For some time, we’ve told you that we’d be sharing longer lists so you can see where all of your favorites land in the game’s history. So it’s time we welcome you to our top-125, the best players at each position by Eric’s CHEWS+ and my MAPES+. At the end of this series these lists will find a permanent home on our site so that you’ll be able to refer to them whenever you would like.
Before we get there, you may see some surprising inclusions or omissions. Let me explain. Eric places players at the position at which they had the most value. His reasoning can best be seen in a guy like Ernie Banks. Banks is a no-brainer Hall of Famer. That’s clearly based on his time as a shortstop where he had six seasons of 5+ WAR, including four of 7.9+. At first base, he never topped 3.5 WAR, averaging only 1.3 per season over a decade at the position. While Eric’s theory makes total sense, not every player is as easy to understand as Banks. Should we break down each season? What if the guy played 80 games at two positions in the same season? I just use games played with no preference for value. Just games played. It’s simpler. I don’t think either decision is incorrect, but I do want to point out the reason you may not see certain players. For example, you’ll see Deacon White, Jack Rowe, and Mike Napoli on Eric’s list below. For me, White is a third baseman, Rowe is a shortstop, and Napoli is a first baseman.
Here are our complete lists.
Stop by again on Friday when we’ll look our similarities and differences at first base.
So, I know what you must be thinking. Miller, you’ve been gone for months, and when you come back you do so with one of the least popular series in HoME history. Well, yeah. At least for me this is a really fun series. And I can use the NL and AL updates that come today and Friday to preview the post-season active player updates that will follow. No, we’re not officially back, but there is going to be some content in the coming weeks, including complete CHEWS+ and MAPES+ lists at every position, lists that will be archived on the site for your future reference.
But first, each National League team’s updated Mount Rushmore. If you don’t happen to recall, this isn’t about the four best players in a team’s history. Rather, it’s about the four best players in history that have never played for another team. So Ty Cobb isn’t on the Tiger list, and Willie Mays isn’t on the Giant list. Here we go!
Well, that’s it for the National League. The updated American League Rushmore will post on Friday.
How in the world do you decide what pitch to throw? And who decides? It is the manager? The pitcher? The catcher? A bit of all three? We will answer none of those questions below.
We know that sometimes the catcher decides what pitch should be thrown. And if the pitcher has both command and control, maybe the right pitch goes to the right location, and the batter fails. That’s if the catcher/pitcher/manager chooses the right pitch and location. And if the batter also fails. There’s merit to the idea that the best catchers ever are the ones best at calling games, if they’re actually the ones responsible for calling the games. I don’t think we really know who had such responsibility. And there’s no way to really know if they got the most out of their pitchers. There are just so many variables that we can’t control for.
The best receiver in history would have to have all of the physical attributes, and he’d have to be an expert on game theory, someone in league with the world’s best poker players. We just can’t measure that.
I’d like to note two more things before we get started. First, neither one of our numbers puts Johnny Bench on the top of the catcher list. And second, it’s extremely hard to figure out what’s right at this position. We’re trying our best.
Mauer is a made man. Unless he turns in a few -2.0 WAR seasons in a row, he’s over the line for good. The question is whether he can gain ground on the rest of the field. Given recent history, his peak appears locked in, so it’s about chasing down the career value of guys above him on the totem pole. Bill Dickey feels like his top end to me. After my various adjustments, Dickey’s ahead by 9 career WAR, but their peak is exactly the same. Mauer certainly could catch up, though as a thirty-five year old with a history of concussion syndrome, the wear and tear of catching, and an overall long-term decline in performance, especially in power, I’m not sanguine about his odds to hit on that prop. He’ll pass Joe Torre this year, but Charlie Bennett is a pretty far in the distance, let alone Hartnett and Dickey.—Eric
There’s actually quite a bit going on here. After three years when it seemed Mauer was done as a plus hitter, he rebounded nicely last season. On the plus side, his K-rate fell to pre-concussion levels. He also made more hard contact than he had in four years. Maybe he’s back??? I know that’s not the way aging works though. On the other hand, there’s not a lot of data we have on people who have recovered from concussions. In the last four seasons, he’s averaged over 138 games, 18 more than his previous four. In terms of wear and tear on his body, perhaps he’s looking better than a few years ago? Then again, the last four years have seen him with a 106 OPS+, while the previous four were at 134. And his 116 from last year isn’t really too impressive. He’s 35 now, and it’s quite possible his surprise 3-win campaign of 2017 was the last year of that quality he’ll ever have. That’s what I’m guessing. If we plug in seasons of 2.2, 1.1 and -0.4 WAR, he gets by Joe Torre, and that’s it. I say he finishes at #12.–Miller
This is one incredibly healthy catcher we’re looking at, a guy who’s played in at least 140 games every year since 2012. What’s more, he’s been worth over 4 wins each season. He’s 31 now. As he ages, the Giants can move him out from behind the plate more and more. If he can maintain last year’s level in 2018 and then decline slowly, he can get to #14. Maintaining a little more value and playing until age 38, he’ll battle Mauer for that #12 spot. I’ll take the more positive run out in this case.–Miller
It has to be Gary Carter, right? Everyone calls Johnny Bench the best MLB catcher ever. Well, everyone except me and Eric. I have to admit to being unsure of how catcher handling should be interpreted, and I think my catcher ratings are less likely to be “correct” than those at any position. I use Max Marchi’s handling numbers, albeit at a reduced rate, which vaults Carter to the top. Somehow, it’s actually not very close.–Miller
We could make a baseball TV comedy show called That 70s Catcher. Bench, Fisk, Simmons, Munson, plus big hunks of Carter’s career. Oh, and Gene Tenace. Gino Fiore Tenace is one of those analytical darlings who walked a lot, hit for power, moved around the diamond a bit, and whose excellence was hidden by baseball’s traditionalist mindset until the last twenty or so years. There’s that and the fact that his career was very short, under 6,000 plate appearances, and that defensively he wasn’t an outstanding backstop. I’m pretty sure that given the opportunity to name the twenty best catchers ever, a supermajority of baseball watchers and sports journalists wouldn’t include him. Especially when Ernie Lombardi, Bill Freehan, Lance Parrish, Yadier Molina, and a few other more famous catchers rank below him.—Eric
I have Charlie Bennett 28% over the line, while Eric sees him only 13% over. The difference between 10th best and 12th best, however, really isn’t a big deal. Perhaps Johnny Bench is our biggest disagreement? We are in lockstep on #1 and #2 at every other position, so when my #2 is his #5, we might say that it’s a big difference.–Miller
Yes, just about anyone. We use the handling numbers we have, which we think makes sense. Unfortunately, those numbers don’t exist for the first 80 or so years of the game, nor the last six. We’re not guessing. We’re doing the best we can, and we think we’re reasonably close. It’s just that the error bar at catcher is greater than at any position. Far greater, I think.–Miller
You know, Buck Ewing bugs me. I know that some folks in his own time considered him the best player in the game, but the second-best catcher of all time? I’m not so sure. Could be an issue with how I’m extrapolating playing time. But I can’t shake the feeling that we’re overcommitted on Ewing. Miller is absolutely correct that among all nine positions on the diamond (ten if you want to consider the DH separately), catcher is the fudgiest. We have all the usual things to account for such as schedule length, league quality, in my case standard deviation, differing defensive systems. Then we also have to introduce a ton more uncertainty because no defensive system captures catchers well, and the developers of those systems will tell you so. No system has successfully figured out how to add framing because framing is dependent on the umpire and the pitcher as well as the catcher. No system has incorporated pitcher handling either. Is plate blocking included in any of them? Where does pitch calling fit into this? Plus we have to account for the negative impact catching has on playing time so that we can bring catchers as close to other positions as possible. It’s not a cluster, not a whack-a-mole, more like those Russian nesting dolls. You’re trying to get down to the smallest doll, but there’s just so many other dolls ahead of it that eventually your hands get crampy from all the twisting apart of the dolls. And they are all wearing masks!—Eric
Next week we’re back with the next 20 catchers. And unless you’ve studied this subject, a bunch of names will be at least a little surprising.
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.
When I started this project to fix the Hall, I did so focusing only on hitters who starred in the 70s and 80s. After all, the writers have done a pretty good job getting the right pitchers from that era into the Hall. Seaver, Carlton, Ryan, Palmer, Perry, Jenkins, Niekro, Blyleven, Sutton, and Gossage are all where they belong. But the voters have also missed on a couple of guys, and a recent trip to Fenway Park where I had the pleasure of meeting Luis Tiant inspired me to continue with this series on overlooked 1970s and 1980s stars.
To be fair, some might not consider Tiant a pitcher of the 1970s. The Cuban righty got his career started in 1964, and he had his best year in 1968, both with the Indians, before moving to Minnesota in 1970. Still, I consider him a pitcher of the 1970s because he pitched for the Red Sox from 1971-1978. And I’m a Red Sox fan who met Tiant at Fenway Park, dammit. So that’s it, he’s a pitcher of the 1970s. For those counting, he finished things out with two campaigns in the Bronx and one in both Pittsburgh and California from 1979-1982.
He made three All-Star teams and received Cy consideration three times, though he never finished in the top-3. Part of his legend comes from post-season greatness in 1975. He got things started by shutting out the A’s in the ALCS. Then he opened the World Series with another shutout, this time against the Big Red Machine. Though he struggled some, he also won Game 4 before stinking up the joint in the Sox dramatic Game 6 win backed by Carlton Fisk’s 12th inning walk-off.
Tiant never had any claim as the best pitcher in baseball. In 1968, Denny McLain won 30 games, and Bob Gibson posted a 1.12 ERA. Even in his best three-year stretch, 1972-1974, five pitchers, including Wilbur Wood, were more valuable. He won 20 games four times, which voters seem to like. However, only two other times did he win more than 13. For his career, we’re looking at just 229 victories. And voters really love career wins. It’s kind of hard to blame them in some ways given that six pitchers from his era won 311 or more games. And Blyleven and Jenkins posted 287 and 284 respectively. If you’re not paying attention, he might seem like a lesser pitcher. And to be fair, he wasn’t the pitcher that any of the starters above were, except for Sutton. Being compared to pitchers of his era really hurts him, and undervaluing that era as a whole, hurts him more.
Another problem is that he often followed up a great season with a relatively mediocre one. His 8.4 pitching WAR in 1968 preceded 3.2 WAR in 1969. His 7.8 in 1974 was followed by 2.8, 6.3, 5.6, and 2.4. In some ways he was a little like Bret Saberhagen, except that he did his good work in even numbered years. Plus, he got hurt in 1969 and was worth less than a win over the next two years. His inconsistency hurt too.
But the real thing that hurt is that voters compared him to pitchers of his era rather than pitchers all time.
Back when players still had 15 chances on the ballot, Tiant remained for all 15 tries. After 1988, his first year of eligibility when he earned 30.9% of the vote, it looked like he was eventually going to get in. Guys who start over 30% almost always get in. In 1989, however, Perry and Jenkins hit the ballot with Johnny Bench and Carl Yastrzemski. It’s not surprising that Tiant took a step back. What does surprise is that he dropped to just 10.5% of the vote, tied with the inferior Mickey Lolich, a guy who he beat by 23 votes the year before.
Jim Palmer overshadowed him in 1990, Perry and Jenkins made it in 1991, Seaver entered in 1992, Niekro hit the ballot in 1993, Carlton got in and Sutton got on the ballot in 1995. By 1998, all of the 300 win guys finally made it. But there were big win guys Jim Kaat and Tommy John getting attention, and Bert Blyleven hit the ballot that year too. Tiant never rebounded to his 1988 heights. In fact, he never even got back to 20%.
The Golden Era Committee met in 2011, saw fit to put Tiant on the ballot, but the voters again did a poor job. Jim Kaat got ten votes, Tiant less than three. In 2014, it was the same result.
If we look at career WAR, Tiant is a pretty easy Hall choice. The three right in front of him include Don Drysdale, Roberto Alomar, and Dwight Evans, who we discussed last week. The three right behind him are Hall of Famers Duke Snider, Joe Cronin, and Pee Wee Reese. In fact, Tiant tops more than 50 Hall of Famers. And he’d be in the top half of pitchers in the Hall.
Oh, and if you like wins, Tiant had more than about 20 Hall starters.
I’ve kind of covered this section above, but it’s simply comical how many pitchers are indisputably behind Luis Tiant. But first, in terms of career value, Tiant looks a lot like Rube Waddell or Jim Bunning to me. He’s far better than all of the relievers, even Gossage. And he crushes the likes of Rube Marquard, Lefty Gomez, Jesse Haines, Jack Chesbro, and many others. One of them is my favorite Hall punching bag, Catfish Hunter.
Since Bill James wrote it first and best in his Politics of Glory, and since I think I spend far too much of my time trashing him (type his name into the search box if you’re interested), I’m going to let the Catfish Hunter comparison numbers speak for themselves.
Tiant Hunter ============================ Innings 3486.1 3449.1 Wins 229 224 Strikeouts 2416 2012 Shutouts 49 42 Though it's just by a little, Tiant wins in every single category. ============================================================================== ERA 3.30 3.26 K/BB 2.19 2.11 ERA+ 114 104 FIP 3.47 3.66 Hunter wins only ERA. For a better sense of real skill, see ERA+ and FIP. ============================================================================== RA9opp 4.08 3.99 This is the average scored by the pitcher's opposition. Catfish had it easier. ============================================================================== RA9def 0.07 0.25 This measures the pitcher's quality of defense. Catfish had it easier. ============================================================================== Park Factor 104.8 95.7 Over 100 is harder than average; under is easier. Catfish had it easier. ============================================================================== PtchW 22.3 9.0 This is adjusted pitching wins, the number of wins above average contributed. Hunter is clearly worse. ============================================================================== WPA 25.2 14.0 This is Win Probability Added, which kind of speaks for itself. Again, Hunter is worse. ============================================================================== Actual WAR 66.7 41.4 My Conversion 67.2 43.3 (Extra credit given for playoff pitching) MAPES P Rank 47 145 (My personal ranking system) This is the biggest no-brainer ever, right? Bill James is smart.
Next week, one of my all-time favorites, Rick Reuschel.
Look, first of all, when the Reds carve out their Rushmore, they’ll need to be sure they also write the Queen City’s name on the thing. Is it nn-n-t? Nn-n-tt? N-nn-t? N-nn-tt? N-n-t? N-n-tt? Who can keep it straight? At least with Mississippi, there’s a rule for the consonants in the follow-on syllables: always use two and stick an i between them.
But I digress. Our topic today is The Reds’ turn in our ongoing Friday Mount Rushmore series. Seems pretty easy to guess what faces contemporary fans would blast into rocky edifice. Billy Hatcher, Billy Hatcher, Billy Hatcher, and Billy Hatcher. When you bat .750 in the World Series you win its MVP and never have to buy a drink in Ohio again AMIRIGHT? Well, no, maybe we could make room for Jose Rijo who was the actual winner of the 1990 World Series MVP with a sparkling 0.59 ERA in his two starts. So Hatcher, Hatcher, Rijo, Hatcher.
I suspect that today’s fan has forgotten both of those fellows and is likely to want the faces of Barry Larkin and Johnny Bench up there too. I’d bet there’s even a fair amount of Pete Rose partisans too. (God knows why. I mean, have you seen him on Fox baseball telecasts? A-Rod’s a smart guy, but Rose makes him look like a Rhodes scholar…and I don’t mean Arthur Lee Rhodes either.) And I’d bet we’d round it out with a little Joseph Leonard Morgan action. Now that I think about it, all four of those Redlegs were baseball TV personalities. Larkin on MLB network, Rose as mentioned (with perhaps the weirdest live blooper ever), Little Joe infamous for his many fireable offenses as an ESPN commentator, and Johnny Bench for The Baseball Bunch. What, you’d forgotten about the Bunch? (My favorite episode appears to encourage stationing brick walls in the middle of the infield, which the Yankees actually implemented from 1995 to 2014.)
Of course, the Reds Mountain Flushmore is pretty gruesome. There’s Rose, of course, as well as bigoted slur-tossing, Hitler apologizing, and penny-pinching owner Marge Schott. Former GM Bill DeWitt isn’t as bad as those two, but assessing Frank Robinson as “not a young 30” and dealing him was, in a word, stupid. Like titanically stupid. And Eddie Cicotte. You know, because of the plot to throw the World Series, which tarnished the Reds’ championship.
But enough of this. We have rules here, unlike the spelling rules in Cincy, and the rules for a given team’s Mount Rushmore are thus: They spent their whole career with the team, and they finished among the top four in BBREF’s WAR for their career among such players.
Of course, we can’t include the likes of Rose (who has the most WAR in a Reds’ uniform of any MLB player ever with 77.8), Morgan, Frank Robinson (obviously), nor Billy Hatcher under our ruleset. But a couple fellows we’ve already mentioned make the grade.
Johnny Bench (74.9 WAR): That’s a pretty good catcher. If you asked me, and you didn’t, Bench was probably the single most important member of the Big Red Machine. How many teams have their catcher batting cleanup? The team started with a massive advantage over everyone else in the NL. The guy played more often than the typical catcher, hit like a first baseman, played outstanding defense, and was above average in handling pitchers. Now about that last one. Game-calling and pitcher handling have been studied by Max Marchi, and I rely on his findings. But I suspect that Bench, in tandem with Sparky Anderson, helped manage the Reds’ staff. The squad didn’t truly have a stud pitcher until it swapped for Tom Seaver in 1977. Anderson seemed to juggle a patchwork and injury-prone rotation with the fastest hook in the league, and you don’t do that by arguing with your catcher about whether a guy has anything left in the tank. But that’s just my guess. The Reds went to the big dance with Joe Morgan, and they went without him. Ditto George Foster. They didn’t go to the World Series with Tony Perez until Bench arrived. Same for Rose. You get my drift.
Barry Larkin (70.2): On the field, the only thing Larkin couldn’t do with consistent greatness was hit for power. The one year he hit 30 homers, he won an MVP. However, the one weakness in his game was a propensity for injury. I blame it on the hard turf at Riverfront Stadium, but whatever the reason, he missed more time than Johnny Bench usually did. That’s the only thing that kept him from being Derek Jeter with a good glove.
Bid McPhee (52.4): McPhee is probably remembered best today as the last important infielder to eschew a glove. He didn’t really need it anyway because he was an outstanding gloveman. Er, handman. Uh, let’s just say he had great hands. But he was on the first team in franchise history (1882 in the then-major American Association), and he stuck around for 18 years. He probably could have hung on longer if he’d wished to. He was still an average player at age 39. Probably his hands hurt. By the way, McPhee is among the least likely players to lead the league in home runs. His eight paced the AA in 1886, and represent 15% of his career 53 roundtrippers.
Now some of you are breathlessly anticipating our final selection. You’re thinking, hmm, it’s not Bruce Beryeni, nor is it Pokey Reese…. You’re probably thinking: DAVE CONCEPION! But no. At least not for now. It all depends on the future of:
Joey Votto (51.4): For all the absolutely lame talk in the area papers about how Votto doesn’t drive in enough runs (what is this, 1960-friggin’eight or something?), Votto has for years now been the axle around which the Reds’ offense turns. When he hits, their offense works, when he doesn’t, it doesn’t. The reason why is this simple: .424. That’s Votto’s career on-base percentage through July 24th when I’m actually writing this article. If you go to a Reds’ game, there’s roughly a 42% chance that Joey Votto will reach base in a given plate appearance. Think about what the means to an offense. The average hitter in Votto’s leagues has a .332 on-base percentage. If an average player bats 600 times during the season, he’ll be on base 199 times. Votto would reach 254 times. Votto bats third for the Reds, almost always does. So Votto, batting third, gets on 55 more times in front of your cleanup hitter than the average batter would. Fifty-five freaking times. Once every three games, your badass cleanup hitter will get one more shot to hit a bomb with at least one runner aboard. Stick that in your RBI pipe and smoke it.
So, now Dave Concepcion and his 39.9 career WAR. After him it’s a long way down to Long John Reilly (a teammate of McPhee’s) and his 24.4 WAR.
For my own little Mount Redsmore, I’d go in a couple other directions. First off, I have a little man crush on Heinie Groh. Yeah, that came out wrong, didn’t it. First off, I’m a retrospective fan of Heinie Groh’s. He’d make my Reds rock wall of fame. I’ve also always dug Jose Rijo. Man, like just one or two more seasons, and he’d be a HoMEr. Same goes for another odd-ball choice of mine, long-time Red Mario Soto. Last, of course, I’d reserve for Schottzie II. Schottzie I was overrated.
If you were a hitter who debuted in the 1970s, you’ve had a harder time getting into the Hall of Fame than you should have. From 1971-1992, an era that encompasses the careers of almost all of the players in this series, only once did scoring top 4.47 runs per game. And three times it was 3.99 or below. In contrast, the era from 1921-1941 saw scoring higher than 4.47 every single year. Yes, different eras have different levels of offense. And when we use counting stats to make Hall of Fame decisions for hitters, we fail to take into account those lower run environments. Since 1950, five of the eight seasons with the fewest home runs per team were in the 1970s, and half of the bottom-24 occurred from 1971-1984.
You can’t expect huge offensive numbers in that era, but Hall of Fame voters still seem to. It’s that failure, plus the misunderstanding of base on balls, the misunderstanding of defensive value, and the misunderstanding of greatness versus inner circle Hall of Fame talent that has helped keep Ted Simmons and others who debuted in the 1970s out of the Hall.
Ted Simmons is a catcher who played a bit on the corners and some designated hitter. He got started with a cup of coffee at just 19 for the 1968 Cardinals. By 1970, he was sharing time behind the plate with Joe Torre. In 1971, Simmons pushed Torre to third.He was shipped to the Brewers with the next two AL Cy Young winners, Rollie Fingers and Pete Vuckovich, in a 1980 deal that brought the Cards four players, including top prospect David Green. It was a terrible trade for the Cardinals. After five years in Milwaukee, he was sent to the Braves in a deal for Rick Cerone. Simmons was all but done at that point, and he ended his career in Atlanta in 1988.
Simmons had power, which is evidenced by his 11th place standing in home runs by someone who played more than 50% of his career at catcher. And he could hit for average too; he’s 14th on a similar list among backstops.
The greatest problem Ted Simmons has is when he debuted. His first full season was 1970. Johnny Bench had his in first full year in 1968, Carlton Fisk in 1972, and Gary Carter in 1975. All three of those catchers were clearly better than Simmons. It’s not easy to get a lot of attention when there are three clearly better players who debuted right around the same time, not to mention the excellent Thurman Munson, Gene Tenace, Jim Sundberg, and Darrell Porter.
The only time Simmons appeared on the BBWAA ballot was 1994 when he received just 3.7% of the vote. Far inferior players like Steve Garvey, Rusty Staub, and Dave Concepcion fared better.
To get an idea of Simmons’ greatness, we need to compare him to all catchers, not just his contemporaries. There are only 39 catchers ever with at least 5000 plate appearances, 100 homers, and a .300 on base percentage. If we move those numbers up to 150 homers and a .325 on base clip, we’re down to 23 catchers. And if we move to 200 long balls and a .340 OBP, it’s just a dozen guys. Simmons absolutely did not play during a good offensive era, yet only Mike Piazza, Yogi Berra, and Jorge Posada can match him in both HR and OBP. He’s also one of three catchers ever with 200 HR and 400 2B. The other two, Carlton Fisk and Ivan Rodgiruez are in the Hall.
Simmons has 50.1 career WAR, which is better than six Hall of Famers. To me, he is so clearly superior to Hall mistakes Ray Schalk and Rick Ferrell. Schalk is 42nd in career WAR among catchers, while Ferrell is 36th. Simmons is 12th. And he’s debatably better than Hall of Famers Roger Bresnahan and Ernie Lombardi.
I’m making Ray Schalk the choice here because he and Simmons both played in eras with depressed offense. In fact, the AIR number at BBREF, which measures the offensive level of the leagues and parks the player played in relative to all-time, is the same 96 for both of them. Let’s look at some stats.
Simmons Schalk ================================ Hits 2472 1345 Runs 1074 579 Home Runs 248 11 RBI 1389 594 OPS+ 118 83 Remember, they played in equally difficult offensive eras. ========================================================== Rfield -33 46 DRA -20.5 -17.1 The first is the defensive number at BBREF. The second is defensive regression analysis. I trust the second more. ===================================================================== Actual WAR 50.1 28.5 My Conversion 54.7 35.5 MAPES C Rank 17 45 MAPES is my personal ranking system.
Have I convinced you that Ted Simmons belongs in the Hall of Fame? Maybe not. But I hope I’ve convinced you that if the Hall could have only one of Simmons and Schalk, it should absolutely be Ted Simmons.
Tune in next Monday for the second part of this series, Keith Hernandez.
Today, we keep chugging along, telling you why we’re right and ESPN is wrong. Check out the other posts in this series, as we examine ESPN’s recent top-100 list and our own. As the countdown rolls on, we move into the top fifty. Check out the rest of of our list here: #100–91, #90–81, #80–71, #70–61, #60-51, and #50-41.
ERIC: Gibson is what you get when the best hitter in the league is a catcher. Even if his defense is average, it’s a hugely valuable package for any team. Right now Seamheads has only about half to 60% of his career accurately documented. There’s much more we don’t have the goods on, such as his stint in the Mexican League, the winter leagues, or any of his Negro League stats from 1942 until his death. What’s there is pretty darned impressive. For example, on OPS+ of 199. Seamheads gives him 22.2 WAR in 1606 PA. Knock it down by 20% off the top, and that’s about 6 WAR/550 PA. From 1920–1950, count ‘em two catchers reach 6 Wins in a single season (Mickey Cochrane in 1933 and Bill dickey in 1937). And the thing about Gibson is that the stats we have include his age 18–20 seasons, well before his peak, and they only include full seasons up to age 28. This ranking is conservative and pending more information.
ERIC: What’s often forgotten about Gibson is what a great hitter he was. We all know about Don Drysdale’s big season in 1965 (.300, 7 HR, 2.2 batting WAR), but from 1955 to 1980, Bob Gibson owned the most batting WAR of any pitcher. These arbitrary end points help Gibson, by cutting off significant portions ot the careers of Don Newcombe, Arren Spahn, and a couple others, but Gibson, who was a superior athlete and a one-time member of the Harlem Globetrotters could really rake for a moundsman.
MILLER: When men were men and pitchers threw nine innings, Spahn may have been one of the game’s greatest workhorses ever. Only Pete Alexander and Steve Carlton, I believe, led the league in batters faced more than Spahn’s five times. And only Cy Young had a longer streak of facing 1000+ batters in a season than Spahn’s 17. One can pretty easily make the argument that the 13-time winner of 20+ games is the most consistently durable pitcher the game has ever seen.
ERIC: As we’ve written before, Clemente has the most amazing arm in history. He also has one of the weirdest career paths thanks to the Rule 5 Draft forcing him into the big leagues before he had enough seasoning. He didn’t round into form for another several years and a couple thousand PAs of playing time. Think about that the next time your team’s hot prospect slumps for 100 PAs out of the gate.
ERIC: We sort of discussed Ott in our comments about Joe DiMaggio. A trope about DiMaggio was that he was killed by his home park. And the splits bear that out. On the flip side, Mel Ott benefited from the short right-field foul lines at the Polo Grounds. But did they turn him from a good hitter into a monster? No, they did not. Mel Ott was a great hitter at home and a great hitter on the road. At home he hit .297/.422/.558 and away, in 148 more PAs, he hit .311/.408/.510. What the Polo Grounds did was mostly to transform his distribution of extra-base hits. At home: 182 doubles, 21 triples, 323 homers; 526 extra-base hits for 1719 bases. On the road: 306 doubles, 51 triples, 188 homers; 545 extra-base hits for 1517 bases. The Polo Grounds basically flipped the doubles and homers totals from the road, and killed his triples. The tradeoff was worth it, of course, in terms of the extra bases gained. Mel Ott on the road was one hell of a player. From 1920–1950, here are players with between 4500–6500 career PAs with batting lines similar to Ott’s road numbers (his road Rbat is estimated from the ratio of his road to home RC):
NAME PA 2B 3B HR AVG OBP SLG OPS+ Rbat ============================================================== Mel Ott (road) 5748 306 51 188 .311 .408 .510 151 364 Chick Hafey 5115 341 67 164 .317 .372 .526 133 205 Tommy Henrich 5410 269 73 183 .282 .382 .491 132 215 Babe Herman 6229 399 110 181 .324 .383 .532 141 320 Charlie Keller 4604 166 72 189 .286 .410 .518 152 286 Ken Williams 5624 285 77 196 .319 .393 .530 138 270
These are the closest matches from his own time. If you think about it, these are five guys each with half a Hall of Fame career. Mel Ott has both halves and was not at all a mere product of his home field. Unlike, say, Jim Rice whose OPS home/road split was a massive .920/.789. At home, he was a better version of Kevin Mitchell’s career. On the road he was basically Larry Hisle or Sixto Lezcano’s careers. You could look it up.
MILLER: Bench is, by acclimation, the best catcher ever to play in MLB. We’ve discussed in the past that Gary Carter is a lot closer than people think. Still, Bench is the best. Pretty much everyone agrees. And we can see that the folks at ESPN recognize that this modern player, whose popularity basically matched his skill, is ranked just about right. What a surprise.
MILLER: I don’t appreciate Steve Carlton quite enough because I have such vivid memories of him pitching with the Minnesota Twins putting up an 8.54 ERA in 1987 and 1988. I never saw him pitch in 1972 when he was other-worldly and barely in 1980 when he was nearly as good. For people of a certain age, Frank Robinson has similar problems. He’s just a guy who managed a bunch of poor teams and never made the playoffs. Luckily for me, I’m of the age where I read about Robinson, and what I read told the story much better than those who see him as a manager. By my numbers, he’s one of sixteen hitters ever with a decade and a half of 4-WAR seasons. I rank him at #21 among all hitters. I could quite easily hear an argument for as high as 19, maybe a shade higher. It’s kind of funny that something that hurts Robinson’s reputation a bit probably helped him in ESPN’s rankings. After all, casual fans are more familiar with him than they are with Jimmie Foxx.
MILLER: What’s up with ESPN as 19th century deniers? Pretty much none of us would be alive today without it.
MILLER: He’s #2 in A’s history and #9 in Red Sox history in homers. I rank only a dozen guys with four seasons of 9.5+ WAR. His peak was truly outstanding. Looking at his four best consecutive seasons, he’s #9 in history and looking at his best five, he’s #11. (Of course, Mike Trout is right on his heels and still has a month left).
ERIC: I typically think of Matty as the Greg Maddux of his time. Mathewson was a college man (Bucknell University) and very cerebral in his approach. He struck out more hitters in context than Maddux did, but like him had amazing command and outstanding annual K/BB rates. They were also both well known for both a wide repertoire and a single pitch. While each of them had mastery of many pitches and used them to stay out of the center of the plate and confound hitters, Mathewson was known for the “fadeaway,” which was probably something an offspeed pitch with plenty of late break, much like the circle change. Maddux had a nasty cutter than he could move in either direction with equal accuracy to saw off hitters and induce weak contact. Each relied more and more heavily on these pitches as their careers wore on and they lost a foot or two on their fastballs.
THE WORLDWIDE LEADER IN SPORTS’ 40–31
MILLER: By this point on the ESPN list, greatness and fame overlap quite a bit, which means I have fewer complaints. We don’t have Mike Trout on our list, and a few posts ago I took the ESPN folks to task for including Bryce Harper on their list. I won’t do so today. Mike Trout may well be the best player I’ve ever seen. I say that even though I’ve seen ten of the top thirty players in person. And I’m pretty certain Barry Bonds is one of the best five players ever. Still, Mike Trout might be better. Not today. Not yet. But it might happen. He’s scary good.
ERIC: As you note, we are in much closer concordance with the WWLinS by this point. We’ve already noted that Miggy and Rose are big overreaches at their respective ranks. Let’s focus on Cabrera for a sec. What would have to be true for ESPN’s ranking of him to be correct? He has 8900 or so PAs through age 33. He’d need have performed at a huge peak level so far to keep up the likes of Jimmie Foxx and Joe Morgan (in the 30s) or Jackie and Mike Schmidt (who rank in the 20s). Miggy has earned about 70 WAR in those 8900 PAs. His best seven season total 44.6, which makes his JAWS (as of the day we wrote this piece) 56.7. Foxx’s career was virtually over at this juncture of his career. After 1941, with 9058 PAs, he’d racked up 96 WAR (!) with a seven-year peak of 60 Wins. His JAWS stood at 77.8. Let’s run yet another table of hitters ranked within ten of Cabrera by ESPN through the same junctures PA-wise in their careers:
NAME Rank PAs Best7WAR cumWAR JAWS =========================================== Ripken 47 9009 56.1 80.7 68.4 Banks 46 8831 51.8 65.6 58.7 Berra 42 8359 37.0 59.5 48.2 Speaker 41 8735 60.8 104.2 82.5 Cabrera 39 8861 44.6 68.9 56.7 Morgan 38 8893 59.1 84.8 72.0 Rose 37 9242 43.0 64.2 53.6 Foxx 33 9058 59.5 96.0 77.8 Brett 32 9668 53.2 82.0 67.6 Pujols 31 8546 61.5 92.7 77.1 Robinson 30 5804 52.1 61.5 56.8 Bench 29 8674 47.1 75.0 61.0
Bill James once wrote that if you can show that a guy’s performance is right in the belly of a whole bunch of really good Hall of Famers, then that guy has a reasonable case. You can’t show that with Cabrera viz this list because his performance is only better than over-ranked players and catchers. The only player demonstrably worse than Cabrera is Rose, who we’ve already argued was ranked way too high. You could try to convince me that Berra is worse, but as a catcher, and one of the ten best catchers ever, you’ll have a hard time convincing me, particularly since Cabrera while among the top 20 at his position isn’t especially close to the top 10. Even so, we ranked Berra a good deal lower than ESPN did. Robinson’s career is truncated for reasons we know well, yet his peak performance is so strong that his career and Cabrera’s are currently equivalent as JAWS sees it. A guy with 3,000 fewer PAs is equivalent to the #39 ranked player on ESPN’s list. One or both of those rankings must be wrong, but it’s not possible that both are right. Banks is the next closest to Cabrera, and his peak creams Cabrera’s. We didn’t even rank Mr. Cub!
The only possible argument in his favor of Cabrera’s inclusion at this level is the timeline. But to get him from our spot in the 90s to a spot in the 30s, you’d have to assume that the timeline is amazingly steep. Putting aside the catchers, whose WAR are depressed by the physical rigors of the position, the average of the non-Cabreras in the list above who are not catchers is 68.3 JAWS. That figure is 20% higher than Cabrera’s JAWS. Now, do you think that Tris Speaker’s times were 20% easier than Cabrera’s? I could buy that. And Jackie’s? Maybe. How about Cal Ripken’s? That’s a tough sell right there. Same with George Brett. How many hits do you think George Brett would get in today’s game? If Brett’s times were 20% tougher than now, then you’d be looking at something around 2825 safeties, or 325 hits fewer than his actual total.*
The most damaging argument against Cabrera’s ranking? Albert Pujols’ rank. If Albert’s JAWS at the same juncture of his career was 40% higher than Cabrera’s, how can they be reasonably ranked within ten of one another? Look, the NL was a little weaker than the AL for a few years, but not 40% weaker!
So that’s the gist of the absurdity of Cabrera’s ranking. Your mileage may vary.
* I figured this by determining his runs created using Bill James’ technical method and then, keeping the ratio of components to hits constant, lowered the hits until I reached a runs created total that was 20% lower than his actual total.
Our 1989 voting marked the first time since 1984 that we elected two backloggers. It marked the first time since 1983 that we elected four newcomers. And it marked the first time since 1979 that we elected six players in total. The Hall of Miller and Eric welcomes Johnny Bench, Carl Yastrzemski, Gaylord Perry, Fergie Jenkins, Bobby Bonds, and Willie Davis into our esteemed (we think) institution.
The first four were in their debut year, while Bonds made it on his third ballot and Davis got in on ballot number eight. We have now 130 of the greatest players in the game’s history in the HoME, and we’re still planning on 212, so there are 82 more to elect going forward.
Per our rules, players have to be named on both ballots for induction. Take a look at how we voted in 1989.
Miller Eric 1 Johnny Bench Johnny Bench 2 Carl Yastrzemski Carl Yastrzemski 3 Gaylord Perry Gaylord Perry 4 Fergie Jenkins Fergie Jenkins 5 Red Faber Bobby Bonds 6 Bobby Bonds Willie Davis 7 Willie Davis
Johnny Bench: If we were to say that he’s the best catcher ever, that comment should be enough, right? Well, Bench is the best catcher ever. He was the NL Rookie of the Year for the Reds in 1968. Two years later, he won his first MVP Award. And in 1972 he won his second. He was a spectacular defender, was said to call a great game, and he had one of the best throwing arms ever, as evidenced by a career CS rate of 43%, and perhaps by ten Gold Gloves. Obviously the guy could hit too. Two home run and three ribbie titles say something. But what might say even more is that he was he hit in the middle of the order for the Big Red Machine. Adjusted for the difficulties of the position, we’re looking at as many as a dozen seasons of All-Star ball, and up to five at the MVP level. The HoME is very proud to welcome this 14-time All-Star and 1976 World Series MVP.
Carl Yastrzemski: In much the same way that Joe DiMaggio is the second greatest Yankee center fielder of all time, Captain Carl was the second best Red Sox left fielder in history. In one of the very best campaigns ever, he won the 1967 AL MVP and triple crown while leading the Impossible Dream Red Sox to the World Series. And Yaz’s ’67 super-season wasn’t a tremendous career outlier. He made 18 All-Star teams, won three batting titles, five OBP titles, three SLG titles, and seven Gold Gloves. He topped 400 home runs when that was a meaningful feat and also topped 3000 hits. For historical comparisons in terms of our rankings, think Joe Morgan, Eddie Mathews, and Dan Brouthers. He’s extremely close to the Hall’s inner circle. You know how good he was? Both of us can actually spell his name.
Gaylord Perry: The master of the spitter would have been a joy to watch in his prime. Everything he threw up there worked. He topped 300 wins and won Cy Young Awards in both leagues while playing for eight teams over 22 years. His signature season was 1972 when he put up 11+ WAR, a 1.92 ERA, and won 24 games for a Cleveland Indian team that played .414 ball when he wasn’t on the mound. Taking his career as a whole, we’re looking at ten or eleven seasons at the All-Star level. That’s a height matched by fewer than a dozen and a half pitchers ever.
Fergie Jenkins: One of the more overlooked great pitchers of all time, probably because he never made it to October, Jenkins is likely one of the top two dozen pitchers ever. Yes, he was that great. With eight All-Star type seasons and a spectacular 1971 when he won 24 games, the NL Cy Young, and posted 11+ WAR, Jenkins was in many ways the Mike Mussina of his time in terms of being under-appreciated. Had he pitched for the A’s or maybe the Reds, there’s a good chance he’d have won 300 games and increased his famous factor. Instead, he’ll have to settle for a spot in the HoME.
Bobby Bonds: You can refer to him as Barry’s dad, Mr. 30/30, or a guy who got traded time after time. Each of those monikers contributes to the way we underrate this all-time great whose chief failing is that he wasn’t Willie Mays. But that’s certainly not fair criticism. Even though Bonds wasn’t ever the best player in his league, he was frequently among them. Depending on how you slice it, he put up as few as six or as many as eight All-Star type seasons. For a dozen years, from 1968-1979, Bonds was the seventh best non-pitcher in the game by WAR. For the half-decade from 1969-1973, he’s just over 2 WAR out of the game’s top spot. His uncommon mix of skills wasn’t fully appreciated in his time, but today we can see he was outstanding.
Willie Davis: We know that candidates at the margins will all have warts. Davis certainly does. His four or five All-Star level seasons may not be a lot, but they have to be viewed within the context of both his era and his position. The late 1960s and early-mid 1970s seem like they may be underpopulated in the HoME. And there really aren’t as many great center fielders as one may think. After making appropriate adjustments for defense and schedule, Davis seems like he’s the 11th best CF among eligibles through 2014. And it’s not like his peak is awful. For a dozen seasons, from 1962-1973, only seven NLers had more value – Hank Aaron, Willie Mays, Roberto Clemente, Ron Santo, Billy Williams, Pete Rose, and Willie McCovey. Welcome HoME, 3-Dog.
One of the best things about our process is that it takes both of us to vote for a player before he can gain admission into the HoME. However, we don’t always reach the same conclusions at the same times. When we vote for players and they don’t get in, we continue to review their cases. And there are times, not surprisingly, when we change our minds and have to retract a vote. Those retractions are below.
Dave Bancroft: I think I will ultimately vote for Bancroft again. We have some wiggle room in the 1910s and early 1920s, and Bancroft is almost certainly the last shortstop candidate I would vote for given that Hughie Jennings’ era is overpopulated, and that we are ahead of the game at shortstop.
Billy Herman: I’ve gone back and now forth yet again. The 1930s are beginning to look like they might be a very populous time for hitters, and I don’t know yet whether that means I should not vote for Herman. Therefore, I’ll hit pause again on him until this becomes clearer.
As we’ve said many times, it takes votes from both of us to elect a candidate. When only one of us votes for a player, we explain those votes here.
Red Faber: With another election cycle came another iteration of my pitching numbers. And another pro-Faber result. He’s ranked #48 now, which is a very comfortable place since we intend to elect 60-63 pitchers in this process. Eric and I are both troubled by Faber’s career shape. He’s a spectacular ultra-peak candidate and a very good career candidate. But in terms of traditional peak and prime, he’s not impressive at all. On the positive side, there are only nine pitchers since 1893 who, just on the mound, top Faber in both his best season and his second best season by WAR – Walter Johnson, Cy Young, Roger Clemens, Kid Nichols, Pedro Martinez, Steve Carlton, Ed Walsh, Amos Rusie, and Joe McGinnity. Of those pitchers only the first six also beat Faber in career WAR on the mound. And among all pitchers, Faber is #27 in mound WAR. On the negative, Faber has only three All-Star-level seasons. And he has only seven of 3+ WAR. For me, the positives outweigh the negatives, so I keep voting for Faber.
That’s all for our 1989 election. Please visit our Honorees page to see the plaques of those elected and to see plenty more information about the HoME.
Congratulations to our second class of inductees, Cap Anson, Roger Connor, and Dan Brouthers for gaining entrance to the Hall of Miller and Eric on our 1906 ballot. The HoME is now populated with six of the greatest players in the game’s history.
Per our rules, all three had to be named on both ballots for induction. Let’s look to see how we voted.
|Cap Anson||Cap Anson|
|Roger Connor||Roger Connor|
|Dan Brouthers||Dan Brouthers|
Here’s a brief rationale from each voter for each player.
Cap Anson: To this point, he’s the best player in baseball history.
Roger Connor: At his best, he was great. When he wasn’t his best, he was still very good. He had a very nice peak and a very nice career. Connor is an easy inductee into the HoME
Dan Brouthers: He might be the best power hitter of the 19th century. And he’s another easy call.
Cap Anson: Best player we’ve seen so far.
Roger Connor: Second best player we’ve seen so far, by a nose over Brouthers.
Dan Brouthers: Third best player we’ve seen so far.
Buck Ewing: Tremendous defense adding to good offensive profile at tough position.
George Wright: Best player before the NA, probably second best player from 1871-1879, maybe the best depending on how one sees Barnes.
King Kelly: The bad-defense and shorter-career version of Ewing. $10,000 sale reflects his performance and popularity. Strong peak/prime performer, would have been higher but for inability to keep it together after age 33.
Paul Hines: Best centerfielder of the pro-game’s first 15 years. Strong similarity to already-enshrined Deacon White in peak, prime, and career value.
Ross Barnes: Most dominant player of the 1870s by far. Among handful to lead league in WAR 5 times. Was still average after illness/injury that ultimately forced him from game. Probably best 2B before Nap Lajoie/Eddie Collins.
Charlie Bennett: He’s the Carlton Fisk to Buck Ewing’s Johnny Bench in the 1880s. Oddly enough his playing style is kind of like Thurman Munson with an even better glove. Munson is a borderliner, this guy is easily over the line for catchers.
Please visit our Honorees page to see their plaques and to see more information about the HoME and those who have been elected.