For some time, we’ve told you that we’d be sharing longer lists so you can see where all of your favorites land in the game’s history. So it’s time we welcome you to our top-125, the best players at each position by Eric’s CHEWS+ and my MAPES+. At the end of this series these lists will find a permanent home on our site so that you’ll be able to refer to them whenever you would like.
Before we get there, you may see some surprising inclusions or omissions. Let me explain. Eric places players at the position at which they had the most value. His reasoning can best be seen in a guy like Ernie Banks. Banks is a no-brainer Hall of Famer. That’s clearly based on his time as a shortstop where he had six seasons of 5+ WAR, including four of 7.9+. At first base, he never topped 3.5 WAR, averaging only 1.3 per season over a decade at the position. While Eric’s theory makes total sense, not every player is as easy to understand as Banks. Should we break down each season? What if the guy played 80 games at two positions in the same season? I just use games played with no preference for value. Just games played. It’s simpler. I don’t think either decision is incorrect, but I do want to point out the reason you may not see certain players. For example, you’ll see Deacon White, Jack Rowe, and Mike Napoli on Eric’s list below. For me, White is a third baseman, Rowe is a shortstop, and Napoli is a first baseman.
Here are our complete lists.
Stop by again on Friday when we’ll look our similarities and differences at first base.
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.
When I started this project to fix the Hall, I did so focusing only on hitters who starred in the 70s and 80s. After all, the writers have done a pretty good job getting the right pitchers from that era into the Hall. Seaver, Carlton, Ryan, Palmer, Perry, Jenkins, Niekro, Blyleven, Sutton, and Gossage are all where they belong. But the voters have also missed on a couple of guys, and a recent trip to Fenway Park where I had the pleasure of meeting Luis Tiant inspired me to continue with this series on overlooked 1970s and 1980s stars.
To be fair, some might not consider Tiant a pitcher of the 1970s. The Cuban righty got his career started in 1964, and he had his best year in 1968, both with the Indians, before moving to Minnesota in 1970. Still, I consider him a pitcher of the 1970s because he pitched for the Red Sox from 1971-1978. And I’m a Red Sox fan who met Tiant at Fenway Park, dammit. So that’s it, he’s a pitcher of the 1970s. For those counting, he finished things out with two campaigns in the Bronx and one in both Pittsburgh and California from 1979-1982.
He made three All-Star teams and received Cy consideration three times, though he never finished in the top-3. Part of his legend comes from post-season greatness in 1975. He got things started by shutting out the A’s in the ALCS. Then he opened the World Series with another shutout, this time against the Big Red Machine. Though he struggled some, he also won Game 4 before stinking up the joint in the Sox dramatic Game 6 win backed by Carlton Fisk’s 12th inning walk-off.
Tiant never had any claim as the best pitcher in baseball. In 1968, Denny McLain won 30 games, and Bob Gibson posted a 1.12 ERA. Even in his best three-year stretch, 1972-1974, five pitchers, including Wilbur Wood, were more valuable. He won 20 games four times, which voters seem to like. However, only two other times did he win more than 13. For his career, we’re looking at just 229 victories. And voters really love career wins. It’s kind of hard to blame them in some ways given that six pitchers from his era won 311 or more games. And Blyleven and Jenkins posted 287 and 284 respectively. If you’re not paying attention, he might seem like a lesser pitcher. And to be fair, he wasn’t the pitcher that any of the starters above were, except for Sutton. Being compared to pitchers of his era really hurts him, and undervaluing that era as a whole, hurts him more.
Another problem is that he often followed up a great season with a relatively mediocre one. His 8.4 pitching WAR in 1968 preceded 3.2 WAR in 1969. His 7.8 in 1974 was followed by 2.8, 6.3, 5.6, and 2.4. In some ways he was a little like Bret Saberhagen, except that he did his good work in even numbered years. Plus, he got hurt in 1969 and was worth less than a win over the next two years. His inconsistency hurt too.
But the real thing that hurt is that voters compared him to pitchers of his era rather than pitchers all time.
Back when players still had 15 chances on the ballot, Tiant remained for all 15 tries. After 1988, his first year of eligibility when he earned 30.9% of the vote, it looked like he was eventually going to get in. Guys who start over 30% almost always get in. In 1989, however, Perry and Jenkins hit the ballot with Johnny Bench and Carl Yastrzemski. It’s not surprising that Tiant took a step back. What does surprise is that he dropped to just 10.5% of the vote, tied with the inferior Mickey Lolich, a guy who he beat by 23 votes the year before.
Jim Palmer overshadowed him in 1990, Perry and Jenkins made it in 1991, Seaver entered in 1992, Niekro hit the ballot in 1993, Carlton got in and Sutton got on the ballot in 1995. By 1998, all of the 300 win guys finally made it. But there were big win guys Jim Kaat and Tommy John getting attention, and Bert Blyleven hit the ballot that year too. Tiant never rebounded to his 1988 heights. In fact, he never even got back to 20%.
The Golden Era Committee met in 2011, saw fit to put Tiant on the ballot, but the voters again did a poor job. Jim Kaat got ten votes, Tiant less than three. In 2014, it was the same result.
If we look at career WAR, Tiant is a pretty easy Hall choice. The three right in front of him include Don Drysdale, Roberto Alomar, and Dwight Evans, who we discussed last week. The three right behind him are Hall of Famers Duke Snider, Joe Cronin, and Pee Wee Reese. In fact, Tiant tops more than 50 Hall of Famers. And he’d be in the top half of pitchers in the Hall.
Oh, and if you like wins, Tiant had more than about 20 Hall starters.
I’ve kind of covered this section above, but it’s simply comical how many pitchers are indisputably behind Luis Tiant. But first, in terms of career value, Tiant looks a lot like Rube Waddell or Jim Bunning to me. He’s far better than all of the relievers, even Gossage. And he crushes the likes of Rube Marquard, Lefty Gomez, Jesse Haines, Jack Chesbro, and many others. One of them is my favorite Hall punching bag, Catfish Hunter.
Since Bill James wrote it first and best in his Politics of Glory, and since I think I spend far too much of my time trashing him (type his name into the search box if you’re interested), I’m going to let the Catfish Hunter comparison numbers speak for themselves.
Tiant Hunter ============================ Innings 3486.1 3449.1 Wins 229 224 Strikeouts 2416 2012 Shutouts 49 42 Though it's just by a little, Tiant wins in every single category. ============================================================================== ERA 3.30 3.26 K/BB 2.19 2.11 ERA+ 114 104 FIP 3.47 3.66 Hunter wins only ERA. For a better sense of real skill, see ERA+ and FIP. ============================================================================== RA9opp 4.08 3.99 This is the average scored by the pitcher's opposition. Catfish had it easier. ============================================================================== RA9def 0.07 0.25 This measures the pitcher's quality of defense. Catfish had it easier. ============================================================================== Park Factor 104.8 95.7 Over 100 is harder than average; under is easier. Catfish had it easier. ============================================================================== PtchW 22.3 9.0 This is adjusted pitching wins, the number of wins above average contributed. Hunter is clearly worse. ============================================================================== WPA 25.2 14.0 This is Win Probability Added, which kind of speaks for itself. Again, Hunter is worse. ============================================================================== Actual WAR 66.7 41.4 My Conversion 67.2 43.3 (Extra credit given for playoff pitching) MAPES P Rank 47 145 (My personal ranking system) This is the biggest no-brainer ever, right? Bill James is smart.
Next week, one of my all-time favorites, Rick Reuschel.
If you’re interested in Sabermetric numbers, you must be surprised that Dwight Evans isn’t in the Hall of Fame. Then again, he played in the 1970s and 1980s, so maybe you shouldn’t be surprised. And the truth is, he really wasn’t thought of as much of a player during his day. Just three All-Star berths and five times receiving MVP consideration in his 20 years tells you much of what you need to know. Today, we’ll right the wrong of Hall exclusion as we continue with the Fixing the Hall series, just as we have for Ted Simmons, Keith Hernandez, Bobby Grich, and Buddy Bell, Alan Trammell, and Jose Cruz before him.
Dwight Evans reached the majors with the Boston Red Sox in September of 1972 when he was still 20 years old. He was a good hitter and a great defender early in his career. As he aged with the Sox, he declined in the field while growing into something close to elite at the plate. He hit .300 with three homers in 50 World Series at-bats, shared the 1981 AL home run title, and led the league in OPS twice. Boston let him walk to Baltimore in his final season of 1991, instead signing Jack Clark. It might have been the right move, but it would have been nicer to see Dewey with one team his whole career.
Evans had a career that was misinterpreted by the writers, for sure, but he’s a bit to blame as well, having the audacity to have his best run from age 29-35. See, he spent the first third of his career not being a star. If you’re not a star for a bunch of years, it’s hard for some to begin thinking of you as a star later. Additionally, Evans wasn’t ever really elite, with his best four seasons of 5.1-6.7 WAR. His value was in being consistently very helpful, ten times with a WAR of 3.0-4.8. Also, Evans played great defense and drew a ton of walks. Those aren’t sexy qualities. He just never impressed enough in the way ill-informed writers want.
Our guy actually saw three Hall ballots. In 1997 he received 5.9% of the vote. Granted, that was less than the inferior Dave Parker and inferior teammate Jim Rice, but at least it was something. In 1998 he jumped to 10.4%. That was a fair leap. Maybe writers were catching on? Alas, Nolan Ryan, George Brett, Robin Yount, and Carlton Fisk joined the ballot in 1999, and there weren’t enough writers to keep Evans around. He fell off with just 3.6% of the vote.
There are 17 eligible players who can match Evans in R, RBI, and BB. Of those without a steroid taint, they’re all in the Hall.
Only six right fielders in history are better than or within 20% of Evans in both Rbat and Rfield. Hank Aaron, Al Kaline, and Roberto Clemente are three. Sammy Sosa would be in the Hall if it weren’t for PED taint. Larry Walker should be in. The other player is Rocky Colavito, a guy who Evans beats in Rbat, Rfield, G, PA, R, H, 2B, HR, RBI, BA, OBP, and WAR. It’s fair to say Colavito is clearly a lesser player.
Evans is one of seven right fielders ever with 300 homers and 1000 walks. Five are in the Hall, and the other is Jack Clark, a guy who Evans beats in HR, BB, PA, R, H, 2B, 3B, RBI, and WAR. Again, Clark is clearly a lesser player.
If we just look at WAR, every RF in history who’s ahead of Evans is in the Hall. And there are eleven Hall of Famers at his position who trail him.
Evans is tremendously better than joke choices Tommy McCarthy and Ross Youngs. Most reasonable people would rank him ahead of Kiki Cuyler and Chuck Klein too. I like him better than Sam Thompson, Sam Rice, and Enos Slaughter without WWII credit. I also rank him ahead of Dave Winfield, Harry Hooper, and Willie Keeler. Plus, I can see how someone could choose him over Andre Dawson, Tony Gwynn, or Elmer Flick too.
If you’ve been reading these posts, you know I like to look at BBREF’s AIR number to compare offensive eras. Evans had a slightly favorable offensive environment throughout his career as shown with his 101 AIR. Chuck Klein had an insanely favorable situation, an AIR of 110, yet his numbers are inferior to Evans’. We’re dumping Klein. Let’s look.
Evans Klein ============================ PAs 10569 7171 Hits 2446 2076 Runs 1470 1168 Home Runs 385 300 RBI 1384 1201 BB 1391 601 Evans wins in terms of counting stats. ============================================================== BA .272 .320 OBP .370 .379 SLG .470 .543 OPS+ 127 137 What we see here is the difference between an AIR of 101 and one of 110. Even if you're inclined to believe Klein was a better hitter, there's more to consider when electing a Hall of Famer. =============================================================== Rfield 65 -40 DRA 19.9 -102.8 The first is the defensive number at BBREF. The second is defensive regression analysis. I trust the second more. Evans was a very good defender; Klein was awful. ================================================================= Actual WAR 66.9 43.6 My Conversion 70.0 43.0 MAPES LF Rank 16 37 MAPES is my personal ranking system.
Evans was a better player. It’s not that close either. The good news for him is that the Veterans Committee will still take a look. And they elected Klein, so you never know.
Next week we move to the mound, and to a slightly earlier era, checking out the injustice done to Luis Tiant.
If you were a hitter who debuted in the 1970s, you’ve had a harder time getting into the Hall of Fame than you should have. From 1971-1992, an era that encompasses the careers of almost all of the players in this series, only once did scoring top 4.47 runs per game. And three times it was 3.99 or below. In contrast, the era from 1921-1941 saw scoring higher than 4.47 every single year. Yes, different eras have different levels of offense. And when we use counting stats to make Hall of Fame decisions for hitters, we fail to take into account those lower run environments. Since 1950, five of the eight seasons with the fewest home runs per team were in the 1970s, and half of the bottom-24 occurred from 1971-1984.
You can’t expect huge offensive numbers in that era, but Hall of Fame voters still seem to. It’s that failure, plus the misunderstanding of base on balls, the misunderstanding of defensive value, and the misunderstanding of greatness versus inner circle Hall of Fame talent that has helped keep Ted Simmons and others who debuted in the 1970s out of the Hall.
Ted Simmons is a catcher who played a bit on the corners and some designated hitter. He got started with a cup of coffee at just 19 for the 1968 Cardinals. By 1970, he was sharing time behind the plate with Joe Torre. In 1971, Simmons pushed Torre to third.He was shipped to the Brewers with the next two AL Cy Young winners, Rollie Fingers and Pete Vuckovich, in a 1980 deal that brought the Cards four players, including top prospect David Green. It was a terrible trade for the Cardinals. After five years in Milwaukee, he was sent to the Braves in a deal for Rick Cerone. Simmons was all but done at that point, and he ended his career in Atlanta in 1988.
Simmons had power, which is evidenced by his 11th place standing in home runs by someone who played more than 50% of his career at catcher. And he could hit for average too; he’s 14th on a similar list among backstops.
The greatest problem Ted Simmons has is when he debuted. His first full season was 1970. Johnny Bench had his in first full year in 1968, Carlton Fisk in 1972, and Gary Carter in 1975. All three of those catchers were clearly better than Simmons. It’s not easy to get a lot of attention when there are three clearly better players who debuted right around the same time, not to mention the excellent Thurman Munson, Gene Tenace, Jim Sundberg, and Darrell Porter.
The only time Simmons appeared on the BBWAA ballot was 1994 when he received just 3.7% of the vote. Far inferior players like Steve Garvey, Rusty Staub, and Dave Concepcion fared better.
To get an idea of Simmons’ greatness, we need to compare him to all catchers, not just his contemporaries. There are only 39 catchers ever with at least 5000 plate appearances, 100 homers, and a .300 on base percentage. If we move those numbers up to 150 homers and a .325 on base clip, we’re down to 23 catchers. And if we move to 200 long balls and a .340 OBP, it’s just a dozen guys. Simmons absolutely did not play during a good offensive era, yet only Mike Piazza, Yogi Berra, and Jorge Posada can match him in both HR and OBP. He’s also one of three catchers ever with 200 HR and 400 2B. The other two, Carlton Fisk and Ivan Rodgiruez are in the Hall.
Simmons has 50.1 career WAR, which is better than six Hall of Famers. To me, he is so clearly superior to Hall mistakes Ray Schalk and Rick Ferrell. Schalk is 42nd in career WAR among catchers, while Ferrell is 36th. Simmons is 12th. And he’s debatably better than Hall of Famers Roger Bresnahan and Ernie Lombardi.
I’m making Ray Schalk the choice here because he and Simmons both played in eras with depressed offense. In fact, the AIR number at BBREF, which measures the offensive level of the leagues and parks the player played in relative to all-time, is the same 96 for both of them. Let’s look at some stats.
Simmons Schalk ================================ Hits 2472 1345 Runs 1074 579 Home Runs 248 11 RBI 1389 594 OPS+ 118 83 Remember, they played in equally difficult offensive eras. ========================================================== Rfield -33 46 DRA -20.5 -17.1 The first is the defensive number at BBREF. The second is defensive regression analysis. I trust the second more. ===================================================================== Actual WAR 50.1 28.5 My Conversion 54.7 35.5 MAPES C Rank 17 45 MAPES is my personal ranking system.
Have I convinced you that Ted Simmons belongs in the Hall of Fame? Maybe not. But I hope I’ve convinced you that if the Hall could have only one of Simmons and Schalk, it should absolutely be Ted Simmons.
Tune in next Monday for the second part of this series, Keith Hernandez.
On one level, I’m disappointed by the names on this list. On another, I think it points out one of the greatest instances of the Hall of Fame really blowing it. Every player on this list is in the Hall of Miller and Eric. And all but one are either in the Hall, PED users, or the criminally under-appreciated Lou Whitaker.
In all of baseball history, there are only five people who can total 200 Rbat, 25 Rfield, 25 Rbaser, and 5 Rdp. (Before we go on, Whitaker reaches 209, 77, 32, and 16 on these levels, easily eclipsing most of them). In any case, the other guys are Barry Bonds, George Brett, Carlos Beltran, and Larry Walker.
I’ve recently discussed the reasons Walker isn’t in the Hall. His reasons aren’t too different from Sweet Lou. Whitaker was very good at everything that makes a player valuable. He just wasn’t great at any of it.
So here you have it, the final post in our Compiler series. Clearly, at least one of these players hasn’t gotten the credit he deserves. Check out other posts in this series: #60-#55, #54-#46, #45-#37, #36-#28, #27-19 , and #18-#10 if you haven’t already.
Criteria to be included on this list include:
So let’s get to the top nine!
5 WAR seasons: 4
1 WAR seasons: 18
Best year: For the first and only time in his career, Ozzie hit over .300 in 1987. And in the year of the homer, Ozzie hit none. Still, it was the best season of his career. When a stinky hitter and an excellent defender begins to hit a little, that’s likely to happen. That year he finished second in the MVP voting to Andre Dawson. Oh, the dark ages of what constituted baseball analysis. Dawson hit 49 homers but was just a 4-win player. Ozzie was clearly better, but Tony Gwynn and others were better still.
Commentary: Fifteen All-Star games and thirteen Gold Gloves highlight a career with no meaningful Black Ink and an 87 OPS+. But Ozzie was as good as he was because of defense. Those numbers made him one of nine shortstops ever with ten seasons at 4.5+ WAR, and one of eight with 15 seasons of 2.2+.Ozzie isn’t stereotyped like many of the others on these lists. That’s because unlike most of them, he was an all-time great at something. Most guys on this list are just good across the board. Ozzie was pretty bad at one thing and excellent at the rest.
5 WAR seasons: 5
1 WAR seasons: 17
Best year: If you’re looking for what seems to be an outlier of a year, it’s 1930 and 7.98 WAR for Gabby Hartnett. He hit 37 homers, 13 more than any other season. He drove in 122, 31 more than his second best. And he put up an incredible 1.034 OPS. Hartnett was a bit of a, well, catcher. He had several great years at the plate, but many of them were quite pedestrian. It’s hard to stay healthy wearing the tools of ignorance.
Commentary: Catchers don’t really fit on any list. Hartnett was awesome and clearly a Hall of Famer. He won the 1935 NL MVP, and he’s something like the eighth best catcher ever. By my numbers, no catcher had more 7-WAR years. Only one had more at 6-WAR, and two had more at 5-WAR. So called compilers at other positions are studs at catcher.
5 WAR seasons: 5
1 WAR seasons: 16
Best year: I like a power hitter who posts his best season when he hits the sixth most homers of his career. That’s exactly what Murray did in 1985. Leading the league in walks, OBP, and OPS+ suggests that good stuff will happen. And in 1984 good stuff happened for the 1977 AL Rookie of the Year and the guy who made his fifth of eight All-Star teams.
Commentary: Steady Eddie, yeah. By MAPES, he’s pretty much the same as Dick Allen, though they had very different shapes to their careers. Neither got along with the press, but somehow Allen took it on the chin a lot more than Murray. We have to respect the 500 homers and 3000 hits. However, he really didn’t have value in his last two years. As recently as 1996, 22 homers and 79 batted in obscured below replacement level value. Murray is a no-brainer because of the milestones, and that’s okay with me.
5 WAR seasons: 4
1 WAR seasons: 19
Best year: In his first full season of 1972, Fisk led the AL in triples, won his only Gold Glove, was an All-Star for the first eleven times, finished fourth in the MVP race, won the AL Rookie of the Year, and posted a career high 7.88 converted WAR.
Commentary: Fisk was a survivor. Only two catchers had more 4-WAR seasons. None had more above 3-WAR. We can all agree he was an all-time great. Lesser players don’t put up a 134 OPS+ at age 42. Of course, because he’s a catcher I don’t know about where he should really place on this list.
5 WAR seasons: 7
1 WAR seasons: 18
Best year: The game changed in the few years after 1993, a year I convert to 7.09 WAR for Palmeiro. He hit more homers eight times and drove in more runs seven, but 1993 was the best year of his career with 7.09 WAR. The reason isn’t just because of the offensive spike later in the decade. It’s also because the three-time Gold Glove winner had just about the best defensive year of his career, and he was 22/25 on the bases.
Commentary: We know why a guy with over 500 homers and 3000 hits is outside the Hall, right? It’s the finger wagging. It’s also that he was never really great. His career totals are a function of the era in which he played, and maybe other things. The guy is nearly a Jim Thome doppelganger though. And word is that he’s going to get in on his first try next year. Musial, Anson, Connor, and Rose are the only four at the position who put up 2+ WAR more times than Palmeiro did.
5 WAR seasons: 7
1 WAR seasons: 19
Best year: Do you remember the part of Molitor’s career when he was always hurt? Well, by his fifth season, 1982, he was finally healthy from April to and through October. He led the game in runs, hit .302, stole 41/50 bases, didn’t hurt the Brewers too much at third, and excelled in the post-season. All told, he was worth 6.49 WAR that year.
Commentary: Today we think of Molitor as a DH, and we should. He played there more than anywhere else, but he also had 400+ games at second and third. Rfield and DRA agree that he was a plus defender. Given that I don’t categorize players as designated hitters, just because the competition is pretty weak there on a career level, I put Molitor at third, where I rank him ninth overall, a shade ahead of Brooks Robinson. Looking at his profile, it’s pretty clear if we lopped off his Minnesota years where he “compiled” 530 hits, he wouldn’t be in the Hall today. With just 2789 hits and limited power, the voters might not have given him a second look. If we remove those years from his MAPES profile, the seven-time All-Star would still be HoME-bound, dropping to 14th place in between Graig Nettles and Deacon White. Overall, only Chipper Jones had more 2-WAR seasons among guys who I call third basemen. Nobody had more years at 3+, and only the big three of Schmidt, Mathews, and Brett had more at 4+.
5 WAR seasons: 4
1 WAR seasons: 18
Best year: In 1983 the 1978 AL Rookie of the Year made the first of five straight All-Star teams, won the first of three straight Gold Gloves, and had his best year with 6.80 adjusted WAR. With just a dozen home runs that year, Whitaker would post ten better seasons. He did set a career high in doubles, run the bases well, and play solid defense. It’s this strength across the board that was a Whitaker hallmark, and likely the reason he was overlooked by the BBWAA, receiving just 15 votes in 2001, the only time he was on the ballot.
Commentary: If you asked me who would top this list when I began this study, it would have been Sweet Lou. He so clearly belongs in the Hall of Fame if you think a Hall close to its present size is appropriate.
5 WAR seasons: 7
1 WAR seasons: 16
Best year: Hmm, Wahoo Sam never had an 8-win season. That’s not what I would have guessed. But in 1903 he did have his best season at 7.22 converted WAR. He only hit four homers after leading the league two years earlier, but his power came in the form of 25 triples. He also hit .335 with impressive defense.
Commentary: At this level, we’re looking at someone who pretty much everyone considers a Hall of Famer if they think about him at all. He hit .309 in his career with a 144 OPS+ and an all-time high 309 triples. It would be nice to have more baserunning data from Crawford’s era. BBREF considers him a plus baserunner for the only three years for which we have CS data, but they see him as a negative for his career. We might predict that someone with over 300 triples and a decent career doubles total is pretty fast and likely a strong runner. Maybe Crawford doesn’t truly belong on this list, and perhaps that’s why anyone you ask would call him a Hall of Famer.
5 WAR seasons: 8
1 WAR seasons: 17
Best year: At age-27, just when many think you hit your prime, Manny certainly hit his with 44 bombs and 165 batted in in just 147 games in 1999. He led the league in SLG, OPS, and OPS+ in addition to runs batted in, overall putting up 7.02 WAR.
Commentary: Very few people would ever have called Manny a compiler. And that’s because we too frequently use the word to describe players we don’t understand, those who are strong across the board rather than great at one thing. Well, Manny was great at one thing, hitting the baseball. The 11-time All-Star won a batting title, three OBP titles, three SLG titles, and three OPS titles. Add a homer crown, and RBI crown, and an OPS+ crown, and you have someone with a bunch of Black Ink. Yes, Manny could hit. He was a poor runner who grounded into a bunch of double plays. And he was a historically bad defender, though he was made to look worse by playing left field in Fenway. There are 50 players ever who had -10 runs as a defender, runner, and double play maker. Manny’s one. There are 20 at -15 in all three categories. Manny is still one. And just eight other players join Manny at -20 or worse across the board. Billy Butler and Victor Martinez are still active and basically just designated hitters. Aramis Ramirez almost certainly would have been one if he played in the American League. Mike Piazza was kind of famously well known for his defensive struggles. The only reason that Paul Konerko wasn’t a DH is that fellow chart member, Frank Thomas, had that role in Chicago. And then there’s Harmon Killebrew, a guy not in the Hall because his bat wasn’t strong enough to make up for the rest of the things he did poorly. Manny was an amazing hitter, someone called the best righty they’ve ever seen by a number of folks. But there were those PED suspensions. Plural. After Bonds and Clemens get into the Hall, we’re going to look at PED users differently, but I don’t know that we’ll get to the point that someone who failed multiple tests will be forgiven.
Thanks for checking out this series!
ERIC: They called him “The Fordham Flash” for a reason. He was fast and used that speed to take extra bases and swipe others. It gave him excellent range afield. He had a dollop of power, hit for a good average, was tough to strike out, drew enough walks to keep his OBP up, and played each game with intensity. The kind of guy that today’s sportswriters would swoon over. Like David Eckstein with lots more skill and ability.
ERIC: Bagwell was perhaps the player who best epitomized the shift in MLB from Charlie Lau’s hitting style to a more core-rotational centered approach. Lau wanted players to take an aggressive stride toward the pitcher, which allowed a batter to generate an effective weight shift from the back to the front foot. But if you watch Bagwell, he does something very different. He assumes a very wide, crouched stance with the front foot in the bucket. He lifts that foot, puts it down in line with his back foot, centering his weight rather than transferring it all to the front foot, and then uses the rotational force of his core muscles to generate tremendous force. Bagwell was merely the most extreme example of this technique, but Mark McGwire and to some extent Barry Bonds also used it. I’m no expert, but I strongly suspect that by not striding so much, a batter’s head would move less, helping him see the ball a split second longer, and he wouldn’t have to commit to the ball as quickly, giving him better control of the strike zone. Anyway, it added up to a hell of a lot of offensive production. He was the Johnny Mize of his times, only a little better.
MILLER: He reached double figures in homers eighteen times. No other catcher put up more than sixteen. Mike Piazza and Johnny Bench did so only thirteen times each, Gary Carter twelve.
MILLER: I have to say I’m surprised that he’s not on ESPN’s list. Smoltz is there, and I think conventional wisdom is that Glavine was the superior pitcher. Glavine won 300. Smoltz was relegated to the bullpen for a while post-injury. Perhaps the ESPN folks remember too much of Glavine’s stay in New York?
ERIC: The kind of player who gets lost in the shuffle. He had little power and drew lots of walks. In fact, he’s one of three Hall of Famers whose careers started in the live-ball era whose OBPs are higher than their SLGs (Rich Ashburn and Rick Ferrell are the others). He wasn’t flashy on the bases and played a solid but unspectacular shortstop. He never won an MVP. He was a nice guy who played on a team that never competed seriously for the AL flag during his tenure. He played during a time of deep star power at his position. But he did enough things well and well enough that he racked up impressive career value.
MILLER: Davis got lucky when he was inducted into the Hall in 1998. It could easily have been Jack Glasscock who’s at #72 or Bill Dahlen who’s further up our list. There’s so much right about Bill James book What Ever Happened to the Hall of Fame? Perhaps the most significant thing in it is the second word in its original title, The Politics of Glory. Folks who really understand the history of the game just need more political pull.
MILLER: I don’t know what it is about my personality, but I was happier for Piazza this summer than I was Griffey. Griffey was a better player, though not by as much as many think, but he was this sure thing to be inducted. Piazza had to wait, and he never should have. Last post in this series Eric wondered what it would have been like had the Mets drafted Reggie Jackson rather than Steve Chilcott. Well, what might have happened to Piazza if he weren’t drafted in the 62nd round, perhaps as a favor done by Tommy Lasorda to Piazza’s father?
ERIC: Playing in the deadball era, John Henry Lloyd was often described as “The Black Wagner.” It makes sense since both could really hit, and they were both big boned shortstops. As fielders they were both very good and known for shoveling up a whole mess of dirt as they fielded the ball. Lloyd was also known as “Shovel.” But these comparisons only go so far. Pop Lloyd was not as great a ballplayer as Hans Wagner, and that’s just fine because Honus is one of history’s most amazing ballplayers. Lloyd was merely amazing.
MILLER: There are going to be two chances between now and 2030 for Glasscock to claim his much-deserved Hall of Fame plaque. Smart folks believe Bill Dahlen deserves to go in 2020. I’d be satisfied with a 2030 Glasscock election.
ERIC: You’re very optimistic. But with rapid advances in the science of senescence we should be able to see him elected in 3030.
ERIC: The best centerfielder in MLB between Ty Cobb’s peak and Willie Mays was clearly Joe DiMaggio. But he was not the best centerfielder in baseball at that time. That was probably the Negro Leagues’ Oscar Charleston. This guy, Cristobal Torriente, is DiMaggio’s competition for the #2 slot. The amazing Negro Leagues Database at Seamheads.com shows Torriente as being one of the best players period in the Negro Leagues. Translating Negro League performance is an inexact science, and our placement of Torriente here reflects that inexactness. Still, in those Negro League seasons we have information on, Torriente was a monster. We have 4300 document plate appearances with a .344 average, a .430 OBP, and a .514 slugging percentage. That last figure might not seem impressive until you recall that the ball wasn’t as lively in the Negro Leagues as in the majors, and that Torriente played several years in the deadall era. It was good for a 183 OPS+, which is 6th among all Negro Leaguers we have data for. If you think the Negro Leagues were as good in relation to the majors as AAA is today to MLB, knock 20% off there, and you get a 165 OPS+. Which is about 10 points higher than Joe D’s. Of course reality is not that simple, but it gives you an idea that Torriente was the real deal. He had a good glove, stole a lot of bases, hit like the dickens, and even tossed 374 innings (in some seasons pitched pretty well too). Torriente’s .439 wOBA is 10th all-time among Negro Leaguers in seasons we have data for, and the only person ahead of him whose career started during the deadball era was Oscar Charleston. He was a force.
ERIC: Roy Campanella is a big stretch. If they are counting his Negro League play, maybe it’s not, but he’s got a very short career with some really bad seasons mixed into it. I’m also not wild about Dave Winfield appearing on this list at all. I, personally, see him as not too far above the borderline and certainly not one of the top ten right fielders of all time. He was a poor fielder, dragging down his overall value, despite some Gold Gloves. Cool Papa Bell is generally a favorite among Negro Leaguers, but there’s not much info at the Negro Leagues Database to suggest that his reputation was entirely earned. This feels like a fame selection and not one based on real information.
MILLER: Wait, their list is about fame and not skill? Impossible!
ERIC: And don’t even get me started on the absurdity of Ortiz’s ranking….
We knew 1999 was going to be a crowded election, and it certainly was. There were no surprises like exhuming Roy Campanella or finally voting in Red Faber. There was no retribution by putting in Bert Blyleven and Willie Randolph as soon as they became eligible. Rather, 1999 was a pretty straight-forward ballot, albeit with not so clear results. Not that it matters. Once mentioned on both ballots, a player is inducted. And this election George Brett, Carlton Fisk, Nolan Ryan, and Robin Yount got their tickets punched.
Our four first-ballot honorees bring us to 162 of the greatest players in the game’s history now lining the corridors of the Hall of Miller and Eric. We still have 50 more to elect through our 2014 election, which means barely over 32% of the remaining players still up for discussion will eventually find spots in the HoME.
Let’s look at how we voted in 1999
Miller Eric 1 George Brett George Brett 2 Nolan Ryan Carlton Fisk 3 Carlton Fisk Robin Yount 4 Robin Yount Nolan Ryan 5 Whitey Ford Dave Bancroft 6 Don Sutton
George Brett: Mr. Royal. That’s how Brett should be known. A Royal from 1973-1993 and an All-Star from 1976-1988, Brett was the 1980 AL MVP and triple slash triple crown winner. He won three batting titles, three SLG titles, three hits titles, three triples titles, a pair of doubles titles, and has the most hits ever by a 3B. His three batting titles came in different decades, making him the only player ever to accomplish that feat. Known for both the pine tar incident and for hitting three home runs in an ALCS loss, Brett is also correctly known as one of the best 3B ever to play. He played like an MVP four times. And he was a four-win player on a dozen occasions. From 1960-1995, only Rickey and Yaz produced more value in the AL among hitters. And in the history of the American League, it’s George Brett and Wade Boggs at the top of the 3B heap. Nobody else is really close.
Carlton Fisk: Pudge’s close association with the ethos of both the Red Sox and the White Sox speaks volumes about his staying power, and maybe his drawing power too. He’ll always be remembered for his 1975 Game 6 walk-off. But he was so much more than that. He was the 1972 Rookie of the Year and an eleven-time All-Star. At the time of his retirement, he was the all-time leader in both games caught (Pudge Rodriguez) and home runs by a catcher (Mike Piazza). And to this day, has produced more value than any other catcher in American League history – clearly one of the game’s best 10 catchers ever. With Miller’s adjusted numbers, Fisk is tied with Johnny Bench for the most 4-win seasons ever by a catcher (13) and with Pudge Rodriguez for the most 2-win seasons ever (17). He alone leads the pack with 16 3-win seasons.
Nolan Ryan: There’s not a lot that can be said about Nolan Ryan that hasn’t been covered before, so we’ll just repeat a lot of the same stuff here. He owns the all-time strikeout mark, the single season strikeout mark, and led the league in whiffs a mind-boggling eleven times. He pitched a record seven no-hitters and is tied with Bob Feller with a dozen one-hitters. He twice won 20 games, twice won ERA titles, and was an All-Star eight times. With Ryan’s stuff, it might seem like he should be the best pitcher ever. But Nolan didn’t always know where that stuff was going, which is one of the things that makes him one of the game’s most overrated. He’s the all-time leader in walks and led his league in that category eight times. Then again, he pitched like an All-Star seven times, but what was really so impressive about him was his durability. He’s one of only 18 pitchers with 16+ 2-WAR seasons and is probably one of the 30 best hurlers ever.
Robin Yount: Yount reached the majors at age-18 with the 1974 Brewers when he began an outstanding 20-year career in Milwaukee during which he won two MVP Awards and totaled over 3000 hits. He was the best shortstop in baseball for a decade or so until he transitioned to the outfield and Cal Ripken took his place. Then he was highly productive in the pastures too. Yount made only three All-Star teams during his career, but he played at that level six years. His 1982 season was one for the ages. He totaled over 10 WAR and led the AL in hits, doubles, and slugging. He was then very productive in the World Series, putting up a line of .414/.452/.621 despite his team losing in seven games. Yount made it to the Hall on his first ballot, and he makes it to the HoME on his first ballot as well.
When a player gets a vote from one of us but not the other, we discuss here.
Whitey Ford: Even though Ford is considerably less great than is reputation, he’s above the pitching line for me. With more than half of his post-season Game Scores at 60+, he was very good when it mattered most.
Don Sutton: Among pitching arms, he’s #30 in all-time value. That’s enough for me.
Dave Bancroft: A fine defender with enough of a bat to have several outstanding seasons. A good comp for near-contemporary HoMEr Joe Sewell in terms of his value and its distribution with a slightly more peak-oriented feel.
Thanks for checking out our 1999 election. Please visit our Honorees page to see the plaques of those elected and to see plenty more information about the HoME.
Our 1999 ballot boasts four slam-dunk newcomers: George Brett, Carlton Fisk, Nolan Ryan, and Robin Yount. That’s an awfully deep ballot. Where is it among our greatest classes of newbies ever? I decided to have a look.
First off, I wanted to know if any other group boasted four newcomers of this caliber. Since seasons were a lot shorter back in the day, I’m using my own Wins Above Replacement, which adjusts BBREF’s for schedule among other stuff. Each of those 1999 first-timers I just mentioned earned at least 70 Wins in my system. Two other ballots did match up:
The 1999ers racked up 315 Wins, but they were outgunned by both these other seasons. The 1989ers were worth 333 Wins and the 2014ers an impressive 341.
But maybe using a floor of 70 WAR was too restrictive? It’s an arbitrary end point. So I simply figured the combined total of the top four new candidates on each ballot, provided each of the top four, like 1999, were of HoME caliber. 1999 finished surprisingly low:
Eleventh in history isn’t bad, but 2013 and 1934 are simply amazing.
Sometimes success and failure aren’t determined by your best players but by your worst. I looked this time at everyone with 50 or more Wins in a first-year class and summed it up.
Frank Tanana is the only other 50+ WAR guy on the 1999 ballot, which ain’t enough. 2013 adds Lofton, Biggio, Sosa, and Boomer Wells. 2014 tacks on Kent, Kenny Rogers, and Luis Gonzalez. Other years, like 2010 (Larkin, Alomar, Edgar Martinez, Appier, Ventura, and McGriff) leapfrog 1999.
So 1999 is pretty clearly the eleventh best group of ballot rookies out there, and 2013 is easily the best ever. If we want to grant that with more players in the expansion era 2013 has an advantage over the 16-team-league years, then 1934 might be a strong alternative.
Brett, Fisk, and Yount. That’s three amazing hitters to appear at once. How historic was this occurrence? Turns out that 1999 is one of only four years where three newbies gained eligibility who each had 75+ WAR (in my system):
Lower the threshold to 65 Wins, however, and here comes 2013 again at 364 with Bonds, Piazza, Lofton and Biggio. Only 1951 (adding Bob Johnson) gets close with 319 WAR.
This line of inquiry naturally led to the same question about pitchers. The list is even shorter. Two seasons can boast three pitching newbies with 70+ Wins:
Even dropping the lower bound to 50 only produces one more trio, but Clemens and Schilling get paired with David Wells who [SPOILER ALERT!!!] is probably not a HoMEr in the making. And anyway, 2014 would add Kenny Rogers to the party. But not Dolly.
No matter how I slice it, 1999 can’t claim besthood. That’s OK. We’re always grateful for a fistful of no-brainers. Especially as we wrassle with the backlog and try to figure out who gets which of the precious few slots we’ll have left at the end.
Congratulations to our second class of inductees, Cap Anson, Roger Connor, and Dan Brouthers for gaining entrance to the Hall of Miller and Eric on our 1906 ballot. The HoME is now populated with six of the greatest players in the game’s history.
Per our rules, all three had to be named on both ballots for induction. Let’s look to see how we voted.
|Cap Anson||Cap Anson|
|Roger Connor||Roger Connor|
|Dan Brouthers||Dan Brouthers|
Here’s a brief rationale from each voter for each player.
Cap Anson: To this point, he’s the best player in baseball history.
Roger Connor: At his best, he was great. When he wasn’t his best, he was still very good. He had a very nice peak and a very nice career. Connor is an easy inductee into the HoME
Dan Brouthers: He might be the best power hitter of the 19th century. And he’s another easy call.
Cap Anson: Best player we’ve seen so far.
Roger Connor: Second best player we’ve seen so far, by a nose over Brouthers.
Dan Brouthers: Third best player we’ve seen so far.
Buck Ewing: Tremendous defense adding to good offensive profile at tough position.
George Wright: Best player before the NA, probably second best player from 1871-1879, maybe the best depending on how one sees Barnes.
King Kelly: The bad-defense and shorter-career version of Ewing. $10,000 sale reflects his performance and popularity. Strong peak/prime performer, would have been higher but for inability to keep it together after age 33.
Paul Hines: Best centerfielder of the pro-game’s first 15 years. Strong similarity to already-enshrined Deacon White in peak, prime, and career value.
Ross Barnes: Most dominant player of the 1870s by far. Among handful to lead league in WAR 5 times. Was still average after illness/injury that ultimately forced him from game. Probably best 2B before Nap Lajoie/Eddie Collins.
Charlie Bennett: He’s the Carlton Fisk to Buck Ewing’s Johnny Bench in the 1880s. Oddly enough his playing style is kind of like Thurman Munson with an even better glove. Munson is a borderliner, this guy is easily over the line for catchers.
Please visit our Honorees page to see their plaques and to see more information about the HoME and those who have been elected.