Today we finish up the position players with our list of the top-125 right fielders ever. Remember, we’re quite confident through 75 or so players, pretty confident through 100, and admit we’re guessing a bit toward the bottom of the list.
Before we get into the list, there are two things I want to point out. First, perhaps you already know that we have not yet elected Vladimir Guerrero to the Hall of Miller and Eric. He’s in good position, above three HoME right fielders on my list and two on Eric’s. It’s just been a numbers game the last two years. Yes, Vlad is better than some guys in the HoME. However, we’re bound by the number of players in the Hall of Fame. We don’t and won’t add beyond the Hall. In 2017, the Hall elected three players. We decided we preferred Ivan Rodriguez, Manny Ramirez, and Sam Rice to Vlad. While Rice is a smidge below Vlad on our right field lists, we thought his era needed a bit more representation than Vlad’s. Last year there were six players elected to the Hall, including Vlad, however he still couldn’t make the HoME cut. Rather, we went with Chipper Jones, Jim Thome, Scott Rolen, Andruw Jones, Johan Santana, and Minnie Minoso. Based on Eric’s Negro League research, we decided Minoso was above the line. The others were easier calls. What about 2019? I’m not so hopeful. Mariano Rivera, Roy Halladay, and Todd Helton will all get in before Guerrero. Is Guerrero fourth? I’m not sure right now. And maybe it won’t matter. I’m not confident we’re going to get more than three players this year.
The second thing I want to mention about the lists is where we place Mookie Betts and Bryce Harper. I have the AL MVP #60, while he comes in at #68 on Eric’s list. As for Harper, he’s #86 for Eric and #90 for me. They were born only nine days apart, but Harper was a wunderkind who reached the majors two years before Mookie did. Thus, he’s a free agent now, looking to make $2.4 zillion, or something like that. What would the difference be if he and Mookie were on the market together? Since Mookie’s rookie year, Harper has played like and All-Star (5+ WAR) just once, and Mookie has done so four times. For those who have been around the HoME for a bit, you know where I’m going with this. Mookie is the better player. And I believe Mookie will be the better player moving forward. We’ll see how they move up the chart in the years to come.
A quick note about position differences: I put Joe Jackson, Brian Giles, and Richie Zisk in right; Eric puts them all in left. That’s it.
Take a look at our evaluation systems and our earlier lists in this series.
That’s it for the position players. After reviewing BBWAA ballots on Friday, we’ll be back on Monday with a long, long list of pitchers.
As I’m sure you know by now, the competition Chipper Jones has for best third baseman of this era has announced his retirement. So that got me to thinking, er, playing with BBREF’s awesome Play Index. One thing I found, which is pretty cool, is that Beltre put up the most WAR in the game over the past fifteen years. And there I went down the rabbit hole.
Below is a chart with all 15-year periods in the game’s history since the start of the National Association in 1871, along with the best position player of that period. You’ll see that Beltre is in very good company.
1871-1885 Cap Anson 1872-1886 Cap Anson 1873-1887 Cap Anson 1874-1888 Cap Anson 1875-1889 Cap Anson 1876-1890 Cap Anson 1877-1891 Cap Anson 1878-1892 Roger Connor 1879-1893 Roger Connor 1880-1894 Roger Connor 1881-1895 Roger Connor 1882-1896 Roger Connor 1883-1897 Roger Connor 1884-1898 Roger Connor 1885-1899 Roger Connor 1886-1900 Billy Hamilton 1887-1901 Billy Hamilton 1888-1902 Ed Delahanty 1889-1903 Ed Delahanty 1890-1904 Ed Delahanty 1891-1905 George Davis 1892-1906 George Davis 1893-1907 Honus Wagner 1894-1908 Honus Wagner 1895-1909 Honus Wagner 1896-1910 Honus Wagner 1897-1911 Honus Wagner 1898-1912 Honus Wagner 1899-1913 Honus Wagner 1900-1914 Honus Wagner 1901-1915 Honus Wagner 1902-1916 Honus Wagner 1903-1917 Honus Wagner 1904-1918 Ty Cobb 1905-1919 Ty Cobb 1906-1920 Ty Cobb 1907-1921 Ty Cobb 1908-1922 Ty Cobb 1909-1923 Ty Cobb 1910-1924 Ty Cobb and Tris Speaker 1911-1925 Tris Speaker 1912-1926 Tris Speaker 1913-1927 Tris Speaker and Babe Ruth 1914-1928 Babe Ruth 1915-1929 Babe Ruth 1916-1930 Babe Ruth 1917-1931 Babe Ruth 1918-1932 Babe Ruth 1919-1933 Babe Ruth 1920-1934 Babe Ruth 1921-1935 Babe Ruth 1922-1936 Babe Ruth 1923-1937 Babe Ruth 1924-1938 Lou Gehrig 1925-1939 Lou Gehrig 1926-1940 Lou Gehrig 1927-1941 Lou Gehrig 1928-1942 Mel Ott 1929-1943 Mel Ott 1930-1944 Mel Ott 1931-1945 Mel Ott 1932-1946 Mel Ott 1933-1947 Mel Ott 1934-1948 Mel Ott 1935-1949 Ted Williams 1936-1950 Ted Williams 1937-1951 Ted Williams 1938-1952 Ted Williams 1939-1953 Stan Musial 1940-1954 Stan Musial 1941-1955 Stan Musial 1942-1956 Stan Musial 1943-1957 Stan Musial 1944-1958 Stan Musial 1945-1959 Stan Musial 1946-1960 Stan Musial 1947-1961 Stan Musial 1948-1962 Mickey Mantle 1949-1963 Willie Mays 1950-1964 Willie Mays 1951-1965 Willie Mays 1952-1966 Willie Mays 1953-1967 Willie Mays 1954-1968 Willie Mays 1955-1969 Willie Mays 1956-1970 Willie Mays 1957-1971 Willie Mays 1958-1972 Willie Mays 1959-1973 Hank Aaron 1960-1974 Hank Aaron 1961-1975 Hank Aaron 1962-1976 Hank Aaron 1963-1977 Carl Yastrzemski 1964-1978 Joe Morgan 1965-1979 Joe Morgan 1966-1980 Joe Morgan 1967-1981 Joe Morgan 1968-1982 Joe Morgan 1969-1983 Joe Morgan 1970-1984 Mike Schmidt 1971-1985 Mike Schmidt 1972-1986 Mike Schmidt 1973-1987 Mike Schmidt 1974-1988 Mike Schmidt 1975-1989 Mike Schmidt 1976-1990 Mike Schmidt 1977-1991 Rickey Henderson 1978-1992 Rickey Henderson 1979-1993 Rickey Henderson 1980-1994 Rickey Henderson 1981-1995 Rickey Henderson 1982-1996 Cal Ripken 1983-1997 Barry Bonds 1984-1998 Barry Bonds 1985-1999 Barry Bonds 1986-2000 Barry Bonds 1987-2001 Barry Bonds 1988-2002 Barry Bonds 1989-2003 Barry Bonds 1990-2004 Barry Bonds 1991-2005 Barry Bonds 1992-2006 Barry Bonds 1993-2007 Barry Bonds 1994-2008 Barry Bonds 1995-2009 Alex Rodriguez 1996-2010 Alex Rodriguez 1997-2011 Alex Rodriguez 1998-2012 Alex Rodriguez 1999-2013 Alex Rodriguez 2000-2014 Albert Pujols 2001-2015 Albert Pujols 2002-2016 Albert Pujols 2003-2017 Albert Pujols 2004-2018 Adrian Beltre
Thanks for everything, Adrian.
And happy Thanksgiving to all of you.
Mr. October. It’s one of baseball’s most recognizable nicknames. Thinking ahead to this post, I was considering Reggie Jackson as one of the players MAPES+ might underrate because it doesn’t take post-season performance into account. So then I looked at Reggie’s playoff statistics. He slashed .278/.358/.527 in October compared to .262/.356/.490 in the regular season. Better? Sure. Against stiffer competition? Almost certainly. But there’s not a marked difference, at least not one that’s suggested by the nickname. If you want to call someone Mr. October, someone like Lou Brock, Paul Molitor, Curt Schilling or Bob Gibson (to name four off the top of my head), go for it. But Reggie? I don’t know.
Yes, he won two World Series MVP Awards, and I think he deserved it in 1978 too. And not we’re on to something. In 116 trips to the plate over five World Series, he slashed .357/.457/.755. In my mind “October” is equal to the playoffs. However, if we view “October” as the World Series, which is justifiable, I suppose, Reggie earned that nickname. Now about MAPES+…
Actually, you can read about MAPES, CHEWS, and all posts in this series with the links below.
Part of the fun of Ichiro is that he’s kind of like a thought experiment made real: What if we took a star player from roughly 1901–1930 and plopped him into the majors? Now we know! It’s Ichiro! But that’s precisely what’s happened. His game is predicated on a few things:
In the deadball era, grounds keeping wasn’t quite as meticulous as today. Comiskey Park was famously built atop a landfill and old trash popped up through the grass sometimes. The amazing drainage technology that today’s fields have didn’t exist. Freddie Lindstrom became a World Series goat when a ball hit a pebble and bounced over his head. That combined with primitive glove technology increased the reward for simply putting the ball on the ground between the lines and dashing like mad to first base.
Ichiro is something like Harry Hooper combined with George Sisler. Which is basically what Sam Rice was. I wonder whether that kind of player would have been more or less effective in the 1970s and 1980s. Why? Astroturf. Infielders could play back to pick up grounders that might get through at normal depth, but even well-placed grounders would reach fielders faster, reducing Ichiro’s speed advantage. Turf did give speed merchants an advantage on the bases, but the players who took best advantage of turf did so by hitting balls into the gaps and running like crazy. Ichiro’s game is different than that of George Brett, Tim Raines, or Vince Coleman. Turf might also reduce the advantage accrued with Ichiro’s arm because the ball would get to him quicker on singles, reducing the likelihood of his being tested, and extra-base hits would get by him more quickly. Hard tellin’ not knowin’ as they say up here in Maine.—Eric
I projected Ichiro to retire after the 2014 season. Seriously. Over the seven years before this one, he was worth a total of 5.2 WAR. That’s not a guy who you want on your club unless you want to sell tickets or jerseys. Oh, wait, I’ve figured it out. I’m sure there’s more. I bet Ichiro is a good guy, and I suspect his English is better around teammates than reporters, which is just fine by me. As far as where he ends up, that depends on whether or not he decides to play again. He’s just done for the year, not retired. Given an infinite number of chances, he’d play his way out of the HoME. Since I think he’s seen his last game, we will only have to factor in the-0.5 WAR he accrued in 15 games this year. That drops him behind Bobby Bonds for me, and into a virtual tie with Gary Sheffield. We’ll have to see how BBREF rounding works out.—Miller
I think I have Winfield and Vlad lower than mainstream folks would. They’re not even on this list. The real divergence may be ranking Clemente third rather than fifth, not that the difference between him, Ott, and Robinson is meaningful at all. The reason for my ranking is pretty clear; it’s Clemente’s consecutive peak. If I removed that factor, Eric and I would have the same top-6. This seems as good a place as any to reiterate why I like the consecutive peak factor in my formula. First, it’s how JAWS began. Though Jaffe did come up with a better conclusion, I don’t think he was completely wrong to start. There is something, not nothing to be said for consecutive greatness. A team really knows what it has. Also, it’s only 11% of my formula, which is to say Clemente, Ott, and Robinson are very close anyway. Sure, I have Clemente third. If you have him fifth, I certainly won’t argue.—Miller
Larry Walker and Harry Hooper. We’ve got Walker among the top dozen right fielders, and he’s having trouble drumming up enough Hall support to make it before his eligibility expires. Lots of people think the Hall made a mistake by electing Harry Hooper. We strongly disagree.—Eric
Probably Willie Keeler. Throughout this process, Miller has had Keeler ranked ahead of me. I don’t exactly know why, but over the several iterations of each of our sifting tools, Wee Willie has always managed to look worse in my eyes.—Eric
Is it Clemente? No, I wouldn’t really make an argument that he’s exactly the third best right fielder ever. I’m nearly certain he’s between third and fifth, or maybe sixth. Not exactly third. It’s not like with Aaron. I’m almost certain Aaron is exactly the second best right fielder ever. There aren’t really any major discrepancies here. Even with Keeler. We both see him as 2% above the in/out line for the position.—Miller
So let’s answer that question from the top of the post. Might MAPES+ underrate Reggie? I don’t think so. I call him the eighth best ever at the position. If you want to take him over Waner, I won’t put up a stink.—Miller
Well, neither of our systems take into account the verifiable, proven fact that Paul Waner shares my birthday. That’s a thing, man! But let me now posit a weird idea. Is it possible that Babe Ruth, the player, can be seen as overrated? No statistical system can capture the immensity of Babe Ruth’s contribution to baseball, of course, and we don’t talk about off-the-field stuff here very often. Still, we both had him among our top-three most influential persons in baseball history. But the thing about Babe Ruth is that he was so much better than everyone else. If you run standard deviations on any kind of runs-creation stats in his time, especially the early 1920s, he pulls everything out of whack. You have to seriously consider removing him from the test because by himself he raises the bar so high. But that begets the interesting question of whether Ruth was that good or did the league fail to catch on to his innovation? Some of both, surely, but that latter idea always makes me wonder whether Ruth is actually overrated from a certain, very narrow, point of view. The innovation is the source of his value, so in the most literal sense, it’s a non-question. And yet, it digs at me a little because it’s not entirely a question of talent and performance. There’s this little bit of friction for me about the long window of time before which the rest of MLB got its power together, and the massive advantage Ruth accrued from it. But whatever, he’s the Babe after all!—Eric
We round out the offense next week with the second half of right field.
Not 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
Do you think my inner circle is too large? Too small? Missing someone? Please let me know in the comments.
Happy Thanksgiving, everyone! Today my wife and I head to her parents’ house. Her dad makes a turkey, though he’s the only one aside from the dog who eats it. And he plies me with alcohol, so that’s pretty cool. At some point after the dog passes out from all the turkey, my wife drives me home. For me, it’s kind of blissful. My wife’s parents are two of the most wonderful people in the world.
Joe Morgan isn’t.
I’m not saying he’s the opposite of them. Their opposite is the political figures you’re arguing about with your families today. I’m going after Joe Morgan here, not politics.
As I’m sure you know, Morgan, with the assistance of the Baseball Hall of Fame, sent a letter to the members of the BBWAA, the voters, basically requesting that they not vote for steroid users. As readers of the Hall of Miller and Eric would expect, I have several problems with Morgan and his letter. Since he decided to put his words in writing, I’ll use those words.
I could go on, but I want this to be a happy day. After all, it’s Thanksgiving, and I get to see my in-laws soon! Lemme close things out here.
Did Manny Ramirez and Rafael Palmeiro cheat? Yes, they broke one of Major League Baseball’s rules. Did Roger Clemens and Hank Aaron cheat? No, they didn’t break any rules. The greenies players of Morgan’s era took weren’t made illegal until 1970, so if he wanted to punish those players who used them after 1970, at least he’d be consistent in his stances. But he doesn’t want to punish those players, those who “cheated” as much as players from the early steroid era.
One of the reasons you’re going to fight with your families today over politics is because some people make decisions on gut or feel. They don’t think things through. They can’t and won’t change their minds. Perhaps they make up their minds about a whole era of baseball thought without ever reading the book explaining that though? I don’t know. Just spit-balling here. Joe Morgan should be nobody’s idea of a thought leader. That he’d try to lead the way on this issue over a decade after Mark McGwire made the ballot is laughable. There’s no internal consistency in his message. There’s no logic. There’s only anger, self-importance, and hypocrisy.
Go away, Joe. Please just go away.
Happy Thanksgiving, everyone!
Today we finish our post-season evaluation of active outfielders with right field. Let’s consider the chances these guys ultimately reach the Hall of Miller and Eric. And please take a look at our analysis of other positions in this series.
2017 BBREF WAR:
Rank at the position after 2017:
Ahead of Bobby Abreu, Vlad Guerrero, and Reggie Smith.
Trailing Sammy Sosa, Dave Winfield, and Harry Hooper.
Ahead of Gary Sheffield, Dave Winfield, and Harry Hooper
Trailing Bobby Bonds, Willie Keeler, and Sammy Sosa
Current career trajectory:
Will the Fish bring him back? Will anyone?
He’s a made man.
2017 BBREF WAR:
Rank at the position after 2017:
Ahead of Dixie Walker, Roger Maris, and Darryl Strawberry
Trailing Rusty Staub, Paul O’Neill, and Jose Canseco
Ahead of Jose Canseco, Paul O’Neill, and Dixie Walker
Trailing Rocky Colavito, Gavvy Cravath, and Ken Singleton
Current career trajectory:
A year ago, I thought Bautista had something left. I guess I was wrong. He turned 36, and his K rate went crazy. The Jays absolutely should decline his option this winter, though I’d give him another shot if I needed a DH and bench bat.
Bautista got a late start and put in a really good run. Trying to make an interesting case, he has as many 5-win seasons as Dave Winfield. On the other hand, Winfield is still above 3 WAR when Bautista is below replacement level. He’s not going to the Hall, but a guy who ranks ahead of Roger Maris, Kirk Gibson, and others certainly can be proud of his career.
2017 BBREF WAR:
Rank at the position after 2017:
Ahead of Reggie Sanders, Juan Gonzalez, and Nelson Cruz.
Trailing Giancarlo Stanton, Tommy Henrich, and Magglio Ordonez.
Ahead of Rossy Youngs, Tommy Henrich, and Nelson Cruz
Trailing Magglio Ordonez, David Justice, and Roger Maris
Current career trajectory:
Stop me if you’ve heard this one before. Choo got a late start to his career. He had some very nice years, but he wasn’t quite great enough or anywhere near healthy enough. Sure, Choo was healthy last year, but he’s no longer a plus bat. His power is diminishing little by little, and last year he increased his ground balls. Not a good sign. If he weren’t signed for three years and $62 million, I’d say he’d be in for a reduced role in 2018.
There’s not a shot unless he adopts the Jim O’Rourke or Deacon White path. Yeah, he needs another decade with reasonable production, which absolutely isn’t going to happen.
2017 BBREF WAR:
Rank at the position after 2017:
Ahead of Ross Youngs, Harold Baines, and Bob Allison.
Trailing Juan Gonzalez, Reggie Sanders, and Shin-Soo Choo.
Ahead of Bobby Allison, Juan Gonzalez, and Reggie Sanders
Trailing Shin-Shoo Choo, Ross Youngs, and Tommy Henrich
Current career trajectory:
There’s no figuring some guys. Cruz was a failed prospect until he wasn’t. He took the AL by storm at the end of 2008 and became a star in 2009 at the age of 28. By 2011, he seemed done, posting just 4.2 WAR over three seasons. Since then, he’s been excellent for four years, averaging over 4.5 WAR per. He’ll be 37 next year, but I’m not going to count him out. That’s because he increased his fly ball rate in 2017. At the same time he had his career-best full season walk rate, and his whiffs dipped.
Remember back in December of 2014 when the Mariners signed him to a foolish contract of four years and $57 million? Yeah, I thought you’d conveniently forgotten that. I know did. In any case, much like Bautista and Choo, Cruz got started too late. Unlike them, he can still rake. I could see him getting to the Jose Canseco, Paul O’Neill, Rusty Staub level, but not the HoME.
2017 BBREF WAR:
Rank at the position after 2017:
Ahead of Bobby Murcer, Brian Jordan, and John Titus.
Trailing Ken Griffey, Orator Shafer, and Bob Allison.
Ahead of Bobby Murcer, Riggs Stephenson, and Ken Griffey, Sr.
Trailing Bob Allison, Juan Gonzalez, and Reggie Sanders
Current career trajectory:
Don’t tell anyone, but Jason Heyward can’t hit. He has just 13 Rbat since amassing 32 as a rookie in 2010. He’s good to excellent at everything else, but unless he can find a swing that’s been missing all decade we’re looking at just another guy. On the plus side, he’s cutting those strikeouts. A minus is that he’s cutting the walks too. And he certainly isn’t part of the launch angle revolution. He’s just 28 next season though, so at least there’s time.
Hall of Famers with about Heywards WAR through age-27 include Joe Cronin, Mike Schmidt, Lou Boudreau, Roberto Alomar, and George Sisler. That’s some impressive company. On the other hand, those guys weren’t just so-so from 26 to 27. Still, if he plays until he’s 40 and totals just 2 WAR per year, he’ll retire in league with Dave Parker and Chuck Klein, which isn’t so bad. If he rediscovers All-Star form for three years and then slaps together a bunch of 2-win years, he’s right around Sam Thompson and Enos Slaughter. In other words, he’s just barely out. I want to give him a year or two to see if he can rediscover his bat.
2017 BBREF WAR:
Rank at the position after 2017:
Ahead of Shin-Soo Choo, Reggie Sanders, and Juan Gonzalez.
Trailing Tommy Henrich, Magglio Ordonez, and Roy Cullenbine.
Ahead of J.D. Drew, Orator Shafer, and Magglio Ordonez
Trailing Carl Furillo, Wally Moses, and Kirk Gibson
Current career trajectory:
He didn’t get to 60 home runs this season, so… More seriously, Stanton showed us what he can do if he’s completely healthy. He’s the same age as Heyward and looking like he’s getting better – walking more and striking out less. But beware the huge spike in grounders. Yep, more grounders. But when he hits it in the air, it goes a long way. There are two things that will direct his career going forward, his health and his home park. While WAR will adjust for park effects, it would be pretty fun to see what he would do in Baltimore or Boston.
He’s still awfully young to feel good about. On the other hand, he’s averaging about 1 WAR every 25 games for the last four years. If he can keep that up for the next four and play 150 games per year, he’ll be above the HoME line. In fact, I’d rank him ahead of four HoME right fielders. I could see a scenario where he finishes ahead of King Kelly as the ninth best RF ever. There’s a long way to go, but it’s totally possible.
2017 BBREF WAR:
Rank at the position after 2017:
Ahead of Jackie Jensen, Chicken Wolf, and Mookie Betts.
Trailing Vic Wertz, Jim Fogerty, and Hank Bauer.
Ahead of Jim Fogarty, Jackie Jensen, and Tommy McCarthy
Trailing Justin Upton, Hank Bauer, and John Titus
Current career trajectory:
Harper is among the more enigmatic players in the game. Light-tower power, hustle, pretty good glove, can-do attitude, lots of walks. On the other hand, he misses about 35 games a year, and those injuries seem to affect his hitting. The one year it all came together we witnessed a generational talent’s greatest moment. But outside of that, teasing frustration. Still, in all, dude’s got 26 career WAR at age 24. Unless his body completely falls apart, he’s going to have some healthy seasons. But even so, the Larry Walker path to career stardom has its rewards.
How many postwar HoME rightfielders popped out 26 BBREF WAR by age 24? Three: Al Kaline (33.3), Henry Aaron (29.9), and Frank Robinson (29.7). None of them had the inconsistency that Harper has shown on a year-to-year basis, and all of them were somewhat more valuable than Harper. It’s a pretty strong indication, however, of his special talent. His peak is still to come.
2017 BBREF WAR:
Rank at the position after 2017:
Ahead of Hank Bauer, Jim Fogerty, and Vic Wertz.
Trailing John Titus, Brian Jordan, and Bobby Murcer.
Ahead of Hank Bauer, John Titus, and Bryce Harper
Trailing Riggs Stephenson, Ken Griffey, Sr., and Brian Jordan
Current career trajectory:
Who is Justin Upton? The All-Star player with speed, power, and a glove? Or the slightly better than average guy whose early-career performance hasn’t turned into the annual MVP candidate we’d all hoped for? At twenty-nine years old, we can say with some certainty, that he’s a guy who tops out as an All-Star and bottoms out as an average right fielder. That’s a nice player to have on the roster, and it’s a guy who even has a sneak chance at 500 homers and 3000 hits thanks to his early start. His comps include some really solid HoMErs, but also Greg Luzinski and Ruben Sierra. He could have a long career with his broad skill set, but he’s more Tony Perez or Rusty Staub than Yaz or Frank Robinson.
Not nearly as good as you might think given his career totals at age 29.
2017 BBREF WAR:
Rank at the position after 2017:
Ahead of Tommy McCarthy, Frank Schulte, and unranked guys.
Trailing Chicken Wolf, Jackie Jensen, and Bryce Harper.
Ahead of the rest of right fielding history
Trailing Jim Fogarty, Jackie Jensen, and Tommy McCarthy
Current career trajectory:
Terrible BABIP luck hurt Betts’s batting average this year, and his home run power dipped a bit thanks to some hand and wrist issues. He nonetheless managed 46 doubles, boosted his walk rate by two-thirds, and still ran the bases like prime Willie Mays. Fly balls enter Fenway’s right-field event horizon when they fly over the spot where the infield dirt turns into outfield grass. Everything thereafter is inextricably drawn to the black hole in the pocket of Betts’ glove. Plus he’s got a pretty good arm. All of this means that the Sox have apparently discovered how to combine the DNA of Dwight Evans and Barry Larkin in a single player. Sox fans, treat him well and hope that he loves the town so much he signs a long-term deal.
After something of a dry spell, right field may have entered a glory time. Let’s run a list similar to the one that I mentioned in my commentary on Bryce Harper. This is every rightfielder since the war who earned 20 or more BBREF WAR through age 24:
That’s it. There’s not a retiree on this list you wouldn’t consider an automatic Hall of Anythinger. Plus three young guys who appear well on their way. Plus Jason Heyward whose inability to continue as a top flight player is as inexplicable as it is frustrating. So Betts’ outlook is pretty damned rosy at this point. For what it’s worth at age 24.
We finish up position players on Friday with the catchers.
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.
In the late 20th Century, TBS liked to call the Braves “America’s Team.” Well, they are America’s oldest team with continuous operation since the inaugural 1871 National Association season. And they are tied with the Athletics for America’s most wanderlusting team, having now called three different cities home. They are certainly America’s Atlanta baseball team. Maybe Ted Turner and the gang simply meant that they belonged to America. In which case each of the then 26 or 28 teams could be duly carry this sobriquet. With the Canadian teams expanding the definition to North America, perhaps. But let’s not get technical.
So you’d figure that with such a long history, the Braves’ Mount Rushmore would have the faces of many, many famous “local” heroes. Depending on what local means to whichever city you rooted for them in. Of course there’s Hank Aaron, Eddie Mathews, Phil Niekro, Greg Maddux, Tom Glavine, Warren Spahn, John Smoltz, all lifetime members of los Bravos. Where will we chisel all their faces? Que? You say none of those guys played their entire careers for the Boswaunta Brave Red Bean Dove Rustlers? Don’t be ridiculous….
Of course this hypothetical interlocutor I’m jabbering with is right. All of those fellows played elsewhere. If we had a Rushmorian monument for the Braves, Hank Aaron, Eddie Mathews, Warren Spahn, and Phil Niekro would grace its face. But they didn’t. In fact, by our rules which require a one-team career, our maximalist relief sculpture would include:
This somehow doesn’t seem befitting whichever version of “America’s Team” you prefer. But here’s something we can do. This is the Mount Rushmore just for the Milwaukee Braves. Anyone who played all their games from 1953 through 1965 as a Brave in Brewtown is eligible. Here’s your winners:
Of course, that’s all the Mays/Mayes out there since Willie, Joe, and Carl are Mayses, not Mays. And we have Jacob May, a young outfielder playing second, Lee Maye at third with all six of his career games there, and Pinky May at shortstop thanks to his one career game there. But these are the tough hypothetical choices we must make. And our co-managers, Eddie Mayo and Mayo Smith, might want something different.
But getting back to the Braves, who would be on my personal Braves Rushmore? Pascual Perez heads this list for sure. He was that rare breed, a zany righty starting pitcher. You never knew whether he might have no-hit stuff, nothin’ stuff, or just might pull some crazy stunt like throwing between his legs to pick off a runner. Of course, there’s Rick Camp whose exploits we mentioned above. I’m also something of a Wally Berger fan. He wasn’t just the only star of the 1930s Bees, he was the sun around which the team revolved. He was the only offense they had, and he was exceptional. Sadly his career ended too early thanks to shoulder woes, but just another All-Star level season or a few more years as a regular might have pushed him into the HoME. Lastly, there’s George Wright. The one who is in the HoME. Entirely forgotten by nearly everyone except the 8,000 or so people in the country who are rabidly in love with baseball’s long and curious history. The first great player in the sense that we identify it today as someone worthy of a plaque. A player with great individual seasons, a great (if in his case short) career, and widespread acclaim as the game’s top-most shelf talent.
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, #70–61, #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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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
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.
A couple of weeks ago, in association with Graham Womack’s work over at Baseball Past and Present, Eric shared with you his 25 most important people in baseball history. And today I have my chance. But first, I love Womack’s idea here. It’s fun. It starts conversations. And that’s exactly why so many of us love the game.
In his post, Eric said that Womack’s deliberately subjective term “most important” meant “lasting impact” for him. I completely concur. Yet Eric and I have pretty different lists. Mine is peppered with more players than his. His contains more pioneers, shall we say. On one hand, without these pioneers, we might not have the game we have today. On the other, it’s not incredibly easy to say that people many fans haven’t heard of have had such a lasting impact. These points are debatable. These lists are so debatable. And that’s why they’re great.
Eric puts three men at the top – Babe Ruth, Branch Rickey, and Jackie Robinson. I’d have just two men there – Ruth and Rickey. Don’t misunderstand. Robinson is huge. Robinson is critically important. But I believe there’s a bit of distance between him and the top two. I’ll get to that distance in a moment.
#1 Babe Ruth: He is baseball. Without him, home runs wouldn’t have taken on the life they did. The Yankees wouldn’t have been the Yankees. Hell, baseball wouldn’t be baseball.
#2 Branch Rickey: Add his role in baseball’s integration, plus his role in the establishment of farm systems, plus his role in the establishment of spring training, plus his role the use of statistical analysis, and you have the most important non-player in baseball history.
#3 Henry Chadwick: Surprising and disappointing many, I’m not going with Jackie here. Chadwick created the box score! If you grew up a baseball fan, you grew up pouring through box scores. Even if you don’t know Chadwick, you’ve looked at his work thousands and thousands of times. More than any non-player in baseball’s early days, he helped to popularize the game.
#4 Kenesaw Mountain Landis: I had a very tough call between him and Chadwick. On one hand, were it not for the strong first Commissioner of the game, I don’t know if we’d have a game today. On the other, were it not for love of statistics, I wouldn’t be writing this. Since it’s my list, I’m going with what’s important to me. But without Landis, the game could have lost all credibility at the hands of gamblers. It’s possible he saved the game from extinction.
#5 Jackie Robinson: In most baseball circles it’s sacrilege to suggest that baseball could have gone on without the great #42. Robinson debuted on April 15, 1947. Larry Doby played in the majors less than two months later. Were it not for Robinson, some would say, Doby wouldn’t have existed when he did. And perhaps that true. But I think that the repulsive practice of barring black players from the game was going to end with or without Robinson, probably in 1947 or 1948. Robinson might have been the perfect first player, but I’m not convinced that he’s the only person who could have played that role.
#6 Marvin Miller: For generations of baseball players, he’s the most important ever. Were it not for his leadership, players might still be tied to their teams for life. And they might still be making a pittance relative to the owners. Okay, they’re still making a pittance, but it’s a bigger pittance.
#7 Stephen C. Clark: This is, perhaps, a selfish choice. Clark is the founder of the Baseball Hall of Fame. That’s the reason for this blog and the thing I treasure most about the game.
#8 Bill James: More selfishness? Before Bill James, I didn’t read. I knew how and all; I just didn’t. James made reading fun for me. He made statistics fun for me. Were it not for Bill James, it’s possible I wouldn’t have attended college, and today I’m a college professor. Hmm, maybe he should be higher on my list.
#9 Harry Wright: This is the level at which things get dicey for me. Wright put together the 1869 Cincinnati Red Stockings, baseball’s first fully professional team. He made baseball a business. And he also introduced on-field innovations like backing up plays.
#10 Monte Ward: He was a Hall-level player and was the leader in the construction of the Brotherhood of Professional Base Ball Players, the game’s first labor union. He also formed the Players’ League, a rival major league.
#11 Pete Rose: A baseball pariah and mass autograph signer today, Rose was once the game’s greatest asset. He’s one of the most important players on one of the most important teams ever. Oh yeah, and most hits in history. Plus, through Rose we can talk gambling and Hall exclusion. Those things are important to me.
#12 Peter Seitz: I chose Seitz for this list rather than Oliver Wendell Holmes. Seitz was the arbitrator who overturned baseball’s reserve clause, a decision that ushered in free agency. While Holmes did write the decision that basically said baseball was a game rather than a business, allowing it to exist as a monopoly, he wasn’t the only Supreme Court justice involved in that decision. And since he wasn’t Chief Justice, it’s quite possible the decision to take the case was someone else’s. After Seitz’s decision, Andy Messersmith and Dave McNally became free. And ballplayers began to earn their fair share of the game’s profits.
#13 J.G. Taylor Spink: Spink followed Chadwick in promoting the game to the masses through The Sporting News. If baseball weren’t brought to the people by that “Bible of baseball”, it wouldn’t be the game it is today.
#14 Barry Bonds: Let the controversy begin! Like it or not, he’s the game’s all-time leader in its most treasured stat. And he’s an incredibly important figure in the telling of the game’s steroid story.
#15 Roger Bresnahan: He invented and improved on so much of a catcher’s equipment that the term “tools of ignorance” applied much less after his time than before it. Eric’s words here are eloquent. “When you think about it, his ideas, mocked in his day but quickly adopted, have had a positive effect on 13 percent of all big league players (probably 2,000 or more men)…”
#16 Ed Barrow: It’s possible the Yankees never would have become the Yankees without him. Of course, my favorite thing about him is that he managed the Red Sox to the 1918 World Series title.
#17 Frank Robinson: All-time great player, MVP in both leagues, triple crown, and first African American manager ever. I like putting players on this list more than many would. Robinson makes it as a player, a manager, a pioneer, an executive, and an icon.
#18 Frank Jobe: I think they should call it “Frank Jobe surgery”. Tommy John didn’t do much, really. Jobe did. And millions of fans have him to thank for putting their favorite pitchers back together.
#19 Ted Williams: It’s possible he understood hitting as well as anyone ever has. Through Williams, one can tell the story of .400, military service by MLB players, and even recognition of Negro League players by the Hall of Fame.
#20 Frankie Frisch: The Giant and Cardinal has four World Series rings and a Hall of Fame plaque. But the reason he makes this list is the leadership of the Hall’s Veterans Committee during a time they polluted the Coop with cronies and some pretty undeserving players. You can’t tell the story of the Hall without discussion of Frisch.
#21 Curt Flood: Flood is lower on this list than some might suggest. But when he challenged baseball’s reserve clause, he lost his case. He’s on the list because he got the ball rolling though, and there might not be a 10/5 rule without Flood.
#22 Sean Forman: If Bill James ushered in the analytics revolution, it’s Forman’s baseballreference.com that has made it possible. People who understand statistics and mathematics now often understand the game better than baseball insiders. Partly because of Forman, front offices are littered with brainiacs and not grizzled old baseball men.
#23 Cal Ripken Jr.: The man who topped Lou Gehrig’s iron man streak also helped baseball through one of its darkest times, the cancellation of the 1994 World Series due to labor strife. Ripken was a positive and popular player, someone who the fans could look up to as a beacon of excellence when so many others disappointed.
#24 Hank Aaron: Aaron makes my list because of homers, Ruth, race, Bonds, and his ambassadorship to the game. The story of the game can’t be told very well without Aaron.
#25: Abraham G. Mills: And the story of the game wouldn’t be the story of the game without Mills, the guy who led the commission that ridiculously credited Abner Doubleday as the founder of the game. For so many to believe something so wrong for so long makes Mills quite important in my estimation.
That’s my list. What’s yours? Vote here. Voting closes at Sunday at 8 p.m. Pacific Time.