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The Best Players Opting Out Of The NFL, NBA, WNBA, NHL And MLB In 2020

Facing the uncertainty of playing sports in a pandemic, which can mean risking one’s health or being sealed off in a bubble away from home and family, every pro athlete has had to make a difficult choice: return to the game or opt to sit out part or all of a season? Among the pro leagues that have restarted, most players have chosen to play — but not all.

According to a running count maintained by ESPN’s Stats & Information Group, 128 players in five leagues had opted out by Thursday’s NFL deadline.1 And among those in the NFL, NBA, WNBA, NHL and MLB, a surprising number are stars — or at least they have been productive players in recent seasons.

To get a sense of just how much talent each league is or will be missing, I calculated the leaguewide percentile rank for every opt-out player according to our value metric of choice in each sport.2 I did this across two windows of time: the most recent season and over the past three seasons. Overall, 20 athletes who ranked among the top 10th of players in their respective sports (over the past three seasons) — and 55 overall who ranked among the top third — have opted out, which underscores just how many good players are watching from the metaphorical sidelines during the pandemic.

Which NFL stars have opted out?

Best NFL players to opt out of the 2020 season due to COVID-19 concerns, based on Approximate Value (AV) over the past three seasons (2017-19)

Most Recent Season Last 3 Seasons
Name Team AV Percentile AV Percentile
C.J. Mosley Jets 2 43 32 98
Larry Warford Free agent 9 92 30 98
Nate Solder Giants 9 92 30 98
Dont’a Hightower Patriots 17 100 28 97
Eddie Goldman Bears 7 83 24 95
Star Lotulelei Bills 10 94 23 94
Marcus Cannon Patriots 7 83 20 91
Michael Pierce Vikings 8 88 19 89
L. Duvernay-Tardif Chiefs 7 83 16 86
Patrick Chung Patriots 5 70 15 84

Sources: ESPN Stats & Information Group, Pro-Football-Reference.com

The NFL has had a lot of opt-outs — 66 in total — in part because the league’s player pool is so large. But that list also includes plenty of big names by Approximate Value. New York Jets linebacker C.J. Mosley was limited to just two games (and 2 AV) last season because of a groin injury, but he was a four-time Pro Bowler before that, and he tied for 50th in total AV among NFL players over the last three seasons. Mosley said he opted out to keep from putting his family at risk. Also among top NFL opt-outs were guard Larry Warford, who’s been named to the Pro Bowl three years running, and Nate Solder, one of the best offensive tackles of the past decade. And the most valuable player from last season to sit out in 2020 is Pro Bowl linebacker Dont’a Hightower, who leads a group of eight New England Patriots that have opted out of the season. Aside from the Patriots, no other team in the five leagues we looked at had more than five players opt out of playing in 2020.3

Which NBA stars have opted out?

Best NBA players to opt out of the 2020 restart due to COVID-19 concerns, based on RAPTOR wins above replacement (WAR) over the past three seasons (2017-18 through 2019-20)

Most Recent Season Last 3 Seasons
Name Team WAR Percentile WAR Percentile
Bradley Beal Wizards 4.6 93 23.6 98
Spencer Dinwiddie Nets 4.2 90 14.2 94
Dāvis Bertāns Wizards 4.2 90 12.4 92
Trevor Ariza Trail Blazers 2.1 74 5.3 79
Willie Cauley-Stein Mavericks 1.9 72 5.2 79
Thabo Sefolosha Rockets 0.4 48 4.4 76
DeAndre Jordan Nets 1.8 70 4.2 75
Wilson Chandler Nets 0.4 49 3.3 72
Avery Bradley Lakers 1.1 61 2.3 67
Taurean Prince Nets 0.8 56 1.1 60

Sources: ESPN Stats & Information Group, Basketball-Reference.com, NBA Advanced Stats

Fewer NBA opt-outs have been high-impact producers over the past few seasons, but the headliners above do have star power. Washington Wizards swingman Bradley Beal was tied as the 40th best player in the league by RAPTOR WAR this season and ranks 15th over the past three seasons. Beal’s decision was about more than COVID-19; he was also recovering from a rotator cuff injury that had hampered him all season. “This was a difficult decision and one that I did not take lightly as the leader of this team,” Beal said. “I wanted to help my teammates compete for a playoff spot in Orlando, but also understand that this will be best for all of us in the long term.” Spencer Dinwiddie of the Brooklyn Nets and Dāvis Bertāns of the Wizards ranked as the second- and third-best players to opt out, regardless of the time frame. Dinwiddie tested positive for the coronavirus in June and was held out for precautionary reasons; Bertāns opted out to avoid injury heading into free agency.

Which WNBA stars have opted out?

Best WNBA players to opt out of the 2020 season due to COVID-19 concerns, based on consensus wins generated (CWG) over the past three seasons (2017-19)

Most Recent Season Last 3 Seasons
Name Team CWG Percentile CWG Percentile
Elena Delle Donne* Mystics 6.6 100 16.5 100
Jonquel Jones Sun 5.0 99 14.7 99
Liz Cambage Aces 4.0 95 9.6 96
Tiffany Hayes Dream 1.5 64 8.8 94
Kristi Toliver Sparks 3.1 88 8.4 93
Tina Charles Mystics 1.0 56 7.9 91
Chiney Ogwumike Sparks 2.7 83 7.1 88
LaToya Sanders Mystics 3.1 87 6.6 87
Renee Montgomery Dream 1.2 61 6.6 87
Natasha Cloud Mystics 2.7 82 4.8 81

*Delle Donne did not officially opt out with the WNBA, which did not grant her a medical exemption, but she is not expected to play this season.

CWG is based on a combination of win shares and player efficiency rating.

Sources: ESPN Stats & Information Group, Basketball-Reference.com

The WNBA is the league with the most talent withdrawn from the 2020 season,4 by far. If we compare across sports, no other league comes close to matching the 26 percent share of opt-outs among players who ranked in the top 10th of the WNBA in value over the past three seasons:

Which sport is missing the most star power?

Share of opt-outs by leaguewide percentile rank in value over the previous three seasons for major American pro sports leagues

Share of opt-outs among players in league’s…
Sport Top 10% Top 25% Top 33% Top 50%
WNBA 26% 17% 14% 11%
NBA 4 4 4 3
NFL 2 2 2 2
MLB 2 2 2 1
NHL 0 0 1 1

Sources: ESPN Stats & Information Group, Sports-Reference.com, FanGraphs

The biggest name in any sport to opt out is Delle Donne, who was the best player in the WNBA last season. (She’s one of four Washington Mystics to miss the season, along with Tina Charles, LaToya Sanders and Natasha Cloud — all of whom ranked among the league’s Top 50 players over the previous three seasons.) But Jonquel Jones of the Connecticut Sun was the second-most valuable player in the WNBA last season, and she also decided to sit out the season over COVID-19 concerns. “After careful thought and consideration, I’ve decided to forgo the upcoming WNBA season and use this time to focus on personal, social and familial growth,” Jones said. In terms of the player pool, the WNBA is a much smaller league than the other pro sports,5 so the fact that 11 players are sitting out after ranking among the top third of the WNBA over the past three seasons is striking.

Which NHL stars have opted out?

NHL players to opt out of the 2020 restart due to COVID-19 concerns, based on goals above replacement (GAR) over the past three seasons (2017-18 through 2019-20)

Most Recent Season Last 3 seasons
Name Team GAR Percentile GAR Percentile
Andrew Shaw Blackhawks 0.6 36 12.6 75
Mike Green Oilers -0.9 5 12.1 74
Travis Hamonic Flames 2.3 56 8.7 68
Sven Bärtschi Canucks -0.1 17 8.1 66
Roman Polák Stars 0.2 26 5.9 61
Karl Alzner Canadiens -0.3 12 0.7 36
Steven Kampfer Bruins 0.4 34 0.3 30
Zach Trotman Penguins -0.1 17 -0.1 19

Sources: ESPN Stats & Information Group, Hockey-Reference.com

At the other end of the spectrum from the WNBA, we have the NHL, which has barely seen any moderate-profile players opt out, much less high-profile ones. The best player by goals above replacement this season who chose not to return to hockey’s bubble was defenseman Travis Hamonic of the Calgary Flames, who didn’t even rank among the top 400 players in the league this year. Chicago Blackhawks forward Andrew Shaw and Edmonton Oilers blueliner Mike Green fared better when ranked over the previous three seasons, but neither cracked the top 300. And overall, only these eight NHL players in ESPN’s data opted out, period. (Perhaps contributing to the decision for most to play were the league’s protocols and location in Canada; there have been no positive tests recorded in the NHL’s two bubbles in Toronto and Edmonton, Alberta.)

Which MLB stars have opted out?

Best MLB players to opt out of the 2020 season because of COVID-19 concerns, based on wins above replacement (WAR) over the past three seasons (2017-19)

Most Recent Season Last 3 Seasons
Name Team WAR Percentile WAR Percentile
Lorenzo Cain Brewers 2.2 87 13.2 98
Buster Posey Giants 1.4 79 8.4 95
David Price Dodgers 2.1 86 7.0 94
Mike Leake Diamondbacks 1.1 73 5.6 91
Ryan Zimmerman Nationals 0.2 50 4.5 87
Nick Markakis* Braves 0.7 66 4.1 86
Collin McHugh Red Sox 0.4 59 3.3 83
Yoenis Céspedes Mets 2.6 79
Joe Smith Astros 0.5 62 2.3 77
Welington Castillo Nationals -0.6 7 1.8 74

*Opted out before the season but decided to return during the season.

Sources: ESPN Stats & Information Group, Baseball-Reference.com, FanGraphs

In baseball, the best player to opt out (whether looking at last season or a three-year window) is center fielder Lorenzo Cain of the Milwaukee Brewers, who ranked 178th in wins above replacement last year6 and 34th from 2017 through 2019. “With all of the uncertainty and unknowns surrounding our game at this time, I feel that this is the best decision for me, my wife and our three kids,” Cain said in a statement last week. David Price, who was set to begin his first year with the Dodgers after being acquired from the Boston Red Sox, is the second-best MLB player from last season to sit out for 2020. No. 2 over the past three seasons is Buster Posey of the San Francisco Giants, the future Hall of Fame catcher who opted out in early July after he and his wife adopted premature twin girls. Also among the Top 10 in MLB: Atlanta’s Nick Markakis, who subsequently opted back in, and New York Mets designated hitter Yoenis Céspedes, whose departure caused drama last week when he didn’t tell the team about his decision and failed to show up for a game.

All in all, it’s been a blessing for fans to be able to see sports come back over the past few weeks and to watch some of the greatest athletes in the world perform yet again. But the level of play has been poorer for the lack of these stars, most of whom chose to sit out the return over concerns for their health or that of their families. Fans shouldn’t fault them for that, and they should wish them the best when they do come back to play again. Until then, their absences will be yet another factor that feels “off” about sports as leagues try to play on through the pandemic.

Footnotes

  1. This count includes Elena Delle Donne of the WNBA’s Washington Mystics, who hasn’t officially opted out with the league after it denied her request for a medical exemption. Nonetheless, she is not expected to play — she has not joined the team in Florida because of fears that her Lyme disease puts her at higher risk of COVID-19 complications.

  2. For the NFL, that’s Approximate Value, which attempts to distill a player’s contribution into a single number. For the NBA, it’s RAPTOR WAR, based on our NBA player value metric. For the WNBA, it’s wins generated, which blends win shares and the player efficiency rating-based estimated wins added metric into a single estimate of victories added. For the NHL, it’s goals above replacement, which measures every player relative to a waiver-wire caliber pickup at the same position. And for MLB, that’s wins above replacement, using our JEFFBAGWELL metric to blend WAR from Baseball-Reference.com and FanGraphs.

  3. The Brooklyn Nets and New York Liberty had five apiece.

  4. Which began July 25.

  5. Over the past three seasons, 234 players suited up in the WNBA, or about 13 times fewer players than in the NFL.

  6. Including all players, both hitters and pitchers.

Neil Paine is a senior writer for FiveThirtyEight.

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