Baseball's Best Player

September 19, 2007

 This article was written, I believe, in December, 2003.  It needs to be updated but, if I updated it now, I would just have to update it again after the season.  I’ll worry about it when people start asking me about it.

 

            Who is the best player in baseball?   I don’t mean who had the best year or who is having the best year, but just. . who is the best player?  Who was the best player in 1972?  Who was the best player in 1935?

 

            It is the most basic of baseball debates, the simplest and the most pervasive—and, I suppose because of that, it is a question rarely faced squarely in sabermetrics.   It seems too simple to discuss.  We are more interested in the shadings of value between Garrett Anderson and Mike Cameron, between Jacques Jones and Juan Pierre, between Quinton McCracken and Bobby Estalella, than in bringing our analytical arms to bear on the fairly obvious.

 

            This question forced its way into my conscious mind as a consequence of the Red Sox’ failed efforts to secure the very valuable services of Alex Rodriguez.   It was routinely written and said, as we went after Alex, that Nomar was a great player too, but A-Rod was the best player in baseball.  But is he really?   Is A-Rod actually a better player than Barry Bonds?   Over what time frame?   If you look at the last two years, the last three years, the last four, would you really rather have had A-Rod on the field, rather than Bonds?  

 

            Unquestionably A-Rod is a wonderful player, and—who knows?—maybe I’ll get the chance to work with him yet.  But I’m not convinced that he is the best player in baseball, point a, and, point b, I’m not convinced that he is ever going to be, either.  The statement that he is the best player in baseball, it seems to me, is more of an expectation than an observation.   Nobody was really trying to argue that Bonds wasn’t the most valuable player in baseball now, but Bonds is so old.   Bonds is so old that we tend to regard his ongoing supersuccess as temporary, almost illusory.    Bonds is the best looking backward from now—even looking backward to last month--but looking at right now, he’s just too old.

 

            But if you look forward from now, is A-Rod really better than Albert Pujols?    I’m not sure, but I’m inclined to think not.   I think the best player in baseball, after Bonds, is more likely to be Pujols.  

 

            Outlining the standards for the Hall of Fame, one question that I have suggested we ask is “Was this man ever the best player in baseball?”   But when I posed this question, I sort of assumed, without thinking it through, that if a player was the best player in baseball, that would make him an automatic Hall of Famer.   But does it?   If you looked at the best player in baseball in 1916, in 1926, in 1936, in 1946, would all of those people be automatic Hall of Famers?  Has anybody ever owned the title of “The Best Player in Baseball” who didn’t go on to be a Hall of Famer?

 

            How many players can be accurately described as the best players in baseball at one time?   Did Stan Musial ever wear that title?  Did Andre Dawson?  Did Jim Rice?  Did Sammy Sosa?  Did Cal Ripken? Does the position of baseball’s best player normally change once a decade, or twice, or five times?

 

            To look at these questions objectively, we need a clear method to establish the title, “The best player in baseball.”   I created that method by combining two of my standard tools—Win Shares, and Established Value.   I used the four-year option for Established Value.   I figured the established value, for every player in major league history, after every season, each player’s established value being calculated as “.40 times his Win Shares in the most recent season, plus .30 times his Win Shares in the previous season, plus .20 times his Win Shares in the season before that, plus .10 times his Win Shares in the season before that.”    A-Rod’s Win Shares over the last four years (2000-2003) are 37, 36, 35 and 32—thus, his current Established Value is 34.2. 

 

            This figure is enormous, and, throughout much of the last forty years, this figure would be good enough to mark its owner as the best player in baseball.   At the moment, however, it doesn’t even come close.  Barry Bonds is at 44.3, as of right now, the highest he has ever been, and the highest any major league player has been since the prime of Mickey Mantle.  

 

            It is not a perfect method.   What makes a four-year performance standard the right one to use to decide this issue, and a three-year standard the wrong one?  Nothing, really.   It’s just that, if you want objective answers to a set of questions, you need a fixed objective method.  If you want a method, you have to make choices.  I chose the four-year standard.  It seems to me that, to claim the lofty title of the greatest player in baseball, you should have to perform at a high level for a period of several years, and so I chose the four-year standard.  A three-year standard would ordinarily give you exactly the same answer, but occasionally it would not.   If you want to make up your own list, feel free to make up your own standard. 

 

            My list of the greatest players in baseball, over time, goes back to 1901, the founding of the American League.   Throughout the 19th century, when pitchers often won 40 games a season and as often as not played the outfield when they weren’t pitching and hit .320, the title of Baseball’s Best always belonged to a pitcher—but usually a different pitcher every year or every couple of years.  This doesn’t make a very satisfactory list, and so, after wrestling with that for a while, I decided the hell with ‘em all; I’m just going to start the list at 1901.  

 

            The position of baseball’s best, as of 1901, was still held by a pitcher, but at least it was held by a deserving pitcher.   It was held by Cy Young.   Cy Young went 33-10 in 1901, with 1.62 ERA; this wasn’t his best season, but he was establishing himself as the standard of excellence for a pitcher.  

 

1901

Rank

Player

EV

1

Young, Cy

33.4

2

Wagner, Honus

32.4

3

Burkett, Jesse

31.6

4

Delahanty, Ed

30.4

5

Lajoie, Nap

29.8

              

             Cy followed that up with seasons of 32-11 in 1902 and 28-9 in 1903, increasing his Established Value to 37.0, and maintaining his grip on the position as baseball’s top-ranking star: 

1902

Rank

Player

EV

1

Young, Cy

35.4

2

Wagner, Honus

34.5

3

Delahanty, Ed

30.2

4

Burkett, Jesse

29.4

5

Willis, Vic

27.8

 

1903

Rank

Player

EV

1

Young, Cy

37.0

2

Wagner, Honus

35.3

3

McGinnity, Joe

31.3

4

Lajoie, Nap

29.6

5

Sheckard, Jimmy

28.8

 

            But in 1904, although he had another wonderful season—and lifted his Established Value yet higher—Young was pushed into the passenger seat by Honus Wagner:

1904

Rank

Player

EV

1

Wagner, Honus

38.4

2

Young, Cy

37.1

3

McGinnity, Joe

36.1

4

Chesbro, Jack

35.1

5

Lajoie, Nap

34.3

 

            Three points:

 

            1.  This was a historic shift—or rather, the culmination of a historic shift which had begun years earlier.   From 1876 to 1903, the best player in baseball was always a pitcher.  Honus Wagner was the man who ended that, the first position player to become more valuable than the best pitcher.

 

            2.  Anyone who has read The Glory of Their Times knows that the math here certainly accords with the observations of contemporaries.   Wagner was a legendary figure in that era, perhaps as close as anyone has ever been to being universally regarded as the best player in the game.

 

            3.  However, had Ed Delahanty not died in a tragic accident, it might well have been Delahanty, rather than Wagner, who became the first position player to rank as the greatest player in baseball.

 

            In the four-year period in which he established himself as baseball’s greatest player (1901-1904), Wagner hit .353, .330, .355 and .349.   He was just getting started.  He hit .363 in ’05, and through 1909 never hit less than .339.   Through 1903 Wagner played all over the field.  It wasn’t until 1904 that he really settled in at the shortstop position.   Settled in, he grew stronger and stronger for several more seasons, and commanded the spot of baseball’s best player through 1909:

 

1905

Rank

Player

EV

1

Wagner, Honus

41.8

2

Mathewson, Christy

35.4

3

Young, Cy

33.1

4

Waddell, Rube

32.3

5

McGinnity, Joe

31.7

 

1906

Rank

Player

EV

1

Wagner, Honus

44.3

2

Chance, Frank

30.4

3

Seymour, Cy

30.2

4

Mathewson, Christy

30.2

5

Flick, Elmer

29.4

 

1907

Rank

Player

EV

1

Wagner, Honus

44.9

2

Flick, Elmer

32.7

3

Magee, Sherry

31.2

4

Crawford, Sam

30.6

5

Lajoie, Nap

29.6

 

1908

Rank

Player

EV

1

Wagner, Honus

50.6

2

Walsh, Ed

35.1

3

Mathewson, Christy

32.2

4

Crawford, Sam

31.8

5

Brown, Three Finger

31.3

 

1909

Rank

Player

EV

1

Wagner, Honus

47.9

2

Cobb, Ty

38.2

3

Brown, Three Finger

33.9

4

Mathewson, Christy

33.1

5

Walsh, Ed

32.9

 

            Christy Mathewson, Frank Chance, Elmer Flick, Ed Walsh. ..all Hall of Famers, and in turn each took a run at Honus Wagner’s throne.  In part because of injuries, they were all turned back.   By 1910, however, Wagner was fading just a little bit—and the competition was getting better.   The competition now was Ty Cobb.   In 1910 Wagner hit .320, his lowest average since 1898, with only 24 stolen bases, his lowest total since 1897.  Cobb hit .383—a career high at that time—winning his fourth consecutive batting title, and wresting from Honus the title of baseball’s greatest player:

 1910

Rank

Player

EV

1

Cobb, Ty

42.5

2

Wagner, Honus

40.8

3

Lajoie, Nap

36.5

4

Walsh, Ed

34.4

5

Mathewson, Christy

32.9

 

            Wagner, though 36 years old, was far from through.  But Cobb, 12 years younger, was just entering his prime, and the competition would shift to a group of six players (Cobb and five others) players who were all almost exactly the same age:

 

1911

Rank

Player

EV

1

Cobb, Ty

44.7

2

Collins, Eddie

35.4

3

Wagner, Honus

35.3

4

Walsh, Ed

32.5

5

Mathewson, Christy

32.5

 

 1912

Rank

Player

EV

1

Cobb, Ty

43.5

2

Speaker, Tris

38.7

3

Collins, Eddie

37.0

4

Johnson, Walter

36.5

5

Walsh, Ed

34.8

 

            Cobb hit .420 in 1911, .409 in 1912.  In 1913 he still hit .390, but injuries reduced his playing time.   With less intense competition, he might have held onto the top spot:

1913

Rank

Player

EV

1

Johnson, Walter

45.5

2

Speaker, Tris

38.5

3

Cobb, Ty

38.3

4

Collins, Eddie

37.3

5

Baker, Home Run

36.4

 

            Walter Johnson won 25 games in 1910, 25 more in 1911.  Battling Joe Wood in 1912, he stepped up the pace, finishing 32-12, and then had his greatest season in 1913, going 36-7 with a 1.14 ERA.  Cobb’s injuries cleared the path for him—but even had Cobb been healthy, it is likely that Walter would have emerged as the game’s brightest star. 

 

            The Big Train was just one year younger than Cobb.    Cobb and Home Run Baker were born in 1886, Johnson, Collins and Pete Alexander in 1887, Tris Speaker in 1888.   Having staked out the top slot among these formidable peers, Walter won 28 more games in 1914, 25 in 1915, and 23 in 1916, holding onto the top spot through three tough seasons:

1914

Rank

Player

EV

1

Johnson, Walter

43.9

2

Speaker, Tris

41.7

3

Collins, Eddie

39.6

4

Baker, Home Run

36.7

5

Cobb, Ty

32.4

 

1915

Rank

Player

EV

1

Johnson, Walter

43.7

2

Collins, Eddie

40.3

3

Speaker, Tris

40.2

4

Cobb, Ty

37.2

5

Alexander, Pete

32.8

 

1916

Rank

Player

EV

1

Johnson, Walter

40.0

2

Speaker, Tris

39.8

3

Cobb, Ty

38.7

4

Alexander, Pete

38.4

5

Collins, Eddie

36.9

 

            In 1917, however, the Georgia Peach returned to re-claim his throne. 

 

1917

Rank

Player

EV

1

Cobb, Ty

42.6

2

Alexander, Pete

40.4

3

Speaker, Tris

38.8

4

Johnson, Walter

34.6

5

Collins, Eddie

34.4

 

            There is something remarkable about that group—perhaps the most tightly bunched collection of superstars ever, sorting out supremacy among themselves with an essentially unchanging cast of characters through the years of the $100,000 Infield, the Federal League and on into the first World War.   By 1918, however, these men had moved into their thirties, and the future King was building his resume in the East:

 

1918

Rank

Player

EV

1

Cobb, Ty

39.0

2

Ruth, Babe

36.5

3

Johnson, Walter

35.3

4

Speaker, Tris

33.7

5

Groh, Heine

29.6

 

            Switching gradually from full-time pitcher to full-time outfielder, Ruth had taken control of the galaxy before he completed the transition:

 

1919

Rank

Player

       EV

1

Ruth, Babe

40.1

2

Cobb, Ty

35.3

3

Johnson, Walter

31.6

4

Speaker, Tris

30.4

5

Groh, Heine

30.2

 

            Heine Groh. ..you don’t hear much about him.   Heck of a player, though; the first non-Hall of Famer to appear on the list since Sherry Magee in 1907.    You notice who isn’t here?   Joe Jackson.   Though undeniably a great player, Jackson was never consistent enough to make the list of the five best players in baseball.  Ruth, of course, was almost beyond challenge for most of the decade to follow:

 

1920

Rank

Player

EV

1

Ruth, Babe

44.9

2

Speaker, Tris

32.8

3

Roush, Edd

30.5

4

Hornsby, Rogers

30.4

5

Collins, Eddie

29.7

 

1921

Rank

Player

EV

1

Ruth, Babe

49.1

2

Hornsby, Rogers

34.8

3

Speaker, Tris

30.6

4

Mays, Carl

29.2

5

Coveleski, Stan

27.9

 

1922

Rank

Player

EV

1

Ruth, Babe

42.0

2

Hornsby, Rogers

41.3

3

Speaker, Tris

30.6

4

Faber, Red

29.1

5

Sisler, George

28.7

 

1923

Rank

Player

EV

1

Ruth, Babe

46.4

2

Hornsby, Rogers

36.5

3

Speaker, Tris

32.3

4

Heilmann, Harry

28.4

5

Williams, Ken

27.7

 

1924

Rank

Player

EV

1

Ruth, Babe

45.6

2

Hornsby, Rogers

36.5

3

Heilmann, Harry

30.1

4

Frisch, Frankie

28.4

5

Speaker, Tris

27.6

 

            For the first half of the roaring twenties, Ruth was baseball’s first player, and Hornsby the runner up.  In 1925, however, Ruth’s abdominal distress limited him to 98 games and a .290 average, while Hornsby hit .403 with 39 home runs, 143 RBI—his third .400 season in four years:

1925

Rank

Player

EV

1

Hornsby, Rogers

35.7

2

Ruth, Babe

32.6

3

Heilmann, Harry

30.4

4

Fournier, Jack

28.5

5

Wheat, Zack

27.0

 

            The amazing thing is, Hornsby hit .403 with 39 homers, 143 RBI, and his established value actually went down, although it didn’t go down nearly as much as Ruth’s.   Hornsby was one year younger than Ruth and aged quicker than Ruth, so he had only this one moment as the game’s greatest player.  In 1926 Ruth returned to claim his inheritance:  

1926

Rank

Player

EV

1

Ruth, Babe

36.4

2

Goslin, Goose

30.4

3

Hornsby, Rogers

29.4

4

Heilmann, Harry

29.3

5

Speaker, Tris

26.8

 

1927

Rank

Player

EV

1

Ruth, Babe

38.6

2

Hornsby, Rogers

33.3

3

Goslin, Goose

30.2

4

Heilmann, Harry

29.9

5

Gehrig, Lou

29.7

 

1928

Rank

Player

EV

1

Ruth, Babe

41.8

2

Gehrig, Lou

37.5

3

Hornsby, Rogers

33.0

4

Waner, Paul

30.0

5

Goslin, Goose

28.5

 

1929

Rank

Player

EV

1

Ruth, Babe

39.8

2

Gehrig, Lou

37.2

3

Hornsby, Rogers

36.8

4

Waner, Paul

32.2

5

Wilson, Hack

30.0

 

1930

Rank

Player

EV

1

Ruth, Babe

38.3

2

Gehrig, Lou

38.0

3

Wilson, Hack

32.3

4

Simmons, Al

31.8

5

Grove, Lefty

31.0

 

An observation, the first part of which I believe to be a new one, the second part familiar.   In the mid-1920s there was a moment when baseball’s cast of superstars was weaker than it had been in many years.   Hornsby, Ruth and Heilmann, as great as they were, had moved into their thirties and were not quite the dominant players they had once been—yet they remained at the top of the list.   Tris Speaker and Zack Wheat, holdovers from the generation before them, still lingered on the list. 

 

            By 1928 Lou Gehrig had pushed past Hornsby as Ruth’s chief rival, and by 1930 a new generation of superstars—Gehrig, Paul Waner, Hack Wilson, Al Simmons and Lefty Grove—had emerged to plug the gap.  Yet one cannot help but notice that this era of players, which produced more Hall of Famers than any other, is really not a notably strong time period, in terms of producing great players.    I forget the exact number, but there are something like 70 players in the Hall of Fame who were active from 1925-1929.   Most of those players—Fred Lindstrom, Dave Bancroft, Chick Hafey, Jesse Haines, George Kelly, Lloyd Waner, Joe Sewell, etc.—never came within a mile of making the list of the best players in the game.  

 

            Ruth held on for one more year as the game’s greatest star:

 

1931

Rank

Player

EV

1

Ruth, Babe

37.5

2

Gehrig, Lou

36.7

3

Grove, Lefty

36.2

4

Simmons, Al

33.5

5

Foxx, Jimmie

28.8

           

 

            Through 1931, then, the position of The Best Player in Baseball had been held by only six men—Cy Young for three years, Honus Wagner for six, Ty Cobb for five in two runs, Walter Johnson for four years, Babe Ruth for twelve years and Rogers Hornsby for one.  It is a hard list to argue with—four of the five original Hall of Famers, plus Cy Young and Rogers Hornsby.  The position as the game’s greatest star had a new occupant about once every five years—and the list of the contenders doesn’t really change a lot more than that.   With a few exceptions, the players who make it onto the list tend to stay there for several seasons.   

 

            For four long years, Gehrig was Ruth’s second banana.   In 1932, although Ruth still hit .341 with 41 homers and drove in 137 runs, Gehrig finally was able to edge in front of the aging legend:

 

1932

Rank

Player

EV

1

Gehrig, Lou

37.0

2

Ruth, Babe

36.6

3

Grove, Lefty

36.0

4

Foxx, Jimmie

33.4

5

Cronin, Joe

31.4

 

            Having gained the top of the list, Gehrig held it until his illness stopped him:

 

1933

Rank

Player

EV

1

Gehrig, Lou

36.9

2

Foxx, Jimmie

36.6

3

Ruth, Babe

33.8

4

Cronin, Joe

33.2

5

Grove, Lefty

31.2

 

1934

Rank

Player

EV

1

Gehrig, Lou

38.4

2

Foxx, Jimmie

35.5

3

Ott, Mel

33.7

4

Berger, Wally

32.3

5

Averill, Earl

30.0

 

1935

Rank

Player

EV

1

Gehrig, Lou

36.9

2

Vaughan, Arky

35.3

3

Ott, Mel

34.9

4

Foxx, Jimmie

33.8

5

Gehringer, Charlie

31.6

1936 

Rank

Player

EV

1

Gehrig, Lou

37.2

2

Vaughan, Arky

36.3

3

Ott, Mel

35.6

4

Gehringer, Charlie

33.1

5

Hubbell, Carl

32.3

  

1937

Rank

Player

EV

1

Gehrig, Lou

36.7

2

Medwick, Joe

35.8

3

Ott, Mel

34.4

4

Gehringer, Charlie

32.1

5

Vaughan, Arky

31.9

 

            Arky Vaughan, I think it can safely be said, is among the most underrated superstars in history.  Through much of the 1930s Vaughan was to Gehrig as Hornsby was to Ruth—a Yankee slugger as the kingpin of the American League, a National League middle infielder as the best in his own domain.  In spite of this, it took him many years to make the Hall of Fame.    National League hitting stats were down in the 1930s—it was a pitcher’s decade in the NL—and Vaughan was a quiet man with quiet skills.  Vaughan may have been a better player than Charlie Gehringer, for example—yet Gehringer was much more famous, and his path to the Hall of Fame much straighter.    When Gehrig’s illness finally stopped him, it was not Vaughan but Mel Ott who claimed the vacant seat:

    

1938

Rank

Player

EV

1

Ott, Mel

34.7

2

Vaughan, Arky

32.0

3

Gehrig, Lou

31.8

4

Medwick, Joe

31.3

5

Gehringer, Charlie

29.7

  

            Here, for the first time, the fact that we are using a four-year standard for Established Value, rather than a three-year standard, really matters.   Joe DiMaggio came to New York in 1936, had a great year in 1936, a greater year in 1937 (.346 with 46 homers, 167 RBI) and a wonderful year in 1938, driving in another 140 runs.   There is a good argument that, by the end of 1938, he deserved to be ranked as the greatest player in the game.  Using the four-year standard, he doesn’t get there until 1939:

 

1939

Rank

Player

EV

1

DiMaggio, Joe

32.9

2

Ott, Mel

32.0

3

Mize, Johnny

31.0

4

Foxx, Jimmie

29.4

5

Vaughan, Arky

28.7

 

            But he then rules the list for three years:

 

1940

Rank

Player

EV

1

DiMaggio, Joe

32.5

2

Mize, Johnny

32.1

3

Greenberg, Hank

29.7

4

Vaughan, Arky

29.2

5

Feller, Bob

28.9

 

1941

Rank

Player

EV

1

DiMaggio, Joe

35.5

2

Williams, Ted

32.2

3

Feller, Bob

30.8

4

Mize, Johnny

29.7

5

Walters, Bucky

29.2

 

            In 1941, again, the decision to use a four-year standard (rather than three years) becomes meaningful.   Ted Williams, like DiMaggio three years earlier, had a wonderful rookie year in 1939, followed up with a good year, and then had a historic third season in 1941.   On a three-year test, he might rank as the game’s greatest player by 1941.   On a four-year test, he has a 10% percent penalty, in essence, for the missing season.   I’m trying to avoid debating the details of the system.  I still like the four-year standard, but I don’t have any compelling argument that it is the right one.   In any case, Williams did reach the summit before going off to fly airplanes in 1943:

 

1942

Rank

Player

EV

1

Williams, Ted

40.2

2

DiMaggio, Joe

34.7

3

Mize, Johnny

30.5

4

Keller, Charlie

30.2

5

Ott, Mel

29.4

 

            With Charlie Keller, we now have ten non-Hall of Famers who have made the list so far:

 

            1.  Jimmy Sheckard      5th, 1903

            2.  Cy Seymour            3rd, 1906

            3.  Sherry Magee          3rd, 1907

            4.  Heine Groh              5th, 1918-1919

            5.  Carl Mays               4th, 1921

            6.  Ken Williams           5th, 1923

            7.  Jack Fournier          4th, 1925

            8.  Wally Berger           4th, 1934

            9.  Bucky Walters         5th, 1941

            10.  Charlie Keller        4th, 1942

 

            It’s sort of a list of my favorite players, actually. . .I am always drawn to the stories of these guys who don’t quite make the pantheon.   There is always a reason they fall short—they’re trapped playing for bad teams, like Wally Berger and Ken Williams, or they are sluggers playing in eras when the numbers aren’t that big, like Sherry Magee and, to an extent, Wally Berger, or they’re hard people to get along with, like Carl Mays and Sherry Magee, or their skills are just too subtle for sportswriter to latch onto, like Jimmy Sheckard and Charlie Keller, or they have injuries or other things that cost them a few productive years and leave them short of Hall of Fame standards.   They’re the other side of the coin from Fred Lindstrom, Dave Bancroft, Chick Hafey, Jesse Haines, George Kelly, Lloyd Waner, Joe Sewell, etc., and, in a sense, I always see them as being “my guys”. 

 

            We have also had, to this point, ten players at the top of the list—the original six, plus Gehrig, Ott, DiMaggio and Williams:

 

            1.  Cy Young                1901-1903

            2.  Honus Wagner        1904-1909

            3.  Ty Cobb                 1910-1912 and 1917-1918

            4.  Walter Johnson        1913-1916

            5.  Babe Ruth               1919-1924 and 1926-1931

            6.  Rogers Hornsby      1925

            7.  Lou Gehrig              1932-1937

            8.  Mel Ott                   1938

            9.  Joe DiMaggio          1939-1941

            10.  Ted Williams         1942

It is still, at this point, a “clean” list.   It is hard to argue with any of those names.   You say that any one of these guys was the best player in baseball at one time, people believe you.    If Mel Ott is the weak spot on your list, you’re in good shape. 

 

            The war, of course, is about to play hell with our list:

 

1943

Rank

Player

EV

1

Keller, Charlie

33.4

2

Appling, Luke

30.6

3

Gordon, Joe

27.9

4

Boudreau, Lou

27.1

5

Nicholson, Bill

27.0

 

            Charlie Keller was a very, very good player—a very much underrated player in history.   He became the best player in baseball, of course, when the guys who were better than he was all went off to serve their country.  In the kingdom of the lame, the guy with the back problem is King.   In 1944 Keller went into the service, and was replaced by a more legitimate claimant:

 

1944

Rank

Player

EV

1

Musial, Stan

32.8

2

Nicholson, Bill

29.4

3

Trout, Dizzy

28.2

4

Spence, Stan

27.7

5

Boudreau, Lou

27.6

 

            That, however, lasted only one year, and then it was Musial’s turn to serve Sam:

 

1945

Rank

Player

EV

1

Newhouser, Hal

29.4

2

Galan, Augie

28.1

3

Stephens, Vern

27.5

4

Walker, Dixie

27.4

5

Holmes, Tommy

26.4

 

            The God Damned War is just playing hell with our beautiful list.  We’ve had four new champions in four years, we’re got all kinds of non-Hall of Famers traipsing through the breech, and in 1945, for the first time ever, we have an entirely new list of players.  Nobody on the list in ’45 had even been on the list in ’44, or, for that matter, in any other year.   

 

            Newhouser’s credentials, in isolation, are hard to argue.   He was 29-9 in 1944, 25-9 in ’45, and he held the spot by going 26-9 with 275 strikeouts and a 1.94 ERA in ’46, when the other stars returned to the game:

 

1946

Rank

Player

EV

1

Newhouser, Hal

32.6

2

Musial, Stan

29.1

3

Walker, Dixie

28.0

4

Trout, Dizzy

26.9

5

Holmes, Tommy

26.4

 

            Newhouser was the first pitcher since Walter Johnson—and, indeed, is the only pitcher since Walter Johnson—to rank as the game’s greatest star.   It’s a weak rating, of course, a rating caused more by actual bullets than by mere fastballs.  I could have adjusted the method here by considering Stan Musial’s 1944 and 1946 seasons to be consecutive, Ted Williams’ 1942 and 1946 seasons to be consecutive, same for DiMaggio.    Could have, and probably should have, except then you get into a technical debate about what do you do with all those guys like Feller and Greenberg, who played in 1945, but only part of the season?   Then you have to debate. ..well, you corrected the 1946 season, but what about 1947?   At this point we’re taking the whole thing too seriously, and we’re just extending the agony of the war years.   But here’s an alternative, and probably a better, ranking for 1946:

 

1946

Rank

Player

EV

1

Williams, Ted

44.8

2

Musial, Stan

39.6

3

Keller, Charlie

33.2

4

Newhouser, Hal

32.6

5

Feller, Bob

31.8

6

DiMaggio, Joe

31.5

7

Greenberg, Hank

29.9

 

            But we still have Newhouser rated ahead of Feller, based in large part on Newhouser’s performance against wartime players, and Charlie Keller rated ahead of DiMaggio for the same reason.   So. ..once you start worrying about that, there’s just no place to stop.  

 

            In 1947, with no amendments or corrections to the system, Ted Williams reclaimed his rightful spot:

 

1947

Rank

Player

EV

1

Williams, Ted

32.3

2

Newhouser, Hal

30.6

3

Musial, Stan

27.0

4

Walker, Dixie

26.2

5

Kurowski, Whitey

25.8

 

            This is really a remarkable thing.  In the history of baseball, no one else is able to overcome that missing 10% and rank as the best player in baseball on just three year’s performance (except Musial, sort of, in 1944).  Williams here overcomes a missing 30%, and ranks as the best player in baseball based on only two years performance.  Of course, he is aided in this by the fact that most of the other top players are also missing 30%, but still, it’s a fairly remarkable ranking.

 

            Another note here is Dixie Walker.   The average baseball fan, if he knows anything at all about Dixie, remembers him as a racist who forced the Dodgers to choose between himself and Jackie Robinson, and was kind of astonished when they chose Jackie.   What most people don’t remember is, Dixie was one of the best players in baseball.  Yes, he was old, but still—he had been among the five best players in baseball on the ’45 list, the ’46 list, the ’47 list.   He wasn’t just another player.

 

            Ted Williams was probably really the best player in baseball from ’42 through ’49, although he couldn’t play all of those years.  DiMaggio, who was past thirty by the time the War ended, struggled to get back on the post-war list:

 

1948

Rank

Player

EV

1

Williams, Ted

38.6

2

Musial, Stan

34.7

3

Boudreau, Lou

28.5

4

Newhouser, Hal

28.4

5

DiMaggio, Joe

27.4

 

1949

Rank

Player

EV

1

Williams, Ted

41.4

2

Musial, Stan

39.2

3

Kiner, Ralph

31.3

4

Reese, Pee Wee

27.5

5

DiMaggio, Joe

27.0

 

            Williams’ 1949 rating, based on his first four post-war seasons, was at the highest level any player had attained since Babe Ruth in 1928—unless you count Williams’ pre-war and post-war seasons as consecutive, in which case Williams’ peak was 45.7, after the 1947 season. 

 

            Stan Musial, two years younger than Williams, six years younger than DiMaggio, chased Williams through the late forties, and finally caught him in 1950, when Williams broke his arm in the All-Star Game:

 

1950

Rank

Player

EV

1

Musial, Stan

36.5

2

Williams, Ted

31.8

3

Robinson, Jackie

29.5

4

Kiner, Ralph

29.3

5

DiMaggio, Joe

27.7

  

            We’re back to normalcy; there hasn’t been a non-Hall of Famer on the list since 1947, and there won’t be until 1953.    Like most of those who preceded him in the top spot, Musial owned the list for several years:

 

1951

Rank

Player

EV

1

Musial, Stan

37.8

2

Robinson, Jackie

33.6

3

Kiner, Ralph

31.3

4

Williams, Ted

31.2

5

Berra, Yogi

28.0

 

1952

Rank

Player

EV

1

Musial, Stan

36.9

2

Robinson, Jackie

34.4

3

Doby, Larry

30.7

4

Berra, Yogi

29.4

5

Roberts, Robin

28.0

 

1953

Rank

Player

EV

1

Musial, Stan

35.3

2

Rosen, Al

34.0

3

Roberts, Robin

31.8

4

Robinson, Jackie

30.7

5

Snider, Duke

29.6

 

            Jackie Robinson was two years old than Musial, just months younger than Ted Williams, but didn’t get to the majors until he was 28.   You have to think that, with an earlier start, he might have taken a turn at the number one spot.  

 

            In 1954 Musial hit .330 with 35 homers, 126 RBI, 41 doubles, 103 walks, .428 on-base percentage, .607 slugging percentage. ..pretty good numbers, but not quite good enough to keep him first in line:

 

1954

Rank

Player

EV

1

Snider, Duke

33.9

2

Musial, Stan

33.2

 3t

Rosen, Al

32.1

3t

Roberts, Robin

32.1

5

Berra, Yogi

30.9

 

Duke Snider.  

            No one questions that Duke Snider was a great player, and few people question that he is a Hall of Famer.  I do anticipate that there might be some consternation about the number one ranking.   Snider never won an MVP Award.  He was a great player, but. ..Ty Cobb, Babe Ruth, Lou Gehrig, Joe DiMaggio, Ted Williams, Stan Musial, Duke Snider?   I’m not so sure.

 

            Duke Snider hit .336 in 1953 with 42 homers, 126 RBI—triple crown numbers, although he didn’t happen to win any of the three parts of the triple crown.   His 1954 season was a little bit better--.341 with 40 homers, 130 RBI, and his ’55 season showed 42 homers, 136 RBI.    He also walked 80 to 100-plus times every year, and he was a fine defensive center fielder.

 

            Duke Snider was an awfully good player, point a, and, point b, it was a peculiar time.   There is a “delayed war” effect here.   Stan Musial, born 1920, was the last superstar to establish himself before World War II.   The players who should have dominated baseball in the early 1950s were those born 1920 to 1927.  Many of those men died in the war, many more were injured, and the rest had their baseball careers set back by three or four years.  

 

            Snider, born 1926, reached a peak of 33.9—a lofty figure, a Hall of Fame figure, but not quite at the levels of the best players before him and after him.   There was a “trough” in the superstar graph, a trough caused by World War II. 

 

            And point c, there are other candidates, but they don’t fit our logic.   Willie Mays won the MVP Award in 1954, with numbers similar to Snider’s, but was in the Army in ’53 and most of ’52.   Some of you will say “the best player in baseball in 1954 wasn’t Snider, it was Willie.”  Maybe.  I’m not saying you’re wrong, but Sport Magazine rated the National League Center Fielders after the 1954 season, and they rated Snider number one, Willie number two.    Willie was only 23 years old at that time.   The only 23-year-olds to be rated as the greatest players in history were Cobb, Ted Williams and Musial.   Willie Mays, had he not been drafted, might well have been the fourth.

 

            The MVP Awards in the early 50s were mostly won by the catchers, Berra and Campanella.  But Campanella hit .207 in ’54, so he’s clearly out, and the Win Shares system, while regarding Berra as the greatest catcher of all time, doesn’t quite see him as being the equal of the top outfielders or the top middle infielders.  Maybe this is a limitation of the sabermetric approach.   It may very well be that some of the things that catchers contribute to their teams simply cannot be documented, and thus tend to be missing from Win Shares.   We should always have respect for our own ignorance.

 

            But I guess what I am really saying is, when you ask the question “Who was the best player in baseball in the mid-1950s?”, I kind of think that “Duke Snider” may well be the best answer.  Three players born in 1931 had 450 or more Win Shares (Mays, Mantle and Eddie Mathews)—but before them you have to go back to Musial (born 1920) to find another one.   There is a trough there, and Snider, when he was at his best, may well have been the best of the players born during that trough. 

 

            In any case, right or wrong, he defended his title with his 136 RBI in 1955:

 

1955

Rank

Player

EV

1

Snider, Duke

36.0

2

Mantle, Mickey

35.6

3

Mathews, Eddie

33.2

4

Musial, Stan

30.9

5

Roberts, Robin

30.3

 

            And the post-war generation arrived in force in 1956:

 

1956

Rank

Player

EV

1

Mantle, Mickey

41.7

2

Snider, Duke

35.9

3

Mathews, Eddie

32.3

4

Mays, Willie

30.8

5

Berra, Yogi

29.2

 

            The Mantle/Mays debate was the liveliest of its kind in baseball history.  By the late 1950s Mays and Mantle were obviously the two best players in baseball, playing the same position for the two New York teams.  The debates about their respective merits were loud, fierce, and regular.  The Win Shares system sees Mantle as the better player as long as Mantle was a good player—and, indeed, as the greatest player in baseball since the prime of Babe Ruth:

 

1957

Rank

Player

EV

1

Mantle, Mickey

46.9

2

Mays, Willie

33.7

3

Mathews, Eddie

32.0

4

Snider, Duke

31.3

5

Williams, Ted

30.2

 

1958

Rank

Player

EV

1

Mantle, Mickey

44.8

2

Mays, Willie

35.6

3

Aaron, Hank

32.2

4t

Williams, Ted

28.7

4t

Mathews, Eddie

28.7

 

1959

Rank

Player

EV

1

Mantle, Mickey

38.8

2

Aaron, Hank

34.8

3

Mays, Willie

34.3

4

Mathews, Eddie

31.5

5

Banks, Ernie

30.3

 

1960

Rank

Player

EV

1

Mantle, Mickey

36.3

2

Mays, Willie

36.2

3

Aaron, Hank

35.3

4

Mathews, Eddie

34.4

5

Banks, Ernie

30.5

 

1961

Rank

Player

EV

1

Mantle, Mickey

39.9

2

Mays, Willie

35.4

3

Aaron, Hank

35.3

4

Mathews, Eddie

34.4

5

Maris, Roger

28.8

 

1962

Rank

Player

EV

1

Mantle, Mickey

37.8

2

Mays, Willie

37.4

3

Aaron, Hank

34.9

4

Robinson, Frank

33.7

5

Mathews, Eddie

31.6

 

            In a followup article (Mirror View) we’ll look at this subject from a different angle, and Mays will do better.  Ernie Banks won back-to-back MVP Awards in there and then Maris did the same, but neither player was able to push his way through the Mantle-Mays-Aaron-Mathews roadblock to even be taken seriously as the best player in the game.   Mantle, battling serious injuries by 1962, won his third and final MVP Award that season.  In 1963 Mantle missed most of the season with injuries, and Mays, at age 32, finally reached the pinnacle:

 

1963

Rank

Player

EV

1

Mays, Willie

38.1

2

Aaron, Hank

37.1

3t

Robinson, Frank

30.6

3t

Mathews, Eddie

30.6

5

Mantle, Mickey

28.7

 

            Mays, who played almost every game almost every season, saw his numbers go up 5% when the season got 5% longer in 1962.   Beginning in 1963 there was a worldwide shortage of hits, which makes Mays’ mid-sixties numbers less impressive on a superficial level than they might be, but Mays’ best years were 1962-’65—after Mantle was basically finished.   Even had Mantle stayed healthy, he would have had a hard time staying ahead of Mays:

 

1964

Rank

Player

EV

1

Mays, Willie

38.2

2

Aaron, Hank

35.8

3

Robinson, Frank

31.7

4

Mantle, Mickey

29.2

5

Howard, Elston

28.1

 

1965

Rank

Player

EV

1

Mays, Willie

40.3

2

Aaron, Hank

33.9

3

Santo, Ron

29.7

4t

Robinson, Frank

29.0

4t

Callison, Johnny

29.0

 

1966

Rank

Player

EV

1

Mays, Willie

39.1

2

Robinson, Frank

33.1

3

Allen, Dick

32.1

4

Koufax, Sandy

31.9

5

Santo, Ron

31.4

 

            OK, let’s do another little review here.  In the twenty years since the end of the Good War, baseball has been ruled by five slugging outfielders—Williams, then Musial, then Snider, then Mantle, then Mays.   Willie, Mickey and the Duke have been the best in baseball for more than a dozen years.  

 

            In 1966 Frank Robinson, another Hall of Fame outfielder, had a Triple Crown season.   One might have guessed that this would move him into the position of the game’s number one star.  It didn’t—and, if you buy the assumptions of the method, that the most recent season is 40% of the current established value, but only 40%--it is clear that it can’t.  

 

            Look how similar Robinson’s 1966 Triple Crown season really is to Mays’ 1965 MVP season.   Robinson hit .316; Mays, .317.   Robinson hit 49 homers; Mays, 52.   Robinson drove in 122 runs; Mays, 112.   Robinson was 8 for 13 as a base stealer; Mays, 9 for 13.   Robinson had a .637 slugging percentage; Mays, .645.   Even the run context is fairly similar.  Robinson’s team scored 755 runs and allowed 601, finishing 97-65.   Willie’s team scored 682 runs and allowed 593, finishing 95-67.

 

            Robinson’s season is more famous not because it was better, but because of the rather odd fact that no American Leaguer happened to hit better than .316 that year, making Robinson a Triple Crown winner.   Those two years are about the same, and Mays’ ‘66 season is a pretty good match for Robinson’s ‘65 season.  But Mays was far better in 1963 and 1964 than Robby—and thus, has to rate ahead on the four-year evaluation. 

 

            Mays grew old in ’67 (he was 36) while Robinson got off to a great start once again.    But Frank got hurt in mid-season, and missed his chance to move to the top of the heap:

 

1967

Rank

Player

EV

1

Santo, Ron

34.2

2t

Robinson, Frank

32.8

2t

Allen, Dick

32.8

4

Mays, Willie

31.9

4t

Killebrew, Harmon

31.9

 

            That’s right.  Ron Santo.

            Shock, ain’t it?

 

 

            Since 1947, only six non-Hall of Famers had even made the list of the best players in baseball—Al Rosen in 1953, after his MVP near-triple-crown season, Roger Maris, after he hit 61 homers in ’61, then Elston Howard in ’64, Callison and Santo in ’65, and Dick Allen in ’66. 

 

            Now obviously, no one thinks of Ron Santo in the same group with Ruth, Gehrig, DiMaggio, Williams, Musial, Mantle and Mays.   If they did, Santo would be in the Hall of Fame.  I have been one of Santo’s loudest proponents for many years, and even I don’t think of Santo along with those top-tier Hall of Famers.   So does he really deserve to be on this list, or is it some sort of statistical anomaly?  Shouldn’t it be Clemente, or Cepeda, or Yastrzemski or Killebrew or somebody?

 

            Well, first, it is another kind of a little trough—a period without a clearly dominant player.   (In fact, not to kill the suspense or anything, but we are entering the deepest such trough in baseball history.)   Santo’s 34.2 rating wouldn’t have made him the top dog in any other season since 1954, and would have left him in fifth place in ’60 or ’61.   There’s a little period here where nobody else is at the same level.

 

            But look at Santo’s credentials—and, more particularly, look at those of the other contenders.   Santo hit 30 home runs in all four of the seasons on which the rating is based.   Clemente hit 30 in none of those seasons, Cepeda in only one, Yastrzemski in only one. 

 

            Santo hit .300 in three of the four seasons.   He drew 86 or more walks in all four seasons, scored 88 or more runs every year, drove in 94 or more every year, and won the Gold Glove all four years.   His on-base percentage for the four years was .395, his slugging percentage .531, his consistency near perfect.

 

If he was up against Ted Williams, of course he wouldn’t be first—but he wasn’t.  It was the 1960s.  Nobody was hitting .400.  Dick Allen should have been the best player in baseball—but he wasn’t.   People were winning batting titles at .316.   No one else in baseball, in those years, matches the package—and I really believe, right or wrong, that Ron Santo does deserve to rate as baseball’s best player at that moment.

 

So that answers that question:  there are players not in the Hall of Fame who were, at one time, the best players in the game.  Santo is our second, but Keller has the war-time asterisk.  Carl Yastrzemsi wasn’t that good in ’64 or ’66—well, he was good, but just good--but he won his second straight batting title in ’68, and we after ’68 we rank him as the King of the Mountain:

 

1968

Rank

Player

EV

1

Yastrzemski, Carl

34.5

2t

Santo, Ron

31.8

2t

Allen, Dick

31.8

4

Aaron, Hank

31.5

5

McCovey, Willie

30.5

           

            1968 was dominated by pitchers, but none of the pitchers had four straight great years.  In ’69 there was a new leader for the third time in the three years:

 

1969

Rank

Player

EV

1

Aaron, Hank

34.3

2

McCovey, Willie

34.0

3

Howard, Frank

32.7

4

Yastrzemski, Carl

32.6

5

Rose, Pete

31.7

 

            It’s an interregnum, a period between dominant superstars.   Henry Aaron in 1969 was 35 years old—but he still hit .300 with 44 homers.   His 34.3 rating was lower than his Established Value in ’59, ’60, ’61, ’62, ’63 or ’64, but Mays and Mantle were gone, and nobody had really stepped forward to take their place.  It was Aaron’s time.

 

            In ’70 the ball bounced back to Yastrzemski (with a lower figure):

 

1970

Rank

Player

EV

1

Yastrzemski, Carl

34.2

2

McCovey, Willie

34.1

3

Howard, Frank

32.6

4

Rose, Pete

31.5

5

Aaron, Hank

31.2

 

            And in ’71 it went back to Aaron, with a lower figure yet:

 

1971

Rank

Player

EV

1

Aaron, Hank

31.5

2

Rose, Pete

30.5

3t

Bonds, Bobby

30.1

3t

Jenkins, Fergie

30.1

5t

Staub, Rusty

30.0

5t

Torre, Joe

30.0

 

Aaron in ’71 did hit .327 with a career-high 47 home runs—but he was 37 years old, and he did bat less than 500 times with only 22 doubles.   He really didn’t deserve to rate as Baseball’s Best Player anymore, but there just wasn’t anybody else.   It was the lowest point of the Best-in-Baseball competition since 1945.    Who was the best player in baseball from 1967 through 1972 depends entirely on how you measure it, which is to say that no one really was.  

 

Our beautiful list is being splattered with commonness, and we have not reached bottom yet.  In ’72 there was another surprise:

 

1972

Rank

Player

EV

1

Murcer, Bobby

33.2

2

Morgan, Joe

31.5

3t

Rose, Pete

30.7

3t

Allen, Dick

30.7

5

Bench, Johnny

30.1

 

            The last year of the interregnum.   Bobby Murcer was from Oklahoma, like Mickey Mantle, and he took over as the Yankee center fielder, unfortunately, just as the clock struck midnight and the Yankees collapsed in a pile of quivering dogshit.  Murcer, unfairly, was always regarded as a disappointment, simply because he wasn’t Mickey Mantle.     He hit .331 with 94 RBI in ’71, hit 33 homers and drove in 96 in ’72.   I’m higher on him than anybody else, and even I don’t really want to argue that he was best player in baseball, even for ten minutes.   A more obvious candidate would have been Johnny Bench, who won MVP Awards in ’70 and ’72, but catchers miss games, are not consistent offensive players, and their defensive contributions are difficult to document.   The Win Shares system doesn’t much like them. 

 

 

            In 1973, thank God, order was finally restored:

 

1973

Rank

Player

EV

1

Morgan, Joe

35.9

2

Rose, Pete

31.7

3

Murcer, Bobby

31.1

4

Stargell, Willie

30.9

5

Bonds, Bobby

28.9

           

            Joe Morgan in 1973 was not regarded as the best player in baseball—or even, really, the second-best player on his own team, which had Hall of Famers hither and yon.  But, in the tradition of Ruth, Williams, Musial and Mantle, he held on and he got better and he got better, and eventually the public accepted him as the superstar he was:

 

1974

Rank

Player

EV

1

Morgan, Joe

37.5

2

Stargell, Willie

31.1

3

Bench, Johnny

30.7

4

Rose, Pete

30.2

5

Jackson, Reggie

30.0

  

1975

Rank

Player

EV

1

Morgan, Joe

40.6

2

Bench, Johnny

31.1

3

Rose, Pete

30.5

4

Carew, Rod

29.4

5

Grich, Bobby

29.1

 

1976

Rank

Player

EV

1

Morgan, Joe

39.4

2

Schmidt, Mike

31.2

3

Grich, Bobby

30.3

4

Carew, Rod

30.2

5

Rose, Pete

30.1

 

1977

Rank

Player

EV

1

Morgan, Joe

35.6

2

Schmidt, Mike

33.2

3

Carew, Rod

33.0

4

Singleton, Ken

29.8

5

Brett, George

27.4

 

Mike Schmidt emerged as a superior player in 1974, then hit 38 homers in 1975, 38 more in ’76, and 38 more in ’77.   When Morgan slipped from the pinnancle in ’78, however, Schmitty had a bad year, and it was Dave Parker who raced in to pick up the fallen mantle:

 

1978

Rank

Player

EV

1

Parker, Dave

31.9

2

Singleton, Ken

30.1

3t

Schmidt, Mike

28.9

3t

Carew, Rod

28.9

5

Foster, George

28.7

 

I think that this ranking is accurate, and I think it accords with public perception at that time.   Parker won the MVP Award in ’78, won the batting title in ’77 and again in ’78.   He wasn’t Willie Mays, but he was fast, had an outstanding arm, and he hit for power as well as average.   He became the highest paid player in baseball, and I think he was generally regarded, at that time, as the best player in the game.

 

But he is not in the Hall of Fame.   We now have three players, all of a sudden, who were at one time the best players in baseball, but who have not yet been elected to the Hall of Fame—Santo, then Murcer, then Parker.   I generally stay out of Hall of Fame arguments, although I make an exception for Ron Santo.    But certainly no one can really argue that Hall of Famers Travis Jackson and Earle Combs and Jim Bottomley and Ted Lyons and George Kelly were better players than non-Hall of Famers Santo and Murcer and Parker.   They weren’t.   Jackson and Combs and Bottomley and Lyons and Kelly didn’t even make the list, let alone the top of the list.   But forty years after their peak seasons, Hafey and Jackson and Combs and Bottomley and Kelly were the beneficiaries of a liberal and friendly Hall of Fame committee, and thirty years after their best seasons Santo and Murcer and Parker have not been.   That’s really all you can say about that.   The fact that the Hall of Fame important doesn’t mean that its election process is serious.

 

Parker defended his position for one year before he discovered drugs:

 

1979

Rank

Player

EV

1

Parker, Dave

32.4

2

Singleton, Ken

30.8

3

Schmidt, Mike

30.2

4

Brett, George

29.2

5t

Rice, Jim

28.9

5t

Winfield, Dave

28.9

 

And then Mike Schmidt returned to claim the title that probably should have been his two or three years earlier:

 

1980

Rank

Player

EV

1

Schmidt, Mike

32.6

2

Brett, George

31.8

3

Singleton, Ken

29.6

4

Carter, Gary

27.0

5

Parker, Dave

26.8

 

Schmidt and Brett, Brett and Schmidt. . .it’s like yesterday to me.  They were Mays and Mantle written small, and written out of New York.  

 

From Ty Cobb through Willie Mays, the position of baseball biggest star was essentially owned by outfielders.   There were exceptions here and there—a first baseman, one year of Hornsby, a couple of years of a pitcher.  It was an outfielder’s gig. 

 

Ron Santo began to change that, and then Joe Morgan, and then Schmidt.   It’s no longer an outfielder’s job.   Whether this is a profound change in baseball or just something that happened, I’ll leave it to you.

 

In any case, Schmidt, like Wagner and Cobb and Ruth and Gehrig, like Williams and Musial and Mantle and Mays and Morgan, didn’t just touch the post; he made it his own:

1981

Rank

Player

EV

1

Schmidt, Mike

32.0

2

Dawson, Andre

25.6

3

Brett, George

25.3

4

Hernandez, Keith

24.1

5

Murray, Eddie

24.0

 

1982

Rank

Player

EV

1

Schmidt, Mike

34.5

2

Yount, Robin

28.0

3

Henderson, Rickey

27.1

4

Carter, Gary

26.2

5

Dawson, Andre

26.1

 

1983

Rank

Player

EV

1

Schmidt, Mike

34.8

2

Yount, Robin

31.4

3

Henderson, Rickey

29.2

4

Murray, Eddie

27.9

5

Murphy, Dale

27.4

 

1984

Rank

Player

EV

1

Schmidt, Mike

31.3

2

Yount, Robin

30.5

3

Murray, Eddie

30.4

4

Murphy, Dale

30.3

5

Ripken Jr., Cal

29.9

 

Brett was more brilliant than Schmidt but less consistent.  Brett took a run at him, and then Dawson, and then Yount, but the best player in baseball was Mike Schmidt.  The man who finally ended that was Rickey:

 

1985

Rank

Player

EV

1

Henderson, Rickey

32.4

2t

Murphy, Dale

31.9

2t

Raines, Tim

31.9

4

Ripken Jr., Cal

30.4

5

Guerrero, Pedro

30.3

           

Rickey was never widely recognized as the best player in baseball—but he really was.   If you asked somebody who was the best player in baseball in the mid-1980s, he would most likely name Dale Murphy, a two-time MVP, or Don Mattingly, the suave Yankee RBI man.   Those guys were great players, but Rickey was better.  Rickey scored 146 runs in 1985, drew 99 walks, hit 24 homers, stole 80 bases.  That was his best year, but it was just another year for him; he was always great.  Mattingly’s only real advantage was that he drove in more runs, and it was Rickey who scored those runs.    He was never popular, but he was a fantastic player,

 

In the mid-1980s, however, we entered another messy interregnum, another period with a new man every year, and no real public consensus about the greatness of any of them.  It was the era of the leadoff men:

 

1986

Rank

Player

EV

1

Boggs, Wade

33.1

2

Raines, Tim

32.9

3

Henderson, Rickey

30.4

4

Mattingly, Don

29.7

5

Ripken Jr., Cal

29.6

 

1987

Rank

Player

EV

1

Raines, Tim

33.6

2

Boggs, Wade

32.9

3

Mattingly, Don

30.3

4

Trammell, Alan

27.9

5

Gwynn, Tony

27.8

 

1988

Rank

Player

EV

1

Boggs, Wade

32.5

2

Puckett, Kirby

28.6

3

Strawberry, Darryl

28.4

4

Raines, Tim

27.8

5

Mattingly, Don

27.7

 

I don’t wish to argue that Margo’s boy toy was really the best player in baseball in 1986 or ‘88, or Tim Raines in ’87.  I hold my own methods at arm’s length sometimes.  You believe it or you don’t; I couldn’t convince you if I tried.   I prefer those days when we have a neat list dominated by Ted Williams or Willie Mays; that is easier to defend.  Leadoff men are always under-respected.  In 1989 we got away from the leadoff men:

 

1989

Rank

Player

EV

1

Clark, Will

35.1

2

Boggs, Wade

31.0

3

Yount, Robin

30.4

4

Puckett, Kirby

28.8

5

Gwynn, Tony

27.6

 

And Clark held the spot for two more years:

 

1990

Rank

Player

EV

1

Clark, Will

33.1

2

Henderson, Rickey

32.2

3

Bonds, Barry

29.1

4

Sandberg, Ryne

28.4

5

Boggs, Wade

27.7

 

1991

Rank

Player

EV

1

Clark, Will

33.6

2

Bonds, Barry

33.1

3

Sandberg, Ryne

32.8

4

Henderson, Rickey

30.5

5

Bonilla, Bobby

28.2

 

            It wasn’t so long ago, but it seems remote.  I think that Will Clark was an immensely respected player, really, but no one wants to talk about him that way.  The numbers have changed so much that it is as if we are embarrassed to admit that we were once in awe of a first baseman who hit .310 with 30 homers and 110 RBI a year.    Barry Bonds took over in ’92:

 

1992

Rank

Player

EV

1

Bonds, Barry

37.2

2

Sandberg, Ryne

33.9

3

Clark, Will

30.8

4

Henderson, Rickey

28.3

5

Alomar, Roberto

27.2

 

            And, with the exception of a couple of years when injuries sapped his numbers, he rules to the present time.  He has withstood the challenges of Ken Griffey and Frank Thomas, of Biggio and Belle and McGwire and Sosa and A-Rod and, for all I know, he may withstand the challenge of Albert Pujols and the generation behind him.    He seems more than human sometimes.  I suppose he ain’t. 

 

1993

Rank

Player

EV

1

Bonds, Barry

42.2

2

Thomas, Frank

30.8

3

Alomar, Roberto

29.1

4

Molitor, Paul

27.9

5

Griffey Jr., Ken

27.5

 

1994

Rank

Player

EV

1

Bonds, Barry

36.0

2

Thomas, Frank

29.6

3

Bagwell, Jeff

26.7

4

Biggio, Craig

26.6

5

Maddux, Greg

25.0

 

1995

Rank

Player

EV

1

Bonds, Barry

35.4

2

Thomas, Frank

28.4

3

Biggio, Craig

27.8

4

Maddux, Greg

27.5

5

Belle, Albert

26.2

  

1996

Rank

Player

EV

1

Bonds, Barry

36.1

2

Bagwell, Jeff

30.6

3

Biggio, Craig

29.3

4

Belle, Albert

28.9

5

Piazza, Mike

28.6

 

1997

Rank

Player

EV

1

Bonds, Barry

35.8

2

Biggio, Craig

33.2