A conversation Eric and I need to have is one about cleaning up the HoME. When the Hall elects a clunker, he’s in forever. Same at the Hall of Merit. They honor their voters in that way. Over at the Hall of Stats, Adam Darowski makes things simple. Those over the line are in, while those under it are out. Changes welcome. Right now, we operate in the same way as the Halls of Merit and Fame.
Such a system supports the idea that we’re not embarrassed by our mistakes, and it honors the decisions we’ve made. On the other hand, we’re just two people who continue to learn. It could be said that it’s a bigger crime to have the wrong players in the HoME than it is to change our minds.
I don’t know, but it’s a conversation we need to have. Today you’ll see Pud Galvin ranked #91 and #98, and Whitey Ford is ranked at #83 and #100. We both rank Dizzy Dean above this pair. Eddie Rommel and Charlie Buffinton too. At the very least, it’s worth a conversation.
This is the penultimate post in a pretty long series. If you’ve missed any, check ‘em out 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], [P, 1-20], [P, 21-40], [P, 41-60], [P, 61-80]
Three Cy Young Awards and two other top-five finishes across the last five seasons, and a start to this year that looks like another outstanding year. That suggests that his best six years indicate a reputation in his own time to Sandy Koufax. Koufax won three Cy Youngs and finished third one other time. He earned six straight All-Star Game berths, and Scherzer should get his sixth this year. Koufax’s actual performance is more dominant, leading to an MVP award and two second-place MVP finishes. But Scherzer balances Koufax out because he can hit a little and because his performance prior to his outstanding peak is better. Scherzer tossed 805 innings with a 110 ERA+ and 11.7 WAR. Koufax threw 692 innings with a 100 ERA+ and 6.7 WAR. What I’m saying is that right now, assuming his 2018 continues on like this, Scherzer is basically Koufax. So that puts him on the borderline. It’s all a question of how many more seasons he has and how many more are at a high level. The top forty is not out of the question.—Eric
For me, Hamels is a little like Ian Kinsler, except that it took me a lot longer to really appreciate what Hamels is doing. I mean, I’ve seen the guy’s whole career and watched him a bunch in the playoffs, yet I don’t think I really paid close attention until he was traded to the American League. He’s 34 now and bouncing back from an un-Hamels-like campaign in 2017. We’re looking at about 4 WAR this season if he keeps up his first half pace. To see what the rest might be, I looked at all pitchers within 5% of his innings and 5% of his ERA+ through age 33. Then I dumped anyone who pitched before WWII ended. Those on the list very much resemble the chart Eric showed you last week when he discussed Hamels. It’s Zack Greinke, Justin Verlander, John Smoltz, Mike Mussina, Jim Bunning, Kevin Appier, and Bret Saberhagen. Let’s dump the two actives and consider just the other five. Below is their seasonal WAR with my adjustments for the remainder of their careers.
34 35 36 37 38 39 40 41 42 Total ===================================================================== Mussina 7.2 2.9 3.5 5.2 1.1 5.1 24.99 Smoltz 1.0 3.2 1.2 3.3 5.1 5.9 4.3 0.7 -0.5 24.03 Bunning 9.0 8.0 -1.7 0.3 2.6 -2.0 16.14 Sabes 3.0 4.0 -0.1 6.94 Appier 2.2 0.3 -0.4 2.10
So we see quite a range. I think the Appier path means he won’t reach the HoME, and that’s quite possible. With the Saberhagen path, he has a shot. If his run out is like Mussina or Smoltz, he’s a no-brainer. The median guy is Bunning. If we spread out those years in a way that makes more sense, Hamels would finish right behind Saberhagen for me. And that would get him a spot in the HoME. Should be interesting.
I want to talk about Mickey Welch. He pitched from 1880-1892 in the National League, won 307 games, and is in the Hall of Fame. Even though I rank him 77th all-time, he’s not close to a HoME vote for me, given that there are other pitchers of his era well ahead of him and not enshrined. Eric ranks him a laughable #156, kind of like Al Leiter. So as far away as he is for me, he’s miles away from that for Eric. Brian Kenny would be happy that we mention Welch here, as he’s a great example of our need to kill the win. Welch won 116 total games for the New York Giants from 1884-1886, a period during which he pitched about half of all innings for an okay New York team. He led the game in walks each of those years, and his 125 ERA+ is pretty tiny compared to those 116 wins. Before that run, his ERA+ was just 101. Afterwards, it was 116. So what we’re looking at is an above average pitcher whose three great years actually weren’t that great. I think Welch is a bad choice for the Hall of Fame; Eric thinks he’s a miserable one.
Oh, we both also rank Frank Tanana higher on our lists than Tommy John. And, um, Whitey Ford. Want to touch that one, Eric?—Miller
Yeah, Whitey Ford. We could look at all 20 of these moundsmen and find big differences with the CW. Mark Langston, George Uhle, Nap Rucker? Not too many advocates out there for them. Then there’s Roy Oswalt. He retired at 35 and hadn’t been good or healthy for a few years. He never won a Cy Young He was elected to only three All-Star Games. He picked up very little black ink. But he’s got a nice peak/prime-oriented case. He’s one or two seasons short of the Hall level, but I suspect we’re one or two standard deviations outside the opinion of most observers.—Eric
Kenny Rogers is pretty high on my list. He’s not very high on Miller’s list. There’s twenty-nine slots between us. This seems likely to be related to his seasons in relief. BBREF calculates 2.1 WAR for him in those years. I give him 4.7 after my little relief adjustments. Given how tightly packed all of these guys are, it probably makes the difference.—Eric
Have I mentioned Mickey Welch? On another note, Eric wants more of a conversation about electing Mark Buehrle. I want to talk more about kicking out Whitey Ford.—Miller
My peak-centric system likes Wilbur Wood, though he produced more campaigns below 1 WAR than above. I don’t know how I feel about someone useless for half of his career being as close to the line as he is. Even if he were over the line, I think I’d find a way to avoid supporting him. I do wonder what might have been had Wood figured things out before he turned 30 though.—Miller
Practically every pitcher on this list is here because he wasn’t quite good enough or good for long enough. So this is a spot where any small nits in our respective systems can be picked and picked again. But there are things outside our analytical frameworks that complicate our view on a player. For example, Clark Griffith, for me, is nearly unelectable. Why? Because we’ve elected waaaayyyyy too many people from the 1890s, and Cupid Childs is on the outside looking in. So if we are serious about being fair to all eras, Griffith is out until the HoME elects another 50 or 100 people. We could also talk about Mark Langston. While both of us have preferences for peak versus career value, a pitcher like Langston pushes the outer limits of our thinking. He’s about one excellent season short of a Koufaxian profile, and a lot of his surrounding years are as spotty as Koufax’s first six years. How much value should we put on peak versus career value? The flipside, of course, is Don Sutton with 5,000 innings, 300 wins, and a mere 23.3 WAA. BBREF has him down for just three All-Star quality seasons. Personally, I have two after my series of adjustments. But maybe I’m wrong? Maybe there’s additional, undetected value to bulk innings? Studies suggest that Don Sutton’s pennant-adding value is more than I give it credit for. Finally, there’s the issue of pre-1893 pitching, you know back when dudes threw more innings in a year than most closers throw in a career. Do the methods we have now adequately capture the value of a pitcher when a whole team only employees one or two of them?—Eric
Just as a counter-point, I’m happy Griffith is in as a combination candidate, and I don’t think we’re way over in the 1890s or any era. Simply, we measure how many people should represent an era differently. And there’s more than one defensible conclusion. I’d explain here if I thought people actually cared. But I caution you, fine readers, before you ask, know that the answer might make watching paint dry seem enjoyable. You know, if you’re close enough to catch some fumes.—Miller
We hope to see you back here next week for the final installment in this series.
Eric and I work quite a bit to tweak our numbers, so forgive me if I can’t remember exactly when Andy Pettitte fell a few spots for him. I do, however, remember how I felt. Somewhere between relieved and elated. See, I have Pettitte on the wrong side of 100, and Eric one had him in an area that he’d garner an easy enough vote. Couple those facts with the truth that I possess an inappropriate amount of dislike for the guy, and you understand my relief.
Yes, I admit that I have a huge anti-Pettitte bias. As you might know, I’m a Red Sox fan. Even more than that, I’m a fan of logic. And I really hate hypocrisy. Pettitte and Pettitte fans push all of my buttons. First, the guy has five rings for the Yankees, so that’s one strike against him. In terms of logic, I always understood that Pettitte was very good. But the whole narrative about somehow intimidating adult humans by pulling his hat way down made me wild, especially since Pettitte intimidated approximately nobody. Since 1990, there have been 36 pitchers to throw at least 2500 innings. Pettitte is 20th in K/9. That’s not intimidating; it’s average. By the way, he’s 32nd on the list in HBP. Get outta here with that intimidation garbage! Strike two. And finally, we have the hypocrisy, at least as I see it. There are many, many guys who have had their baseball reputations tarnished because of PED use, or even whispers thereof. Not Pettitte, or so it seems, even though he admitted using HGH. That’s strike three – not because of HGH use – but my perception of hypocrisy surrounding him (oh, and his ranking). He’s out.
When he’s eligible for the HoME, we’ll see how things shake out.
[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], [P, 1-20], [P, 21-40], [P, 41-60]
If you haven’t already, you’ll notice a pattern where Eric ranks recent pitchers more favorably than I do right now, which is why he discussed Sabathia a week ago. It’s an innings thing, largely. Anyway, Sabathia has had one hell of a run. Even now, at age 37, he’s taking the ball basically every fifth day and pitching pretty well. Still, 37 is a large number as baseball ages go, and from ages 33-35 he accumulated just 0.48 WAR based on my conversions. Not much more should be expected of him. I could see the Yankees winning the World Series this year and Sabathia hanging ‘em up. Or maybe he pitches a final time in 2019. Let’s say he finishes with 1.5 WAR this year and 1.0 next. That would put him past Rucker, Hershiser, Cooper, and Johan. Of course, he may struggle in the second half and finish at 0.5 and then post -0.8 next year. Even then, he’d fall only behind Appier. I think we’re looking at a future HoMEr here.—Miller
It sure seems like King Felix is no longer royalty. In 2014, he took second in the Cy Young Award vote, 10th in the MVP balloting, and made his fifth All-Star team in six years thanks to an AL-leading 2.14 ERA (170 ERA+), Fifteen victories, and 6.4 WAR. At age 28, he sat atop the throne. Then came injuries that nicked away at his durability and his effectiveness. This chart tells the story all too well:
YEAR AGE IP ERA+ WAR ========================= 2014 28 236 170 6.4 2015 29 202 108 4.5 2016 30 153 106 1.4 2017 31 87 97 0.8 2018 32 95 78 -0.5
At this point, Hernandez is no longer even an innings eater. He’s actively sabotaging the Mariners’ bid for the AL West. He’ll likely finish this season as a Mariner and probably next season too. Then the M’s will decline his 2020 option. It’s an open question right now whether the team would be better off with Felix Heredia instead of Felix Hernandez. OK, that’s obviously an exaggeration, but Hernandez has turned into a liability. Is there any hope? Yes. As of June 30th, his previous five starts have resulted in to three quality starts, one five inning/two-run start and one stinker for 3.41 ERA in 29 innings. He’s struck out 25, walked just seven, and allowed only 2 homers during this stretch. Is he fixed? I don’t think so, not until we see a couple months of this kind of pitching.
Even if Hernandez returns to effectiveness, there’s not yet reason to believe he’ll return to the throne. At age 32 with 2,600 innings, he may simply have too much mileage on that golden right arm to ever dominate again. Even so, he’s not that far away from post-career glory. He’s already standing astride the in/out line. Even two or three years of average pitching will nudge him over it.—Eric
Remember Folgers Crystals? Folgers would stick a camera in a potted plant near a table at Château de Maison and roll tape while a polished, Reaganesque actor told unsuspecting diners from the pearls-and-cufflinks crowd that the after-dinner coffee they’d been served was actually Folgers Crystals. We could see the incredulity on their faces at learning that Folgers had duped them into drinking its hoi polloi concoctment and not whatever other thin, watery instant coffee the restaurant usually hypercharged them for. I’m going to do that to you now. Which of these fellows, ranked by games started, is Cole Hamels?
GS IP ERA+ pWAA pWAR ============================== A 402 2659 126 36 61 B 402 2595 121 31 55 C 398 2560 123 37 59 D 392 2598 122 28 52 E 378 2460 124 34 54 F 371 2563 126 37 59
Four of these pitchers, including Hamels, are active. The other two are members of the Hall of Miller and Eric. If you guessed that Hamels is (E), you win a free tablespoon of Folgers Crystals and a teaspoon of Cremora to go with it. The other guys? (A) is Justin Verlander; (B) is Kevin Appier, HoMEr; (C) is Zack Grineke; (D) is Felix Hernandez; and (F) is Bret Saberhagen, HoMEr. Without all my fancy adjustments for usage and stuff, Hamels still hangs in there just fine with these big guns. Toss in an outstanding post-season run in 2008 and a decent bat, and the fact that Hamels is only 34 and has time to add to his resume, and you’re looking at an excellent HoME candidate.—Eric
Kevin Appier of course. Eddie Rommell too. But I want to talk about the presence of Tim Hudson on the borderline. No, he was never great. Still, he was a high quality arm for many years. Most impressively, at least to me, he had nine seasons of at least 3.5 (rounded) WAR. For reference, there were only 29 pitchers last season who reached that level on the mound. Some might move ahead or behind him once we include work at the plate, but you get the point. By the way, HoME pitchers without at many comparable seasons include Ed Walsh (7), John Clarkson (7), Amos Rusie (8), Wes Ferrell (8), Carl Hubbell (8), Hal Newhouser (7), Bob Feller (7), Joe McGinnity (6), Juan Marichal (7), Rube Waddell (7), Dazzy Vance (8), Jim Bunning (8), Three Finger Brown (6), Old Hoss Radbourn (7), Urban Shocker (8), Red Faber (6), Red Ruffing (8), Tim Keefe (7), Bret Saberhagen (8), Sandy Koufax (6), Johan Santana (8), Orel Hershiser (7), Kevin Appier (8), Bucky Walters (7), Chuck Finley (8), Don Sutton (7), Goose Gossage (7), and Pud Galvin (7). That’s 42% of all pitchers in the HoME. Without question, Hudson deserves a conversation.
I’m going to propound Mark Buehrle here, at least on my side of the ledger. Though, toward the very end of his career, “Future Hall of Famer” and “Mark Buehrle” found themselves in the same sentence more than a few times, the idea never gained steam the way Adrian Beltre’s case did. That’s because Buehrle packed it in after age 36, after 493 starts, 3283 innings, and 16 seasons. Buehrle clicked along like a metronome, 13 to 16 wins, 200 to 230 innings per annum. Had he continued on, he might have reached 250 or even 270 wins and 4,000 innings. Buerhle was the ultimate soft-tossing lefty. His fastball was slow, everything he threw had a bend to it, and usually it broke downward too. He fielded his position amazingly well, and he had one of the very best pickoff moves in the game. He tossed a perfecto and another no-no for good measure. Like the aforementioned Tim Hudson, he was annually very good, rarely if ever poor, and hardly ever a-maz-ing. He’s more in the Don Sutton camp than the Ed Walsh camp, for sure, and he’s got a little more under the hood in my eyes than Sutton did. Buehrle racked up 30 WAA in 3283 innings. Sutton totaled 23 in 5282 innings. So this is not an extreme long-and-low case like Sutton’s, but the eerie consistency of Buehrle’s career feels a little like a novelty, and the lack of a dominant season nor the impression of dominance leaves him susceptible to underratedness. I suspect he’ll get one-and-doned by the BBWAA, which will be a real shame.—Eric
While Miller and I have a 24-slot gap between us for Burleigh, we have a 34-slot gap for Buehrle. Sorry, I just can’t resist.—Eric
I rank Ted Breitenstein #61, while Eric has him at #132. Huge difference! However, I’m not close to fighting for his inclusion in the HoME. I put Charlie Buffinton at #65, which is fifteen spots ahead of Eric’s ranking. Again though, I’m not advocationg one iota for his HoME inclusion. Same deal with the gap of 26 rankings for Nap Rucker, the gap of 23 ranking for Babe Adams, and the gap of 24 rankings for Burleigh Grimes. One area where we agree is on our individual and collective need to evolve. And that I have in terms of reliever leverage. Eric ranks Dizzy Dean at #62 and 4% over the in/out line. I now rank him #78 and 4% below it. A guy who’s only 4% below the line is certainly worthy of discussion for me. You’ll kindly not let Eric know that he also has Pettitte 4% over, while I have him 4% under. Thank you.—Miller
Eddie Rommel and Dizzy Dean vaulted into contention for me when I added a level of relief leverage to my pre-1946 rankings. There are two main issues here. First, I don’t know if my leverage factor makes sense. Second, even if it does, I don’t know the actual leverage for either Dean or Rommel. The truth is that they’re both in contention for the HoME now, so I have to try to figure those things out.—Miller
Eddie Rommel is something of a WAR darling, and until we get leverage-based WAR that more fully assesses his relief work, I’m standing pat on him. Especially because Rommel didn’t pitch as well in relief as he did when starting, and that’s the opposite of how it’s supposed to work. Dean on the other hand, is a little different story. Connie Mack used Chief Bender as an ace closer back in the deadball era. He didn’t really use Rommel that way, mostly because he had some fella named Lefty Grove around. Rommel never led the league in saves, finished in the top 10 only six times and only twice in the top five. Grove, on the other hand, finished in the top ten in saves every year from 1926 (his second with Mack) until 1933 (his last). He led the AL once, finished third twice, fourth twice, and fifth once. Grove notched only four saves in his eight years in Boston pitching in relief only 14 times. From 1920 to 1933 (Rommel’s rookie season to Grove’s last season in Philadelphia), Grove finished third in saves in the majors (50, trailing Jack Quinn by one and Firpo Marberry by 45). Rommel finished tied for sixth (30, trailing Wilcy Moore by 19, Waite Hoyt by 9, and tied with Sarge Connally whom I’ve never actually heard of until right this moment). Not so sure that helps Rommel’s case much. Meanwhile, Dizzy Dean was used exactly like Grove. From 1933 to 1936, Old Diz finished second, second, fifth, and first in saves. He saved just one more game after that, ever. From 1932–1936, his 30 saves led all of baseball.
So once we get leveraged WAR for these times, Dean will probably look better on BBREF than now. Hard to say whether Rommel will or not, but I kinda doubt he’ll make significant jump. In either case, I think we are right to continue thinking about them deeply and to continue saying no to them until their circumstances become a little clearer.—Eric
In a week, it’s pitchers 81-100.
We hope this series is fun for you, and by the looks of it, a great many of you are enjoying it. The best thing, I think, is to look at our rankings versus yours. See where you think we’re missing something, or perhaps learn from something we bring up.
If we’re doing the right thing, this is the type of thing that’s going on. I know it’s going on internally. This week’s lists won’t look too different from each other, but the lists next week were going to be a mess. When our rankings differ by a lot, I try to look for the reasoning. Years ago, it was sometimes something as simple as a data entry error. Today, it’s more a difference of opinion on how to rank players, which is totally fine by me. What’s less fine is when one of us is making a smart decision that the other isn’t making. That had been the case on the mound. Simply, Eric was offering leverage credit to relief pitchers in a reasonable way. I was ignoring such leverage. And as a result, my numbers for some pitchers prior to 1946 were deflated. Since, I’ve adapted by systems to be more in line with Eric’s – really, to be more in line with what I think makes sense. So before we get to today’s rankings, I want to share with you our top-40 with my adjustments. Nothing big, but we always sweat the small stuff at the HoME.
Moving on. All posts in this series are here for your convenience. Enjoy our next 20 pitchers.
[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], [P, 1-20], [P, 21-40]
Greinke is a fascinating pitcher, and historically unusual. A large portion of his pitching value is tied up in his 2009 and 2015 seasons. Also, he’s a pretty nice hitter for a pitcher. What I’m saying is that I don’t love the idea of using comparable pitchers to project him moving forward because there just aren’t many truly comparable careers. So I’ll do what any good prognosticator does, I’ll guess. Greinke is 34 this year, and he’s off to a good enough start on the mound and a very good one at the plate. Yeah, there I go again, thinking rationally about a pitcher about whom I can only guess. Giving him seasons of 5, 3, 2, and 1 WAR seems reasonable enough. And if he were to do that, he’d jump up to #30 in my rankings, between Hal Newhouser and Bob Feller. To me, he’s a Hall of Famer already. With those seasons, he’d be in the upper half of HoME pitchers. But is he seen that way? I don’t think voters are going to love him. [Looks at BBREF]. Yeah, he’s south of 180 wins as I type this. He’s going to have trouble.—Miller
I love that Verlander went from amazing to fork-tender to amazing. Miller and I came close to writing him off, wondering between ourselves whether he would wind down and never quite get back to average, let alone excellent. Well, he did. It’s not as though he’s stopped either. He’s already this year pushed past fellows on my list such as Juan Marichal, Jim Bunning, and Don Drysdale. He could even bust into the top-40 this year if he continues to pitch insanely well. Now, Verlander is 35 this year, and we thought at this age Roy Halladay would be great forever. He wasn’t, and Verlander’s career could go at any moment. It takes just a tweak of some muscle or a small drop in velocity for a career to go south in a hurry. If Verlander declines gracefully, he could make the top 30ish.—Eric
With the caveat that he’s already begun to regress some, the 2018 version of Justin Verlander may be the best one we’ve seen. This from the 2011 AL MVP and a guy who already has two 8 WAR seasons. This is amazing, not just because he’s 35 now, but because he looked like he was kind of washed up in 2014 and 2015. Like with Greinke, I don’t know quite what to do with him. Let’s give him 8 WAR this year, then a pretty steep decline to 5, 3, and 1.5. That feels reasonable enough to me. And if it happens, he shoots up to #25 all-time, right between Curt Schilling and Mike Mussina. Unlike Greinke, I think the voters will love him. Of course, I’m not sure why.—Miller
Carsten Charles has walked the tightrope for two-and-a-half seasons. His ERA has beaten his FIP by 35 points, 80 points, and 99 points from 2016 through June 19th of 2018. There’s a little smoke and mirrors here. On the one hand, his home parks have played at about a 103 park factor in those seasons. But as a lefty, Sabathia doesn’t face the same problem that a righty would in New Yankee Stadium with its short porch in right field. CC has also benefited from average to excellent defense behind him. Overall, while his ERA this year is 3.30 at this writing, he’s only managed a single RAA above average. Also playing against the big lefty? His own durability. Injuries have cut down his ability to go deep into games. From age 20 to 32, Sabathia appeared 415 times, all starts, pitched 2775.33 innings, an average of 6.69 per start. Since then, he’s averaging about an inning less a game (5.73). Unsurprisingly, CC is striking out about one fewer batters per game than in his prime. He’s issuing about one-half a walked more per game. He’s giving up a half a homer per game more than during his peak. That’s aging for you, especially when you’re a big-bodied guy throwing all that weight around with max effort. On the other hand, he remains at least an average pitcher and sometimes a very good one. I don’t know how much further he can climb in his decline years. Probably not much. I’d be surprised if he made the top 50, especially since reports have filtered out suggesting he may retire at the expiration of his current contract.—Eric
I think they diverge in a lot of places. Mariano is my top ranked reliever by far, yet he’s only 42. I suspect that most of the closer-loving world would place him in the top-20, if not the top-10. Then there’s David Cone. Just try convincing someone he was as good as John Smoltz. If he was so good, how come he didn’t win 200 games? If he was so good, why wasn’t he an elite closer for three years? Blah, blah, blah. And of course, there are those 70s pitchers, Rick Reuschel and Luis Tiant, both clearly Hall-worthy, yet one completely and the other largely ignored. Even I’ve kind of ignored Looie, and that’s a shame. At least it’s in favor of Reuschel. Tiant was the classic underrated player in my mind. Stop me if you heard these things before. He wan’t seen as great when he was young, never winning more than a dozen games until he was 27. Then he had his breakout season obscured of 1968 by Denny McLain and Bob Gibson. Subsequently, it’s been obscured by history. It’s as if 1968 is the Coors Field of seasons. Anything that happened that year can be diminished with the mere mention of some outlying numbers. He also had a mid-career dip when he went 17-30 over three years. He jumped from team to team, playing for six in his career. And he hung on too long, posting an ERA+ of just 82 over his final three campaigns. Oh, and he played at the same time as Seaver, Carlton, et al. The guy seemingly had everything going against him. On a positive note, he’s beloved in Boston and I suspect throughout the baseball world, at least among those with good memories. With the right composition, I could see an Era Committee voting him in one of these days.—Miller
Thirty years ago, when I was learning the history of our game, Bob Feller was a living legend. Only the war had stopped him from reach 300 wins and breaking Walter Johnson’s strikeout record. There was that famous old film of a motorcycle speeding by at 90 MPH while Feller threw a baseball that hit its target as the bike crossed the same plane. Appreciation of Feller had probably reached its apogee about a decade before that, but as a pup I had a clear impression of his greatness. Today I report ranking him a mere 42nd in my rankings. Hey, it’s just my opinion, but I think the war didn’t prevent him from winning 300. Instead it allowed him to win 266. Feller shouldered an incredible workload. Since the introduction of the lively ball in 1920, Bob Feller leads all pitchers during their age-seventeen season with 62 innings. He leads all eighteen-year-olds (148.67), all nineteen year-olds (277.67), all twenty-year-olds (296.67), all twenty-one- year-olds (320.33), and all twenty-tow-year-olds (343). The only reason he doesn’t lead 23 year-olds is because he was off fighting the Axis powers for most of the next four years. He returned to finish out the 1945 season then pitched a full year in 1946. That year, you guessed it, he led all twenty-seven-year-olds since 1920 in innings pitched with 371.33. In 1947, he did not lead all twenty-eight-year-olds since 1920 in innings, but he did lead all of MLB that year with 299. The next year he threw 280.33, and his ERA+ dropped from 130 to 114. He was never a great pitcher again. Overall, he went 108-79 in 266 post-age-28 starts with an ERA+ of just 106 and a strikeout rate about half of what it was through age 28. He was not a Pat Rapp innings eater, but he probably wasn’t a number two starter either, certainly not for a good team. My hypothesis: Feller’s pitching musculature was probably saved from the specific kind of wear and tear that grinds down a career. It might have had a chance to even heal just a little since he wasn’t throwing top-level, pressure-packed innings every three or four days (he threw very little in the service). But once he returned, the clock started ticking again, and all that early work caught up to him. How could it not? He had back, shoulder, and arm problems in the late 1940s and was reduced to a Sunday starter by the early 1950s. It’s pretty easy to imagine that had Feller continued throwing all those pitches at ages twenty-three, twenty-four, and twenty-five, he might have never made it to age twenty-nine. But we didn’t understand all of this thirty years ago. We could know that he had some injuries but not how badly they may have hurt his career. We could know he threw an impressive number of innings but not that they probably had residual, cumulative effects. Now we know a lot more, and the shape of his career makes a lot of sense, even if it loses a tiny bit of its sparkle.—Eric
Speaking of Feller, we have a pretty good gap there with Miller being the bigger fan than I. But a bigger gap exists with John Smoltz. I’ve got him at #31, Miller at #50. I suspect that the difference has to do with my compadre having a strong peak orientation to his sifting system than I do. Smoltz is many things, but a high-peak pitcher is not one of them. While he does have five seasons above 5 WAR when I make all my little adjustments, he has but one above 6 WAR (7.5). So, I’m looking at a really solid prime and Miller’s looking at a low peak. That’s a sensible difference of opinion. That doesn’t explain why we see Red Ruffing differently. Miller’s got him ten or so slots above my ranking. But it might well explain why Miller has Charlie Buffinton 20 spots higher than I do. Well, that and I take a lot of the stuffing out of the 18th Century pitchers.—Eric
I think it’s Clark Griffith. I rank him #43, and Eric doesn’t even put him on this week’s list. Or next week’s. My ranking suggests I should have pushed hard for his HoME candidacy, while Eric’s says he should have pushed back. The truth of it is, I didn’t push for Griffith, the player, because I thought his era was already well enough represented on the mound with hurlers I preferred. Happily for me, the pitcher/manager/owner, Clark Griffith found his HoME as a combination candidate.—Miller
Are there any players who MAPES+/CHEWS+ might overrate or underrate?
I always worry about how my system treats relievers, so maybe Mariano should rank higher. And maybe my older dudes like Griffith, should be lower. But I don’t think there are any shockers on this list. They all seem reasonable enough to me.—Miller
Actually, there is a shocker on this list: Urban Shocker. (Oh, that was amazing.)
I concur that relievers are problematic. It’s a theoretical worry, in particular. It’s amazing to me that Mariano Rivera threw 60 or 70 innings a year for twenty years and ends up among my top forty pitchers. It’s not that leverage or chaining are the issue. Instead it’s more about what we might call “degree of difficulty.” Recently Kevin Cash started Sergio Romo because the first inning is when the offense is guaranteed to have its offense set up the way it wants. Then Romo is removed after three or six outs because, wait for it, he doesn’t have a deep enough repertoire to go through a lineup twice without getting crushed the second time through. This is a fundamental concern I have with relievers from the last thirty years: We multiply run prevention due to its in-game importance, but we do not ding it for the fact a half-decent relief pitcher enters with everything in his favor. Consider:
Mariano Rivera had a devastating cutter. Would it have been so devastating if a batter saw it twice or thrice a game? I doubt it. Especially since Rivera basically chucked his other pitches and relied almost exclusively on the cutter. If he’d been forced to mix in other pitches, could he have been effective?
The question is whether we should adjust for degree of difficulty. I suspect that the analytical community has consensus around the idea that we should not. I’m not entirely sure they are wrong, but I am also not sure that they are right. Context is everything, and the only context we are looking at currently are very specific in-game situations whose context runs far deeper for relievers than for any other player on the field. If we use a Win Probably Added approach, then relievers seem hugely productive, but we completely ignore that they are used more electively than any other kind of baseball player, and that seems like a big chunk of context that should be accounted for.—Eric
Next week, it’s pitchers 61-80.
I don’t know what an ace is. Everyone has their own definition, most of which are just made up. However, I do know that any reasonable definition of “ace” must include the top percentage of starters, not the top number of starters, in the game. I don’t know if it’s 5%, 10%, 20%, or whatever. What I do know is that the percentage across time should remain relatively stable.
The point I’m making isn’t that every “ace” should be in the Hall or that a non-ace shouldn’t be. I’m merely making an argument that the voters once thought there were many more pitchers deserving than they do today. Check this out.
Year Teams SP ERA HoF % in Quals Hall =================================== 1935 16 64 67 7 10.9% 1947 16 64 58 5 7.8% 1959 16 64 58 7 10.9% 1971 24 96 83 11 11.5% 1983 26 104 88 9 8.7% 1995 28 140 75 5 3.6%
All I did was grab a year, basically at random, and run the numbers of ERA title qualifiers and then isolate Hall of Fame pitchers (with the help of the great Baseball Reference Play Index). You can see a good deal of consistency in 1935, 1959, and 1971 in terms of Hall of Famers. Maybe I should have done something differently because the late-1940s are strange years due to WWII. You can see a dip in 1983, which I don’t think is horrible since players from that era are still receiving some consideration. But look at 1995! The Hall has basically ignored recent pitchers unless they’re in/near the inner circle or they won 300 games. Randy Johnson, Greg Maddux, and Pedro Martinez are among the best 15 pitchers ever. Tom Glavine won 300. And voters really seemed to love that John Smoltz was a great closer for about 230 innings. Others from that year who fall somewhere between no-brainer and deserving of major consideration are Mike Mussina, Curt Schilling, Kevin Brown, David Cone, Kevin Appier, Chuck Finley, Orel Hershiser, and Bret Saberhagen. I would have liked more discussion about David Wells, Dennis Martinez, Kenny Rogers and Mark Langston too.
This week, we see the first of those forgotten 1990s pitchers. There will be plenty more to come.
[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], [P, 1-20]
A couple of things as we get started. First, he’s the best pitcher of this era. Second, he’s already in the HoME. As for where he projects, that’s a much more difficult question. While’s he remains great when he’s healthy, he’s only topped 27 starts once since 2013. He’s just not healthy enough to project that he moves too far up the list. I think a run-out of 7, 5, 4, 3, 3, 2, 1, 1 WAR it believable. If that’s the case, he finished 18th all-time, between Bert Blyleven and Gaylord Perry. Let’s say he goes 8, 6, 5, 4, 3, 2, 1, 1. That gets him past Blyleven, John Clarkson, and Steve Carlton into 15th place. Yeah, he could go further than that, but I don’t expect it. In fact, I think 18th is more likely than 15th. It’s even possible he doesn’t get past this list, finishing at 21st, between Eddie Plank and Ed Walsh. Injuries, man.—Miller
I tend to be pessimistic about pitchers. I’d reckon there’s a better chance that Kershaw never moves another notch up the list than any other scenario. Every single time someone takes the mound, they risk blowing out their UCL, tearing their labrum, finally ripping apart their rotator cuff. Check in at 1:20 on this video. Or check out a few minutes of pitchers’ arms falling off…watch for the carbuncle suddenly appearing on one guy’s elbow. Also this could happen. Even I don’t have the appalling lack of taste required to link to a Dave Dravecky story. All of which is to say that with Kershaw’s spate of recent injuries, I wouldn’t put much money on his making any big gains until he can pitch another full season, fully healthy, and in command of his arsenal.—Eric
I root for Zack Grienke. His battles with depression and anxiety cost him the better part of a couple seasons. The fact that he could come back from these life-crippling diseases to pitch like a Hall of Famer impresses me to no end. If you’ve never had a depressive bout or anxiety, consider yourself fortunate. I can’t imagine what it must have been like for him given the tremendous pressure big league players, and pitchers especially, endure. But he did come back, and since those troubles, he’s earned nine or more WAR in two different seasons. As recently as last year, he earned more than six. He’s also had some real clinker seasons where he’s barely been average, but not everyone can be Walter Johnson. Grienke also swings a good bat, enhancing his overall value. While there’s some up and down, he might well be the quietest Hall of Fame candidate in recent history. As far as I’m concerned, he’s there, but he’s joined only one major-media-market team (the Dodgers for 2.5 seasons) where he played second fiddle to Kershaw anyway.—Eric
It has to be Kevin Brown, who I touched on a few years ago, a no-brainer Hall of Famer who received support from only a dozen writers the one year he was on the ballot. As I recently wrote in my post on the best pitchers of the 1990s, I think three things worked against Brown, each one ridiculous in its own way. First, through his age-30 season, he seemed like he wasn’t a “winner”. With a 67-62 record outside of his win-rific 1992 campaign, he didn’t look to most like he was a big deal. Further, he’s a bit like Curt Schilling and a lot of others in that he wasn’t great from the get-go. Too many fans decided who he was and didn’t change their minds when he got better. Second, people hated the contract he signed with the Dodgers – tons of money and those private jet rides. I’ll never understand why fans hate when players are well-compensated, but it’s been the case as long as I can remember. Third, he was still very good in his final season in LA, but he appeared to fans to stink up the joint when he got to NY. In truth, his age-38 season was nice enough. And pitchers at that age aren’t supposed to be good anyway. It’s only the absolute greats and a few outliers who are.
Yeah, so it’s absolutely Kevin Brown, unless it’s Jim Palmer, a guy who might not be as good as he looked. The Oriole pitched in front of absolutely insane defenses. I’m not sure, but it’s possible that defense made him look better than he was. Let’s look at BBREF’s RA9def number for each of our fifteen shared 21-40 pitchers. RA9def is the number above or below average a pitcher’s defense is.
Jim Palmer 0.33 Carl Hubbell 0.23 Ed Walsh 0.21 Tom Glavine 0.12 Roy Halladay 0.10 Amos Rusie 0.07 Clayton Kershaw 0.03 Curt Schilling 0.00 Hal Newhouser -0.02 Stan Coveleski -0.03 Kevin Brown -0.05 Wes Ferrell -0.06 Nolan Ryan -0.06 Fergie Jenkins -0.06 Mike Mussina -0.08
I’m totally with Miller on the matters of Brown and Palmer, and I’ll give you two more: Nolan Ryan and Wes Ferrell. You remember the 1990s, right? I’m going to feel so old if you don’t. There was that All-Century Team business in 1999, probably presented by MasterCharge or Viagra. I think souvenir glasses might have been issued. Nolan Ryan won the vote among pitchers by 22,000 votes. If you’ve just swallowed your tongue, you’re thinking right along with me. Nolan Ryan: 7 NO-HITTERS!; 5,000 PUNCHOUTS!!!!!!; OLD GUY PITCHER!!!!!!! Yes, and will my theoretical straw man please stop yelling in all caps! Lots of good stuff, a deserving member of the Hall of Miller and Eric. But no one with much under the hood should vote for him over the likes of Walter Johnson, Cy Young, Bob Gibson, Warren Spahn, or Christy Mathewson who were all on this ballot. Right-time, right-place for the Express. Lefty Grove finished with the lowest vote total among pitchers. Does not compute! For those born too soon, Nolan Ryan was a sensation. During his last years as a Ranger, his starts were events. You never knew when he might pop out a no-no or give Robin Ventura a noogie (you’ll have to look that one up). Listening half a continent away in the northeast, radio announcers were sure to mention when he started and how he did. The guy was so famous that Advil signed him up to lure the middle-aged, achy-back guys in the TV audience. If you were in America then, you’ll remember: “I could go another niiiiiine innings.” Ryan had earned all of this in his amazing career, but he had claim at all to any kind of “All-Century Team” or whathaveyou. But it’s pretty interesting to see how many people will ignore facts in deference to media coverage. Never mind that Ryan’s winning percentage was a mere .526, that he was also the all-time leader in walks, nor that his ERA+ of 112 (yes, we had ERA+ back then, pull out your old copy of Total Baseball) was not impressive. So I think in the sense that conventional wisdom arises from the groundlings, we’re pretty far away from the CW.
Then there’s Wes Ferrell. A decent peak/prime pitcher with a bat added to his resume that did beat all. The best hitting full-time pitcher ever. We both think the total package is top-40 material (someone better let Rick Dees know). The Hall of Merit and the Hall of Stats both agree that he’s a worthy Hall member. The Coop took his weak-hitting brother the catcher instead. (Which was kind of like how my crush took her cousin to the senior prom instead of going with me. I’m not bitter.) And basically he has no recognition in the world outside baseball’s analytics chattering classes. In fact, he’s probably more well known as a great hitting pitcher than as a great pitcher.—Eric
There’s quite a large difference in how we see Old Hoss Radbourne. I list the righty from before the mound moved as the 40th best ever. You won’t see him on Eric’s list even next week. And he barely makes it two weeks from today. Looked at another way, he’s an easy HoMEr for me and on Eric’s borderline. As we discussed last week, this is basically a WAR thing. I give more credit to pitchers of Radbourne’s era than Eric because they pitched so many more innings. Eric gives less, chopping down their runs above replacement. Again, as I mentioned last week, I think both directions are reasonable.—Miller
Same goes for Amos Rusie it looks like. We’re nearly twenty ranks apart. Oddly enough, however, we have the opposite situation for Tim Keefe. I’ve ranked him a dozen or more spots higher. Charlie Radbourn didn’t have as long of a career, nor did he enjoy the same degree of value above average. Clarkson and Keefe were the elite of the 1880s. Radbourn headed up the rest. Or so spake ZEricthustra.
We have a much larger difference yet over Joe McGinnity, 26 ranks of difference. I suspect that Miller’s slightly more peak-centric ratings push Iron Joe upward for him. We also have major differences over John Smoltz and the aforementioned Mr. Grienke. So while we’ve been on the same page with hitters and even with the top 20 pitchers, there’s a lot of differentiation between us here. I suspect you should trust Miller. I always did have trouble with pitchers in fantasy baseball, and he rarely seemed to.—Eric
We may be off on Hal Newhouser. His best years were 1944-1946, times when the level of play in the majors was somewhat lower than at other times in its history because of WWII. The War was over in ’46, of course, and almost everyone was back in ’45. But I still question Prince Hal’s numbers a little.—Miller
I buy what Miller’s selling here as well. But let’s flip back a moment to Jim Palmer. It is possible that Palmer’s defensive support might not have been as good as BBREF suggests. Its calculations are not based on game-by-game assessments of the defense behind him but rather as a function of the team defense allocated to his balls in play. Is it possible that Palmer benefitted more or less than other pitchers on his team from the specific defensive players on the field behind him? Could his style of pitching have played into the strengths of parts of his defense and away from its weaknesses? Or vice versa? Or is it possible that the defense played better or worse behind him than behind other pitchers? Obviously, BBREF answers these questions by deciding not to answer them. I would do the same thing were I them. But it’s possible that the extreme defensive support could be in some way misleading. I don’t know what direction the arrow would point. Sadly we don’t have specific ground ball/flyball/line drive info for Palmer. We have some indirect evidence of his tendencies, however. His groundout/flyout ratio was 0.80, which is 27% below MLB during his time. This despite a homerun rate that’s right around the league average. His defenses turned 10% fewer deuces behind him than the league. Sure looks to me like Palmer’s gig was to induce weak flyball contact. I wouldn’t be shocked at all to see that he frequently led the league in infield flies or pop-ups allowed, for example, nor that if we could somehow know it retroactively, that he suppressed line-drives in some manner. Palmer was smart, he knew how to exploit hitters’ weakness, and he always had a game plan and probably knew how to pitch to his defense’s strengths. Something tells me that a hyperclose reading of his defensive support might someday show the granules of that, but then again, it might not be possible to disentangle cause and effect in a case such as this.—Eric
Of course, Eric could be right here. Palmer, kind of famously, never allowed a grand slam. He certainly knew what he was doing on the mound.—Miller
Join us in seven days when we look at pitchers 41-60.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
ESPN did a thing recently identifying the top-50 players in the game. The best left fielder on the list was Christian Yelich at #41. With no active guys in our top-20 and only one coming today, it seems like we’re in the deadest of dead times in left field. We are. Or maybe we’re not?
On our lists today, you see six Hall of Famers. And there are two more outside the top-40. What I’m saying is that left field hasn’t been a place where the game’s best players have found themselves, at least not historically. A number of the best players on our lists – guys like Bonds, Rickey, and Raines – had the speed to play center. Al Simmons actually played there a bunch. Joe Jackson and Manny Ramirez are just barely left fielders, and Pete Rose makes Eric’s list, but I put him at first base.
I’m not saying a lot here, maybe just that the current drought isn’t so incredibly shocking.
Braun will always be one of my least favorite players because of the way he treated his urine handler back in 2012. There are PED users, and there are jerks. You can certainly be one without being the other. Braun, however, has a nice position in the intersection of that Venn diagram for me. The Brewer righty is no longer a very good player, posting just over 2.2 adjusted WAR per season over the last five years. He’s 34 now, and I don’t expect he’s going to move up the charts. It’s incredibly close between him and the two guys in front of him though. Just half a win moves him up two places. I think he’s a slight favorite to get there over the rest of his career. In other words, there’s no shot at a future in the HoME.–Miller
I know there’s a really great joke here about treating one’s urine handler, but I suspect it’s best if I merely invite our readers to silently craft their own middle-school boys locker room jokes.—Eric
There’s no conventional wisdom I’m aware of that keeps Willie Stargell or Ralph Kiner out of the Hall of Fame. Since Kiner is pretty close and could earn my vote if I become even more of a peak voter in the future, I’d say we’re most far from conventional wisdom on Stargell. He was a great hitter who couldn’t field and couldn’t run the bases. The value just isn’t there.–Miller
There’s a couple interesting names here. First is Jim Rice. The crowd that propounded “The Fear” thinks we have him too low. The crowd that railed against them probably thinks he’s too close to the in/out line. But once you take into account the effect that the Green Monster had on his fielding stats, he comes out looking a little better than I used to think. Another person of interest: Ken Williams. This ain’t the one who ran the Chisox, but rather a guy whose Hall chances were torpedoed by not becoming a regular until his late twenties. Too bad, heckuva player, and the first 30-30 guy. Remember when that was a thing? In Miller’s column there’s also Lou Brock who doesn’t even make my top-40. I’m guessing that’s not a common perception.—Eric
The only reason I didn’t mention Brock is because, unlike most of the baseball loving population, the Hall of Merit is wise enough not to include him.–Miller
Since we mostly don’t disagree much here, I thought I’d pause to talk tangentially about Ken Williams for a sec. For whatever reason, his career basically didn’t start until age 29. From that point forward he rated as one of the AL’s top performers for a decently long while. Every generation seems to have a guy or two who fit this profile: Sudden superstar, emerging out of nowhere at 27 or later who racks up a lot of value thereafter. The integration era had an entire league full of those fellows, and Japanese cross-over stars are kinda in that same category. I’m going to set those two special cases aside because I’m thinking of guys who started their MLB careers very late despite playing through normal development channels. You could make a pretty darned good team out of players with a similar profile as Williams.
C: Chris Hoiles (450 PA prior to age 27)
1B: Jake Daubert (0 PA prior to age 26)
2B: Davey Lopes (49 PA prior to age 28)
3B: Josh Donaldson (328 PA prior to age 27)
SS: Ben Zobrist (303 PA prior to age 27)
LF: “Indian” Bob Johnson (no PA prior to age 27)
CF: Cy Williams (349 PA prior to age 27)
RF: Gavy Cravath (419 PA prior to age 31)
DH: Edgar Martinez (280 PA prior to age 27)
Don Buford (48 PA prior to age 27)
Eddie Stanky (0 PA prior to age 27)
Ken Williams (274 PA prior to age 29)
Hank Sauer (178 PA prior to age 31)
Carlos Ruiz (0 PA prior to age 27)
P: Phil Niekro (89.67 IP prior to age 27)
P: Joe McGinnity (0 IP prior to age 28)
P: Dazzy Vance (33 IP prior to age 31)
P: Babe Adams (26 IP prior to age 27)
P: Tom Candiotti (88 IP prior to age 28)
P: Curt Davis (0 IP prior to age 30)
P: Preacher Roe (2.67 IP prior to age 28)
P: R.A. Dickey (12 IP prior to age 28)
P: Ellis Kinder (0 IP prior to age 31)
P: Hoyt Wilhelm (0 IP prior to age 29)
P: Doug Jones (20.67 IP prior to age 30)
These guys make Jose Bautista’s early years look like a cakewalk. I had to actually cut down the roster because I’d exceeded 25 men. That left Lefty O’Doul (78 PA prior to age 31) and Frank McCormick (103 PA prior to age 27) on the outside of the candy shop looking in.
Oh, and if you’re looking for someone like this in mid-emergence right now, try looking in St. Louis where Tommy Pham (2 PA prior to age 27) has suddenly put it together for the Redbirds.–Eric
I don’t know. Ken Williams and Mike Smith are a few rankings apart. There was once a time when Eric sort of advocated for Charlie Keller’s inclusion into the HoME. But really, there are no big differences.–Miller
Ralph Kiner is an extreme peak player who we haven’t elected. Jose Cruz has a relatively low peak, and he’s in. The thing is, Kiner’s peak is so short that his peak value, at least by my system, isn’t amazing, just 12th at the position. His career rank is 30th, and far from 29th. The truth, however, is that MAPES ranks Kiner above Cruz. The Astro great is in the HoME, in no small part, as a function of his era. If you needed to put Kiner in instead, I wouldn’t offer a major objection.–Miller
I see that peak question and raise. If you look at my list on the right, you’ll see a whole mess of peak-oriented candidates. Not only Kiner but Keller, Belle, Williams, and Jones. Mediwck, Kelley, Giles, Rice, and Foster each have a relatively short career, and each of them lags behind because they are peak candidates disguised as prime candidates, but whose peaks weren’t high enough or long enough to offset the garbage time years before and/or after they became good players. Or I don’t value peaks or careers, correctly. I think I’ll say it’s the former so I don’t have to redo 1,000+ players’ profiles.—Eric
In a week, we move to center field. It’s Willie Mays, right? It has to be Willie Mays.