All-Era Showdown: Part I

While I like to think this whole blog is just for fun, I tend to take objective baseball analysis fairly seriously, particularly when it comes to voting for postseason awards. I’ve had very little time to write lately, and I thought my next piece would be about Clayton Kershaw stealing Roy Halladay’s Cy Young Award based on an antiquated stat (but not the one you’re thinking of). Instead, I’ll limit that discussion to a Posterisk*** and focus my next few posts on of those just-for-fun pieces the offseason tends to get me thinking about.

***Kershaw had a phenomenal season, and he very much deserved to win a Cy Young Award. I happen to believe Roy Halladay had a better season, even though Kershaw led the league in wins (which are almost totally worthless), strikeouts (which are an important indicator of performance), and ERA (which, if it weren’t so flawed, might be the best way to should evaluate pitchers). After the last few seasons, I really don’t think the wins won Kershaw the award. I think it was the shiny ERA, a full .07 better than Halladay. What people tend to forget about ERA is that it makes sometimes ridiculous and always subjective adjustments for errors and activities subsequent to those errors.

There are two basic ways to evaluate pitchers: actual run prevention, which includes the quality of the defense behind them (and an element of luck), and fielding-independent run prevention, which isolates factors within a pitcher’s control. By both measures, Halladay had the slightly better season. He gave up one fewer run in 1/3 more innings (a negligible difference, of course, but he did it in a more hitter-friendly park against slightly tougher competition), and his 2.20 FIP was .27 better than Kershaw’s, based on 19 fewer walks and five fewer home runs (which offset Kershaw’s 28-strikeout advantage). Only when we trust a season’s worth of official scorers’ determinations about what balls should have been cleanly fielded and how each inning would have played out if they were, do we conclude that Kershaw had a better season than Halladay. Unfortunately, we’ve been blindly trusting ERA for over a century, so why would we stop now?***

On to the fun stuff. Let’s divide baseball history into four eras, choose a 25-man roster representing the best players of each era, and pit them against each other. I’ll use WhatIfSports to simulate the games. What will this accomplish? Absolutely nothing, of course, as the whole exercise will be riddled with small sample sizes and the stats the simulator will use to determine how the players measure up were all accumulated against contemporary competition, so we have no basis in comparing players across eras.

More accurately, the goal of this exercise is to start a conversation. Was Willie Mays or Mickey Mantle the best center fielder of his era? Could the pre-Babe team really compete with modern players? I’d love to hear your comments below. On with the selections.

Modern Era, 1980-present
Catcher- Ivan Rodriguez, Mike Piazza: Carlton Fisk did his best work before 1980, so he’s out. Gary Carter’s career straddled my arbitrary era delineation, and he wasn’t quite the all-around player Rodriguez was. Rodriguez had exactly the same career WAR (67.3; I’ll use baseball-reference for all WAR in this piece) as Fisk and one more than Carter, and he earned all of them after 1980. Piazza, meanwhile, ranks behind all three in WAR, but since we’ve already got our starter, I’d like to put the best hitting catcher on the bench, as the simulator will likely prefer a pinch hit home run to a backup who can block balls in the dirt and throw runners out. Joe Mauer may eventually challenge Piazza’s claim as the best hitting catcher of this era (if not ever), but he’s not there yet, and he may not be a catcher for long.

First Base- Albert Pujols: This is an easy one. There have been several great first baseman in this era, but we’ll discuss them later when we fill out the bench.

Second Base- Roberto Alomar: Let’s divide this group into mini-eras and consider the best from each: Lou Whitaker, Alomar, Craig Biggio, Jeff Kent, and Chase Utley. Whitaker has the most WAR (69.7) of the group, but he accumulated some of them before 1980, and while he did everything well, he didn’t have a skill as devastating as Alomar’s defense, Biggio’s speed, or Kent’s power. Biggio is perhaps the most underrated player of this era, but I’d rather consider him as a utility guy (he caught and played center as well) than as a second baseman. Kent wasn’t as well rounded as Alomar and Utley’s peak was way too short to be considered, so we’ll take Alomar and his 63.5 career WAR. Ryne Sandberg deserves a mention, as his career was better than Utley’s, but he was not Lou Whitaker’s equal.

Shortstop- Alex Rodriguez: At this point in his career, Rodriguez has played more games at third than at short. However, the simulator will let me choose a single season, and ARod’s 1996, and 2000 seasons, which he played at short, were his best. Also, with all due respect to Robin Yount, Cal Ripken, Jr., Barry Larkin, and Derek Jeter, no shortstop in this era can hold a candle to Rodriguez’s overall production (104.6 WAR and counting), while one third baseman can.

Third Base- Mike Schmidt: Schmidt earned 51.1 of his 108.3 WAR before 1980, but he’s probably the best third baseman of all time, so he has to make one of these teams, and this seems like the right one. We’ll look at distant runners-up Wade Boggs, George Brett, and Chipper Jones later on.

Left Field- Barry Bonds: Rickey Henderson is tempting, but the best hitter of the era played left, so this one’s easy.

Center Field- Ken Griffey, Jr.: The difference between the overrated Griffey (78.6 WAR) and the underrated Jim Edmonds (67.9) is less than you probably thought, but Griffey’s the choice here.

Right Field- Ichiro Suzuki: This was the most difficult choice of any position. Tony Gwynn and his .338 career batting average led all right fielders in WAR (68.4). I could have used a left fielder like Henderson, but he played less than 200 career innings in right, or Manny Ramirez, but his ugly defense left his career WAR (66.6) a hair behind Gwynn’s. Larry Walker, Gary Sheffield, Vlad Guerrero, and Bobby Abreu are all viable options, but if we assume Ichiro would have been as good in his 20s as he was in his 30s, it’s easy to extrapolate the 54.5 WAR he earned in 11 years to something higher than Gwynn’s. Ichiro’s ruthless ability to turn groundouts into singles and his cannon arm make him worthy of this team.

Designated Hitter- Frank Thomas: If we want the best baseball possible, we need the DH, so every team will have one. Since the older teams won’t have true DHs to choose from, I won’t pick the best true DH (Paul Molitor or Edgar Martinez), but the best hitter, and that’s Thomas and his .974 career OPS. Jeff Bagwell had more WAR (79.9 to 75.9), and Jim Thome had more power (604 HR to 521), but Thomas is the best hitter of the era not already on our team.

Bench- Let’s go with 15 hitters and 10 pitchers on each team. That leaves five spots. We’ll start with the remaining WAR leader, Rickey Henderson (113.1). Our fifth infielder has to be Cal Ripken, Jr. (89.9). Wade Boggs‘s .415 OBP will serve the team well in a pinch, and Biggio‘s defensive versatility, as well as his speed and on-base ability, will come in handy (a third catcher will be nice, with Piazza more likely pinch hitting than catching). The last spot comes down to shortstops Yount and Jeter, third basemen Brett and Jones, outfielders Edmonds, Walker, and Tim Raines, or a bat-only guy like Bagwell, Thome, Molitor, Martinez, or Mark McGwire. I’ll take Yount for his versatility and his overall resume (76.9 WAR).

Pitchers- This group contains some of the best pitchers ever, whether measured by career success (Roger Clemens, Greg Maddux), or peak value (Pedro Martinez, Randy Johnson). It also contains the best relief pitcher ever in Mariano Rivera. There’s our four-man rotation and our closer. We’ll fill the bullpen with Tom Glavine, Roy Halladay, Curt Schilling, John Smoltz, and Dennis Eckersley. WAR prefers Mike Mussina and Kevin Brown to Smoltz and Eckersley, but I’ll take the guys who split their time between starting and relieving, were effective in both, and probably lost some WAR due to their managers’ decisions to keep them in the bullpen.

The lineup:
1. A.Rodriguez, ss
2. Pujols, 1b
3. Bonds, lf
4. Thomas, dh
5. Schmidt, 3b
6. Griffey, cf
7. Alomar, 2b
8. I.Rodriguez, c
9. Suzuki, rf

Golden Era, 1950-1979
Catcher- Johnny Bench, Yogi Berra: By just about any measure, the two best catchers of all time played in this era. WAR doesn’t do justice to a catcher’s defensive contribution, and Berra’s roles on nine championship teams may speak to his intangibles, but the difference in WAR (71.3 to 61.9) is big enough to hand the starting spot to Bench, who won two titles himself in an era in which the league’s best team didn’t go straight to the World Series. Roy Campanella and Carlton Fisk would have been contenders in any other era.

First Base- Stan Musial: This era doesn’t have a Pujols, or for that matter, a Bagwell, Thomas, or Thome, who played first base at a superstar level for a long time. Willie McCovey (65.1 WAR) was probably the best among players who logged a vast majority of their innings at first. Ernie Banks played more first than shortstop, and Willie Stargell played nearly as much first as left field, but both fall behind McCovey (and Kenny Lofton, for that matter) on the career WAR list. We’re bailed out by a left fielder from the 40s who played a lot of first base in the 50s and happened to be one of the best hitters the game has ever seen, as his .976 career OPS attests.

Second Base- Joe Morgan: Unless we give Jackie Robinson a huge bonus for his historic significance, this one isn’t close.

Shortstop- Pee Wee Reese: A surprisingly weak crop, as Banks was a part-time shortstop who earned fewer career WAR than Reese, and Luis Aparicio and Phil Rizzuto are two of the more overrated Hall of Famers from the era.

Third Base- Eddie Mathews: Another easy one. Brooks Robinson had the flashy glove, but Mathews could hit and field, to the tune of 512 career homers and 98.3 career WAR.

Left Field- Mickey Mantle: I’m cheating a little here, as Mantle was, of course, a regular center fielder, but he did play almost 1,000 career innings in left, and I can’t imagine leaving him off of this team. We’ve already got Musial at first. Ted Williams’s career neatly straddled this era and the prior one, but he accumulated more value in the ’40s than in the ’50s. Frank Robinson played more left field, but wasn’t the hitter or fielder Mantle was. The best pure left fielder of the era was Carl Yastrzemski, but he earned 32.5 fewer WAR than Mantle despite plying almost a thousand more games.

Center Field- Willie Mays: The reason I had to shift Mantle to left. Still the best all-around player ever?

Right Field- Hank Aaron: I think it’s safe to say this was an outfielders’ era. I could’ve taken Aaron, Frank Robinson, Roberto Clemente, Pete Rose, or Al Kaline here, while the next thirty years had to settle for Ichiro.

Designated Hitter- Frank Robinson: Robinson’s clearly the best hitter not already on this team. 586 home runs and a .926 OPS in the most difficult run-scoring environment since the dead-ball era.

Bench- We know this bench will be loaded with outfielders, and we’ll start with Yastrzemski, the top WAR guy left (88.7). The best infielder left is Rod Carew, whose .393 OBP and defensive versatility will help. Kaline edges out Clemente in a battle of great hitting, great fielding right fielders, based on a 7-WAR advantage (albeit in 400 more games). We could use a backup infielder, and Jackie Robinson is our man, as he played every infield position and wrought havoc on the basepaths. The final spot comes down to Clemente, Duke Snider, Reggie Jackson, and Pete Rose. Let’s go with Rose, who got on base a few times in his career while playing just about every position.

Pitchers- Again, whether we want peak value (Sandy Koufax, Bob Gibson) or accumulated success (Tom Seaver, Warren Spahn), we’ve got plenty of aces on this team. We don’t have a true closer, as both Goose Gossage and Bruce Sutter accumulated more value in the ’80s than in the ’70s, and Hoyt Wilhelm just wasn’t good enough to make this team. Steve Carlton might be the best LOOGY any team has ever had. Throw in a spitballer (Gaylord Perry), a fireballer (Nolan Ryan,), and knuckleballer (Phil Niekro), a Dutchman with 3700 career strikeouts (Bert Blyleven), and a Canadian with 3200 (Ferguson Jenkins) and even the 1990 Reds would be jealous of this bullpen.

The lineup:
1. Morgan, 2b
2. Mantle, lf
3. Mays, cf
4. Musial, 1b
5. Aaron, rf
6. Robinson, dh
7. Mathews, 3b
8. Bench, c
9. Reese, ss

Part II looks at the Post-Babe (1920-1949) and Pre-Babe (1919 and earlier) Era teams, and Part III simulates the matchups. In the meantime, I’d love to hear why I’m an idiot and should have included your guy.

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