We’re back after a week away to share some thoughts on the BBWAA Hall of Fame ballot. It’s a good thing we had that week too. See, due to position eligibility differences, I had only 123 left fielders. And being a guy who likes symmetry, I needed to find two more to reach the 125 we’ve used at other positions. Enter Cleon Jones and Gene Richards. And enter a bit of a conundrum. It turns out we’re not actually offering the top-125 at each position. For me Jones and Richards slot in at #88 and #103 respectively. For Eric they’re #99 and #113. So not only do we not have the top-125, we don’t even have the top-100.
And that’s okay. The flavor of each position is correct, and I expect the lists will get more accurate each year as we add a few guys.
In terms of position differences, remember that Eric’s CHEWS+ puts players where they had the most value, while my MAPES+ slots them where they played the most games. For Eric, he puts Pete Rose, Joe Jackson, Brian Giles, Larry Hisle, Richie Zisk, Bip Roberts, and Jeff Conine, while I have all of those guys elsewhere. MAPES places Rose and Conine at first base, Roberts at second, Hisle in center, and each of Jackson, Giles, and Zisk in right. I put Jim O’Rourke on this list; Eric prefers him in center field.
If you’ve missed any posts in this series, check ‘em out!
That’s the list in left. On Wednesday, we continue our outfield tour in center. Join us then.
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.
Man, it feels good to be kinda, sorta back doing this, at least for a little while. On Wednesday we updated the Mount Rushmores in the National League. Today we’ll do the same in the Junior Circuit.
That’s it for your 2018 Rushmore update. In the next few weeks we’re going to update you on the progress (or lack thereof) of active players on their journeys to the HoME.
We spend a decent amount of time here linking to and just generally sharing the greatness of Baseball Reference. By the way, you should subscribe to their Play Index. Because we’re frequent users and because ads are no fun, we pay BBREF a few bucks to run ad free. So it’s nice when I’m reminded of the site’s sponsorship possibilities. I think that they stopped taking sponsorships a few years back. And maybe they grandfathered in those who were sponsoring.
I say this because the Hall of Miller and Eric sponsor’s Bobby Veach’s page. Why Bobby Veach? Well, that’s a fair question. When we first looked into sponsorship, there were a few things we had in mind. First, the page had to be available. Babe Ruth and Barry Bonds weren’t. Second, the page needed to be relatively inexpensive. We weren’t using it to drive traffic so much as support a site we love. And third, the page needed to be one of an under-the-radar player who is in the HoME. Enter Bobby Veach.
Veach was a Tiger for most of his 14-year career that ran from 1912-1925. He had a very impressive bat, twice leading the league in doubles and once in triples. In a time essentially before Babe Ruth, home runs weren’t so common, and Veach only had 64 in his career. But his OBP was .370, and his OPS+ was 127. He was a plus fielder as well, +30 runs by BBREF’s Rfield. And his straight WAR numbers are solid – six seasons from 4.9-6.7 WAR, plus a 4.2, 3.1, and 2.5 added in there. The real greatness in Veach, however, comes when we adjust Rfield for Defensive Regression Analysis (DRA). His +30 turns into almost +189. He suddenly has eight seasons of 5.3-8.7 WAR, and he’s an easy call for the HoME.
If you don’t run BBREF without advertising, try clicking on one or two of the sponsorship links. Maybe you’ll run into something really cool.
And if you’ve missed any part of this series, not to worry. It’s all linked right here.
I’d like to tell you that they’re coming, but I’d be lying if I did. While we have an active guy on our list next week, left field is a wasteland if we’re hoping to find a future HoMEr. I guess Marcell Ozuna may be a pretty impressive player, but he’s 27 and will need a very nice year to reach 20 career WAR. Maybe Andrew Benintendi or Rhys Hoskins will be something someday. I don’t know. The real answer to the question is that these things come in cycles. Not so long ago Bonds, Rickey, Manny, and Raines patrolled left. Over the last two weeks, we reviewed catchers, and four of the best thirty ever, at least for my money, are active now.–Miller
Imagine that you were playing Baseball Family Feud. Richard Dawson says, “Top five answers on the board. We asked 100 people Who are the greatest five left fielders in baseball history?” You’re going to answer Bonds, Williams, Henderson, or Yaz without blinking. But would of those 100 respondents have named Ed Delahanty? Nope. Delahanty is known to have hit .400 three times and to have died by plunging into Niagra Falls after being forcibly detrained. But how many respondents do we think would name him a top-five left fielder? If Pete Rose is considered a left fielder, then you know Big Ed ain’t getting a vote. Probably no one alive saw him play a single inning of baseball, but a lot folks have seen Billy Williams or Willie Stargell. A few might have even seen Goose Goslin or Al Simmons. I’d be surprised if even one person out of a hundred dropped Delahanty’s name.—Eric
There are the DRA darlings, Jimmy Sheckard and Bobby Veach. Then there are the Hall of Famers Ralph Kiner, Willie Stargell, Joe Medwick, Lou Brock, Heinie Manush, and Chick Hafey who don’t make this week’s list. Left field is a position where the Hall has messed up quite a bit, more than any other position both by omission and commission. I think it’s possible we disagree with conventional wisdom most on Jose Cruz. He had only three trips to the plate in his All-Star career and received just two votes when he appeared on the Hall ballot in 1994. To most, he’s just another guy form the 1970s and 1980s. I’ve written about him in the past, here and here, so I’ll be brief. The gist of it is that Cruz had almost everything working against him – cavernous ballparks, doubles power, value from walks, contribution across his game rather than dominance anywhere. His skill set wasn’t understood when he was playing, nor is it so well understood by “experts” today. If we’re being honest though, Cruz is right on the edge of the HoME. If we were to dump a dozen guys, I bet he’d be one of them. –Miller
There’s not a player on this list about whom we have any real disagreement, at least not by the numbers. I will mention Manny for a brief moment. If I had an actual vote, Manny would have my support, just as he’d have Eric’s. However, I believe my support to be less strong. I could be convinced that his cheating might have been problematic enough for me to withhold a vote. Eric is more from the camp that his punishment was his suspension, not something having to do with a museum. Again, I’m with him. I’m just less confident in my position.–Miller
Joe Kelley is probably our area of biggest disagreement. Miller thinks the Red Sox should start him, and I think he should pitch in relief.—Eric
PS: Just kidding, neither of us thinks he should start.—Eric again
I suspect that if we ever have the miracle of play-by-play data for most or all of MLB history, we’ll discover that we’ve underrated Fred Clarke. The guy had a really astute baseball mind, had pretty good speed, and probably took a lot of extra bases. Plus, as a lefty he gains the natural advantage for GIDP avoidance. I wouldn’t be surprised at all if those attributes earned him at least a win’s worth of runs above the -1 BBREF has for Rbaser.—Eric
Unless you dislike the DRA substitution we make, want Manny or Bonds off the list for PED use, or have found some way to hold a grudge against Joe Jackson, I don’t think there are any players in our top-20 who our systems overrate or underrate. Even if Eric is right about Clarke, and I suspect he is, how far up the chart would he move? One spot. That’s it.–Miller
We’ll see you in a week for the next installment of left fielders.
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.
My team, the Red Sox, were the inspiration for this project, this week in our third installment. I wanted to find a way to etch four faces, none of them being Roger Clemens’. And we’ve done that with this project, requiring that only players who spent their entire careers with the Red Sox can grace the mountain. Boston has had an AL franchise since the league began in 1901, though they were known as the Boston Americans for the first seven years. Let’s see who will represent the 8-time champs and owners of the second best record in AL history.
Well, clearly Roger Clemens and Wade Boggs left Boston. They’re third and fourth in Red Sox WAR. Other greats, Cy Young and Tris Speaker, had extensive careers with different Cleveland franchises. At age-39 Dwight Evans had a decent bat for a season in Baltimore, and David Ortiz spent parts of six seasons in Minnesota before they made the mistake of dumping him. Pedro won a Cy Young Award in his final season in Montreal and a K/BB title in his first year as a Met.
It’s also not Jim Rice (47.4 WAR) or Rico Petrocelli (39.1 WAR), two all-time great Red Sox who have been bested by four others for status among all-time great solo Sox.
Ted Williams: The Kid won a dozen OBP titles and might have had his two greatest seasons immediately before and immediately after he returned from the service. If we give him the average of the two years before he left and the two after he returned for the three years he was away, his 123.1 WAR would turn into 154.6. He’d move from 14th in history to 6th, topped by only Ruth, Cy, the Big Train, Bonds, and Mays. If we do the same for the time he missed for Korea, he’d be up to 165.2 WAR, passing Mays and Bonds, and within a hair of Walter Johnson.
Carl Yastrzemski: We know that Yaz won the triple crown in 1967 putting up an insane 12.4 WAR. What we don’t think of is his 1968 season when he totaled 10.5 WAR, yet finished just ninth in MVP voting, behind two guys with less than half of his value, Frank Howard and teammate Hawk Harrelson. Excluding Ruth, Bonds, Mantle, Mays, and Williams, only ten hitter seasons ever top Yaz in 1968, his second best campaign. He finished with 96.1 career WAR.
Dustin Pedroia: Just this season, Laser Show has moved into the top-10 in Red Sox WAR. At age-32 and signed through 2021, he feels like someone who will end his career in Boston. He seems sure to pass Papi, Pedro, and Speaker on the Sox list. Whether or not he can move further up will have everything to do with health. The same goes for his HoME case. The Hall will like the MVP, Rookie of the Year, and rings in 2007 and 2013. But second base is a stacked position. Robinson Cano is better. Chase Utley will look better upon retirement. And it’s not unlikely Ian Kinsler will too. Jose Altuve’s story is still to be told. It’s going to be fascinating to see how the next three seasons play out for Pedroia.
Bobby Doerr: Helping to make Pedroia’s Hall case is Doerr. He’s also a Red Sox second baseman, he’s in the Hall, and Pedroia passed him in career WAR this season. In addition to his Hall credential, Doerr is just barely in the HoME. He wasn’t until Retrosheet published more data to show that his double play proclivity wasn’t as bad as we thought. Once we saw the update, it made his career numbers look better than they had before more detail was uncovered. As of now, Doerr is 24th on my second base list. Pedroia is 31st, passing Lonny Frey this season. It’ll be interesting to see if Pedroia can top the nine-time All-Star and 1946 World Series star when it’s all said and done.
Pedro Martinez: Those who are about my age can appreciate that we live in lucky baseball times. We got to watch Roger Clemens, Greg Maddux, Randy Johnson, Mariano Rivera, Roy Halladay, and Clayton Kershaw at their best. For me, Pedro tops them all. One of my favorite Pedro stats is that from 1998-2003, Pedro’s first six years in Boston, he posted a 2.26 ERA while the rest of the AL sat at 4.65, more than double Pedro’s number.
Dave Roberts: Yes, he played only 45 regular season games in Boston and totaled only 0.3 WAR. Yes, I know he doesn’t belong here. But in the 2004 ALCS with the Red Sox trailing the Yankees 3-0 in the series and 4-3 in the game, with Mariano Rivera on the mound in the bottom of the ninth inning, Roberts pinch ran for Kevin Millar after a walk, stole second, and scored. If he didn’t steal that base, maybe, just maybe, it would have all been different. That game changed my life and the lives of many Red Sox fans. And it’s my Rushmore. I can be a little jealous.
Next week, we look at the Boston, Milwaukee, and Atlanta Braves.
You’ve heard by now that Mike Trout is on the disabled list for the first time in his career. And no pun intended, this injury hurts the Trout loving community, which really should be all of us. I shamefully admit that I was checking BBREF on a daily basis to watch his 2017 WAR creep up. After all, we are in the middle of what could have been a historic season, certainly another 10 WAR season. But what now? Trout is out until near August, and I would expect that he won’t be right when he comes back. Thumb injuries can be like that.
So today I want to look at some kind of, sort of, maybe comparable players to see if they had a year like this. I want to see if there’s historical precedent for Trout to fall off track and get back on.
In terms of career rankings, Mantle is the guy I’ve been aiming for since about 2014. At just age 25, Trout had set himself up to top Joe DiMaggio in center field, but catching Mantle would have been a real trick. Mantle wasn’t the healthiest guy ever. Even so, while in his 20s, he only missed more than a dozen games in a season once. It was that year, 1953, when Mantle was just 21, that he posted his worst season of the decade, just 5.3 WAR. He would never fall below 6.3 again, not until the injury plagued 1962 campaign. In 1963, after a Brooks Robinson fly ball and Mantle’s aggressive outfield play led to a broken bone in his foot and other issues, Mantle played just 65 games and totaled just 2.9 WAR. He was 31 and essentially done being the elite Mantle.
I don’t want to get into a deep Mantle-Trout debate right now – and there could be one. Trout needs at least half a dozen seasons of 9-win baseball in front of him to catch Mantle in terms of my MAPES ranking system. Sure, he could do that, but to get there, he’d have to repeat what he’s done so far, and then some. But here’s the debate. Mantle played at a time of poor integration. He didn’t face relief specialists. He only played against seven teams throughout his glory days, so he could become very familiar with the pitchers. He got to play through an expansion, a time when great players have all-time great seasons. And on and on.
Mantle hit his 534 career homers against 224 pitchers. That’s 2.38 per pitcher. Thus far, Trout has 184 homers against 134 pitchers. That’s 1.37 per pitcher, and it absolutely suggests that Trout has had a harder road in that one regard. For his career, Trout has hits against 401 different pitchers. Mantle did the same against only 427. And Mantle had over 6000 additional plate appearances.
Anyway, the only reasonable position to have on Trout and Mantle now is that one is a generational player. The other should be if healthy. Once Trout becomes that player, we can have a Mantle-Trout debate.
I must say that if I’m Trout, I aim a bit higher than Clemente. Still, the Pirate right fielder is next on our list of comparison players because he’s not entirely dissimilar – an athletic outfielder whose chief skill is something other than power. Of course, at Trout’s level, you see how hard it is to compare him to anyone, as you’ll see below.
As it turns out, Clemente isn’t a great comparison. He wasn’t really healthy until he turned 25. Actually, through age-27 Clemente averaged just 4.2 WAR per 650 plate appearances. To this point, Trout’s at 9.5 per 650 trips. Once Clemente became Clemente in 1963, he remained largely healthy. And if Trout plays from here on like Clemente, he’d retire in a virtual tie with Stan Musial on my all-time list. For reference, that’s between Ted Williams and Eddie Collins.
Like Trout, A-Rod got started when he was very young. And like Trout, Rodriguez basically hit the ground running. There is some good news here. Through A-Rod’s age-24 season, he only topped 148 games played once. And once he was as low as 129. On the other hand, he wouldn’t dip below 124 until he was 35, which Trout will this year. And A-Rod wasn’t below 138 until he was 33. That was the year we stopped seeing elite A-Rod.
Angel fans don’t like this comparison because they see first-hand who Pujols has become. Through age-32, Pujols was basically never hurt, bottoming out at 143 games in 2006. In his eleven years in St. Louis, Albert never put up less than 5.3 WAR. Again, he was never hurt. Trout is.
By age-21, Foxx was about an 8-win player. He never missed meaningful time until a decade later. And even then, that was 124 games. It seems that these elite players just don’t have seasons where they miss the number of games Trout will miss this year.
There’s a real shot Longoria gets to the Hall of Miller and Eric one day. Among third basemen, he was ranked 30th all-time on my list coming into this season, and he’s probably passed a couple with his return to defensive form thus far in 2017. Also, I admit that Longo isn’t a great comparison, though he did begin his career with seasons of 4.8, 7.0, 8.1, and 7.4 WAR. Then in 2012, at the age of 26, he missed significant time with a hamstring injury, and he hasn’t been the same since. Before that season, he averaged 7.9 WAR per 650 trips to the plate. Since, it’s been a much more pedestrian 4.6.
We forget how great Nomar was. Only eighteen players totaled more WAR from seasons two through five than Nomar. They’re all in the Hall or going, except maybe Barry Bonds and Dick Allen, both of whom are clearly over the line for me. Anyway, from 1997 through 2000, Nomar put up seasons of 6.6, 7.1, 6.6, and 7.4 WAR. He was only 26, and he was well on the way to a Hall of Fame career. Then a wrist injury struck. In 2002 and 2003, he again put up 6.8 and 6.1 WAR. Then came a groin injury, a trade to the Cubs, a Red Sox World Series win, and essentially the end of Nomar’s career. He went from 6.9 WAR per 650 plate appearances through 2003 to 1.5 per 650 after that.
We know that the Splendid Splinter’s career was disrupted from 1943-1945 due to WWII. He was great before he left, and he was great when he came back. Then in 1950 he shattered his elbow in the All-Star Game. He was elite again in 1951, but in 1952 and 1953 he totaled only 43 games (and 2.3 WAR) because he was off in Korea. By the time he returned, he was 35. Yet, he still played seven more seasons at less than peak health averaging a cool 8.0 WAR per 650 trips to the plate.
Frank Robinson is another example; it wasn’t until age-36 that he had a season with fewer than 129 games played. The only thing that kept Mike Schmidt from playing a full schedule was the 1981 player strike. Mel Ott played in at least 120 games every year from the time he was 19 through the age of 36. Eddie Mathews’ first year with fewer than 134 games played was his last. Aside from missing 1945 due to military service, Stan Musial never played in fewer than 134 games until he was 38. Lou Gehrig, you might have heard, never missed a day. Rickey Henderson presents some hope. He played in only 95 games in 1987 because of a hamstring injury, yet was elite for three more years before dropping off at age-32 and remaining less than 100% healthy for much of the rest of his career.
So what have we learned? I don’t know. Not a lot, maybe. It seems that the elite, inner-circle guys among whom Mike Trout hopes his name is mentioned in 20 years, don’t have injuries like the one Trout is having this season. Yes, it’s a freak injury. No, I don’t expect it to linger into 2018. Still, among the greats, there’s more health than Mike Trout is having right about now. Let’s hope the ulnar collateral ligament in his right thumb is nothing more than a bump in the road. Those who look for daily WAR updates on BBREF are holding our collective breath.
I don’t know what I was reading recently that made me look into home and road splits. In the world of WAR, they’re not really super significant, but they can certainly be telling in how we view a player, rightly or wrongly. It speaks to the greatness of Stan Musial, for example, that he had exactly 1815 hits at home and on the road. If we know that Mel Ott homered 323 times at home and only 188 on the road, we might question his credentials, but if we realize that he had 526 extra base hits at home and 545 on the road we may not worry nearly as much.
Perhaps you’ve heard a story that Larry MacPhail and Tom Yawkey, drinking one night, agreed to trade Joe DiMaggio for Ted Williams. As we often do when we sober up, they changed their minds. The story I heard it when I was a kid was that Williams would have been even better in Yankee Stadium, while DiMaggio would have been better in Fenway Park.
In this post, I want to explore, at least cursorily, how true those things are.
As it pertains to Williams, I’ll be brief. In Yankee Stadium, Williams posted a .309/.384/.543 line. He played at least 100 road games in six other parks. He had a better batting average in four of them. He had a better on base percentage in only two. But he had a better slugging percentage in five of the six. Not including Fenway, Williams homered in five places more than he did Yankee Stadium. I know I haven’t done any great analysis here, but the bit of information I have suggests the idea that Williams would have been a lot better in Yankee Stadium is exaggerated. BBREF agrees. Based on tOPS+, which measures how much better you were in one half of a split than another, Williams was about 1% worse in Yankee Stadium as compared to his other games.
As for DiMaggio, he was an outstanding road player.
R H 2B HR RBI BA OBP SLG OPS ===================================================================== Home 648 1060 187 148 720 .315 .391 .547 .938 Away 741 1155 203 213 815 .334 .406 .611 1.016
You know your home park. You get to sleep in your own bed when you play there, yet DiMaggio was clearly a better hitter on the road, at least by these numbers. And again, BBREF agrees. By tOPS+, DiMaggio is 8% better on the road than at home.
And look at what a difference 8% seems to be. Think about some of those career rate stats if DiMaggio wasn’t a Yankee. More on those below.
DiMaggio hit 46 career home runs against the Red Sox, and 29 (63%) of them were in Fenway Park. He had a career OPS of .982 against the Red Sox; it was 1.105 in Fenway. It’s clear he was a better hitter there, and his career numbers likely would have looked a lot better had MacPhail and Yawkey not sobered up. Overall, he had the same road advantage per tOPS+ at Fenway as he did on the road in general, 8% better.
Let’s consider some of DiMaggio’s career numbers if we just doubled his road career. But first, a couple of notes.
Category R HR RBI TB BA OBP SLG OPS ================================================== Rank 68 82 44 89 22 56 9 11 Road Rank 52t 50t 29 64 15 34 4 7 Road Only 47 46 23t 61 9 13 4 5
DiMaggio isn’t just a little better on the road, he’s considerably better. Consider fourth all-time in slugging and ninth all-time in batting average. That’s a batting average better than Stan Musial or Wade Boggs. It’s a slugging percentage that tops Barry Bonds and Jimmie Foxx.
If DiMaggio weren’t a Yankee, I’m sure he’d lose some of that New York cache. And the Yankees themselves probably would have lost some rings too.
Anyway, the real take-homes here are two. First, if DiMaggio didn’t play in Yankee Stadium, he wouldn’t have been better, at least not meaningfully so, but he would have seemed better. The second message is a reminder of how surface stats influence us. With all of my complaining about how writers should just stop with the Larry Walker Coors talk, I suspect I do it too. I rate Joe DiMaggio differently because he called Yankee Stadium home than I would if he played half of his games somewhere else.
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.
You might have heard that Alex Rodriguez hit his 660th home run on Friday night. That ties him with Willie Mays for the fourth most home runs ever. By the consternation caused by the laser he hit off Junichi Tazawa, you’d think he’d have passed the all-time leader, Barry Bonds, not the guy who’s in fourth place. Fourth place all-time is Randy Moss. It’s Marcel Dionne. It’s Michael Jordan. Oh, the exception that proves the rule, you say? Very well.
I’m being a pest, I know. But the truth is, I hold Willie Mays in just as high esteem as you do. As much of a steroid apologist as I am, I think Mays was actually a tiny shade better than Barry. But this post isn’t about Barry. Or Willie. It’s about A-Rod. Maybe it’s about people. I don’t know.
Alex Rodriguez Cheated
Yep, he did. So did Jorge Piedra and Rafael Palmeiro. Jason Grimsley did too. And Ryan Braun. And Andy Pettitte. And Bartolo Colon. And Mike Morse. And Nelson Cruz. And Troy Patton. Jose Canseco told us that a lot of guys cheated. Has he been proven wrong yet? Not that I know of.
My point isn’t that A-Rod didn’t cheat. My point is that A-Rod wasn’t outside the mainstream.
As much as I love Pud Galvin, there’s that Brown-Sequard elixir. Is his cheating somehow cute because it happened so long ago? It’s fairly well established that Babe Ruth fell ill when he injected himself with the extract from a sheep’s testes. Does that cheating not count because he got sick and derived no advantage from it? Mike Schmidt may have used amphetamines. Willie Stargell almost certainly did. And it would seem that Willie Mays did. Maybe he didn’t. I don’t know. This isn’t a witch hunt. It’s only to say that players have been working to enhance their performance as long as the game’s been played.
Cheating is Really Bad
Albert Belle corked a bat, right? Sammy Sosa too. And Graig Nettles did too, right? Those are just a few guys who got caught, not an exhaustive list of guys who have doctored bats. You’d agree that many more have cheated than have gotten caught, right?
Amos Otis once said, “I had enough cork and superballs in there to blow away anything.” Preacher Roe wrote an article for Sports Illustrated entitled, “The Outlawed Spitball Was My Money Pitch.” Whitey Ford said about his mudball, “I used enough mud to build a dam.” Let’s not forget Gaylord Perry, Don Sutton, Mickey Mantle, Hank Aaron, and Ted Williams.
Baseball players cheat. We all cheat. We cheat on our taxes, on our spouses, on our tests. We cheat our employers. We cheat the system. Pretty much any system there is. We cheat because we can. We cheat because there’s incentive to do so. We cheat because we don’t think we’ll get caught. Or the risk of getting caught is worth the reward if we don’t.
There’s a Lot Worse Than Cheating
At his very worst, Alex Rodriguez put substances in his body that helped to entertain millions, shorten his life, make him tons of money, and/or destroy the baseball record books. Yeah, that stuff isn’t good. We shouldn’t teach out kids to do it.
Ty Cobb was charged with attempted murder. He avoided arrest by leaving town. It seems Tris Speaker was a member of the Ku Klux Klan. John Thorn said that, “Cap Anson helped make sure baseball’s color line was established in the 1880s.” Orlando Cepeda was convicted of drug smuggling.
I’m no sort of judge. And I’m no sort of saint. But that stuff is all worse than anything A-Rod has done. Right? It’s not just a little worse. It’s a lot worse.
What I Did on Saturday Night
I’m not a fan of boxing. Seems cruel. But I support its existence because I truly do believe it’s okay to do anything to or with another person if that person has the faculties to agree to it and does agree to it. Manny Pacquiao and Floyd Mayweather agreed to beat the hell out of each other. And they got a lot of money for it. Good for them, I say.
I went to a friend’s house on Saturday. There were women there. And some of the women watched the fight. And some of those women rooted for Floyd Mayweather. After all, he’s a more colorful character, right?
By the way, there were also men there too. And some of the men watched the fight. And some of those men to rooted for Floyd Mayweather. He’s a colorful character, after all.
But Mayweather isn’t a character. He’s an abuser. He’s a person who beats people up both in the ring when they agree to the competition and outside of it when they’re simply his victims. Is it seven assaults against five people now?
I’m just a guy with a blog, a college professor, a husband. And I know I shouldn’t judge others. I really do. But Alex Rodriguez at his very worst isn’t any worse than hundreds and hundreds of other baseball players. And I have the audacity to say he’s less bad than Cap Anson and Floyd Mayweather.
Let’s lay off Alex Rodriguez. He’s a baseball player. He’s not up for a Nobel Peace Prize. Nobody is suggesting sainthood for him. He hits baseballs for a living. And he’s hit lots of them very far. Whether he did so with steroids, HGH, greenies, or whatever is a lot less awful than what’s gone on recently in Baltimore or Afghanistan or Syria or Yemen or South Sudan, or in the life of at least one of the men in a Las Vegas ring.
He’s no saint. But as I write this, Alex Rodriguez has helped to give me some perspective. Maybe you too?