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Cy Young

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Election Results: Negro Leagues #7

Anything you say, Mr. Williams, just don’t throw the ball at my head, please.

For those following our elections so far, we arrive at the fifth of the five men whom we couldn’t logically disentangle from one another. As more information flows into the Negro Leagues Database, more daylight may appear between these fellows. Or maybe another one or two players may join the melee. Right now however, the fifth man isn’t shrouded in the fog of mystery but rather in smoke. Congratulations to Smokey Joe Williams!

We’ve written before that Dick Redding is to Pete Alexander as Williams is to Walter Johnson. We’ve also written that Williams is to Alexander as Johnson is to Paige. Yet another analogy could be Williams:Cy Young::Paige:Johnson. Why does this analogy work well?

Like Young viz Johnson Williams came before Paige by about 20 years

Like Young viz Johnson, Williams was more of an iron man than even the redoubtable Paige

Like Young viz Johnson, the argument for which was the superior pitcher hinges on the latter-day pitcher’s per-game performance versus the earlier-day pitcher’s sheer number of innings.

The differences between Williams’ bulk and Paige’s don’t rise to the nearly absurd level of Young’s 7356 innings versus Johnson’s 5914, but it’s the same argument writ smaller. And like the MLB version of the argument, much depends upon how you treat the usage patterns of the day. In both cases, there’s good reason to choose Young or Williams and, in our opinion, better reason to choose Johnson or Paige.

But let’s not play the comparison game because we’re talking today about Williams, not about Paige. At 6’3″ Williams stood very tall for his day. Remember this is before the government started subsidizing the meat industry. The big, lanky righty (190 pounds) threw a full repertoire but his bread-and-butter pitch was, of course, his heater. Thus Smokey. Thus his other nickname Cyclone. Oh hey, that’s Denton True Young’s nickname too!

Williams pitched at the highest levels from 1907 to 1932. So far in the evolution of the Negro Leagues database, he’s chalked up more wins (138) and punch outs (1,342) than any other Negro Leagues pitcher. He’s third in innings and and starts and complete games, plus fifth in shutouts and ERA+. None of the other pitchers above him in ERA+ (including Satchel) come within 500 innings of Williams. Just as important to note, we don’t have full detail on all of Williams’ seasons, especially in the 1920s, so there’s more to learn about him.

In other words, he earned his nicknames and then some on the mound. Don’t forget also that he had a very potent bat and pulled down a lot of value with the stick. So much so that he often played the outfield. All of this adds up to why he’s part of this gang of five that we couldn’t unknot.

Next week, we’ll start electing from the next group of greats so stay tuned!

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The Best 300 Pitchers Ever

Today, we share what I thought would be the last post in this series (more on that at the bottom), the men on the mound. I’m perfectly aware that critics might say that Eric and I participate in a certain level of groupthink (if two can be a group). I’m aware of this because we talked about it a few years ago, not because an accusation was made, but because we don’t want to fall into a problematic pattern. Anyway, we thought it was possible. We also thought that correct people agree all the time, and that we just might be correct about a lot of our positions.

We addressed the narrow areas where we disagree, and we’re satisfied with where we stand, at least satisfied enough. To be honest, there are almost no real differences when it comes to position players. Our lists are, essentially, the same. On the mound, things are a little different though. Eric favors recent pitchers more than I do, adjusting their innings up to make them look more like pitchers from around 2000. Further, he is tough on 19th century pitchers. Or maybe I’m easy on them. Once he adjusts pitchers for innings, he reduces the value between replacement and average. He explains that if, say, Jim McCormick has 12 WAR and 7 WAA in 450 innings, he would reduce the five wins below average (those that move him from 7 WAA to 12 WAR) by about half. That would make McCormick’s season worth 9.5 WAR rather than 12. He wants to avoid penalizing performance that’s above average and instead reduce the value of the bulk innings.

While I don’t support the inning adjustment, reducing the value of bulk innings when those innings make up a huge percentage of a team’s innings seems to make sense. With that in mind, and acknowledging that these ratings for me are always a work in progress, I have begun to incorporate a WAA factor into my pitcher numbers. I’ll spare you the details for now, both because I lack faith in the soundness of my decision, and because I think it’s an intermediate step toward a system that a bit more closely resembles Eric’s. I’ll have more on that in an updated MAPES+ post when things become more permanent.

In any case, the thing that matters to you is that the difference in our systems will cause some large differences in the rankings. Today’s pitchers look a bit better for Eric, while those of over a century ago look better, and in some cases waaaaay better, for me. I think I have some adjustments to make. We’ll see.

One other small difference. At almost all positions, Eric and I have charted exactly the same players. For whatever reason though, I’ve charted about 100 more pitchers. Some of those guys he hasn’t charted make it into my 300.

If you want to know more about our systems or about our rankings of position players, check out these links. Otherwise, just take a look at our top-300 lists on the mound.

[CHEWS+], [MAPES+], [Catcher], [First Base], [Second Base], [Third Base], [Shortstop], [Left Field], [Center Field], [Right Field]

1. Pitcher

When I started this project, I was pretty confident that this would be the last post in the series. Then something happened with a certain Era Committee election, and it turns out I have to rank the best designated hitters ever too. They’ll be up a week from today.

Miller

All-Time HoME Leaders, Pitcher – 1-20

Relief pitching is valuable. Relief pitchers, no so much.

Strange way to begin a post about the best pitchers of all-time since clearly none of the top-20 are relievers. But I’m reminding you of this maxim both to preview our six pitching posts (we’ll get through the top-120) and to make a point.

Eric and I have some fundamental differences on how we rank pitchers. Eric applies a correction, essentially, for what he calls the Schoenfield Paradox. Named for ESPN writer David Schoenfield, the Schoenfield Paradox is the idea that it’s easier to stand out from your peers when there are fewer great players in the league. By reading Schoenfield’s post and then Eric’s, you’ll understand my point much more clearly. I’ll wait.

Okay then. Let me generalize a bit. Eric and I look at the old timey pitchers differently. He sees guys who didn’t outperform their peers by an incredible amount. And he’s right. What I see is hurlers who pitched a larger percentage of their team’s innings than at any other time in history. Those innings have value – in the same way that the lack of innings for closers mean they don’t have much value.

I might run into trouble in ten or twenty years when we go to elect pitchers of today’s era. Will they have enough innings to accumulate the value needed to get into the HoME? I fear they won’t. Luckily, there’s a lot of time to debate and learn until then.

Enjoy the six pitcher posts in the series! And check out all of our rankings below.

[MAPES+], [CHEWS+], [1B, 1-20], [1B, 21-40], [2B, 1-20], [2B, 21-40], [3B, 1-20], [3B, 21-40], [SS, 1-20], [SS, 21-40], [C, 1-20], [C, 21-40], [LF, 1-20], [LF, 21-40], [CF, 1-20], [CF, 21-40], [RF, 1-20], [RF, 21-40]

Pitcher – 1-20

P, 1-20

Why are there no active pitchers in the top-20?

There are two reasons. First, given that there are so many more pitchers than players at any other position on the diamond, it’s harder to reach the top-20. Second, Clayton Kershaw just turned 30 (and is injured frequently enough that he may never make it).—Miller

Kershaw is in the low thirties in my rankings. He’s the highest active or recently retired pitcher on this list. Pitchers just don’t throw many innings, something like ten to thirty percent fewer than the generation that included Clemens, Maddux, and Glavine. That’s it in a nutshell. But let’s poke at this a sec.

This year, Kevin Cash made the theoretical leap. He started Sergio Romo to get through the first inning or two and then turned it over to…a starting pitcher who would go twice through the lineup and would, in turn, hand it over to the late-inning relievers. This is an utterly brilliant tactic. The first inning is the highest scoring, the only inning where the offense gets to determine its sequence of hitters and stack their best bats at the top of the lineup. Combine that with the fact that most pitchers get creamed their third time through the batting order, and it’s a readymade bullpen situation. That is, if a team is willing to see the tactical opportunity and think outside the traditional starter/reliever box. My golly who would get the win???

But in terms of the question at hand, that theoretical leap may be the beginning of the end of the normative model of starting pitching. We have arrived at a point where there are three kinds of pitchers: Excellent starters who can get through a lineup three times; pitchers who can get through it twice most days; and relievers. Well, the second group is why relief pitching in the first inning is a great idea. Depending on a team’s depth, anyone from your number two starter through your number five will fall into that second group. Most relievers are fungible. So that just leaves our excellent starters. Maybe they number thirty or forty? Then again, with injuries and attrition how can you know? But they are fast becoming the focus guys on a pitching staff. Not just the best pitchers on the staff, but ones who need to go seven innings to keep the bullpen from getting too worn out. With thirteen-man staffs, this model may work with lots of roster manipulation to get fresh arms into the backend of the bullpen. But it will place an awful lot of pressure on the top-end starter, and, I suspect lead to much higher season-to-season variance in team performance.

Or I could be completely wrong about this….—Eric

Where do our rankings diverge the most from the conventional wisdom?

Nolan Ryan and Sandy Koufax. More on them later.—Eric

I’ve talked about Rick Reuschel possibly being the most underrated player in baseball history. What about Phil Niekro? It’s hard to think of someone in the Hall of Fame as underrated, but Niekro is for a ton of reasons. He threw a gimmick pitch. He played for terrible teams. He wasn’t good as a young player. He led the league in losses four years in a row when people really cared about losses. And he pitched during the glory days of National League pitching. But do you know who had the most pitching war in all of baseball for the 69 years from 1929-1997? Well, that, my friends, was Tom Seaver. Yeah, Seaver was better than Niekro. But nobody else was. Yes, my start and end points are artificial. Add 1928, and Lefty Grove was better too. Add 1998, and you have Roger Clemens ahead of Niekro. Still, think about this for a second, Phil Niekro had the second most pitching WAR in the game for 69 years. It doesn’t matter that I’m manipulating the start and end dates. That stat is amazing.—Miller

Where do we disagree with one another the most?

Not in the top-20 since we have the exact same 20 guys, but the disagreements are coming.—Miller

As noted by Miller above, the biggest disagreement we have lies in our disposition toward older pitchers. I have never felt comfortable comparing contemporary pitchers to those from times when 300 innings were either a partial season, the norm, the norm for a quality pitcher, or a total achieved by the very best pitchers. The last time someone threw 300 innings in MLB, Barry Bonds was in high school, Anwar Sadat was alive, the White House still had solar panels, and the most a wristwatch could do was multiply and divide. No pitcher since the 1980s has thrown 280 innings. The last time someone rung up even 250 innings was in 2011 (Justin Verlander, 251). Nary a pitcher has reached 240 since 2014 when David Price and Johnny Cueto turned the trick.

On the other side of the coin, in 1884, Pud Galvin established the never-to-be-broken record of 20.5 WAR in a single season. Tossing 636 innings helps. 20.5 pitching WAR is about three times what our best pitchers this year will earn. Pitchers across history have racked up “just” ten WAR 118 times. Only 51 of those season came after 1901. Only twenty of them came after integration. Only nine since the adoption of the DH. Only four since 2000. Just one since 2002. In my mind, comparing Zack Grienke’s 10.4 WAR in 2009 to the 10.5 that Jim McCormick picked up in 1880 does not compute. A supermajorty of Grienke’s value in 2009 was marginal: 8.3 WAA and 10.4 WAR. Less than 50% of McCormick’s value lay above average.

My solution is to retain pitchers’ value above average and debit their value between replacement and average to resemble contemporary pitchers. It is not, shall we say, theoretically sound, but it produces reasonable results that I can comprehend. And, as we’ll see soon, it pushes Miller and I apart on several important candidates.—Eric

Just to be clear here, in my opinion, there’s nothing at all wrong with Eric’s direction (nor mine, I hope).—Miller

Are there any players who MAPES+/CHEWS+ might overrate or underrate? 

Having just explained a bit about how I look at pitchers, yes, my method may insert some instability into the system. Especially because I use a rate-based component to dole out bonuses. This probably puts two groups to the advantage. Modern starters whose value is more concentrated into fewer innings may benefit a bit. So too might the olde tyme guys. Even though I adjust their innings, I keep so much of their WAA that they get a little boost by the change in the resultant change in denominator.—Eric

Bias is a funny thing. I really want to find an angle to show that Phil Niekro isn’t one of the 13-14 best pitchers ever. Maybe he isn’t. I think, for example, if we needed just one start from a pitcher of the era, most would take Steve Carlton over Niekro. Also, Knucksie’s lack of October experience could drop him behind a guy or three. But man, it’s a sad commentary when I want to trust my gut more than my system. It’s also possible we overrate Gaylord Perry some. As just the fifth best pitcher of his era, perhaps he’s not the 18th or 19th best ever. Is Pedro Martinez, the fourth best pitcher of his era, the 9th or 12th best ever? And where would Clemens have been if his game weren’t chemically enhanced for its last 43% (just my entirely unsubstantiated opinion and that of a hater)?

***

Stop by a week from today for pitchers 21-40.

Addie Joss and the Best Pitchers of the 1900s

Addie Joss, 1909Addie 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.

The Series

Explanation and 1870s, 1880s, 1890s

The Best Pitchers of the 1900s

#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.

Rube Waddell, 1911#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.

Miller

Clark Griffith and the Best Pitchers of the 1890s

Clark Griffith, 1911If 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.

The Series

Explanation and 1870s, 1880s

The Best Pitchers of the 1890s

#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.

Amos Rusie, 2013#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

Miller

The HoME’s Inner Circle

Jim Palmer, 1967Not too long ago I read a tweet calling Jim Palmer an inner circle Hall of Famer. I immediately recoiled. Then I did what any stats guy or gal would do. I got out my spreadsheet.

What I found is Palmer’s name next to the number 31 among hurlers. When I last checked with Eric, he had Palmer 35th. And by JAWS, he’s 37th. I was satisfied; I felt my initial reaction was pretty much justified. But then I thought some more and realized that if I’m going to take pride in what I thought was a correct reaction, I’d better have an answer to who belongs in the inner circle.

So let’s think about the HoME. As of today, we’ve inducted 220 players. How many of those players do we think should be in the inner circle? Through the magic of BBREF, I know that there have been approximately 19,100 players in major league history. That means one out of 86 or 87 players ever is in the HoME. If we took the same percentage as the inner circle, we’d be looking at three guys, maybe Babe Ruth, Willie Mays, and Walter Johnson. Maybe. But three guys don’t form a good circle.

Let’s reconsider. If, for example, we consider only hitters who had extensive careers, perhaps we put the mark at 5,000 plate appearances. Then we may have something. There are just shy of 1,000 hitters at that level, and there are about 160 hitters in the HoME. So about 16% of all players with what I’m calling extensive careers are in the HoME. And if we take 16% of the players in the HoME, we have 35 players in the HoME’s inner circle. That would be 9-10 pitchers and 25-26 hitters. And that seems reasonable enough.

So by my fictional and unofficial standard, here’s the inner circle of the Hall of Miller and Eric, or at least a reasonable facsimile thereof.

C: Johnny Bench
1B: Stan Musial, Lou Gehrig, Cap Anson, Jimmie Foxx, Roger Connor
2B: Rogers Hornsby, Eddie Collins, Nap Lajoie, Joe Morgan
3B: Mike Schmidt, Eddie Mathews
SS: Honus Wagner
LF: Barry Bonds, Ted Williams, Rickey Henderson
CF: Willie Mays, Ty Cobb, Tris Speaker, Mickey Mantle
RF: Babe Ruth, Hank Aaron, Mel Ott, Frank Robinson, Roberto Clemente
P: Walter Johnson, Cy Young, Roger Clemens, Pete Alexander, Kid Nichols, Tom Seaver, Christy Mathewson, Lefty Grove, Greg Maddux, Randy Johnson

Issues:

  • Coming up soon will be Alex Rodriguez and Albert Pujols, probably in place of Roger Connor and Joe Morgan.
  • I’m not so comfortable that there’s only one catcher, and I’m not at all confident that he’s the best ever. I really like Buck Ewing and Gary Carter. Maybe I should have one of them over Connor. But what would have happened when A-Rod came up? And Pujols?
  • What happens when Mariano is eligible? It’s possible I could add him over Gibson if Gibson made the list. Or could I? Even though I’m a shill for Mo and always will be, I can’t take him over Johnson.
  • I considered both Jack Glasscock and Bill Dahlen. In the end, I decided that guys not even in the Hall couldn’t be part of the HoME’s inner circle. Neither is a slam dunk, and A-Rod will be SS #2 in a few years anyway.
  • Oh, and Jim Palmer isn’t close to any reasonable inner circle.

Do you think my inner circle is too large? Too small? Missing someone? Please let me know in the comments.

Miller

 

Mount Rushmore, Cleveland Indians

Nap Lajoie, 1906Because they came so close but didn’t pull through last season, the 1948 and 1920 champs have the longest current drought in the game. Known as the Blues in 1901, the Bronchos in 1902, and the Naps from 1903 through 1914, the Indians are the only team, I believe, whose Rushmore all played the same position. And much to my surprise, they’re the third best team in AL history in winning percentage.

Guys It’s Not

By WAR, the greatest Indian ever is Nap Lajoie. However, he played parts of eight years with AL and NL Philadelphia clubs. Second on the Indian list is Red Sox great Tris Speaker. And fourth is another who played for the Red Sox, Lou Boudreau. Stan Coveleski is fifth on the Indian list, but he played for the A’s, Sens, and Yanks. Kenny Lofton and Jim Thome also put up great numbers while in Cleveland, but they both played everywhere. Earl Averill held on with the Tigers and Braves, and Joe Sewell was a Yankee for three years.

Al Rosen, 1951Al Rosen is the best hitter in Indian history never to play elsewhere, posting 32.6 WAR over seven full seasons before retiring because of issues with his back and legs. He’s 23rd in Indian history in WAR, but that’s not enough. There were four Cleveland pitchers who topped him, making them the only team without a hitter on their Rushmore.

Indian Mount Rushmore

Bob Feller: Rapid Robert was a hit after joining the Indians at age 17 in 1936. If we replace the three seasons and the one partial season he missed due to WWII with the average of the two years before and the two full years after he left, he moves from 63.6 WAR to an insane 84.4 WAR. That would move him from a tie for 144th with Richie Ashburn and Billy Williams to 53rd, just ahead of Pedro Martinez and Ken Griffey. I’m not saying this would have happened, just giving an idea about what might have been.

Bob Lemon, 1951Bob Lemon: With 48.8 WAR, Lemon is the sixth best Indian ever. Of course, less than 77% of Lemon’s value was on the mound. He was truly an excellent hitter, adding 0.6 WAR to 1.9 WAR every year from 1947-1956 at the plate. From 1948-1950 he averaged six homers and 22 ribbies with a .334 OBP. With just pitching value, there are only two years when he threw like an All-Star. He’s in the Hall, which is quite a surprise given that Hall voters must look at pitcher offense less than I do, and Lemon is only 117th all-time among pitchers, right between Frank Viola and Ron Guidry.

Mel Harder: Eleventh on the all-time Indian WAR chart, Harder was a better pitcher than Lemon, putting up 47.9 WAR on the mound but giving back 4.2 at the dish, for 43.7 total WAR. During his 1932-1935 peak, he trailed only Carl Hubbell and Dizzy Dean in WAR among hurlers. Expanding things to 1939, and only Lefty Grove also gets past him. We’re looking at a star here.

Addie Joss, 1911Addie Joss: With similar star power to Harder, Joss nevertheless is in the Hall. Tied with him on the Indian WAR list with 43.7, Joss and his 160 wins are in the Hall due to a 1.89 career ERA. Even though he played only nine seasons, the 1977 Board of Directors passes a special resolution to waive the ten-year rule for him. There was no good reason for that decision. BBREF neutralizes Joss’ career ERA at 2.88, still a fine number, but c’mon. Imagine 170 wins and a 2.88 ERA in the last fifty years. Such a pitcher would have no chance at the Hall. If he pitched in the run environment of, say, 2004, his ERA would be 3.75. Kevin Brown pitched around that time. He finished with 211 wins and a 3.28 ERA, and he hasn’t sniffed the inside of Cooperstown.

My Indian Rushmore

Bob Feller

Nap Lajoie: Yes, he had a significant enough career with the A’s, but he’s Cleveland’s all-time leader in WAR, and he had nine of his ten best years by WAR with the Indians.

Lou Boudreau: I’m not going to hold his short period of time in Boston against him. Speaker played in Boston too, but he had quite a significant career there. Each of Boudreau’s ten best seasons were with Cleveland.

Kenny Lofton: I’m skipping a couple of guys on Cleveland’s all-time WAR list to get to him, namely Stan Coveleski and Bob Lemon. My favorite Lofton memory is how he ran the bases like a brilliant madman in the 1995 playoffs, tripling twice and stealing 11 bases in the ALCS and WS.

Tune in next week for a look at the Cincinnati Reds.

Miller

Mount Rushmore, Boston Red Sox

2005 Red SoxMy team, the Red Sox, were the inspiration for this project, this week in our third installment. I wanted to find a way to etch four faces, none of them being Roger Clemens’. And we’ve done that with this project, requiring that only players who spent their entire careers with the Red Sox can grace the mountain. Boston has had an AL franchise since the league began in 1901, though they were known as the Boston Americans for the first seven years. Let’s see who will represent the 8-time champs and owners of the second best record in AL history.

Guys It’s Not

Well, clearly Roger Clemens and Wade Boggs left Boston. They’re third and fourth in Red Sox WAR. Other greats, Cy Young and Tris Speaker, had extensive careers with different Cleveland franchises. At age-39 Dwight Evans had a decent bat for a season in Baltimore, and David Ortiz spent parts of six seasons in Minnesota before they made the mistake of dumping him. Pedro won a Cy Young Award in his final season in Montreal and a K/BB title in his first year as a Met.

Jim Rice, 1976It’s also not Jim Rice (47.4 WAR) or Rico Petrocelli (39.1 WAR), two all-time great Red Sox who have been bested by four others for status among all-time great solo Sox.

Red Sox Mount Rushmore

Ted Williams: The Kid won a dozen OBP titles and might have had his two greatest seasons immediately before and immediately after he returned from the service. If we give him the average of the two years before he left and the two after he returned for the three years he was away, his 123.1 WAR would turn into 154.6. He’d move from 14th in history to 6th, topped by only Ruth, Cy, the Big Train, Bonds, and Mays. If we do the same for the time he missed for Korea, he’d be up to 165.2 WAR, passing Mays and Bonds, and within a hair of Walter Johnson.

Carl Yastrzemski, 1968Carl Yastrzemski: We know that Yaz won the triple crown in 1967 putting up an insane 12.4 WAR. What we don’t think of is his 1968 season when he totaled 10.5 WAR, yet finished just ninth in MVP voting, behind two guys with less than half of his value, Frank Howard and teammate Hawk Harrelson. Excluding Ruth, Bonds, Mantle, Mays, and Williams, only ten hitter seasons ever top Yaz in 1968, his second best campaign. He finished with 96.1 career WAR.

Dustin Pedroia: Just this season, Laser Show has moved into the top-10 in Red Sox WAR. At age-32 and signed through 2021, he feels like someone who will end his career in Boston. He seems sure to pass Papi, Pedro, and Speaker on the Sox list. Whether or not he can move further up will have everything to do with health. The same goes for his HoME case. The Hall will like the MVP, Rookie of the Year, and rings in 2007 and 2013. But second base is a stacked position. Robinson Cano is better. Chase Utley will look better upon retirement. And it’s not unlikely Ian Kinsler will too. Jose Altuve’s story is still to be told. It’s going to be fascinating to see how the next three seasons play out for Pedroia.

Bobby Doerr, 1939Bobby Doerr: Helping to make Pedroia’s Hall case is Doerr. He’s also a Red Sox second baseman, he’s in the Hall, and Pedroia passed him in career WAR this season. In addition to his Hall credential, Doerr is just barely in the HoME. He wasn’t until Retrosheet published more data to show that his double play proclivity wasn’t as bad as we thought. Once we saw the update, it made his career numbers look better than they had before more detail was uncovered. As of now, Doerr is 24th on my second base list. Pedroia is 31st, passing Lonny Frey this season. It’ll be interesting to see if Pedroia can top the nine-time All-Star and 1946 World Series star when it’s all said and done.

My Red Sox Rushmore

Ted Williams

Carl Yastrzemski

Pedro Martinez: Those who are about my age can appreciate that we live in lucky baseball times. We got to watch Roger Clemens, Greg Maddux, Randy Johnson, Mariano Rivera, Roy Halladay, and Clayton Kershaw at their best. For me, Pedro tops them all. One of my favorite Pedro stats is that from 1998-2003, Pedro’s first six years in Boston, he posted a 2.26 ERA while the rest of the AL sat at 4.65, more than double Pedro’s number.

Dave Roberts: Yes, he played only 45 regular season games in Boston and totaled only 0.3 WAR. Yes, I know he doesn’t belong here. But in the 2004 ALCS with the Red Sox trailing the Yankees 3-0 in the series and 4-3 in the game, with Mariano Rivera on the mound in the bottom of the ninth inning, Roberts pinch ran for Kevin Millar after a walk, stole second, and scored. If he didn’t steal that base, maybe, just maybe, it would have all been different. That game changed my life and the lives of many Red Sox fans. And it’s my Rushmore. I can be a little jealous.

Next week, we look at the Boston, Milwaukee, and Atlanta Braves.

Miller

The HoME 100: #10–1

We’re here, we’re finally here, the ten best players who have ever played the game, as compiles by the Hall of Miller and Eric. If you haven’t seen the first nine editions of our thoughts compared to those of ESPN, check them out: #100–91, #90–81, #80–71, #7061, #60-51, #50-41, #40-31, #30-21, and #20-11.

We hope you enjoy the top-10 as much as we enjoyed this project.

#10–1

10.Ted Williams (ESPN Rank: 4)

ERIC: One must assume that in ranking Williams fourth, ESPN has exercised some imagination. Simply look at Barry Bonds’ number compared to Williams. Same position after all, and Bonds spanks The Splendid Splinter overall. That’s true if you’re talking about WAR or raw numbers. In 700 more games, Bonds leads Williams by 400 runs, 300 hits, 75 doubles, 250 homers, 150 RBI, and 500 SB. In the WAR department, he leads by 40. There’s a huge gap in baserunning and especially fielding. Assuming for the moment that there’s not some anti-PED or anti-Bonds thing going on here, to get Williams ahead of Bonds, the voters would need to have filled in Williams’ World War II and Korean War service years with their imaginations. I don’t personally object to doing that so long as it’s clear that you’re doing it for everyone, you apply it fairly, and you obey established guidelines for doing so. We’ve got no such information about such instructions being given to ESPN’s expert panel, so we are left to assume that they have applied such judgments on their own, each in their own way. Otherwise, it makes little sense to rank Williams ahead of Barry.

9. Tris Speaker (ESPN Rank: 41)

MILLER: I used to think Stan Musial was the most underrated inner circle player. No more. Not at all. Speaker is the clear best player ESPN sort of ignored, ranking him really close to Ernie Banks, which is an absolute joke. Banks had four great seasons and seven very good ones. By my adjusted WAR, Banks’ seven-year peak reaches 50.8. Speaker’s is 73.1. If we ignore Speaker’s best seven seasons and only look at years 8-14, he still beats Banks with 55.8 wins. As much as I love Mike Trout, and as honest as I was when I said I thought he could be the best player I’ve ever seen, I’d lay odds, big odds, that he doesn’t reach Speaker’s heights.

8. Hank Aaron (ESPN Rank: 3)

ERIC: What’s amazing about Aaron is the sheer longevity. Year after year after year of fantastic seasons. From ages 21–35, his seasonal WAR never, ever dipped below 6.2, which he reached in that first season. If you want to toss that one out, he never dipped below 6.8. Those are the only two seasons when he was below 7.0 WAR for those 15 years. In 1970, at age 36, he merely had an All-Star-type year of 5.0 WAR. At 37, he rebounded with 7.2 WAR before the final slide began. Though it was a graceful slide nonetheless. Similarly, Aaron received MVP votes every year until he was 39 years old.

Like Roberto Clemente, Aaron could probably have been a starting centerfielder. In 308 games and 2626 innings across eight different seasons, BBREF gives him a +6 defensive rating and DRA is right there with them. He was simply a tremendous athlete and complete ballplayer. He ran the bases very well, hit like the dickens, had a great glove, and he hardly ever missed a game until very deep into his thirties. The only thing he couldn’t do was stay out of the double play, and even at that he averaged about a half-run to the negative per season. The only problem for him was there was someone even better in the league who typically stood to his right at the All-Star game.

7. Roger Clemens (ESPN Rank: 19)

MILLER: In his last four years on Boston, ages 30-33, Clemens was 40-39 and pitched 745 innings with an ERA+ of 130, 2.36 K/BB, and 18.2 WAR. A decade later, from 40-43, Clemens was 55-27 and pitched 750.2 innings with an ERA+ of 153, 3.05 K/BB, and 20.8 WAR. I really disliked Clemens because of his disappointing overall contribution in Boston those last four seasons (where, per inning, he was still an awesome pitcher). The frustration only grew when he put up 20 WAR in two seasons north of the border. Cy Young Awards for four different teams, I have to admit, is pretty cool. In fact, Clemens won 38 games for the Astros from 2004-2006. That’s the fourth most wins he had for one team. And no pitcher ever won that many for four teams.

6. Cy Young (ESPN Rank: 17)

MILLER: It’s kind of interesting that we have three pitchers in the top-seven. I’m not sure that’s the right decision, but I’m not sure it’s wrong either. I could get Young and Clemens as far back as Musial in 13th. Or here. It’s close, and it’s really difficult for me to compare pitchers and hitters. Young just boggles the mind. With my conversions, he posted six seasons of 10+ WAR and another four of 9+. Ty Cobb didn’t do that. Neither did Walter Johnson, nor Barry Bonds. Only Babe Ruth and Willie Mays join Young in claiming both six years at 10+ and ten total at 9+ WAR. And with seventeen seasons of playing at the All-Star 5 WAR level, he’s topped by only Cobb and Tris Speaker. Perhaps most remarkable about Young is something that’s far less frequently discussed than his 511 wins – his fourteen times leading the league in BB/9. That kind of control made him sometimes unhittable and helps him to sixth place on our list.

5. Walter Johnson (ESPN Rank: 9)

ERIC: It seems pretty safe to say that Walter Johnson’s crown as the king of pitchers is safe for a long time, if not ever. Roger Clemens is the closest we’ll ever see to Johnson’s like, an extreme combination of velocity, command, durability, longevity, and dominance that’s extremely rare. Why do I say that Johnson’s crown is safe? Simply because without a substantial change in how starters are used, no one will again rack up the kind of innings he threw per game, nor make the number of starts per year he made. Many theorize that the maximum effort required to throw as hard as today’s moundsmen do is unsustainable for all but the freakiest of physiques. One hundred pitches at max effort is a far different matter than Johnson reaching back for the velo when he needed it most. Clayton Kershaw is having a Hall-level career, maybe an inner circle one, and he’ll end up nowhere close to Johnson. So there’s two ways we, as a baseball loving community interested in parsing rankings and comparing the greats, can play it. Either we can just tell ourselves that the best pitcher ever played 100 years ago and leave it alone, or we can start to break pitching into epochs and compare pitchers within their own and perhaps adjacent eras. There’s little point in comparing Kershaw to Johnson, just as there’s little point comparing the Model A to a Tesla. But there might be a point in comparing a Tesla to a Delorean. Especially one that flies.

4. Ty Cobb (ESPN Rank: 8)

ERIC: Ty Cobb is synonymous with anger, aggression, speed, spikes, a kind of baseball violence. He has also long been associated with virulent racism, though that’s now been debunked. But it does give us a moment in which to reflect, during these turbulent times for race, about the intersection of race and baseball. Of course we mentioned the color line in Cap Anson’s entry a few posts back in this series. We didn’t say much about the color line in Jackie Robinson’s biography. I think I speak for Miller when I say two things. 1) That racism in its overt and subtle forms is not merely repugnant but immoral. Anyone who subscribes to a moral philosophy that includes The Golden Rule is breaking it when they engage in racist behavior. Anyone whose moral philosophy centers on the Utilitarian idea of bringing the most good to society are clearly in violation of their own code. Anyone who believes in the American Dream, a moral philosophy of sorts, puts its very values into question when they engage in racist behavior. Or sexist. Or xenophobic. Or whathaveyou.

But…

2) A man’s attitudes about others have no bearing on whether he was a great player, until and unless we can prove that the actions emanating from those beliefs cost a team wins. It’s rare that we might be able to do so with confidence, and it’s not my idea of fun to go looking for incidents where I can label someone a racist with utmost precision.

My point here is that if we are making lists of great players, it behooves us to remember that the men who play baseball are not heroes and villains. They are not in any way emblematic of the greater good, of their teams’ communities, of anything really. They are just a very small subset of people within a larger society with a very specialized skilled job in our economy. We cheer for them. We love them. We live and die with them. But they are not us, and we are not them. If we care about seeking some kind of truth, some kind of best-we-can reckoning of the greatest in the game’s history, our first move must be to eliminate our own biases and seek answers in principles not personalities. Does that sound cold? Does that sound like the words of someone with merely a clinical love of the game? Maybe it does. But I don’t really care what it sounds like. What I care about is whether it works. I might have let some personal biases influence my rankings in this project. I wonder about my evaluation guys like Lou Gehrig and Satchell Paige. But on the whole, I feel like I’ve don’t the best I can to push aside my personality-driven proclivities to the best of my ability. Which is admittedly imperfect.

As for Ty Cobb, I think we’ve just about nailed him. I don’t think he can be reasonably said to be better than the three guys we have ahead of him without a lot of gyrations. I think there’s plenty of good fodder for the argument that he’s better than the guys we have behind him. And I think he’s one of the first players I’d want to go back in time to watch if I had the ability to do so.

3. Willie Mays (ESPN Rank: 2)

MILLER: Several of the ESPN writers put Mays #1 on their lists. I had such a visceral reaction to this choice, and upon further consideration, I haven’t changed my mind much. By my numbers, Ruth is far and away tops. Mays is in a group with Ty Cobb and Barry Bonds fighting for second. Really, I’d be okay with any of those three second. On the other hand, some people like Eric are timeliners. That’s shorthand for saying Ruth didn’t have the competition of others so his numbers shouldn’t be taken on face value. While I disagree with this notion, I completely understand it and can accept it. If you’re a timeliner, Mays certainly bests Cobb. And maybe he even catches Ruth. Similarly, if you timeline, he doesn’t beat Bonds. They’re basically the same without adjustments. If we make them, Bonds beats Mays. If we don’t, Ruth beats him. Willie Mays is not the best player of all time.

2. Barry Bonds (ESPN Rank: 5)

ERIC: If ESPN isn’t going to rank a pitcher or a catcher among its top five, then there’s little reason other than PED malice to put Bonds fifth behind a bunch of guys whose careers began 15–50 years before Bobby Bonds made the scene. Truly, how likely is it that the four greatest baseball players in history began their careers before color TV or Atari? Before the interstate system or the internet? Before JFK or JR were shot? Before Watergate or Irangate? Before the Challenger or The Dukes of Hazzard? Knowing what we know about the state of the game today and over the last thirty years, the answer is a spit take. Since you, dear reader, have surely been with us all the way since 2013 or dived deep into our archive, you must remember our article about the Schoenfield’s Paradox. In short, the further back in time you go, the easier leagues were to dominate, and, therefore, the more the best players stood out from the crowd. This is part of why the BBWAA and VC have struggled so much to recognize great players from 1970 onward, and it’s why an outfit like ESPN would have Bonds ranked where they do. Well, that, PEDs, or they didn’t like his surly personality in the clubhouse. But in any objective way of looking across time, we must ask ourselves the simple Jamesian question: Is there anything in the player’s record that may be creating illusions of context? Sometimes the answer is as simple as the ballpark. Sometimes it’s more subtly the run environment. Sometimes it’s something diabolical like pitching usage patterns. But in the case of the timeline, it’s not so specific or simple to see because we live in it. It’s part of the baseball air we breathe. We are living our way through the timeline, and in twenty years, I’ll be writing this same article about Mike Trout (at least I hope so). But it’s awfully hard to see the water when you swim in it.

1. Babe Ruth (ESPN Rank: 1)

You know when a player strikes a big walk-off hit and the announcers let the pictures do the talking?

THE WORLDWIDE LEADER IN SPORTS’ 10–1

Stan Musial
Walter Johnson
Ty Cobb
Lou Gehrig
Mickey Mantle
Barry Bonds
Ted Williams
Hank Aaron
Willie Mays
Babe Ruth

MILLER: Ruth is first, so that’s good. But it’s a bit of a surprise to argue that no pitcher is among the best eight players ever. Then again, we think they have the right guy first. And it’s nice that Hank Aaron and Stan Musial, sometimes underrated among all-time greats aren’t underrated here. Finally, I’m not surprised that Mickey Mantle is seriously overrated. We put him at #25, which makes sense since he’s so clearly the 4th best center fielder ever. Nobody rates him over Mays. And nobody should rank him over Cobb. In terms of MAPES, Cobb has a 112 to 84 advantage. The third best center fielder ever, I’m quite confident, is Tris Speaker. JAWS agrees with us even though we think they underrate his defense in center. Anyway, this isn’t a bad top-ten, but it’s not great either.

ERIC: This has been a wonderful exercise. Fun and thought provoking. And, yes, I do like to snark on a few pet themes…. But mostly I find myself reminded that as much progress as we have seen made in the past 15 or so years in terms of rigorous thinking and analysis entering the baseball world, we continue to see amazing inconsistencies of reasoning. When groups, committees, panels of any sort work through a process, you hope that the wisdom of crowds prevails and that the central tendency of expert thought will yield answers with a compelling internal logic. But often it doesn’t. Too few experts to give a big enough sample. Or a panel of “experts” instead of experts. Or too much bias within a panel. Some voices louder than others. Decision-making systems flawed by vague instructions, overly specific instructions, or no instructions at all. Huh, we could be talking about the Veterans Committee here or maybe the BBWAA Hall of Fame electorate. Or the Oscars voters. [We could also be talking about Congress, but this isn’t that kind of site.]  If you’ve ever been through design-by-committee, you know what I’m talking about. So what’s the big finish? There isn’t one, is there? Baseball keeps grinding along, year after year. We love it for its consistency and its constancy. It flows along like a river through our lives. We remember years of our lives based on who won the World Series. Soon enough, the Mike Trouts, Manny Machados, and Clayton Kershaws will have enough under their belt to start appearing on these lists. Soon enough we’ll have the kind of in-depth information on every Negro League season so that we can do more and better work at ranking them with precision on lists like these. Soon enough we’ll have a sports media full of people with baseball reasoning, not quote takers or quote makers. Soon enough it will be time again to revisit our rankings. Stick around, the game’s just beginning.

MILLER: Or you could just trust the people who are actually trying to get it right, not draw page views.

Pioneer/Executive #9, Ban Johnson

Ban JohnsonSalary caps have always struck me as odd, dare I say un-American. At their best, they seem to help undisciplined owners make fewer mistakes; at their worst they suppress what workers can earn in a very artificial way. One might argue that they help to improve competitive balance, but I’m not so sure. What a team pays in salary is one factor among many that helps them to succeed. And teams that fail tend to find lots of ways to do so.

In our last two elections, we paid homage to William Hulbert and Charlie Comiskey, two of the men integral in the formation of the National and American leagues, respectively. Today we honor a third man, Ban Johnson, who probably deserves even more credit than Comiskey for the existence of the American League.

Why? Other “major” leagues had come and gone, none up until 1901 with any success. That’s when Ban Johnson’s Western League became the major league we know today as the Junior Circuit, the American League. In order to compete, one of the main tactics the AL used was to remove the salary cap. Cy Young, Nap Lajoie, Ed Delahanty, Jesse Burkett, and over 100 more jumped to the AL., and by 1902 the fledgling organization outdrew its NL competition by half a million. And the rest, as they say…

I don’t want to share an entire history lesson here. I’m happy to let Joe Santry and Cindy Thompson at SABR do that. I want to point out what a critical element to baseball’s success salary is. Generally speaking, the talented go where the money is. Again, I say that only generally. And in order for great athletes to choose baseball, there has to be a financial incentive. Michael Haupert’s SABR article on salary progression is fascinating for people who like numbers.

Here are a few of the highlights:

  • Ty Cobb may or may not have been the first to $10,000 in 1913.
  • If you allow for the manager part of his contract to count, Cobb made it to 25K in 1921.
  • One year later, Babe Ruth topped $50,000.
  • It took until Joe DiMaggio’s 1949 contract when salaries doubled again to 100K.
  • I’m shocked by the first player to reach a quarter of a million – Dick Allen in 1974.
  • By 1977 Mike Schmidt was up to half a million.
  • And in 1980 Nolan Ryan became baseball’s first $1 million player.

To say that Ban Johnson is responsible for Ryan or what we see today would be ridiculous. Dozens, maybe hundreds, of people have more to do with Peter Bourjos, for example, making $2 million this season than he does, but I don’t think we’d see a game much like today’s without Ban Johnson helping to get the American League off the ground by poaching players from a more financially-constrained NL.

As we get deeper into this project, those we elect will be more and more stage-sharers, people to whom we’ll attribute something, something that is more likely the work of a number of people. We’re not quite there yet. We can say that without Ban Johnson, we wouldn’t have had a competitive major league in the form we had one, when we had one. And who knows what would have happened later.

Overall, we’ve elected nine greats into the Hall of Miller and Eric’s Pioneer/Executive wing. Here they are:

  • Branch Rickey
  • Kenesaw Mountain Landis
  • Marvin Miller
  • Henry Chadwick
  • Bill James
  • Doc Adams
  • Charlie Comiskey
  • William Hulbert
  • Ban Johnson

Number ten is just a week away.

Miller

Institutional History

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