What Do Ferenc Puskas and Derek Jeter Have in Common?

It's the question literally everyone is asking. Let's try to bring the past into the present.

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Last week, Mike Trout became better than Derek Jeter.

For the uninitiated, Jeter is perhaps the most widely respected baseball player of the past 30 years. He was drafted by the New York Yankees, and his ascendance as a pro coincided with the franchise’s return to glory. Jeter made 14 All-Star teams and, more importantly, won five World Series titles in New York. He’s also the standard bearer for the catchall term “intangibles” -- all of the things we can’t see, the things other than “scoring points” and “preventing your opponent from scoring points” that help a team win. His nickname is “The Captain” for chrissakes. As such, Jeter’s reputation was a tad overstated while being simultaneously irrefutable. (Jeter won multiple Gold Gloves -- given to the best defensive player at his position each season -- while advance stats suggest he was, on the whole, one of the worst fielders in baseball history.) He came up as a Yankee, and he retired as one, so he’s inseparable from his team’s incredible success.

Trout, on the other hand, is the Lionel Messi of baseball; he’s basically been the best player in the world ever since he became a consistent starter. Like Messi, he seems to add a new skill to his game each year, keeping the ever-improving chasing pack at many-arm’s length. If Trout played for a high-profile team like the Yankees, I imagine he’d already have a reputation similar to Jeter’s. He’s a likable, often-smiling, scandal-free guy whose only interests outside of baseball seem to be the Philadelphia Eagles and the weather. He’d play in the postseason every year, he’d likely have a World Series at this point, and he’d be one of the most famous athletes in America. Instead, though, Trout plays for the hapless Los Angeles Angels, and so he’s played in a grand total of three playoff games in eight full seasons and most of his games are on television while half of the country is asleep.

How good is Trout? So good that, at age 28, he’s already provided more value to his team than The Captain did in 20 seasons. Here’s ESPN’s Sam Miller:

That's not to say he's had a better career than Jeter, whose longevity is its own historical accomplishment and whose celebrity and team success puts him in the pantheon of baseball greats. Jeter did things Trout would certainly envy, and might well value above some of his own personal accomplishments. You might take Trout's career over Jeter's at this point, you might not.

At the same time, though, Trout is doing things Jeter never approached. He's already collected about twice as many MVP votes as Jeter did in his entire career -- and that's before his almost certain MVP victory this year, which will push him into the top five MVP vote-getters ever. He already has a higher Win Probability Added for his career -- that's a counting stat, incidentally. His WAR this year is already higher than Jeter's career high, with a month to go. Jeter's best season would be Trout's seventh best.

WAR is baseball’s position and era-adjusted value metric. It takes everything a player does on offense and defense, compares him to a replacement-level player (which changes every season based on league-wide performance) at his position, and then gives a pretty good estimate of how many extra wins a team would have if they ... replaced a replacement-level player with him. Trout already has more career WAR than Jeter, per whichever proprietary WAR metric Miller’s using, and he’s now within the top 60 of all baseball players ever.

The all-time WAR leader, according to Fangraphs, is Babe Ruth. Second is Barry Bonds. They’re the only two players north of 160; hell, they’re the only two players north of 150. The beauty of that comparison is that Ruth last took a swing in 1935, while Bonds’s final game came 72 years later. The non-dynamic nature of baseball and the long history of stat-keeping makes it relatively easy to compare players across dramatically different eras. Here’s another: Trout is fifth all-time in career OPS+, which is on-base percentage plus slugging percentage, normalized to the stadium and league a player plays in. League-average is 100; above-average is ... above 100. Here’s what the all-time top-five looks like, via Baseball Reference:

And here’s what Ferenc Puskas looked like:

One of the greatest soccer players of all time might have to be portrayed by Danny DeVito in his biopic. Puskas played from 1943 to 1966, leading the way for the two defining teams of the era: Hungary and Real Madrid. Goal-scoring rates were higher back then, but the numbers are wild: 83 goals in 83 games with Hungary, 236 goals in 261 games with Madrid. His national team famously obliterated England, 6-3, at Wembley  -- and then famously lost to Germany in the 1954 World Cup final after beating them, 8-3, in an earlier round. Puskas’s Madrid, meanwhile, won ... THE FIRST FIVE EUROPEAN CUPS. Only four other clubs (Milan, Liverpool, Barcelona, and Bayern Munich) have won that many European Cups ... ever.

In Madrid’s fifth and final Euorpean-final win, Puskas got some revenge. He’d accused the Germans of drug use after the World Cup final, and then the West German FA banned its clubs from playing in games against teams that included Puskas. Madrid’s opponents for the 1960 European Cup were Eintracht Frankfurt, so Puskas had to write a formal apology to ensure that the game would even take place. He did -- and then he put up four on their asses. Madrid won, 7-3, with the other three goals coming from Alfredo di Stefano. The International Federation of Football History and Statistics voted Puskas as the sixth-best player of the 21st century, and di Stefano came in fourth. Bale, Benzema, and Ronaldo? Never heard of ‘em.

This -- and a question from a reader named Mauricio about what past players would flourish in today’s era -- made me think about how hard it is to compare soccer players across eras. Just from a physical-talent standpoint, it’s not close. Runners, jumpers, and swimmers keep improving, and so do soccer players. The YouTube clips of Puskas or Pele playing look haphazard and, frankly, kind of hilarious compared to today’s standards; there’s none of the technical precision or any of the athletic explosiveness that characterizes today’s game. However, the same is true in any other sport. NBA highlights from the ‘80’s make it look like the ball is covered in melted butter. And well, in baseball, just about every random reliever is throwing harder than any pitcher would’ve in Ruth’s day. (Also, Ruth didn’t have to play against black players, but that’s a whole different newsletter!)

But, I think we know all of that: players are much better than they used to be, when directly compared to each other. Transport 27-year-old Puskas directly into Manchester City’s starting lineup ... and he probably would look like a really skilled fan who’d won a contest to be a pro for a day. The lack of data -- or really, objective knowledge -- that we have about soccer players, though, is what makes it so tough to compare players from different eras to each other based on how they compared to their peers. A comparison of Bonds and the Babe offers plenty of avenues of investigation, but the same just isn’t true of, say, di Stefano and di Maria.

Today, however, there are definite echoes of the past. Johan Cruyff (second on the IFFH list) brought the positional flexibility of Total Football to Ajax, Barcelona, and the Dutch national team, and now we’re seeing one of Cruyff’s proteges, Pep Guardiola, instill similar principles with Manchester City. The great German centre back, Franz Beckenbauer (third on the IFFH list), loved to dribble out of the back, and we’re seeing that everywhere now, too. Frenkie de Jong’s a midfielder at Barcelona, but he’s Beckenbauer’s spiritual heir in many ways.

As for Puskas, he was a stocky, one-footed, little fire-hydrant of a person, and his Hungary team were the forerunners to Cruyff’s Dutch. Jonathan Wilson, who’s about to publish a book about Hungarian soccer and who has a better handle on the on-field history of the sport than anyone alive, considers Puskas to be the greatest European player ever, along with Cruyff. What made him so good? As Wilson wrote a few years ago:

It is not just his technical ability. Other players have had that. It is not even the fact that he had key parts in two of the most celebrated games ever played on British soil - Hungary's 6-3 victory over England at Wembley in 1953 and Real Madrid's 7-3 victory over Eintracht Frankfurt in 1960. It is the fact that that ability was allied to a brain that understood how best to use his ability for the team.

That is why his nickname, the 'Galloping Major', was so appropriate - even if he hardly galloped and, at the time it was bestowed, was only a lieutenant - because he was so good at marshalling his side towards a common goal. "If a good player has the ball, he should have the vision to spot three options," the full-back Jeno Buzanszky said. "Puskas always saw at least five."

Sounds a bit like Trout -- and a lot like Jeter.