“The ball must be pitched, not jerked or thrown to the bat; and whenever the pitcher draws back his hand, or moves with the apparent purpose or pretension to deliver the ball, he shall so deliver it, and he must have neither foot in advance of the line at the time of delivering the ball; and if he fails in either of these particulars, then it shall be declared a baulk.”
That was section 6 of the rules of the National Association of Base Ball Players (NABBP) in 1860. Section 5 included the line, “The pitcher must deliver the ball as near as possible over the center of the home base and for the striker.” The game in 1860 would hardly be recognizable for us today.
In fact, baseball’s historian, John Thorn, says that the pitcher and batter were something akin to allies, helping to put the ball in play for the fielders to show their stuff. Things really began to change when Jim Creighton entered the game in 1858. He used spin on the ball. And he got paid to do it! The game was changing. Pitchers, at least the best of them, would no longer bu just initiators of play, but defensive weapons.
Sometimes in life you decide to do something because it seems a good idea at the time. And then you get into it. Well, near the beginning of the project, a couple of readers asked that I investigate pitchers of the 1860s, which I thought was a royal idea at the time, but the research has proven problematic for someone like me. If I’m going to say something, I like to know what I’m talking about. I can say with a great deal of confidence, for example, that Rick Reuschel is criminally underrated and belongs in the Hall of Fame. I have little such confidence in this post.
I’m generally going to be guessing as to greatness and rankings today, though I think I did my due diligence. I consulted John Thorn and Bill James (who doesn’t say a lot on the subject). I also used data from Marshall D. Wright’s The National Association of Base Ball Players, 1857-1870 quite extensively. In fact, that’s where I began this project. Wright’s book provides the most comprehensive statistical accounting of the early days of baseball (er, base ball) that I know. However, since most pitchers weren’t as important as other players, only offensive statistics are listed until 1870. Wright does, thankfully, share positions. So I started this project by building a spreadsheet of all players he identified as pitchers from 1857-1870. To make my work easier, if Wright’s work didn’t uncover a first name, I didn’t include the player. It’s hard to believe the name of one of the best pitchers of the decade hasn’t been revealed in 150 years of research, right? This tactic saved considerable time, likely at the expense of nothing.
When I completed my tour through Wright’s work, I was looking at was 206 player seasons. Since there’s no shot someone who pitched only one season is among the top-10, the next thing I did was delete those seasons. That got me to 167 player seasons from 47 pitchers. So I eliminated all of those pitchers with data in just two campaigns, which allowed me to work with a very manageable 26 hurlers. Then I felt my way through as best as I was able. Did I miss someone? Quite possibly. Still, I think my list is generally good, though clearly imperfect.
Charley Bearman: He pitched for four teams in the years right before the NA, and perhaps he was a bit of a carouser.
Candy Cummings: Cummings may or may not have invented the curve ball after years of experimentation, which is said to have been borne out of seeing the motion of clam shells thrown into the ocean. If I had to make a call, I’d say that Jim Creighton was the first to throw a curve, but Cummings is notable nonetheless. He had more of a career in the NA than the NABBP. Otherwise he may have made the list.
Ed Leech: It’s possible he was the pitcher in the second game between nine white and nine black players when his Olympic team of Washington faced the Alert club from the same city. Leech and the Olympics won 56 to 3.
Ed Pinkham: Getting into games with teams from Brooklyn, Greenpoint, and Chicago, Pinkham was like a lot of early pitchers. He converted to the NA, but just for a bit – just three outings on the mound. Trivially, he did lead the 1871 National Association in walks drawn.
Tom Pratt: A part-time pitcher with several teams, Pratt is one of only three players to bat six times in his only major league game. I think.
Al Spalding: He led the NA in wins in every season of the league’s existence, including its inaugural 1871 campaign when he was just 20. And he had a bit of a career before that too, pitching at age 16 for Rockford in 1867.
Dick Thorn: I don’t claim to know much about Thorn, but he did have nine seasons when Wright listed him as a pitcher in the NABBP.
Charley Walker: The hyperlink suggests there’s not a ton of information out there about Walker. He was said to be a talented hurler for the 1864-1868 Brooklyn Active, so talented that his delivery was questioned. It was also said that he essentially stalled during games, refusing to throw pitches where batters asked for them. And maybe he was the first baseball player to wear knickerbockers.
#10 Harry Wright: I list Wright here for a couple of reasons. First, he seemed to follow the rules on the mound, using techniques he learned while playing cricket, and largely throwing a slower ball than those considered the best in the era. The second is that he basically invented relief pitching, coming into games to give hard-throwing Asa Brainard a break and to mess with the timing of opposing hitters.
#9 Levi Meyerle: John Shiffert’s Base Ball in Philadelphia: A History of the Early Game, 1831-1900 highlights Meyerle’s great hitting. However, the guy who led the NA in homers and batting average in the league’s first season started his baseball career as a pitcher at age 17 for the Geary club in 1867. He would continue to pitch for a few years but reached the height of his fame in the NA playing pretty much everywhere and pitching only three times.
#8 Cherokee Fisher: Another cross-over to the NA, Fisher was actually a full-time pitcher, giving up the first home run in National Association history to Ross Barnes. He jumped from team to team throughout his career, possibly because of his excessive drinking.
#7 Charlie Pabor: When you tell all of your friends about this post, I ask that you not cite it as the gospel. Pabor doesn’t have a page at the SABR Bio Project, and his Wikipedia page calls him a left fielder and manager, ignoring his time in the NABBP. Marshall Wright lists him as the main pitcher for the Union of Morrisania from 1866-1868, a team that went 83-17, as well as a less successful 1870 squad.
#6 Al Martin: It appears Al Martin did a lot of pitching. I think. He spent two years first with the Empire of New York, then with the Mutual of New York, and finally the Brooklyn Eckfords from 1864-1869. Perhaps this is a good time to note that teams of the 1860s were usually called the ____ of ____, like the Padres of San Diego rather than the San Diego Padres. My brain reads team names as we do today, even if that’s not proper for the era. Of course, the Cincinnati Cincinnatis and the Philadelphia West Philadelphias are sort of odd no matter how you say them. Anyway, Martin’s 1866 Mutual club was excellent. So was the team in 1867, though I don’t think he was a full-time pitcher that year. The Eckford teams were also outstanding, with Martin seemingly doing most of the pitching.
#5 Jim Creighton: Using a throw with a snap of the wrist, rather than a pitch in alignment with the wishes of batter, as per the rules of the day, Creighton was the best pitcher in the land in for a few seasons, starting in 1858. Depending on your perspective on his pitching motion, he may have been baseball’s first innovator or first cheater. To be fair though, his wrist movement was examined, but nobody ever stopped him during his time with the Star and Excelsiors of Brooklyn from 1859-1862. Tragically, baseball’s likely first professional and possibly first superstar died when he was just 21, the result of a ruptured inguinal hernia incurred on a swing of the bat in an October 14, 1862 game against the Union of Morrisania. Had he not met such an untimely demise, he would rank higher on this list, and he might even be in the Baseball Hall of Fame.
#4 Rynie Wolters: Wolters was either the first major leaguer born in the Netherlands or about the 100th born in New Jersey. Even facts as simple as those are in conflict in my readings. He got his start with the decent Irvington club of Irvington, NJ in 1866 and 1867 before moving to the excellent 1868-1870 New York Mutuals, a team that went 135-43-3 over the three seasons he was there. It could be said that he pitched for the best or second best team in the game in the final year before the organization of the NA. His obituary says that he may have pitched baseball’s first shutout in 1870, but I don’t know that I believe that. He did have one on 1871 to tie for the National Association lead though. That’s something.
#3 Dick McBride: Like many others, McBride took his first turn in a NABBP mound when he was just a teen, starting his career off at 16 with the 1863 Philadelphia Athletics. In his first stint in Philadelphia, which lasted three years, his teams went 30-9. He made stops for a year with the New York Eckfords and another with the New York Empires in 1866 and 1867. And then he went back to Philly, pitching for teams that went 224-27-1 over the final five seasons of the league. When the NA got started, he remained in Philadelphia and led the circuit with a .783 winning percentage for the A’s. He led the NA in ERA and ERA+ in 1874, and even managed to hang on for the first season of the NL in 1876.
#2 George Zettlein: Aside from Creighton, Zettlein is the first pitcher on this list who I am convinced was great at his craft. He was said to be able to throw the ball 80 miles per hour, and when we’re looking at only 45 feet away from the plate, that’s about the equivalent of someone throwing 100 mph today. He started his NABBP career for the mediocre Eckford club of Brooklyn in 1865. He must have shown something though, as the 17-3 Brooklyn Atlantics gobbled him up the next season to share mound duties with Tom Pratt. For the next two years, he was really the only pitcher for an Atlantics club that went 66-12-1. In his final two seasons, sharing a bit more of the mound duty, Brooklyn went 81-23-2. When the NABBP folded and the NA sprung up in 1871, Zettlein didn’t miss a beat, leading the circuit in ERA and ERA+ for the Chicago White Stockings.
#1 Asa Brainard: If you are looking for an ace, this is the guy. Literally. The term “ace” came from his nickname, “Acey”, which first appeared in the Brooklyn Eagle in 1864. Brainard may have been the game’s first Doug DeCinces or Didi Gregorius, the guy who replaced “the guy.” Indeed, had pretty big shoes to fill as the man who followed Jim Creighton on the mound for the Excelsiors of Brooklyn. Brainard threw harder than almost anyone, threw a mean curveball, and as a natural second baseman was an excellent defensive moundsman. From the time of Creighton’s death in 1862 through the 1866 season, Brainard was the main pitcher for the Excelsiors. From there, he spent some time with the Knickerbocker club of New York and the National club of Washington before the money started to flow in Cincinnati. Brainard pitched for all of Harry Wright’s great teams, including the undefeated Cincinnati Red Stockings of 1869 for which he was the main pitcher.
Well friends, that’s the series. Thanks for reading!
Relief pitching is valuable. Relief pitchers, no so much.
Strange way to begin a post about the best pitchers of all-time since clearly none of the top-20 are relievers. But I’m reminding you of this maxim both to preview our six pitching posts (we’ll get through the top-120) and to make a point.
Eric and I have some fundamental differences on how we rank pitchers. Eric applies a correction, essentially, for what he calls the Schoenfield Paradox. Named for ESPN writer David Schoenfield, the Schoenfield Paradox is the idea that it’s easier to stand out from your peers when there are fewer great players in the league. By reading Schoenfield’s post and then Eric’s, you’ll understand my point much more clearly. I’ll wait.
Okay then. Let me generalize a bit. Eric and I look at the old timey pitchers differently. He sees guys who didn’t outperform their peers by an incredible amount. And he’s right. What I see is hurlers who pitched a larger percentage of their team’s innings than at any other time in history. Those innings have value – in the same way that the lack of innings for closers mean they don’t have much value.
I might run into trouble in ten or twenty years when we go to elect pitchers of today’s era. Will they have enough innings to accumulate the value needed to get into the HoME? I fear they won’t. Luckily, there’s a lot of time to debate and learn until then.
Enjoy the six pitcher posts in the series! And check out all of our rankings below.
[MAPES+], [CHEWS+], [1B, 1-20], [1B, 21-40], [2B, 1-20], [2B, 21-40], [3B, 1-20], [3B, 21-40], [SS, 1-20], [SS, 21-40], [C, 1-20], [C, 21-40], [LF, 1-20], [LF, 21-40], [CF, 1-20], [CF, 21-40], [RF, 1-20], [RF, 21-40]
There are two reasons. First, given that there are so many more pitchers than players at any other position on the diamond, it’s harder to reach the top-20. Second, Clayton Kershaw just turned 30 (and is injured frequently enough that he may never make it).—Miller
Kershaw is in the low thirties in my rankings. He’s the highest active or recently retired pitcher on this list. Pitchers just don’t throw many innings, something like ten to thirty percent fewer than the generation that included Clemens, Maddux, and Glavine. That’s it in a nutshell. But let’s poke at this a sec.
This year, Kevin Cash made the theoretical leap. He started Sergio Romo to get through the first inning or two and then turned it over to…a starting pitcher who would go twice through the lineup and would, in turn, hand it over to the late-inning relievers. This is an utterly brilliant tactic. The first inning is the highest scoring, the only inning where the offense gets to determine its sequence of hitters and stack their best bats at the top of the lineup. Combine that with the fact that most pitchers get creamed their third time through the batting order, and it’s a readymade bullpen situation. That is, if a team is willing to see the tactical opportunity and think outside the traditional starter/reliever box. My golly who would get the win???
But in terms of the question at hand, that theoretical leap may be the beginning of the end of the normative model of starting pitching. We have arrived at a point where there are three kinds of pitchers: Excellent starters who can get through a lineup three times; pitchers who can get through it twice most days; and relievers. Well, the second group is why relief pitching in the first inning is a great idea. Depending on a team’s depth, anyone from your number two starter through your number five will fall into that second group. Most relievers are fungible. So that just leaves our excellent starters. Maybe they number thirty or forty? Then again, with injuries and attrition how can you know? But they are fast becoming the focus guys on a pitching staff. Not just the best pitchers on the staff, but ones who need to go seven innings to keep the bullpen from getting too worn out. With thirteen-man staffs, this model may work with lots of roster manipulation to get fresh arms into the backend of the bullpen. But it will place an awful lot of pressure on the top-end starter, and, I suspect lead to much higher season-to-season variance in team performance.
Or I could be completely wrong about this….—Eric
Nolan Ryan and Sandy Koufax. More on them later.—Eric
I’ve talked about Rick Reuschel possibly being the most underrated player in baseball history. What about Phil Niekro? It’s hard to think of someone in the Hall of Fame as underrated, but Niekro is for a ton of reasons. He threw a gimmick pitch. He played for terrible teams. He wasn’t good as a young player. He led the league in losses four years in a row when people really cared about losses. And he pitched during the glory days of National League pitching. But do you know who had the most pitching war in all of baseball for the 69 years from 1929-1997? Well, that, my friends, was Tom Seaver. Yeah, Seaver was better than Niekro. But nobody else was. Yes, my start and end points are artificial. Add 1928, and Lefty Grove was better too. Add 1998, and you have Roger Clemens ahead of Niekro. Still, think about this for a second, Phil Niekro had the second most pitching WAR in the game for 69 years. It doesn’t matter that I’m manipulating the start and end dates. That stat is amazing.—Miller
Not in the top-20 since we have the exact same 20 guys, but the disagreements are coming.—Miller
As noted by Miller above, the biggest disagreement we have lies in our disposition toward older pitchers. I have never felt comfortable comparing contemporary pitchers to those from times when 300 innings were either a partial season, the norm, the norm for a quality pitcher, or a total achieved by the very best pitchers. The last time someone threw 300 innings in MLB, Barry Bonds was in high school, Anwar Sadat was alive, the White House still had solar panels, and the most a wristwatch could do was multiply and divide. No pitcher since the 1980s has thrown 280 innings. The last time someone rung up even 250 innings was in 2011 (Justin Verlander, 251). Nary a pitcher has reached 240 since 2014 when David Price and Johnny Cueto turned the trick.
On the other side of the coin, in 1884, Pud Galvin established the never-to-be-broken record of 20.5 WAR in a single season. Tossing 636 innings helps. 20.5 pitching WAR is about three times what our best pitchers this year will earn. Pitchers across history have racked up “just” ten WAR 118 times. Only 51 of those season came after 1901. Only twenty of them came after integration. Only nine since the adoption of the DH. Only four since 2000. Just one since 2002. In my mind, comparing Zack Grienke’s 10.4 WAR in 2009 to the 10.5 that Jim McCormick picked up in 1880 does not compute. A supermajorty of Grienke’s value in 2009 was marginal: 8.3 WAA and 10.4 WAR. Less than 50% of McCormick’s value lay above average.
My solution is to retain pitchers’ value above average and debit their value between replacement and average to resemble contemporary pitchers. It is not, shall we say, theoretically sound, but it produces reasonable results that I can comprehend. And, as we’ll see soon, it pushes Miller and I apart on several important candidates.—Eric
Just to be clear here, in my opinion, there’s nothing at all wrong with Eric’s direction (nor mine, I hope).—Miller
Having just explained a bit about how I look at pitchers, yes, my method may insert some instability into the system. Especially because I use a rate-based component to dole out bonuses. This probably puts two groups to the advantage. Modern starters whose value is more concentrated into fewer innings may benefit a bit. So too might the olde tyme guys. Even though I adjust their innings, I keep so much of their WAA that they get a little boost by the change in the resultant change in denominator.—Eric
Bias is a funny thing. I really want to find an angle to show that Phil Niekro isn’t one of the 13-14 best pitchers ever. Maybe he isn’t. I think, for example, if we needed just one start from a pitcher of the era, most would take Steve Carlton over Niekro. Also, Knucksie’s lack of October experience could drop him behind a guy or three. But man, it’s a sad commentary when I want to trust my gut more than my system. It’s also possible we overrate Gaylord Perry some. As just the fifth best pitcher of his era, perhaps he’s not the 18th or 19th best ever. Is Pedro Martinez, the fourth best pitcher of his era, the 9th or 12th best ever? And where would Clemens have been if his game weren’t chemically enhanced for its last 43% (just my entirely unsubstantiated opinion and that of a hater)?
Stop by a week from today for pitchers 21-40.
This series has been a real treat to write. It started as a tribute to Rick Reuschel, morphed into an attack on Jack Morris’ Hall candidacy, and eventually developed into a cursory analysis of the best pitchers of each decade. It’s been fun to remind myself of guys like Dick McBride and Pink Hawley. Sharing basic HoME analysis has also been a treat. What’s kind of the best though, is that readers asked for more – that I look at the 1860s too. That was a very different game. Hell, it was different than even the 1870s. You’ll see that in a week. But for now, the best pitchers of the 2000s. Enjoy!
#11 Andy Pettitte: I mention Pettitte here because some would want the guy with almost 69% over the guy with almost 73% of our decade leader. I like the 12-5 record and 3.41 ERA over 161 playoff innings on the decade, but it’s just not enough, especially given the 4-0 record and 3.66 ERA in 46.2 innings of his rival for the spot. Also, I never liked Pettitte. There are some, maybe Eric included, who see Pettitte as a Hall of Famer. I don’t, not quite. Still, I’m incredibly interested in his voting results. This is a guy who admitted using HGH. He’s also a guy whose HGH use I think the writers might ignore or forgive. We’ll see.
#10 Roy Oswalt: I think Oswalt will be close to the HoME but not quite there. I give him five seasons of 6+ WAR with my adjustments. That’s something I can’t say about 30 – that’s right, 30 – HoME pitchers. Then again, Oswalt doesn’t have a single season with 7 WAR. Among HoMErs, only Don Sutton and Whitey Ford can say the same. It’s going to be a tough sell.
#9 Johan Santana: The guy’s only 39 this year. Maybe he can make a comeback. Shouldn’t the Twins have him pitch game 162 this year if they’ve been eliminated so he can restart his Hall clock?
#8 CC Sabathia: He checks all of the boxes, doesn’t he? He has a Cy, a meaningful stretch/October run, and he’s considered by many to be a horse in an era without them. Strange how that works. In seventeen seasons, CC has reached 200 innings just eight times. He has wins though. Writers like wins. I suspect he’ll get to 250, which is nice. That and 74% of the decade leader probably won’t get him to the Hall though. Writers are tough on pitchers.
#7 Tim Hudson: They’re really tough. Hudson gets lost in a group of guys who get lost. It’s not a pretty look. My rankings have Johan, CC, Pettitte, Hudson, and then Oswalt. Santana is in for me, and he was elected to the HoME this year. I think I’ll back CC, and that’s about where I draw the line. However, any reconfiguration of the line or of my system could change my perspective quite a bit. Hudson’s at 77% of our decade leader. He has nice enough career numbers but a relatively weak peak, only four seasons of 4.7+ WAR according to my adjustments. Eric thinks we need to adjust to an environment when pitchers throw fewer innings. I’m of two minds. On one hand, what he says makes perfect sense, and we shouldn’t exclude pitchers from the modern era. On the other, we already say that relief pitching is incredibly valuable but relief pitchers aren’t. Perhaps the era of the five-inning starter (of which Hudson is not a part, by the way) will mean that no pitchers accumulate so much value. Perhaps teams will figure out a way for us to say that pitching is incredibly valuable, but pitchers are not. I wonder what the future will hold.
#6 Mike Mussina: His career WAR is more than that of Nolan Ryan, Rod Carew, Tom Glavine, Jeff Bagwell, Pete Rose, Brooks Robinson, Joe DiMaggio, Ozzie Smith, Johnny Bench, Reggie Jackson, Frank Thomas, or Derek Jeter. While he had only three years over 6.3 WAR, he had a cool ten at 5+. Sticking with this series, he’s just shy of 80% of our leader. And for what it’s worth, I think 2019 has a good shot to be his year in the BBWAA voting. If not, the nightmare will end in 2020.
#5 Roger Clemens: Remember 1987, the year of the home run? Clemens threw 18 complete games. That includes three consecutive shutouts in July, one in which he struck out 14 and another in which he whiffed zero. It also includes complete game wins in each of his last four starts, giving up 20 hits and two earned while striking out 44. We could pick out cool Roger Clemens stretches for days. Give him 87.6% of our decade leader.
#4 Roy Halladay: Is Halladay another test case on greatness? Is he someone who will garner unlikely support because of his untimely passing? I don’t think we can know the answer to those questions since they’re ununtangleable (there’s probably a better word for that, but not a more fun one). Maybe if he does get a bump because of his November plane crash, Halladay and his 88.4% of the leader will open the door to other greats with low win totals.
#3 Curt Schilling: The coolest thing for me here is that he’s separate from Mussina for once on a list. Though he’s at only 87.6% of the decade leader, he jumps a couple of spots because of his amazing work for the Diamondbacks in 2001, his bloody sock work in 2004, and three more helpful starts in 2007. If he were active, perhaps Laura Ingraham would have told him to shut up and pitch. Since he doesn’t pitch any longer, maybe there’s only one thing left to do? I kid, I kid. I used to argue that what Pete Rose did as a manager shouldn’t have any impact on votes for Pete Rose the player. I still think that to a degree, and I completely think that as it applies to Curt Schilling.
#2 Pedro Martinez: At his best, the best I ever saw, and worth 96% of our decade leader. It was a packed bar in Cambridge, MA on May 28, 2000. The Sox were in first place, the Yankees in second. But this was still May! Oh, and it was still Pedro and Clemens. They battled for eight innings, both pitching three-hit shutouts. In the top of the ninth, Clemens retired the first two. Jeff Frye singled. I’ll always remember this weird feeling I had. The bar was relatively quiet, everyone watching in anticipation. I saw the swing, the way Nixon connected. I stood and screamed “Trot got it.” What seemed like an eternity passed, and then the bar exploded. Nixon hit a two-run home run. But this blurb is about Pedro, right? In the ninth, he hit Chuck Knoblauch to start the inning. Then Derek Jeter singled. But Pedro was just toying with them, right? Paul O’Neill struck out, and Bernie Williams hit a deep but harmless fly ball to right. Then, just to make clear he was toying with them, Pedro hit Jorge Posada to load the bases before getting Tino Martinez to harmlessly ground to second to end the shutout. One of the greatest games I ever watched.
#1 Randy Johnson: I wish it were Pedro here. My rankings have Johnson ahead of Petey on the decade and all-time. They also have him ahead of Greg Maddux, something that doesn’t make me completely comfortable. Still, wherever he ranks, somewhere between second and fourth in the generation, he’s one of the absolute greats of all-time. In the last 40 years, he has each of the five best single-season strikeout campaigns the game has seen. All five.
Next week, we’re going all the way back to the 1860s. See ya then!
For me, this week’s entry is a pretty interesting one. You’ll see a bunch of HoMErs top the charts, with a couple of near-HoMErs mixed in. There are also four other Hall of Famers, one of whom has a decent case with just a little twisting of MAPES or CHEWS. Then there’s a guy like Jesse Barfield. Curious.
I was young enough when Barfield’s career finished that my understanding of the game was still in the batting average sphere. I thought career totals and Black Ink were cool (still do, by the way). And I didn’t really appreciate defense, though like everyone else, I loved Barfield’s arm. I think I understand more today. Yet, when I look at Barfield’s BBREF page, I remain unimpressed. We’re looking at only nine seasons of over 84 games. Nine! Only twice did his OPS+ reach 140, and only two other times did it reach 120. Oh, but the defense. In the game’s history, there are only 36 guys who spent at least 75% of their careers at a corner outfield position who totaled 50 Rfield. Only 17 of those guys top 75. When we make it 100, it’s just seven guys. Barfield’s number is 161.4. He’s bested only be Roberto Clemente and Barry Bonds. That defense has tremendous value.
DRA, as you may know, loves the old time guys. Still, Barfield is seventh on a similar list by that measure. And among guys over the last century, he trails only Roy White and Clemente in DRA. It’s his defense that gets a guy nobody ever thought much of into the top-40 ever in right field.
For the top-40 at other positions, please see the links below.
[MAPES+], [CHEWS+], [1B, 1-20], [1B, 21-40], [2B, 1-20], [2B, 21-40], [3B, 1-20], [3B, 21-40], [SS, 1-20], [SS, 21-40], [C, 1-20], [C, 21-40], [LF, 1-20], [LF, 21-40], [CF, 1-20], [CF, 21-40], [RF, 1-20]
I must confess not knowing where Jose Bautista was when the season began. When I learned he wasn’t signed for a while, I was a bit surprised. Then the shockers came. He signed with the Braves. And they signed him to play third base!?! Anyway, I’m sure you know that the Brave experiment ended just a dozen games after it began. And now the Mets are giving him a shot! Hell, at this point even he’s better than David Wright. If the Mets take too much more time than the Braves to catch on, he’s going to fall behind Parker and Barfield. I suspect they won’t let it go on so long. Of course, I didn’t think they would sign him in the first place…—Miller
I’ve always like Bautista. He’s sort of the Hank Sauer of our time. I wish him well in his bid to get more MLB playing time.—Eric
It seems we’re two of the only folks who think Vlad Guerrero rests comfortably on the borderline. I don’t suppose those who use conventional wisdom think a lot about Chuck Klein. If they do, I’d suspect they like him more than we do, what with all the Black Ink in the live ball 1930s. I think this list is pretty much what you’d expect. And Barfield.—Miller
I love me some Jesse Barfield. I wish like crazy that he hadn’t hurt his wrist. It sapped his power and turned him into a shell of himself. An outstanding player with the most amazing arm ever.
But as to the question at hand, I have three answers: Sam Thompson, Reggie Smith, and Dave Parker. Most folks would look at Sam Thompson, Hall of Famer, with his .400 season, his .331 lifetime average, 147 OPS+, two home-run titles, three RBI titles, and three 200 hit seasons and wonder what we’re not seeing. The Hall of Merit also elected him. But my cat Bogey could probably have hit .400 in 1894. Thompson hit .415 and didn’t win the batting title. He got a late start, his career was short on the back end too, and that’s that.
Now Reggie Smith goes in the other direction. He’s a SABR darling, but his lifetime totals don’t scream all-time great. The only pretty impressive one is his 137 OPS+. He had the same troubles staying in the lineup that Larry Walker had, too. But Smith’s performance came from center field for half his career, and up-the-middle players who hit like first basemen aren’t easy to find. He provided a huge boost to his teams that way (until he moved permanently to right field, of course), and that’s a buried lead in the baseball world.
Lastly, Dave Parker. I feel badly for Parker. No one wants to become a cokehead. But doing so pretty much killed his career. After he got off the powder, he only had one more good season (1985). Yet, he kept getting 10–25% of the vote from the BBWAA, and he’s popped up on Veterans’ committee ballots. So we have a very strong divergence of opinion from body of baseball people out there. Who? I don’t know, but they ain’t like us.—Eric
Probably Enos Slaughter. Even though it appears that we are in complete agreement about him. Last week I mentioned that Miller has always had a stronger opinion in favor of Willie Keeler than I have. The opposite is true for Enos Slaughter. Again, probably just quirks of our respective perspectives, but it’s been a true difference. I’ve had Country at the borderline the whole way, and Miller hasn’t. Slaughter has a lot of potential variability in his profile. If/when BBREF uses the Retrosheet data now available to expand the reach of the baserunning, DP, and outfield arm value calculations, he’s one guy who could really benefit. Until then, however, this is where we’re at with him. In fact, I could probably have listed him under fellows we don’t currently agree with the mainstream view of.—Eric
At this point I have to say we disagree the most on whether or not this should be a category. We simply don’t disagree with each other too much on position players. So I’ll get to a more esoteric point. This year, we were eligible to elect six players, representing the two elected by the Era Committee and four elected by the BBWAA. Based on our rules, we must elect exactly six players. To elect six, we must vote for six. To vote for fewer would mean we’re breaking our rules. To vote for more, I think, is also wrong, though not exactly breaking our rules since we can only elect six. But what if I had voted for the same seven but just flipped the order of Eric’s last two? If that were the case, we’d have five guys in and two guys tied. However, only one of those guys could go in. I know, I’m basically arguing constitutional law in front of folks who don’t really care about the nitty gritty, nor should you. To be honest, I’m just looking for something to write here.—Miller
Enos Slaughter? Several years ago, Eric did some pretty cool work giving credit for time missed due to war or color barrier. While his methods have changed some since then, I suspect he still would support this statement: “Adding 12 eqWAR to his resume makes him a no-brainer in the mode of Andre Dawson or Dewey Evans.” It’s totally reasonable to give credit for games missed due to military service. Were I to do that with Slaughter, I could see him as high at #15, getting all the way past Tony Gwynn. Even if you think that’s too much of a jump, virtually anyone crediting him for the three seasons he missed would have to put him on the good side of the in/out line.—Miller
What you said! And what I said! The whole war-credit discussion is very interesting. I don’t exactly have a horse in that race. On one hand, I see the value of doing so; on the other hand I see rationales why not to. Cases such as Slaughter’s make me think that doing so, in a conservative way, probably makes the most sense. It’s hardly a player’s fault that he fought for his country. So it’s really about doing so in a measured way so that the player receives appropriate benefit but we don’t stiff other players whose records are not compromised by military duty.
But I do draw one line in the sand on the matter of war credit. I don’t give any to pitchers. The very act of pitching creates an ongoing danger of injury that can wipe out a career in a single moment. Not that combat is any kind of cake walk, but in certain ways it may give the pitcher’s arm a long period of reduced stress. The elbow might have given way on the mound in the peaceful alternative world during the same stretch of parallel time the player served in the military. Sorry if this seems cold-hearted, but it’s the logical conclusion of several ideas that underpin my thinking, including adjusting innings for usage patterns and giving pitchers (but not hitters) some credit for their playoff innings. —Eric
In a week, we head to the mound, otherwise known as the land where Miller and Eric finally disagree. A little.
I hope we can agree that both Curt Schilling and Mike Mussina belong in the Hall of Fame. My position is that if we had only half the number of pitchers in the Hall we do, I’d still put them both in. Yet, it’s been a slog for both of them, Schilling getting ready to enter his seventh year on the ballot and Mussina his sixth. So what I wanted to do is to see how historically odd it is for pitchers of their quality to wait this long.
Alphabetically, the closest pitchers to Schilling and Mussina on my all-time list are:
Feller, Glavine, Palmer, and Ryan made it on their first tries, just as they should have. Hubbell, Jenkins, Marichal, Perry, and Roberts all made it in tries three or four. That’s not ideal, but it’s passable, I think. However, Newhouser, Plank, Rusie, and Walsh needed to go to a Veterans Committee. And under current rules, the same would have happened to Blyleven. Finally, as you probably know Ferrell isn’t in the Hall. What I‘m saying is that what’s going on with our dynamic duo is far from unprecedented, even if it may be unpleasing for those who want justice.
#11 Kevin Appier: I couldn’t go only ten deep when there’s a HoMEr on the list who pitched in every year of the decade. The reason Appier is in the HoME but the guys ranking where he does in other decades aren’t is pretty simple. There were more players in the majors in 1993 than ever before when MLB expanded to Colorado and Miami, and then even more than that in 1998 when Arizona and Tampa got teams. Words like “great” and “elite” are comparative, meaning they are relative to the population. If there’s one great player in a population of ten, there would be ten in a population of 100. So when there are more players in baseball, more should be considered great, though the percentage of great players wouldn’t change.
#10 Chuck Finley: The guy with 58% of the value of our decade leader was such an underrated pitcher for at least four reasons. First, he hardly ever pitched in the postseason. Second, he never won more than 18 games. Third, he has some inner circle Hall of Famers as competition. And finally, writers and fans are poor at adjusting to larger leagues sizes, as I wrote in the comment above. Finley was nearly elite three times, posting 7+ pitching WAR. And on ten other occasions, his WAR was between 2.0 and 4.9. As evidence that we’re poor to adjusting to the larger field of talent, this HoMEr received just one vote when he was on the Hall ballot in 2008.
#9 Curt Schilling: Correctly known as one of the best playoff pitchers ever, Schilling’s October greatness mostly came in the next decade. However, three excellent ones and one clunker are just enough to vault him over Finley despite having only 56% the value of our decade leader.
#8 Mike Mussina: Mussina and Schilling are together on this list, in the preview to this decade, on my all-time list, and are moving up the Hall ballot together, save Schilling’s political outspokenness. He’s one rank above Schilling at 61% of our leader’s total.
#7 John Smoltz: Ranked ninth by my system with 56% of our decade leader, Smoltz jumps a couple of spots based on 181.2 playoff innings with a 2.77 era in the 1990s. In 17 of his 26 decade starts, he allowed 0, 1, or 2 runs. Only twice did he allow more than 4. On another topic, if you take his four relief seasons and all of those in which he pitched at least 80 innings, we’re looking at 18 total campaigns. His relief seasons rank 13, 15, 16, and 18 by WAR. So no, there’s no need to discuss Smoltz relieving when discussing his Hall-worthiness.
#6 Kevin Brown: It’s a shame that the two things I most remember about Brown’s career are the charter flights that went with his huge 1998 free agent contract and him stinking it up for the Yankees at the very end. If Pedro Martinez never existed, he’d have been the game’s best pitcher from 1996-2000. Five years holding that crown would have been quite an accomplishment in an era with such greatness. The truth is that second best is still pretty amazing. Many wise analysts are justifiably upset about Schilling and Mussina. Let’s not be so quick to forget Kevin Brown, he of 64% the value of our decade leader. He didn’t come close to a second ballot, receiving the support of only 12 voters in 2001. That’s less than half the support of John Franco or Juan Gonzalez. We talk about the stacked ballot today, and we’re right to do so. But the 2011 ballot had 11 HoMErs on it plus Jack Morris and Lee Smith. Things have been crowded for quite a while.
#5 David Cone: For me, Cone is a lot like Luis Tiant. He’s also like Brown, Finley, and Appier as HoMErs who saw just one BBWAA ballot. Sadly, just seven HoMErs were on Cone’s 2009 ballot, so there was plenty of space to keep him around. Instead, just 3.9% of the vote went his way. Owner of five rings and 65% of our decade leader’s total, he had a 2.12 ERA in 29.2 innings in the World Series, though his other playoff numbers were less impressive.
#4 Tom Glavine: From 1989-2002, Glavine went 233-122, good for a .656 winning percentage. I mention this not because it really matters, but because I find it interesting. Five wins titles and six times in the top-3 in the Cy voting highlight Glavine’s career, as do the 305 wins. But it’s not all about wins. Glavine was awesome in 1991, he was excellent from 1996-1998, and 14 additional times he put up 2.0-4.9 pitching WAR. Without the three guys in front of him on this list, I think the man at 68% of our decade leader would have been remembered as even better than he is today.
#3 Randy Johnson: What’s more perverse, his nickname or his name? That’s right, come here for the baseball analysis, stay for the sophomoric humor. Johnson is one of only nine guys in history and three on this list with 100+ pitching WAR. Through age-28, he never posted an ERA+ for a full season above 108. It wasn’t until he was 42 that the nine time K king would do that again. He had 88% of this decade’s leader, but since his best two seasons were in 2001 and 2002, I suspect we’re going to see him again next decade.
#2 Greg Maddux: I’m a Red Sox fan, so right around 1997 I began kind of hating Roger Clemens. As a result, maybe, I began loving Greg Maddux and trying to make arguments that Maddux was a better pitcher. He wasn’t. At his best, Clemens was a bit better, and he separated himself in their last six seasons where Maddux had only a 104 ERA+, while Clemens was still excellent at 136. I have Maddux at 96% of Clemens on the decade, which feels about right. When he became eligible, there were 16 fools who thought him unworthy of induction into the Hall, at least on the first ballot, ya know, because Lou Brock, Willie Stargell, and Kirby Puckett are inner circle guys. Ugh!
#1 Roger Clemens: Over at Baseball Think Factory, there’s a Hall of Fame ballot thread every year. Last year there was a disturbing tone from some that made me think a lot of commenters didn’t believe Clemens used HGH. Let me be brief. Reluctant testimony saying Clemens used, which is testimony from someone who would not want to incriminate Clemens, is the testimony I would trust most. Andy Pettitte testified that Clemens told him that he was injected by Brian McNamee. That’s enough for me. Some suggest that the not guilty findings of the 2012 jury on perjury and obstruction charges are evidence that Clemens didn’t use. That suggestion is not correct. A verdict of not guilty is only proof that the jury found the prosecution unable to make their case beyond a reasonable doubt.
We finish next week with the 2000s before going all the way back to the 1860s. Tune in over the next two Fridays to see who’s on those lists.
Mr. October. It’s one of baseball’s most recognizable nicknames. Thinking ahead to this post, I was considering Reggie Jackson as one of the players MAPES+ might underrate because it doesn’t take post-season performance into account. So then I looked at Reggie’s playoff statistics. He slashed .278/.358/.527 in October compared to .262/.356/.490 in the regular season. Better? Sure. Against stiffer competition? Almost certainly. But there’s not a marked difference, at least not one that’s suggested by the nickname. If you want to call someone Mr. October, someone like Lou Brock, Paul Molitor, Curt Schilling or Bob Gibson (to name four off the top of my head), go for it. But Reggie? I don’t know.
Yes, he won two World Series MVP Awards, and I think he deserved it in 1978 too. And not we’re on to something. In 116 trips to the plate over five World Series, he slashed .357/.457/.755. In my mind “October” is equal to the playoffs. However, if we view “October” as the World Series, which is justifiable, I suppose, Reggie earned that nickname. Now about MAPES+…
Actually, you can read about MAPES, CHEWS, and all posts in this series with the links below.
Part of the fun of Ichiro is that he’s kind of like a thought experiment made real: What if we took a star player from roughly 1901–1930 and plopped him into the majors? Now we know! It’s Ichiro! But that’s precisely what’s happened. His game is predicated on a few things:
In the deadball era, grounds keeping wasn’t quite as meticulous as today. Comiskey Park was famously built atop a landfill and old trash popped up through the grass sometimes. The amazing drainage technology that today’s fields have didn’t exist. Freddie Lindstrom became a World Series goat when a ball hit a pebble and bounced over his head. That combined with primitive glove technology increased the reward for simply putting the ball on the ground between the lines and dashing like mad to first base.
Ichiro is something like Harry Hooper combined with George Sisler. Which is basically what Sam Rice was. I wonder whether that kind of player would have been more or less effective in the 1970s and 1980s. Why? Astroturf. Infielders could play back to pick up grounders that might get through at normal depth, but even well-placed grounders would reach fielders faster, reducing Ichiro’s speed advantage. Turf did give speed merchants an advantage on the bases, but the players who took best advantage of turf did so by hitting balls into the gaps and running like crazy. Ichiro’s game is different than that of George Brett, Tim Raines, or Vince Coleman. Turf might also reduce the advantage accrued with Ichiro’s arm because the ball would get to him quicker on singles, reducing the likelihood of his being tested, and extra-base hits would get by him more quickly. Hard tellin’ not knowin’ as they say up here in Maine.—Eric
I projected Ichiro to retire after the 2014 season. Seriously. Over the seven years before this one, he was worth a total of 5.2 WAR. That’s not a guy who you want on your club unless you want to sell tickets or jerseys. Oh, wait, I’ve figured it out. I’m sure there’s more. I bet Ichiro is a good guy, and I suspect his English is better around teammates than reporters, which is just fine by me. As far as where he ends up, that depends on whether or not he decides to play again. He’s just done for the year, not retired. Given an infinite number of chances, he’d play his way out of the HoME. Since I think he’s seen his last game, we will only have to factor in the-0.5 WAR he accrued in 15 games this year. That drops him behind Bobby Bonds for me, and into a virtual tie with Gary Sheffield. We’ll have to see how BBREF rounding works out.—Miller
I think I have Winfield and Vlad lower than mainstream folks would. They’re not even on this list. The real divergence may be ranking Clemente third rather than fifth, not that the difference between him, Ott, and Robinson is meaningful at all. The reason for my ranking is pretty clear; it’s Clemente’s consecutive peak. If I removed that factor, Eric and I would have the same top-6. This seems as good a place as any to reiterate why I like the consecutive peak factor in my formula. First, it’s how JAWS began. Though Jaffe did come up with a better conclusion, I don’t think he was completely wrong to start. There is something, not nothing to be said for consecutive greatness. A team really knows what it has. Also, it’s only 11% of my formula, which is to say Clemente, Ott, and Robinson are very close anyway. Sure, I have Clemente third. If you have him fifth, I certainly won’t argue.—Miller
Larry Walker and Harry Hooper. We’ve got Walker among the top dozen right fielders, and he’s having trouble drumming up enough Hall support to make it before his eligibility expires. Lots of people think the Hall made a mistake by electing Harry Hooper. We strongly disagree.—Eric
Probably Willie Keeler. Throughout this process, Miller has had Keeler ranked ahead of me. I don’t exactly know why, but over the several iterations of each of our sifting tools, Wee Willie has always managed to look worse in my eyes.—Eric
Is it Clemente? No, I wouldn’t really make an argument that he’s exactly the third best right fielder ever. I’m nearly certain he’s between third and fifth, or maybe sixth. Not exactly third. It’s not like with Aaron. I’m almost certain Aaron is exactly the second best right fielder ever. There aren’t really any major discrepancies here. Even with Keeler. We both see him as 2% above the in/out line for the position.—Miller
So let’s answer that question from the top of the post. Might MAPES+ underrate Reggie? I don’t think so. I call him the eighth best ever at the position. If you want to take him over Waner, I won’t put up a stink.—Miller
Well, neither of our systems take into account the verifiable, proven fact that Paul Waner shares my birthday. That’s a thing, man! But let me now posit a weird idea. Is it possible that Babe Ruth, the player, can be seen as overrated? No statistical system can capture the immensity of Babe Ruth’s contribution to baseball, of course, and we don’t talk about off-the-field stuff here very often. Still, we both had him among our top-three most influential persons in baseball history. But the thing about Babe Ruth is that he was so much better than everyone else. If you run standard deviations on any kind of runs-creation stats in his time, especially the early 1920s, he pulls everything out of whack. You have to seriously consider removing him from the test because by himself he raises the bar so high. But that begets the interesting question of whether Ruth was that good or did the league fail to catch on to his innovation? Some of both, surely, but that latter idea always makes me wonder whether Ruth is actually overrated from a certain, very narrow, point of view. The innovation is the source of his value, so in the most literal sense, it’s a non-question. And yet, it digs at me a little because it’s not entirely a question of talent and performance. There’s this little bit of friction for me about the long window of time before which the rest of MLB got its power together, and the massive advantage Ruth accrued from it. But whatever, he’s the Babe after all!—Eric
We round out the offense next week with the second half of right field.
Omar Vizquel. He’s next, friends. But for now, until the painful enshrinement next month, I can’t let Jack Morris go. The 2018 Hall of Fame inductee and the man soooooooooooo incorrectly proclaimed the pitcher of the 1980s by people who believe there’s no better measure of a pitcher’s greatness than how many runs his offense scores for him while he’s in the game (in other words, pitcher wins), continues to draw my ire.
As I mentioned last week, I began thinking about these posts when trying to find another way to show Rick Reuschel’s greatness. It was when Morris was elected by his Era Committee that I decided to look at the 1980s as well. Thus, the series was born. And I’ve run int yet another way to show how great Reuschel was.
Through five different measures, I’ll show in this post that Morris is clearly not the top pitcher of the decade. The Hall would be a better place if the actual best pitcher of the 1980s replaced him on the Hall podium at the end of July.
We’re also going to see in this post that my measures, which, frankly, haven’t been much of a change from straight WAR in previous decades, really change things in the 1980s. More on that later.
By my formula, the guys who rank 7-12 are within five percentage points of each other, which makes me pay close attention to the postseason to help rank. Frank Viola is #12 overall. His playoff work was nice, but not at all excellent, so there’s no reason to elevate him. The guy at #11 was so impressive that he jumps a few ranks. And Phil Niekro at #10 drops out off the list as a result. Enjoy the best pitchers of the 1980s. And sorry Morris fans.
#10 Jack Morris (7, 14): Since I come in with a very strong anti-Morris bias, I want to do everything I can to make things as fair as possible. You may remember that in this series, I include seasons surrounding the ten in question at a reduced rate. I also include a tiny speck of career greatness. But those aren’t ways all people would determine the best pitcher of a decade. Some might just go by straight WAR, so I want to show that here too.
By my adjusted WAR for the decade of 1980-1989, Jack Morris ranks #7, though he’s closer to #37 than he is to #1. That’s right. If we just look at my adjusted WAR from 1980-1989, Jack Morris is closer to the 37th best pitcher in the decade than he is to the best. I must admit that I think 1980-1989 is the wrong way to look at things. The first year of whatever calendar you use wasn’t year 0; it was year 1. Thus, the first year of the 1980s, if we’re trying to be accurate, was 1981, and the last was 1990. If that’s the case, our numbers change. Without the help of his very strong 1979 season, Morris falls to the 14th most WAR in the decade. Mike Boddicker and Charlie Hough do better, for example. Also, if you gave Jack Morris an extra two WAR every single season, he still wouldn’t be the best pitcher of the decade.
For Morris and the remaining nine pitches on this list, I’ll include two numbers after their names. The first is the ranking from 1980-1989 and the second from 1981-1990, using only my adjusted WAR.
One more note about Morris before we move on for a bit. I considered elevating him based on his four October starts in the 1980s. They were good, a 3-1 record with a 3.00 ERA. By itself, it should put him ahead of Bob Welch, but Welch’s straight WAR numbers are clearly better, and I really just wanted to begin the list with Morris.
#9 Bob Welch (5, 5): The 1980s were a weak time for starting pitchers. That’s clear whether Bob Welch is the fifth best or the ninth. In the previous decade those rankings went to Fergie Jenkins and Rick Reuschel. In the next, spoiler alert, they’ll go to pitchers like David Cone and John Smoltz. Don’t get me wrong, Welch was a nice pitcher. He was excellent in 1987, and he had ten other seasons of 2.5-4.7 pitching WAR. But again, we’re only looking at a nice pitcher; the other four I just mentioned are all easy HoMErs.
#8 Steve Carlton (11, 29): What we see here is a potential flaw in my system. I include the years one away from the decade at 90% value, two away from the decade at 70% and three away at 50%. I do this because a “decade” is largely a false construct. It doesn’t really mean anything. Carlton was very good in 1978 and approaching great in 1977. Those seasons add a ton of value. The other tricky part in the 1980s is that the top pitchers weren’t as great as those in previous decades. For example, there are 25 pitchers in this decade within 50% of the leader’s value. In the 1970s, there were twelve. It was only five in the 1960s, four in the 1950s, and eight in the 1940s.
#7 Orel Hershiser (4, 4): He gets a bump from #11 all the way up to #7 because of his incredible playoff run in 1988. He was baseball’s second best pitcher by WAR from 1984-1989, behind only Roger Clemens. And you might be wondering where Clemens falls on this list. That’s fair. By formula, he’d actually rank #2. However, he didn’t pitch 1400 innings in the decade, which 52 other hurlers did. My argument is that if you’re not among the top-50 in innings pitched, you’re not really a pitcher of that decade. There are other pitchers who were so great in limited innings that my lists might not be perfect in your eyes. That’s okay. The 1980s will skew a lot of things because of a lack of inner circle greatness at the top.
#6 Ron Guidry (14, 19): The best four pitchers in baseball from 1977-1979 are on this list (well, they would be if Phil Neikro weren’t shoved off by Orel Hershiser’s fall of 1988). Guidry is the second best. Your mileage may vary.
#5 Rick Reuschel (15, 22): There’s some strangeness going on here. Reuschel is on the aforementioned list with Guidry, third from 1977-1979. He had five of his best seven seasons in the 1970s, yet he’s only the ninth best pitcher in that decade. In the next decade, when he’s clearly a lesser pitcher, he’s fifth? That’s right. By my measures, the two decades include six overlapping seasons, 1977-1982, so 1970s Reuschel gets a little from the 1980s, and 1980s Reuschel gets some of his greatness from the 1970s. Also, the competition is lesser in this decade, so less value can still take you a long way. Considering the six who are only on one list or the other, we’re looking at Tom Seaver, Phil Niekro, Gaylord Perry, Fergie Jenkins, Jim Palmer and Luis Tiant against Ron Guidry, Orel Hershiser, Bob Welch, Jack Morris, and the #1 and #3 guys on this list. It’s not remotely close.
#4 Nolan Ryan (10, 11): Known quite accurately as the greatest strikeout pitcher ever, topping second place Randy Johnson by 17%, he was even more prolific at allowing free passes, topping second place Steve Carlton by an astounding 48%.
#3 Dennis Eckersley (16, 12): So was Eck a starter or a reliever? Up through 1986, he was a starter, albeit a pretty stinky one in 1981, 1983, and 1984. From 1987 on he became a reliever. He’s helped quite a bit by 1977-1979 as well as 1990-1992, but the three starting seasons outside the decade were worth seven more wins than the three relieving seasons. He ranks where he does more because of his greatness as a starter than as a reliever.
#2 Bert Blyleven (2, 2): He’s still criminally underrated. Virtually any way you cut it, he’s the second best pitcher of the 1980s.
#1 Dave Stieb (1, 1): A reason I’ve taken up for Rick Reuschel is that there are already plenty of smart people who speak very highly of Dave Steib. It’s not just that he’s the best pitcher of the decade. It’s that it’s not close. The table below shows five different rankings. The first is my system. Then you’ll see the rankings if we only looked at pitchers with 1400 innings in the decade from 1980-1989 and the rankings of those pitchers from 1981-1990. The final two columns are all pitchers from 1980-1989 and all pitchers from 1981-1990, regardless of their inning totals. You’ll note that Dave Stieb tops every single one.
My Rank Qualified Qualified All All WAR 80-89 WAR 81-90 WAR 80-89 WAR 81-90 --------------------------------------------------------------------------- 1 D.Stieb D.Stieb D.Stieb D.Stieb D.Stieb 2 B.Blyleven B.Blyleven B.Blyleven B.Blyleven R.Clemens 3 D.Eckersley F.Valenzuela F.Valenzuela R.Clemens B.Blyleven 4 N.Ryan O.Hershiser O.Hershiser B.Welch B.Saberhagen 5 R.Reuschel B.Welch B.Welch F.Valenzuela B.Welch 6 R.Guidry J.Tudor F.Viola O.Hershiser F.Viola 7 O.Hershiser J.Morris J.Tudor B.Saberhagen D.Gooden 8 S.Carlton C.Hough R.Sutcliffe J.Tudor O.Hershiser 9 B.Welch R.Sutcliffe B.Hurst D.Gooden B.Hurst 10 J.Morris N.Ryan C.Hough N.Ryan N.Ryan 11 P.Niekro S.Carlton N.Ryan C.Hough J.Tudor 12 F.Viola R.Rhoden D.Eckersley J.Morris F.Valenzuela 13 F.Valenzuela F.Viola M.Boddicker T.Higuera C.Hough 14 J.Tudor R.Guidry J.Morris F.Viola T.Higuera 15 R.Sutcliffe R.Reuschel R.Rhoden R.Sutcliffe R.Sutcliffe 16 B.Hurst D.Eckersley C.Leibrandt R.Guidry M.Boddicker 17 C.Hough B.Hurst D.Alexander S.Carlton J.Morris 18 F.Tanana D.Alexander D.Stewart M.Soto M.Gubicza 19 D.Sutton M.Soto R.Guidry R.Reuschel D.Eckersley 20 D.Martinez F.Bannister D.Darwin D.Alexander D.Alexander
Let’s combine lists. For anyone who makes each of the five, I’m going to share their total points. The best you can possibly do is five (one point for first place in each of five categories).
1 Dave Stieb (5) 2 Bert Blyleven (11) 3 Bob Welch (28) 4 Orel Hershiser (29) 5 Fernando Valenzuela (36) 6 Nolan Ryan (45) 7 John Tudor (46) 8 Frank Viola (51) 9 Charlie Hough (59) 10 Jack Morris (60) 11 Rick Sutcliffe (62)
There are only eleven guys who make all three lists. As you can see, there’s just no way we can call Morris the best pitcher of the decade, and there’s no way we can avoid giving that title to Stieb.
I’ve said a few times in this post that the 1980s were a weak time for pitchers. Next week, it’s the 1990s and a return to some glory days.
As a Red Sox fan, I’ll forever love that 2004 team, which means I’ll forever love Johnny Damon. I was even okay when he went to the Yankees in 2006. And I was very happy when he finished his age-37 season in Tampa with a 109 OPS+ as well as positive value at the plate, on the bases, and avoiding double plays.
One thing that’s guaranteed, however, after someone’s age-37 season comes his age-38 season. And we know that almost all players are done by that age. Damon, coming off a 2.5 WAR season was left without a team until the Indians signed him in mid-April. His first game with Cleveland wasn’t until May 2, and he got off to a very slow start, slashing just .171/.261/.256 through the end of his first month. Things improved a little in June and in July, but it really appeared that Damon was done. As August rolled around, his line was just .222/.281/.329. But the truth is that Damon was getting a little unlucky with just a .239 BABIP, miles below his worst season. Had Damon – again, a 2.5-win player from the previous season – been given a full Spring Training and average luck, he might have had another 90 hits in 2012. That would have brought him to 2859.
Of course, there’s no way 2859 hits gets him to the Hall of Fame. But maybe a reasonable 2012 would have given him a 2013 contract. And with even 100 hits that year, we’d have likely seen a team sign him in 2014 to get him to 3,000 hits. While he wouldn’t have deserved it, I think those hits plus what might have been a top-25 finish in runs scored might have punched his ticket to Cooperstown.
For other greats of the game – some even better than Johnny Damon, if that’s possible – check out past posts in this series.
Andrew McCutchen is closest to the top-40. Then there’s Curtis Granderson, Adam Jones, Jacoby Ellsbury, Lorenzo Cain, and Carlos Gomez. In other words, future HoMErs at the position are Mike Trout, very young, or nonexistent.—Miller
Centerfield isn’t flush with young talent in its prime at this moment. With McCutchen’s fall from superstardom to mere averagedom, the only youngish guy with even half a chance would be Kevin Keirmaier, and he trails Gomez and even Denard Span. But you know what I think? Mookie Betts is probably the best young centerfielder in the game. But since the BoSox are lousy with slick fielding outfielders who could be good centerfielders, he’s “stuck” playing second-center at Fenway.—Eric
Aside from the fact that Mike Griffin was a complete mystery to me before we took up this project, I’d reckon Chet “The Jet” Lemon among our least conventional rankings. Well, sort of. He’s more conventional these days what with the sabrmetric revolution and all that. But anyone born prior to 1980 wouldn’t have thought of him as a borderline Hall guy, and no one born after that ever heard their sports-fan mentors talk about him either. He’s probably an All-Star season away from tiptoeing over the line. On the less positive side, the guy who hit .440 isn’t in our starting lineup, and we rank him behind Wally Berger, a guy who sounds like a 1950s sitcom character actor. Well, it turns out that .440 in 1894 just ain’t that impressive because the whole damn league hit .309 and the league scored about three more runs a game than it has for the last decade of our own times. Also, Kirby Puckett. We didn’t #MeToo him, though I personally don’t savor the idea of letting domestic abusers into our Hall, he did it to himself. Yeah, eye troubles and a Dennis Martinez fastball to the head didn’t help his case, but almost never walking, gaining weight over his career and killing his footspeed didn’t do much to push things along. But he got in on his first ballot, and Jim Edmonds got lost on his. They have facts, we have facts, I guess.—Eric
Willie Wilson! By my numbers, Willie Wilson would be a perfectly unobjectionable Hall of Famer. I can’t imagine anyone outside of the Kansas City area who would look to this ranking as anything other than lunacy though. Wilson wasn’t a good hitter. But forget that 1982 batting title. What Wilson had was amazing legs. He’s the only player in baseball history with at least 100 runs in the glove and 100 on the bases. That might not be as big a deal as I thought when I did the PI search at BBREF. See, only three players ever posted 100 runs on the bases. In addition to Wilson, it’s Hall of Famers Rickey Henderson and Tim Raines. When we lower the rates to 75 runs in the field and on the bases, we add Ozzie Smith, Max Carey, Luis Aparicio, Kenny Lofton, and Willie Mays. Maybe you know something I don’t, but I don’t believe anyone ever, including the ten guys who gave him Hall votes in 2000, truly advocated for his election. I’m not doing that now, but I couldn’t offer a hearty objection if you did.—Miller
What do you know! We have an actual disagreement here. I think Cy Seymour is very close to the line (99), while Eric has him right on the line of a player we’d even consider (90). Part of this discrepancy is my use of consecutive seasons in my formula. Since Seymour’s peak seasons were consecutive, he propelled his teams to pennants at a level his organizations could count on, at least compared to other players of his ilk. Even if I dumped the consecutive measure, Seymour would only fall to #23 for me. And he’s still #34 for Eric.—Miller
He’s got a negative season due to bad pitching in his rookie year that complicates things. But mostly it’s that all of these guys fall awfully close together. I’ve got Seymour with a seven-year nonconsecutive peak of 39 WAR. I’ve got him at 47 career WAR. That’s not all that different than Larry Doby who is right above him (38/49) or Dale Murphy two slots above him (41/46). In fact it’s quite similar to Wally Berger (40/47). Berger gets some points from me for his high-dose rate of WAR per PA. He started his career late after a long time on the coast, and he pounded out a lot of excellent seasons. Seymour was a little more spread out. Hugh Duffy had a little more career, as did Chet Lemon and Johnny Damon who have similar peaks. Ditto Willie Wilson. It’s all little things, not one thing.
We may also disagree on Lenny Dykstra. In fact, I disagree with myself on him. I love Lenny Dykstra the player. I really don’t care for Dystra the person. So much fun to watch, but such a cad for reals.—Eric
Most of these twenty guys seem to have pretty stable rankings. But I find Brett Butler particularly interesting, so I’m just going to use this space for a brief diversion about him. He belongs to a very small family of hitters whose basic attributes are
Butler hit .290 for his career and walked 1129 times. He stole 558 bases, and his SLG was one point worse than his OBP. Adds up to a speed and OBP heavy 110 OPS+.
Here’s a table full of these guys
NAME PA AVG OBP SLG OPS+ SB SB%* Rbaser =========================================================== Brett Butler 9545 .290 .377 .376 110 558 68% 37 Luke Appling 10254 .310 .399 .398 113 179 62% 0 Rich Ashburn 9736 .308 .396 .382 111 284 66% 9 Luis Castillo 7471 .290 .368 .351 92 370 72% 33 Stan Hack 8508 .301 .394 .397 119 165 N/A - 9 Johnny Temple 6036 .284 .363 .351 92 140 74% 1 *or as much as is known
If Quilvio Veras had a better batting average or Willie Randolph had stolen more bases, they’d also be on this list.
Two Hall of Famers, one near Hall of Famer, plus Castillo and Temple. Two of these guys were known for spoiling two-strike pitches. Luke Appling hardly ever struck out and would just flick balls foul forever until he drew his walk or pinged one through the infield. Bill James related a story about Ashburn hitting a lady with a foul ball and hitting her again as she was carted away from the stands. These are pesky little fleas. They could really handle the bat, and they did everything they could do as offensive players to set the table and drive the other team bonkers.
Despite the use of their speed, however, many of them have strangely iffy baserunning numbers. Butler apparently advanced very well on batted balls, but a 68% stolen base rate in the modern game is terrible, especially for a guy with his speed. Same for Luis Castillo. In the 1980s–2010s, rates below break-even could be called why-bother. Rich Ashburn’s appalling low +9 Rbaser is shocking to me. The league stole around 55% to 60% during his times, so that’s still above par, but he must not have been great on advancement. Johnny Temple, what were you doing? Hack and Appling I’ll hold judgement on since BBREF hasn’t inputted all of Retrosheet’s prewar stats, but Appling’s 62% success rate was actually above average. And that’s the weird thing about these guys. For reasons beyond my understanding, they weren’t really great base stealers, and only two of them appear to have been good baserunners when they weren’t stealing…despite the fact that speed is one of their calling cards. It’s a strange little group that’s always puzzled me.—Eric
Next week, it’s Babe Ruth and everyone else as we get started on right field.
As we reach the 11th installment in this series, we’ve finally landed upon the reason I did this research at all. Two of the most popular posts I’ve written at the HoME have been about Rick Reuschel, one arguing that he is among the most underrated players ever and the other putting him into the Hall of Fame replacing Waite Hoyt. Reuschel, as you know, isn’t in the Hall. There are a number of reasons for that, one of which is the greatness of his contemporaries, something I think will be evident if you read through this post and others in the series.
My less transparent reason for writing all of this was to produce another post that readers seem to like while forwarding my agenda of reminding you just how great Rick Reuschel was.
I explain my ranking methodology in the 1870s link below. But like I said, this was originally going to be just one post about the 1970s. I had 50 pitchers to rank in this post, and I was going to write about all of them. But then Jack Morris (absolutely not the best pitcher of the 1980s) was elected to the Hall of Fame, and the project expanded to that decade as well. And then to every other decade.
As you might expect, not all 50 of the pitchers from my original plan are worthy of discussion. Ranking those 50 by WAR, we see that there are a lot of clunkers, even if many of them have some interesting qualities. Jack Billingham is well thought of for his 0.36 ERA in 25.1 World Series innings. Randy Jones won the 1976 NL Cy Young Award. Dock Ellis may or may not have pitched a no-hitter in 1970 on LSD. And Jim Lonborg was the 1967 AL Cy Young winner and victor in two of his three World Series starts that year. Mike Torrez, the pitcher who surrendered Bucky Dent’s famous 1978 home run, appears here too. So does Bill the Spaceman Lee, a better pitcher than his wacky reputation might lead you to believe. Mike Cuellar joined Pat Dobson, Dave McNally, and Jim Palmer as Oriole hurlers with 20+ wins in 1971. He’s on the list. Ken Holtzman has three World Series rings and two no-hitters. He is too. And Ron Reed is one of the top relievers ever. But let’s face it, none of these players are among the top dozen or so of the 1970s.
Unlike other lists, this one goes 20 deep, almost all relating to Reuschel. Remember, he is the original reason for this project.
#20 Steve Rogers: Reuschel beats him by almost 25 WAR, over 50 wins, over 700 innings, and nearly 400 strikeouts. Rogers gave up a key home run to Rick Monday in 1981 even though he had an excellent October that year. It’s not close between these two.
#19 Catfish Hunter: Those who know me will understand I’d prefer if Hunter ranked even lower. Then again, I’m glad he’s on the list so I can mock him. He played in wonderful parks for pitchers and in front of excellent defenses. Reuschel played in very difficult parks in front of poor defenses. Reuschel beats Hunter by 10 points in ERA+, by over four-tenths of a run in FIP, and by over 28 WAR. They’re just about even in innings, wins, and strikeouts. How can someone pick Hunter over Reuschel? It’s either a terrible, terrible mistake, or it’s crediting Hunter beyond belief that his teams were good enough to get into the playoffs during his prime. Had the Cubs done that for Reuschel, the celebration of two years ago may have been their first title in about 40 years rather than 108.
#18 Jon Matlack: I’m okay with saying Matlack was an underrated pitcher. Perhaps that’s because the 1972 NL Rookie of the Year never became the pitcher some thought he might become. Really, it’s because his career record was 125-126. He actually had the same ERA+ as Reuschel, 114. However, he did so in nearly 1200 fewer innings. The difference of 30 WAR is nothing to sneeze at either.
#17 Andy Messersmith: He certainly has the narrative on his side, getting much credit for ending the reserve clause and bringing about free agency. But Reuschel beats him by nearly 30 WAR, by more than 80 wins, and by more than 1300 innings. Someone may try to make an ERA argument in Messersmith’s favor, but FIP goes to Reuschel, at least in part because he had little help from his defenses, while Messersmith had quite a bit.
#16 Mickey Lolich: Love me some Lolich, really I do. And Lolich had his best years in the 1970s, including two pretty great ones in 1971 and 1972. Ten seasons of 2.7+ pitching WAR is impressive as well. Of course, Reuschel had 13. Reuschel also pitched against better offenses, behind worse defenses, to an ERA+ ten points higher, and put up more than 20 additional WAR. In other words, if you take Lolich and add the best two seasons Sandy Koufax ever had, Reuschel was still a little better.
#15 Vida Blue: Excellent for a few years, but without real shoulder seasons, the 1971 AL MVP and Cy Young comes in next. He had huge home park advantages that Reuschel didn’t see. And there’s another interesting stat I’d like to bring in. BBREF charts cheap wins and tough losses, that is, wins in non-quality starts and losses in quality starts. Of the twenty pitchers on this list, none had a less pronounced separation than Blue. Rogers, for example, had 53 more tough losses than cheap wins. Reuschel had 52, and Blue had only 16. In other words, there were a lot of cheap wins among his 209. Their innings and wins are about the same, but Reuschel beats him by about 25 WAR. It’s not really close.
#14 Wilbur Wood: Wood may have been the game’s pitcher from 1971-1974. But there are only two good seasons beyond those four. Reuschel wins by about 20 WAR, 50 wins, and 800 innings. Though Wood had it just about as hard as Reuschel, he wasn’t as great, not at all. Think of a 19th century pitcher’s arc for comparison, maybe Ted Breitenstein.
#13 Tommy John: Few people would rank Reuschel ahead of John. They should. Why do they get it wrong? Well, John won 74 more games, has more postseason work, and is chock full of narrative. WAR is close; Reuschel wins by less than ten. But it’s the shape of their careers that give it all to Reuschel. Check out my adjusted WAR by season.
Reuschel: 9.6, 6.4, 5.9, 5.5, 5.5, 5.5, 5.4, 4.3, 3.9, 3.6, 3.4, 3.1, 3.1, 2.8, 1.2 John: 5.9, 5.7, 5.5, 4.8, 4.7, 4.4, 4.2, 3.2, 2.9, 2.4, 2.4, 2.4, 2.2, 1.9, 1.9
Look at John catch him by season 15! And to be fair, John soldiered on for another 8.7 WAR, while Reuschel could manage only 1.1 more, but c’mon. Would you rather have a guy who spent 15 years moving you closer toward a pennant than the other, or would you prefer someone who could give you another half-dozen years of pitching between 1.3 and 1.7 WAR? Yeah, I suspect we’re on the same page now.
#12 Jerry Koosman: Like Matlack, Koosman is another Met lefty who was so great early that we think of him as a disappointment. Koosman wasn’t. He was actually quite a star. Koosman and Reuschel look a lot alike on a career basis. Koosman has eight more wins and about 300 more innings. Reuschel beats him by 4 points in ERA+ and a smidge in FIP. They had the same number of cheap wins minus tough losses too. Koosman faced better offenses, while Reuschel did his work in front of worse defenses. We see the difference in WAR though. Reuschel wins by about 16 for their careers. If we dig a little deeper, perhaps we can see why. Yes, Koosman faced better offenses, scoring an average of 4.20 runs per nine innings versus just 4.14 for those offenses Reuschel faced. However, because of defense and park factors, BBREF estimates that an average pitcher would have given up 4.31 runs against Koosman’s offenses, while an average pitcher would have allowed 4.66 against Reuschel’s. We had to do some digging on this one, but in the end, WAR wins out. Reuschel was clearly the better pitcher.
#11 Don Sutton: Don Sutton is in the Hall of Fame. As far as I’m concerned, even though I lean a lot toward peak, he should be. I’ll take the seventeen seasons of 2+ pitching WAR any day. Sure, he had only three such seasons with 5+, but the depth to his career is pretty spectacular – clearly better than John’s, for example. Reuschel beats him by just 2.7 career WAR, but I have the two pitchers a little farther apart than that. Okay, a lot. Reuschel’s peak and prime both beat Sutton by quite a bit. So why did Sutton win 110 more games? He had better offenses, better defenses, and played in some incredible pitchers’ parks. In other words, he had all of the advantages. If you’re not paying attention, Sutton over Reuschel is an easy call. If you are, I’ll admit the call takes some thinking, but it’s easy enough. If I could sign on for the career of just one of these two pitchers, it would be Rick Reuschel, no doubt about it.
#10 Nolan Ryan: Let the controversy begin! Continue? Yes, I am saying that Rick Reuschel was a better pitcher of the 1970s than Nolan Ryan was. It’s really, really close though. Reuschel is at 55.5% of the decade leader by my formula; Ryan is at 54.3%. By the way, Sutton is at 54.2%. Let me be clear in saying that if I could take one career, it would be Ryan’s, and not just because of the no-hitters and strikeouts. Ryan was better. But let’s get some perspective here. During a decade when Ryan led the league in strikeouts seven times and Rick Reuschel missed the first two years, Reuschel still beats him by over three WAR. And remember a premise from early in this post. One reason Reuschel isn’t in the Hall is because of the greatness of his contemporaries.
#9 Rick Reuschel: Seriously, if he were ranked much higher, you would have to doubt the merit of this work.
#8 Luis Tiant: On one hand, I wouldn’t have expected someone outside the Hall to top Reuschel on this list. On the other, Tiant belongs in the Hall. And if we just counted 1970-1979, Reuschel has a more adjusted WAR. Tiant pulls ahead on the basis of the partial credit given to his 1967-1969 seasons. Overall, I rank Reuschel 49th in history and Tiant 51st. They’re pretty much the same pitcher. Tiant was worth 59% of our decade leader.
#7 Bert Blyleven: From this point on, every pitcher on the list had a better decade and a better career than Reuschel. So what! Scottie Pippen was clearly inferior to Michael Jordan, but nobody is questioning whether or not he belongs in the basketball Hall. Ruth was better than Gehrig, Aaron better than Mathews, and Maddux better than Glavine, but all six belong in the Hall. Blyleven’s decade was 71% as valuable as our leader.
#6 Jim Palmer: Kind of famously, Palmer never allowed a grand slam during his career. Far less famously, he surrendered only 27 three-run shots. Man, BBREF is awesome! Oh, and Palmer was worth 73% of our leader.
#5 Fergie Jenkins: Pretend we’re playing the game “two truths and a lie”. If I told you a guy won 20 games in a season seven times and I also tell you it took him three tries to get into the Hall of Fame, you know the third thing is true because one of those first two must be a lie. Starting pitchers are held to ridiculous standards by the BBWAA. (Note Bert Blyleven and, ahem, Rick Reuschel). In their entire existence, the BBWAA has elected only 42 pitchers, only 36 of whom were starters (I count Dennis Eckersley as a starter, but there’s no way in hell he was considered as such by those who voted for him). More on those 36 pitchers as we continue with this post. Jenkins was worth 79% of our decade leader.
#4 Gaylord Perry: Perry was worth 82%. Now back to those 36. Fourteen of them had some part of their career overlap with Reuschel’s. And ten of them – TEN – are on this list. What that means is that 28% of all starters ever elected to the Hall of Fame by the BBWAA were pitchers of the 1970s.
#3 Steve Carlton: And like Steve Carlton, who was worth 83% of the 1970s leader, seven pitchers who the BBWAA elected were pitchers of the 1980s. Reuschel was too. The competition was fierce, perhaps the best of any time in the game’s history.
#2 Phil Niekro: Throw the knuckleball, and you’re thought of a gimmick guy. Lead the league in losses for four straight years, no matter how many times you take the ball or how bad your team is, and you’re underrated. Such is the lot of Phil Niekro. In those four seasons, he played in front of atrocious defenses (-0.40 RA9def) and in extreme hitters parks (108.7 park factor). Niekro’s WAR total? It was 29.7, the best in baseball over those four years in which he led the NL in losses every year. For what it’s worth, Reuschel was baseball’s second most valuable pitcher over that stretch. And by the way, I would be guilty of underrating the guy with 90% of our leader’s total as well. I would certainly have ranked him behind Carlton.
#1 Tom Seaver: The trade of Nolan Ryan to the Angels meant five strikeout titles during this decade for Tom Terrific. He’s an easy call for best pitcher of the 1970s. I call him the eighth best pitcher ever.
So what have we learned today, boys and girls? You can be among the best fifty pitchers ever and still be criminally underrated, especially if you pitch at the same time, just about, as nine guys who were legitimately better.
Rick Reuschel, the ninth best pitcher of the 1970s, belongs in the Hall of Fame. In a week we’ll see how he fared in the 1980s, a decade where he totaled 14 fewer WAR.
Do you have a good sense of what’s going to happen with Carlos Beltran when he hits the Hall ballot in a few years? I don’t. The guy never led the league in anything meaningful, he wasn’t very healthy during the second half of his career, and he had one of the more memorable called third strikes in the game’s history. On the other hand, he did make nine All-Star teams, he’s eighth in JAWS at his position (at least until Mike Trout passes him), and his post-season career overall was excellent, as evidenced by a 1.021 OPS. I’m going to err on the side of progress on this one. The voting body as a whole is getting better and better. Yes, that’s in part due to purging of old-school writers and new-school thinkers getting votes. It’s also due to some older BBWAA members making progress, learning how to think differently. So that’s it, the introduction to the first 20 guys in center.
Oh yeah, we both rank Willie Mays behind Ty Cobb [ducks].
Maybe you’ll like the rankings at other positions more. Here they are.
Finally, a really fun one! Mike Trout is the best player in baseball. If you’re too young to have seen Willie Mays, it’s possible he’s the best player you’ve ever seen. Sure, he’s behind a bunch of guys now, but for how long? A season of just 6.0 adjusted WAR gets him past Kenny Lofton, Carlos Beltran, Jim Edmonds, Andruw Jones, and Paul Hines. Since Trout is just 27 this year, let’s hold him at that conservative 8.4 for two years before decreasing it by one win per year until he reaches 10. If that were to happen, he’d also pass Richie Ashburn, Billy Hamilton, Ken Griffey, and Joe DiMaggio. Mantle is next on the list, but I think he’s too far away for Trout. Here’s what he’d need: 9.0, 9.0, 8.0, 8.0, 7.0, 7.0, 6.0, 5.0, 4.0, 3.0, 2.0, and 1.0. At that point, he’d be 38. And absolute greats can be pretty awesome at that age, worth far more than just 1 WAR. Ted Williams and Barry Bonds topped 9.0, and Honus Wagner was worth 8.0. Babe Ruth (and Bob Johnson) topped 6.0. And Eddie Collins, Joe Morgan, Bill Dahlen, Nap Lajoie, Tris Speaker, and Ty Cobb played like All-Stars. I’m not ready to say that Trout is those guys. All I’m saying is that those guys are great even when they’re old. Maybe Trout is that great. Maybe Mantle falls. Maybe.—Miller
We all get it. Mike Trout’s amazing. Yada yada yada. Our new normal: Someone posts some amazing tidbit about Mike Trout, and we just acknowledge it briefly then move along. This guy is doing things unseen in several generations, and he is absolutely crushing the league. How badly? In the seven seasons from 2012–2018 (through May 11th), Trout earned 56.8 BBREF WAR. The next highest total was a tie between Josh Donaldson and Robinson Cano at 38.0, which means that Trout has exceeded the second best total by 49%. Forty-flippin’-nine percent!!! That’s like a person running a two-hour marathon, and the second place finisher clocks in at three hours.
But is this level of complete and total dominance rare? With the help of BBREF’s Play Index, which you subscribe to immediately, I looked up every seven-year stretch in big league history, and, yes, Trout’s 49% lead is the highest. In fact, he leads the next best by 8 percentage points (Barry Bonds leading Cal Ripken by 41% from 1989–1995). In fact only two other players led their second-place finishers by more than 30%: Ross Barnes over George Wright from 1871–1877 (32%) and Bonds leading Rickey Henderson from 1988–1994 by 31%. Once again, Mike Trout is doing things we’ve never seen in our lifetimes, or even across all time.
Digging a little deeper, only 35 different men have led MLB in WAR over a seven-year span. Just 35 in the nearly 150 years we’ve been at this professional baseball thing. Of the 55 who have finished second, 33 appear on the leader list, so en toto, a mere 57 players have managed to appear on these lists, combined. Trout has now turned the trick three times (assuming that Cano and Donaldson don’t managed to gain nearly 20 WAR in 2018’s remaining months), making him only the 21st player to do so. The other 20?
Any time you’re a player under 27, and you’re in a group with Boggs, Clemente, Hamilton, Henderson, and A-Rod, you can probably feel good about your Hall of Fame chances. Given the gap between Trout and the next-best, it’s pretty likely he’s going to reach at least four to six instances of this particular way of looking at things, and the names only get better as the we go up the list. Amazing.—Eric
Where do I begin? Our first seven are pretty conventional, actually. But then there’s Put Put Ashburn who took for bloody ever to reach the Coop, and whose combo of high OBPs, steals, and ace centerfielding we find highly compelling. Paul Hines hasn’t gotten much of any attention from the Veterans Committees, and think he’s pretty great. Jim Edmonds and Kenny Lofton got knocked off crowded Hall ballots due to the 5 percent rule, and The Toy Cannon didn’t even get one stinking vote in 1983 before falling off the slate. I’m not sure whether Willie Davis ever appeared on a Hall ballot. Andruw Jones just barely avoided getting thrown in his Hall of Fame rodeo. We’ve got all these guys in our top twenty. We have the Duke juuuuuuust inside the top fifteen as opposed to chumming with Willie and Mickey, we’ve got little-known 1800s guys popping onto the bottom of the top twenty, and we don’t have any of Kirby Puckett, Larry Doby, Earl Averill, Edd Roush, or Earle Combs in it. Yeah, we’re flying our centerfield freak flags high. Or maybe geek flag is a better term.—Eric
It has to be Ty Cobb and Willie Mays. I think a year or three ago some ESPN piece called Mays the best player in baseball history. That’s strange. It’s Ruth, it’s Ruth, it’s so clearly Ruth. Unless you timeline. And then it’s Bonds. Unless you think PEDs changed everything. And then it’s, um, maybe Mays? Or a bunch of other potential guys. Anyway, if ESPN says the best player ever is Mays and we don’t even think he’s the best at his position, we diverge most from conventional wisdom on Cobb and Say Hey. Look at our numbers though. The two are separated by three percentage points for me and four for Eric. At their level, that’s a virtual tie. You say Mays was better than Cobb? Okay, I’m not going to argue.—Miller
Our order for the first eight is identical. Then our next seven are the same, though in a different order. And then there’s a bit of separation in some, but most players are close enough.—Miller
Primarily, Jim O’Rourke. Now, most folks think of Orator Jim as a left fielder, but a) he played pretty much everywhere, and b) he’s a centerfielder. Here’s the appearances that BBREF current estimates for O’Rourke by position:
Not that is utility. Says in that list that O’Rourke’s appearances in centerfield trail his appearances in left field by 300 games. But when it comes to the 19th Century, things get wacky. The leagues’ schedules changed almost constantly until 1904 when the 154-game slate became the standard. Every few years, as the game’s popularity grew, the magnates would tack on more games, increasing profits on ticket sales and concessions. Yay! More baseball! But for guys like me who have a little dollop of engineering in their brain, assigning a primary position without accounting for the schedule feels not quite right. Especially when you also prefer to assign position based on where the player earned the most value. (For examples why, see Banks, Ernie and Rose, Pete.) So when we actually break out O’Rourke’s appearances, we find out that most of his innings in left field came in the last seven years of his career, when the schedule was as much as twice as long as in his first ten or fifteen years. During that earlier time, O’Rourke got most of his centerfielding in. Even if we adjusted the innings for a 162 sked and all that, it probably wouldn’t make enough difference to overcome the late left field advantage, but it would be awfully close. But when I season by season partition his WAR (with all my adjustments baked in) based on the percentage of his defensive innings played (or estimated to have be played) at each position, centerfield wins out over left field. Much of that is due to the fact that O’Rourke was at his physical peak during the late 1870s and a few subsequent seasons when he played centerfield most often. He was in his closing act when he went to left field to stay late in his days. “Simple” as that.—Eric
Rich Ashburn had a short career by the standard of great players—just fifteen years. He rarely missed a game, so his plate appearances don’t reflect it, and he went out on a high note. Well, as high as you can get on the 1962 Mets, for whom he netted 2.1 WAR with a 121 OPS+. If Whitey had chosen to keep grinding along with the Amazings, he might have slipped a couple pegs down the ladder. Any system that prefers longevity to peak or prime value might see Ashburn a little less favorably.—Eric
If defensive numbers are overblown, as Bill James suggests, we may overrate Andruw Jones. If the mythology put into song by Terry Cashman is right, we may underrate Duke Snider. But I want to take a shot at explaining a player who we rank correctly. I am incredibly confident that Joe DiMaggio is exactly the fifth best center fielder ever. At the HoME, we don’t give credit for seasons missed due to military service. Maybe we should, but I prefer our position for a myriad of reasons. Still, let’s say we replace DiMaggio’s three missed seasons. If we give him 5.6 WAR each year, which tips just a little more to what he did before he left compared to when he returned, he’s still fifth.—Miller
Join us back here in a week as we finish off center field.