Thursday, July 21, 2016

Best MLB players of the last 30 years, #15: Mike Piazza

Mike Piazza will be inducted into the Hall of Fame this weekend. Given that I've got him as the 15th best player of the last thirty years, it's an honor I obviously believe is much-deserved. I'm not sure there's ever been a Hall of Fame player who made it after less was expected of him at the start of his professional career though, not in the 50+ years the MLB Draft has existed anyway. Piazza was a child of privilege, his father having made a fortune selling cars and real estate. When Piazza was a boy, he received hitting instruction from Ted Williams. Baseball is incredibly difficult though, and even with those advantages, Piazza wasn't viewed as a real talent. As you're probably aware, Piazza wasn't drafted until the 62nd round in 1988, and only as a favor to Piazza's father, a lifetime friend of then Dodgers manager Tommy Lasorda. More than 1300 other players were chosen ahead of Piazza that year, but we went on to outplay them all.

Friday, June 24, 2016

Best MLB players of the last 30 years, #16: Derek Jeter

In 1996 Derek Jeter was a unanimous American League Rookie of the Year winner, and was an important part of the Yankees winning the World Series for the first time since 1978, ending the team's longest drought since winning its first championship in 1923. By the end of 2000, Jeter had played little more than a quarter of his career, but had already won four World Series rings and played in more nationally televised games than just about any player in history. He was the face of the Yankees, which in many ways made him the face of baseball, and he was still only 26 years old. Unsurprisingly, being the most beloved player on the Yankees made Jeter a divisive figure. In the three decades I've been a fan, no player has received as much adulation, and few have received as much scorn.

Friday, June 17, 2016

Best MLB players of the last 30 years, #17: Jim Thome

When I was young, being a baseball fan meant playing it, collecting cards, and checking the sports section of the newspaper my dad brought home at the end of each workday. Each year I went to a couple games at Wrigley and a couple games at Comiskey, but otherwise, watching baseball was pretty infrequent. We didn't have cable, I was in school or playing somewhere when the Cubs were on WGN, and while the All-Star Game and postseason were already a big deal to me, they were rarities. I'd become an Indians fan at the age of six, but I bet I count on my fingers the number of Tribe games I watched before reaching junior high. Julio Franco was my first favorite Indian, but he and the others I liked in those early years, I liked for what I could see on the front and back of their baseball cards. It was an appreciation for static things. In the mid 90s we got cable, the Indians got good, and I could suddenly enjoy them more dynamically. Enter Jim Thome.

Friday, June 10, 2016

Best MLB players of the last 30 years, #18: Manny Ramirez

To be a teenage Indians fan during the 1990s was to have a wealth of fantastic offensive players to cheer for at a time when you were too young to fully appreciate it. At the time I graduated from high school, in June of 1998, Manny Ramirez had finished runner up in the AL Rookie of the Year voting, had been named an All-Star and won a Silver Slugger, had received mention on MVP ballots, and had a career OPS close to .940, but he'd never been the Tribe's best or even second-best hitter, and having luxuriated in the warmth of Albert Belle, Jim Thome, Kenny Lofton, and David Justice over the years, I didn't fully grasp how good Ramirez was. As the 1998 season continued though, Ramirez drew more and more of my attention, and then in 1999 and 2000 Manny put up two of the best seasons by any hitter in any era. You could argue he was too good for the Indians, because by hitting so well, he played his way out of their price range and signed with Boston, going on to far greater fame than he'd found in Cleveland.

Friday, June 3, 2016

Teammates with long hitting streaks in the same season

Red Sox shortstop Xander Bogaerts just finished up a 26-game hitting streak going. His teammate, Boston outfielder Jackie Bradley Jr. recently had a 29-game hitting streak. Two players on the same team each putting up a streak that long seemed liked a rarity, and while most people would have been content to leave it at that, I've never been one to back down from hours of research to answer a question few people are asking. It turns out my hunch was correct; since 1913 (the first season there are box scores for at Baseball-Reference), Bradley and Bogaerts are only the sixth pair of teammates to each have a hitting streak of 25+ games in the same season.

Friday, May 27, 2016

Best MLB players of the last 30 years, #19: Rickey Henderson

I feel compelled to remind you that I became a baseball fan in 1986, and for the purposes of putting these rankings together, anything before then was ignored. I mention this because from 1980 through the 1985, Rickey Henderson was the best baseball player on the planet, and that stretch isn't being counted here, yet he still made the list. I've basically taken away more than 1000 of his 3055 career hits, more than 700 of his MLB record 2295 runs scored, and precisely 573 of his MLB record 1406 stolen bases, yet he still cracks the top 20. If I'd included his full career, Henderson would have ranked 6th on this list, and if I ranked the top players in history, Henderson would be among the top 25. He was tremendous.

Friday, May 13, 2016

Best MLB players of the last 30 years, #20: Mariano Rivera

When I first became a baseball fan, it was clear to me that the Mets were the New York team. And yes, the Yankees played there too. By the time I'd been a baseball fan for nine seasons, the Yankees hadn't made the postseason in any of them. I'd learned about their success throughout history, but it felt like just that, history, not something that applied to the here and now (which twenty years later, exists as the there and then of 1995). It didn't seem like there was much reason to care about them one way or another. I was about to learn the error of my ways though, and would soon loathe them in a way previously reserved for the guy my first girlfriend dumped me for. Hating the Yankees quickly became one of my core baseball principles, and the importance of that principle would only grow. Through it all though, there was one Yankee I could never bring myself to hate.

Saturday, May 7, 2016

Bartolo Colon breaks record for most PA without a walk

Bartolo Colon is a marvel. He turns 43 later this month, and is MLB's oldest active player. He isn't just hanging on by the skin of his teeth though; through his first five starts of 2016 (plus one relief appearance), Colon has an ERA of 2.56, better than his more celebrated rotation mates Matt Harvey, Noah Syndergaard, and Steven Matz. Colon is in his 20th season, having debuted more than half my lifetime ago, in April of 1997. In 2002 he became the first pitcher to throw a Maddux on Opening Day. In 2005 he won a Cy Young Award. Aside from half a season with the Expos and a handful of Interleague Play games though, until 2014 we were denied arguably the greatest pleasure of the Colon experience: watching Bartolo bat.

Friday, April 22, 2016

Best players of the last 30 years, #21: Kevin Brown

I don't have nearly a large enough readership for anything I write here to generate controversy, but if I did, and if one thing from this countdown were going to cause a stir, I'm certain it would be this entry. Kevin Brown simply doesn't strike most baseball followers as having been excellent, and every one of the pitchers I've already written about in this countdown would beat Brown in a landslide if they were pitted against him in a head-to-head voting amongst baseball fans. If there was some sort of crowdsourced ranking of players from the last thirty years, I don't believe Brown would finish anywhere in the top 50. At the risk of sounding arrogant, I'm going to say the crowd is wrong on this one. Kevin Brown was outstanding.

Friday, April 15, 2016

Best players of the last 30 years, #22: Roy Halladay

Near the end of this countdown will be four starting pitchers who not only comprise the pitching Mount Rushmore of my life as a baseball fan, they all belong somewhere near the top ten pitchers in baseball history. Probably no era had four pitchers of such excellence at the same time. So much greatness leaves a wake in its path though, and the consequence of that wake is that other starting pitchers from the last three decades have rarely gotten their due. Greg Maddux, Randy Johnson, and Pedro Martinez (three of the four pitchers I alluded to) cruised into Cooperstown in their first year of eligibility; Roger Clemens has been waylaid by PED connections. Only two other pitchers whose career came mostly during my thirty years as a fan have been voted into the Hall of Fame though: Tom Glavine and John Smoltz. They both deserve the honor, but as this list will show, I think even better pitchers have landed on the ballot in recent years and been denied. The next pitcher with much of a chance of getting through the doors will be Roy Halladay.