I woke up this morning, my oldest daughter was a sick, my youngest daughter wanted to argue that purple and red are a perfect match for school clothes, my wife had another tax question, and I wondered who would make up the baseball All-Star Team of my lifetime. I suppose that’s too long a sentence for a epigraph, but I’d say that sentence more or less encapsulates the absurdity of my life. I live in a sitcom that nobody would watch.
When the various family dramas were worked out, I sat here at this computer and started to work out the question: Who would make up the baseball All-Star team of my lifetime?
I was born in 1967. My first blurry memories of baseball come from 1972. That year, I went to my first game (I remember nothing except that Gaylord Perry pitched), and I watched my first World Series game (I remember nothing except for the yellow uniforms the Oakland A’s wore). My first sturdy memories come from 1975, when I was 8, when the Reds were amazing (someone should write a book about that team) and when I first became acutely aware of the differences between players. For instance, I very clearly remember going to a game at old Cleveland Municipal and seeing Don Hood pick off a batter. “He’s good at that,” my father told me. Sure enough, he WAS good at that — he had seven pickoff that year. So, I learned that some pitchers are good at picking off baserunners (Don Hood was also good at wild pitches). I also saw Buddy Bell hit a home run … for a while it seemed whenever we would go to a game we would see Buddy Bell hit a home run.*
*I’m pretty sure that the game in question was this one, a Sunday afternoon in Cleveland. Everything about it fits into my memory, including that it was a Sunday. My father worked in the factory six days a week, so almost every game we attended was a Sunday.
Anyway, that just puts the timing on things. I was wondering who would make up the all-time team from 1967 to now … with a heavy emphasis on players performances after 1975, the players I remember best.
People, surprisingly often, ask why I love sports numbers so much. There are probably a lot of different answers, but one of them is that I have the kind of goofy mind that wakes up with dumb imaginary questions like who is the greatest defensive left fielder ever or who had the best arm in NFL history or could the NBA’s all-time fourth team beat the NBA’s all-time best team?*
*Let’s say the all-time NBA team looks like so:
G: Magic Johnson
G: Michael Jordan
F: Larry Bird
F: Bill Russell
C: Wilt Chamberlain
And the No. 2 all-time team looks like so:
G: Oscar Robertson
G: Jerry West
F: Tim Duncan
F: Elgin Baylor
C: Kareem Abdul-Jabbar
And the No. 3 all-time team looks like so:
G: Bob Cousy
G: Kobe Bryant
F: Lebron James
F: Hakeem Olajuwon
And the No. 4 all-time team looks like so:
G: Isiah Thomas
G: John Havlicek
F: Julius Erving
F: Karl Malone
C: Moses Malone
Now, obviously those are not my top four teams — I picked those names off the top of my head. You can mix and match, add or subtract, throw in a Bob Pettit or a Charles Barkley or a John Stockton or whoever. The question is if you put those four teams on the floor as is, would the No. 1 team definitely be the best? It looks like that to me … but what if Chamberlain and Russell don’t mesh? What if Jordan can’t play with Magic? What if the old timers turn out to not be able to play with the kids?
And how would this team compete against those teams?
G: Chris Paul
G: Dwayne Wade
F: Kevin Durant
F: Kevin Love
F: Dwight Howard
These are the stupid things that I think about.
So I wake up wondering about these things. There is no right or wrong answer to them — it’s like when I asked Bill James how he thought Babe Ruth would play in today’s era and he said: “Fortunately, I don’t have to think about that.” But I then go to the numbers to kind of explore those things. The weird part is that I’m not really looking to the numbers for ANSWERS to the question. I mean, deep down, I don’t really care who makes up the baseball All-Star team of my lifetime. I would imagine off the top of my head the team looks like this:
1B: Albert Pujols
2B: Joe Morgan
SS: Alex Rodriguez
3B: Mike Schmidt
LF: Barry Bonds
CF: Ken Griffey
RF: Reggie Jackson
C: Johnny Bench
DH: Frank Thomas
SP: Roger Clemens, Greg Maddux, Pedro Martinez, Tom Seaver and Randy Johnson.
Multiple inning closer: Dan Quisenberry.
One inning closer: Mariano Rivera
And if I look at the numbers … well, I’ve looked at the numbers enough — Baseball Reference WAR, Fangraphs WAR, Win Shares, etc. — that I know they will back me up on this. They might suggest that Pujols hasn’t done quite enough to surpass Jeff Bagwell or Rod Carew just yet, or they might push for Cal Ripken or Derek Jeter since they played shortstop longer than A-Rod or they might try to nudge me into finding a place for Pete Rose on the team. But generally speaking the numbers won’t tell me much …
… but the awesome thing about sports numbers is that they always take me in unexpected directions — and 2,500 word blog posts. For instance, by looking at the numbers I was able to come up with a Top 5 or so at each position. This is the best consensus I can find using those three numbers — Fangraphs WAR, Baseball Reference WAR and Win Shares — and my own best judgment.
1. Albert Pujols
2. Jeff Bagwell
3. Rod Carew
4. Eddie Murray
5. Jim Thome
Just missed: Rafael Palmeiro, Mark McGwire.
1. Joe Morgan
2. Lou Whitaker
3. Craig Biggio
4. Roberto Alomar
5. Bobby Grich
Just missed: Ryne Sandberg, Willie Randolph.
1. Alex Rodriguez
2. Cal Ripken
3. Derek Jeter
4. Robin Yount
5. Barry Larkin
Just missed: Ozzie Smith, Alan Trammell.
1. Mike Schmidt
2. George Brett
3. Wade Boggs
4. Chipper Jones
5. Scott Rolen
Just missed: Darrell Evans, Graig Nettles.
1. Barry Bonds
2. Rickey Henderson
3. Pete Rose
4. Manny Ramirez
5. Tim Raines
Just missed: Carl Yastrzemski, Jose Cruz.
1. Ken Griffey
2. Jim Edmonds
3. Andre Dawson
4. Reggie Smith
5. Kenny Lofton
Just missed: Andruw Jones, Carlos Beltran, Bernie Williams.
1. Reggie Jackson
2. Dwight Evans
3. Tony Gwynn
4. Larry Walker
5. Dave Winfield
Just missed: Gary Sheffield, Sammy Sosa, Ichiro Suzuki.
1. Johnny Bench
2. Carlton Fisk
3. Ivan Rodriguez
4. Gary Carter
5. Mike Piazza
Just missed: Ted Simmons
1. Frank Thomas
2. Paul Molitor
3. Edgar Martinez
4. Harold Baines
5. David Ortiz
Just missed: Don Baylor, Hal McRae
There are some quirks with positioning … I wasn’t really sure what position to put Pete Rose, Paul Molitor, Reggie Smith, Jim Thome, Robin Yount, A-Rod and a few other players. I tried to put them where they best fit, even if it didn’t exactly fit with where they played the most. Pete Rose defensively seemed best in left field — it’s where he put up his best Total Zone numbers. Molitor played more games in the field than at DH, but he really had his best years as DH. Hey, it’s my team, and it’s my life. Andre Dawson was at his best as a center fielder.
Anyway, this is roughly what the numbers showed me … and then comes the fun part. What do these numbers say? It seems to me that they say some pretty interesting things. We talk a lot about number and the Hall of Fame here, but I would like to think we’re not REALLY talking about the numbers or the Hall of Fame but are instead talking about baseball, and how players are remembered.
For instance, Lou Whitaker is simply not remembered as a great player. That’s just reality. Players of his time, fans of his time, sportswriters of his time … they just didn’t see him that way.
But the numbers say he WAS a great player. Here is a Fangraphs chart I’ve shown before, Whitaker compared to Robby Alomar and Ryne Sandberg. You will notice that in career value, Whitaker tops both of them. The thing that seems to hurt Whitaker’s baseball reputation is that Sandberg had two or three seasons that were better than Whitaker’s best. Alomar probably had two seasons that were better than Whitaker’s best. Because of this we have a clear vision of them as greater players than Whitaker.
Whitaker’s thing was his consistency — he had 15 what I would call very good seasons. Alomar had 11. Sandberg had 7.
Consistency doesn’t necessarily excite the masses.
Bobby Grich has a different problem. Grich’s three best seasons were almost certainly better than the three best of Sandberg or Alomar (or Whitaker, for that matter). He might have been the best player in the American League from 1974-76.
His problem is nobody from 1974 to 1976 realized this because he hit .263 over those three years, and batting average was where baseball analysis began and ended. You can’t hit .263 and be a great hitter, everybody knew that then. Many people still know that now.
Grich was a brilliant defensive second baseman, he hit with some power, he had a bit of speed, and though nobody noticed, he walked 100 times or so a year, got hit by some pitches, and was among the Top 10 in on-base percentage each season. There used to be a saying among Dominican player that you don’t walk off the Island. That may or may not be true. But you definitely don’t walk into the Hall of Fame or into baseball people’s imaginations.
Where we draw the Hall of Fame line … I find that endlessly fascinating. I suspect the Top 5 catchers on the list — and catcher was the only position where all the statistics I used spit out the same five players — will make the Hall of Fame. But the unanimous choice for sixth-best catcher of my lifetime, Ted Simmons, got almost no support and was bounced from the ballot after one appearance. I’m not saying this is wrong: I think all five of those guys were better than Ted Simmons. It’s the abruptness off it that’s jolting.
But maybe the Hall of Fame line is right there between Gary Carter and Ted Simmons.
Corner outfielder vs. Center field
You clearly have a better shot at the Hall of Fame as a corner outfielder than you do as a center fielder. Nobody could argue the point. There have been 13 Hall of Famers in my lifetime who played predominantly one of the corner outfield positions. By WAR (since 1967):
1. Rickey Henderson
2. Reggie Jackson
3. Tony Gwynn
4. Carl Yastrzemski
5. Dave Winfield
6. Willie Stargell
7. Hank Aaron
8. Jim Rice
9. Roberto Clemente
10. Frank Robinson
11. Billy Williams
12. Lou Brock
13. Al Kaline
Barry Bonds will join this group sooner or later. Down the road, I’d bet Ichiro will get inducted. MannyBManny will tough to keep out. I hope Tim Raines will join this group. More on Gary Sheffield in just a moment.
But first: How many center fielders from that same time frame were elected to the Hall? Three.
1. Willie Mays
2. Andre Dawson
3. Kirby Puckett
It isn’t just the difference in numbers. I don’t remember Willie Mays — he’s not really of my era. So it’s down to two. Andre Dawson — Tom Tango convinced me — should be remembered as a center fielder, and I honor him that way. But he did play more right field than center. And Kirby Puckett had a short career and many think he doesn’t belong in the Hall of Fame. None of the statistical systems I used had Puckett as one of the 10 best center fielders of my lifetime.
Now, Ken Griffey will go in and probably pretty close to unanimously. But no one else on the list of best center fielders is likely to go in. I guess we will see how Jim Edmonds is received as a Hall of Fame candidate, but I have not sensed much buzz or excitement about him.
Center field is a much more demanding position than left field. We understand this instinctively. And yet when WAR shows Jim Edmonds above Dave Winfield or Andruw Jones (Andruw Jones!) above Billy Williams or Kenny Lofton above Jim Rice, people tend to think the stat must be horribly flawed. And maybe the stat is horribly flawed, I’m not here to argue that.
Still: At some point we might get the concept that center field defense offers much more value than left field defense, and that a player’s contribution to winning baseball games is the sum of many smaller contributions. I think center fielders, especially great defensive center fielders, deserve a little more consideration than they’re getting. It seems to me that of the other tough defensive positions — the Top 5 catchers are going to the Hall, the Top 5 shortstops will go to the Hall, at least four second baseman look to be Hall bound, at least four third baseman look to be Hall bound. But as it looks right now, only two center fielders from my Top 7 seem likely to go to the Hall. Maybe this is because there just haven’t been many great center fielders in my life. Or maybe we underrate the position.
Sheffield and the Hall of Fame
All of this leads to Gary Sheffield. He officially retired on Thursday, I guess, though he didn’t play at all in 2010. He was a scary hitter. We sometimes joke around about how often people call a hitter “feared.” But if any hitter of the last 44 or so years was truly scary to face, it was Sheffield with the way he waved that bat around, the absolute look of pure hate on his face, his almost magical ability to hit the ball wherever it happened to be thrown, his eagle eye … all of it led to a gut-wrenching experience for pitchers.
The guy just obliterated mediocre pitchers:
— Jamey Wright: .519 average, 6 homers in 27 at-bats.
— Bruce Chen: .481 average, 5 homers in 27 at-bats.
— Kent Bottenfield: .458 average, 3 homers in 24 at-bats.
But he cranked against great pitchers too, especially if they happened to be left-handed. He hit .389 against Jamie Moyer. He slugged .629 against Tom Glavine. He hit .474 against Kevin Brown. He got only 19 appearances against Roger Clemens but he hit .611. I’ll repeat that. He hit .611. He slugged .537 against Pedro.
Point is, the guy was scary. And you look at some of his numbers — 500 homers, 140 OPS+ — these are Hall of Fame numbers.
But getting back to the point of the last section: Corner outfielders hit. That’s what they do. They are, in most cases, not fast enough, gifted enough or good enough defensively to play one of the key defensive spots. Sheffield was by the numbers and reputation a poor defensive player who had to be moved off third base after he made 34 errors in 1993 and his outfield defense wasn’t much to speak of either. So you would think that for Sheffield to be considered one of the great players in his era, he had to outhit just about everybody.
But did he? Bonds was a better hitter. MannyBManny was a better hitter. I think Bagwell was a better hitter, Thome was a better hitter … I would argue that Edgar and Larry Walker were better hitters too.
For a long time, when someone would ask me if I thought Gary Sheffield was a Hall of Famer, I would say that I hadn’t studied it but my first thought was: Yes. But after looking a bit, I’d say that my second thought is: No. I think, all things considered, there were at least five right fielders of my lifetime who were better players. Dewey got very little Hall of Fame support. Larry Walker has a long, uphill climb. I’d say Sheffield has a long line ahead of him.