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The Best Players And Biggest Upsets Of 2018 In (Almost) Any Sport

As 2018 draws to its conclusion, we wanted to look back at the year in sports — the best (and worst) teams, the results that surprised us most and the athletes who inspired us. On Friday, we covered the best and worst teams of 2018, so now it’s time to look at the best players and upsets of the year.

You can read that first article for more detail on the methodology behind our rankings — but the “best players” are derived by taking a similar approach, this time using an all-in-one value metric of choice in each pro sport for which we have Elo ratings1 and ranking every player relative to other individual seasons since 2000. (Again, this includes all stats from seasons that either started or ended in the 2018 calendar year, so some numbers included in those seasons may have been compiled in 2017.) We’re also tracking the best upsets in the same manner, measuring the winner’s Elo-predicted win probability against the most unlikely wins in that sport over time.

Without further ado, I give you the best professional player of 2018 in the NBA, NFL and MLB …

Best player of 2018

Mookie Betts, Boston Red Sox (fourth-best MLB season by wins above replacement since 2000)

In a year that featured a number of standout performances, none was better than that of Boston’s 26-year-old right fielder. Betts earned American League MVP honors by becoming just the fifth player of the 21st century to crack 10.0 WAR in a single season — and he was the rare player to outduel WAR machine Mike Trout for the top slot in the league. Add in Boston’s World Series victory (which Betts punctuated with a home run in the clinching contest), and Betts had himself a year for the ages in 2018.

The best MLB, NBA and NFL players of 2018

Top players of the 2018 calendar year, based on relative value metrics compared with other player-seasons in the same sport since 2000

rank Season Player Sport Value Metric Relative Rank Since 2000
1 2018 Mookie Betts MLB 10.6 WAR 4
2 2018-19* Patrick Mahomes NFL 21 AV 5
3 2018 Mike Trout MLB 10.0 WAR 9
4 2018 Jacob deGrom MLB 9.6 WAR 15
5 2017-18 LeBron James NBA 22.5 mWS† 19
6 2017-18 James Harden NBA 21.2 mWS† 24
7 2018-19* Drew Brees NFL 19 AV 29
8 2018-19* James Harden NBA 20.4 mWS† 30
9 2018 Max Scherzer MLB 8.7 WAR 34
10 2018-19* Anthony Davis NBA 19.1 mWS† 39

* Current season still in progress

† mWS = Modified Win Shares, a version of win share that also blends in a player’s VORP and PER to create a consensus statistical ranking

Players qualified if their season either started or ended in 2018. NFL rankings include only skill-position statistics.

Sources: Baseball-Reference, FanGraphs, Pro-Football-Reference, Basketball-Reference

NFL MVP favorite Patrick Mahomes was a very close second behind Betts, having produced one of the top individual skill-position seasons of the millennium while leading the Kansas City Chiefs’ explosive offense. (And he’s still going, of course.) Behind Mahomes is a mix of familiar names — Trout, LeBron James — and players whose award-winning 2018 performances propelled them into historic territory, such as Mets ace Jacob deGrom and Rockets star James Harden.

Mahomes’s season isn’t the only great individual campaign still unfolding. Saints QB Drew Brees has also produced MVP-type numbers, though they have flagged a bit since the end of November. And amid speculation about where he might play next, Anthony Davis currently leads the NBA in win shares and player efficiency rating, while ranking second in value over replacement player. Finally, despite Houston’s disappointing start, Harden has quietly been playing nearly as well as he did last season, leading the league in VORP.

Still, this is a case where the limits of our analysis — leagues for which we have Elo ratings — miss a lot. If you expand the search beyond the sports in which we track Elo, as ESPN’s Peter Keating did, American gymnast Simone Biles would give Betts a run for the No. 1 slot. In 2018, Biles won gold in every category at the U.S. championships, then fought off a kidney stone to win four more golds (plus a silver and a bronze) at the World Championships. Between Biles’s stellar performance and those of snowboarder Chloe Kim, WNBA star Breanna Stewart, top-ranked golfer Ariya Jutanugarn and swimmer (and FiveThirtyEight favorite) Katie Ledecky, we saw an outstanding crop of dominant female athletes this year.

Biggest upset of 2018

Baltimore Orioles 10, Boston Red Sox 3 — Sept. 26 (No. 1 upset in MLB since 2000)

It’s fitting that the top upset of the year featured our worst team of 2018, the Baltimore Orioles, beating the best, the Boston Red Sox. In baseball, most games are pretty close to a coin flip, with only the most extreme mismatches (usually aided by a disparate starting-pitching matchup) straying very far from 50-50. But in the second leg of a late-season double-header, the Red Sox sent staff ace Chris Sale to the hill against rookie Jimmy Yacabonis. Boston was looking for its 108th win of the season; Baltimore was looking to avoid loss No. 113. Going into the game, our pitcher-adjusted Elo model gave the O’s a mere 18.8 percent chance of winning. And yet, Baltimore hung seven runs on the Sox bullpen in the last three innings (including four on closer Craig Kimbrel) to break a 3-3 tie and seal the historic upset.

It was one of four upsets in 2018 that ranked among baseball’s 10 most improbable since 2000, helping MLB dominate the upset ranking below.2

Elo’s biggest upsets of 2018

Top upsets of the 2018 calendar year among sports with Elo ratings, based on winners with the lowest Elo-generated pregame win probabilities, compared with other upsets in the same sport since 2000

Sport Date Underdog Favorite Pregame Win prob. Rel. Rank Since 2000
1 MLB Sept. 26 Baltimore Boston 18.8% 1
2 MLB July 15 Detroit Houston 21.4 2
3 MLB July 28 Kansas City N.Y. Yankees 22.4 3
4 CFB Sept. 22 Old Dominion Virginia Tech 2.5 7
5 MLB June 8 Chi. White Sox Boston 23.3 8
6 MLB June 22 Kansas City Houston 24.4 11
7 MLB Aug. 30 Detroit N.Y. Yankees 24.9 16
8 NBA Nov. 23 Phoenix Milwaukee 7.1 16
9 NBA March 16 Sacramento Golden State 7.2 18
10 MLB April 25 Miami L.A. Dodgers 25.1 19

Among teams in MLB, the NFL, the NBA, NCAA football and NCAA men’s basketball.

MLB pregame win probabilities take into account the starting pitchers for each team in a given matchup.

Source: ESPN

Now, I know what you’re all thinking: The first 16-over-1 win in NCAA men’s tournament history isn’t the top upset of the year? Perhaps surprisingly, Maryland-Baltimore County’s stunner over Virginia — which had a 2.5 percent probability of happening, according to Elo — was only the sixth-biggest college basketball upset of the 2017-18 season alone. (In terms of raw upset odds, St. John’s knocking off Villanova was about 23 percent less likely.) But it’s still a fair point; there are a ton of random regular-season upsets every year, but far fewer come in the postseason. So here’s a version of the ranking above that looks solely at playoff upsets (excluding the College Football Playoff, which has existed only since 2014):

Elo’s biggest playoff upsets of 2018

Top postseason upsets of the 2018 calendar year, based on winners with the lowest Elo-generated pregame win probabilities, compared with other playoff upsets in the same sport since 2000

Sport Date Underdog Favorite Pregame Win prob. Rel. Rank Since 2000
1 CBB March 16 UMBC Virginia 2.5% 2
2 NFL Jan. 14 Jacksonville Pittsburgh 24.3 3
3 NFL Jan. 6 Tennessee Kansas City 24.8 4
4 MLB Oct. 7 Atlanta L.A. Dodgers 35.3 10
5 NBA April 16 Miami Philadelphia 17.7 10
6 CBB March 16 Marshall Wichita St. 12.9 13
7 NBA May 14 Golden State Houston 21.7 25
8 NBA May 1 Cleveland Toronto 21.8 27
9 NBA May 3 Cleveland Toronto 23.3 33
10 CBB March 18 Texas A&M North Carolina 19.5 36

Among teams in MLB, the NFL, the NBA and NCAA men’s basketball. College football upsets weren’t included in the ranking because the College Football Playoff has existed only since 2014.

Source: ESPN

After making that change, we do see UMBC’s win rise to the top of the list as the most impressive postseason upset of the year. In fact, it was a pretty good year for underdogs all around, from the Philadelphia Eagles’ dog mask-fueled Super Bowl victory to the Vegas Golden Knights’ Stanley Cup Final run as an expansion team (and 200-1 title shot).

While the Warriors won again and baseball’s best got even better, there was still room in 2018 for plenty of surprises and inspiring performances. Here’s hoping 2019 brings fans even more moments to enjoy on the fields, courts, rinks and everywhere else our favorite games are played.

Footnotes

  1. I used Approximate Value for the NFL, wins above replacement for MLB (averaging together the versions of WAR found at Baseball-Reference.com and FanGraphs) and a mix of value over replacement player (VORP), win shares and player efficiency rating for NBA players (with those numbers for current NBA seasons prorated to 82 games).

  2. Granted, perhaps that is driven as much by tanking — which creates the sheer prevalence of record-setting mismatches — as anything else.

Neil Paine is a senior sportswriter for FiveThirtyEight.

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