention. “The Hazards of Love” must have been the result of an ACL tear or a broken wrist, but this year’s “The King is Dead” reestablished the Decemberists as a must-hear band.

Evan Longoria = The Shins

Evan Longoria was a hyped uberprospect long before he donned a glove for the Rays. Since he cracked the major league roster, he’s done nothing but deliver, making a strong case as the American League’s best player.

The Shins burst on the scene with a flourish, announcing their place when Garden State‘s Andrew Largeman declared that they’ll “change your life.” They’ve done nothing but deliver since, each of their three studio albums a neopsychedelic triumph.

Robinson Cano = Modest Mouse

Everyone knows Robinson Cano is a great player. He hits for average, hits for power, and has some speed.

Modest Mouse is similarly in the spotlight. Several years into their career, their hits are mainstream radio fodder and their deep cuts are indie rock favorites.

Dustin Pedroia = Belle and Sebastian

What you may not know is that in the time both Pedroia and Cano have been everyday players, Pedroia has consistently been the better player. Cano may look like an athlete, while Pedroia looks more like a shoeshine boy, but Pedroia hits better (.369 career w/OBA vs .357) and fields better (34 career fielding runs saved vs. negative 40).

Another thing you may not know is that Belle and Sebastian has been around since 1996, just as long as Modest Mouse, has put out seven studio albums, as has Modest Mouse, and has been consistently better than Modest Mouse. Modest Mouse may sound like rock stars, while Belle and Sebastian sound more fit to sing Sesame Street jingles, but the Scots make better music. I can’t point to any stats here, but I challenge you to listen to “If You’re Feeling Sinister” and disagree.

Joey Votto = Vampire Weekend

I have no idea why Joey Votto is like Vampire Weekend, but I couldn’t leave either off my list, as Votto is clearly one of the ten best players in MLB and Vampire Weekend is one of my favorite bands. Both are young and should be in the spotlight for years. And Votto has kind of vampirey eyebrows.

Roy Halladay = OutKast

We can’t make a list of great baseball players without some pitchers, and there’s no arguing that Halladay is the best pitcher in the National League, if not all of baseball, right now.

As hard as it is to compare Halladay’s pitching numbers to Pujols’s or Longoria’s hitting numbers, it’s just as hard to compare OutKast’s brilliant hip-hop canon to Radiohead’s rock output. Halladay and OutKast are both the best at what they do. While OutKast may technically be broken up, its members continue to put out genre-defining masterpieces, the same way that Halladay continues to make National League hitters look as foolish as he made American League hitters look during the Blue Jays portion of his career.

Felix Hernandez = The National

At 25, Hernandez has already won a Cy Young Award and established himself as one of the game’s most dominant pitchers, his repertoire a stunning combination of power and beauty.

I’m all out of hip-hop “bands” to compare to pitchers, but The National are five albums into their career and grow stronger with each one. Matt Berninger’s rich baritone combines with the group’s lush orchestration the way Hernandez’s high-90s heat combines with the movement and placement of his cadre of off-speed pitches to baffle hitters.

Tim Lincecum = Of Montreal

Both freaks. Both geniuses.

And a few more player-band comparisons beyond the top 20:

Derek Jeter = U2

Because they both earned their place among the all-time greats, but are both wildly overrated and obscenely overpaid in their twilight years based on past accomplishments.

Ryan Howard = Dave Matthews Band

Because fans tend to obsess so much over a single skill (home runs; blending of unique instruments in rock ballads), that we neglect their significant shortcomings (strikeouts, defense, mostly unlistenable albums since “Under the Table and Dreaming”) and pay way too much to watch them play.

John Lackey = Black Eyed Peas

Because both were once very good, then got very rich, then got very, very bad.

Yuniesky Betancourt = Train

Because both are so awful I don’t know why so many teams/radio stations keep playing them.

For a complete rundown of the 20 best baseball players and bands and a few more bonus comparisons, visit http://replacementlevel.wordpress.com/2011/07/27/great-baseball-players-and-great-bands/