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.
We’ve written a lot about Sandy Koufax over the years. Eric sees him as a lot like Johan Santana, a guy who won’t see a second BBWAA ballot. Eric also sees him as less than a slam dunk. Yeah! It’s only Eric who hates the guy! I agree with the rest of you. Sandy! Sandy! Sandy! Sandy!
Just a couple of words on why we think Koufax is overrated by many.
A couple of weeks ago I mentioned a Bob Feller autograph I was lucky enough to acquire one year in Spring Training. Sadly, I’ve never run into Sandy at a game. That guy has a beautiful autograph though.
By the way, Eric wrote this post a bit over four years ago. Check out who he thought was the best pitcher of the 1960s.
#10 Whitey Ford: Ranked five spots higher a decade earlier, Ford gets this ranking in part because of 10.54 adjusted WAR from the previous decade. He also had the best year of his career in 1964 and the best overall run in the 1960s, as Ralph Houk upped his usage rate when he took over for Casey Stengel as manager in 1961. At almost 44% of our decade leader, he feels right here.
#9 Sam McDowell: Sudden Sam won five strikeout titles from 1965-1970. On the other hand, he “won” five walk titles from 1965-1971. But he also made six All-Star teams while he was walking all of those batters. In other words, he was Nolan Ryan before Ryan emerged. For the eight seasons from 1972-1979, Ryan won seven strikeout and six walk titles, totaling 40.4 WAR. Over the previous eight seasons, you saw what McDowell did. That was worth 43.8 WAR. Of course, at the end of McDowell’s run he didn’t have any real value. At the end of Ryan’s, he still had 14 more seasons and 40.7 WAR left in him.
#8 Camilo Pascual: One of the cooler things I’ve done in my baseball research career, such as it is, is get BBREF to change Mickey Tettleton’s nickname from “Fruit Loops” to “Froot Loops”, the actual spelling of the breakfast cereal after which he was nicknamed. Well, BBREF refers to Pascual as “Little Potato”. That’s not misspelled. According to Peter C. Bjarkman’s SABR Bio of Pascual, it’s just wrong. As Americans will sometimes do, Bjarkman explains, they misunderstood “patato”, which is Spanish for “shorty” or “runt”. They didn’t grasp its meaning in Spanish, and as a result they called him “potato”. He played for the first two MLB franchises in Washington, won the three AL K titles from 1961-1963, and was worth 46% of our decade leader. Runt.
#7 Gaylord Perry: Perry won the Cy Young Award in both leagues, but not in this decade, which makes me think we’re going to see him on next decade’s list too. I suspect I’ve already shared the story about meeting Perry at Spring Training a few years ago. This year I had the opportunity to meet Willie Wilson. I say “opportunity”. Really, I paid. I think Fergie Jenkins has ex-players sign autographs for a cause. I could be wrong. I get so nervous meeting these guys. Perry was really cool. Wilson might have been even cooler. It was well worth my $20 for an autographed photo, a couple of pictures taken by my wife, and a few minutes of chatting. By the way, Wilson is 62, and he looks like he could play today. Really delighted to have a chance to talk to him for a bit. Oh, Perry is a shade under 50% of our decade leader.
#6 Larry Jackson: Jackson won at least 13 games for 12 straight seasons from 1957-1968, including a league leading 24 in 1964. I think the four-time All-Star is somewhat underrated. He’s worth about 54% of our decade leader and is #121 in history according to my numbers. He’s in league with Vida Blue, Sam McDowell, and Hall of Famers Waite Hoyt and Eppa Rixey. It’s funny, I was about to write something about Jackson being sort of nondescript. But I kept researching. Bill James once wrote about him, “In his entire career, as best I can determine, Larry Jackson was never in the vicinity of a humorous anecdote.” End of research.
#5 Sandy Koufax: I know what you’re asking. How can a pitcher both be the absolute best ever and only the fifth best in the decade in which he was great? Maybe it’s because I hate Sandy Koufax. No, no that’s not it at all. Maybe it’s because Koufax is the single most overrated player in the history of baseball. Yeah, we’re getting closer. When Koufax was great, he was really great. But he wasn’t great for long enough. Not close. As evidence that I don’t hate him, I rated him as having two of the best five seasons ever by a pitcher. Sorry Sandy fans, your hero is worth just 56% of the decade leader.
#4 Jim Bunning: Koufax was so great in October of 1963 and 1965 that I considered elevating him over Bunning, but Bunning’s 63% of our leader made me think the gap was too large. If you feel the need to elevate Sandy, please do. Bunning is the answer to a pretty cool, standard trivia question asking about the only man elected to the Baseball Hall of Fame and the United States Senate. After six terms in the House of Representatives, the Republican ran for the seat vacated by Democrat Wendell Ford’s retirement. He won, and after two terms there, Bunning chose not to run for reelection in 2010. For a little more trivia, he’s one of five players ever to throw a no-hitter in both leagues and one of seven to throw a perfect game and another no-hitter.
#3 Juan Marichal: The Dominican Dandy is both worth nearly 70% of our leader and owner of one of my favorite nicknames ever. I have no idea why, I just love it. I vaguely remember a trivia question about someone winning 25 games on three occasions during the Cy Young era but never taking home the trophy. Maybe that’s true. He lost two to Koufax and one to Bob Gibson. No crimes at all. I think Marichal might get lost in history a little because of the likes of Warren Spahn just before his greatness, Bob Gibson during, and Tom Seaver and Steve Carlton, among others, as his career wound down.
#2 Don Drysdale: Was Drysdale better than Koufax? I have two answers to that. First, I’d say he was different. And second, I’d say heck yes he was better. Koufax was more spectacular, had a better absolute peak, never had a decline phase, and is absolutely the stuff of legend. Drysdale brought more value to the Dodgers, 67.2 WAR to 49.0. If you want to be a stickler, Drysdale’s pitching was only worth 61.4 WAR, while Sandy’s was worth 53.2. It’s hard to slide it in such a way that 53.2 is the higher number though. If you want to give extra credit for playoff performance and don’t want to count pitcher hitting, I could see ranking Koufax higher. Really, I could. Drysdale was worth only 73% of our decade leader.
#1 Bob Gibson: I think Gibson is the third best pitcher since the start of the American League not to pitch in at least 20 seasons, trailing only Christy Mathewson and Lefty Grove. I know, I know, the more qualifiers that are added, the less important the list is. What I’m trying to do is find an appropriate way to describe Gibson’s greatness. I rank him #11 in history. If I included playoffs, perhaps he’s pass Greg Maddux and move into tenth place. One of the coolest things about Gibson, statistically, is that he pitched in three World Series, made three starts in each, and pitched 27 innings in each. Let’s ignore the fact that his first World Series start was only eight innings and his second was ten. It’s more fun to feel like he completed every World Series game he started. His first start was a loss, and so was his last. Between those two, it was seven straight wins, completing every game, and striking out 75 in 64 innings. What is certain is that Gibson was the best pitcher of the 1960s.
Next week we’ll get to the decade that made me think to write this series, the 1970s, a time when many of the best pitchers ever congregated in the National League.
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.
We spend a decent amount of time here linking to and just generally sharing the greatness of Baseball Reference. By the way, you should subscribe to their Play Index. Because we’re frequent users and because ads are no fun, we pay BBREF a few bucks to run ad free. So it’s nice when I’m reminded of the site’s sponsorship possibilities. I think that they stopped taking sponsorships a few years back. And maybe they grandfathered in those who were sponsoring.
I say this because the Hall of Miller and Eric sponsor’s Bobby Veach’s page. Why Bobby Veach? Well, that’s a fair question. When we first looked into sponsorship, there were a few things we had in mind. First, the page had to be available. Babe Ruth and Barry Bonds weren’t. Second, the page needed to be relatively inexpensive. We weren’t using it to drive traffic so much as support a site we love. And third, the page needed to be one of an under-the-radar player who is in the HoME. Enter Bobby Veach.
Veach was a Tiger for most of his 14-year career that ran from 1912-1925. He had a very impressive bat, twice leading the league in doubles and once in triples. In a time essentially before Babe Ruth, home runs weren’t so common, and Veach only had 64 in his career. But his OBP was .370, and his OPS+ was 127. He was a plus fielder as well, +30 runs by BBREF’s Rfield. And his straight WAR numbers are solid – six seasons from 4.9-6.7 WAR, plus a 4.2, 3.1, and 2.5 added in there. The real greatness in Veach, however, comes when we adjust Rfield for Defensive Regression Analysis (DRA). His +30 turns into almost +189. He suddenly has eight seasons of 5.3-8.7 WAR, and he’s an easy call for the HoME.
If you don’t run BBREF without advertising, try clicking on one or two of the sponsorship links. Maybe you’ll run into something really cool.
And if you’ve missed any part of this series, not to worry. It’s all linked right here.
I’d like to tell you that they’re coming, but I’d be lying if I did. While we have an active guy on our list next week, left field is a wasteland if we’re hoping to find a future HoMEr. I guess Marcell Ozuna may be a pretty impressive player, but he’s 27 and will need a very nice year to reach 20 career WAR. Maybe Andrew Benintendi or Rhys Hoskins will be something someday. I don’t know. The real answer to the question is that these things come in cycles. Not so long ago Bonds, Rickey, Manny, and Raines patrolled left. Over the last two weeks, we reviewed catchers, and four of the best thirty ever, at least for my money, are active now.–Miller
Imagine that you were playing Baseball Family Feud. Richard Dawson says, “Top five answers on the board. We asked 100 people Who are the greatest five left fielders in baseball history?” You’re going to answer Bonds, Williams, Henderson, or Yaz without blinking. But would of those 100 respondents have named Ed Delahanty? Nope. Delahanty is known to have hit .400 three times and to have died by plunging into Niagra Falls after being forcibly detrained. But how many respondents do we think would name him a top-five left fielder? If Pete Rose is considered a left fielder, then you know Big Ed ain’t getting a vote. Probably no one alive saw him play a single inning of baseball, but a lot folks have seen Billy Williams or Willie Stargell. A few might have even seen Goose Goslin or Al Simmons. I’d be surprised if even one person out of a hundred dropped Delahanty’s name.—Eric
There are the DRA darlings, Jimmy Sheckard and Bobby Veach. Then there are the Hall of Famers Ralph Kiner, Willie Stargell, Joe Medwick, Lou Brock, Heinie Manush, and Chick Hafey who don’t make this week’s list. Left field is a position where the Hall has messed up quite a bit, more than any other position both by omission and commission. I think it’s possible we disagree with conventional wisdom most on Jose Cruz. He had only three trips to the plate in his All-Star career and received just two votes when he appeared on the Hall ballot in 1994. To most, he’s just another guy form the 1970s and 1980s. I’ve written about him in the past, here and here, so I’ll be brief. The gist of it is that Cruz had almost everything working against him – cavernous ballparks, doubles power, value from walks, contribution across his game rather than dominance anywhere. His skill set wasn’t understood when he was playing, nor is it so well understood by “experts” today. If we’re being honest though, Cruz is right on the edge of the HoME. If we were to dump a dozen guys, I bet he’d be one of them. –Miller
There’s not a player on this list about whom we have any real disagreement, at least not by the numbers. I will mention Manny for a brief moment. If I had an actual vote, Manny would have my support, just as he’d have Eric’s. However, I believe my support to be less strong. I could be convinced that his cheating might have been problematic enough for me to withhold a vote. Eric is more from the camp that his punishment was his suspension, not something having to do with a museum. Again, I’m with him. I’m just less confident in my position.–Miller
Joe Kelley is probably our area of biggest disagreement. Miller thinks the Red Sox should start him, and I think he should pitch in relief.—Eric
PS: Just kidding, neither of us thinks he should start.—Eric again
I suspect that if we ever have the miracle of play-by-play data for most or all of MLB history, we’ll discover that we’ve underrated Fred Clarke. The guy had a really astute baseball mind, had pretty good speed, and probably took a lot of extra bases. Plus, as a lefty he gains the natural advantage for GIDP avoidance. I wouldn’t be surprised at all if those attributes earned him at least a win’s worth of runs above the -1 BBREF has for Rbaser.—Eric
Unless you dislike the DRA substitution we make, want Manny or Bonds off the list for PED use, or have found some way to hold a grudge against Joe Jackson, I don’t think there are any players in our top-20 who our systems overrate or underrate. Even if Eric is right about Clarke, and I suspect he is, how far up the chart would he move? One spot. That’s it.–Miller
We’ll see you in a week for the next installment of left fielders.
You may not be surprised to know that I collect baseball memorabilia. I own a Lou Brock autograph on perhaps my favorite baseball card ever, his 1977 Topps beauty. Another prized possession is a bowling pin my wife collected for me at a 2010 charity bowling event signed by the likes of Daniel Bard, Manny Delcarmen, and Jeremy Hermida. And a third is a gorgeous Bob Feller photograph taken at Yankee Stadium in 1937 when he was still just 18 – and already pitching for the Indians.
These are all important to me for different reasons. The Feller piece is important because I had the opportunity to talk to him for a while when he signed it. As great as it is to go to Spring Training today, it used to be a whole lot more special. As a kid, I remember getting Ted Williams to sign an autograph book for me. He was surrounded by about six (six!) people as he walked from one field to another in Winter Haven. With Feller, there was even less of ado. He was sitting by himself, signing autographs, asking for five bucks for the now closed Bob Feller Museum. I don’t remember anything we talked about. And I don’t even remember how old I was within a couple of years. Today, you can but the exact same photo, signed by Feller and authenticated by the industry’s most trustworthy source, for $15. I don’t care. I will always treasure that autograph.
#10 Rip Sewell: The man best known for the Eephus pitch was actually a fine wartime hurler, pitching like an All Star in both 1943 and 1944. He was also a very effective pitcher back in 1940, but otherwise just an innings eater. Though he was less than half as valuable as our decade leader, he’ll always be remembered for the Ted Williams long ball he allowed in the 1946 All-Star Game off the Eephus. I toyed with putting Eddie Lopat here based on his postseason work, a 4-1 record and 2.60 ERA in seven World Series starts. However, just one of those starts was in the 1940s, and it wasn’t impressive.
#9 Mort Cooper: A stud WWII pitcher, Cooper won the 1942 NL MVP and 20 games that year and the next two. Those three seasons represent more than half of his 128 career wins, as elbow injuries took their toll over the years. His most important start was likely in Game 5 of an even 1944 World Series against the crosstown St. Louis Browns. Cooper went the distance, pitching a 7-hit shutout with 12 strikeouts. The Cards closed things out the next day. Overall, Cooper was worth 54% of our leader on the decade.
#8 Bobo Newsom: One of baseball’s great characters, Newsom, for whatever reason, couldn’t remember anyone’s name. So he called everyone “Bobo”? I don’t think that’s the name I’d choose. Anyway, Bobo pitched for nine teams, over four decades, and lost exactly 20 games three times. And along with Jack Powell, he’s one of only two pitchers ever to win 200 games and have a losing record. Trivia and eccentricity aside, Newsom had some special campaigns, especially the 1939 and 1940 seasons when he was worth 7+ WAR. Overall, we’re looking at 60% of the value of our winner.
#7 Claude Passeau: For the second time on this list and third time in this post, we get to mention Ted Williams. Teddy Ballgame ended the 1941 All-Star Game, walking off for the AL by taking Passeau deep in one of the righty’s four appearances in the Midsummer Classic. A really solid #2 starter and worth 62% of our decade leader, Passeau put up between 3.7 and 5.4 pitching WAR seven times, topping that number in 1940 at 6.8. His best start ever was one of the best starts in World Series history, a one-hit shutout for his Chicago Cubs against the Detroit Tigers in 1945.
#6 Dutch Leonard: While he wasn’t related to the Deadball Era pitcher of the same name, apparently he was nicknamed after him. The knuckleballer won 191 games over 20 seasons in the bigs, making four All-Star teams and putting up over two-thirds the value of the decade leader. Never great, Leonard was at his best in 1947 and 1948, both times putting up over 6 WAR on the mound. Trivially, he pitched the Senators to victory at Yankee Stadium in the first game of a July 4, 1939 double header. After that game, Lou Gehrig delivered his “luckiest man on the face of the earth” classic.
#5 Harry Brecheen: One of the reasons I’ve enjoyed writing this series is that I learn so much. For example, I’d have lost a bet on Brecheen’s nickname and sounded kind of silly along the way. For whatever reason, I believed it to be “The Hat”. It’s actually “The Cat”. And Gregory H. Wolf at the SABR Bio Project explains he got that name because of his quick reflexes and excellent defense on the mound. From 1944-1949 he won at least 14 games per year and was absolutely great in 1948, leading the NL in pitching WAR. Most notable about Brecheen is his World Series performance, which is the reason a pitcher with just 64% of the leader is in fifth place on the list. In 32.2 innings over three Series, he allowed only three runs, good for a 0.83 ERA. His best work was in 1946, winning Game 2, Game 6, and Game 7, which is remembered as the game during which Enos Slaughter made his mad dash.
#4 Bucky Walters: Walters won the pitching triple crown and MVP in 1939, one of his three win titles and two ERA titles. Unfortunately for him and his Reds, they ran into an all-time great Yankee team in the World Series that year. Walters lost the second and last games of the sweep. The next year, he and Cincy came back with a vengeance. With their backs against the wall, Walters threw a shutout in Game 6. They came back the next day against Bobo Newsom to close things out. He was only truly great in 1939. Still, the man with 74% of our decade leader was the National League’s top pitcher from 1934-1952. Really impressive.
#3 Dizzy Trout: Trout’s may be my favorite of all SABR Bio Project entries. Warren Corbett starts it off by writing, “Consumer alert: Some of the stories repeated here probably are not true. The difficulty is, we don’t know which ones.” That’s how cool the legend of Dizzy Trout is. He was an absolute stud with 9.8 WAR on the mound in 1944. He finished second in the MVP voting to teammate Hal Newhouser that year despite 11.3 total WAR compared to 8.7 for Prince Hal. He also had a better ERA and 27 wins compared to 29 for his teammate. Plus, he threw 40 additional innings. The mystery continues when we note that Trout beat him by three first-place votes, 10 to 7. All in all, this may be the hardest MVP decision to understand of all-time, at least for me. Was it just Newhouser’s strikeout title? Hmm, I don’t know. I do know that Trout’s decade is about 81% as valuable as our decade leader, the aforementioned teammate.
#2 Hal Newhouser: Yes, Newhouser has the highest total for the decade by my formula, but I don’t think he was the best pitcher of the decade. As great as he was in 1944, he was even better in 1945, winning his second consecutive MVP and the pitching triple crown. Then in 1946, he was almost as good. We’re talking 30.5 adjusted WAR over three seasons. I wonder what would happen to Newhouser if he were up for Hall consideration today. Sure, he made six All-Star teams and won four victory titles and two MVP trophies, but he retired with only 207 total wins, winning just 56 total games in five years at the start plus five years at the end of his career.
#1 Bob Feller: When voting for HoME induction, we don’t speculate what would have happened had players not missed time due to military service. That’s is a tough call, I admit. A few years ago, Eric did some interesting work looking at what might have happened if we voted differently and substituted some war credit. Well, here I do vote differently. Feller clocks in at 93% of Newhouser’s decade total. He did that while missing all of 1942-1944 and most of 1945 while serving in the Navy. In the three full seasons before military service and the one after returning, he posted 37.59 adjusted WAR. If we fill in that level of WAR for the time he missed, we’re looking at someone almost 50% better than Newhouser. Here’s what else would happen. Feller would no longer rank as my #32 pitcher all-time. He’d shoot all the way up to #8, right between Lefty Grove and Tom Seaver. That’s right, 8th best ever. Maybe my photo would be worth $20 then.
I hope you return in a week for the 1950s. There may be some surprises.
I’m a debater. I want to think, to learn, and to try to find truth. I don’t care if I “win” the debate. To me, the winner is the person who has the right answer after the debate is over. And if both parties are working to find truth, there’s a good chance the parties can agree on the answer. I really mean that. If you can convince me that you have the right answer, I am very happy to change my mind. I don’t lose any ego points when I do.
Not long ago I started a discussion with a reader, Michael, about the value of the DH position, the specifics of which aren’t important here. I don’t know who’s right, but I do know the discussion has been incredibly interesting. I bring all of this up for a couple of reasons. One is to publicly thank him for a thought-provoking discussion. The other is to make a point – I’m very confident that I’m right, he’s right, or the truth is somewhere in between. In other words, we’re really close. And even if we never agree, we’ve narrowed to what the answer could be.
As far as catcher rankings go, I’m frustrated. I just don’t know how “right” we are. I don’t even know how to know. And that makes me super uncomfortable.
So enjoy the second part of our catcher discussion, and if you want to read areas where I feel more confident, check out absolutely any other post in this series.–Miller
Posey is one 6.0 WAR season away from reaching my Hall of Miller and Eric in/out line. Other than his injury decimated 2011 campaign and his seven-game cuppa coffee in 2009, Posey has never finished a season below 3.9 BBREF WAR. He’s on the old side of thirty now, a time in their lives when many catchers’ bodies betray them, and/or a career of toil erodes their abilities. The following is a list of every retired catcher who earned from 28 to 48 BBREF WAR through age 30 (Posey reached 38) and what they went on to do. It’s sorted by their WAR through age 30:
THROUGH 30 | AFTER 30 NAME PA WAR | PA WAR ====================================== J TORRE 6188 47.8 | 2614 9.8 T SIMMONS 6450 45.0 | 3235 5.4 M PIAZZA 4075 41.6 | 3670 18.0 M COCHRANE 4861 40.8 | 1347 11.4 T MUNSON 4819 40.4 | 1086 5.7 Y BERRA 4945 37.5 | 3414 21.9 B EWING 3744 36.3 | 2028 11.4 B FREEHAN 5240 36.2 | 1660 8.6 B DICKEY 4411 35.6 | 2654 20.2 C FISK 3483 34.9 | 6370 33.6 D PORTER 4933 32.1 | 1637 8.8 J KENALL 5283 30.7 | 3419 11.0 L PARRISH 4674 30.1 | 3123 9.4 J SUNDBERG 4148 29.8 | 2751 10.8 R BRESNAHAN 3916 29.7 | 1460 11.2 G TENACE 3597 28.3 | 1930 18.5 -------------------------------------- AVERAGE 4673 36.1 | 2650 13.5 VS pre-31 57% 37% B POSEY EST 4260 38.3 | 2428 14.2
So here’s a High/Realistic/Low series of estimates for Posey’s career based on the information in this table.
THROUGH 30 | AFTER 30 | CAREER NAME PA WAR | PA WAR | PA WAR NOTE ===================================================== HIGH 4260 38.3 | 3780 26.8 | 8040 65.1 BASED ON TOP-3 AVG REAL 4260 38.3 | 2428 14.2 | 6688 52.5 BASED ON GROUP AVG LOW 4260 38.3 | 1817 7.0 | 6077 45.3 BASED ON LOW-3 AVG
If Posey hits on the high scenario, he’s going to end up with a career total that with my adjustments looks like Dickey’s, Hartnett’s, or maybe Piazza’s, and ends up among the top dozen catchers ever.
If Posey reaches the realistic scenario, he’s going to end up looking in my system like Joe Torre, Wally Schang, or maybe Mickey Cochrane. In that case, he’s over the line and probably just outside the top fifteen.
Finally, if Posey sags to the low estimate, his career total in my system will end up near Roy Campanella’s, Thurman Munson’s, or Jim Sundberg’s. He’s likely in that scenario to make it juuuust over the in/out line and to be quite similar to Munson’s career.
Any way you cut it, barring an horrific collapse this year, he’s going into the HoME. It’s only a question of by what degree he exceeds the in/out line.—Eric
One of the bigger surprises I’ve come across since starting in-depth research on the game’s best players is that Russell Martin has a chance to be a deserving Hall of Famer. Not a good chance, but a chance. Even at age-34, he put up yet another 2-win season (with my adjustments) in only 91 games in 2017. That’s the good news. The bad is that his only real value aside from position is in the DRA part of his defense. As you enter your late 30s, defense doesn’t pick up. In a best case scenario, he gets past Jason Kendall, Jorge Posada, and Jim Sundberg, which would put him immediately behind HoMEr Bill Freehan. That likely won’t be enough to get him in. What may be enough is if we learn more about handling and find that his is even better than we think.–Miller
He’s probably something like the Jim Sundberg of his era. Martin’s bat seems to have given out, but he’s still an average regular catcher. It’s not going to be enough with his low peak to get him over the line, but he’s much closer than anyone would have guessed.—Eric
Many Cardinal fans are 100% certain he’s a defensive genius, the likes of which we may never have seen. I disagree but still like the 35 year old. By straight WAR, he has only two seasons at more than 3.2. My adjustments help but don’t move the needle a ton. There’s likely not enough peak here to make him a HoMEr unless there’s a lot more left than we’d normally expect from a player his age. He’s averaged 2.15 adjusted WAR over the last three campaigns. If he somehow manages 2 over the next five, he’ll only move up three places, assuming Martin keeps climbing. If he only has two such seasons, he’d flip places with Lance Parrish. That’s about it. He’s going to be a very interesting debate in a few years, one that I expect to be on the losing side of.–Miller
Where do our rankings diverge the most from the conventional wisdom?
Yadi’s not a bad player by any stretch. But he has two seasons above 3.2 BBREF WAR. He’s by far the best Molina, however.—Eric
Based on much of what I hear on Twitter, I’m pretty far off on Yadier Molina. And Eric is waaaaaaay off with Yadi at #43. Word is that he’s already a Hall of Fame lock. Perhaps this word comes mainly from Cardinal fans. Likely this word comes from those who haven’t done the appropriate research. What seems certain is a career ending injury to Molina would bring about some real debates between Redbird backers and Eric in five years. With me too.–Miller
Where do we disagree with one another the most?
We’re looking at differences in these 20 based quite a bit on how much we’re willing to trust Max Marchi’s handling numbers. Eric has more trust than I do, so he prefers Tony Pena and Mike Scioscia by ten and twelve places respectfully. No biggie though. Neither is close enough to the HoME to spark debate.–Miller
Pena is pretty close, for me. One more All-Star season would have given us a lot to talk about. Pena’s the number one backstop in Marchi’s results. That’s 248 runs he saved through his work with his pitchers. Or 25 wins worth of runs—if you take them at face value. I don’t. I use them at half strength, so Pena receives 124 runs to the good. It so happens that Scioscia finished second in Marchi’s rankings with 210 runs. As you look down the list, some interesting names pop up. There’s Mike Piazza with 204 runs, providing additional evidence that he was an excellent defensive catcher except for defending the stolen base. Pudge Fisk finishes fifth, and there’s our friend Russell Martin in seventh place. Tim McCarver made a reputation as a smart handler of pitchers, and Marchi rates him as 116 runs better than average. The just mentioned Yadier Molina’s just 10 runs above average in this category, but his brother Jose was ninth with 150 runs saved. Benji, on the other hand, gave up 12 more runs than average. There are other surprises. Bill Freehan, given high marks for his work with Denny McClain and the 1960s Tigers finished 18 runs over par. Wish we’d found Marchi’s work before we elected him…. Some other leader-of-men types are among the worst handlers: Joe Girardi, Darren Daulton, Dan Wilson, Mike Lieberthal. This is all to say that my higher ranking of Pena depends considerably on this information, even at half strength. Imagine how bad those 1980s Pirates rotations would have been without him!—Eric
Are there any players who MAPES+/CHEWS+ might overrate or underrate?
Naturally, Roy Campanella thanks to the impact of the odious color line. But let’s turn elsewhere. We’ve written extensively about Ernie Lombardi, and it’s a near certainty in my opinion that Lom’s career, as currently presented by BBREF is overstated by as much as 4 to 7 WAR. They show him at +5 for baserunning and don’t assign GIDP value to his era yet. Once they (finally!) get around to turning the latest two or three rounds of retrosheet data into WAR, Lom’s WAR legs will buckle badly.—Eric
Maybe there are. Maybe we underrate an entire century at the position. From the start of the National Association through 1971 – that’s 101 years – there are only nine catchers who can boast at least 35 WAR. But there are 28 in the game’s history. I suppose it’s possible we don’t adjust the game’s catchers sufficiently for a good period of time. It’s also quite possible that there were some major down years for backstops, followed by some great years in the age of Carter, Bench, Fisk, Torre, Munson, Simmons, Sundberg, etc. Or maybe we adjust just right. You know how we say that relief pitching is incredibly valuable, though relief pitchers really aren’t? Maybe that was the case with catching for so many years. Perhaps none but the best catchers played enough to accumulate HoME-level value.–Miller
One week from today, we get started on the left fielders. Who’s it going to be, Teddy or Barry?
As we continue with our series of the best pitchers through the decades, I thought I’d focus on Dizzy Dean today. But then I got sidetracked looking into his Hall of Fame voting percentages. Today, many of us (I) get all indignant when our favorites can’t break through the 75% threshold, which, perhaps, we should. But friends, when we do, we forget our history. A failing BBWAA is not a new problem at all.
With the caveat that the voting rules were a bit different back then, I was shocked to see the 1947 Hall of Fame ballot. Al Simmons got six votes his third time out. Jimmie Fox got ten. In their seventh year, Zack Wheat had the support of only 23% of the writers, Bill Terry was under 29%, and Harry Heilmann was just over 40%. Looking at the guys who got in, Frankie Frisch was on his sixth ballot. Same with Mickey Cochrane. Carl Hubbell, on his third ballot, led with 87% of the vote. And on Lefty Grove’s fourth, he snuck in with 76.4% of the vote. That’s right, Hubbell over Grove.
Dizzy didn’t make it in his third try. In fact, it took him until 1953. Now, don’t get me wrong. Dean is no HoMEr. I’m not disappointed it took him some time to get in. I’m just reminded that the problems the Hall and BBWAA have today are nothing new at all.
#10 Larry French: When your career lasts exactly from 1929-1942, it’s not shocking you’d make a list of the top-ten pitchers of the 1930s, even if it’s at only 45% of our decade leader. French was a nice, solid guy, maybe a #2 starter on a decent team. With my conversions, I give him ten seasons of between 3.0 and 5.1 WAR. There are only 54 pitchers in history with at least 3.0 WAR in ten seasons, so that’s something.
#9 Mel Harder: Harder is a lot like French, just with a better peak and a career with only one team, the Cleveland Indians. A cool thing about Harder, in addition to his 46% value compared to our decade leader, is his All-Star performance. He pitched in each game from 1934-1937, winning one and saving two. All told, he threw 13 innings in those four games without allowing a run.
#8 Lon Warneke: The Arkansas Hummingbird checks in at 47% of our decade leader. Truly though, the bottom four guys on this list are interchangeable. Warneke didn’t have a very good World Series in 1932, but you have to say he did just about everything he could in 1935, winning both the opener and the fifth game in a series his Cubs lost 4-2. Unfortunately for the Cubs, they asked him to do a little too much. In relief of Big Bill Lee in Game 3, Warneke entered in a tie game with a man on first. Three batters later, the Tigers led 5-3. Chicago tied it in the ninth but lost the game in the 11th.
#7 Tommy Bridges: Bridges was the winner of the second and deciding sixth game of that World Series, both complete game wins. He’s actually quite a bit like Larry French with just one additional 6-win season. From 1932-1943, a 12-year span, he was baseball’s third best pitcher, behind only Lefty Grove and Carl Hubbell. And his value is approximately 48% of the decade leader.
#6 Dizzy Dean: A great player, no doubt, but it says here that Dean is also one of the most overrated pitchers in baseball history. The legend is often greater than the player when the player is struck down in his prime. Think Sandy Koufax, he of only three or four great seasons, but they are his last three or four. And he retired at 31. Jim Brown played only nine seasons in the NFL. And Dizzy Dean was all but done as a great when he was only 27, struck in the foot by an Earl Averill liner in the 1937 All-Star Game. As the greats sometimes do, he tried to come back too early. He put too much pressure on his arm to compensate for the pain in his foot, and, basically, his arm was never the same. He might be a top-five “What if?” guy for me. As for this series, he’s worth about 49% of our leader.
#5 Ted Lyons: Four times in his career, Lyons led the AL in BB/9. However, since the start of the American League, he’s only of only 18 hurlers with at least 2000 IP, an ERA+ of better than 100, and more walks in his career than strikeouts. Unsurprisingly, he’s the only Hall of Famer on that list, though Wes Ferrell should be in too. Though he had his best run from 1925-1927, he makes this list and made the Hall because he was good for a lot of years. And for this decade, he was worth 58% of our leader.
#4 Wes Ferrell: And speaking of Wes Ferrell, he’s better in this decade than Lyons, about 66% of our leader, and yes, he deserves to be in the Hall of Fame. Of course, he belongs there in large part because of his excellence with the bat. Talking value just on offense, without even considering pitching, Ferrell was roughly the equivalent Eric Karros, Joe Pepitone, or Keith Moreland. Looking at WAA, wins above average, we see a better group, which includes the likes of Tommie Agee, Chick Stahl, and Lance Johnson. Yeah, for a pitcher, Ferrell could rake.
#3 Red Ruffing: When I’m writing these posts, I frequently read through a player’s entries at the SABR Bio Project and Wikipedia to get ideas. And sometimes those ideas take me down a rabbit hole. Like this one. ESPN ranked Ruffing as the 9th greatest Yankee in history back in 1999. I was shocked, though I shouldn’t have been. By WAR, Ruffing is 7th, which is essentially the same thing. Mike Mussina was 50th, which disturbed me until I realized the ESPN piece was published in 1999. Checking Mussina’s stats, I was reminded he became a Yankee in 2001 (oops, there must have been an update). Roy White is 17th in Yankee WAR, yet 44th on the list. Willie Randolph is 12th in Yankee WAR, and he’s 33rd on the list. Don Mattingly isn’t among the two dozen most valuable Yankees ever. Still, ESPN ranks him 11th. And they rank DiMaggio ahead of Mantle. But they’re ESPN, than they make awful lists. Ruffing was worth 2/3 of the guy two spots ahead in the 1930s.
#2 Carl Hubbell: King Carl’s career lasted from 1928-1943, almost the exact period that would allow him to find a high ranking on this list. At 71% of our decade leader, he certainly found that ranking. On some levels, I think Hubbell sometimes gets lost in the historical pitcher shuffle. For my money, he’s on the same level as Jim Palmer, Bob Feller, and Juan Marichal. Is he seen that way? The screwballer is the first pitcher to win two MVP Awards. He struck out Babe Ruth, Lou Gehrig, Jimmie Foxx, Al Simmons, and Joe Cronin consecutively in the 1934 All-Star Game. And he has to be one of the only pitchers ever to lead baseball in complete games and saves in the same year. But is he seen as he should be? I don’t know.
#1 Lefty Grove: If you were making predictions at the start of this post, I think you would have gotten the right answer. The Black Ink is almost mind boggling for a pitcher who is likely somewhere between the fifth and eighth best ever. He had nine ERA and ERA+ titles, eight FIP championships, and seven K titles in his first seven seasons. Two of his best seasons were 1930 and 1931, both 10-WAR campaigns, and both seeing him walk away with the pitching triple crown. His best season by WAR was 1936, but he won only 17 games for a mediocre Boston squad. During Grove’s career, there were 32 times a pitcher threw 300 or more innings. Know how many times Grove did it? Zero. He never led his league, and only twice was he second. However, he did finish in the top-6 on eleven occasions. Perhaps he’s another data point suggesting wise pitcher usage will pay off.
Next week it’s the 1940s. And for the first time in this series, I’ll be using BBREF WAR numbers after the 2018 WAR update. I’m hoping the result is more satisfying than it was before the update. Fingers crossed.
How in the world do you decide what pitch to throw? And who decides? It is the manager? The pitcher? The catcher? A bit of all three? We will answer none of those questions below.
We know that sometimes the catcher decides what pitch should be thrown. And if the pitcher has both command and control, maybe the right pitch goes to the right location, and the batter fails. That’s if the catcher/pitcher/manager chooses the right pitch and location. And if the batter also fails. There’s merit to the idea that the best catchers ever are the ones best at calling games, if they’re actually the ones responsible for calling the games. I don’t think we really know who had such responsibility. And there’s no way to really know if they got the most out of their pitchers. There are just so many variables that we can’t control for.
The best receiver in history would have to have all of the physical attributes, and he’d have to be an expert on game theory, someone in league with the world’s best poker players. We just can’t measure that.
I’d like to note two more things before we get started. First, neither one of our numbers puts Johnny Bench on the top of the catcher list. And second, it’s extremely hard to figure out what’s right at this position. We’re trying our best.
Mauer is a made man. Unless he turns in a few -2.0 WAR seasons in a row, he’s over the line for good. The question is whether he can gain ground on the rest of the field. Given recent history, his peak appears locked in, so it’s about chasing down the career value of guys above him on the totem pole. Bill Dickey feels like his top end to me. After my various adjustments, Dickey’s ahead by 9 career WAR, but their peak is exactly the same. Mauer certainly could catch up, though as a thirty-five year old with a history of concussion syndrome, the wear and tear of catching, and an overall long-term decline in performance, especially in power, I’m not sanguine about his odds to hit on that prop. He’ll pass Joe Torre this year, but Charlie Bennett is a pretty far in the distance, let alone Hartnett and Dickey.—Eric
There’s actually quite a bit going on here. After three years when it seemed Mauer was done as a plus hitter, he rebounded nicely last season. On the plus side, his K-rate fell to pre-concussion levels. He also made more hard contact than he had in four years. Maybe he’s back??? I know that’s not the way aging works though. On the other hand, there’s not a lot of data we have on people who have recovered from concussions. In the last four seasons, he’s averaged over 138 games, 18 more than his previous four. In terms of wear and tear on his body, perhaps he’s looking better than a few years ago? Then again, the last four years have seen him with a 106 OPS+, while the previous four were at 134. And his 116 from last year isn’t really too impressive. He’s 35 now, and it’s quite possible his surprise 3-win campaign of 2017 was the last year of that quality he’ll ever have. That’s what I’m guessing. If we plug in seasons of 2.2, 1.1 and -0.4 WAR, he gets by Joe Torre, and that’s it. I say he finishes at #12.–Miller
This is one incredibly healthy catcher we’re looking at, a guy who’s played in at least 140 games every year since 2012. What’s more, he’s been worth over 4 wins each season. He’s 31 now. As he ages, the Giants can move him out from behind the plate more and more. If he can maintain last year’s level in 2018 and then decline slowly, he can get to #14. Maintaining a little more value and playing until age 38, he’ll battle Mauer for that #12 spot. I’ll take the more positive run out in this case.–Miller
It has to be Gary Carter, right? Everyone calls Johnny Bench the best MLB catcher ever. Well, everyone except me and Eric. I have to admit to being unsure of how catcher handling should be interpreted, and I think my catcher ratings are less likely to be “correct” than those at any position. I use Max Marchi’s handling numbers, albeit at a reduced rate, which vaults Carter to the top. Somehow, it’s actually not very close.–Miller
We could make a baseball TV comedy show called That 70s Catcher. Bench, Fisk, Simmons, Munson, plus big hunks of Carter’s career. Oh, and Gene Tenace. Gino Fiore Tenace is one of those analytical darlings who walked a lot, hit for power, moved around the diamond a bit, and whose excellence was hidden by baseball’s traditionalist mindset until the last twenty or so years. There’s that and the fact that his career was very short, under 6,000 plate appearances, and that defensively he wasn’t an outstanding backstop. I’m pretty sure that given the opportunity to name the twenty best catchers ever, a supermajority of baseball watchers and sports journalists wouldn’t include him. Especially when Ernie Lombardi, Bill Freehan, Lance Parrish, Yadier Molina, and a few other more famous catchers rank below him.—Eric
I have Charlie Bennett 28% over the line, while Eric sees him only 13% over. The difference between 10th best and 12th best, however, really isn’t a big deal. Perhaps Johnny Bench is our biggest disagreement? We are in lockstep on #1 and #2 at every other position, so when my #2 is his #5, we might say that it’s a big difference.–Miller
Yes, just about anyone. We use the handling numbers we have, which we think makes sense. Unfortunately, those numbers don’t exist for the first 80 or so years of the game, nor the last six. We’re not guessing. We’re doing the best we can, and we think we’re reasonably close. It’s just that the error bar at catcher is greater than at any position. Far greater, I think.–Miller
You know, Buck Ewing bugs me. I know that some folks in his own time considered him the best player in the game, but the second-best catcher of all time? I’m not so sure. Could be an issue with how I’m extrapolating playing time. But I can’t shake the feeling that we’re overcommitted on Ewing. Miller is absolutely correct that among all nine positions on the diamond (ten if you want to consider the DH separately), catcher is the fudgiest. We have all the usual things to account for such as schedule length, league quality, in my case standard deviation, differing defensive systems. Then we also have to introduce a ton more uncertainty because no defensive system captures catchers well, and the developers of those systems will tell you so. No system has successfully figured out how to add framing because framing is dependent on the umpire and the pitcher as well as the catcher. No system has incorporated pitcher handling either. Is plate blocking included in any of them? Where does pitch calling fit into this? Plus we have to account for the negative impact catching has on playing time so that we can bring catchers as close to other positions as possible. It’s not a cluster, not a whack-a-mole, more like those Russian nesting dolls. You’re trying to get down to the smallest doll, but there’s just so many other dolls ahead of it that eventually your hands get crampy from all the twisting apart of the dolls. And they are all wearing masks!—Eric
Next week we’re back with the next 20 catchers. And unless you’ve studied this subject, a bunch of names will be at least a little surprising.
Addie Joss is in the Hall of Fame. On at least a couple of levels, he doesn’t deserve it. First, he played only nine seasons, one short of the minimum number required to make someone a Hall of Famer. It seems that the Veterans Committee in 1978 just kind of ignored the rule. The other way in which he doesn’t belong is that he’s unqualified. Yes, his career lacked depth, but it also lacked the greatness that a short career pitcher would need. He was never in the top-two in his league in WAR, and only three times was he in the best five. Compare that to Johan Santana. He was second once and first three other times – at a time when there were many more pitchers in the league.
So why is Joss in the Hall? I suspect it’s because of the 1.89 career ERA, which is second all-time. Of course, he pitched at a time when ERAs were incredibly low. In fact, he only led the league twice. And his 142 ERA+ is tied with Brandon Webb for 12th in history. Webb, actually, isn’t a miserable comp for Joss. Interestingly enough, the guy who he trails in ERA, Ed Walsh, is the man he faced when he threw his 1908 perfect game, the fourth in the game’s history.
#10 Doc White: A fine but underappreciated pitcher, White pitched five straight shutouts in 1904, just a few months after Cy Young did the same. Sixty-four years later Bob Gibson and Don Drysdale repeated that feat. And of course, Orel Hershiser pitched five straight shutouts in 1988. Had his Dodgers scored a single run over his ten innings on September 28, it would have been six. White, of course, is the only one of that group largely lost to history. That’s because he’s only about the 120th or 130th best pitcher ever, and he’s worth 45% of our decade’s leader.
#9 Mordecai Brown: Brown, I think, has a better reputation than record because of his cool “Three Finger” nickname and accompanying story. Not that we wasn’t a great player, he was. But like Derek Jeter, Pete Rose, Sandy Koufax, and others, the story turns great into larger than life. Regarding this list, Brown is pretty impressive. He didn’t pitch at all until 1903 (and as far back as 1897 counts as part of the decade), and he wasn’t a star until 1906. Yet, he’s the 9th best pitcher in the decade and 46% as valuable as our leader.
#8 Jack Powell: Sort of infamously, Powell holds the record for most wins by a pitcher with a losing record. Sure, he was 245–254 in the bigs, but he did so with an above average 106 ERA+. Somewhat interestingly, at least to me, is that his best three seasons on the mound were his first three, all with 6+ WAR, a level he’d never hit again. He clocks in at 48% of our decade’s leader.
#7 Ed Walsh: Walsh first pitched in 1904. He first started over 13 games in 1906. In other words, he’s hardly a pitcher of this decade, yet I rank him as 7th best, 52% of the leader. That’s because the all-time ERA champ absolutely tore it up from 1907-1912, all of which count toward his decade total. In those six seasons, he once won 40 games, five times topped 360 innings, and three times reached 10 WAR on the mound.
#6 Joe McGinnity: The “Iron Man” had a short career, only ten seasons, but all of them counting toward this decade. In only four seasons of his career did he have an ERA+ higher than 117. Johan Santana did so nine times. I wonder what would have happened to Santana if he had a cool nickname. Or if Santana will top 55% of his decade’s leader’s total.
#5 Rube Waddell: With six straight K titles from 1902 through 1907, I once made the argument that Waddell might be the best strikeout pitcher ever. Whether or not that’s true, he sure was a star, winning the pitching triple crown in 1905. He also won the ERA+ title and had the most WAR in the AL that year. Even with 1905 and a number of other great campaigns in the decade, he’s still at only 55% of our leader.
#4 Vic Willis: A quick review of Willis’ BBREF page reminds us that over a century ago, the game was pretty much the same as it was when Seaver, Carlton, and Perry ruled the mound. On one hand, 110 is a huge number of years ago. Oh, and 40 or 50 is too. Man, I’m old. And Willis was worth about 59% of the decade leader.
#3 Eddie Plank: His best single-season pitcher WAR during this period was only 40th best among hurlers, and Plank’s decade is only worth 67% of our leader’s. However, Gettysburg Eddie added a bit with the bat. He was also, depending on how you look at it, a great post-season pitcher, an awful post-season pitcher, or a product of his times. In seven career World Series appearances, he had a 2-5 record with a 1.32 ERA. So let’s explore. In the first game of the 1905 Series, he took the 3-0 loss as his A’s were shut out by Christy Mathewson and the Giants. Four days later, an unearned run gave Joe McGinnity and New York a 1-0 win. Back in the World Series six years later, he won Game 2, 3-1 in a rematch with New York. Then in relief of Jack Coombs in Game 6, a Fred Merkle sacrifice fly gave Plank his third loss in just two-thirds of an inning. The next year the two hooked up again, and this contest ended just as Plank’s first one did, with a 3-0 loss to Christy Mathewson, albeit in 10 innings this time. A two-hitter in Game 5, however, gave the A’s the 1913 title, again against Mathewson. And his final start in the Fall Classic came the next year, losing the second game of a sweep against the Miracle Braves, this one a 1-0 loss. So in the four losses he took as a starter, his team scored a combined zero runs for him. Not much he could do about that.
#2 Christy Mathewson: Coming in at 86% of our leader is the World Series foe of Plank and one of the handful of best pitchers ever. I see him as #6, while Eric puts him at #10. Overall, he posted five of the 31 seasons of more than 9 WAR in the period we’re researching. To answer the above question about Plank’s post-season greatness or lack thereof, Mathewson might be instructive. He was 5-5 overall in the World Series, but with an ERA of 0.97. At least his teams scored a run in each of his five losses. Overall, Mathewson had five World Series starts with no earned runs, five others with one or two, and just one with more than that.
#1 Cy Young: And for the second consecutive decade, the game’s best pitcher was Cy Young. Of the twelve best seasons by pitching WAR in the aughts, he had four of them, including a 12.6 pitching WAR gem in the AL’s inaugural season of 1901. Before you get too excited about the quality of competition that year, Young was the only one who stood out like he did. In fact, only Joe McGinnity (7.6) and Roscoe Miller (7.1) racked up even 7 WAR on the mound. Perhaps you could say the AL lacked stars.
In a week, we’ll see if anyone can dethrone Cy Young in the 1910s. Spoiler alert – Young retired in 1911.
If you’re looking for a time that baseball basically became the game we know today, look to 1893. That’s when the mound moved to today’s distance, 60’6”. For that reason, we’re altering our system and ignoring years before 1893 as we search for the best pitcher of the 1890s. Depending on your historical perspective, the 1930s may have ended on September 1, 1939 when Germany invaded Poland or on December 7, 1941 with the bombing of Pearl Harbor. Some might say the 1960s didn’t end until the fall of Saigon in 1975. Music fans might say that the 1990s started with Nirvana’s release of Nevermind in 1991. And perhaps historians will say the 2020s started with the 2016 election of Donald Trump. I don’t know. But I think it’s very clear that the 1890s in baseball didn’t really begin until the mound moved in 1893.
One of the stars of that decade was Clark Griffith. While I’m no expert in math, it’s possible that if we take the harmonic mean of the greatness of everyone in baseball history who fit into three categories of player, manager, owner, pioneer, and umpire, Clark Griffith might top that list. He started his career with the St. Louis Browns and Boston Reds of the 1891 American Association. But he really got going in 1894 with a solid 114 ERA+ despite a 4.92 ERA for the Chicago Colts. He moved to the AL in their inaugural 1901 season as the player/manager of the Chicago White Sox. He later held the same role with the New York Yankees before essentially hanging ‘em up while infrequently playing as manager of the Cincinnati Reds and Washington Senators. He managed the Senators through 1920, inventing the squeeze play and helping to increase relief pitcher usage. In 1919, he became part owner of the Senators, a role he held until his 1955 death. And he brought the nation’s capital their only World Series title ever in 1924. Today, the combination of his playing, managing, and ownership careers has him as member of the Hall of Miller and Eric.
#10 Al Orth: An average pitcher, as his ERA+ of 100 signifies, Orth was at his best during a 27-win 1906 season with the New York Yankees. However, we won’t see him again next decade. Really, he makes the list because, well, because someone had to. The Curveless Wonder, he of a mere 31% of the value our decade’s leader, really didn’t throw the ball all too hard either. In fact, it’s said that the A’s Osee Schrecongost once caught one of his pitches while batting.
#9 Jesse Tannehill: Clearly a better pitcher than Orth, Tannehill only threw three full seasons in this decade, the last two of which were the best of his career. But at 32% of the decade leader, his placement on this list could be debated by anyone with even a little knowledge of the era.
#8 Brickyard Kennedy: ‘Ol Brickyard was a mediocre hurler, compiling just a 102 career ERA+. But when almost all of a player’s career innings are in the range we’re considering, even the mediocre can place. Today we think about a guy like Jon Lester, someone who can’t throw over to first base, and we marvel. How can a major league pitcher have trouble throwing? Well, Kennedy was special too, and not just because of his accumulation of about 33% of the value of our 1890s champ. He could throw to first base – he just couldn’t cover it. So imagine a grounder to first. If the batter could get to the bag before the first baseman, it was going to be a single. That’s a lot worse than anything Lester does. Or doesn’t do.
#7 Nig Cuppy: I’m not going out on much of a limb when I say that racists are idiots. As evidence that there’s tremendous overlap between “racist” and “idiot”, think about the number of natives of India who were harassed or assaulted after 9/11. Cuppy’s “nickname” is another example. He had dark skin, so there’s the name. He was also sometimes known as the “Cuban Warrior”. Dark skin. Of course, he was American, the child of Bavarian immigrants. So he was German. See, idiots. And he was about 34% as valuable as our decade leader.
#6 Pink Hawley: With 10.8 WAR, more than 25% of Hawley’s career value came in 1895, a year during which he made 56 starts, pitched 444.1 innings, and won 31 games. At the plate, he totaled 1.0 WAR that season, almost all of his career total of 1.1. And he drove in 42 runs in just 185 at-bats. I know you want to know why he was called “Pink”. It’s because he was a twin, and the nurse who helped with the birth put ribbons on the boys, one pink and one blue. That’s all it took. By the way, for Hawley and nearly every one of the players I review, I read their SABR Bio Project entry. You should check them out. Hawley had less than 39% of the value of our leader. This decade was truly dominated by two men.
#5 Amos Rusie: Finally we have an excellent pitcher, but one who provided only 45% of the value of our leader. That’s because nearly half of his career innings came prior to the period we’re considering. The best strikeout pitcher of his time, Rusie led the league in K/9 five times in his first seven years. He reached the majors at just age-17, and he only pitched 22 innings after his age-27 season. I rank Rusie as the 24th best pitcher ever, while Eric, who adjusts the early seasons with huge WAR downward more than I do, sees him as 37th. Either way, we approve of the Hoosier Thunderbolt’s induction into the Hall of Fame.
#4 Ted Breitenstein: The lefty from St. Louis is one of four pitchers on this list who registered over 10 WAR in the first season with the mound at 60’ 6”. Only 98 guys even threw a pitch in the NL that year, only 60 of whom didn’t compile negative WAR. Only 38 reached 1.0 WAR, and only 26 reached 2.0. Only five topped 5.8, and four of those were 11.3 or higher without adjustments. Yes, the best pitchers really stood out at that time, which is why Eric adjusts the way he does. Trivially, he pitched a no-hitter in his first major league start, just as Bumpus Jones and Bobo Holoman after him. Jones was the only one to do it in his first appearance. Breitenstein rates just 49% as good as our top guy in the 1890s.
#3 Clark Griffith: Griffith is a hard cat to figure in some ways. On one hand, he’s 66th on the career pitching WAR list. Sounds pretty impressive. On the other, his workload was lighter than that of his mound contemporaries, finishing in the top-10 in innings just twice. The relatively low IP totals might explain some of the difference between my ranking at #48 and Eric’s at #78. That and the quality of play adjustment. When you look at Griffith’s BBREF page, perhaps it’s no wonder that he expanded the role of relief pitchers – it’s how he kept his career going toward the end. At 55% of our decade leader, he’s the first guy on the list even halfway there.
#2 Kid Nichols: We’re talking about a near inner circle guy here with 116.5 career WAR and 83% of our leader’s value. We don’t talk a lot about Nichols today, which isn’t such a surprise given that he retired more than 110 years ago. But maybe we should. Unadjusted, he posted at least 10 WAR on the mound five times. Six more times it was 7+. And when considering the elite of the elite, even with olde tyme dudes, Eric and I see our rankings converge much more; Nichols is #5 for me, #7 for him. Yet, he still only produced 85% of the value of our decade’s leader.
#1 Cy Young: To me, Young trails only Walter Johnson in the conversation of best pitcher ever. I suppose there’s a way to put Roger Clemens or Satchel Paige ahead of him, but nobody else. His best season by straight WAR was right before we started counting in this decade, but he had six more of 10+ on the mound, unadjusted, that we count. Trivially, he threw the first World Series pitch ever, and he’s the only pitcher ever to appear in both the World Series and the Temple Cup, the Fall Classic’s predecessor.
A week from today, we enter the 20th century and the start of the American League