Today, we keep chugging along, telling you why we’re right and ESPN is wrong. Check out the other posts in this series, as we examine ESPN’s recent top-100 list and our own. As the countdown rolls on, we move into the top fifty. Check out the rest of of our list here: #100–91, #90–81, #80–71, #70–61, #60-51, and #50-41.
40. Josh Gibson (ESPN Rank: 35)
ERIC: Gibson is what you get when the best hitter in the league is a catcher. Even if his defense is average, it’s a hugely valuable package for any team. Right now Seamheads has only about half to 60% of his career accurately documented. There’s much more we don’t have the goods on, such as his stint in the Mexican League, the winter leagues, or any of his Negro League stats from 1942 until his death. What’s there is pretty darned impressive. For example, on OPS+ of 199. Seamheads gives him 22.2 WAR in 1606 PA. Knock it down by 20% off the top, and that’s about 6 WAR/550 PA. From 1920–1950, count ‘em two catchers reach 6 Wins in a single season (Mickey Cochrane in 1933 and Bill dickey in 1937). And the thing about Gibson is that the stats we have include his age 18–20 seasons, well before his peak, and they only include full seasons up to age 28. This ranking is conservative and pending more information.
39. Bob Gibson (ESPN Rank: 20)
ERIC: What’s often forgotten about Gibson is what a great hitter he was. We all know about Don Drysdale’s big season in 1965 (.300, 7 HR, 2.2 batting WAR), but from 1955 to 1980, Bob Gibson owned the most batting WAR of any pitcher. These arbitrary end points help Gibson, by cutting off significant portions ot the careers of Don Newcombe, Arren Spahn, and a couple others, but Gibson, who was a superior athlete and a one-time member of the Harlem Globetrotters could really rake for a moundsman.
38. Warren Spahn (ESPN Rank: 36)
MILLER: When men were men and pitchers threw nine innings, Spahn may have been one of the game’s greatest workhorses ever. Only Pete Alexander and Steve Carlton, I believe, led the league in batters faced more than Spahn’s five times. And only Cy Young had a longer streak of facing 1000+ batters in a season than Spahn’s 17. One can pretty easily make the argument that the 13-time winner of 20+ games is the most consistently durable pitcher the game has ever seen.
37. Roberto Clemente (ESPN Rank: 18)
ERIC: As we’ve written before, Clemente has the most amazing arm in history. He also has one of the weirdest career paths thanks to the Rule 5 Draft forcing him into the big leagues before he had enough seasoning. He didn’t round into form for another several years and a couple thousand PAs of playing time. Think about that the next time your team’s hot prospect slumps for 100 PAs out of the gate.
36. Mel Ott (ESPN Rank: 59)
ERIC: We sort of discussed Ott in our comments about Joe DiMaggio. A trope about DiMaggio was that he was killed by his home park. And the splits bear that out. On the flip side, Mel Ott benefited from the short right-field foul lines at the Polo Grounds. But did they turn him from a good hitter into a monster? No, they did not. Mel Ott was a great hitter at home and a great hitter on the road. At home he hit .297/.422/.558 and away, in 148 more PAs, he hit .311/.408/.510. What the Polo Grounds did was mostly to transform his distribution of extra-base hits. At home: 182 doubles, 21 triples, 323 homers; 526 extra-base hits for 1719 bases. On the road: 306 doubles, 51 triples, 188 homers; 545 extra-base hits for 1517 bases. The Polo Grounds basically flipped the doubles and homers totals from the road, and killed his triples. The tradeoff was worth it, of course, in terms of the extra bases gained. Mel Ott on the road was one hell of a player. From 1920–1950, here are players with between 4500–6500 career PAs with batting lines similar to Ott’s road numbers (his road Rbat is estimated from the ratio of his road to home RC):
NAME PA 2B 3B HR AVG OBP SLG OPS+ Rbat ============================================================== Mel Ott (road) 5748 306 51 188 .311 .408 .510 151 364 Chick Hafey 5115 341 67 164 .317 .372 .526 133 205 Tommy Henrich 5410 269 73 183 .282 .382 .491 132 215 Babe Herman 6229 399 110 181 .324 .383 .532 141 320 Charlie Keller 4604 166 72 189 .286 .410 .518 152 286 Ken Williams 5624 285 77 196 .319 .393 .530 138 270
These are the closest matches from his own time. If you think about it, these are five guys each with half a Hall of Fame career. Mel Ott has both halves and was not at all a mere product of his home field. Unlike, say, Jim Rice whose OPS home/road split was a massive .920/.789. At home, he was a better version of Kevin Mitchell’s career. On the road he was basically Larry Hisle or Sixto Lezcano’s careers. You could look it up.
35. Johnny Bench (ESPN Rank: 29)
MILLER: Bench is, by acclimation, the best catcher ever to play in MLB. We’ve discussed in the past that Gary Carter is a lot closer than people think. Still, Bench is the best. Pretty much everyone agrees. And we can see that the folks at ESPN recognize that this modern player, whose popularity basically matched his skill, is ranked just about right. What a surprise.
34. Frank Robinson (ESPN Rank: 24)
MILLER: I don’t appreciate Steve Carlton quite enough because I have such vivid memories of him pitching with the Minnesota Twins putting up an 8.54 ERA in 1987 and 1988. I never saw him pitch in 1972 when he was other-worldly and barely in 1980 when he was nearly as good. For people of a certain age, Frank Robinson has similar problems. He’s just a guy who managed a bunch of poor teams and never made the playoffs. Luckily for me, I’m of the age where I read about Robinson, and what I read told the story much better than those who see him as a manager. By my numbers, he’s one of sixteen hitters ever with a decade and a half of 4-WAR seasons. I rank him at #21 among all hitters. I could quite easily hear an argument for as high as 19, maybe a shade higher. It’s kind of funny that something that hurts Robinson’s reputation a bit probably helped him in ESPN’s rankings. After all, casual fans are more familiar with him than they are with Jimmie Foxx.
33. Roger Connor (ESPN Rank: NR)
MILLER: What’s up with ESPN as 19th century deniers? Pretty much none of us would be alive today without it.
32. Jimmie Foxx (ESPN Rank: 33)
MILLER: He’s #2 in A’s history and #9 in Red Sox history in homers. I rank only a dozen guys with four seasons of 9.5+ WAR. His peak was truly outstanding. Looking at his four best consecutive seasons, he’s #9 in history and looking at his best five, he’s #11. (Of course, Mike Trout is right on his heels and still has a month left).
31. Christy Mathewson (ESPN Rank: 28)
ERIC: I typically think of Matty as the Greg Maddux of his time. Mathewson was a college man (Bucknell University) and very cerebral in his approach. He struck out more hitters in context than Maddux did, but like him had amazing command and outstanding annual K/BB rates. They were also both well known for both a wide repertoire and a single pitch. While each of them had mastery of many pitches and used them to stay out of the center of the plate and confound hitters, Mathewson was known for the “fadeaway,” which was probably something an offspeed pitch with plenty of late break, much like the circle change. Maddux had a nasty cutter than he could move in either direction with equal accuracy to saw off hitters and induce weak contact. Each relied more and more heavily on these pitches as their careers wore on and they lost a foot or two on their fastballs.
THE WORLDWIDE LEADER IN SPORTS’ 40–31
MILLER: By this point on the ESPN list, greatness and fame overlap quite a bit, which means I have fewer complaints. We don’t have Mike Trout on our list, and a few posts ago I took the ESPN folks to task for including Bryce Harper on their list. I won’t do so today. Mike Trout may well be the best player I’ve ever seen. I say that even though I’ve seen ten of the top thirty players in person. And I’m pretty certain Barry Bonds is one of the best five players ever. Still, Mike Trout might be better. Not today. Not yet. But it might happen. He’s scary good.
ERIC: As you note, we are in much closer concordance with the WWLinS by this point. We’ve already noted that Miggy and Rose are big overreaches at their respective ranks. Let’s focus on Cabrera for a sec. What would have to be true for ESPN’s ranking of him to be correct? He has 8900 or so PAs through age 33. He’d need have performed at a huge peak level so far to keep up the likes of Jimmie Foxx and Joe Morgan (in the 30s) or Jackie and Mike Schmidt (who rank in the 20s). Miggy has earned about 70 WAR in those 8900 PAs. His best seven season total 44.6, which makes his JAWS (as of the day we wrote this piece) 56.7. Foxx’s career was virtually over at this juncture of his career. After 1941, with 9058 PAs, he’d racked up 96 WAR (!) with a seven-year peak of 60 Wins. His JAWS stood at 77.8. Let’s run yet another table of hitters ranked within ten of Cabrera by ESPN through the same junctures PA-wise in their careers:
NAME Rank PAs Best7WAR cumWAR JAWS =========================================== Ripken 47 9009 56.1 80.7 68.4 Banks 46 8831 51.8 65.6 58.7 Berra 42 8359 37.0 59.5 48.2 Speaker 41 8735 60.8 104.2 82.5 Cabrera 39 8861 44.6 68.9 56.7 Morgan 38 8893 59.1 84.8 72.0 Rose 37 9242 43.0 64.2 53.6 Foxx 33 9058 59.5 96.0 77.8 Brett 32 9668 53.2 82.0 67.6 Pujols 31 8546 61.5 92.7 77.1 Robinson 30 5804 52.1 61.5 56.8 Bench 29 8674 47.1 75.0 61.0
Bill James once wrote that if you can show that a guy’s performance is right in the belly of a whole bunch of really good Hall of Famers, then that guy has a reasonable case. You can’t show that with Cabrera viz this list because his performance is only better than over-ranked players and catchers. The only player demonstrably worse than Cabrera is Rose, who we’ve already argued was ranked way too high. You could try to convince me that Berra is worse, but as a catcher, and one of the ten best catchers ever, you’ll have a hard time convincing me, particularly since Cabrera while among the top 20 at his position isn’t especially close to the top 10. Even so, we ranked Berra a good deal lower than ESPN did. Robinson’s career is truncated for reasons we know well, yet his peak performance is so strong that his career and Cabrera’s are currently equivalent as JAWS sees it. A guy with 3,000 fewer PAs is equivalent to the #39 ranked player on ESPN’s list. One or both of those rankings must be wrong, but it’s not possible that both are right. Banks is the next closest to Cabrera, and his peak creams Cabrera’s. We didn’t even rank Mr. Cub!
The only possible argument in his favor of Cabrera’s inclusion at this level is the timeline. But to get him from our spot in the 90s to a spot in the 30s, you’d have to assume that the timeline is amazingly steep. Putting aside the catchers, whose WAR are depressed by the physical rigors of the position, the average of the non-Cabreras in the list above who are not catchers is 68.3 JAWS. That figure is 20% higher than Cabrera’s JAWS. Now, do you think that Tris Speaker’s times were 20% easier than Cabrera’s? I could buy that. And Jackie’s? Maybe. How about Cal Ripken’s? That’s a tough sell right there. Same with George Brett. How many hits do you think George Brett would get in today’s game? If Brett’s times were 20% tougher than now, then you’d be looking at something around 2825 safeties, or 325 hits fewer than his actual total.*
The most damaging argument against Cabrera’s ranking? Albert Pujols’ rank. If Albert’s JAWS at the same juncture of his career was 40% higher than Cabrera’s, how can they be reasonably ranked within ten of one another? Look, the NL was a little weaker than the AL for a few years, but not 40% weaker!
So that’s the gist of the absurdity of Cabrera’s ranking. Your mileage may vary.
* I figured this by determining his runs created using Bill James’ technical method and then, keeping the ratio of components to hits constant, lowered the hits until I reached a runs created total that was 20% lower than his actual total.