Monday, October 30, 2017

Coda to the Best Ballplayers of My Lifetime

I started my countdown of the 30 best players of my first 30 years as a baseball fan in early 2016. It became something of a boondoggle, because I didn't have as many personal stories relating to the players as I thought I would, and so few people were reading the entries that it became difficult to find the motivation to put real time and energy into them. I imagined writing two or three entries a week; instead by the second half of it I was writing only one a month. By the time I finished, 19 months had passed. The list already felt a little off, so I've decided to redo the entire project, counting down the top 32 players of my first 32 years as a baseball fan. Just kidding, I'm never doing a project like this again. I am going to write this brief coda,  to touch upon the changes brought by nearly two years passing between beginning and end.

I'm sure if I dug all the way into the numbers again, there'd be a couple players who were already retired when I created my list nearly two years ago, but who I'd now want to move up or down a little. A lot of these guys are so close together that even though their numbers haven't changed, that I might interpret how best to assess and compare those numbers just enough to lead to slightly different conclusions every month, were I to examine it all that frequently. I won't attempt delving into that level of scrutiny, but if I were doing it over, I think I'd lose the bottom two players from my first version, Mark McGwire and Wade Boggs (keep in mind I ignored everything that happened prior to 1986, which means I didn't include a number of Boggs' best seasons; this is also why Rickey Henderson wasn't even higher on the list), and have replaced them with Larry Walker and Carlos Beltran, both of whom I considered originally, but ultimately left out.

Walker is one of a couple players who I've developed an higher opinion of during the last two years. I think I initially was overvaluing the impact that Coors Field had on his production, mentally penalizing him in ways I shouldn't have. Injuries kept him from putting up especially impressive counting totals (not that 383 home runs, 471 doubles, and more than 1300 runs and RBI are anything to scoff at), but his rate stats are terrific, even when accounting for the era he played in, and high-altitude stadium he called home for more than half his career. His career wRC+ was 140 (meaning he was 40% better than average) which puts him in a tie for 50th best in MLB history among players with at least 5000 plate appearances. One of the player's he's tied with David Ortiz, who many expect to reach Cooperstown despite having been a DH for almost his entire career. Walker was also a very good base runner and an excellent defensive right fielder, probably second only to Ichiro during my lifetime. Walker would be on my list now.

Beltran was active these last two seasons, and during that time he passed 2,500 career hits, 400 career home runs, 1500 runs, and 1500 RBI. Those round numbers could boost his chances of making the Hall of Fame whenever his time on the ballot arrives, but he was also clearly reaching the end of his time as a productive player, and he didn't really add much to his career value during 2016 and 2017. I think he should have been on my list all along though, because I don't think I gave postseason performance enough weight originally. I think it's possible to overstate how much postseason performance should matter (Jack Morris' tremendous Game 7 in 1991 shouldn't count for as much as a hundred great regular season games), I think I came a little too close to ignoring it entirely, and because Beltran has been one of the great postseason performers in history, that decision on my part hurt him probably more than it hurt any other player. In 64 postseason games, Beltran has batted .308/.414/.612, with 66 hits, including 15 doubles and 16 home runs. Among 73 players with at least 200 postseason plate appearances, Beltran's 1.026 OPS ranks second only to Albert Pujols' 1.030. Beltran has close to half a season's worth of MVP-caliber play during the most important baseball there is. His regular season numbers put him close to making my original 30, and his postseason play should have been more than enough to make up the difference.

Those are the two guys I wished I'd included from the start. There are three players I'm happy with where I had (or didn't have) them, but who did so much during the two seasons since then that I feel compelled to comment on them now:

Adrian Beltre was 11th on my countdown, but he's had more than 1,000 more plate appearances since then, and managed to put up numbers even better than his career rates, while continuing to be a strong defensive player at third base. He reached 3000 hits, and is now up to 1,112 extra-base hits, good for 20th in history, while also having a case as the best defensive third baseman since Brooks Robinson. At this point he's passed Chipper Jones to become the greatest overall third baseman of my years as a baseball fan, and if I were doing the list over, I'd have him at #9.

The other two players whose standing has changed during the last two years are Clayton Kershaw and Mike Trout, the two best players in baseball this decade. They were both fantastic when I first put my list together, but didn't feel like they had an extensive enough career yet to be included. At this point, either one of them could retire and deserve a spot in the Hall of Fame (though Trout would run into some resistance on account of how brief his career has been).

Kershaw has won three Cy Young Awards, and has finished in the top five of the voting in each of the last seven years. The highest his ERA has been for any of those seven seasons is 2.53, which was still good enough to lead the league that year. His career ERA is 2.36, which is the lowest among all starting pitchers since the Dead Ball Era ended nearly 100 years ago, and his 2,120 strikeouts before turning 30 are the fifth-most in baseball history.

Trout is only 26, and has played only six full seasons in MLB, but they have been astoundingly good. He's won two MVPs and finished no worse than 4th in the voting for any of those six seasons. Baseball-Reference has him as worth 41.6 wins above average (WAA) during his career, which is the highest figure of any player in baseball history through their age-25 season. The next five players on that list are Mickey Mantle, Ty Cobb, Rogers Hornsby, Alex Rodriguez, and Jimmie Foxx, five of the 40 or 50 best players ever. That's the kind of company Trout is keeping. In my time as a baseball fan, only Barry Bonds, Alex Rodriguez, and Albert Pujols have had a peak as strong as Trout's first six full seasons, and those were the top three position players on this list. There's a strong case for putting Trout's peak ahead of that of A-Rod and Pujols, and as young as Trout is, his peak has a good chance of looking even better in another year or two.

I don't know exactly where I'd put them right now, but it feels like by the time I've been a fan for 40 years, injuries are the only thing that would prevent those two from landing in the top dozen.

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