Albert Pujols (ESPN Rank: 31)
MILLER: For those who think that Mike Trout is going to retire as the best player ever to play the game, I offer you Albert Pujols. For seven seasons, from 2003–2009, Pujols never fell below 8.4 WAR. And then he did. Granted, it was still 7.5. And in his last year as a Cardinal, it was 5.3. Even his first year as an Angel was a still impressive 4.8. But since then he’s posted just 9.5 total WAR in almost four seasons. The best of the best of the best are still sometimes not Ty Cobb and Stan Musial. In other Pujols news, he’s going to topple Cal Ripken’s career mark for GIDP, just 19 shy as I write this with six years left on his contract. Then again, maybe he won’t. Players don’t always perform as we think they might.
Randy Johnson (ESPN Rank: 23)
MILLER: Johnson can sometimes get lost among the all-time greats. There are at least two reasons for that. First, he pitched at the same time as three pitchers who some would call superior: Roger Clemens, Greg Maddux, and Randy Johnson. Second, he wasn’t excellent until his seventh season. And he wasn’t amazing for a sustained period until he turned 35. That’s right, in the four seasons from age 35-38, he totaled 38.3 pitching WAR. Lefty Grove, Cy Young, and Phil Niekro are the only other three hurlers to reach 30. And Steve Carlton, Dazzy Vance, Gaylord Perry, Curt Schilling, Roger Clemens, and Walter Johnson are the only others to even reach 20.
Tom Seaver (ESPN Rank: 34)
MILLER: Is it even possible that Seaver is underrated? We put him in pretty much the same place ESPN does, but hear me out. I prefer him to Greg Maddux, Randy Johnson, and Pedro Martinez, but just by a little bit. And he’s behind Roger Clemens. That’s four more recent pitchers who can help to overshadow him. Clayton Kershaw possibly too. And when Seaver was in his heyday Steve Carlton, Nolan Ryan, and Jim Palmer were also in theirs, basically. Add in Phil Niekro, Fergie Jenkins, Gaylord Perry, and there’s a lot that can let us forget Seaver, at least a little. Until Roger Clemens, Tom Seaver was the best pitcher in history after integration. The best.
Greg Maddux (ESPN Rank: 12)
ERIC: See my ditty on Christy Mathewson last time out for more on Maddux, but one of my favorite things about him was his efficiency. He just didn’t screw around out there. Get it, throw it, get it back. When they talk about “surgical precision” or a pitcher “carving up” a lineup, that’s most every start from Maddux. What he did better than any pitcher in recent memory was simply keep off the fat part of the plate while simultaneously moving the ball into a hitter’s weakest zone. He prepared well and executed supremely. Maddux attacked hitters in the inverse way that hitters attack the strike zone. Batters often look for a pitch in a certain location, their happy zone. Maddux, with incredible consistency and command, put every pitch into a hitter’s unhappy zone. When he went elsewhere, it was to set up the batter for a pitch back in the unhappy zone. For batters, it was like the average dude playing Chess against a grand master. His results speak for themselves.
Kid Nichols (ESPN Rank: NR)
ERIC: ESPN only cares about guys that get clicks. Chicks don’t dig the long dead.
Mickey Mantle (ESPN Rank: 6)
ERIC: Miller and I frequently bat around questions like, Will Mike Trout end up as Mickey Mantle? It’s an unanswerable question. We can’t yes/no it with anything other than mere speculation, and, yes, you should always take the under. But the fact that we even ask this question shows us both that Trout is awfully special, but also that Mantle is too. But here’s the big reason you should take the under: 11.3, 11.2, 10.5, 9.5, 8.7. Those are Mantle’s five best years by WAR. Here’s Mike Trout’s five full seasons (counting 2016 as full): 10.8, 9.4, 9.3, 8.9, 7.9. It’s not all that close as these things go. Mantle has about 5 WAR on Trout. Even if you prorate 2016 out to 155 games for the Millville Meteor, you get: 10.8, 10.5, 9.4, 9.3, 7.9, still trailing the Commerce Comet. Here’s another reason you take the under: 109.7. That’s Mantle’s career WAR. Trout is at 46.9. He’s got to double his current output and take on a couple more to get within 15 of Mantle. Baseball and life are just not that easy.
ESPN’s ranking is more about aura and mystique than reality. Mantle is clearly not one of the six best players in history. That should be abundantly obvious to anyone who looks at the game’s history in any objective way. You cannot build a reasonable argument for his being better than any of Babe Ruth, Barry Bonds, Willie Mays, Walter Johnson, Alex Rodriguez, or Roger Clemens, especially because we know that Ruth (sheep testicles) and Mays (greenies) used PEDs or attempted to, which disrupts the whole cheating narrative. And anyway, a reverse of that argument works against Mantle who claimed to have played hung over…to the degree that he sometimes saw double. I would venture that it’s awfully difficult to claim that Mantle is superior to Hank Aaron, a contemporary, whose less lofty peak is more than offset by an amazingly long and productive career that included about 14 more WAA and 33 more WAR. There’s also Ted Williams, Stan Musial, and Mike Schmidt to cope with. And at his own position, we haven’t even mentioned Cobb and Speaker. And let’s not forget Honus Wagner. So really? Number 6? Does not compute. Sorry World Wide Leader, this doesn’t pass the sniff test.
Cap Anson (ESPN Rank: NR)
MILLER: People marvel at what David Ortiz is doing this season at age 40. And they should. He’s been amazing! But Anson was more amazing. He totaled a record 13.6 WAR after turning 40. Only Luke Appling, Carlton, Fisk, and Honus Wagner have ever notched 10 WAR after that age. Anson was a lot of things, a .334 lifetime hitter and a supreme racist come to mind. But to not be ranked as one of the 100 best players ever by ESPN is sheer nonsense.
Lefty Grove (ESPN Rank: 48)
MILLER: The best pitcher in baseball history with 50+ saves is actually ranked that way by ESPN. Good for them, even though he’s clearly 20 spots too low.
Satchel Paige (ESPN Rank: 44)
ERIC: I’m very bullish for Paige on this list. I ranked him as my #7 player ever. I’m the high man on that one for sure. But let me share my reasoning and you can tell me whether I’m smoking dope. First of all, what we know about his career in the Negro Leagues is very, very impressive. He’s their best pitcher. When I interpreted the data and analytical metrics at the Negro Leagues Database at Seamheads.com, he came out looking like a world-beater. And his career isn’t fully documented. Still, that’s hardly enough to rank him that highly. Especially since he had a sore-arm period in the late 1930s. But look at his MLB stats, and you’ll see where I’m coming from.
From the ages of 41–46, as a reliever and spot starter, he threw 476 innings of 124 ERA+ ball worth 10.3 WAR. The 10.3 WAR are 8th all time among pitchers aged 41 or older. All time. Among those in the top 10 are HoMErs or Hall members Roger Clemens, Phil Niekro, Hoyt Wilhelm, Nolan Ryan, Cy Young, Randy Johnson, and Red Faber. Warren Spahn and Gaylord Perry are numbers 11 and 12. Those guys all threw more innings than Paige, it’s true, in same cases double or more. But he was so effective that he nonetheless made this list. His ERA+ from age 41 onward is 10th among all pitchers with more than 100 innings. It’s third if you only look at pitchers with 300 or more innings. Doesn’t that tell us a great deal about Satchel Paige? About the kind of stuff he had? About how smart a pitcher he was? He wasn’t doing mop-up work either. He threw 286 innings against teams with a .500+ record but only 190 against teams under .500. He entered 79 games in high-leverage situations and just 60 in medium or low leverage. He was his teams’ relief ace.
I’m probably too high on Paige, but the rest of the world is probably too low. With so much that’s been written about him thanks to his personality, it seems to me at least that the substance of the player has been overshadowed by his charisma.
Lou Gehrig (ESPN Rank: 7)
ERIC: I think Lou Gehrig is a tremendous player with guts and determination. His attitude in the face of debilitating neurological illness is tremendous. But, as with Mickey Mantle just above, there’s no logical way to put Gehrig at number 7. In fact, as I review his case, I suspect that Miller and I have over-ranked him slightly. Here’s why. Mickey Mantle earned 79 Wins Above Average and 109 Wins Above Replacement in 2401 games and 9907 PAs. Biscuit Pants Gehrig earned 79 WAA and 112 WAR in 2164 games and 9663 PAs. So in order to rank Gehrig ahead of Mantle, we have to believe that Gehrig’s resume is slightly superior to the Mick’s. Indeed, it’s obviously arguable that’s true. Mantle needed an extra 240 PAs to rack up the same value. But…Gehrig’s career began 30 years earlier. And the intervening 30 years were a baseball eternity. Baseball integrated four seasons before Mantle’s rookie year. While the AL integrated more slowly, it was infinitely more integrated than the AL of the 1920s. Or think of it this way. Each position player of color added to the majors pushed a replacement-level player out of MLB. If by 1951 there were something like 10 or 15 players of color claiming full or near-full time jobs as position players, then the worst 2.5% of all the white players in the league no longer had jobs. By the 1960s, and Mantle’s second decade in the game, the process was much further along, increasing the caliber of play across the game in its wake.
And that’s not all. Lou Gehrig rarely had to face relief pitchers, and often when he did, he saw them more than once in the same game. Or he had just seen them a day or two before as the opposition’s starting pitcher. By 1951, firemen were an important part of the MLB pitching corps. Just look at Satchell Paige just above. By the time the 1960s rolled around, teams were developing deeper bullpens and using them more tactically. While LaRussian specialization was still 30 years away, and relievers did toss multiple innings, this was streets ahead of Gehrig’s world.
I think we goofed on this one, and we should have put Mantle ahead, but that’s the beauty of making lists. You can always go back and revise.
THE WORLDWIDE LEADER IN SPORTS’ #30–21
- Jackie Robinson
- Johnny Bench
- Christy Mathewson
- Mike Schmidt
- Clayton Kershaw
- Rogers Hornsby
- Frank Robinson
- Randy Johnson
- Rickey Henderson
- Alex Rodriguez
MILLER: I suppose I can live with a world where Clayton Kershaw and Sandy Koufax are about ten slots apart. Of course, they really need a second hundred to get either on the list legitimately. Kershaw’s greatness is unquestionable, but I need to see a lot more before I rank Kershaw ahead of Pete Alexander, Christy Mathewson, Warren Spahn, or Tom Seaver. We hope he’ll be better because we’ll get to see that. Still, he’s not right now. He’s not really close.
ERIC: I agree that Kershaw is way, way too high on this list. Just as Sandy Koufax is. We posted a piece with a reasoned argument that Johan Santana’s career is comparable in his times to Koufax’s. We didn’t include Santana in our lists. We didn’t include Koufax. I find the mythology of Koufax bewildering. Yes, five no-hitters. Yes, the devastating slider. Yes, the glittering ERAs and records. But Bill James’ and Pete Palmer’s ideas are not new. They’ve been around 35 or more years. The notion that players’ performance needs to be filtered through a park effect and through a league-wide scoring effect is older than my sister (34 years old). These are long-settled matters. Every big-league team factors them into their decision making. With these filters in mind, a reasonable evaluation of Koufax tell us that he was, indeed, great. But he was not the second coming of Walter Johnson. And yet, that’s exactly the kind of story we are fed all the time about him. For all the mythos around DiMaggio, for example, we know that Yankee Stadium depressed his numbers. The opposite is true of Koufax, of course. The degree of the hype is galling to me. It’s completely out of line with easily observable, interpretable, and related facts and processes. Are baseball writers the Antonin Scalias of journalism? Does some bizarre strict-constructionist/original-intent extremist fundamentalism tell them that the numbers must be literally read as fact? That interpretation is either sinful or reproachable by dint of their not representing Henry Chadwick’s vision of a baseball card’s obverse? What silliness.
The sad effect is to elbow out attention for others from Koufax’s time. Bob Gibson’s career is vastly better than Koufax’s. He finished behind Koufax on ESPN’s list. Near contemporaries Gaylord Perry, and Phil Niekro also have better resumes with peaks not too different than Koufax’s and a hell of a lot more high-quality bulk. They are not on this list. Who the heck ever hears anything about how great Fergie Jenkins and Jim Bunning were? I’ve got this thing about fairness and people getting what they merit. Koufax merits plenty of attention. We named him a HoMEr, after all. But it’s time for the mythmakers to try pleading someone else’s case and to get hip to the fact that Koufax had half a career and that they didn’t get to see his descent from the mount to an ERA+ in the low 120s or high 110s as happens to pitchers who managed to escape their 20s.