50. Wade Boggs (ESPN Rank: 73)
MILLER: When there’s a recent guy who ESPN ranks low, you know his career wasn’t understood by the mainstream. The best four hitters ever without a nine-WAR season according to my numbers are Boggs, Mel Ott, Eddie Mathews, and Al Kaline.
49. Gary Carter (ESPN Rank: NR)
MILLER: I feel badly for Carter. He’s historically underrated, largely because he played the same position at the same time as an inner circle guy. This is the same problem Tim Raines has with Rickey Henderson. It’s the problem Alan Trammell has with Cal Ripken. It’s part of the problem Jim Edmonds has with Ken Griffey. And it’s even part of the problem Eddie Collins has with Rogers Hornsby. At least Collins and Carter are in the Hall.
48. Bert Blyleven (ESPN Rank: NR)
ERIC: Man, ESPN really has something against those 1970s 270+ winners. Of course, Rik Albert didn’t win 300, but close enough. What do you have to do to get on a list at ESPN? Bly threw 60 shutouts, which is more than all but 8 men in MLB history. Three of those guys (Spahn, Ryan, and Seaver) threw only 2, 1, and 1 more goose eggs respectively. OK, well, maybe shutouts isn’t your thing. How about strikeouts? Blyleven is fifth all time. I thought Bill James was foolish about a decade ago to write that Blyleven probably didn’t deserve the Hall. I think ESPN was foolish to forget him on this list.
47. George Brett (ESPN Rank: 32)
ERIC: One of the least researched aspects of baseball right now is coaching. George Brett credits Charlie Lau with remaking his approach at the plate and turning him into a Hall of Fame batsman. Baseball players exist in a meritocratic, performance-centric industry. Your performance is on the back of your baseball card, and anyone can see how well you’re doing. Think about the kind of ego you have to have to succeed in the big leagues. You’ll fail more often than not. You’ll face the constant pressure of someone else waiting to take your job. You’re one injury away from oblivion. You got to have a strong ego, and it seems as though baseball mostly weeds out the weak-egoed before they reach MLB. So when a player, therefore, tells the world that he owes his career to a coach, that’s really saying something. He’s giving credit to someone else, when sports in our country is all about the rugged man succeeding in moments of great pressure. Particularly in a game like baseball where nearly every play involves discreet moments of individual execution. We have to pay attention to what George Brett says here. Coaching is a place where the field of sabrmetrics could be doing a lot more work.
46. Dan Brouthers (ESPN Rank: NR)
ERIC: Brouthers is to Roger Connor as Jimmie Foxx is to Lou Gehrig. Exact contemporaries at the same position who dominated the league for years. The comparison takes you only so far because the gap between Gehrig and Foxx is good bit wider than that between Brouthers and Connor. Well, and Cap Anson was around in the 1880s and 1890s too and doesn’t have an analog for Gehrig and Foxx (Greenberg came too late). But you get the idea.
45. Eddie Mathews (ESPN Rank: 56)
ERIC: It seems like Mathews has lost some star power of the years. He’s something of a forgotten great. Look back at his statistical record. It’s really, truly impressive. It also underscores how badly the Braves of the late 1950s and early 1960s undershot the mark. After appearing in the 1957 and 1958 World Series, they fumbled away the 1959 pennant and then settled in as mere contenders. This team, however, was absolutely loaded with core talent. GMs dream of a core of Aaron, Mathews, and Spahn to build around. Add in Lew Burdette, Johnny Logan, and Joe Adcock as contributors, and a couple years later Joe Torre comes along then Phil Niekro. Wow. But after GM John Quinn’s departure to Philadelphia following the 1958 season, the Braves’ leadership faltered and with it Milwaukee’s golden era of baseball. One wonders if we’d be talking about the Atlanta Brewers today had the Braves followed on with more pennants.
44. Phil Niekro (ESPN Rank: NR)
MILLER: The anti-knuckler bias is real. I’m guilty myself. I’ve allowed Red Sox All-Star Steven Wright to languish on my fantasy baseball bench, and ESPN refuses to put one of the fifteen best pitchers ever on their list.
ERIC: And if the knuckler were easy to throw, the big leagues would be filled with 40-year-olds on long-term deals.
43. Joe Morgan (ESPN Rank: 38)
ERIC: Oh, how I miss Fire Joe Morgan. But we’re here to praise Little Joe, not to bury him. As has been pointed out many times, despite his inability and unwillingness to understand sabrmetric principles, Morgan represents something of an archetype for them. He didn’t hit for a high average, instead he walked all the time and hit for surprising power. On the bases he rarely made mistakes and his SB% is one of the highest on record. Plus he represented an important sabrmetric idea: the defensive spectrum and the value of position. He wasn’t quite average afield, but he wasn’t a Jeteresque sinkhole with the glove either, so Morgan stuck at second. Compare to someone with a very similar game: Tim Raines. Both were remarkable percentage players. Raines, in fact, came up as a second baseman, and had he been able to remain there would likely have been Morgan-lite. Raines wasn’t quite as good a player as Morgan overall, he mostly lacked Joe’s power, but the biggest and most stubborn gap in their value is the positional adjustment. Raines loses 86 runs as a leftfielder, and Morgan picks up 73. That’s a 140 run gap, or 16 wins. Give Raines 16 more wins, and he ends up at 85 WAR against Morgan’s 100. All of which is to say that position really does mean a lot and the effect it has on our perceptions of players and the value they bring is very important.
42. Carl Yastrzemski (ESPN Rank: 53)
Yaz is one of only eleven hitters with a pair of 10 WAR seasons. The only two to reach that height since Yaz are Barry Bonds and Cal Ripken.
41. Pedro Martinez (ESPN Rank: 11)
Pedro only pitched 200 innings seven times. He only won 15 games six times. The wins don’t matter, but the innings explain why a pitcher who has a claim to the best peak in history only having seven years of 6+ WAR. But how about that 2000 season? He allowed more than three runs only twice, and he allowed one or zero seventeen times.
THE WORLDWIDE LEADER IN SPORTS’ 50–41
MILLER: I think Ernie Banks is probably the most overrated player on ESPN’s list. While he averaged almost 8 WAR per year in the six years before he hurt his knee in 1961, he was a pretty ordinary thereafter, averaging less than 1.3 WAR per year for the last decade of his career. We remember him as an elite level shortstop, and indeed he was that. We don’t tend to think of him as an ordinary first baseman, but he was that too.