Red Faber is in the Hall of Fame basically because of a 18-month run of greatness that lasted from April of 1921 through September of 1922. Yeah, I guess you can add in an All-Star caliber 1920, but Faber is a strange combination of absolute peak to go along with long and low (11 seasons of 2.0-3.7 pitching WAR). On the other hand, Eddie Rommel, a contemporary in the AL, is largely forgotten despite what BBREF shows as a level of excellence infrequently attained by Faber on the mound.
Let’s look at the two without those 18 months for Faber.
Faber Rommel 5.8 7.4 4.1 6.0 3.7 5.5 3.6 5.4 3.4 5.2 3.3 5.0 3.3 4.7 3.3 3.6 3.2 2.6 2.8 2.1 2.7 1.7 2.3 1.3 2.0 0.1 1.8 1.3 1.2 0.8 -1.0
I know what you’re thinking. Or at least what you should be thinking. You can’t just lop off the two best years of a guy’s career and then compare him to another guy who’s much less well known. After all, Rommel probably should be less well known since he didn’t average 10 WAR over two seasons. Sure, sure.
The interesting thing about Rommel, at least to me, is that so much of his pitching “value” came out of the bullpen. He only made 30 starts in a season four times ever, and he never topped 34. Interestingly, at least to me, is that he’s one of only a dozen hurlers from 1901-1950 to post both 150 games started and 150 games finished. Only Charlie Root and Jack Quinn beat him in both categories. It’s interesting because it’s hard to know exactly how valuable Rommel’s relief innings are since we’re missing a ton of data from his career. BBREF puts him at 50 WAR, Fangraphs at just over half that. I don’t know what to believe, but I would like to see Rommel’s relief data so we could better assess his contributions.
#10 Herb Pennock: In relation to our decade leader, his 64% barely edges out Dolf Luque and Eppa Rixey. Putting him on the list is easy enough though, particularly when we consider his 5-0 record with a save in three World Series in the 1920s. The Red Sox should be ashamed of the trade that sent him to the Yankees for Norm McMillan, George Murray, Camp Skinner, and 50K. Pennock posted over 33 WAR for the Yankees while the trio in return was below replacement in Boston. Must have been the money.
#9 Eddie Rommel: I love that Rommel led the AL in wins twice while pitching a total of 42 games in relief. There have been 25 pitchers in history with 15 wins, 15 games finished, and 5 WAR in a season. Ed Walsh, Lefty Grove, and Eddie Rommel are the only three such players who managed to do so three times. Somewhat ignominiously, the guy with 70% of the value of the decade leader is the only one of the 25 to lead the league in losses.
#8 Burleigh Grimes: Remembered for being the last guy in big league history to throw a legal spitter, Grimes had an interesting career and just shy of a great one. He’s in the Hall of Fame, though he’s on the borderline at best. Eric and I haven’t seen fit to elect him, nor do I imagine we ever well. As I look at Grimes’ BBREF page, I’m struck by the back-to-back high placing in the MVP vote in 1928 and 1929. He was a very good pitcher in both years, so his high placing shouldn’t shock anyone. However, some other guys on the lists are shocking. Three people receiving support in 1929 put up less than 1 WAR in total. And the year before, six of the 23 total guys receiving votes were below 2 WAR. Anyway, Grimes was about 74% as valuable as the decade’s leader.
#7 Red Faber: Faber and Grimes had similar decades, though they got to where they are somewhat differently. And Faber was the last legal spitballer in the AL. Do you know when Faber started smoking? It was when he was eight years old. Faber’s value is about 75% of our leader.
#6 George Uhle: We hear so much about pitcher usage today. And we hear old timers wax poetic about days gone by when men were men and Nolan Ryan threw 400 pitches every three days, or something like that. There’s a reason we remember the guys who have thrown huge innings. It’s because they’re the best pitchers ever! Of course we’re going to remember them. Uhle was a very good pitcher, worth about 77% of our decade leader, but he wasn’t an all-time great. So we forget him. Here’s something we should remember. Twice in his career he threw 300+ innings, both times leading the league. And only twice from 1921-1930 did he throw fewer than 200 innings. Want to guess when those seasons happened? You got it – both times were right after he threw 300+. Sure, he’s just one example. But there are hundreds. Thousands. Pitching isn’t natural. Arms break down.
#5 Stan Coveleski: He jumps a couple of spots because of a great 1920 World Series despite having just 75% of the value of our decade leader. In that year’s Fall Classic, Coveleski’s Indians took on the Brooklyn Robbins. Covey pitched the opener, leading the Tribe to a 3-1 win. In Game 4, now behind a game in the Series, Cleveland tied it with Coveleski getting the 5-1 victory. With the Indians up 4-2 after six games, they closed things out with a 3-0 shutout behind Coveleski, baseball’s best pitcher from 1917-1925.
#4 Urban Shocker: For some reason I’m a bit perturbed about the suggested weakness of the modern pitcher today. I can’t tell you precisely what’s gotten this bee into my bonnet as I write this decade’s profiles, but it’s certainly there. Shocker was a member of the 1927 Yankees, so were some other excellent pitchers. Only one of them topped 213 innings. That’s Waite Hoyt at 256.1. Only one of them topped 27 starts. That’s Hoyt at 36. Five guys started at least 20 games. Wilcy Moore, he of only a dozen starts, was second on the team in innings. Today’s pitchers aren’t weak. Yes, they pitch fewer innings and throw fewer complete games than ever in the game’s history, but there are plenty of examples throughout baseball history just like the 1927 Yankees. Oh, and Shocker is worth 79% of the decade leader.
#3 Dazzy Vance: Vance is about the 40th best pitcher ever, give or take, and he pitched only 33 innings in the majors before his age-31 season. While he did win 133 games in the minors, it’s not like he was ready so long before he got the call for good in 1922. Once the Dodgers promoted him, he rewarded them with seven consecutive strikeout titles, a 1924 pitching triple crown, and a 1924 MVP that he almost deserved despite 12.1 WAR from Rogers Hornsby that year. His K rate was remarkable. Of the top-47 pitchers of the decade in innings, Vance had a K-rate of 17.2%. Only Walter Johnson at 11.7% and Bob Shawkey at 11.6% topped even 9%. As great as he was, he only put up 81% of the value of our decade leader.
#2 Walter Johnson: By 1920, the Big Train wasn’t the best pitcher ever any longer. Sure, he had another three strikeout titles, two FIP crowns, and a pitching triple crown in 1926 left in him. But he had only 32.6 pitching WAR from 1920 on. Still, his formula actually puts him as the top guy in the decade, just ahead of Grover Cleveland Alexander. However, for reasons you can read below, I drop him to #2.
#1 Pete Alexander: The 1920s weren’t a great decade for pitchers. Alexander and Johnson were better a decade earlier. And we have a lot of guys lower on this list who were great but not elite, and good but not great. For the second consecutive decade, Pete Alexander comes up a bit short of first place on our list, this time with 98% of our leader’s value. However, were we not to include career value in the formula, Alexander would come out ahead. I really like the idea of career value having some impact. It helps to keep the riff raff out. But ‘ol Pete is no riff raff. So even though his total is only 98% of Johnson’s, I’m going to name him the pitcher of the 1920s.
In a week, we’ll tackle the 1930s where, unfortunately, I won’t have much opportunity to talk about Van Lingle Mungo, one of the best names in the game’s history.
Remember when it seemed like every shortstop in baseball was from San Pedro de Macoris in the Dominican Republic? If you do, you actually misremember just like I do. As I type this, there have been 97 players in history from a city of fewer than 400,000 people, which is incredibly impressive. Somewhat to my surprise, only 29 of them ever played shortstop. Only eleven of those guys came to the plate 1000 times in the majors. And only four played more than 50% of their games at short: Pepe Frias, Manny Lee, Rafael Ramirez, and Tony Fernandez, a player we both rank among the 50 best shortstops ever.
Interested in other lists in this series or how our systems work? Check out these posts.
I got out my meat thermometer, and it’s indicating that Tulo is almost fully cooked. His hitting has slid below average, he can’t stay healthy, and the switch to normal altitude has not stemmed his injury-proneness one bit. I’d be shocked, though delighted, if he reached #30 in my rankings. —Eric
For the last six years, Tulo has averaged fewer than 100 games per. Surprise, surprise, he’s on the DL again. At just age 32, it would seem that the productive part of his career is over, which is extremely sad. Like David Wright, he’s a cautionary tale about how a surefire Hall of Fame career could be curtailed. Fans of guys like Yadier Molina and Evan Longoria might take note. Almost there doesn’t mean you’re there. Tulowitzki may jump a spot or two before he’s done. Then again, he may fall too.—Miller
We only talk about Hanley here because he tops Maury Wills by 0.35 in my system. As you may note, he’s not in Eric’s top-40. When the Sox spent over $180 million on him and Pablo Sandoval in the winter of 2014, I was horrified. Why would the team need two third basemen, I asked. It turns out they actually signed zero. And if I’m being fair, I liked the Ramirez signing and only objected to Panda. I was quite wrong. He’s averaging less than half a win per year in Beantown, can’t play the field, can’t run the bases, and kind of can’t hit anymore either. With 497 trips to the plate this year, he’ll pretty much trigger a $22 million deal in 2019. I’m hoping he struggles enough early on that they can justify sitting their Opening Day #3 hitter. He’s about as likely to finish outside my top-40 than in it.—Miller
Speaking of guys at the end of the line. Headlines told us that Hanley was in the best shape of his life this Spring. When they start writing that, the gig is almost up. With Mitch Moreland and J.D. Martinez, and three amazing young outfielders, and in the days of 13-man bullpens, the Sox have little use for a lousy-fielding, below-average hitting first baseman/DH. Ramirez could be done much more quickly than you’d think.—Eric
Pretty much no one has talked about that top-flight shortstop, Donie Bush. And even few would rate him higher than Davey Concepcion. I know for sure that Joe Morgan would take personal umbrage upon hearing about it.—Eric
There’s this guy some of you may have heard of, a guy who received a pretty disgusting amount of Hall of Fame support in January, a guy who is sometimes considered the defensive equal of Ozzie Smith (insanely), a guy who is frequently called the best defensive shortstop since Ozzie (blasphemous in a world where Andrelton Simmons exists), a guy who….I could go on, and I have in a ton of posts. Just put his name into the search bar. You’ll see. If we offered a third group of 20 in the shortstop series, he wouldn’t even appear there.—Miller
Probably Hughie Jennings. We are within just a few ranks of one another, granted, but Miller has him 7 points over the in/out line, while I have him smack-dab on it. And I’m not even sure how much I agree with me. Jennings has a compelling case as a combo manager-player, but it’s a weird one. Hughie wasn’t a great manager, but he was above average and for a very long time—which, of course, is the exact opposite of his playing days when he ruled the roost for four or five years and otherwise earned next to no value.—Eric
It’s a peak thing. Hughie is seventh best at the position, and that shoots him up the charts. It’s also a consecutive thing. He’s second only to Honus Wagner. Jennings is the player who most makes me question my system. That’s okay. It’s not like I’m really working on a HoME argument for him.—Miller
We could talk about Jennings for a long time because his case pushes the envelope in nearly every way. Do either of our systems over-reward peak performance? If so, Jennings becomes a no-go pretty quickly. Then there’s Johnny Ward. He pitched for about as long as Jennings peaked, then Monte turned into Maury Wills for about a dozen years. Nineteenth Century pitching twists pitching systems into knots on the best of days, and when we then combine it with a long and productive career in the field, things can get weird. And just as soon as BBREF releases updated Rbaser for seasons with PBP during Joe Sewell’s career, we expect him to jump a couple ranks.—Eric
In one week, it’s catchers. And perhaps some surprises.
There are only three pitchers who have any legitimate claim as the best in baseball history, at least for my money. One is Roger Clemens. In order for you to call him the best ever, you have to adjust quite a bit for era, which is something a reasonable person may choose to do. Clemens pitched at a time of diminishing innings, five-man rotations, and changing expectations. Of course, you may also have to ignore PED allegations to say he’s the best. As someone who hardly adjusts for era, I couldn’t call Roger the best ever. Nor could I give that title to Satchel Paige. Oh, he may have been. But even with the incredible work Eric is doing to help us better understand Negro League statistics, there is too much left to legend and guesswork to anoint Satch the best ever.
That leaves one guy.
Oh, wait, I’m not an ex-player voting for the Hall of Fame using only selected memories.
That leaves one guy.
Walter Johnson was the Babe Ruth of pitchers. He was the Willie Mays of pitchers. He was the Mike Trout of pitchers. Hell, he was the Cy Young of pitchers. Just in terms of straight pitching WAR, he was over 10 on six occasions. Since 1910, he’s had the best season on the mound. And the second best. And five of the best 16. So since 1910, there have been 16 seasons of at least 11.2 on the mound. The Big Train had five of them. All other pitchers in the last 118 years had the other 11.
Yeah, Walter Johnson is the best pitcher in baseball history.
#10 Wilbur Cooper: To me, Cooper is a borderline HoMEr, though just on the wrong side of the borderline. And he’s my favorite pitcher ever named “Wilbur”, which is saying something in a battle with Wilbur Wood. Cooper was more very solid than great, eight times in the period we’re covering reaching 3.8 WAR on the mound but never topping 7.0. Still, Cooper is an all-time great Pirate, first in wins, second in pitching WAR, and third in strikeouts in the team’s history. Alas, the Pirates never made it to the World Series during Cooper’s time there, instead waiting until the first season he was gone to get there. A fine pitcher, Cooper is worth just 29% of that of our decade leader.
#9 Nap Rucker: It’s a little surprising to see Rucker on this list since his last full season was 1913, though at only 32% of our leader, I guess nothing is too surprising. The lefty’s 134-134 career mark somewhat obscures his talent since his team played at a frighteningly bad .430 rate when he wasn’t on the mound. I think it’s so interesting how team names change. The team for whom Clayton Kershaw has played his whole career was the Brooklyn Dodgers for 47 years. We all know that. But they were the Brooklyn Robins for 18 years before that. And they were the Brooklyn Superbas for 15 years before that, the Brooklyn Bridegrooms for the eleven before that, the Brooklyn Grooms for the previous five, the Brooklyn Gray for the three prior, and the Brooklyn Atlantics in their inaugural campaign of 1884. Ask a Dodger fan what names his/her team has gone by. I’d bet not more than 2% can name them all.
#8 Eddie Plank: We’re taking a guy with 35% of our decade leader a little out of order here. Plank was more of a pitcher of the previous decade, and a great one at that, charting #3 on our list. We drop him one spot here since a little more of his “decade” total than I want is based on his work outside the decade. On the other hand, he did pitch further into the decade than Rucker. At 326 wins without a victory title, I soooo wanted to say that Plank had the most in his career without such a title. But I can’t. Pud Galvin won 46 games in both 1883 and 1884. But Old Hoss Radbourn beat him both years. And Charlie Buffinton beat him in 1884 too. For trivia, we can call him the all-time lefty victory leader until he was passed by Warren Spahn and later Steve Carlton.
#7 Hippo Vaughn: Yes, he was given his nickname for reasons you can imagine. Known most today for a 1917 game in which he and Fred Toney each threw no-hitters, Vaughn was indeed a star, particularly from 1916-1919 when his pitching WAR never fell below 6.5. At just 34% of our decade leader, he was still a great pitcher. The end came quickly for Vaughn though. A 1921 season that saw him post a 6.01 ERA through 17 games ended on July 9 outing. After that, he never again showed up to the team. Read about this story. Fascinating. Odd.
#6 Babe Adams: Were it not for the four innings tossed for the 1906 Cardinals, Adams would be a member of the HoME’s Pirate Rushmore. As it is, he’s a borderline HoMEr with over 50 career WAR and 36% of our decade’s leader in what I’m calling value. Adams had an interesting career, not really getting going until he was 27, basically getting released because of a bum shoulder, pitching in the minors for two years, and returning to star or quasi-star status from age 37-40. No blurb about Adams is complete without mention of his three complete game victories against the Tigers in the 1909 World Series.
#5 Ed Walsh: At fifth best, he still clocks in at only 39% of our decade leader. Walsh is in the Hall, he was 7th on last decade’s list, and he has the best ERA ever. I should make a resolution for 2019 where I read one SABR Bio Project profile every day. Walsh’s suggests he was somewhat of the pitching equivalent to Keith Hernandez, attacking bunts like a hungry animal might attack a fresh kill.
#4 Eddie Cicotte: You may know Cicotte as the pitcher whose plunking of Morrie Rath to open the 1919 World Series let the conspirators know that the fix was in. He was also one of the greatest pitchers ever. Since the start of the American League, there have been only five better pitchers from age 33-36 in either league. And despite his removal from the game when he was still near his peak, he’s 73rd in career WAR on the mound. At 41% of our decade leader, he’s the only one of our top four who isn’t among the ten best ever to play the game.
#3 Christy Mathewson: Perhaps you could say that Mathewson is to Walter Johnson as Greg Maddux is to Roger Clemens – one of the absolute greatest ever but pretty clearly a shade behind. In this decade he went 2-4 in the World Series with a 1.33 ERA in eight starts. In the previous decade, 1905 specifically, he made three starts, threw three shutouts, and won games 1, 3, and 5 as his Giants beat the A’s in five games. The second best pitcher of the previous decade, Big Six boasts 42% of the value of our decade leader.
#2 Pete Alexander: I love fun trivia! ‘Ol Pete was named for President Grover Cleveland and portrayed by President Ronald Reagan in The Winning Team. Since 1915, Alexander had three seasons of 30 or more wins. All other pitchers in the game did so on only four occasions. He shares the record for most pitching triple crowns (3) with Walter Johnson and Sandy Koufax. And in what was one of the greatest decades by a pitcher ever (one of seven pitchers ever with 100 points by my formula), he’s not quite worth 2/3 of our leader.
#1 Walter Johnson: With apologies to Cy Young’s shortened decade of the 1890s, I have absolutely no trouble saying that Walter Johnson’s 1910s represent the best decade by any pitcher ever. For this decade, I count 100% of WAR from 1910-1919, 90% from 1909 and 1921, 80% from 1908 and 1922, 70% from 1907 and 1923, and 10% of his career mark for reasons I sort of explain here. There are the best seven scores I referred to above:
Player Decade Score Walter Johnson 1910s 151.34 Cy Young 1900s 115.06 Cy Young 1890s 112.48 Roger Clemens 1990s 103.75 Lefty Grove 1930s 102.21 Tom Seaver 1970s 101.50 Pete Alexander 1910s 100.02
Can the Big Train produce another championship in the 1920s? Find out in a week.
As you might know, our friends at BBREF updated their WAR numbers last month. And that means we have to update ours as well. While the changes aren’t really significant, they’re not nothing either. This is our first post with Miller’s updated numbers. Eric’s will be coming shortly.
If you’re looking for posts with the previous BBREF numbers, the first six in this series are below. By the end of this series, when our rankings find a permanent home on the site, the small updates will be made to these lists as well.
Because Troy Tulowitzki can’t stay healthy? There’s some truth in that because a Tulo who could manage even 140 games a season would be in or close to the top 20. Throw out his 2006 cuppa coffee, and he’s managed a mere 112 games a year. Which is a shame because he’s averaged 5.5 WAR per 162 games during his career. Beyond that? There’s a gaping generational gap between the Trinity + Tejada generation and today’s shortstops. Jimmy Rollins, Michael Young, Hanley Ramirez, Jose Reyes, and Jhonny Peralta were the best of the first wave afterward. The next wave probably included Elvis Andrus, Brandon Crawford, and Andrelton Simmons. But wow! Look at the young talent at shortstop right now! Correa, Lindor, Seager, Bogaerts, Russell. This position is stocked, and those guys will be jetting up our rankings starting this year. One name missing here: Manny Machado. Instead of becoming the next Cal Ripken, he’s the next Brooks Robinson. But who knows, if he’s dealt this year or departs Charm City as a free agent, he might go someplace that needs a shortstop.—Eric
It’s just a coincidence, I think. The 90s were a great time for AL shortstops with A-Rod, Jeter, Nomar, and Tejada. The 70s were a great time for NL pitchers with Seaver, Carlton, Niekro, Blyleven, Jenkins, Perry, and Sutton. There have been down times too. Perhaps now is one at shortstop. On the other hand, with Corey Seager, Carlos Correa, Francisco Lindor, and others on the scene today, the drought may not last for too long.—Miller
What’s my deal is with Jack Glasscock? All reasonable systems have him in the Hall. Most say he’s among the best ten shortstops ever. But nobody has him as high as third. So I’ve looked into my system. I first thought the numbers might be so high because of my DRA adjustment. I looked into DRA and found that early players populate most of the top spots on the career list. So then I began to consider counting pre-1893 DRA less than I do. Somewhat to my surprise, I found that I had already made that decision. The good news, I suppose, is that my thought process is pretty consistent. The next thing I looked at is my consecutive stat since that’s something few people use. Well, that’s not it either. Though Glasscock’s consecutive number is pretty great, it’s less great than his peak, prime, or career number. Then it struck me. Glasscock has the third best peak numbers, and my system is very peak-centric. That’s pretty much the whole story.—Miller
That’s easy! Derek Jeter. But it raises the question, Whose conventional wisdom? After all, the argument over just how bad Saint Derek’s defense was has raged for a baseball generation or more. If you disbelieve defensive stats and/or you’re a Yankees fan, you’ve probably got him among your top shortstops ever. If you have some trust in current defensive analysis, you’re a seamhead like us and you’re more comfortable with a ranking like this. In which case, you have plenty of others to choose from in our top twenty. At no position does defense play a larger role in moving our rankings one way or the other.—Eric
Besides the fact that I rank Ernie Banks as a shortstop rather than a first baseman, it’s Pebbly Jack Glasscock. We both think much more highly of him than the average person, but Miller’s run him very far up the flagpole. For what it’s worth, Glasscock is a missing Hall of Famer, but I fear he’ll never be elected simply due to his unfortunate name.—Eric
It’s a peak thing. The Hall will eventually get his case right, though it’s likely to take some time.—Miller
Believe it or not, the answer is A-Rod. No, he’s not overrated due to his likely sports-drugs usage. You know that’s not our hobby horse. Instead, it’s because A-Rod spent this close to half his days at third base, but he spent just this many more at shortstop. In my system, shortstop is a little tougher set of competition than third base. Mike Schmidt, my number one third baseman, and A-Rod, my number two shortstop have very similar profiles in my systems, and if I were to blithely paste A-Rod’s numbers over Schmidt’s, he would rate number 1 at third base and raise his CHEWS+ by about three points. These are very small little nits I’m picking here, but it does go to show that even these little things make a difference in our perceptions.—Eric
Well, maybe we overrate Glasscock some. However, the real guy our systems underrate, I think, may be Jeter. If you noticed above, he isn’t even in my top-20. In neither of our systems do we include any playoff performance for position players. I stand by that decision. Giving playoff credit to hitters is sort of like judging MVP votes on runs batted in. They’re both based more on opportunity than talent. Still, it’s not like those 158 playoff games didn’t happen. Would the Yankees have won the 1996 World Series were it not for his 10th inning single in Game 4? How about in 2000 when he was World Series MVP? There are other moments to point to as well, I’m sure. His 200 hits, 111 runs, and .308/.374/.465 line make me think bumping him up a few ranks would be just fine. Even if we did, he’d still rank below where most people rank him.—Miller
Next week we’ll welcome Derek Jeter to our second list, shortstops 21-40.
Addie Joss is in the Hall of Fame. On at least a couple of levels, he doesn’t deserve it. First, he played only nine seasons, one short of the minimum number required to make someone a Hall of Famer. It seems that the Veterans Committee in 1978 just kind of ignored the rule. The other way in which he doesn’t belong is that he’s unqualified. Yes, his career lacked depth, but it also lacked the greatness that a short career pitcher would need. He was never in the top-two in his league in WAR, and only three times was he in the best five. Compare that to Johan Santana. He was second once and first three other times – at a time when there were many more pitchers in the league.
So why is Joss in the Hall? I suspect it’s because of the 1.89 career ERA, which is second all-time. Of course, he pitched at a time when ERAs were incredibly low. In fact, he only led the league twice. And his 142 ERA+ is tied with Brandon Webb for 12th in history. Webb, actually, isn’t a miserable comp for Joss. Interestingly enough, the guy who he trails in ERA, Ed Walsh, is the man he faced when he threw his 1908 perfect game, the fourth in the game’s history.
#10 Doc White: A fine but underappreciated pitcher, White pitched five straight shutouts in 1904, just a few months after Cy Young did the same. Sixty-four years later Bob Gibson and Don Drysdale repeated that feat. And of course, Orel Hershiser pitched five straight shutouts in 1988. Had his Dodgers scored a single run over his ten innings on September 28, it would have been six. White, of course, is the only one of that group largely lost to history. That’s because he’s only about the 120th or 130th best pitcher ever, and he’s worth 45% of our decade’s leader.
#9 Mordecai Brown: Brown, I think, has a better reputation than record because of his cool “Three Finger” nickname and accompanying story. Not that we wasn’t a great player, he was. But like Derek Jeter, Pete Rose, Sandy Koufax, and others, the story turns great into larger than life. Regarding this list, Brown is pretty impressive. He didn’t pitch at all until 1903 (and as far back as 1897 counts as part of the decade), and he wasn’t a star until 1906. Yet, he’s the 9th best pitcher in the decade and 46% as valuable as our leader.
#8 Jack Powell: Sort of infamously, Powell holds the record for most wins by a pitcher with a losing record. Sure, he was 245–254 in the bigs, but he did so with an above average 106 ERA+. Somewhat interestingly, at least to me, is that his best three seasons on the mound were his first three, all with 6+ WAR, a level he’d never hit again. He clocks in at 48% of our decade’s leader.
#7 Ed Walsh: Walsh first pitched in 1904. He first started over 13 games in 1906. In other words, he’s hardly a pitcher of this decade, yet I rank him as 7th best, 52% of the leader. That’s because the all-time ERA champ absolutely tore it up from 1907-1912, all of which count toward his decade total. In those six seasons, he once won 40 games, five times topped 360 innings, and three times reached 10 WAR on the mound.
#6 Joe McGinnity: The “Iron Man” had a short career, only ten seasons, but all of them counting toward this decade. In only four seasons of his career did he have an ERA+ higher than 117. Johan Santana did so nine times. I wonder what would have happened to Santana if he had a cool nickname. Or if Santana will top 55% of his decade’s leader’s total.
#5 Rube Waddell: With six straight K titles from 1902 through 1907, I once made the argument that Waddell might be the best strikeout pitcher ever. Whether or not that’s true, he sure was a star, winning the pitching triple crown in 1905. He also won the ERA+ title and had the most WAR in the AL that year. Even with 1905 and a number of other great campaigns in the decade, he’s still at only 55% of our leader.
#4 Vic Willis: A quick review of Willis’ BBREF page reminds us that over a century ago, the game was pretty much the same as it was when Seaver, Carlton, and Perry ruled the mound. On one hand, 110 is a huge number of years ago. Oh, and 40 or 50 is too. Man, I’m old. And Willis was worth about 59% of the decade leader.
#3 Eddie Plank: His best single-season pitcher WAR during this period was only 40th best among hurlers, and Plank’s decade is only worth 67% of our leader’s. However, Gettysburg Eddie added a bit with the bat. He was also, depending on how you look at it, a great post-season pitcher, an awful post-season pitcher, or a product of his times. In seven career World Series appearances, he had a 2-5 record with a 1.32 ERA. So let’s explore. In the first game of the 1905 Series, he took the 3-0 loss as his A’s were shut out by Christy Mathewson and the Giants. Four days later, an unearned run gave Joe McGinnity and New York a 1-0 win. Back in the World Series six years later, he won Game 2, 3-1 in a rematch with New York. Then in relief of Jack Coombs in Game 6, a Fred Merkle sacrifice fly gave Plank his third loss in just two-thirds of an inning. The next year the two hooked up again, and this contest ended just as Plank’s first one did, with a 3-0 loss to Christy Mathewson, albeit in 10 innings this time. A two-hitter in Game 5, however, gave the A’s the 1913 title, again against Mathewson. And his final start in the Fall Classic came the next year, losing the second game of a sweep against the Miracle Braves, this one a 1-0 loss. So in the four losses he took as a starter, his team scored a combined zero runs for him. Not much he could do about that.
#2 Christy Mathewson: Coming in at 86% of our leader is the World Series foe of Plank and one of the handful of best pitchers ever. I see him as #6, while Eric puts him at #10. Overall, he posted five of the 31 seasons of more than 9 WAR in the period we’re researching. To answer the above question about Plank’s post-season greatness or lack thereof, Mathewson might be instructive. He was 5-5 overall in the World Series, but with an ERA of 0.97. At least his teams scored a run in each of his five losses. Overall, Mathewson had five World Series starts with no earned runs, five others with one or two, and just one with more than that.
#1 Cy Young: And for the second consecutive decade, the game’s best pitcher was Cy Young. Of the twelve best seasons by pitching WAR in the aughts, he had four of them, including a 12.6 pitching WAR gem in the AL’s inaugural season of 1901. Before you get too excited about the quality of competition that year, Young was the only one who stood out like he did. In fact, only Joe McGinnity (7.6) and Roscoe Miller (7.1) racked up even 7 WAR on the mound. Perhaps you could say the AL lacked stars.
In a week, we’ll see if anyone can dethrone Cy Young in the 1910s. Spoiler alert – Young retired in 1911.
As everyone knows, Bryce Harper is a free agent after the 2018 season. So is a guy named Manny Machado. They both entered the majors when they were 19, and they both turn 25 this season. At times, they’ve both had ups and downs, fits and starts, but for their careers, they’re within four games played of each other. As close as they are in games, Machado has produced 28.0 WAR compared to 26.1 for Harper. Though a relatively small one, it’s a lead nonetheless.
On Machado’s side, he has had a great glove. He also have a better health record than Harper. But I worry about Machado on a couple of levels. First, the glove appears to be in decline already. Second, as a young player to have such negative value on the bases makes me think he’s going to become a bat-only guy when he hits about 30. Third, he has awful GIDP numbers, losing seven runs in those situations. In combination with his questionable baserunning, his DP rate makes me worry a tiny bit about what’s in his future.
Machado may already have a bit of an old-player body. Only seven other guys were at least -5 on the bases and grounding into two in their first six years through age 24. One is Miguel Cabrera, which bodes well. And another is Joe Torre, but I suspect teams are hoping for more than a Torr-like career for Machado. The other five are Brian McCann, Jim Presley, Lance Parrish, Billy Butler, and Ken Reitz. That’s a much less positive group. Of course, when I narrow to such poor speed numbers through a young age, I’m doing a couple of things. First, I’m eliminating many of those who didn’t start as early as Machado. Second, I’m including somewhat older players who were really slow. But the list is the list, and it doesn’t make Machado look so great.
So for the first time, I’m a little worried for the 3B I rank 70th and Eric ranks 74th.
To better follow this series, check out how we rank players and the early posts in this series below.
Obviously, I’ve already got him over my personal line by all indications. I’d prefer he tacked on some more bulk to his resume, however. In 2018, Longoria escapes the anonymity of Tampa Bay, moving over to the Bay Area to see if the Buster Posey/Madison Bumgarner Giants have one last gasp in them. Four years ago, at age 28, Longoria appears to have made a conscious decision to swing a lot more often, especially on the first pitch. He suddenly went from about a 22% first-pitch swing rate to 30%. Consequently, he sees fewer and fewer deep counts, walks about half as often as he did five years ago, but still strikes out just as often. Scary thing is that his power seems to be dribbling away. Maybe that’s why he made that switch? Or maybe it results from it. Or maybe that’s what it’s like when you’re the only threatening hitter in your batting order? I guess we’ll find out this year. The Giants have more good hitters in their lineup than the Rays have recently. Perhaps a change of organizational philosophy and lineups will rejuvenate him. He’ll make it HoME, though.—Eric
Longoria is not yet a HoMEr for me, and Eric is right that he’s no longer the player he once was. But he’s a sort of metronome. He plays every day, and he’s put up 3.3-3.9 bWAR each of the last four seasons. My translations suggest a bit more of a decline though. Plus, he’s 32 now, and further decline may be coming quickly. Still, seasons of 3, 2, and 1 WAR get him past Sal Bando on my list. That means he’s very likely getting in. My call is that he’s a bit better than that. Let’s say he gets past Bando and McGraw but falls short of Tommy Leach at #20. Of course, I’ve been overrating Longoria most of this decade. Maybe I’m underrating him now?—Miller
I don’t know. I submit. Sadly, I think Wright does too. He was such a no-brainer Hall of Famer until injuries pretty much ended him in 2015. I still have a dream that he’ll come back, which I suspect he shares. It’s nice to dream. As far as the HoME, he’s going to fall short.—Miller
David Wright’s got to be done, right? By signing Todd Frazier this off-season, the Mets all but publicly acknowledged it. Wright leaves behind a career this close to the in/out line. Actually, he’d do a lot to improve the Hall of Fame’s standards at third base. For our little reliquary of greatness, he probably falls a tad short, but he’s in the gray zone.—Eric
This fella is perhaps the most interesting player on the list above. For me he’s #41, and even a decent campaign this year will shoot him up my list. Three WAR buys him 8 spots and ahead of Larry Gardner. Four WAR adds another four slots, tying him with Stan Hack. A five-WAR, All-Star level season would slide him between Toby Harrah and Bob Elliott for 28th place. Six WAR nudges him past Elliott. Donaldson’s put together 85% of a strong peak, and he needs to keep producing at a high rate and stay on the field more often if he’s going to make a serious run at the HoME. He’s really not that far off, but his age, his late start, and his injuries last year make his path very uncertain.—Eric
I like Donaldson more than Eric does at this point, which surprises us. But I’ve modified my position over the years to favor peak more than I once did (see our Machado rankings above). Donaldson, of course, is a perfect peak candidate, great on a per-game basis every year from 2013-2017. Last year, though, he was hurt. Guys who play their first full season when they’re 27 can’t afford to get hurt. Ever. I’m hoping for Donaldson; I’m not expecting any sort of real run toward the HoME though. Like Eric, I think a 6-win season shoots him up the rankings, into 27th place, just behind Ron Cey. One more after that means he’s pretty much in. Still, I’ll take the under.—Miller
Depends on whose wisdom. The wisdom of the ancients said that Pie Traynor was the best third baseman ever. We know now that’s not true or close to it. In analytical circles it’s no surprise that Traynor finishes nearer to forty than to the HoME, for those of a certain age, it may be shocking. By Sabrmetric wisdom, Tim Wallach’s high finish might raise eyebrows. He didn’t walk much, and folks really don’t think about him much thanks to a career spent mostly in French-speaking areas. But the power was strong, and the glove too. But by my own conventional wisdom, Ron Cey ranks as one of the most pleasant surprises of this whole exercise. He’s very, very close to electable, which I would never, ever have predicted when we started. If he hangs onto his game just one or two years longer, it’s a different story.—Eric
Do people think Ken Caminiti has a position even in the Hall of Very Good? I don’t think so. More than Caminiti, however, I think Toby Harrah had a career that would surprise a lot of people if they took a close look. And friends, this isn’t a DRA thing. Using that measure, Harrah looks worse than he does by my ratings. So why was he so valuable? First, he drew a ton of walks, 80+ on eight occasions. He could also run the bases like few others. Would you have guessed we was in the top two dozen from 1961-1990? I don’t think I would have. But he’s there. He’s even better in terms of walks, ranking 11th in unintentional passess. Only Pete Rose had more with fewer homers.—Miller
Curiously, I tend to be more interested in peak performance than Miller, but we appear to have swapped predilections with Stan Hack and Bill Bradley. The former’s career-oriented case plays better in my system than Bradley’s more peak-centered case. The latter of which plays up for Miller.—Eric
Shh, don’t tell Eric. I’ve tilted quite a bit toward peak myself.—Miller
Yes. In Stan Hack’s case, we suspect that once BBREF crunches its PBP numbers for the 1930s and early 1940s, the Cubbies third baseman will pick up 20 or 30 runs. His current baserunning value is depressed by his awful stolen base rates, but his advancement rates once on base are good. Even more so, as a somewhat quick, lefty hitter, he probably has a lot of hidden GIDP-avoidance value. The combination of these positive upgrades on his value could push him beyond Elliott and near to Cey in my rankings. Harlond Clift and Traynor, himself, might also gain.—Eric
Please join us a week from today when we share with you Honus Wagner and the next 19 shortstops.
If you’re looking for a time that baseball basically became the game we know today, look to 1893. That’s when the mound moved to today’s distance, 60’6”. For that reason, we’re altering our system and ignoring years before 1893 as we search for the best pitcher of the 1890s. Depending on your historical perspective, the 1930s may have ended on September 1, 1939 when Germany invaded Poland or on December 7, 1941 with the bombing of Pearl Harbor. Some might say the 1960s didn’t end until the fall of Saigon in 1975. Music fans might say that the 1990s started with Nirvana’s release of Nevermind in 1991. And perhaps historians will say the 2020s started with the 2016 election of Donald Trump. I don’t know. But I think it’s very clear that the 1890s in baseball didn’t really begin until the mound moved in 1893.
One of the stars of that decade was Clark Griffith. While I’m no expert in math, it’s possible that if we take the harmonic mean of the greatness of everyone in baseball history who fit into three categories of player, manager, owner, pioneer, and umpire, Clark Griffith might top that list. He started his career with the St. Louis Browns and Boston Reds of the 1891 American Association. But he really got going in 1894 with a solid 114 ERA+ despite a 4.92 ERA for the Chicago Colts. He moved to the AL in their inaugural 1901 season as the player/manager of the Chicago White Sox. He later held the same role with the New York Yankees before essentially hanging ‘em up while infrequently playing as manager of the Cincinnati Reds and Washington Senators. He managed the Senators through 1920, inventing the squeeze play and helping to increase relief pitcher usage. In 1919, he became part owner of the Senators, a role he held until his 1955 death. And he brought the nation’s capital their only World Series title ever in 1924. Today, the combination of his playing, managing, and ownership careers has him as member of the Hall of Miller and Eric.
#10 Al Orth: An average pitcher, as his ERA+ of 100 signifies, Orth was at his best during a 27-win 1906 season with the New York Yankees. However, we won’t see him again next decade. Really, he makes the list because, well, because someone had to. The Curveless Wonder, he of a mere 31% of the value our decade’s leader, really didn’t throw the ball all too hard either. In fact, it’s said that the A’s Osee Schrecongost once caught one of his pitches while batting.
#9 Jesse Tannehill: Clearly a better pitcher than Orth, Tannehill only threw three full seasons in this decade, the last two of which were the best of his career. But at 32% of the decade leader, his placement on this list could be debated by anyone with even a little knowledge of the era.
#8 Brickyard Kennedy: ‘Ol Brickyard was a mediocre hurler, compiling just a 102 career ERA+. But when almost all of a player’s career innings are in the range we’re considering, even the mediocre can place. Today we think about a guy like Jon Lester, someone who can’t throw over to first base, and we marvel. How can a major league pitcher have trouble throwing? Well, Kennedy was special too, and not just because of his accumulation of about 33% of the value of our 1890s champ. He could throw to first base – he just couldn’t cover it. So imagine a grounder to first. If the batter could get to the bag before the first baseman, it was going to be a single. That’s a lot worse than anything Lester does. Or doesn’t do.
#7 Nig Cuppy: I’m not going out on much of a limb when I say that racists are idiots. As evidence that there’s tremendous overlap between “racist” and “idiot”, think about the number of natives of India who were harassed or assaulted after 9/11. Cuppy’s “nickname” is another example. He had dark skin, so there’s the name. He was also sometimes known as the “Cuban Warrior”. Dark skin. Of course, he was American, the child of Bavarian immigrants. So he was German. See, idiots. And he was about 34% as valuable as our decade leader.
#6 Pink Hawley: With 10.8 WAR, more than 25% of Hawley’s career value came in 1895, a year during which he made 56 starts, pitched 444.1 innings, and won 31 games. At the plate, he totaled 1.0 WAR that season, almost all of his career total of 1.1. And he drove in 42 runs in just 185 at-bats. I know you want to know why he was called “Pink”. It’s because he was a twin, and the nurse who helped with the birth put ribbons on the boys, one pink and one blue. That’s all it took. By the way, for Hawley and nearly every one of the players I review, I read their SABR Bio Project entry. You should check them out. Hawley had less than 39% of the value of our leader. This decade was truly dominated by two men.
#5 Amos Rusie: Finally we have an excellent pitcher, but one who provided only 45% of the value of our leader. That’s because nearly half of his career innings came prior to the period we’re considering. The best strikeout pitcher of his time, Rusie led the league in K/9 five times in his first seven years. He reached the majors at just age-17, and he only pitched 22 innings after his age-27 season. I rank Rusie as the 24th best pitcher ever, while Eric, who adjusts the early seasons with huge WAR downward more than I do, sees him as 37th. Either way, we approve of the Hoosier Thunderbolt’s induction into the Hall of Fame.
#4 Ted Breitenstein: The lefty from St. Louis is one of four pitchers on this list who registered over 10 WAR in the first season with the mound at 60’ 6”. Only 98 guys even threw a pitch in the NL that year, only 60 of whom didn’t compile negative WAR. Only 38 reached 1.0 WAR, and only 26 reached 2.0. Only five topped 5.8, and four of those were 11.3 or higher without adjustments. Yes, the best pitchers really stood out at that time, which is why Eric adjusts the way he does. Trivially, he pitched a no-hitter in his first major league start, just as Bumpus Jones and Bobo Holoman after him. Jones was the only one to do it in his first appearance. Breitenstein rates just 49% as good as our top guy in the 1890s.
#3 Clark Griffith: Griffith is a hard cat to figure in some ways. On one hand, he’s 66th on the career pitching WAR list. Sounds pretty impressive. On the other, his workload was lighter than that of his mound contemporaries, finishing in the top-10 in innings just twice. The relatively low IP totals might explain some of the difference between my ranking at #48 and Eric’s at #78. That and the quality of play adjustment. When you look at Griffith’s BBREF page, perhaps it’s no wonder that he expanded the role of relief pitchers – it’s how he kept his career going toward the end. At 55% of our decade leader, he’s the first guy on the list even halfway there.
#2 Kid Nichols: We’re talking about a near inner circle guy here with 116.5 career WAR and 83% of our leader’s value. We don’t talk a lot about Nichols today, which isn’t such a surprise given that he retired more than 110 years ago. But maybe we should. Unadjusted, he posted at least 10 WAR on the mound five times. Six more times it was 7+. And when considering the elite of the elite, even with olde tyme dudes, Eric and I see our rankings converge much more; Nichols is #5 for me, #7 for him. Yet, he still only produced 85% of the value of our decade’s leader.
#1 Cy Young: To me, Young trails only Walter Johnson in the conversation of best pitcher ever. I suppose there’s a way to put Roger Clemens or Satchel Paige ahead of him, but nobody else. His best season by straight WAR was right before we started counting in this decade, but he had six more of 10+ on the mound, unadjusted, that we count. Trivially, he threw the first World Series pitch ever, and he’s the only pitcher ever to appear in both the World Series and the Temple Cup, the Fall Classic’s predecessor.
A week from today, we enter the 20th century and the start of the American League
Do you remember the Dickson Baseball Dictionary? I read it. The thing about reading a dictionary is that you retain a shockingly small amount, even if you’re a Know It All. Perhaps I have an excuse for not remembering that, maybe, the term “the hot corner” was coined in the 1880s by Ren Mulford. He used the phrase after Hick Carpenter, the third baseman for the Reds, fielded seven hard hit balls in a game. If we trust Hy Turkin’s The 1955 Baseball Almanac, that’s where the term came from.
As a lefty, a generally un-athletic one at that, I’ve never played third base. However, I did play a bunch of shortstop for my graduate school softball team. Amazingly, I was the right choice to play the position too. Rhetorical theorists, apparently, aren’t super athletes. But I digress. Having never played third base, I know I don’t get it, but I think “horror” is the word I’d use to describe the feelings going on in my head if I did. Back in 1996 or 1997, I was with a couple of buddies at a Red Sox game. We had seats in the second row down the third base line. For some reason, the seats right in front of us were unoccupied. Carlos Delgado was at the plate. He may have been expecting off-speed when the pitcher was coming with heat, so his lefty swing was late. A screaming liner into the stands hit the seat in front of me. I didn’t stick out my hand. Neither did either of my buddies. All I remember is the ball hitting the unoccupied seat and somehow avoiding death.
All of this is to say that third base is scary, though apparently not for these guys. If you want to read about our lists for 1B or 2B, you can do so here.
There was a time when I thought Beltre could possibly challenge Wade Boggs for #4 all time. Then I reconfigured my system a little, making him look just a shade less great. On the other hand, he continues to excel. From age 35-38, he’s tenth in history in WAR. Give him 50 more games last year, and he’s probably sixth. Let’s look at the guys within 3 WAR of him after age 38.
Somewhere between Lajoie and Anson seems very likely. If he’s only as good as Speaker, he’ll jump Chipper and Boyer. No further gain with a decline like Collins or even Aaron. Something like Mays would get him past Home Run Baker. And I don’t even want to imagine what an Anson-like ending would do. I suspect he gains a couple of spots and finishes in seventh, though I wouldn’t be at all surprised if he stopped where he is. —Miller
Assuming that Beltre isn’t toast right this second, even a little positive value will nudge him past Chipper Jones for me. Santo and Baker stand about 5 CHEWS+ away. To reach them, he needs to earn five to seven more WAR. That feels possible to me. He’ll never catch George Brett for fourth in my CHEWS+ rankings. Dude has 10 career WAR and, more importantly, 13 peak WAR on Beltre.—Eric
On one hand, it’s so clearly Brooks Robinson, who we both rank 13th. On the other, 13th for me is essentially interchangeable with 7th. For Eric, it’s probably 9th. And what that means is we still differ from conventional wisdom quite a bit. To the uninitiated, Brooks may be the third or fourth best third baseman ever. Maybe second? —Miller
I’ll go with Buddy Bell. All the eligible guys above him on my list are either in the Hall or the Hall of Merit. Ditto the two guys below him. Now Bell ranks 13th at third base. At risk of spoiling you all for future articles, here’s the top-rated players at each position who are not in the Hall or the HOM:
Bell ranks second in this unfortunate octet, but Jones has been on just one ballot so far. The world has had far longer to reckon up the pros and cons for Bell and find him wanting. There’s a few things driving this particular situation:
That’s an outstanding crop of players, obviously. There’s no shame in coming in behind Schmidt, Brett, and Molitor. Bell, in my rankings, leads the remainder of his generation. He also leads or is even with other important 1970s third basemen such as Graig Nettles and Sal Bando
Buddy Bell was probably the worst manager of the last 80 years, but he’s the best third baseman whose case hasn’t been given an effective vetting. He deserves more support. —Eric
Maybe Scott Rolen. Miller ranks him a good bit lower than I do. Rolen didn’t have many bad or even indifferent years. In later years when injuries ate away at his time on the field, when he played, he tended to play well. CHEWS+ gives a little boost to those who maintain a high rate of performance with incremental boosts for increasing career playing time. That explains a lot of the difference.—Eric
Egad! I rank Ken Boyer 7th, and Eric ranks him 14th. Before you go to press with this huge disagreement, please note that we both place him at 17% over the line. There’s no big dispute.—Miller
There’s some weird shitakes going on with Ned Williamson. In fact, two specific things that confound me and make me wonder if we should upgrade or downgrade him. First, his defense. Williamson is reputed to be an outstanding defensive third baseman. OK, but he was an abysmal shortstop. There’s something about this that does not compute. He played third base through 1885 then moved to shortstop at age 28. He totaled 96 Rfield in his third base years and -6 in 1890 when he returned there. In his four years at shortstop, he earned -3 runs. Well, that’s the BBREF story. Over in DRA land, it’s 185 runs at third base and -41 at shortstop. I’m a little puzzled by this.
BBREF uses a +5 positional adjustment at third base throughout Williamson’s career. At shortstop it’s +10 throughout his career. The positional adjustment approximates the degree of defensive difficulty at each position in runs based on 150 games or 1350 innings. BBREF tells us that Ned played 6295 innings at third base and 3937 at shortstop. If BBREF is right and Williamson was good for +90 defensive runs at third base in those 6295 innings, then we might flip around the equation and say that in those same innings, he’d be worth one half of those 90 runs at shortstop, or 45 runs. That’s based on the fact that the defensive adjustment at third is half that at short. Or to put it another way, if he’s that good at third base, he should be a decent shortstop. At least that’s the operating theory. Or to put it another way, in those 3937 innings at shortstop, he would be doubly valuable defensively as a third baseman. Well, not so much since he’s in negative figures. At best he’d be a little above average. It’s worse when you look at it with DRA.
Look, positional adjustments are approximations, and every player is unique. The game was different, and the difference between the positions was narrower, but that still doesn’t mean that Williamson should have been a better shortstop than he was. There’s two data points that suggest why he might not have been: 5’ 11” and 210 pounds. Still, this one has always rubbed me the wrong way, and I’m a little skeptical that either he was as good a third baseman or as bad a shortstop as the defensive evaluations suggest.
Second, and requiring even more words is his ballparks. In 1883 and 1884, Williamson and his White Stockings called Lake Front Park (II) home. In Green Cathedrals, Phil Lowrey tells us that it had “the shortest outfield distances ever in a Major League Park.” Here they are in feet, per Lowrey.
Lowrey adds that in 1883 a ball hit over the left field fence counted as a double, but in 1884 as a homer. Williamson, Cap Anson, and King Kelly anchored the order, all righty mashers. Thing is, Lowrey doesn’t tell us whether Lake Front Park I and II had the same dimensions or not. From the looks of their team stats, they might have. More on that in a sec. In 1885, the squad moved to West Side Park. Lowrey tells us that the foul lines measured 216 feet, the fences 12 feet, and that “this park was long and narrow, bathtub shaped like the Polo Grounds.” In case you don’t quite get the idea, he adds, “A bicycle track surrounded the field.”
So check this table out. It’s the White Stockings’ team performance for every season that Williamson played for them (he debuted in 1878 with Indianapolis and played his last season in the Players League). Bold is a league-leading team total. The line beneath the White Stockings shows how far ahead or behind the league-leading team they finished.
White Stockings Offensive Performance YEAR PARK G H R 2B 3B HR AVG SLG OPS+ ===================================================================== 1879 Lake Front Park 1 83 808 437 167 54 3 .259 .336 94 -195 -175 + 25 - 1 - 17 -.044 -.045 1880 Lake Front Park 1 84 876 538 164 39 4 .279 .360 119 + 83 +119 + 30 -13 - 16 +.026 +.017 1881 Lake Front Park 1 83 918 550 157 36 12 .295 .380 116 +121 +103 + 13 -17 - 5 +.031 +.019 1882 Lake Front Park 1 84 892 604 209 54 15 .277 .389 116 + 34 +104 + 63 - 5 - 5 +.003 +.021 1883 Lake Front Park 2 98 1000 679 277 61 13 .273 .393 102 - 58 + 10 + 68 -27 - 21 -.011 -.015 1884 Lake Front Park 2 113 1176 834 162 50 142 .281 .446 133 +113 +134 – 17 -19 +103 +.019 +.087
OK, pause for a moment before we continue. The White Sox could hit. They had great hitters on hand. But looking just at the doubles, triples, and homers columns, we can see how much the park shaped their offensive profile. Seems like a good bet that in 1882 the ground rules were similar to 1883, producing lots of doubles, a seemingly normal number of triples and homers. In 1880 and 1881, things are a little less clear, but the same basic principle seems to hold. A team with all these powerful hitters belts relatively few homers and leads the lead in doubles.
Now, let’s roll the table forward.
White Stockings Offensive Performance (Continued) YEAR PARK G H R 2B 3B HR AVG SLG OPS+ ==================================================================== 1885 West Side Park 113 1079 834 184 75 54 .264 .385 115 - 6 +143 + 28 - 7 + 29 +.005 +.026 1886 West Side Park 126 1223 900 198 87 53 .279 .401 115 + 37 + 71 + 15 + 6 + 23 -.001 +.011 1887 West Side Park 127 1177 813 178 98 80 .271 .412 115 - 92 -156 - 35 -30 + 27 -.028 -.022 1888 West Side Park 136 1201 734 147 95 77 .260 .383 113 - 74 + 13 - 33 + 6 + 21 -.003 +.022 1889 West Side Park 136 1338 867 184 66 79 .276 .390 103 - 18 - 68 - 44 -11 + 17 -.006 -.003
The team starts to age out in the latter half of the 1880s, but regardless, we still see their offensive profile shifting toward the power figures and away from doubles. This seems like a better depiction of their actual power than all those doubles.
Now, Williamson stayed pretty healthy until the end of his career. So we can compare his career path to that ballpark chart a little.
YEAR TEAM Rbat ================ 1878 IND 0 1879 CHC +16 1880 CHC + 1 1881 CHC + 1 1882 CHC +13 1883 CHC + 6 1884 CHC +33 1885 CHC + 5 1886 CHC - 3 1887 CHC + 7 1888 CHC +14 1889 CHC - 6 1890 CHI -21
Sure would like to see this guy’s home/road splits, wouldn’t you? In the two seasons he didn’t play for the White Stockings, he was not so hot. When he did, he had a slightly above average batting performance. Except in the year when he could take aim at a wall that Phil Mickelson could flop-shot from US Open rough. In 1883, he set an MLB record in doubles with 49 and topping his second best season by 22. Then there’s 1884 when he set the homers record with 27, crushing his next best seasonal total of 9, adding up to nearly half his career dingers (64), and owning the single-season record for 38 years. So 1884 is very problematic, but even bigger than that is this question: Are BBREF’s park factors handling the White Stockings’ performance accurately? Pretty hard to tell without home/road component splits for the team or its individual players. Compounding that in this case is the difference for righty and lefty hitters due to the big right field wall.
This whole thing gives me the shivers about Williamson’s batting value.
If there’s trouble with those park factors, that means there’s trouble with Williamson. But we can’t know now and will maybe never know what it means to his case, and I’m disinclined to put much stock in his offensive value until we do know. So, yeah, maybe CHEWS+ does overrate him.—Eric
Eric and I are equally uneasy about Williamson, and I’m a bit uneasy about Tommy Leach as well. Leach played third and center, mainly for the Pirates, basically for the first decade and a half of last century. There’s no doubt Leach was a strong defender, +67 runs per BBREF. However, DRA thinks the guy was a minor deity, worth over 130 runs at third alone. Add another 100+ in center, and he’s one of the dozen most valuable defenders ever, and the only one asked to put up such numbers at two positions.
Just how rare is it to see a player with Leach’s games at 3B and CF? Well, he’s the only one with 700 games at both positions. Or 500 games. Dropping it to 250, he’s joined by Frank Thomas (no, not that one), Tommy Harper, Freddie Lindstrom, Pepper Martin, and Chone Figgins. Figgins was a weird dude, topping 120 games only five times in his career. Once he was incredible, with 7.7 WAR in 2009. And generally he was useful, but teams shuffled him around from 2B to 3B to CF, among other positions. He was just average at 3B and in CF, while playing a poor 2B. Pepper Martin was an enigma himself. A Gas House Gang star and World Series hero, he played 100 games only five times, and the Cards played him a bunch at RF in addition to 3B and CF. Like Figgins, he was average at 3B and in CF, while kind of stinky in RF. Freddie Lindstrom was a Frisch-era Hall of Fame selection, which tells you much of what you need to know. In case you’re missing it, yes, he was a poor choice. Defensively, he was no great shakes, a bit of a plus at 3B, a bit more of a minus in CF. Speedster Tommy Harper played all over the outfield in addition to 3B. He was a real plus at each of the corners, but a weak defensive CF. To be fair, he only played one full season there. Frank Thomas, mainly a LF, got into 300+ at both of Leach’s positions. He was very bad at both.
So Leach is unusual in that nobody in the game’s history played the positions he played nearly as frequently as he did. And he’s unusual in that he was great and nobody else was even good. But should we trust DRA? On one hand, I wouldn’t use it to the extent I do if I didn’t generally trust it. On the other, these are the top defenders at an individual position by DRA: Germany Smith (SS), Joe Tinker (SS), Bill Holbert (C), Art Fletcher (SS), Buck Ewing (C), Roberto Clemente (RF), Jimmy Sheckard (LF), Bid McPhee (2B), Tris Speaker (CF), Carl Yastrzemski (LF), Bill Dahlen (LF), Mike Griffin (CF), Frankie Frisch (2B), Jack Glasscock (SS), Arlie Latham (3B), and Fred Clarke (LF). If you’re sensing a pattern here, you’re onto something. Aside from Clemente and Yaz, not one of these guys played a game after 1937. Seven of them never played while the American League existed. So perhaps DRA has a bias toward the game’s early years? What makes me happy is that the post-WWII guys to join Yaz and Clemente are the usual suspects: Keith Hernandez, Ivan Rodriguez, Andruw Jones, Mike Schmidt, Richie Ashburn, Mark Belanger, Brooks Robinson, Albert Pujols, and Willie Mays. You get the point. The system is reasonable, even if tilted some.
Let’s imagine if I ignored DRA and only used Rfield. Tommy Leach would then become a player pretty much like Ken Caminiti, or maybe Mike Cameron. Now Caminiti and Cameron were fine players, but there’s nobody championing their Hall causes, nor should there be. Yeah, I like DRA. I like it a lot. And when someone is great at two positions, there’s an internal check on the system. Still, I’m writing here under the category “players who MAPES+/CHEWS+ might overrate”. Leach may be one.—Miller
Please join us next week when we bring you the second half of third base.
The 1880s were a time of tremendous rule change that would make the game on the field look quite different than the one that preceded it. Eight balls became a walk, then six, five, and by the end of the decade four. In 1883, pitchers were allowed to deliver the ball from above their waist, and four years later requests were no longer granted for high or low pitches. That same year, the hit by pitch became a rule. Sure, we were still a bit away from mitts being used by catchers or the mound being moved to 60’6”, but we’re getting there.
This was also the decade of Pud Galvin. Back in the early days of the HoME, we wrote a decent amount about Gentle Jeems, as he was sometimes called. That’s because I supported his inclusion in the HoME, while Eric wasn’t quite there yet. In fact, it wasn’t until 2012, Galvin’s 52nd time on the HoME ballot, that we saw fit to elect him. He’s a borderliner for sure, but he may not have been if we only considered his pitching and ignored his hitting. You see, Galvin was a disgustingly bad hitter. In all of the game’s history, there have been only 40 players to total -5 WAR or worse for a career. Galvin is the second worst all-time at -9.9 WAR, less awful than only Bill Bergen.
In this series, we’re looking at the best pitcher of the decade. Given that there were no real hitting outliers in the 1870s aside from the special case of Monte Ward, we didn’t really need to define our terms so much. Now we do.
For entrance into the HoME, it was clear that we needed to consider only value, in whatever form it took. For this list, however, if it’s close, we’re going to take the better pitcher. Pud Galvin’s pitching value is quite a bit greater than his overall value in the decade.
The Best Pitchers of the 1880s
#10 Jim Whitney: Man, nicknames were better 150 years ago. Grasshopper Jim is one of eight pitchers ever to win and lose 30 games in the same season. And in his rookie campaign of 1881, he became the only one of those guys to lead his league in both categories. At just 68% of our decade leader’s number, Whitney is no threat for the top spot.
#9 Bob Caruthers: Parisian Bob was from, you guessed it, Memphis. An American Association pitcher every bit as much as our next guy, Caruthers won 40 games in both his first and last year over there. He’s out of order here at 76% of the top guy’s value because a ton of his value was at the plate, 16.8 career batting WAR with two seasons of 4+. He even led the AA in OPB, OPS, and OPS+ in 1886.
#8 Tony Mullane: The Appolo of the Box was a righty pitching switch-hitter from Cork, Ireland who actually threw lefty on occasion. His BBREF page looks a little extra-impressive because of his six-year stint in the relatively weak American Association, all of which gets him to within 72% of our decade leader. Of note, perhaps, is that he holds the all-time wild pitch record at 343. In fact only Nolan Ryan (277), Mickey Welch (274), and Bobby Mathews (253) are within even 100 of the top spot.
#7 Charlie Buffinton: It’s pretty odd for a star pitcher of this era to have only one 30-win season on his ledger. Of course, the one he has is the 48-win campaign in 1884, which helps get him to 77% of the 1880s leader. Only Cy Young and Walter Johnson top his three seasons of 11.2+ pitching WAR. Buffinton is actually the highest rated pitcher on my list who isn’t in the HoME. However, I don’t think he’s so close to getting in because his era is a little clogged. Only time will tell.
#6 Jim McCormick: One of the main reasons McCormick clocks in at #6 is his excellent 1884. See, that was the only year of the Union Association, which wasn’t really a major league. More than half of its players either never or hardly ever played in another major league. And in my adjustments, I treat the UA less well than any season in any major league. McCormick, a guy at almost 78% of our decade’s leader, put up 7.8 pitching WAR in the UA and another 6.7 in the NL that year.
#5 Mickey Welch: Welch is an interesting guy in that he won 307 games and isn’t in the HoME. In fact, we never had real discussions about inducting him. Perhaps that’s because he’s only the fifth best pitcher over the exact years of his career. Four of his five Black Ink titles are in earned runs and walks, so he never really seemed like a star when he played. For his career, he’s tied for 150th all-time in WAR with Juan Marichal. The all-time placing says something about Marichal. It’s a decent ranking. About Welch, it indicates that WAR accumulation was easier when talent distribution was wider. And it explains why we don’t want to over-induct in any era. His 79% of the decade leader is a better reflection of his value than his 95% of HoME-worthiness as noted by my MAPES+ number.
#4 Pud Galvin: Galvin actually ranks #6 in the decade at 78% of our leader, but he’s brought down by his awful hitting. He was a much better pitcher than he was a player overall, buoyed by his outstanding defense and possibly best-in-the-century pickoff move. As a bit of evidence of his move’s greatness, in one inning of an 1886 game, he walked the bases loaded and then picked the guys off first, third, and then second. Back in 1875, Galvin led the NA in ERA. Then he spent three years, by choice I would imagine, in the minors or with unaffiliated teams. Give him those four seasons in the majors, and 400 wins shouldn’t have been a problem.
#3 Old Hoss Radbourn: Nicknames were such a big deal at this time that James Galvin and Charles Radbourn weren’t even known by their given names. Old Hoss used one of the best seasons in baseball history, his 1884 campaign with the Providence Grays, to help him get to within 90% of the 1880s leader. That year, he won the pitching triple crown with a record of 59-12, a 1.38 ERA, 441 strikeouts, and also a 205 ERA+. In all of history, his 19.3 WAR that year were topped only by Tim Keefe’s 20.1 the previous season.
#2 Tim Keefe: And speaking of Smiling Tim, his value for the decade is about 93.5% of the #1 guy. Like many (most?) pitchers of this time, he was a product of his era. Once the mound moved from 55’ to 60’6”, he was pretty much done. Of course, with Keefe, it would seem that his arm died. He pitched through his age-36 season, after all. Even today lots of pitchers don’t do that.
#1 John Clarkson: Is he the greatest player in history who is relatively unknown today? I don’t know. Eddie Collins, Kid Nichols, Roger Connor, and Smokey Joe Williams come quickly to mind too. In fact, Clarkson is the only player in history with three seasons of 13+ WAR. In fact, there are only 20 other such seasons ever.
Many years ago I knew a guy who was writing a book about grave stones of Hall of Famers. Hint, they have about as much to do with baseball as yours will have to do with your job. Anyway, we visited Clarkson’s grave at the Cambridge City Cemetery. And on the same trip, we saw Tim Keefe’s in the same cemetery, not too far away.
A week from now, we’ll get to the 1890s.
We’re pretty excited about this half of the position. That’s because the second half of second base offers us more active players than any other position who aren’t yet HoME quality but could make it there if the final years of their careers go well. It’s also an area where we see a guy like Chuck Knoblauch, a player remembered mostly for his inability to throw the ball to first base, something pretty fundamental to his position. It’s always pretty cool to see a player from the last few decades, someone who most of us saw play, look better than we might expect in the context of his historical peers. Knoblauch was a pretty great player in his Minnesota days. Lists like these point out just how impressive.
If you haven’t yet, please check out the other posts in this series.
Kinsler’s sneaking up on us. But now in his mid-30s, it’s all about the bulk. It’s about piling up career value to complement a decent but not other-worldly peak. In fact, it’s about as good as Tony Phillips’ and Willie Randolph, and Bid McPhee’s respective peaks, and those are the guys he needs to chase down to give himself his best chance. If he sags to the finish, he’ll be in the Doerr/Kent zone, which is not a guarantee of much. Despite that, he’s a lot farther than most might think.—Eric
Sneaking up? Hah! I’ve been on this for years, though two years ago, I used just those words. Yes, Kinsler turned 35 last year, and yes, he had his worst season since his rookie campaign. I want to point to what might be a little bad luck though – a BABIP of only .244. If that rebounds and he maintains positive value in the field and on the bases, he may have some more in him even at age 36. I’m betting he does. On my list, my guess is that he sneaks past Jeff Kent and Bobby Doerr and falls just shy of Tony Phillips. He’s going to end his career as the definition of a borderliner, so an eventual spot in the HoME is possible, though far from certain.—Miller
Yes, Zobrist is “active”, but he’s only had one 2-win season in the last three, and second basemen seldom reverse a decline when they’re 37. Like Kinsler, his BABIP and expected batting average say he got a little unlucky. However, he’s older, and his recent past says that he’s pretty far from his peak. This is a guy who made it when he probably shouldn’t have, playing his first full season at 28, so I don’t want to count him out. Still, I think his chances of falling behind Pedroia are a bit greater than they are of eclipsing Pratt.—Miller
The end is nigh for this generation’s Tony Phillips/Bip Roberts. Even if he tacked on another 10 WAR over the next three years, he’s probably falls short. He has Phillips’ peak but trails by 20 in the Wins department. The late start is the culprit.—Eric
The only thing stopping Pedroia is his own body. An assortment of injuries have wiped out big hunks of seasons and slowed him down a few steps on the bases and in the field. Despite the MVPs and the fun nicknames, he’s got about the same peak value in my book as Johnny Evers , Del Pratt, and Tony Lazzeri. He starts to get real interesting if he tacks on another 10 WAR, but I’m not convinced he can do it physically.—Eric
I couldn’t agree more with Eric’s thoughts here. Laser Show is a pleasure to watch, a little guy who sometimes swings the bat like a right-handed Reggie Jackson. To add to Eric’s point, even when he’s healthy, he’s not, topping 141 games only five times in his career. Yes, it all depends on health, and he’s already going to miss the first month or two of the season. I expect we’ll see him sitting in the front row of the group photo at the Hall of Very Good in his future.—Miller
That’s easy: Tony Phillips. When you think about it, Phillips analogizes nicely with Pete Rose. Both came up as a middle infielder and played wherever the team put them as their careers went along. As hitters, both switch hit, drew a lot of walks, and had occasional power. As people, both had a highly competitive, fiery attitude. Phillips didn’t hit for average, and Rose couldn’t pick it as well as Tony. Rose preferred gambling as his major vice, Phillips preferred cocaine. There’s a kind of player represented by both men that we should dig into at some point….
Anyway, most baseball followers would probably scoff at the idea that Phillips played at anything like a Hall level and laugh at the idea that Phillips would belong in any Hall that elected Pete Rose. Obviously, we disagree. His excellent on-base percentages and periodic pop made him a good hitter. His versatility kept him in the lineup every day. His glove brought him plenty of additional value. We both happen to think DRA is a high-quality defensive evaluation, and it really likes his defense. Add it up, and we find ourselves outside the old main stream. Like that ever happens with us.—Eric
Phillips is the clear answer here. I’d like to throw some support to Bill Mazeroski too. A Hall of Famer, I rank him 53rd, while Eric calls him the 60th best second baseman ever. Clearly, Maz’s reputation is greater than his reality.—Miller
I understand that my ranking for Kid Gleason at 32 is a silly one. Eric, less unreasonably, ranks him 57th. And I think that’s still far too high, or too strange. See, Gleason’s career high in WAR, aside from pitching, is 2.2. And he only topped 1.1 three times. The thing is, he was quite valuable on the mound in 1890, and he was pretty good a few other years. In other words, almost all of his second base rating is based on his pitching. Yeah, that’s silly. Also, the ranking helps to explain why we are not slaves to MAPES+ and CHEWS+. There are some things our systems must miss. And there are others where they are clearly wrong. To me, my ranking of Gleason is the worst ranking either one of us has for any player at any position. I’m not sure any other is really close.—Miller
Actually, Phillips again. We’ve written before that the kind of in-season or in-game versatility that someone like Phillips brings may enable his team to generate extra value and buy the platoon advantage significantly more often than their opponents. That can’t be captured by a positional adjustment. It also creates a significant differentiation with Pete Rose who tended to play a position each year, though he played several throughout his career.
It is also possible that our systems underrate Jacob Nelson Fox. BBREF gives Nellie Fox 120 Rfield for his career. DRA gives him -36. Its creator, Michael Humphreys goes to great lengths attempting to account for the big gap in his book Wizardry. I still end up giving Fox positive fielding value, but nothing like 120 runs. We could also have written up Fox in our conventional wisdom question. He’s in the Hall of Fame. He’s in the Hall of Merit. He tots up to 49 WAR if we use only BBREF’s defensive total. His peak would be about 37 WAR, which in combination with that career total ain’t good enough. The problem for Fox, however, is not really about his defense. It’s about his offense.
Everyone in the world knew that Nellie Fox had no power at all. He couldn’t make a flashlight work with fresh batteries. Which means that someone like Fox must have either an extremely high walk rate or extremely high batting averages to create the amount of offensive value necessary to offset the power problem—while also creating substantial value with applied speed. Fox walked a fair amount, enough that his OBP (.348) was 60 points higher than his batting average (.288). But a .348 OBP ain’t an extremely high OBP. You want that, talk to Maxie Bishop and his .423 OBP on a .271 average.
Here’s the kicker: Fox seems like the perfect candidate to hit for extreme averages:
That’s an Ichiro starter kit!
But Fox didn’t hit like that. The Mighty Mite finished among the top ten in singles 13 times in his career, leading the league eight times. His 2,161 singles rank 28th all time. But Nellie Fox never won a single batting title. He never finished higher than fourth (which he did twice) despite placing among the top ten eight times. He never hit higher than .319. Ichiro Suzuki finished among the top ten in singles twelve times, leading the AL in singles every year 2001–2010. He won two batting average titles and finished second twice. Ichiro topped .319, Fox’s highest average, six times. Getting to extremely high averages does matter when you have no power and don’t draw 100 walks a year.
Then we get to the applied speed part, and things really go south. Despite the Go Go Sox’s reputation in the late 1950s, Fox, himself, didn’t do much with his footspeed. He nabbed 76 bases in 156 career attempts. Blech! His on-base advancement makes up for some of those outs, but he ends up at just +19 runs on the bases for his entire career. Not amazing. Teammate Luis Aparicio was the real speedster at +91 baserunning runs.
With his combination of skills, Fox sounds like he should have had plenty of chances to rack up value at double play avoidance. Fox finished with +16 runs in that department, a third of what Ichiro totaled and almost exactly what Aparicio, a right-handed batter, earned (+17).
So the problem for Fox is that he basically did all the little things a guy with his particular talents could do. But he couldn’t do any of them quite well enough to generate the amount of offense required to create Hall-level value on the foundation of 120 defensive runs and 82 positional runs. There’s no shame in that. Extraordinarily few players whose careers show a substantial tilt toward defense and who don’t hit for power can build up enough offense to put them over the in/out line. Pee Wee Reese, Ozzie Smith, Monte Ward, Dave Bancroft, Art Fletcher, Joe Tinker, Tommy Leach, and Ichiro, of course. These fellas are exceptions that prove the rule.—Eric
Next week, expect a Schmidt storm, as we present our top-20 third basemen ever.