For an upcoming project, blogger Graham Womack of Baseball: Past and Present is asking contributors to name their All-Time Dream Teams- that is, the best player ever at each position. “Imagine a one-off sandlot game and choose any nine players from baseball history”, he requests.
If you’re a regular reader of this blog, you know I’ve tackled projects similar to this in the past, though I’ve never limited myself to just nine players (only one pitcher?!). I don’t know how public the ballots will become, but I thought I’d use this space to explain my choices, which may appear to clash with judgments I’ve made for, say, my Pyramid of Fame. The primary distinction between this project and others is that I’m not necessarily looking for the greatest players, or those that accumulated the most value over their careers, but the best players, or those who were most impressive at their peaks. I’ll also put particular emphasis on quality of competition, as some eras were easier to dominate than others. Here goes:
Catcher- Josh Gibson
Right off the bat, I’m using speculation in place of quantitative analysis. Gibson never played in the major leagues and may not have faced great competition, so I’m trusting the conjecture that Gibson hit 800 Negro League homers, was the first to hit the ball out of Yankee stadium, and did it all as an effective defensive catcher. If there were an obvious choice in MLB history, I might go with the safer choice, but Yogi Berra’s championships, Johnny Bench’s rifle arm, Mike Piazza’s prodigious power, and Ivan Rodriguez’s defense don’t inspire me quite as much as the legends surrounding Gibson.
First Baseman- Albert Pujols
Lou Gehrig is unquestionably the greatest first baseman of all time. He dominated his era to an even greater extent than Pujols has, and he did it for longer. He also played in an all-white league, before weight training was a part of baseball, before American Legion and year-round baseball for kids and teens, and before nine-figure contracts lured the world’s best athletes to MLB. Pujols, since the day he entered the big leagues, has been one of the two best players in a game featuring many of the best athletes from around the country, as well as South America, the Caribbean, and Asia. Given the chance, Gehrig may dominate today’s game to the same extent, but we can’t know for sure what he would do against 7th inning relievers who throw 99. I’ll take Pujols.
Second Baseman- Joe Morgan
Much like Gehrig and Pujols, picking between Rogers Hornsby and Joe Morgan requires an era adjustment based on the assumption that it was harder to dominate the National League in the ’70s than in the ’20s. Eddie Collins has a strong case as well, as does Roberto Alomar if we’re serious about baseball’s evolution. I’ll take Morgan’s on-base ability, base stealing prowess, and defensive wizardry for one game.
Third Baseman- Mike Schmidt
This really comes down to Schmidt or Honus Wagner. Alex Rodriguez will be on the team at one position or another, and Schmidt and Wagner were obviously the greatest of all time at their respective positions before ARod. I’ll take Schmidt, both because Rodriguez was only an option at short and because Schmidt was a dominant force on offense and defense 70 years after Wagner dominated a very different game.
Shortstop- Alex Rodriguez
If we could bottle the 1996 Rodriguez, who hit .358/.414/.631 as a 20-year-old, I’d probably put him on this team at any position. Amazingly, he played as well several more times, even earning more WAR (10.0 to 9.8, per fangraphs) in 2002, when he hit .300/.391/.623 with great defensive numbers in Texas.
Left Field- Barry Bonds
Both Bonds and Ted Williams are among the three best hitters of all time. Bonds could play defense too. As much as I love Williams, this is an easy choice.
Center Field- Willie Mays
I can’t imagine this team without Mays, who still has a case as the greatest all-around player of all time, but it hurts to leave Ty Cobb and Oscar Charleston off this team.
I’m not opposed to including a pre-Babe player on this team, but every position seems to have a post-integration player who seems at least equally worthy. Mickey Mantle’s peak value rivaled Mays’s as well.
Right Field- Babe Ruth
Were you expecting JD Drew?
Pitcher- Pedro Martinez
The hardest decision, by far. A commenter at Baseball: Past and Present suggested that the best pick to pitch one game would be Ruth, a dominant pitcher in the late 1910s who could hit a little too. Since that would make room for Hank Aaron in right field, it’s probably the right choice, but I’d rather use this piece to honor the best pitcher of all time. If we’re looking for extended greatness, Walter Johnson is probably the pick, though cases could be made for Cy Young, Lefty Grove, Bob Gibson, Tom Seaver, Roger Clemens, and Greg Maddux. I’d rather pick the pitcher with the highest peak value, and most of the aforementioned hurlers are in that conversation as well, along with Christy Mathewson, Dizzy Dean, and Randy Johnson. But I think this comes down to Sandy Koufax’s ridiculous run from 1962 to 1966 vs. Pedro Martinez from 1997 to 2003. Over that stretch, Koufax struck out almost 10 batters per nine innings, walked barely two and rarely gave up a homer. Martinez, on the other hand, struck out over 11 per nine, walked less than two, and was even stingier with the longball, despite working in a hitter’s park in a hitter’s era, while Koufax toiled in a pitcher’s park in an era dominated by pitching. Pedro twice had ERAs under 2 when the league average was over 4.5. Neither came in his best season, 1999, when he struck out 313 hitters and earned 12.1 fWAR in 213 innings.
Of course, this team needs to play against someone, and I think this second team would put up a good fight:
C- Johnny Bench
1B- Lou Gehrig
2B- Rogers Hornsby
3B- Eddie Mathews
SS- Honus Wagner
LF- Ted Williams
CF- Oscar Charleston
RF- Hank Aaron
P- Sandy Koufax
Apologies to Mantle, Cobb, and Stan Musial- probably the best position players to make neither team, and to Walter Johnson, Grove, and Clemens- probably the best pitchers not represented.