The concept of “comparable players” has long been a point of discussion among baseball fans. Sometimes even scouts will tab an amateur player with a possible future comp; for example, the scout who comped the high schooler Kyle Tucker to Ted Williams.
I have always been fascinated by computer-generated comparables. Machine-generated comps seemingly avoid the human bias of baseball fans. In this article, I will focus on comparables produced by Baseball-Reference’s similarity scores and Dan Symborski’s comparables generated by the ZIPS player projection system. The comparable player lists are used in the ZIPS forecast to project age effects. For both ZIPS and Baseball Reference similarity scores, the comps are based on comparable players through the same age as the forecasted player.
I will pick out some of the more interesting comps for particular Astros players. This isn’t a scientific selection—I’m just illustrating comparables that are interesting from the perspective of an Astros fan. Think of it as an excuse to discuss how some of the Astros players might compare to players from previous eras of baseball.
Alvarez is such a powerful force at the plate, people have been searching for historical comps from the moment he came up as a rookie in 2019. Alvarez was explosive in the 2022 playoffs with two of the biggest HRs in postseason history.
ZIPS has Frank Thomas and Jeff Bagwell as the top two comps for Alvarez. The third comp, Freddie Freeman, is not bad either. So, two Hall of Famers and a third current player who probably is on a path to the Hall of Fame...how can a hitter have better comps than that?
How about a third Hall of Famer, Willie McCovey, who is Baseball Reference’s No. 2 comp for Alvarez? The McCovey comp is most apt because of his huge frame and left-handed bat. Bob Gibson called McCovey “the scariest hitter in baseball.” In a critical game situation, the opposing pitcher must find it scary to see Alvarez at the plate. Bagwell is a fun comp because we will be comparing Alvarez’s and Bagwell’s team records over the course of Yordan’s career. It’s also fun because we know from Bagwell’s broadcast appearances that Jeff loves watching Yordan hit.
With Verlander leaving the Astros, Framber Valdez should be considered the ace of the starting staff. Framber had a strong 2022 season, including terrific performances in the playoffs and World Series. ZIPS lists Tom Glavine and Mike Hampton as the No. 1 and 2 comps for Valdez. Although it’s certainly nice to have a Hall of Famer as a comp, Glavine doesn’t strike me as similar in pitching style to Valdez. Glavine was a LH flyball pitcher who is the epitome of a “soft-tossing lefty,” with a fastball in the low 80’s.
Mike Hampton is a former Astros’ starting pitcher who is a more interesting comp for Valdez. As Valdez’s career progresses, he will be competing with Hampton as the team’s best LH starting pitcher. (I’m leaving Randy Johnson out of this, since he only pitched one half-season with the Astros.) Hampton and Valdez both throw a sinker and generated groundballs. Hampton’s 1999 season was tremendous, with a 22-4 win-loss record, and finishing second (to Randy Johnson) for the Cy Young Award. Look at a comparison of Valdez’s and Hampton’s stats with Houston:
ERA / ERA+/ FIP / WHIP / GB%
Mike Hampton 1996-1999 3.40/ 122/ 3.37/ 1.35 / 56%
Framber Valdez 2019-2022 3.47 / 121 / 3.96 / 1.25 / 65%
Javier had a breakout as a freakishly good starting pitcher in 2022. At the age of 24, he was the starting pitcher for two no-hitters, including only the second no-hitter in World Series history. Javier’s 2.54 ERA was the 13th-best among starting pitchers (120 or more innings).
The interesting ZIPS comp for Javier is Andy Messersmith, who pitched in the 1960’s and 1970’s. He is not a Hall of Famer, but definitely should be in the Hall of Very Good. By most accounts, Messersmith had a very good fastball, curveball, and change up. Compare the nickname for Javier’s “invisaball” with the scouting report of Messersmith before he was drafted in the first round. The Angels’ scouting report read, “He’s got three pitches – two of ’em you can’t hit and the other one you can’t even catch.”
In Andy’s second year in the AL, opposing manager Billy Martin said Messersmith had the “best stuff” in baseball. That sounds like the same quote about Cristian Javier from Rays’ manager Kevin Cash (which broadcasters repeated during his World Series start). Messersmith’s career ERA (2.36) is the sixth lowest for a starting pitcher since the deadball era. He also has the sixth-best hit / 9-inning career mark. Messersmith’s competition for Hall of Fame recognition was an amazingly deep class that included Tom Seaver, Catfish Hunter, Ferguson Jenkins, Vida Blue, and Gaylord Perry. Yet Messersmith’s ERA and hits / 9 were better than his peers.
As an aside, I should mention an important historical fact about Messersmith. He went to arbitration and ended reserve clause control over players. Messersmith played for one year without a contract. The arbitration came down to the interpretation of “one year” in the uniform player contract. The owners argued that players could be forced to play one year without a contract in perpetuity. The arbitrator agreed with Messersmith and declared him a free agent. However, due to apparent collusion, Messersmith went through a full off-season without an acceptable contract offer, until Ted Turner offered him a 2 year $1 million contract after the 1976 season had started.
My opinion: the Astros would be fortunate if Javier has a pitching career with the quality and length of Messersmith.
We like to call Michael Brantley a “professional hitter,” but next year he may not be the only Astros batter with that label. New Astros first baseman Jose Abreu comes with a record that fits the same description. And the No. 1 similar player for Abreu at Baseball-Reference was also a consummate professional hitter—Andres Gallarraga. Over 19 seasons, Gallarraga batted .288, .347, .499 (OPS .846), and holds one batting title and 5 all star appearances. Moises Alou, the No. 2 comp, was also frequently called a professional hitter, but he was an outfielder rather than a first baseman.
Because the Astros signed Abreu at the age of 35, one of the questions is how he will age over his three year contract. The Astros should hope that Abreu ages in a manner comparable to Gallarraga. Gallarraga played—and hit well—through age 43. At ages 36 and 37, Gallarragas hit .312, .393, .590 (OPS .982).
Kyle Tucker had a workmanlike offensive year in 2022 [.257, .338, .478], but his offensive numbers regressed somewhat from 2021—Tucker’s OPS+ declined from 147 to 128. And, no, Tucker’s comp is not Ted Williams. An examination of the 10 most similar players at Baseball-Reference suggests that the deciding factor for his ranking will depend on his performance during ages 26 - 30.
Two of the comps (Willie Stargell and Larry Walker) are in the Hall of Fame, and another one (Frank Howard) was very good but fell short of being Hall worthy. That’s quite good. As an aside, I particularly like the Walker comp because he was a good defensive outfielder (7 gold gloves) like Tucker.
Pat Burrell is listed as the No. 1 comp for Tucker. He had a nice offensive career (career 116 OPS+) but had some year-to-year inconsistency, particularly with respect to batting average.
Another comp, Willy Mo Pena, rapidly declined after a few good offensive years before age 25. Both Stargell and Walker put up good offensive numbers similar to Tucker before age 25, and both significantly increased their offensive production between ages 26 - 30. If Tucker significantly elevates his performance next year and through the succeeding years, he could achieve an elite caliber. However, if he continues at the level he has exhibited through age 25, his career will be more similar to Burrell, which is good but not elite. The OPS+ comparison below illustrates the importance of taking the next step toward elite performance.
OPS+ Through 25 / Age 26 - 30
Stargell 122 / 144
Walker 123 / 143
Howard 123 / 136
Burrell 123 / 116
Tucker 129 / ?
A Few Additional Notes
A couple of tidbits that stood out:
- Rollie Fingers and Goose Gossage are the top 2 comps for Ryan Pressly, according to ZIPS. It’s never a bad thing when 2 of the 3 comps are Hall of Fame closers.
- ZIPS also provides comps for minor leaguers close to the major leagues. It is particularly difficult to develop major league comps for players who don’t have a major league record. So, take it with a grain of salt. That said, ZIPS gives Yanier Diaz two very good catchers as the major league comps: Manny Sanguillen and Sandy Alomar Jr. The former is a three-time All-Star, and the latter is a six-time all Star. While it may seem surprising, I would like to see it happen.