I'd like to pretend that I'm above paying attention to the LeBron James circus, but like everyone else, I spent a lot of today just sitting around waiting on some revelatory Adrian Wojnarowski tweet, so that a question like What if someone was just as dominant as LeBron James, but he played baseball?! has a whole lot of appeal.
Happily, Jeff Sullivan over at Fangraphs put the work into answering it. His approach is simple and makes sense. There are various ways to measure LeBron's impact, but by the most elegant and basic one, he was responsible for around 2.3% of the on-court value of all NBA players last year, a figure a ballplayer would have to put up 23 WAR to match. (To put that in context, Barry Bonds peaked at around 12 during the height of his early-aughts magnificence.)
This is one of those things where all the fun is in the journey, not the destination, so you should go read Sullivan's mildly deranged calculations. The upshot, though, is that to get to 23 WAR, a player would have to basically be Mike Trout if all his extra base hits turned into home runs, if he traded 70 outs for singles, if he played shortstop as well as possible, and if he stole 50 or so bases a year without ever being caught. You can sum it all up this way:
What does it take? A literal full season of being an incredible defensive shortstop. And, to go with good baserunning, the player hits about .438/.527/.820, with a .560 wOBA. For what it's worth, in 2002, Barry Bonds ran a full-season .544 wOBA. He was worth more than 12 WAR. Basically, you can imagine that version of Barry Bonds, but completely healthy, and unparalleled in the field. Also, better at the plate. I don't know what to do about intentional walks, but I don't need to make this any more complicated.
By this approach, the baseball equivalent of LeBron James is absolute peak Barry Bonds at the plate with, I don't know, absolute peak Ozzie Smith in the field. And, presumably, this imaginary player is better both at the plate and in the field. And he doesn't miss a single game. So.
This is, actually, the more conservative of two approaches Sullivan uses. By another reckoning, a ballplayer would have to be "Micah Owings crossed with God" to match LeBron's value.
Of course all of this is largely a measurement of the difference between two games. Mike Trout can't just decide to take all of the Angels' at-bats for a couple of innings, whereas LeBron can definitely decide that none of his teammates are going to touch the ball for a quarter. Whatever! The whole exercise is ridiculous and fun and you should go check it out and we should all hope that LeBron takes his talents to Double-A ball.
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