Rating the Greatest Baseball Players of All Time
My rankings of the greatest baseball players ever, starting with number 1, in order.
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Saturday, July 26, 2003
Number 50: Phil Niekro
Knuckleballers never quite seem to get their due. They don't throw hard, and therefore do not look impressive. Yet studies show that the knuckleball is the hardest pitch to get good wood on. And nobody threw a knuckleball better longer than Phil Niekro.
Niekro did not reach the majors until he was 25, with the Braves in Milwaukee. The Braves started him in the bullpen, and then moved him to the rotation in the middle of 1967. He was an instant success, and went 23-13 with the 1969 NL West winner. He would make only one other postseason, 1982, showing another attribute of knuckleball pitchers: good teams don't like "gimmick" pitchers. Niekro won 20 in a season twice more, 1974 and 1979. He pitched a lot of innings in spite of his late start, and was effective into his mid-40s. Niekro is also a soft-spoken gentleman, rarely heard to say a bad thing about anyone. He won five Gold Gloves, but never a Cy Young although he was 2nd in 1969's voting.
Niekro earned 190.54 ratings points.
Niekro's stats: 318-274, 3.35 ERA, 3342 Ks, 245 CG, 45 shutouts.
Number 49: John Clarkson.
Clarkson was a 19th century pitcher who posted 328 career wins. That's a pretty impressive figure, even for the time, and ranks 11th on the current all-time list. Clarkson pitched three games for Worcester in 1882, then in 1884 started four successful years in Chicago. He won 53 games for Cap Anson's club in 1885 and was one of the team's big stars as the ace pitcher.
After 1887 Chicago sold his contract to Boston, where he continued to pitch well. Clarkson finished his career in Cleveland in 1894 at age 32, as arms usually gave out quickly when pitching 500 innings in a season. Clarkson lasted 12 years, and in all but one of them, that first three-game season, his ERA was better than the league average. His career ERA+ was 134.
Clarkson earned 191.12 career ratings points.
Clarkson's stats: 328-178 record, 2.81 ERA, 1978 strikeouts, 485 CG.
Number 48: Roberto Clemente.
Clemente was on two championship teams with the Pirates, 1960 and 1971, and both times it seems he lifted a good team to the pinnacle largely by the strength of his will. His lifetime World Series average is .362, with a .534 slugging average. Roberto also had a tremendous defensive reputation, with a throwing arm few would challenge. Clemente was a proud man who felt discrimination for his dark skin and Latino accent, referred to by the Pittsburgh and national press as "Bob" even though he hated the name, and often quoted phonetically in the Pittsburgh papers, which seemed to try to make Roberto sound less intelligent than the capable man he was. He was one of the great humanitarians of our time, and lost his life on December 31, 1972 in a plane crash while bringing relief supplies to needy people. No player was ever missed more. Clemente won a 1966 NL MVP, 12 Gold Gloves, and four batting titles in addition to two World Series rings.
Clemente earned 191.28 ratings points.
Clemente's stats: .317 average, 240 homers, 3000 hits, 1416 runs, 440 doubles.
Friday, July 25, 2003
Number 47: Curt Schilling.
Schilling was drafted by the Red Sox in the 2nd round, then dealt to the Orioles with Brady Anderson to get Mike Boddicker, one of the Red Sox' biggest blunders. The Orioles kept giving Schilling September auditions and coming away unimpressed. After Schilling spent much of 1990 in the Baltimore bullpen, compiling a 2.54 ERA in 46 innings, the Birds sent him to Houston with Steve Finley and Pete Harnisch to get the washed-up Glenn Davis. So, Schilling had barely started in baseball when he was involved in two of the worst trades ever.
Schilling wasn't in Houston long either, sent to Philadelphia after one season for Jason Grimsley. It was with the Phillies that Schilling established himself, pitching well in 1992 and 1993. 1994 brought arm troubles, but Schilling battled his way back to being a strong starter again. He won 17 games in 1997, 15 each in 1998 and 1999. In mid-2000, Schilling was traded to Arizona for four players. He immediately went from being a good pitcher to being one of the best, finishing second in the Cy Young voting in the next two seasons, and helping the Diamondbacks win the 2001 World Series.
2003 was an injury-plagued year, and after it Schilling was dealt to the Red Sox. 2004 was a magical season in Boston, as the Red Sox won their first World Series since 1918. Schilling was again second in Cy Young voting, and pitched through much pain to succeed in the postseason. His legacy is now secure following his 2007 final season, with the Red Sox. Schilling rates so high because of his incredible strikeout-to-walk ratios in his prime years.
Schilling has earned 191.55 ratings points.
Schilling's stats: 216-146 record, 3.46 ERA, 3116 K.
Number 45: Charlie Gehringer and Number 46: Al Kaline; a pair of Tigers.
He was called "The Mechanical Man" because he used words sparingly, simply went out and played ball. "Just wind him up and send him out there," they said, and it worked. Gehringer was a strong hitter and solid defensive player, much like the later player Ryne Sandberg but a left-handed hitter.
Gehringer played his whole career with the Detroit Tigers, starting briefly in 1924 and 25 before becoming a regular in 1926 at age 23. The Tigers were a decent team in his early years, managed by Ty Cobb, but only middle-of-the-pack. In 1931 they bottomed out with 93 losses as Gehringer missed time with an injury, and then built their way back up. With Billy Rogell as his double-play partner and Tommy Bridges to anchor the pitching staff, the Tigers came up with Hank Greenberg and won the pennant in 1934 under catcher-manager Mickey Cochrane. It was a hitter's era but Gehringer's stats are still impressive, as he batted .356 with 134 runs scored and 127 RBI, and led the team in on-base average. He hit for a good average and also drew walks, and hit with doubles and triples power too. The Tigers won the Series in 1935, and again Gehringer was #3 hitter and catalyst. The team continued to play well but fell short the next few years, and Gehringer was aging. He had a last hurrah in the team's 1940 pennant, but he was then 37. He batted just .220 in 1941, then spent 1942 as a pinch-hitter and retired. He could have played through the war years had he chosen to, but instead laid down bat and glove.
Gehringer batted .321 in 20 World Series games, and won the 1937 MVP when he hit .371. He was a top-ten MVP voting finisher eight times, indicating the respect paid him by players and writers. He earned 196.14 ratings points.
Gehringer's stats: .320 average, 184 HR, 181 SB, 1427 RBI, 1774 runs, 1186 BB, 2839 hits.
Not many Hall of Famers had their best seasons at age 20 and went downhill from there. Of course, not many seasons at age 20 had as much room to fall from as Al Kaline's. Kaline played his whole career for the Detroit Tigers, debuting in 1953 at age 18, with 28 ABs. He batted .276 with little power in 1954, then exploded in 1955 with a .340 average, 27 homers and 102 RBI. He posted a 967 OPS. He got to 969 in 1962, but played only 100 games that year. Even though he never hit quite that well again, he hit consistently well, played excellent defense in right field and acquitted himself well in center when called upon. He was the Tigers' regular CF in 1959 and 60, and again in 1965 and 1966 for parts of the year. He didn't hit .340 again, but he was always around .300 and 20 homers, with RBI, walks, and good speed thrown in during a low-offense era.
For awhile it looked like Kaline would be one of those guys who never quite got to the World Series, like Ernie Banks, but then came 1968. Kaline was 33, and limited to 102 games by injuries, but the Tigers won the pennant at long last. Kaline was the key hitter in the Tigers' win. He made it back to the postseason just one more time, in the 1972 ALCS, hitting well again. He won 10 Gold Gloves for his strong defense, and finished in the top ten of MVP voting nine times, finishing second in both 1955 and 1963, never quite winning. He was never really the best player in the league, but he was one of the best for a very long time, retiring after the 1974 season at age 39. Kaline was a symbol of class and performance, and among the most respected players ever.
Kaline earned 196.02 ratings points.
Kaline's stats: .297 average, 399 homers, 498 doubles, 1583 RBI, 1622 runs, 3007 hits.
Thursday, July 24, 2003
Number 44: Brooks Robinson
He was a great glove man, he was a great clutch hitter, he was a gentleman, he had a mediocre bat, he was boring. You can hear all those things about Brooksy, depending on who you give a listen. At some level, all those things are true.
Brooks Robinson was one of the true gentlemen of the game, unfailingly polite and kind to one and all. He also earned the nickname "Hoover" for his incredible defense at the hot corner. Robinson was the best defensive third baseman ever. As a hitter, he got a rep as an RBI man and won the 1964 AL MVP when he led the league in RBI. His career OPS+ was 104, making him just slightly above average as a hitter. But that includes some time at the beginning and end of his career when he got at bats because of his defense and because of his reputation. Still, a slightly above average hitter who is an all-time great glove man is a great player overall.
Robinson's presence made the Oriole staffs much better, gobbling up ground balls and liners. He was a natural lefty who threw right-handed, which some credit for his glove wizardry. He played his whole career for Baltimore, from 6 games in 1955 at age 18 to 24 games in 1977 at age 40. In between, he was the cornerstone of the Orioles franchise.
Robinson earned 196.19 ratings points.
Robinson's stats: .267 average, 268 homers, 1357 RBI, 2848 hits, 16 Gold Gloves.
Wednesday, July 23, 2003
Gaylord Perry played for many teams during his career. In fact, it became a joke at Old-Timers' Games, as Perry wore a uniform adorned with the names of several franchises. Perry started with the San Francisco Giants, and was a member of their 1965 pennant team and the 1971 division winners. He won 21 games in 1966, 23 in 1970. But he had slumped in 1971, so the Giants sent him to Cleveland for Sam McDowell. The Indians weren't very good at the time, but Perry won 63 games in three years with an outstanding display of pitching skill and stamina. He won the 1972 AL Cy Young by posting a 24-victory season. He also acquired a reputation as a spitballer, a rep he encouraged with a series of antics on the mound. Perry moved to Texas, then to San Diego where he won 21 games and another Cy Young in 1978, then back to Texas, then to the Yankees, Braves, Mariners, and finally the Royals. He was getting by on guile and chutzpah there at the end, but he was always a great competitor.
Perry's stats: 314-265 record, 3.11 ERA, 117 ERA+, 3534 strikeouts.
Perry earned 197.56 ratings points.
George Brett played his whole career with the Kansas City Royals, and was the 1969 expansion team's first great player. He surfaced in the majors briefly in 1973, then to stay in 1974, batting .282 in his rookie year. He blossomed in 1975, hitting .308 with 59 extra-base hits. He often credited hitting coach Charlie Lau with his success, but having a family full of brothers, including major leaguer Ken, was likely even more important. With Brett, the Royals began winning: AL West division titles in 1976-78, the pennant in 1980 when George hit .390, but began to be hampered by injuries, playing only 117 games. This would continue to be a problem for Brett. He eventually moved to 1B in 1987, then DH in 1991. But the Royals won a playoff spot in 1981, the division in 1984, then in 1985 won the World Series, with Brett really the team's only good hitter, plus a marvelous pitching staff.
He played through 1993, won three batting titles, the 1980 MVP, and a 1985 Gold Glove. He finished in the top ten of MVP voting five times. Brett had a reputation as a clutch hitter, and his .337 postseason average supports the claim. Like Mantle, if he had been more durable, he would have been farther up the list of greats, but his accomplishments were still quite impressive.
Brett earned 109.98 rating points.
Brett's stats: .305 average, 317 homers, 1595 RBI, 1583 runs, 201 SB, 135 OPS+.
My favorite player and childhood hero, Bench redefined the catcher position. After the initial shaking-out period in baseball history, catchers became short, squatty guys built low to the ground. They were usually slow, but often quick, and frequently had good power. Yogi Berra was the peak of this form. Tall guys need not apply, with rare exceptions.
Then Bench with his incredible defensive skills and excellent power came along. Here was a catcher who could catch-and-throw with the best of them, and hit cleanup at the same time. Even Berra did not have these kinds of skills. Bench would be followed by Carlton Fisk and Gary Carter, two more of the same type. Guys like this were previously made outfielders. Now, they could don "the tools of ignorance" and serve their teams much better.
Oklahoma-born Bench spent his whole career in Cincinnati, starting in 1967 with a brief September appearance. He had a fine rookie year in 1968, winning the Rookie of the Year Award and a Gold Glove. In 1970 he exploded onto the scene with an MVP year. 1971 was an off year, but he repeated the MVP in 1972. Already he had sealed the Hall of Fame.
Bench never quite matched that peak again, but he continued to play at a high level. He was a major piece of the Big Red Machine teams of the 1970s. After he turned 30, injuries and wear-and-tear began to erode his performance. In 1981 he moved to first base, and then in 1982 he tried third base in one of the all-time great fiascos. Note to major league teams: don't move an old catcher with aching knees to third base. Bench could have handled first base, but the deed was done, and he retired after 1983. He was an all-star in 14 of his 17 seasons, and won 10 Gold Gloves for his defense. No one ever played the position better.
Bench earned 201.62 ratings points.
Bench's stats: .267 average, 389 homers, 1376 RBI, 126 career OPS+.
Tuesday, July 22, 2003
Here begins the Top 40. Ratings are based on the WARP3 (Wins Above Replacement Player) metric described at the Baseball Prospectus website, developed by Clay Davenport. The components of the rating are: Career WARP3; Top single season WARP3; best 4 consecutive WARP3; top 7 career WARP3 season totals; and the WARP3 score per 162 games. This gives a boost to starting pitchers, who are more valuable on a per-game basis. Also included for some players is a subjective score. Subjective points are awarded for three reasons: time lost to segregation; time lost to military service; and for catchers, 1 point per 100 games caught. This last is to boost catchers, who otherwise lag against other positions, due to the physical demands of catching. The total "ratings points" given each player is the sum of all these numbers.
WARP3 is adjusted for the level of competition, and scaled to a 162 game season for each year. For a more complete description, see www.baseballprospectus.com.
This is pretty high for a guy with only 12 full seasons, who was not a natural athlete. Greenberg had to work hard on a baseball field to succeed, and it never came easy. What he had was the ability to hit a baseball for long distances, on a regular basis. His career was shortened by World War II. He was drafted and missed the 1941 season, and then just after he got out of the army, the U.S. declared war and Hank was back in uniform. He didn't return until late in 1945, in time to push the Tigers to the pennant.
Greenberg started with the Tigers in 1933, after one at bat in 1930. He soon established himself as one of the best in the league, and the Tigers won the 1934 pennant, their first since early in the Ty Cobb era back in 1909. In 1935, they won the Series. Greenberg missed most of 1936 with an injury, and then returned in 1937 at full strength for four years of top-notch hitting including a 1940 pennant. That also made two MVP awards, 1935 and 1940. After the war, Hank had slowed, as he was 35 in 1946. He was sent to Pittsburgh for 1947, where he was wanted to help young slugger Ralph Kiner break in the right way. Something went right, because Kiner led the league in homers for 10 straight years.
Greenberg is remembered fondly by many around baseball. He batted .318 in four World Series, his team winning twice. He was a hero to Detroit and to the Jewish communities around the country. His stats would look more impressive with that war service time added to it.
Greenberg earned 206.03 ratings points.
Greenberg's stats: .313 average, 331 homers, 1276 RBI, .412 career OBA, .605 career SLG.
He came to play with the New York Giants in 1900, at age 19. He stayed there through 1916, his whole career except one game with Cincinnati, where he went to be manager before going to fight in World War I. In New York he became celebrated for his talent, his honesty, and his gentlemanly ways. Not the things most people get known for in New York, but admirable qualities. As of 1901 he was a top pitcher, and in the years 1901-1913 he only had one bad year, that in 1906, and he was still 22-12 then. Mathewson had good strikeout totals--excellent for the time--and a limited number of walks. His stats are helped by the low-offense era and by playing for good teams (they won five pennants) but he was also the best NL pitcher of the era.
He won twenty or more games 12 years in a row, and 30 or more three times. He led the league in wins four times, and in ERA five. If there had been a Cy Young Award at the time, he would have won four or five. He pitched in four World Series, and in 1905 pitched three shutouts to propel the Giants to victory. They lost the other three Series he played in, (1911-13) and Christy was only 2-5 in those games, although he had a 1.06 Series ERA.
His career ended somewhat abruptly, as often happens with pitchers. The accumulated wear of his fadeaway pitch (screwball) made him ineffective after age 34, but he still compiled astonishing statistics.
Mathewson earned 207.43 ratings points.
Mathewson's stats: 373-188 record, 2.13 ERA, 2502 K, 434 CG, 79 shutouts.
He's fragile. He always missed some starts every year, had some injury, there is always some concern about his health. But when he did pitch, he was the most dominating pitcher in the game. It's hard to put a finger on exactly why. He didn't throw the hardest, or the sharpest breaking pitch. His skill was some combination of speed, quick breaks on his pitches with lots of movement, a variety of arm angles, incredible control, and an intense focus on his work.
Martinez came up with the Dodgers, putting in a brief stint in 1992 and a year in the bullpen in 1993, pitching very well. After the 1993 season, Tommy Lasorda traded him to the Expos for Delino Deshields, and according to some reports bragged about it. Martinez would soon establish himself as the Expos' ace and one of the top pitchers in the game. In 1997 he hit a peak at age 25, with a 17-8 record, 1.90 ERA, and his first Cy Young Award. No longer affordable to the downtrodden Expos, he joined the Boston Red Sox and embarked on a run of excellent seasons that brought Cy Youngs in 1999 and 2000. He won 23 games in 1999 and posted a 1.74 ERA in 2000 that was just over a third of the league ERA, 4.97. His excellence has come in spite of pitching during the greatest hitters' era ever.
Martinez earned 208.87 ratings points.
Martinez's stats: 219-100 record, 2.93 ERA, 3 Cy Young Awards, 3154 K, 154 career ERA+.