MLB All-Star Teams of My Lifetime

February 19, 2011

When I write my periodic sports lists, I usually try to come up with an original angle. Most of the time, an idea for a list pops into my head shortly before I fall asleep and I do my best to remember it when I wake up the next morning.

This list is not one of those. It is a shameless rip-off of Joe Posnanski’s idea from last week. Posnanski wrote about which players would make the MLB All-Star team of his lifetime. This is a brilliant idea. As he puts it, that’s just the way his mind works.

My mind works in a similar fashion, but not nearly as efficiently. This is probably why I have such a man-crush on Poz: my thinking and writing can best be described as “Posnanski without the talent.” So I decided it would be okay to steal the idea, but figured I’d better add some value, since my lifetime overlaps with Poz. I selected a full 34-man All-Star team from each league, based on their careers between 1984 and 2010. Although the number of players from each position varies from year to year, I went with an average team: two catchers, three from each infield position, seven outfielders, and thirteen pitchers. To mix things up, I used Fangraphs’ WAR for this post as opposed to my baseball-reference WAR from previous posts.

Catchers

American League: Ivan Rodriguez and Jorge Posada

The list starts off with one of the easiest selections: Ivan Rodriguez at AL catcher. Pudge was selected to the AL All-Star team 14 times between 1992 and 2007. No other American League catcher really comes close to his offensive and defensive prowess in my lifetime – his 73.4 WAR is third best among catchers all-time and by far the best in my lifetime.

The second spot on the team is a bit trickier. I gave Jorge Posada the slight nod over Hall of Famer Carlton Fisk. Fisk was already 36 by the time I was born; although he had three of his better seasons (1985, 1989, and 1990), he was barely passable in 1986 and a part-time player in three other seasons (1988, 1992, and 1993). Posada has made five All-Star Games and no other catcher who spent the majority of his career in the American League during my lifetime even comes close to Posada’s 51.3 career WAR. The closest competitors are Lance Parrish (who was past his prime by 1984), B.J. Surhoff (ha!), and Joe Mauer. I wanted to put Mauer over Posada, but that would make me too much of a homer. According to WAR, Mauer’s best season is better than Posada’s, but Posada has four seasons better than Mauer’s second best season. I’d expect that by version 2.0 of this list in 2015, Mauer takes over for Posada.

Honorable mention goes to Matt Nokes because he was at the center of my favorite fantasy baseball story. I started playing fantasy when I was seven years old with the guys at my dad’s work and promptly dominated the league. I distinctly recall the 1994 draft when a guy named Bill brought his secret cheat sheet that the kept in his hat. Somewhere around the third or fourth round, he pulled that bad boy out and drafted Matt Nokes as the rest of us tried not to laugh. Nokes played 28 games as a backup for the Yankees that season. Bill did not return to the league the following year.

National League: Mike Piazza and Gary Carter

Like Rodriguez, Piazza is a no-brainer. Piazza is by far the best offensive catcher in baseball history. Quick tangent: I wrote a few weeks ago about how positions change over time, but we shouldn’t necessarily hold it against players. Piazza and Pudge ushered in a new era of young offensive-minded catchers. As a result, both are undoubtedly future Hall of Famers. The closest comparison to Piazza according to Fangraphs’ WAR? Joe Torre, who like Piazza was an offensive stud but struggled defensively. Torre lingered on the ballot for 15 years but did not top 15% of the vote until receiving a token 22% in his final year on the ballot. Piazza will take no more than a couple of ballots because offensive catchers are more appreciated. Poor Torre was just too far ahead of his time.

The second spot goes to Hall of Famer Gary Carter, mostly by default. Carter had two of his four best seasons in 1984 and 1985 but basically fell off a cliff after 1986 and was barely a replacement level catcher until he retired in 1992. Of course catching was in such bad shape in the 1980s NL that Carter still made five All-Star teams between 1984 and 1998. Carter’s main competition comes from three-time All-Stars Jason Kendall and Javy Lopez, neither of whom can top Carter. Kendall was merely an above average catcher for many years for the Pirates; he was never really even very good. Lopez, on the other hand, had a great season in 2003, but was just barely above average for a few more years. I’ll take Carters’ two great seasons and several average to below average seasons over those two guys.

First Basemen

American League: Frank Thomas, Jim Thome, Rafael Palmeiro

Tough call for the three American League first basemen. First, there are four solid candidates for the three positions, including Eddie Murray (six if you want to throw in Fred McGriff and Don Mattingly). Second, all of the top four candidates spent a decent amount of time as a designated hitter. I chose to leave DHs out, so I named all of them as first basemen.

The unappreciated Thomas gets the nod as the starter. How good was the Big Hurt? According to Fangraphs batting statistic, the top four players that received at least 1,000 PAs at first base are Lou Gehrig, Stan Musial, Jimmie Foxx, and Frank Thomas. Yeah, that’s good company. Amazingly, he only made five All-Star teams.

Thome and Palmeiro get the edge over Murray for two reasons. All three of them had similar careers (Murray had a 78.8 WAR, Palmeiro 75.5, and the still active Thome 73.5), but Thome and Palmeiro both had their entire primes in my lifetime. But more importantly, I find Murray a bit overrated. Yeah he put up those numbers in the low-scoring 1980s, so he certainly deserves credit for that. But I can’t help but think that his birth date is the biggest reason he was a first ballot Hall of Fame selection. He had the luck of being born a decade before Palmeiro, Will Clark, Mark Grace, and the rest of the very good first basemen that dominated the late 80s and early 90s. The high-powered offenses of the 1990s and the steroid problem certainly had something to do with the fact that Murray was a first ballot selection and Palmeiro is considered a fringe candidate. But I can’t help but think that it was just that much easier for Murray to stand out.

National League: Albert Pujols, Jeff Bagwell, and Todd Helton

Pretty easy calls here. For why Pujols is the starter, look no further than my recent post regarding his contract negotiations. He is just that good.

Like Thomas, Bagwell is laughably underrated. He is the seventh ranked first baseman of all-time on Fangraphs’ WAR. Outside of Pujols (who is currently just behind Bagwell and will pass him this season), no other recent NL first baseman even comes close to Bagwell. The closest are Willie McCovey and Willie Stargell.

The third spot narrowly goes to Todd Helton over Mark McGwire. McGwire had a better career, but half of it was in the American League. Helton gets the edge because he put together more successful years in the National League – he has been selected to five All-Star teams, compared to McGwire’s three with the Cardinals.

Second Basemen

American League: Roberto Alomar, Lou Whitaker, Chuck Knoblauch

Recent Hall inductee Alomar is the clear starter – he made the AL All-Star team all eleven years in which he was a full-time AL starter. That’s not a bad track record, even if it was mostly because there wasn’t a single second baseman that could come close to breaking the run.

I have written before about how perplexing it is that Lou Whitaker received so little Hall of Fame support. His WAR is actually higher than Alomar’s, but seven of his years came before I was born. His prime was between 1983 and 1987, when he made five straight All-Star teams. He was by far the best second baseman of the 1980s and easily gets the second spot on this list.

And then it gets difficult. I’ve only reached the second basemen and I already want to change my own rules. But I said I would pick three from each position, so Knoblauch reluctantly gets the second backup spot.* I might be missing someone, but who else do you pick here? Alfonso Soriano? Ray Durham? Yikes. I doubt Knoblauch gets in my hypothetical All-Star Game unless it goes more than 15 innings.

* Which in turn makes the lack of Whitaker support even more perplexing – in the 26 years since I was born, there were only two great second basemen that played in the American League and Whitaker was one of those two. Throw the man a bone.

National League: Craig Biggio, Ryne Sandberg, Jeff Kent

Much easier. Biggio, Sandberg, and Kent were by far the best second basemen in the NL and I can’t even think who would be fourth (Chase Utley maybe?). As players, these guys couldn’t be more opposite. Sandberg, while very good, is overrated. He made the Hall on his third try mostly because he played for the Cubs…the superior Whitaker played for the Tigers and couldn’t get a sniff. That’s not to say that he is not a Hall of Famer, just that he gets more appreciation than he should.

Kent is chronically underrated. He is rarely thought of in the same group as the great second basemen of all-time, but made five All-Star teams and won the 2000 NL MVP Award. Only eight other second basemen can say that (Joe Morgan won it twice). Seven of those eight are in the Hall of Fame and Dustin Pedroia is still active. Yet I can’t imagine a scenario in which Kent gets in and it is hard to pinpoint exactly why. My leading theory was that he was an asshole that the media hated to cover, but I’m open to suggestions.

And Biggio is properly rated. For a long time he was underrated because he was always solid and never stood out. But then he became overrated because he was an example of a player that supposedly “played the game right” in the steroid era. Now that he’s been retired a couple of years, those two things have combined to make him properly rated. He will go in to the Hall somewhere between his first and third ballots, and that seems just about right.

Shortstops

American League: Cal Ripken Jr., Derek Jeter, Alan Trammell

Ripken and Jeter would have been the top two shortstops on Poz’s All-Star team…and he was born 17 years before me. You could make a pretty good argument that those two would be the top two shortstops on the all-time AL All-Star team. Guess that means I don’t need to lookup any statistics to prove my case, which is nice.

Trammell gets the third spot because I classified A-Rod as a third baseman and Robin Yount was exclusively an outfielder by the time I was born. But he was a solid shortstop in his own right – his 69.5 WAR is 16th best in major league history for a shortstop.

National League: Ozzie Smith, Barry Larkin, Jimmy Rollins

Another couple of easy selections in the first and second spot. Ozzie Smith gets the starting spot over Barry Larkin because he has a slightly higher WAR (70.3 to 69.8), but really they are pretty interchangeable. Smith was the best defensive shortstop in baseball history and Larkin might be the most complete all-around shortstop in baseball history.

Like the American League, it gets tricky with the third spot. By career WAR, the third spot would go to Jay Bell. Seriously. I went with Jimmy Rollins instead because he won an MVP Award – the only shortstop not named Ripken or Larkin to win the award in the last 27 years.

Third Basemen

American League: Alex Rodriguez, George Brett, and Wade Boggs

You know a position is stacked when Paul Molitor gets left out…and it’s not even particularly close. Because A-Rod is such a douche, we often forget just how great the guy is. He already owns the second best career WAR among third basemen, and he will pass Mike Schmidt with one more merely average season.

Aside from A-Rod (who played the first half of his career as shortstop) and the aging Scott Rolen, there really aren’t many great third basemen left in the game. I find it interesting how third base and shortstop have basically switched positions. I remember when I first started playing fantasy baseball, third basemen were in demand and no one picked shortstops outside of Ripken and Larkin until the late rounds because they were all the same (I picked the immortal Kurt Stillwell in 1992 and actually felt good about it). Now the best shortstops are power hitters and some of the early picks in the draft (Tulowitzki, Ramirez, Reyes etc.). Third base is now as weak as shortstop was in the early 90s in that there isn’t much separating the very best from the average – the best third baseman by OPS last season was Adrian Beltre and tenth was Aramis Ramirez. Just not a whole lot separating those two. I think this paragraph made sense.

George Brett and Wade Boggs round out the top three. Both were easily first ballot Hall of Famers. Talk about a stacked position: the three third basemen on the AL team are three of the six best of all-time according to WAR. Honorable mention goes to Paul Molitor and Edgar Martinez, both of whom would have made the team as a designated hitter.

National League: Chipper Jones, Scott Rolen, Matt Williams

Chipper Jones and Scott Rolen are two guys who are easily forgotten as great third basemen. They are both extremely boring at what they do, but if you want to see a perfect fundamental swing out of a third baseman, you look no further than Jones; if you want to teach a third baseman how to play defense, you show them a video of Rolen. According to WAR, Jones is the 7th best third baseman in history and Rolen is the 12th. I think between these two guys and the AL third basemen, it is fair to say that the 1990s were the golden era for third basemen in major league history.

The third spot goes to Matt Williams, who like Knoblauch, doesn’t figure to see much playing time behind Jones and Rolen. Williams gets the nod based on a much higher career WAR (47.4) than NL MVP Award winners Ken Caminiti (38.0) and Terry Pendleton (29.9). Caminiti and Pendleton are two of the stranger MVP winners in retrospect. By career WAR, Caminiti is the 58th best third baseman ever and Pendleton sits at 104th. Those two must have had some damn fine single seasons. I’ll stick with the longer prime of Williams.

My favorite thing about Williams is that he stood a very good chance of breaking Roger Maris’s home run record in the strike-shortened 1994 season (he had 43 when the remaining one-third of the season was canceled). Can you imagine the retrospective outrage? Williams just looks like a guy who would ingest whatever drug came his way. I mean, I knew he was on steroids at the time…and I was 10 years old. I would have bet money on a Williams positive drug test before McGwire and his giant muscles. That’s saying something…I feel like we really got robbed with that strike.

Outfielders:

American League: Rickey Henderson, Ken Griffey Jr., Manny Ramirez, Ichiro, Juan Gonzalez, Vladimir Guerrero, Kirby Puckett

I thought it would be difficult to limit my outfield to seven players. Instead, it was kinda hard to get to seven outfielders. Rickey and Griffey are no-brainers. There has not been a player like either one before or since.

ManRam and Ichiro are pretty close to locks. I’m actually not even sure why Ramirez isn’t a lock other than the fact that I’m falling into the same trap as the reporters who jump on him every time Manny be Manny. The dude is a flat-out offensive machine. And Ichiro doesn’t have the stats as the other guys on this list, mostly because he hits singles and little else, but he is an experience. I attended a Mariner game in both Los Angeles and Seattle and in both cases everyone stopped what they were doing to watch him take batting practice. There has never been a non-power hitter that can say that. That’s enough to make the All-Star team in my book.

Then it gets a little bit trickier. The AL has struggled with outfielders in my lifetime…not a single one of the remaining three made Posnanski’s top seven for each outfield position. The only AL outfielder on his lists that played in the past 25 years is Dave Winfield, but he was past his prime by the time I was born. I first went with Juan Gonzalez, who went from a nobody to a star to a nobody in a shorter period of time than most players can dream about. But he did win two MVP Awards. Even if his WAR (38.8) is probably less than any other player on this list, two MVPs is good enough for me.

Guerrero is actually the next outfielder on the WAR list that played his best years in the American League in my lifetime after Rickey, Griffey, and ManRam. I had to scroll down quite a bit and skip past Winfield (past his prime), Kenny Lofton, and Gary Sheffield (both bounced between leagues) to get to Guerrero. Still, not bad company.

The final spot goes to Kirby Puckett, who has been called overrated for so long that he has become underrated. Puckett was on his way to a Hall of Fame career before he had to retire because of glaucoma. No matter: the Hall voters elected him anyway, because they have a soft spot for players whose careers ended suddenly.* He instantly started getting railed on for being one of the worst outfielders in the Hall. Which might be true, but with a few more good years he would have been a deserving Hall of Famer. All that talk got to me, and I almost left him off completely, before I remembered that he was a great center fielder.

* There is no difference between Andruw Jones and Puckett, other than the fact that Jones suddenly hit a wall but kept on playing even though he wasn’t very good any more. Jones will get little Hall consideration because he struggled for the later years in his career. This makes almost no sense. Apparently, he should have gone out in his prime like Puckett.

National League: Barry Bonds, Tony Gwynn, Robin Yount, Sammy Sosa, Larry Walker, Tim Raines, Andruw Jones

The National League was quite a bit easier than the American League. Barry Bonds was the easiest choice in the entire post – his 169.7 career WAR is second all-time among all players, behind only some guy named Babe Ruth.

Tony Gwynn and Robin Yount both got on base a lot. Yount had quite a bit better stats but Gwynn’s swing was more fun to watch, so I gave Gwynn the nod for the second spot on the list. Gwynn made ten All-Star Games, I assume because his swing was so sweet. Yount made only three All-Star Games, which is insane to me. What exactly were people watching in the 80s?

Posnanski had Walker three spots ahead of Sammy Sosa on his list. I think they both make the team, but come on…Sosa in his prime was something to see. I’m a big sabermetric guy, so I understand that Walker was statistically better than Sosa. At the same time NO ONE watching baseball in the 1990s thought Walker was better than Sosa. I think this is a perfect example of overthinking things. Walker was a great player and makes my All-Star team. Sosa was a great player and a cultural phenomenon. He finishes one spot ahead of Walker.

That leads us to Tim Raines. People more capable than me have written about his Hall of Fame case before, so I don’t really need to write it here. A Google search will lead you to better arguments than I could give you. As far as I can tell, Raines would be a no-doubt Hall of Famer if he did not have the misfortune of playing in the same era as the one-of-a-kind Rickey Henderson. His career WAR is 71.0 – one spot ahead of Willie Stargell. Not a bad spot to be in.

The final NL spot should go to a center fielder, as Yount is the only center fielder on my list.* Andruw Jones gets the small edge over Jim Edmonds. His WAR (70.5) is slightly higher than Edmonds (68.1) and Edmonds spent several of his better years with the Angels in the American League. Plus I just compared Jones to Kirby Puckett above so he seems like the logical pick here.

* As an aside, how weird is it that Rickey Henderson and Tim Raines were left fielders? Seems like two of the fastest players in major league history would have been center fielders. Alas, I guess you can’t teach instincts.

Pitchers

American League: Roger Clemens, Pedro Martinez, Roy Halladay, Johan Santana, Nolan Ryan, Mike Mussina, Andy Pettitte, CC Sabathia, Bret Saberhagen, Bartolo Colon, Mariano Rivera, Francisco Rodriguez, and Dennis Eckersley

Like outfielders, I thought I would have trouble cutting the pitching staff to thirteen. Instead I had trouble getting to thirteen. I suppose this makes sense – we like to think that there are a lot of great pitchers at any given time, by thirteen in one league is a lot. Ten years ago, the 2001 AL All-Star team had Joe Mays, Eric Milton, Paul Quantrill, Mike Stanton, Jeff Nelson, and Freddy Garcia. Yikes.

Additionally, I was free-wheeling it since I don’t particularly like career WAR for pitchers. I am a big short-term greatness guy. Pitchers get hurt so often that a long, average career tends to skew things on a stat like career WAR. So I went with my own memories and the list of award winners.

I went with ten starters and three closers, which seems to be fairly close to the norm for All-Star teams. Clemens, Martinez, Halladay, Santana, Rivera, and Eckersley were the easiest choices. Clemens was the best pitcher in the early part of my youth (six Cy Young Awards), Martinez was the best pitcher of my teenage years (two Cy Young Awards), and Santana and Halladay (two and one) were the best pitchers in recent years. Rivera is the best closer of all-time and Eckersley is the only relief pitcher elected to the Hall of Fame on the first ballot. I assume that those six pitchers would make pretty much anybody’s list of the best AL pitchers of the last quarter century.

Next come the pitchers that probably make most people’s lists, but that you could talk somebody out of: Ryan, Mussina, and Pettitte. Ryan was already 37 by 1984, but still pitched for another nine years. He did make two All-Star teams and threw two no-hitters in my lifetime, so he’s not a bad choice to the All-Star team, even if it feels more like a lifetime achievement award.

I have previously covered Andy Pettitte and Mike Mussina before, so there is no real need to discuss them here. In short, my argument is that we need to lessen our expectations from modern technology. We have become so accustomed to Tommy John surgery and pitchers pitching until they are into their 40s that we don’t appreciate the statistics of guys like Mussina and Pettitte. Both were among the best pitchers in the AL for their entire careers (Pettitte’s short exodus to Houston aside) so they make my team.

The last four guys are the best I could come up with and I could easily be talked out of them. Bret Saberhagen was outrageously good over his short career. Clemens, Martinez, Santana, and Saberhagen are the only pitchers to win multiple AL Cy Young Awards in the last three decades. That’s select company – I’ll take Saberhagen’s prime before an average pitcher who pitched for a long time anyday.

Sabathia and Colon are interchangeable with pretty much any AL pitcher that was very good over a short period of time – Bob Welch, Pat Hentgen, David Cone, and Barry Zito, among others are in the conversation. I am not really set on either one of these two guys, but they came to mind first and I couldn’t think of any reason to bump them for any of the remaining pitchers.

Then we get to Francisco Rodriguez, who was fortunate enough to accumulate a lot of saves for an Angels team that played a lot of close games. He shattered the MLB record by saving 62 games in 2008. The save is basically a meaningless statistic, but it was good enough for the third relief spot on the team, mostly because I couldn’t think of a reason to bump him either.

National League: Randy Johnson, Greg Maddux, Tom Glavine, John Smoltz, Roy Oswalt, Orel Hershiser, Dwight Gooden, Curt Schilling, Tim Lincecum, Jake Peavy, Trevor Hoffman, Lee Smith, and Eric Gagne

I count five no-brainers among National League pitchers: Johnson, Maddux, Glavine, Smoltz, and Hoffman. The first four figure to easily make the Hall of Fame and Johnson and Maddux could easily cross 95% of the vote on their first ballot. Hoffman might not make the Hall of Fame but the conversation on best National League closer of all-time (if there is one) begins and ends with Hoffman.

Oswalt and Smith are really the only two pitchers on the next tier. I would guess that most people would put them on their All-Star ballot of the last 26 years, but you could talk yourself out of either one. Oswalt has quietly been one of the best pitchers in the NL over the last decade and has three All-Star Game selections to show for it.

Smith has inched ever so close to making the Hall of Fame and was the MLB career saves leader before Rivera and Hoffman blew him out of the water. I would have trouble coming up with two other relief pitchers that could knock Smith off this team.

Then it gets tricky. Hershiser and Gooden both were dominant pitchers for a short time in the 1980s. Gooden won the 1985 Cy Young Award and Hershiser won the 1988 Award. Gooden made four All-Star teams and Hershiser made three. If I use the same logic that I used on Saberhagen above, I have to include both of these guys.

I tried to have a fair balance of players from the late 1980s and early 1990s throughout this post. But it was almost impossible to do that with the NL pitchers. Check out this partial list of NL Cy Young Award winners between 1984 and 1990: Rick Sutcliffe, Mike Scott, Steve Bedrosian, Mark Davis, and Doug Drabek. I don’t even think any of those guys could crack the top 50 NL pitchers of my lifetime. After that, the 1990s were dominated by Randy Johnson, Pedro Martinez (on the AL team), and the Atlanta Braves pitchers I already selected. So the remaining selections come from recent years out of necessity.

Curt Schilling was one of the best pitchers of the past two decades, but this was a tougher call than you would think. Although he pitched the majority of his career on a National League team, his best/most famous years came with the Red Sox in the American League. So think of Schilling as the Nolan Ryan of the National League – his selection to the team is sort of a lifetime achievement award.

Tim Lincecum has only pitched for three full seasons, but who really cares when you win two Cy Young Awards? The list of multiple NL award winners in my lifetime consist of Greg Maddux, Randy Johnson, Tom Glavine, and Tim Lincecum. So yeah, he’s in.

Eric Gagne gets in as the third reliever because of two dominant seasons. Voters got a little carried away with voting relievers as Cy Young winners in the 1980s and early 1990s, back when the save was still a new, cool statistic. Now we realize that closers are overrated…and Gagne still won the award in 2003 because he was just that dominant. That’s good enough for me.

That leaves Chris Carpenter, Jake Peavy, and Brandon Webb as the one-time Cy Young Award winners of the 2000s. I went with Peavy for the final spot, but could be talked into either of the other two. They are all basically equal in my opinion, but Peavy had more very good years in the National League than the others.

And now that I’m breaking down subtle difference in the careers of three very similar and still active pitchers, it’s probably a good time to end the post.

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Messing with Hall of Famers’ Similarity Scores (Part II)

February 10, 2011

Yesterday I looked at the similarity scores of a few select recent Baseball Hall of Famers and candidates currently on the ballot. Today I look at the similarity scores of recently retired players who will show up on the ballot in the next five years. This should be fun – after a dry election in 2012 the following four years’ ballots are STACKED.

2012

Apparently not a single great player retired after the 2006 season. Only Bernie Williams stands a realistic chance of getting the 5% of the vote needed to stay on the ballot for a second year. Nevertheless, there are are a few interesting candidates from that election.

Vinny Castilla: #1 comp – Adrian Beltre (932). Being a sports fan has a way of making you feel old, even if you aren’t really that old to begin with. I felt really old when Fred Couples joined the Senior Tour. I remember when Vinny Castilla came up with the Rockies…and now I feel old knowing that he has already been retired for five years. Anyway, he was already 27 years old when he played his first full season in the majors, otherwise we could be talking about a potential Hall of Famer. Instead, he’s a one and done guy.

Javy Lopez: #1 comp – Jorge Posada (878). Lopez is the only incoming player that actually has a Hall of Famer among his top ten comps – #2 Roy Campanella and #5 Ernie Lombardi. I doubt Lopez will get much consideration. He was continuously overshadowed by peers Posada, Ivan Rodriguez, and Mike Piazza, but this seems a little unfair.

Yesterday I wrote about how positions change over time and we shouldn’t necessarily hold it against players from different eras. Along with Posada and Mike Piazza, Lopez was one of the first members of the generation of power hitting catchers that now permeate the league. From age 25 to age 35, Lopez’s top comps were Hall of Famers Gabby Hartnett and Carlton Fisk. The only difference is that those two played in eras when power-hitting catchers were rare. As a result, Fisk played until he was 45 and Hartnett played until he was 40 simply because they were still viable catchers even though they were well past their primes. Lopez did not have that luxury. In 2003, he had a 169 OPS+ and finished fifth in NL MVP voting with the Braves. Then he hit the wall. Three years and two teams later, he was out of the league at only 36 years old.

Brad Radke: #1 comp – Jon Lieber and Kevin Tapani (949). As a Twins fan, I was hoping for something a little better than Lieber and Tapani. This depressed me.

Ruben Sierra: #1 comp – Joe Carter (900). Sierra’s top three are Carter, Paul O’Neill, and Bobby Bonilla. Seems about right. In 1994, the great Bill James completed the same exercise as I did here, when he tried to project the players currently playing that would be in the Hall. One of his picks was Ruben Sierra. Whoops.

Bernie Williams: #1 comp – Bobby Abreu (931). O’Neill and Bonilla also crack Williams’ top four, although Sierra himself is conspicuously absent. Another example of why it is beneficial to play in New York. Despite similar statistics, former Yankee Williams is likely to linger on the ballot for a second year. Sierra will be lucky to pull in more than five votes.

2013

Now it starts to get ridiculous: it seems like at least half of the great players from my childhood retired after the 2007 season. The first batch of steroid candidates popped up on the last couple of ballots, but other than Mark McGwire, no one really cared all that much. Jeff Bagwell and Rafael Palmeiro should be Hall members, but no one got really worked up about their vote totals. In 2013, it will get ugly. Check out this murderer’s row of candidates: Craig Biggio, Barry Bonds, Roger Clemens, Mike Piazza, Curt Schilling, and Sammy Sosa. Of those six, only Schilling doesn’t have the statistics of a surefire Hall of Famer. But four of the other five players have been implicated in various steroid discussions, so no one really knows what will happen. Additionally, I threw in Kenny Lofton and David Wells, who won’t get serious consideration in 2013 but might have in a drier year.

Craig Biggio: #1 comp – Robin Yount (836). Eight of Biggio’s top ten comps are Hall of Famers; the other two are Lou Whitaker (who should be there) and Derek Jeter (who will be there). His list reads like a who’s who list of great modern infielders: Yount, Joe Morgan, Roberto Alomar, Cal Ripken Jr., Brooks Robinson, George Brett, and Ryne Sandberg.

James also invented the Hall of Fame Monitor, yet another measure of a player’s potential candidacy. A score over 100 means that a player is more likely to make the Hall of Fame. Biggio finishes with a fantastic 169…but that’s only good for sixth place among the six new candidates. Still, with many voters claiming they will never vote for a steroid user, Biggio has a very good chance at being the only player of the six elected in his first year on the ballot. He is certainly deserving of selection. But it will be hilariously awkward.

Barry Bonds: #1 comp – Willie Mays (762). Bonds is a unique player – a similarity score of 762 is exceptionally low. Unsurprisingly, his top three comps are Mays, Hank Aaron, and Babe Ruth. That’s great company, but we already knew he was in that company. Bonds is a tough call: I could see him easily making it in on the first ballot, but I could also see voters holding him back for several years.

Bonds is in a category of his own. Unlike the other steroid users, the refrain on Bonds seems to be that his statistics pre-steroid use were good enough to get him in the Hall, even without the bajillion home runs. Look, I understand not voting for any suspected steroid user. For better or worse, there is a character clause in the Hall of Fame standards. I don’t agree with voters using this provision to act as the moral police, but at least I understand.

What I don’t get is this idea that Bonds had a Hall of Fame career before he started using steroids. Unless some bizarre security tape exists, we can never actually know with 100% certainty that Bonds used steroids. But with the whole BALCO scandal, the evidence is stacked pretty heavily against him. What we don’t know is when or how many times he used. This doesn’t stop Hall voters from speculating when he started using based on his head size. Scientists that have studied steroids for decades still disagree on the benefits and dangers of steroid use. Yet we have a small handful of writers who know nothing about steroid use other than “we think it makes you hit the ball far,” deciding on a player’s candidacy based on when they think the player used steroids and the affect it had on his play? This is preposterous.

Roger Clemens: #1 comp – Randy Johnson (850). Everything about Bonds applies here. Somehow Clemens has become more disliked than Bonds with his post-career legal troubles. Bonds never even retired, but every team in baseball disliked him so much that he couldn’t find a team to sign him. On the other hand, Clemens was brought out of retirement something like seven straight years by teams that wanted his services. The odds that Clemens would become more hated than Bonds since retirement had to have been staggeringly high.

Seven of Clemens’ top ten comparables are in the Hall of Fame. The other three are Johnson, Greg Maddux, and Tom Glavine. Maddux and Glavine come on the ballot in 2014 and Johnson follows in 2015. All figure to be strong candidates to be selected on their first ballot. If writers punish Clemens for suspected steroid use/general asshole-ishness, all ten of Clemens’ comparables could make it into the Hall of Fame before he does. Like most baseball fans, I would find this hilarious.

Kenny Lofton: #1 comp – Jimmy Ryan (874). Yesterday I noted that Kenny Lofton was just behind his time. He was a great leadoff hitter for many years, but thanks to the offense-heavy steroid era, we stopped caring about leadoff hitters for the two decades or so between the primes of Tim Raines and Carl Crawford. It makes sense, then, that Lofton’s #1 comp is a fairly obscure center fielder from the 1890s. Three of Lofton’s top ten comps are Hall of Famers; two (Ryan and George Van Haltren) are under-appreciated 19th century players not in the Hall of Fame but in the Baseball Think Factory’s Hall of Merit; another (Ken Griffey Jr.) is a sure future Hall of Famer; and one more (Tim Raines) might make it in. It is safe to say that we did not appreciate Kenny Lofton as much as we should have. Figures that he joins the ballot on a stacked year, giving us one more chance to not appreciate him. I don’t think he makes a second ballot.

Mike Piazza: #1 comp – Yogi Berra and Johnny Bench (828). Of the 2013 players, only Barry Bonds has a lower similarity score with his #1 comp than Piazza. This goes to show just how great an offensive player Piazza was; not even Yogi Berra and Johnny Bench come close to his numbers. Yet like Javy Lopez, he is hurt somewhat by just how much of an offensive force he was. Piazza’s dominance ushered in an era of offensive-minded catchers (Joe Mauer, Matt Wieters, Victor Martinez, Geovanny Soto, Buster Posey, and so on). Because of this, it is easy to forget how much of a revelation Piazza was when he came up into the big leagues. At the time, it was ridiculous to see a catcher penciled into the cleanup spot. Now it is fairly commonplace. That shouldn’t make us forget how good Piazza was.

Curt Schilling: #1 comp – Kevin Brown (920). Schilling is a solid Hall candidate; yet his number one comp fell off after one year. He fits in with my discussion yesterday on short-term greatness. In fact, his top three comps are the very three pitchers I mentioned: Brown, Bob Welch, and Orel Hershiser. The only two Hall of Fame players on his list are Don Drysdale and Dazzy Vance – the two pitchers that I pointed out were exceptionally great for a ten-year span but did little before or after. I swear, I did not plan this.

Unlike the other three pitchers, Schilling has two things to hang his hat on – the Bloody Sock Game in the 2004 World Series and the fact that he reached 3,000 strikeouts. This isn’t totally fair. As I pointed out yesterday with Jack Morris and Game 7 of the 1991 World Series, what’s the point of waiting five years if one game dominates our memory of a player? And the 3,000 strikeout barrier isn’t as impressive as it used to be. In the 1990s and 2000s, it became okay for hitters to strike out for the first time in baseball history. It is not a coincidence that six of the 16 members of the 3,000 strikeout club pitched in that era. Or that five of those six (all but Maddux) have a higher K/IP ratio than any pitcher in the club besides Nolan Ryan. But of course I don’t expect voters to figure this one out. Schilling will eventually receive the 436 votes required for election, despite the fact that Brown received only 12 votes in his one year on the ballot.

Sammy Sosa: #1 comps – Jim Thome and Mike Schmidt (858). Seven of Sosa’s top ten comps are Hall of Famers. The other three (Griffey, Thome, and Gary Sheffield) are solid candidates. Even though Sosa has better career stats than Mark McGwire, he will always be second to McGwire in most people’s heads because of the 1998 home run chase. McGwire received only 19% of the vote in his fifth year on the ballot. This does not bode well for Sosa.

It is an extreme longshot, but I think there is a chance Sosa doesn’t make it a second year on the ballot. Surely enough voters will be sane enough to vote for him, but you can’t really rule it out. With McGwire’s history and the stacked ballot, I’d be worried if I was Sosa. The anti-steroid voters are going to love Schilling and Biggio as candidates. On top of that, Sosa is undoubtedly fourth among the four suspected steroid users on this ballot. Yet another sign of the times: the seventh best home run hitter of all time is only the sixth most viable new candidate on the 2013 Hall ballot.

David Wells: #1 comp – Andy Pettitte (898). Wells won’t last a second year on the ballot. But maybe he should – four of his top ten comps are Hall of Famers. Better candidates Pettitte, Mike Mussina, and Schilling also crack the list. It’s just too bad he couldn’t have retired a year earlier.

2014

More names get added to an already stacked ballot in 2014. By 2014, voters will start to feel the backlog of candidates. Larkin might be the only player elected next season. I think Biggio will be the only player elected in 2013. If that’s the case, we could be looking at a minimum of 21 candidates on the 2014 ballot that scored more than 100 on Bill James’ Hall of Fame Monitor. If Bernie Williams and Juan Gonzalez hang on for a few more years, that number jumps to 23. Writers can only vote for a maximum of ten players and very few will max out their ballot on principle. That means a lot of very good Hall of Fame candidates won’t stay on the ballot for a second year simply because there aren’t enough votes to go around. Furthermore, with that many qualified candidates and only ten votes for each writer, the backlog will keep adding up. It will become that much harder for a player to receive 75 percent of the vote.

Tom Glavine: #1 comp – Hall of Famer Early Wynn (874). Four of Glavine’s top ten comps are in the Hall of Fame, led by #2 Tom Seaver. Glavine was a boring pitcher, and he’s kinda boring to talk about. I don’t think he gets in right away, but he will be the last 300-game winner for the foreseeable future. That in itself is enough to get him in.

Luis Gonzalez: #1 comp – Dave Parker (907). I wrote about Gonzo yesterday. He gets overlooked because he played in the steroid era, everyone assumes that he juiced, and he still wasn’t one of the premier sluggers of his time. But four of his top ten comparables are in the Hall of Fame and #1 comp Parker lasted the full fifteen years on the ballot.

Of course those four are marginal Hall of Famers Billy Williams, Tony Perez, Andre Dawson, and Al Kaline. In the steroid era, that just won’t cut it. Gonzalez is a one and done guy.

Jeff Kent: #1 comp – Ryne Sandberg (802). Jeff Kent was really good. And really underrated. This is almost certainly because he was a jerk; the only things I really remember about his career are his MVP Award and the year that he tried to be a bigger douche than Barry Bonds.

As far as second basemen go, Kent was historically great. His #1 comp was Sandberg, but even he wasn’t all that comparable to Kent. The other nine players on Kent’s top ten list weren’t even second basemen. Five of the ten are Hall of Famers. But I’m guessing Kent goes the way of Lou Whitaker and becomes a one and done guy.

Greg Maddux: #1 comp – Don Sutton (862). If you had to bet on one recently retired player to make it into the Hall on the first ballot, you’d pretty much have to go with Maddux. Not only is Maddux extremely qualified, he is the exact opposite of every player that the anti-steroid crew won’t vote for. Nine of Maddux’s top ten comps are in the Hall; the tenth is Roger Clemens. Yeah, the guy was pretty good.

Mike Mussina: #1 comp – Andy Pettitte (875). Yet another perfect comp. Both Mussina and Pettitte are former Yankee pitchers with borderline Hall of Fame credentials. Five of Mussina’s top ten comps are Hall of Fame pitchers. Not a bad start, but I don’t see how Mussina gets in.

Two voter quirks keep Mussina out. First, he retired with 270 wins – 30 short of the magical 300. He had 20 wins in his final season, so he may have gotten there with two more years and definitely would have gotten there with three more years. He would have been older than 40, so he would have almost certainly been a below average starter. Yet three more below average seasons would have gotten him to 300 wins and made him a slam dunk Hall of Famer.

Second, Mussina has a 3.68 ERA, which would put him among the worst starters in the Hall. Although his ERA is very good for his era, voters won’t give him much credit. For some reason, voters are willing to discount the fantastic hitting numbers of players like Palmeiro and McGwire because of the steroid era, yet we aren’t willing to do the same for pitchers.

Frank Thomas: #1 comp – Jeff Bagwell (874). Three of Thomas’s top ten comps are in the Hall of Fame. That’s not too exciting. The names of those three players are way more exciting: Mickey Mantle, Jimmie Foxx, and Willie McCovey. Now that is some good company.

2015

Carlos Delgado: #1 comp – Willie Stargell (892). That Stargell comp looks nice, but poor Delgado will be lost in the shuffle at this point. On his own merits, he is a viable but marginal Hall candidate. But by the time his five year waiting period is up in 2015, he might only be the sixth best first baseman on the ballot. Palmeiro and McGwire will still be lingering. So will McGriff, who seems to be a likely candidate to pick up steam as anti-steroid voters start supporting his cause. Bagwell might not be in yet and Thomas probably doesn’t get in on his first year on the ballot. This extremely impressive list of first basemen will keep Delgado from getting the consideration he deserves.

Nomar Garciaparra: #1 comp – Michael Young (869). Seems weird to think there was a time not too long ago that Garciaparra was considered a surefire Hall of Fame shortstop. Thru age 29, Nomah’s number one comp was Ernie Banks. Now it’s the decidedly less impressive Michael Young. Young will pull farther away from Garciaparra the longer he plays, leaving Joe Gordon, Bret Boone, Wally Berger, and Travis Fryman as his top comps. Yikes.

Randy Johnson: #1 comp – Roger Clemens (850). How good was the Big Unit? You may have heard of the names on Johnson’s comp list: Clemens, Tom Seaver, Bob Feller, Jim Palmer, Lefty Grove, Bob Gibson, Steve Carlton. Wow.

In terms of the Bill James statistics, Johnson is the most qualified candidate on this list. Not only are his comparables ridiculous, he scores a whopping 331 on the Hall of Fame Monitor. Among recent retirees, only Bonds (336) and Clemens (332) scored higher than Johnson, and they have problems that go beyond their statistical qualifications. Greg Maddux (254) is the only other player within 120 points of Johnson.

Pedro Martinez: #1 comp – Curt Schilling (870). Since Hall of Fame voters love to compare players to one another, even if they aren’t really comparable (Jack Morris and Bert Blyleven, anyone?), Schilling is lucky he has a two year jump on Pedro. They both were dominant pitchers for a relatively short period of time, but Pedro was more dominant for a longer stretch of time. Pedro’s seven years with the Red Sox were ridiculous: 117-37 with a 2.52 ERA and 10.9 strikeouts per nine innings. And that was in the middle of the steroid era.

Gary Sheffield: #1 comp – Mel Ott (875). Sheffield will be another casualty of the steroid era. Six of his top ten comps are in the Hall and three more (Ken Griffey Jr., Frank Thomas, and Chipper Jones) will certainly get there. The tenth is borderline candidate Fred McGriff. The six Hall of Famers are no slouches – Mickey Mantle, Frank Robinson, and Reggie Jackson join Ott on the list.

I see Sheffield in the same light as Rafael Palmeiro. Like Palmeiro, he put up stellar stats over his career but was never in the discussion for best hitter in the league in any given season. This opens the door for revisionist history. I expect many to argue that Sheffield wasn’t a top candidate even without the steroid talk, similar to what happened with Palmeiro this season. Never mind the fact that Sheffield would absolutely cruise in on the first ballot based on his stats if there were no steroid suspicions involved. My hunch is that Sheffield lasts the full fifteen years on the ballot. Of course he might not even do that – Palmeiro only received 11% of the possible votes this season and the ballot wasn’t nearly as crowded this year as it will be in 2015.

John Smoltz: #1 comp – Curt Schilling (876). I was a bit surprised that Dennis Eckersley (the other famous solid starter turned dominant closer) didn’t show up on Smoltz’s list. Instead, all ten of Smoltz’s comps were starters for their entire careers. That doesn’t really tell us too much, since the majority of Smoltz’s Hall appeal comes from the fact that he was very good as a starter and a reliever. Smoltz will be a good test as to how cyncial the voters have become. He is basically a better Eckersley in a tougher era, and Eckersley cruised in on the first ballot with 83.2% of the vote.

2016

Ken Griffey Jr.: #1 comp – Frank Robinson (900). Five of Griffey’s ten comps are current Hall members. The other five are Palmeiro, Sheffield, Sosa, ManRam, and Alex Rodriguez. Of course none of that matters: any thinking about Griffey’s candidacy is just wasted time. He is basically the hitting version of Maddux and a no-doubt first ballot Hall of Famer.

Trevor Hoffman: #1 comp – Mariano Rivera (901). Rivera makes sense. Unsurprisingly, the rest of Hoffman’s list is made up of slightly above average closers. I wrote about this in my 35 Future Hall of Famers column. My argument was that it was impossible to tell with any certainty whether Hoffman will be elected into the Hall of Fame because we don’t know how voters will treat the modern closer. The comp list bares this out: names like Jeff Reardon, Roberto Hernandez, Doug Jones, and Todd Jones aren’t all that impressive. Hoffman will be the first test case for the modern closer.

Andy Pettitte: #1 comp – David Wells (898). In the same column, I picked Pettitte to make the Hall of Fame. Kinda wish I had that one back – I placed him in the “close, but not quite there yet” category, figuring that the Yankees’ money would squeeze two or three more years out of him. Apparently not. Not much more to say about Pettitte that hasn’t been said about the other similar pitchers. His top four comps are Wells, Kevin Brown, Bob Welch, and Mike Mussina. Like those four pitchers, Pettitte was a very good pitcher that doesn’t quite have the all-important 300 or 3,000 on his resume. I think he gets more support than Brown’s 12 votes, but not enough to get in.


Messing with Hall of Famers’ Similarity Scores (Part I)

February 9, 2011

What to do when there no entertaining sports are on TV in February? Mess around with baseball-reference.com’s highly addictive similarity score tool, that’s what.

If you’re not familiar with this particular Bill James’ creation, it’s pretty simple. The actual methodology is at the link above, but basically two players start with 1000 similarity score and points are subtracted based on how dissimilar they are. The end result is a list of the ten most similar players to any given player on baseball-reference.com.

A similarity score over 900 means that two players are very similar; the farther you get away from 900, the more tenuous a relationship is. Obviously many Hall of Fame players are unique, making the similarity score not all that valuable. For example, the extremely unique Rickey Henderson’s most comparable player is Craig Biggio, with a minuscule 713 similarity score.

So sometimes these scores don’t really tell us that much. That doesn’t make them any less fun as an arguing point. In this post today, I looked at recent inductees and players currently on the ballot. Tomorrow I will look at recently retired players on the next few ballots.

I have no doubt that this post will be an incoherent list of thoughts…but it should still be fun.

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Roberto Alomar (elected this season): #1 comp – Derek Jeter (869). Alomar was a fairly unique player – it’s fairly surprising for a player to not have at least one player with over a 900 similarity score. But even with the low score, Jeter isn’t bad company as a #1 comparison. Five of Alomar’s top ten comps are in the Hall of Fame, including Hall of Fame second baseman Frankie Frisch, Charlie Gehringer, Joe Morgan, and Ryne Sandberg. Interestingly enough, the most comparable second baseman to Roberto Alomar is Lou Whitaker’s 857. Which leads me to…

Ryne Sandberg (elected in 2005 on his third year on the ballot)/Lou Whitaker (15 votes in 2001): #1 comps – each other (901). Whitaker’s lack of support (he didn’t even come close to the 26 votes needed to make it to a second year on the ballot) doesn’t make much sense given the fact that Sandberg cruised in on his third ballot. They were remarkably similar players. The rest of Sandberg’s top five? Joe Torre, future Hall of Famer Barry Larkin, Alan Trammell, and Ray Durham. For Whitaker? Trammell, Alomar, Buddy Bell, and Hall of Famer Joe Morgan.

Maybe Whitaker shouldn’t be in the Hall of Fame, but surely he deserved more than one year on the ballot and 15 votes. I feel like the fans should be able to vote to give the writers a mulligan when they do something stupid like that.

Bert Blyleven (elected in 2011 on 14th year on ballot): #1 comp – Don Sutton (914). Eight of the ten pitchers on Blyleven’s list are in the Hall of Fame. Only Jim Kaat and Tommy John are not. One of the many fun quirks of the Baseball Hall of Fame: the love for the 300 game winner. Six of the ten pitchers on Blyleven’s list won 300 games – they all cruised in to the Hall in five years or less. Sub-300 game winner Blyleven took 14 years to make it and Kaat and John were two of the rare players good enough to hang on the ballot for 15 years but not good enough to make it into the Hall. Strangely, Robin Roberts and Ferguson Jenkins both made it in fairly quickly despite finishing with fewer than 300 wins.

Tommy John (fell off ballot after 15 years in 2010): #1 comp – Jim Kaat (923). Funny how these comps tend to work out well. John and Kaat get grouped in together as pitchers that lasted a long time but didn’t have one outstanding quality. That they are each other’s #1 comp is perfect. Seven of John’s other nine comparisons are Hall members (not including future Hall member Tom Glavine). Seems like those comps plus having the most important surgery in baseball named after him should be enough to get him in.

Andre Dawson (elected in 2010 on ninth ballot): #1 comp – Hall of Famer Billy Williams (886). Somewhat unsurprisingly, fellow suspect Hall of Famers Williams and Tony Perez are Dawson’s #1 and #2 comparisons. That fits in with the consensus that Dawson isn’t a great Hall of Fame selection but not a catastrophic one either. Also on Dawson’s list? Dave Parker and Harold Baines, who were both recently kicked off the ballot. Which leads us to:

Dave Parker (lasted 15 years on ballot): #1 comp – Luis Gonzalez (907) and Harold Baines (lasted five years on ballot): #1 comp – Hall of Famer Tony Perez (943). Three of Parker’s and five of Baines’ top ten comps are Hall of Famers. Baines’ 943 similarity score with Perez is extremely high for Hall of Famers. Perez was a marginal Hall of Famer in the first place but got in because he was a member of the Big Red Machine; Baines didn’t have any great teams to fall back on.

The most interesting thing about these comps is Luis Gonzalez. Gonzo pops up on all three of these top ten lists. Maybe Gonzalez is too high because of his hitter-friendly era, but he matches up well with players that lasted multiple years on the ballot. I don’t see Gonzo making a second ballot, but maybe his numbers will look better with five years of retrospection.

Rickey Henderson (elected in 2009 on first ballot): #1 comp – Craig Biggio (713). Perhaps the most unique player of all-time. Even Henderson’s contemporary Tim Raines only scores a 648.

Jim Rice (elected in 2009 on 15th ballot): #1 comp – Hall of Famer Orlando Cepeda (912). Ironic that Rice’s #1 comp is Cepeda. Like Rice, Cepeda lingered on the ballot for 15 years. Rice was selected on 76.4% of the ballots in his final season to get elected; Cepeda’s 73.5% meant he came up short and had to wait five more years until the Veterans Committee elected him. Rice was a controversial selection and his comps make that clear: his top five consists of Cepeda; Andres Galarraga (22 votes in 2010); Veterans Committee selection Duke Snider; Ellis Burks (2 votes in 2010); and Joe Carter (19 votes in 2004). Which of course brings us to…

Andres Galarraga (22 votes in only year on ballot in 2010): #1 comp – Hall of Famer Orlando Cepeda (940). Amazing how eras change things. Three of Galarraga’s top ten comps are Hall of Famers, including the quite similar Cepeda and Rice. Rice made it in because we romanticized his career over time – he was elected a full 23 years after his last season. Perhaps Galarraga could have gotten there if we had 23 years to think about his career. Do I think Galarraga was a Hall of Famer? Absolutely not. I’m only noting that Rice jumped a whopping 275 votes over 15 years to make it in. Even though Cepeda came up short, he picked up a ridiculous 287 votes (from 48 to 335) that indirectly led to his election by the Veterans’ Committee. Galarraga came up three votes short of the 5% needed in his first year and now he’ll never be able to pick up the momentum needed to make the Hall.

Goose Gossage (elected in 2008 on ninth ballot): #1 comp – Hall of Famer Rollie Fingers (918). #2 is Hoyt Wilhelm. Certainly not surprising. But this leads us to…

Bruce Sutter (elected in 2006 on 13th ballot): #1 comp – Doug Jones (934). Gossage and Sutter are often grouped together. According to the similarity scores, that couldn’t be farther off. Gossage’s top two comps are the two most famous early relievers. Sutter’s comps are the decidedly less impressive Jones, Tom Henke, Jeff Montgomery, John Wetteland, Jeff Reardon, and Robb Nen. How did Sutter get elected when none of those other six got any consideration whatsoever? You got me. Maybe Sutter just beat them to the punch by being slightly above average at a new position years before the rest of those closers were slightly above average.

Wade Boggs, Tony Gwynn, and Cal Ripken (all first ballot): Nothing to argue about with these three. The top seven Boggs’ comps are Hall of Famers; nine of Gwynn’s top ten are Hall of Famers; and six of Ripken’s top ten are Hall of Famers. Interestingly enough, Ripken’s highest comp is Dave Winfield (789) of all players.

Barry Larkin (62.1% last year) and Alan Trammell (24.3% last year): #1 comp – each other (914). Larkin received 62.1% of the vote this year, his second on the ballot and seems primed to go in next year. Trammell received only 24.3% of the vote in his tenth year on the ballot and will linger for five more years before falling off completely. Poor Trammell and Whitaker dominated Detroit for over a decade and got no Hall support.

Interestingly enough, Larkin’s #2 and #3 comps are Edgar Renteria and Ray Durham. Renteria seems washed up at only 33, but it’s easy to forget how solid he once was. From 22 to 29, his top comp was Hall of Famer Robin Yount; four years later, it is Tony Fernandez. Durham has gone from Joe Morgan to Craig Biggio to Jay Bell – quite the career arc.

One of the many downfalls of the five-year waiting period is revisionist history. In today’s game, shortstops (and second basemen, to a lesser extent) put up ridiculous numbers. Derek Jeter, Nomar Garciaparra, and Miguel Tejada ushered in the era of the shortstop as a slugger. And that’s fine…but I think we subconsciously compare guys like Larkin and Trammell to shortstops of today. We forget just how great Trammell was in the 1980s and Larkin was in the early 1990s before this generation of great middle infielders came along.

Jack Morris (53.5% of vote last year): #1 comp – Dennis Martinez (903). Morris is the most polarizing player on the ballot. Statistically, Morris doesn’t have the numbers to make the Hall. But he has a reputation as a big-game pitcher, the “you had to be there” argument, and Game 7 of the 1991 World Series to fall back on. Morris’s supporters get the ugly Dennis Martinez as a number one comp. However, five of his top ten comps are Hall of Famers, led by number two Bob Gibson. Not bad company to keep.

Morris is the antithesis of the problem I mentioned above. Much of Morris’s appeal is based on emotion. He is the gamer: the guy who completed every game and fought for every pitch. Because of pitch counts, we just don’t have starters like that any more. Or so the story goes. We give Morris more credit than he is due because he was one of the last of this breed of pitchers. Whereas Trammell limps along on the Hall ballot partly because shortstops are so good in today’s game, Morris gains momentum partly because pitchers are not the workhorses they once were.

Lee Smith (45.3% of vote last year): #1 comp – Jeff Reardon and Trevor Hoffman (896). Smith’s #3 comp is John Franco (891). I have written about this before, but I don’t quite understand the lack of Hall support for Franco. Smith has 54 more saves; other than that, their careers are very similar. Smith was the best right-handed closer of his generation and Franco was the best left-handed closer. I don’t think Smith will get there, but eventually he may beat the voters into submission, like Blyleven and Rice. Franco received 4.6% of the vote and was gone after one year.

Jeff Bagwell (41.7% last year): #1 comp – Chipper Jones (887). Two of Bagwell’s top ten comps are Hall of Famers and his #1 is future Hall of Famer Chipper Jones. Of course none of this matters to the hopefully less than 25% of voters that will never vote for anyone that lifted a barbell in the steroid era. Which brings us to the similarly underrated…

Fred McGriff (17.9% last year): #1 comp – Willie McCovey (887). McGriff’s top four comps: McCovey, Willie Stargell, Bagwell, and Frank Thomas. Yeah, that’s good company. Poor McGriff will never get serious discussion even though he should. Had he hit seven more home runs (493), he almost certainly would be a viable Hall candidate. As it is, he will undoubtedly linger somewhere between 15 and 35 percent until he falls off the ballot in 2024. This is stupid.

Tim Raines (37.5% last year): #1 comp – Johnny Damon (887). The comically underrated Raines is slowly gaining Hall momentum. The only knock on Raines’ resume is that he played in the same era as Rickey Henderson. I already pointed out that Henderson is utterly unique in baseball history. Raines’ #2 comp is Lou Brock, who cruised in on his first ballot. Kenny Lofton rounds out the top three. Goes to show you that speedy leadoff men are the forgotten players of the steroid era – Damon is a Hall longshot and Lofton has almost no chance.

Edgar Martinez (32.9% last year): #1 comp – Todd Helton (912). Martinez’s Hall of Fame case gets no real help from his comparables, mostly because not many great hitters started their career at age 27. Helton, Will Clark, and John Olerud are his top three comps; like Martinez, all three are marginal Hall candidates.

Larry Walker (20.3% last year): #1 comp – Vladimir Guerrero (891). Thanks to a combination of the steroid era and Coors Field, Walker’s career is underrated. Four of Walker’s top ten comps are Hall of Famers, led by #6 Joe DiMaggio (871). Three more are potential Hall of Famers, including solid candidate Guerrero and borderline candidates Jim Edmonds (877) and Helton (859). But steroids and the stadium are two huge drawbacks to Walker’s candidacy. It would be one thing if Coors Field was located in a major metropolitan area, but the fact that he played in relative obscurity in Denver makes him entirely too easy to dismiss.

Mark McGwire (19.8% last year): #1 comp – Jose Canseco (801). Hall of Fame First Basemen Harmon Killebrew and Willie McCovey are also on McGwire’s top ten list, but really no one is similar to McGwire. Of the unique players I could think of off the top of my head, only Rickey Henderson and Barry Bonds had a #1 comp with a lower similarity score than McGwire. Which is strange because the knock on McGwire was that he hit home runs and nothing else. If that were true, then he’d be a lot more similar to any of the other dozens of players that hit home runs and nothing else. His comp list would look like Dave Kingman’s (which includes Greg Vaughn, Frank Howard, Rocky Colavito, and Norm Cash).

This is simply because McGwire was so much better than a typical home run hitter. He twice led the league in on-base percentage. His career OPS+ was 162. The last two first basemen elected on the first ballot were Willie McCovey (147 OPS+) and Eddie Murray (129 OPS+). Yet at this point it is pretty clear that McGwire won’t be voted in – his 19.8% in his fifth year on the ballot was his lowest total so far. But I suppose as long as we’re protecting the nebulous “sanctity of the game” standard, we better keep him out…not like anyone enjoyed the 1998 home run chase or anything, right?

Don Mattingly (13.6% last year): #1 comp – Cecil Cooper (933). Want to know a good way to piss off a Yankee fan? Tell him that Cecil Cooper is Don Mattingly’s most comparable player. If that doesn’t do the trick, tell him that Wally Joyner and Hal McRae are #2 and #3. That should do it. Although in fairness, all three of those guys probably would have stayed on the ballot for fifteen years if they were fortunate enough to play in New York.

Dale Murphy (12.6% last year): #1 comp – Andruw Jones (920). Talk about a perfect comp. Both Atlanta Braves center fielders. Both strong Hall candidates by the time they turned 30. Both longshot Hall candidates by the time they turned 34. Murphy had a secretary named Jones and Jones had a secretary named Murphy. The comparisons go on.

For the record, I personally would like it if Murphy and Jones were both in the Hall of Fame. I tend to prefer short greatness over extended very-goodness. Jones might be more of a stretch, but for a time in the 1980s Murphy was the best hitter in the league. Perhaps I just like Murphy because my dad still has several of his rookie cards in storage.

Kevin Brown (2.1% last year, off future ballots): #1 comp – Bob Welch (945). Orel Hershiser (935) and Hall of Famers Catfish Hunter and Don Drysdale (both 928) round out Brown’s top four. The pitching version of Dale Murphy only received 12 votes in his first year on the ballot. Granted, Brown’s ridiculous undeserved contract meant that he was never making the Hall of Fame, but the 12 votes are symptomatic of a weird catch-22 in today’s pitching culture. With Tommy John surgery, low pitch counts, and general health awareness, we expect pitchers to last forever. When they don’t, they are not considered viable Hall candidates, no matter how dominant they were over a short period of time.

In the past, a ten-year prime was sufficient for pitchers (Koufax, Drysdale, etc.). It was a given that pitchers’ careers could be short with how little was known about pitcher health. Hall of Famer Dazzy Vance is a perfect example. For ten years in between 1922 and 1931, he was a great pitcher. Before and after, he wasn’t even an average pitcher. That was good enough to make the Hall of Fame (though it took him fifteen elections). Three of his top six comps? Hershiser (925), Brown (924), and Welch (921). Hershiser lasted only two years on the ballot and Brown and Welch were both off after one year.

Rafael Palmeiro (11% this year): #1 comp – Frank Robinson (887). Palmeiro is another weird revisionist history case. Sure, he wasn’t going to get elected because of the steroid thing. But there was a lot of rhetoric before the election about how he was a borderline Hall case in the first place. That’s just preposterous. Six of Palmeiro’s top ten comps are Hall of Famers. The other four are Ken Griffey Jr., Gary Sheffield, Manny Ramirez, and Fred McGriff. If Palmeiro wasn’t suspended for a positive drug test, he was a no-brainer Hall of Famer, plain and sample.

Juan Gonzalez (5.2% this year): #1 comp – Albert Belle (897). Another perfect comparison. Both Gonzalez and Belle were in the discussion for best hitter in the league for a time in the 1990s and neither aged well at all. Like I said above with Murphy, I’m a sucker for these type of players. Of course, with Belle and Gonzalez, it’s a moot point since neither will be able to escape steroid speculation.

Tomorrow: Part II, where I look at recently retired players that will come on the ballot in the next five years.


Ranking the Best Quarterback Matchups in Super Bowl History

January 25, 2011

Heading into Super Bowl XLV, quarterbacks Aaron Rodgers and Ben Roethlisberger will get the lion’s share of attention. And deservedly so – Roethlisberger is shooting for his third Super Bowl title at just 28 years old and Aaron Rodgers has already been anointed as the best young quarterback in the league.

With that in mind, I decided to see where this quarterback matchup ranked among Super Bowls of the past. For a challenge, I looked at how each quarterback was perceived at the time; after all, anyone can look at matchups like Favre/Elway, Montana/Elway, and Montana/Marino and say they were good in retrospect. Besides that, I really have no other methodology other than my own personal preference. In reverse order:

45. Super Bowl XXXV: Trent Dilfer (Ravens) vs. Kerry Collins (Giants)

Super Bowl 35 pitted the league’s 22nd best passing offense (Baltimore) versus the league’s 13th best passing offense (Collins). Both quarterbacks had had remarkably similar careers up to this point. Both were 28 years old. Dilfer was the sixth overall pick of the 1994 NFL Draft and Collins was the fifth pick in 1995. Neither had lived up to anything close to expectations; Dilfer was already on his second team and Collins was on his third.

The consensus coming into this game was that the winner would be the worst Super Bowl-winning quarterback in history. Dilfer had already lost his starting job in Tampa Bay the previous season and was slapped with the “game manager” tag.* Collins was an even bigger train wreck. This was his sixth season in the league for three different teams. The 2000 season was only the second time he finished with more touchdowns than interceptions. Even after a 22 touchdown and 13 interception season, he had still accumulated an ugly career line of 85 TDs and 98 INTs.

* I’ve watched football for twenty-six years and I’m not entirely sure what a game manager is. Best I can tell, game manager is code for “this guy sucks but he doesn’t have the arm strength to throw interceptions, so he won’t hurt you that much.”

Dilfer’s Ravens came out on top and you could still make a pretty convincing argument that Dilfer is the worst Super Bowl-winning quarterback ever. He bounced around the league for six more seasons with three different teams, starting only 29 more games before retiring in 2007. Collins actually became a solid NFL quarterback. As of the end of the 2010 season, he ranks eleventh on the career passing yards chart and 28th on the career passing touchdown list.

44. Super Bowl XVII: Joe Theismann (Redskins) vs. David Woodley (Dolphins)

Joe Theismann is one of those quarterbacks that is remembered as better than he actually was. As a 32-year old in the strike-shortened 1982 season, he made his first Pro Bowl and first All-Pro team. Judged by his whole career, Theismann would probably rank higher. However, at the time, he had never been considered an elite quarterback.

Woodley has a good argument for the worst quarterback ever to play in a Super Bowl. In nine games in the 1982 season, his third in the league, the 24-year old Woodley finished with only five touchdowns and eight interceptions. The Dolphin passing attack ranked 27th of 28 teams.

In short, there was a reason that the Dolphins drafted Dan Marino the next year. Woodley started only 18 more games in his career and was out of the league by the time he turned 27. Theismann went on to be named MVP of the NFL the next season and became one of the NFL’s top quarterbacks until Lawrence Taylor infamously sent him into early retirement by breaking his leg on Monday Night Football in 1985.

43. Super Bowl XXV: Jeff Hostetler (Giants) vs. Jim Kelly (Bills)

Hostetler is probably the only quarterback that could give Dilfer a run for his money for worst Super Bowl-winning quarterback. After Phil Simms got hurt late in the 1990 season, long-time backup Hostetler improbably led the Giants to the Super Bowl. Including the first two games in the playoffs, he entered the Super Bowl having started a grand total of six career games.

For his part, Kelly had already established himself as one of the best quarterbacks in the NFL by 1990. He made the 1987, 1988, and 1990 Pro Bowls. The 1990 season was the best of his career to that point, as he led the league in quarterback rating (101.2) and completion percentage (63.3%).

Kelly must still be kicking himself at the one that got away. He went on to lose the next three Super Bowls, all to more established quarterbacks. Hostetler parlayed his playoff success into a starting job for the next six years, but he only made the playoffs one more time, in 1993 with the Raiders.

42. Super Bowl XX: Jim McMahon (Bears) vs. Tony Eason (Patriots)

Talent-wise, this matchup could certainly be last on the list, but the media hype before the game gives it a few bonus points. At the time, this was billed as a quarterback matchup for the future – both McMahon and Eason were promising young former first round quarterbacks.

Yet for as much trash talking and beer chugging that McMahon did, his career was remarkably light on accomplishments. In his four seasons in the league, he missed 17 of 57 games with an injury and made his first and only Pro Bowl in the 1985 season.

Eason is known as one of the busts of the 1983 NFL Draft that included Jim Kelly, John Elway, and Dan Marino. His career actually started out better than Elway’s or Kelly’s. As a sophomore in the 1984 season, he had 23 touchdowns and only 8 interceptions. He took a step back in the 1985 season and was benched for veteran Steve Grogan. Still, he got the start in the Super Bowl. He promptly redefined “deer in headlights” and went 0-for-6 passing before being yanked for Grogan.

McMahon bounced around the league for the remaining eleven years of his career. He started only 57 more games for six teams and never won another playoff game. Eason had one more solid year for the Patriots, but never really recovered from his Super Bowl catastrophe. He was out of the league by 1990.

41. Super Bowl XXII: Doug Williams (Redskins) vs. John Elway (Broncos)

Doug Williams might be the most unlikely quarterback to win a Super Bowl. Williams was an average quarterback for the Tampa Bay Bucs between 1978 and 1982 before moving to the USFL to become an average quarterback for three more years. By 1986, he was a 31-year old backup quarterback for the Redskins. He saw little action with the team until starting QB Jay Schroeder went down with an injury halfway through the 1988 season. Williams was again average – he threw 15 TDs and 12 INTs in 10 regular season games. Still, it was good enough to make it to the Super Bowl. Conveniently, he had the best game of his career and was named MVP of the Redskins’ 42-10 romp over the Broncos.

At this point in his career, Elway had established himself as a very good quarterback, but was not quite the legend that he would later become. He made the Pro Bowl in both 1986 and 1987. This was his second chance at a Super Bowl after losing to the Giants the previous season.

The two quarterbacks took slightly different paths after this game. Williams started two more games before retiring following the 1989 season. Elway would go on to win two Super Bowls ten years later and pops up in every “greatest quarterback ever” discussion.

40. Super Bowl V: Johnny Unitas (Colts) vs. Craig Morton (Cowboys)

Another matchup that looks way better in name than it was at the time. Unitas and Morton both had fantastic careers, but the timing just didn’t align for the two.

The 1970 season was Unitas’s last full season as a starter and he simply wasn’t very good. In his last two full seasons with the Colts, he threw for only 26 touchdown passes and 38 interceptions. Morton was only in his second season as a starter with the Cowboys. Though he showed promise, he was not considered one of the top quarterbacks in the league – the Cowboys only finished 16th out of 26 teams in passing that season.

Perhaps it isn’t much of a surprise that this game is often considered the worst Super Bowl ever played. Morton went on to lose Super Bowl XII with the Broncos and had a solid 19-year NFL career. Unitas had three more forgettable seasons as a part-time quarterback before mercifully retiring.

39. Super Bowl XXXVII: Brad Johnson (Bucs) vs. Rich Gannon (Raiders)

Like Doug Williams, both of these quarterbacks were extremely unlikely candidates to lead their team to a Super Bowl. Johnson was the epitome of a “game manager.” By 2002, he was a 34-year old quarterback with nine years of NFL experience, only four of which were spent as a starter. He wasn’t terrible by any means; although he couldn’t throw the ball downfield because of poor arm strength, he at least seemed aware of his own shortcomings. He stuck to dink and dunk type passes and never finished a season with less than a 60% completion rate.

Gannon was an even more unlikely story. He joined the Oakland Raiders in 1999 as a 12-year NFL veteran with only 58 career starts. His career improbably took off, and he made four consecutive Pro Bowls between 1999 and 2002. In 2002, he led the league with 4,689 yards passing and was named MVP.

Neither Johnson or Gannon did much after the Super Bowl. Gannon only started 10 more games after two seasons before retiring due to injuries. Johnson hung around the league for six more years as a backup before retiring in 2008.

38. Super Bowl XXXVIII: Tom Brady (Patriots) vs. Jake Delhomme (Panthers)

In 2003, Tom Brady wasn’t quite the Tom Brady we now know. He won the Super Bowl in 2001 as an upstart rookie injury replacement with the Patriots, but had yet to put up the Madden-like numbers he later would. It wasn’t until after this Super Bowl victory that Brady joined the discussion of best quarterbacks in the league.

In 2003, Jake Delhomme was still Jake Delhomme. This was his first year as a starter after four years as a backup for the Saints. Amazingly, he led the Panthers to the Super Bowl and actually had a very un-Delhomme-like performance in the big game as the Panthers almost pulled out the win. He went on to have a few more decent seasons before his name became synonymous with the TAINT.

37. Super Bowl XXXVI: Tom Brady (Patriots) vs. Kurt Warner (Rams)

If Tom Brady wasn’t quite Tom Brady in 2003, he certainly wasn’t in 2001. You’ve heard Brady’s story by now – a sixth round draft pick, he was forced into action when Drew Bledsoe got hurt in the Patriots’ second game of the season. He wasn’t great by any means, but got the job done and led the Patriots to the Super Bowl.

It’s easy to forget that Warner only played two and a half full seasons with the Rams…he was just that good in that short time period. In 2001, he was clearly the best quarterback in the league. He was named NFL MVP for the second time and led the league in most passing categories.

36. Super Bowl XLI: Peyton Manning (Colts) vs. Rex Grossman (Bears)

Talk about a matchup of polar opposites. Before this game, Manning was known as the great statistical quarterback who couldn’t win the big game. Grossman was known as the terrible quarterback who fell ass backwards into a Super Bowl appearance.

By 2006, Manning had an argument for best quarterback in the game – it really came down to whether you appreciated Brady’s three Super Bowl rings or Manning’s superior statistics. He was already a seven-time Pro Bowler, three-time First Team All-Pro, and two-time NFL MVP. The only knock on his resume was his 3-6 playoff record coming into the 2006 season. With Grossman’s help, he handled that one blemish with ease.

I seem to remember Grossman sucking for a lot longer than he actually did. In truth, the 2006 season was his only full season for the Bears. He wasn’t a complete train wreck – he started all 16 games and had 3,193 yards passing, 23 touchdowns, and 20 interceptions that season. But yeah…it was Rex Grossman.

35. Super Bowl XXXIV: Kurt Warner (Rams) vs. Steve McNair (Titans)

The first of many matchups that look much better after the fact. This game surely didn’t lack for storylines, but at the time, no one thought Warner and McNair were particularly great.

This was the 28-year old Warner’s first NFL season after he famously stocked shelves at a grocery store in Iowa while playing arena football. After starter Trent Green tore his ACL in the preseason, Warner emphatically stepped in. He led the league in completion percentage (65.1%), touchdowns (41), and quarterback rating (109.2) en route to winning the NFL MVP Award.

McNair was in his third season as a full-time starter but was not yet considered one of the best quarterbacks in the league. He led the Titans to two straight 8-8 seasons before his breakout 1999 season.

Warner and McNair both went on to have very good careers. They each made three Pro Bowls, threw for over 30,000 yards, and are considered potential future Hall of Famers.

34. Super Bowl IV: Len Dawson (Chiefs) vs. Joe Kapp (Vikings)

In 1969, Hall of Famer Dawson was at the tail end of his prime. He made his fourth consecutive AFL All-Star Game (and sixth overall), but actually had his worst statistical season and only started seven games due to injury. Prior to the 1969 season, he had led the AFL in completion percentage and quarterback rating for five years in a row. Despite the down season, it was safe to say that Dawson was the premier quarterback in the AFL (although Joe Namath certainly got more attention).

Joe Kapp is the surprising answer to the question “who was the Vikings quarterback in their first Super Bowl appearance?” Kapp was picked up from the Canadian Football League’s B.C. Lions in 1967 and started for three seasons for the Vikings while Fran Tarkenton was on his brief mid-career exodus to the New York Giants. Kapp led the Vikings to two consecutive division titles and the 1969 NFC Championship. He was one of the top quarterbacks in the league in 1969 and made the NFL All-Star Game.

After the 1969 season, Kapp was not resigned by the Vikings. He eventually signed a four-year deal with the Boston Patriots as the league’s highest paid player. After one horrendous season (three TDs, 17 interceptions), he was sent home at training camp the following season and never played in the league again. Dawson had six more productive years but the Chiefs have yet to make it back to the Super Bowl to this day.

33. Super Bowl XL: Ben Roethlisberger (Steelers) vs. Matt Hasselbeck (Seahawks)

Long before Ben Roethlisberger was an elite NFL quarterback and alleged rapist, he was a 23-year old stud sophomore in his first Super Bowl in 2005. In two seasons in the league, Big Ben compiled a stellar 22-3 regular season record, but he was still a relatively unknown commodity prior to this game.

Meanwhile, two-time Pro Bowler Hasselbeck was one of the many solid, but not great, quarterbacks that permeated the NFL in the suddenly pass-happy league of the late 1990s and early 2000s. Hasselbeck continually put together very good seasons but might just be the most boring quarterback of the decade. Not only was he trapped on the West Coast, but he was the epitome of the good at everything, great at nothing quarterback.

I feel like Hasselbeck probably deserves his own column one day – he’s basically on the Mendoza Line of quarterbacks good enough to keep a starting job for an entire career but never manage to become one of the best quarterbacks in the league.

32. Super Bowl XV: Jim Plunkett (Raiders) vs. Ron Jaworski (Eagles)

The list of quarterbacks that have won two or more Super Bowls consists of Hall of Famers Bart Starr, Bob Griese, Roger Staubach, John Elway, Troy Aikman, Terry Bradshaw, and Joe Montana; active players Ben Roethlisberger and Tom Brady; and Jim Plunkett. Plunkett was a 33-year old quarterback in 1980 primed to go down as another in the long list of journeyman quarterbacks. And then he got traded to the Raiders and won two Super Bowls in four years.

His career statistics: 52.5 completion percentage, 164 touchdowns, 198 interceptions, 2 Super Bowl wins, 0 Pro Bowls.

Jaworski was a solid quarterback for a long time. He is probably best known as the guy who held the consecutive games streak for a quarterback before Brett Favre broke it two decades later. In 1980, Jaworski had the best season of his career (257-451, 3,529 yards, 27 touchdowns, and 12 interceptions) and was selected to his only Pro Bowl.

31. Super Bowl XVIII: Jim Plunkett (Raiders) vs. Joe Theismann (Redskins)

Plunkett was an even more unlikely Super Bowl winner three years later at the age of 36. In 1983, he did have the best season of his career and set career highs in completion percentage (60.7%), touchdowns (20), and passing yards (2,935).

Theismann earned his only All-Pro First Team after the 1983 season but could not make it two Super Bowl wins in a row with a victory in this game.

30. Super Bowl XIV: Terry Bradshaw (Steelers) vs. Vince Ferragamo (Rams)

Terry Bradshaw was the first quarterback to win four Super Bowls. I knew that his statistics weren’t all that great, but they really are something else. He had more Super Bowl victories than Pro Bowl appearances (three). He ranks just below Chris Chandler, Trent Green, and Ron Jaworski on the career passing yards list. But the guy did what he was supposed to, and did it well.

The 1979 season was actually Bradshaw’s best statistical season. He passed for a career-high 3,729 yards and earned his third and final Pro Bowl appearance. However, his reputation was already set at this point in his career – he was an unspectacular winner. This game was the fourth and final Super Bowl that Bradshaw won.

Ferragamo drags this matchup down a little bit. He was a career backup and the 1979 season was one of only two in his career that he was a full-time starter. His stats were quite similar to Bradshaw’s on the season…but of course, it was still Terry Bradshaw versus Vince Ferragamo. After the season, Ferragamo was a backup for six more years in the league until he retired following the 1986 season.

29. Super Bowl XXIX: Steve Young (49ers) vs. Stan Humphries (Chargers)

How did the 49ers keep Young as a backup until he was 30 years old? Didn’t the other NFL teams have talent scouts? I mean, this is the same league in which the Houston Texans traded for Matt Schaub and named him their starter of the future after he started one game for the Falcons.

Whatever the reason, Young was immediately one of the best quarterbacks in the league after he took over the starting job in 1992. He made seven consecutive Pro Bowls and three consecutive All-Pro teams. In the 1994 season, he led the league in completion percentage, touchdown passes, and quarterback rating en route to his second MVP Award in three years. The Super Bowl victory over the Chargers cemented a Hall of Fame career that didn’t begin until after the age of 30.

Humphries was basically Hasselbeck, only if Hasselbeck’s career ended early because of concussions. He was a solid, but never spectacular, starter for the Chargers over his six-year career. He is still the only quarterback to lead the Chargers to the Super Bowl, so there’s that.

28. Super Bowl XXXIII: John Elway (Broncos) vs. Chris Chandler (Falcons)

John Elway was the anti-Brett Favre. Elway was a great performer all the way up until he retired following the 1998 season. He was selected to his ninth Pro Bowl in 1998 despite missing four games with injuries. Plus, he gets bonus points for making the last game of his prolific career in the Super Bowl. That’s the big dream for every kid…that’s exactly how I dreamt of retiring, but so far no NFL team has shown any interest in my abilities.

Poor Chris Chandler and the Falcons. They make it to the first Super Bowl in their history and their reward is a dominant Bronco team and 99% of the country rooting against them to give Elway a fairy tale send-off.

Chandler was the very definition of a journeyman quarterback. He played for seven teams over an eighteen-year career and was never very good. But he caught fire for the Falcons in 1998. He threw for career highs in every major passing category and led the Falcons to a 15-2 record in the 17 regular season and playoff games that he started. He promptly fell back to earth the following season and won a combined 19 games in six more NFL seasons.

27. Super Bowl VII: Bob Griese (Dolphins) vs. Billy Kilmer (Redskins)

Griese only started five games in the Dolphins’ historic undefeated season because of injury, but got the start over backup quarterback Earl Morrall in Super Bowl VII. At only 26 years old, Griese had already put together a fantastic career. He was already a four-time Pro Bowler and one-time All-Pro.

Billy Kilmer was basically Chris Chandler. A career-long journeyman for three different teams in his career, he finally put it all together as a 33-year old for the Redskins in 1972. He earned his only Pro Bowl nod and led the league with 19 passing touchdowns.

Kilmer would go on to have six more decent seasons with the Redskins, while Griese won the next Super Bowl and clinch a place in the Hall of Fame by the time he was 27.

26. Super Bowl XXVI: Mark Rypien (Redskins) vs. Jim Kelly (Bills)

Mark Rypien had a strange career. He became a full-time starter partway through the 1988 season at the age of 26. He made the Pro Bowl in both 1989 and 1991 and threw 84 touchdowns and only 48 interceptions in his first three and a half seasons. The Redskins won the Super Bowl in 1991 when Rypien was only 29.

And…that was it. He fell apart in the 1992 season and was eventually benched by the Redskins halfway through the 1993 season after throwing only four touchdown passes in ten games. He was a backup for six teams before finally calling it a career in 2002.

This was the second of four consecutive Super Bowls for Jim Kelly. The 1991 season was arguably his best year – he made the Pro Bowl and earned his only All-Pro First Team selection.

25. Super Bowl XVI: Joe Montana (49ers) vs. Ken Anderson (Bengals)

The 1981 season was Joe Montana’s first as a full-time starter. I was born in 1984, so I probably don’t quite appreciate just how good Montana was. But I’ll try. By 1981, the 49ers were on an eight-year playoff drought. They finished below .500 in all but one year (8-6 in 1976). Then Montana comes in and leads them to a Super Bowl victory in his first season as a starter. In my lifetime, the only comparable season was Kurt Warner taking the Rams to the 1999 Super Bowl, only if Warner then led the Rams to three more Super Bowl titles.

But in 1981 Montana was still largely an unknown. He was a solid quarterback for Notre Dame, but fell all the way to the Niners in the third round of the 1979 NFL Draft. The 1981 playoffs were Montana’s coming-out party. His pass to Dwight Clark to win the NFC Championship Game is still shown 8,400 times each NFL season.

It feels weird to type it now, but Ken Anderson was the far more accomplished quarterback coming into this game. He was a three-time Pro Bowler and one-time All-Pro, although he had never won a playoff game before the 1981 season. He was basically Matt Hasselbeck. Anderson had two more decent seasons in 1982 and 1983 but backed up Boomer Esiason for the last few years of his career.

24. Super Bowl XXX: Troy Aikman (Cowboys) vs. Neil O’Donnell (Steelers)

Troy Aikman came into Super Bowl XXX with two Super Bowl victories and five consecutive Pro Bowl selections under his belt. Aikman was never a statistically great quarterback, but like Bradshaw before him, he got the job done. His third Super Bowl victory over the Steelers in Super Bowl XXX all but assured he would be a Hall of Famer.

Neil O’Donnell was a slightly better Brad Johnson. Like Johnson, O’Donnell stayed in his own lane and stuck with what he was good at. He never threw more than 17 touchdown passes, but never threw more than nine interceptions in a season.

I remember O’Donnell as a pretty solid quarterback, but he loses points after the Steelers didn’t bother to resign him after the season, instead taking their chances with the immortal Mike Tomczak. He was a part-time starter for the Jets, Bengals, and Titans for the rest of his career.

23. Super Bowl XXI: Phil Simms (Giants) vs. John Elway (Broncos)

Simms is another quarterback that I remember as a lot better than he actually was. By 1986, he was a six-year veteran with only one Pro Bowl and only one more touchdown pass than interception (104 to 103). In the Giants’ 14-2 regular season, he actually threw more interceptions (22) than touchdown passes (21).

Meanwhile, Elway had his first breakout season with Denver in 1986 and earned his first Pro Bowl selection after the season. He led the Broncos to the Super Bowl with his first two playoff victories.

Simms had one more Pro Bowl appearance in seven injury-prone seasons with the Giants. He also won a second ring with the Giants in 1990, though he was injured for the Super Bowl itself.

22. Super Bowl XII: Roger Staubach (Cowboys) vs. Craig Morton (Broncos)

Though he was already 35 by 1977, Staubach was still in the prime of his career. He already had one Super Bowl title and became the fourth quarterback to win multiple titles with the Cowboys victory in this game. The Cowboys finished the season at 12-2, the best record of Staubach’s career. He was selected to his fourth Pro Bowl following the season.

The Denver Broncos started former Staubach backup Craig Morton. The 34-year old Morton led the Broncos to a 12-2 record in his first season with the team. Unfortunately, he came up short in his second try at a Super Bowl title.

21. Super Bowl III: Joe Namath (Jets) vs. Earl Morrall (Colts)

I probably have this one on the list a lot higher than most. Namath tends to be one of the most polarizing quarterbacks in NFL history. There seems to be two camps with Namath. On one hand, there is the believers in the legend of Broadway Joe. On the other, there are the cynics who point out that he had 173 TDs, 220 INTs, and only completed 50% of his passes.

I ranked Namath high on this list because most people that seem to fall for the Broadway Joe romanticism are from the era. Since I’m ranking quarterbacks based on how the quarterback matchup was viewed at the time, I’ll go with their thoughts.

Earl Morrall had a fascinating career. He played for six teams over 22 seasons, mostly as a backup. Yet as a starter, he went 63-37-3, so he must have been doing something right. In today’s NFL, there’s no doubt that a team like the Texans would have signed him to an outrageous contract.

As a 34-year old in the 1968 season, he was named to the All-Pro First Team when he stepped in for an injured Johnny Unitas and led the Colts to a 13-1 record. Morrall later won a Super Bowl and went 9-0 as a fill-in starter for Bob Griese for the 1972 Miami Dolphins.

20. Super Bowl VI: Roger Staubach (Cowboys) vs. Bob Griese (Dolphins)

This is another matchup that looks quite a bit better in retrospect than it did at the time. The two future Hall of Famers were relatively unaccomplished quarterbacks when they met after the 1971 season.

Staubach was a 29-year old first-time starter. He joined the Cowboys after a five-year tour in the Navy in 1969, where he backed up Craig Morton for two years. In 1971, coach Tom Landry benched Morton after a couple early season losses. Staubach promptly went 10-0 as a starter and led the league with a 104.8 passer rating. He threw 15 touchdown passes and only four interceptions in leading the Cowboys to their first ever Super Bowl appearance.

Griese was a solid starter for five years, but the 1971 season was the first season that he was considered a star quarterback. He was the NFL Newspapers Association MVP and earned his first All-Pro nod and second straight Pro Bowl selection. Although he lost this Super Bowl, he would go on to win the next two and cement his legacy.

19. Super Bowl XLV: Ben Roethlisberger (Steelers) vs. Aaron Rodgers (Packers)

This seems about right for the upcoming matchup between the Steelers and Packers. Roethlisberger is the only active quarterback not named Tom Brady with multiple Super Bowl rings. Rodgers is only in his third year as a starter, but has already been named the Next Big Thing among future quarterbacks.

18. Super Bowl II: Bart Starr (Packers) vs. Daryle Lamonica (Raiders)

Starr gets a spot this high based mostly on his reputation. In the Packers’ first Super Bowl season in 1966, he was probably the best quarterback in the league. In the 1967 season, he was just bad. He set career lows in passing yards (1,823) and touchdowns (9) and set a career high in interceptions (17). The Packers won in spite of him. Still, Starr was one of the most popular quarterbacksh in the NFL at the time.

Daryle Lamonica finally started for the Raiders in the 1967 season after he was stuck on the Buffalo Bills’ bench for four seasons. In his first season with the Raiders, he was the best quarterback in the AFL. He led the league with 30 touchdown passes and was named to the First Team All-AFL squad.

Starr never again had a winning season for the Packers and retired four years later. Lamonica put together several more solid seasons for the Raiders but never made it back to the Super Bowl.

17. Super Bowl XXXI: Brett Favre (Packers) vs. Drew Bledsoe (Patriots)

1996 was only Brett Favre’s fifth year as a starter, but he was already one of the elite quarterbacks in the league. He had already been selected to four Pro Bowls and two All-Pro First Teams. In 1996, he won his second of three consecutive MVP Awards and led the league in touchdown passes all three of those years.

The Super Bowl was the culmination of Favre’s progress. He missed the playoffs in his first season, then got knocked out in the divisional round two years in a row, then made the conference championship before finally making it to the Super Bowl. In short, the media had plenty of stories ready.

Drew Bledsoe  was one of the most underrated quarterbacks of the 1990s. The guy retired seventh on the NFL’s career passing yardage list (now eighth) and his middle name is McQueen – that’s a solid career right there. By 1996, he was already a two-time Pro Bowler, but like the rest of his career, was underrated.

16. Super Bowl XLII: Eli Manning (Giants) vs. Tom Brady (Patriots)

With a couple more bad seasons, Eli Manning is falling dangerously close to Trent Dilfer territory for the worst quarterback to win a Super Bowl. Eli was never considered elite, or even particularly good, before the Giants’ playoff run in 2007. Before 2007, he had never even won a playoff game. In the regular season, he threw a league-high 20 interceptions and finished 25th in the league with a 73.9 passer rating. The four quarterbacks immediately ahead of him? Kyle Boller, Brian Griese, Damon Huard, and Joey Harrington. So, yeah, he was justPeyton’s little brother.

Of course the real reason that this matchup is so high on the list is Tom Brady. Prior to the 2007 season, three-time Super Bowl champion Brady was this generation’s Terry Bradshaw – a sound, but not statistically great “winner.” Then he decided to make the 2007 season his own Madden experience. He easily won the MVP Award after throwing for an NFL-record 50 touchdowns and only eight interceptions. He led the league in completion percentage, passing yards, and passer rating and single-handedly carries Eli Manning to the #17 spot on this list with his historically great season.

15. Super Bowl IX: Terry Bradshaw (Steelers) vs. Fran Tarkenton (Vikings)

In 1974, Terry Bradshaw was on the verge of being called a bust. Drafted by the Steelers with the first overall pick in 1970, Bradshaw was erratic – he threw only 41 touchdown passes to go along with 63 interceptions in his first four seasons. He was benched partway through the 1974 Super Bowl season in favor of the immortal Joe Gilliam. Luckily for Steelers fans, Gilliam proved to be quite a bit worse and Bradshaw “earned” the starting job back before the postseason. He won his first Super Bowl against the Vikings and the rest is history.

Fran Tarkenton was 33 years old when he made his first Super Bowl in 1973; this was his second consecutive trip to the big game. He was a seven-time Pro Bowler with the Vikings and Giants and had a reputation as one of the best quarterbacks in the league, despite never winning a playoff game before 1973. Tarkenton got better with age – he peaked in the three-year period between 1973 and 1975, and won the NFL MVP in 1975 after leading the league in completion percentage and touchdown passes. There was no doubt that he was the far superior quarterback in this game.

14. Super Bowl XXXIX: Tom Brady (Patriots) vs. Donovan McNabb (Eagles)

I already covered Brady above, but this was the year he really cemented his legacy. In just his fourth year as a starter, he already played in his third Super Bowl. I suppose a sixth round pick that already has a Hall of Fame-worthy career by age 27 isn’t a bad story, even if the media shoved it down our throats for most of the lead-up to this game.

McNabb was a six-year veteran in 2004, and owned the title for best active quarterback never to reach the Super Bowl not named Peyton Manning. He made his fifth consecutive Pro Bowl in 2004 and was one of the premier quarterbacks in the league, along with Brady, Manning, and (gasp!) Daunte Culpepper.

13. Super Bowl XXVII: Troy Aikman (Cowboys) vs. Jim Kelly (Bills)

In 1992, Aikman was not yet the Hall of Fame quarterback he would later become. He was thrown into the fire as a rookie in 1989 for a terrible 1-15 Cowboys team. Predictably, he was a train wreck for his first couple of seasons before slowly turning into a star. He was selected to his second straight Pro Bowl in 1992 and led the Cowboys to a 13-3 record.

Poor Jim Kelly. There’s not much more to say about him that hasn’t already been said already. The guy made four Super Bowls, but somehow got progressively farther away from winning the title each season. Against the Giants in 1990, they were 7 point favorites and lost. Against the Redskins the next season, they were 7 point underdogs and lost. They were 6 1/2 point underdogs in this game and 10 1/2 point underdogs the following season. And lost them both.

12. Super Bowl XLIII: Ben Roethlisberger (Steelers) vs. Kurt Warner (Cardinals)

Fun stat: only four times in history have two Super Bowl-winning quarterbacks met in the Super Bowl. Terry Bradshaw and Roger Staubach met twice. Jim Plunkett and Joe Theismann – neither of whom was particularly good – met once. And then there was Roethlisberger and Warner.

Roethlisberger clinched his reputation as a big game quarterback by making it to the Super Bowl this season. Although he had previously won a Super Bowl title, he was not generally considered an elite quarterback. He had only made one Pro Bowl and actually had his second worst statistical season in 2008.

Warner came out of nowhere to make the Super Bowl with the upstart Cardinals this season. The 2008 season was the first full season he made it through as starter since 2001 due to a combination of injuries and teams thinking he was washed up. As a 37 year old this season, he made his fourth Pro Bowl and proved that he was far from washed up, throwing for 3,583 yards and 30 touchdowns.

11. Super Bowl XI: Ken Stabler (Raiders) vs. Fran Tarkenton (Vikings)

Now the rankings are starting to get difficult. Ken Stabler did not become a full-time starter until he turned 28, but quickly became one of the best quarterbacks in the league. The 1976 season was his fourth full season as a starter and he had already compiled a stellar 40-8-1 regular season record. He earned his third Pro Bowl nod this season after leading the league in touchdown passes and completion percentage. He was also the 1974 NFL MVP.

Tarkenton turned 36 in 1976 and had his last productive season. He earned his ninth Pro Bowl selection but came up short in his third and final try at a Super Bowl title.

Somewhat surprisingly, Stabler never again reached the highs of this season. He was known as a partier and the Raiders quickly grew tired of his antics after his performance dropped off in the next few seasons. He was traded to Houston before the 1980 season and had five more unsuccessful years with the Oilers and Saints before retiring in 1984.

10. Super Bowl VIII: Bob Griese (Dolphins) vs. Fran Tarkenton (Vikings)

Griese won his second consecutive Super Bowl in the 1973 season, his seventh in the league. He was considered one of the best quarterbacks in the league after adding the Super Bowl victory to his resume the previous season. He earned his fifth Pro Bowl selection in 1973 after leading the Dolphins to a 12-1 record in the regular season.

Tarkenton finished the 1973 season with a 12-2 record with the Vikings. He turned 33 in 1973, and the Super Bowl nod was fairly important for his legacy. Although he already had six Pro Bowl nods to his name, he only played for a winning team twice in his first 13 seasons. The 1973 season was the first time he made the playoffs. Basically, he was the Carson Palmer of his generation – good enough to put up solid stats, but not good enough to be a winner.

9. Super Bowl XXVIII: Troy Aikman (Cowboys) vs. Jim Kelly (Bills)

See #13 above. This is the only time in NFL history that two quarterbacks met in back-to-back Super Bowls and Aikman once again came out on top. This matchup ranks four spots ahead of their first game on account of Aikman making the leap from very good to elite quarterback with his Super Bowl victory the previous season.

Aikman would go on to win one more Super Bowl to become only the third quarterback to win at least three Super Bowls. Kelly never again reached the Super Bowl and retired three years later.

8. Super Bowl XLIV: Drew Brees (Saints) vs. Peyton Manning (Colts)

This might be high for a game between two quarterbacks that had one Super Bowl victory between the two of them. However, it is amazing how infrequently the best quarterbacks in the AFC and NFC meet in the Super Bowl. In this season, that was the case. Brees was considered the best quarterback in the NFC a year after throwing for 5,069 yards for the Saints. In 2009, he led the league in completion percentage, touchdown passes, and passer rating, and won the 2009 Bert Bell Award for Most Valuable Player.

Manning gained the upper hand over Tom Brady and was considered the best quarterback in the AFC this season. He led the Colts to a 14-0 start en route to winning the NFL MVP Award.

Manning and Brees were indisputably the two most popular players in the league that year. More American households (53.6 million) watched the Super Bowl than any other television program in history (only the M*A*S*H* series finale also drew more than 50 million). It was the best rated Super Bowl since 1985, despite the fact that Indy and New Orleans are two of the smaller markets in the league. I’d call that a hyped quarterback matchup.

7. Super Bowl X: Terry Bradshaw (Steelers) vs. Roger Staubach (Cowboys)

The first matchup between former Super Bowl winners gets the number 7 spot on the list. Bradshaw led the Steelers to their second consecutive Super Bowl in 1975. In 1974, he was an erratic potential bust that was the Steelers quarterback mostly by default. By 1975, the Super Bowl victory must have given him renewed confidence – for the first time, he had more touchdown passes (18) than interceptions (9) and earned his first Pro Bowl bid.

Staubach took the leap from solid starter to elite quarterback in the 1975 season. He separated his shoulder and missed most of the 1972 season and struggled through much of the next two seasons. In 1975, he made his second Pro Bowl to began a stretch of five straight Pro Bowl selections.

6. Super Bowl XXVIII: Joe Montana (49ers) vs. Boomer Esiason (Bengals)

Like the Manning/Brees matchup, this game pitted the best quarterback from the AFC against the best quarterback from the NFC. Montana was already a 2-time Super Bowl winner and 4-time Pro Bowler before the 1987 season. The 1987 season was the best of Montana’s career up to that point – he led the NFL in completion percentage (66.8%), touchdown passes (31), and quarterback rating (102.8) and was named First Team All-Pro for the first time. Although Montana actually had a down season (for him) in 1988, he was still the most popular quarterback in the NFC.

Meanwhile, Boomer made the leap to superstardom in the 1988 season. For one year at least, Esiason was the big story in the NFL. He led the Bengals to a stunning turnaround from 4-11 in 1987 to 12-4 in 1988. He won the NFL MVP Award and was named to the All-Pro First Team. Plus, his name was Boomer, so that didn’t hurt things.

Montana would go on to win this game to join Terry Bradshaw as the only quarterbacks to win three Super Bowls. Esiason never again reached the heights of the 1988 season; although he was a starter for nine more seasons, he never finished better than 9-7 and won only one more playoff game.

5. Super Bowl XIX: Joe Montana (49ers) vs. Dan Marino (Dolphins)

The 1984 season was the year that Montana made the jump from very good quarterback to superstar quarterback. Montana led the 49ers to their second Super Bowl and a 14-2 regular season record. Although he already owned a Super Bowl ring, he was not yet the elite player that he would later become. Still, he earned his third Pro Bowl appearance in 1984 and set career highs in every major passing category. With a second Super Bowl title in this game, he sealed a position as one of the best quarterbacks in NFL history.

Marino’s 1984 season was the best statistical season in NFL history. Although he was only in his second year in the league, Marino put up ridiculous numbers. His 5,084 passing yards are still an NFL record and his 48 touchdown passes was the record for over twenty years. He was the runaway winner of the NFL MVP Award and was already a superstar in his second year in the league.

Unfortunately, Marino went on to lose this game and never again made the Super Bowl. Although as a bonus, his statistical supremacy later led to this exchange, perhaps the best in the history of NFL pregame shows:

4. Super Bowl XXXII: John Elway (Broncos) vs. Brett Favre (Packers)

I had trouble separating places 6 through 11. Then there was a bit of a gap between five and six. And then it got even harder – really, any one of the top five could be the best matchup in Super Bowl history.

Super Bowl XXXII had pretty much every story you could want. On one side, there was defending Super Bowl champion Brett Favre and the Green Bay Packers. Favre was the young stud of the league and won his third consecutive MVP Award in the 1997 season. He led the league in touchdown passes for the third consecutive year and was probably the most famous quarterback in the league.

Meanwhile, John Elway returned to the Super Bowl for the first time in almost a decade. He turned 37 in 1997 and many felt that this was his last chance to win a Super Bowl after failing to win on his first three chances. Basically, he was football’s Phil Mickelson.

Surprisingly, Elway went on to win one more Super Bowl at age 38 and 28-year old Favre never again made it back to the Super Bowl.

3. Super Bowl XXIV: Joe Montana (49ers) vs. John Elway (Broncos)

In 1989, Montana had his best season to date…and that’s saying something for a three-time Super Bowl winner that was already a sure Hall of Famer. He won his only MVP Award after finishing the season with 26 touchdowns, 8 interceptions, and a ridiculous 70.2% completion percentage. The 49ers finished 14-2 this season; although they won three Super Bowls in the 1980s, this was probably the only season that they were truly a juggernaut. They won their three playoff games by an insane combined score of 126-26 to win their fourth Super Bowl of the 80s.

Elway was at his peak in the 1989 season, but the Broncos were trounced in the Super Bowl for the third time in four years. He made his third Pro Bowl following the season, although with Elway, statistics never really told the whole story. Fortunately for him, Jim Kelly came along the next season to lose four consecutive Super Bowls and take some of the heat off of the Broncos.

2. Super Bowl I: Bart Starr (Packers) vs. Len Dawson (Chiefs)

Visa has been playing these commercials with the four guys that have gone to every Super Bowl. One guy’s line is: “We thought this might turn into something big.” And that seems to be the general thought on the early Super Bowls – no one knew what to expect, but aw shucks, it worked out. I wasn’t there, but I’m a bit skeptical.

The first Super Bowl was shown on both CBS and NBC and an estimated 51 million viewers watched on the two channels combined. 79% of American TVs watched the game. And yes, I know that there were only three channels – that’s still a ridiculous number. TV commercials cost $32,000 ($210,000 in today’s money). Keeping in mind that there were twice as many commercials because the game was on two different channels, that’s a pretty penny for a game that supposedly was just a crazy experiment.

Anyway, the NFL and AFL probably lucked out somewhat with this quarterback matchup. Dawson was the AFL’s best quarterback and Starr was the NFL’s best quarterback. Dawson led the league in passer rating for five of the previous six years and was twice named to the All-AFL First Team. The 1966 season was the second time he led the Chiefs franchise to the AFL title.

Starr earned his fourth NFL All-Star Game appearance in 1966 as the Packers won their fourth NFL title in six years. He led the NFL in passer rating in three of the previous five years and owned a 5-1 career playoff record heading into the game.

1. Super Bowl XIII: Terry Bradshaw (Steelers) vs. Roger Staubach (Cowboys)

Finally we reach the end of this exhausting list. Bradshaw and Staubach had five Super Bowl victories between the two of them – by far the most for a quarterback matchup in history.

Bradshaw had his best statistical season in 1978, earning the NFL MVP Award and only All-Pro First Team selection. He led the Steelers to a 14-2 regular season record, their best record in any of their four Super Bowl seasons.

Staubach also had one of the best seasons of his career. He earned his fourth consecutive Pro Bowl appearance and set career highs in touchdowns (25) and passing yards (3,190).

Unlike many of the games on this list, this one actually lived up to its billing. The Steelers won 35-31 in a game that many consider to be one of the best in Super Bowl history.


35 Future Hall of Famers

January 12, 2011

I borrowed this idea for a list from this post at Pinstripe Alley, which borrowed the idea from this post written by Nate Silver on his New York Times blog. It was such a good idea that I just couldn’t pass it up.

Basically, Silver crunches the numbers on Baseball Hall of Famers and finds that, on average, 35 Hall of Fame players are active at any given time. This includes every player that saw action in a season – from veterans in their last year to rookies getting their first at-bat. The Pinstripe Alley post takes this thought one step further and tries to breakdown who the 35 players are. That post got a lot of feedback, much of it unfortunately negative, so I figured I’d take my own shot at the list.

There are two caveats to the list that most of the Yankees fans over at Pinstripe Alley don’t seem to understand: it is obviously way too early to project stud rookies like Jason Heyward or Jay Bruce into the Hall of Fame, but that’s the fun of the list.* The list isn’t 35 who already might have arguments for the Hall of Fame – it’s what 35 active players will make the Hall of Fame. By the law of averages, two or three rookies that played this season will make the Hall of Fame. Those are the players I’m trying to pick.

* Ok another caveat: since I don’t know what rookies will start their careers in 2011, I went with players active at the end of the 2010 season. So, yes, I’m aware that Trevor Hoffman retired, but he’s still included in the list.

Second, I like sabermetrics. I think the advanced statistics are valuable tools to show just how good players are. But I’m picking who I think the writers will select to the Hall of Fame. These writers are not the most progressive of all baseball fans. So at times you will see me quote batting average instead of the far more useful on-base percentage. That’s not because I’m dense, it’s simply because that’s the number I expect voters to pay attention to. Certainly by the time many of these players retire, many young writers will have been BBWAA members long enough to earn a vote, but I think the old school voters will still make up the majority.

Here are my thirty-five players, broken down in categories from most likely to least likely to make the Hall of Fame:

A. The Locks

These players are locks to make it into the Hall of Fame, even if they suddenly retire before the 2011 season begins.

1. Derek Jeter (11-time All-Star, 5 Gold Gloves, 5 World Series rings, 1 Rookie of the Year Award, 1 World Series MVP award, 8 top ten finishes in MVP voting, 2,926 career hits, .314 batting average)

Jeter just signed a three-year guaranteed deal, with an option for a fourth year, meaning he will be on the ballot in 2018 at the earliest. I think that by the time Jeter makes it onto the ballot, the steroid issue will have died down somewhat. By 2018, Palmeiro, McGwire, Sosa, Clemens, and Bonds will all have had their test cases and the story simply won’t be as fresh as it is now.

However, if steroids are still a big issue, there is a good chance that Jeter goes in with the highest vote total in history, topping Tom Seaver’s 98.84%. There’s no question that he’s Hall of Fame-worthy and will get in on the first ballot. But many of the same people that keep the first ballot sacred are also the ones rallying against allowing any steroid user in the Hall of Fame. They’ll vote Jeter in on the first ballot based on his character alone. I could easily see Jeter going in with something very close to 100% of the vote.

If I have to lay out Jeter’s Hall of Fame case for you, it’s safe to say you haven’t been paying attention over the last 15 years. Here’s a few numbers to put Jeter’s career in perspective. Among shortstops his .314 career batting average is third (Honus Wagner and Arky Vaughan); 2,926 hits is fourth (Wagner, Cal Ripken, and Robin Yount); and 1,685 runs is second (Wagner). He is the All-Time Yankees hits leader and the most respected player of his generation. If you insist on finding a knock on his career, his defense has been overrated according to advanced defensive metrics and he probably did not deserve most of his Gold Gloves. But Hall of Fame voters aren’t usually up to speed on advanced statistics (maybe they will be by 2018), and no one will really get hung up on Jeter’s Hall of Fame case based on his defense.

2. Mariano Rivera (11-time All-Star, 5-time World Series champion, 1999 World Series MVP, 42 postseason saves, 559 regular season saves)

The only relief pitchers in the Hall of Fame are Rollie Fingers, Dennis Eckersley, Bruce Sutter, and Goose Gossage. Eckersley spent half of his career as a starter and Fingers, Sutter, and Gossage pitched before the era of 1-inning closers. As the new breed of relievers appear on the Hall of Fame ballot in the coming years, voters will have to assess whether they are worthy of induction into the Hall of Fame. They are currently struggling with Lee Smith, the first great one-inning closer and baseball’s career saves leader before Trevor Hoffman broke the record. Smith received 42% of the vote on his first ballot appearance in 2003 but has not gained momentum, topping out at 47% in 2009.

Rivera won’t have to worry about any of this. You could make a persuasive case on his statistics alone – 559 regular season saves (second all-time behind Hoffman), 42 postseason saves (most all-time), 2.23 regular season ERA, an unbelievable 0.71 postseason ERA, and the best adjusted ERA+ (205) in baseball history. All that is probably enough to make him a Hall of Famer, but Rivera is a sure-thing because he transcends all that. Rivera in the ninth inning is an experience – the type of thing that you tell your grandkids about. The conversation for best closer of all-time begins and ends with Rivera. Regardless of what you think about the closer position, that type of dominance makes him a lock Hall of Famer.

3. Alex Rodriguez (13-time All-Star, 10-time Silver Slugger, 3-time AL MVP, 2-time Gold Glove winner, 1 World Series championship, .303 batting average, 613 home runs, 1,831 RBIs)

We’re only at #3 and we already have the first controversial selection on this list* – this could be tougher than I thought. A-Rod’s admission that he used steroids will certainly sway some voters, but I don’t see any way that he gets left out of the Hall. He may have to wait an election or two as the high-horse riding voters punish him for admitting his usage, but he’ll get in soon enough.

* And, painfully, the third Yankee in a row.

No eligible player with three or more MVP awards is not in the Hall of Fame; only Roger Maris, Juan Gonzalez, and Dale Murphy won two, and none of those three had anything close to the prolonged greatness that Rodriguez has had. No eligible player with at least 13 All-Star selections (other than banned Pete Rose) is not in the Hall of Fame; the only two players with 12 are Barry Larkin (likely in next year) and Mark McGwire. McGwire seems like a comparable player, but the steroid issue impacts him far more than it will impact A-Rod. Rightly or wrongly, McGwire is viewed as a one-dimensional long ball hitter. A-Rod will not have that problem – he ranks seventh among the 25 member 500-home run club in batting average and is already 11th in RBIs; McGwire ranks 23rd in batting average and last in RBIs. Additionally, A-Rod has played his career at a much tougher position (shortstop and third base) than McGwire (first base).

4. Ichiro (10-time All-Star, 10-time Gold Glove winner, 3 Silver Sluggers, 2-time batting champion, 7-time hits leader, 2001 AL MVP and Rookie of the Year, single-season hits record holder)

Few players in baseball history are truly unique. Ichiro is one of those players. He doesn’t take walks, doesn’t really hit for power, but man, can he hit the ball. In ten years in the league, he has made the All-Star game every year and led the league in hits seven times. He has at least 206 hits in each season and broke the single season hits record in 2004 with 262. He has five seasons with 224 or more hits; since he entered the league in 2001, no other player has had more than 221 in a season. In ten seasons in the league, he already has 2,244 hits. Add to that 10 gold gloves and 383 career stolen bases, and you have one of the best players in MLB in the 2000s.

Because Ichiro spent the first nine seasons of his career in Japan, his career numbers are not as impressive as many of baseball’s all-time great hitters. Still, I think the voters give Ichiro some credit for his Japan League years. He had 1,278 hits and a .353 batting average in nine seasons in Japan. Even if you get really conservative and give Ichiro only half credit for those hits, that still leaves him with 2,883 career hits. Every eligible player besides Pete Rose and Rafael Palmeiro with that many hits is in the Hall of Fame, and I expect Ichiro to join that club easily.

5. Albert Pujols (9-time All-Star, 3-time MVP, 6-time Silver Slugger, 2-time Gold Glover, 2001 NL Rookie of the Year, 1 World Series ring, .331 batting average, 408 home runs, 1,230 RBIs)

Going out on a small limb again with this pick. I think if Pujols retires right now, he’s still had a good enough career to make it into the Hall of Fame. We’ve never seen a player all-around dominate in his first ten years quite like Pujols has. Most think of Pujols as only a slugger, but he leads all active players in batting average, on-base percentage, and slugging percentage. And as I mentioned with A-Rod, no eligible player with 3 or more MVP awards has been left out of the Hall of Fame.

Although I said I wouldn’t use new stats like WAR, look at this graph from Fangraphs comparing Pujols with three recent Hall of Famers with fantastic peaks and not much else (Puckett, Rice, and Dawson): http://www.fangraphs.com/graphsw.aspx?playerid2=1177&playerid3=1010897&playerid4=1010557&playerid5=1003091. It’s not even close.

Among active players, Pujols is already second in career WAR. In other words, he’s done more in his career already than Manny Ramirez, Ivan Rodriguez, Derek Jeter, Vladimir Guerrero, and…well everyone besides Alex Rodriguez. I’d say that’s a pretty strong argument that Pujols is already a Hall of Famer without even considering his future production.

6. Ivan Rodriguez (14-time All-Star, 13-time Gold Glover, 7-time Silver Slugger, 1999 AL MVP, 2003 World Series winner, .298 batting average, 2,817 career hits, 1,313 RBIs)

Pudge is probably just behind Johnny Bench as the best all-around catcher of all-time. Any time you can make a legitimate case that a player is the best ever at his position, that’s a pretty good indication that that player is Hall-worthy. Since I already have the amazingly fun Fangraphs site open on my computer, here is a graph comparing Rodriguez with the last three MLB catchers elected (Bench, Fisk, and Carter): http://www.fangraphs.com/graphsw.aspx?playerid2=1275&playerid3=1000826&playerid4=1004101&playerid5=1002015.

Rodriguez already ranks first among catchers in career batting average and fourth in RBIs to go along with his stellar defensive reputation. It will be interesting to see when Pudge makes it into the Hall. First, he is one of those questionable steroid cases. Although he was never mentioned in the Mitchell Report nor did he test positive, Jose Canseco explicitly identified him as a user and he had that sudden late career weight loss that voters will surely pounce on. Second, catchers are tragically underrepresented in the Hall. Only 16 catchers are currently in the Hall, the second fewest for any position behind the 13 third basemen. Bench is the only catcher ever elected on the first ballot. Rodriguez definitely gets in, but he may have to wait for it.

B. Probably Already in, but not a Lock

The following players have probably already done enough to ensure their selection to the Hall of Fame, but they are not locks for a variety of differing reasons.

7. Jim Thome (5-time All-Star, .278 career average, 1,679 walks, 589 home runs, 1,624 RBIs)

In a different era, Thome would be a lock for the Hall of Fame. Every eligible player ahead of him on the career walk and home run lists is in the Hall. Only Rafael Palmeiro and Harold Baines are ahead of him on the career RBI list and not in the Hall (Baines is only four ahead). Thome matches up favorably with virtually every slugger from any generation. But of course, the issue is his era.

I still think he gets in for two reasons. First, the 600 Home Run Club will become the new 500 Home Run Club. Thome plans to play two more years so he surely will get 11 more home runs. If he averages 21 over those two seasons (he hit 25 this year), he will retire sixth all-time on the home run list. Importantly, he will also pass Sammy Sosa (609), placing him above all the suspected steroid users of the era, save sure-thing Hall of Famers Bonds and A-Rod.

Second, Thome is one of the most liked players in baseball. Fans, reporters, and teammates all love him. He won the Good Guy Award in 1995, Marvin Miller Man of the Year in 2001 and 2004, the Lou Gehrig Award in 2004, and was the 2002 BBWAA Man of the Year and Roberto Clemente Award winner. In the 2009 offseason, he was named the most liked MLB player by his peers in a Sports Illustrated poll. In short, everyone loves the guy. Thome will escape much of the steroid speculation simply because he is so well liked. Fair? No, but that’s just the way voters operate.

8. Trevor Hoffman (7-time All-Star selection, 2.87 career ERA, 601 saves)

Hoffman’s statistics are better than pretty much every closer in baseball history. His 601 saves are the most in MLB history and his 2.87 ERA is behind only Rivera, Tom Henke, and Bruce Sutter among closers with at least 300 saves. The only thing keeping Hoffman from being a lock is the question of how the voters are going to treat closers. Hoffman does not have Rivera’s postseason transcendence to hang his hat on; in fact, most of his 601 saves came on the relatively anonymous West Coast, three hours after East Coast viewers fell asleep.

Lee Smith and John Franco are the only pitchers with 400-plus saves that have been on the ballot. Smith, with 478 saves, started with 42 percent of the vote in 2003 but has stalled below 50 percent. Franco had 424 saves and a better career ERA than Smith. Amazingly, he did not even get enough votes to stay on the ballot after his first year. I think Hoffman eventually gets in based on his staggering statistics, but the fact that voters have never elected a modern ninth-inning closer and their treatment of Smith and Franco keeps this from being a lock.

9. Chipper Jones (6-time All-Star, 2-time Silver Slugger, 1-time MVP, .306 batting average, 436 home runs, 2,490 hits, 1,491 RBIs, third among active players in career WAR)

It is easy to forget just how good Chipper Jones has been in his career. He rarely gets mentioned in the discussion for best hitters in the league, but he’s simply one of the best all-around hitters of all-time. He is the only switch hitter in baseball history with a batting average of over .300 and more than 400 home runs – and that list includes Mickey Mantle and Eddie Murray. And again, here I go with this WAR thing, but Chipper Jones ranks third among active players in career WAR – ahead of better-known contemporaries Jim Thome, Manny Ramirez, Ivan Rodriguez, Todd Helton, Vladimir Guerrero, and the recently retired Ken Griffey Jr.

Of course the same problem will plague Jones in the future. If it is already easy to forget how good Chipper Jones has been in his career, it won’t get any easier in the five-plus years before he gets on the ballot. His problem is that he is one of those players who isn’t great at any one thing – he’s just very good at everything. I see Chipper as one of those guys that slowly gains momentum through the voting process as his supporters point out just how good he was.

10. Omar Vizquel (3-time All-Star, 11 time Gold Glove winner, .273 career batting average, 2,799 hits, .985 career fielding percentage is the highest for a shortstop)

Hall of Fame voters are suckers for the outstanding defensive shortstop. Look no further than Ozzie Smith. Smith is undoubtedly the best defensive shortstop of all-time, but Vizquel might be the second best. His 11 Gold Gloves trail only Smith’s 13 among shortstops. Smith gets a lot of credit for turning himself into a solid hitter after hanging around the league for his first several years based on his defensive prowess. Vizquel did the same thing, perhaps even more effectively than Smith. He tops the Oz in batting average (.273 to .262), hits (2,799 to 2,460), and OPS (.692 to .666)

Twenty-three shortstops have made it in the Hall of Fame, the second most of any position behind the twenty-five center fielders. I put Vizquel on the probably already in column because it would not surprise me if he didn’t make it in. But with 23 shortstops already in, I just don’t see Vizquel getting left out.

C. The Steroid User

11. Manny Ramirez (12-time All-Star, 9-time Silver Slugger, 2 World Series championships, 1 World Series MVP, .313 career batting average, 555 home runs, 1,830 RBIs)

Ah, what to do about Manny? He gets his own category because there is really no debate about his Hall credentials. He finished in the AL top ten in MVP voting eight times, home runs nine times, total bases eight times, and RBIs eight times. He won the 2002 American League batting crown, and led the league in OPS three times and on-base percentage three times. Ramirez is just a great all-around hitter and a no-doubt Hall of Famer in any another era.

But Manny has not one, but two, knocks on him. First, there’s that whole “Manny being Manny” thing – the perhaps undeserved reputation that he is not a team player and a terrible defender. More importantly, he has the 50-game drug suspension. A fair amount of voters will never vote for him because of the suspension. However, I have a hunch that he gets in eventually. Assuming Manny does not latch on with a team this offseason, he will first become eligible for induction in 2015. That gives him until 2030 to make it in. Keeping with my theory that the steroid anger will eventually die down, I think Manny makes it in.

D. Close, but not there quite yet

These players are really close to already being solid Hall candidates, but probably need one to three more solid seasons to solidify their candidacy.

12. Vladimir Guerrero (9-time All-Star, 8-time Silver Slugger, 1 MVP, .318 batting average, .946 OPS, 2,605 hits, 436 home runs, 1,548 RBIs)

You could make a strong argument that Guerrero is already a Hall of Famer. Here’s the same graph I used for Albert Pujols, with Guerrero plugged in instead of Pujols: http://www.fangraphs.com/graphsw.aspx?playerid2=778&playerid3=1010897&playerid4=1010557&playerid5=1003091. He is one of the most exciting hitters of his generation and his numbers compare favorably with Rice, Dawson, and Puckett.

Still, I think Guerrero probably needs a couple more solid years because of his era. Rice, Dawson, and Puckett all came from more pitcher-friendly eras. With three more strong seasons, he will pass the 3,000-hit mark, 500-home run mark, and 1,800-RBI mark. If he passes even one of these marks, I think Guerrero moves into lock status.

13. Roy Halladay (7-time All-Star, 2-time Cy Young Award winner, 1 perfect game, 1 postseason no-hitter, 169-86 record, 3.32 ERA, 1,714 strikeouts)*

* Finally we get to a starting pitcher. This list would have gone a lot smoother had I done it two years ago, when Greg Maddux, Tom Glavine, Randy Johnson, John Smoltz, and Roger Clemens were still pitching. What happened to pitchers born in the ten-year gap between this crew and Halladay, Santana, Sabathia, and the like?

Like Guerrero, you could make a strong case that Halladay is already a borderline Hall of Famer. After his postseason no-hitter, I think he is knocking on the door, but probably needs a couple more solid seasons. His 169 wins would be the third lowest all-time for a starting pitcher in the Hall, ahead of only Sandy Koufax and Dizzy Dean. Still, only sixteen pitchers have won multiple Cy Young Awards. Only two of those pitchers are eligible for the Hall of Fame and not in – Denny McLain and Bret Saberhagen, both of whom had shorter careers than Halladay already has, and neither of whom had two legendary big-game performances like Halladay.

If Halladay gets to 200 wins or wins a third Cy Young, we can safely move him into the lock category. That shouldn’t be a problem with him pitching in the National League for the Phillies.

#14. Andy Pettitte (3-time All-Star, 5-time World Series champion, 240-138, 3.88 ERA, 2,251 strikeouts, MLB-record 19 postseason wins)

If this seems like a weird place to put Pettitte, that’s because it is. Pettitte is currently a free agent and is undecided on coming back for next season. I have a hunch that Pettitte ends up in the Hall even if he retires now, but he needs another season or two to seal his case.

Jack Morris is sort of a test case for Pettitte. His stats are very similar: 254-186, 3.90 ERA, and 2,478 strikeouts. Like Pettitte, he was known as a big-game pitcher, mostly on the heels of his 1991 World Series Game 7 performance. Morris seems to be on track for the Hall – he was up to 53.5% this year and still has four years left on the ballot. If Morris slips in, I think Pettitte does too. If not, Pettitte probably needs another season or two to make it in.

#15. Scott Rolen (6-time All Star, 8-time Gold Glover, 1 Silver Slugger, 1 World Series ring, .284 batting average, 1,945 hits, 303 home runs)

Here we go, yet another WAR graph: http://www.fangraphs.com/graphsw.aspx?playerid2=970&playerid3=1011586&playerid4=1011055&playerid5=. This compares Rolen with Brooks Robinson and Mike Schmidt, two great defensive third basemen. Rolen was on pace with the two third basemen all the way through the 2005 season, when he turned 30 and battled injuries for the better part of two seasons. Still, he has remained fairly close to those two first-ballot Hall of Famers. Rolen is 35 now, and if he can be halfway decent until he is 38 or 39, I think he gets in.

Third basemen are a little hit or miss when it comes to the Hall of Fame. Only 13 third basemen are in the Hall, and only seven of those were elected by the BBWAA. Yet a whopping five of those seven – Robinson, Schmidt, George Brett, Paul Molitor, and Wade Boggs – were elected on the first ballot. Apparently when the voters like a third baseman, they really like a third baseman. I have a feeling that eventually there will be a backlash against the lack of third basemen and that will help Rolen get in. The backlash may have already started: after only eight third basemen made the Hall between 1936 and 1994, five have made it since 1995.

E. Way ahead of pace, but still a few years away

The players in this section are way ahead of pace to make it to the Hall of Fame. Some of these players are still very young – even younger than those in the next section that are merely on pace to make the Hall. These players have a head start on making the Hall because their careers have started out so fantastically. They can afford either several more average seasons or a few more outstanding seasons to make the Hall.

#16. Joe Mauer (4-time All-Star, 3-time AL Batting champion, 3-time Gold Glover, 1 MVP, .327 career batting average)

Still in the early years of his career, Mauer is well on his way to redefining the catcher position. Not only is he one of the best defensive catchers in the league, he is one of the top sluggers at any position. In 2006, only his second full season as a major leaguer, he became the first catcher to lead MLB in batting average. He has gone on to win two more batting titles and in his 2009 MVP season he had the best season for a catcher in history, become the first catcher ever to lead the American League in batting average, on-base percentage, and slugging percentage.

Mauer still has many years to go, but if he can stay healthy and merely be adequate, he is a certain Hall of Famer.

#17. Johan Santana (4-time All-Star, 2-time Cy Young Award winner, 1 Gold Glove, 3 strikeout titles, 3 ERA titles, 133 wins, 3.10 career ERA, and 1,877 strikeouts)

Santana has been pushed to the backburner playing for a crappy Mets team the last couple of years, so it is easy to forget just how dominant he has been. He is the active ERA leader among starting pitchers. At only 31 years old, he has the sixth most strikeouts among active pitchers and only CC Sabathia is younger than him in the top 20.

Santana gets knocked slightly below Mauer because of injury concerns. His season has ended early with injuries each of the last three seasons. Still, he finished the 2010 season with an 11-9 record and a 2.98 ERA…and many called it the worst season of his career. If a pitcher is 31 and is coming off a “career-worst” season with a 2.98 ERA, he is ahead of Hall of Fame pace.

#18. David Wright (5-time All-Star, 2-time Gold Glove winner, 2-time Silver Slugger, .305 batting average, 1,138 hits, 169 home runs, 664 RBIs, 138 stolen bases)

Wright was SO good in his first four full seasons that people have started to write him off when he had two merely above average seasons. He already had four and a half seasons under his belt by the time he turned 25, and his career WAR ranked him above Mike Schmidt, George Brett, and Wade Boggs: http://www.fangraphs.com/graphsw.aspx?playerid2=3787&playerid3=1011586&playerid4=1001400&playerid5=1001124. Even with two off-years, he is still ahead of Boggs and is right behind Schmidt and Brett.

Here’s how underrated Wright is: in my first draft of this list, I had Wright in the next category at #24. Then I realized that his statistics are uncannily similar to Chase Utley’s statistics. Their birthdays are three days apart in December. The only difference? Utley turned 32. Wright turned 28. Welcome to the ahead-of-pace group, Mr. Wright.

#19a. Tim Lincecum (3-time All-Star, 2-time Cy Young Award winner, 1 World Series ring, led NL in strikeouts between 2008 and 2010)

“The Freak” has only been a full-time starter for three years. He has made the All-Star team all three years and won the Cy Young Award twice. That’s what they call dominance. In his first ever postseason start this year, he went out and threw 14 strikeouts. If he keeps up his staggering strikeout pace, he could hit 3,000 strikeouts in his 12th season. It took Nolan Ryan until his 13th season to get 3,000. I’d call that ahead of the pace.

The pitchers who have won two Cy Young Awards show just how hard it is to project ahead for pitchers: Bob Gibson, Denny McLain, Gaylord Perry, Bret Saberhagen, Tom Glavine, Johan Santana, Tim Lincecum, and Roy Halladay. That’s two Hall of Famers (Gibson and Perry), one future Hall of Famer (Glavine), two that seem well on their way (Santana and Halladay), and two flameouts (McLain and Saberhagen). Still, not bad company to be in for a guy with only three years as a starter under his belt.

#19b. Felix Hernandez (1-time All-Star, 1-time Cy Young Award winner, 1 ERA title, 71 wins, and 1,042 strikeouts)

I originally had Lincecum one spot ahead of Hernandez because of the World Series ring and the second Cy Young Award. Then I noticed something: Hernandez is only 24. Lincecum is 26. That barely seems possible; it feels like Hernandez has been around forever. Because of the age difference, I ended up moving Hernandez up a spot in a tie for 18th with Lincecum.

At age 24, Hernandez became the fourth youngest pitcher to strike out 1,000 batters after Bob Feller, Bert Blyleven, and Dwight Gooden. Again not bad company, assuming he can stay away from the crack. Pretty much everything else that can be said about Lincecum can be said about Hernandez.

#21a. Troy Tulowitzki (1 All-Star selection, 1 Gold Glove, 1 Silver Slugger, .290 batting average, 608 hits, 92 home runs, 338 RBIs)

Back to back ties, but these two shortstops go hand-in-hand just like young pitching studs Lincecum and Hernandez. Tulowitzki gets lost in the shuffle playing in relative anonymity in Colorado, but he is already a standout offensive and defensive shortstop. Tulo is a former first round draft pick and seems to be improving each year. In 2010, he added to an already impressive start with his first All-Star selection, Gold Glove, and Silver Slugger awards.

#21b. Hanley Ramirez (3-time All-Star. 2-time Silver Slugger, Rookie of the Year, 1 batting title, .311 batting average, 119 home runs, 373 RBIs, 176 stolen bases)

Ramirez is in virtually the same boat as Tulowitzki. He is a better offensive shortstop but does not have the defensive prowess that Tulowitzki does. I have a feeling that only one of these guys will end up making the Hall of Fame, mostly because these rivalries never pan out as well as we expect them too. After all, there was a time when we thought Nomar Garciaparra was a better shortstop than Derek Jeter. Still, I’ll hedge my bets and pick both of them.

As an aside, how spoiled were we by the mid 1990s shortstops (Jeter, Garciaparra, Miguel Tejada, and the like) that guys like Tulo and Hanley don’t even phase us any more? Hall of Famer Ozzie Smith and probable Hall of Famer Omar Vizquel are lucky they retired when they did. Had they come along 10 to 15 years later, they might have even lasted in the league, let alone made the Hall of Fame.

#23. C.C. Sabathia (4-time All-Star, 1 Cy Young Award, 1 World Series championship, 157-88, 3.57 ERA, 1,787 strikeouts)

Sabathia has remarkably similar stats to Halladay in three less seasons. However, unlike Halladay, you could not make a legitimate argument that Sabathia is already a Hall of Famer. He has 1 less Cy Young and does not have the two memorable games to stake his case on.*

* And if you don’t think one game makes a difference, look at how far Jack Morris’s candidacy has come based basically on one game in the 1991 World Series.

Sabathia is still well on his way to the Hall of Fame. In an evolving era, 250 wins will become the new benchmarks for pitchers. Although he has not been as consistently dominant as Santana and Lincecum, he is eighth among active players in strikeouts – the only pitcher in the top 20 younger than 30. At his current rate, Sabathia will get to 250 wins and 3,000 strikeouts in five or six years, which should make him Hall-worthy.

F. On pace, but need to maintain current pace for several more years

This next group is made up of players that have put together the beginnings of a Hall of Fame career. Unlike the players in the previous group, these players are on pace but need to maintain that pace for several more years to merit Hall consideration.

#24. Carl Crawford (4-time All-Star, 1 Gold Glove, 1 Silver Slugger, 4 stolen base titles, 1,480 hits, 765 runs, 409 stolen bases)

Crawford narrowly misses the previous group. He is a very similar player to Rickey Henderson and Tim Raines. Henderson easily qualified on the first ballot while Raines has bizarrely received almost no support. If Raines receives more support, that bodes well for Crawford. Until then, Crawford will have to settle for merely being on pace to make the Hall. If he keeps up his current pace, he will have 3,000 hits and 800 stolen bases by the time he turns 38. Only three other players can claim those numbers – first-ballot Hall of Famers Ty Cobb, Lou Brock, and Rickey Henderson.

#25. Roy Oswalt (3-time All-Star, 150 wins, 3.18 ERA, 1,666 strikeouts)

Oswalt gets overshadowed by other more dominant pitchers, but he has been consistently very good for a long time. The most surprising stat about Oswalt? He ranks behind only Johan Santana among active starters – ahead of Roy Halladay, Felix Hernandez, and C.C. Sabathia, among others. He has started 30 or more games in eight of his ten MLB seasons. Only once did he finish a season with higher than a 3.54 ERA and less than 10 wins. Because Oswalt does not really wow anybody, he will need to pitch for another seven or eight years to get to the Hall. I think he turns into this generation’s Tom Glavine and gets there.

#26. Carlos Beltran (5-time All-Star, 3-time Gold Glover, 2-time Silver Slugger, Rookie of the Year, .280 batting average, 280 home runs, 1,062 RBIs, 289 stolen bases)

Beltran has it easier than most in this category. Hall voters love center fielders: more center fielders have been elected than any other position. Beltran will come out in an era with a dearth of center fielders.* Beltran is like a poor man’s Ken Griffey Jr. He has been merely solid for so many years with the Mets that it’s easy to forget just how good he is.

* I considered Jim Edmonds for this reason, but I think Edmonds comes up just short.

A few statistics to remind you of Beltran’s greatness: 100 RBIs eight times, 100 runs seven times, 25 stolen bases seven times, 20 home runs nine times. Beltran is probably not quite a Hall of Famer quite yet but a few more solid seasons will get him there.

#27. Evan Longoria (3-time All-Star, Rookie of the Year, 2 Gold Gloves, .361 on-base percentage, 82 home runs)

Longoria was called up in 2008 and has had three spectacular seasons for the Rays. Here’s a good statistic to put in perspective both Longoria’s rapid ascent and how hard this is to predict – in their first seasons, both at age 23:

Longoria – 448 ABs, 122 hits, 27 home runs, .272 BA, .343 OBP, .874 OPS

Mike Schmidt – 367 ABs, 72 hits, 18 home runs, .196 BA, .324 OBP, .697 OPS

Schmidt got off to an awful start, but any time you’re a third baseman and get a chance to compare yourself with Mike Schmidt, you have to take that. Longoria gets the edge over fellow young slugger Ryan Braun because he is two years younger and is a defensive stud at a tougher position than Braun’s left field.

#28. Chase Utley (5-time All-Star, 4-time Silver Slugger, 1 World Series ring, .293 batting average, 173 home runs, 637 RBIs)

Utley has slowed down over the past couple seasons, but his first few seasons in the league were among the best any second baseman has ever had. He has made the All-Star Game in each of his first five years and averaged over .300, 110 runs, 100 RBIs, 25 home runs between 2005 and 2009.

Utley is downgraded a little bit because of his late start – he was not a full-time regular until halfway through his age 26 season. Yet even with that late start, he still compares favorably with Hall of Fame second basemen Roberto Alomar and Ryne Sandberg through age 31: http://www.fangraphs.com/graphsw.aspx?playerid2=1679&playerid3=860&playerid4=1009179&playerid5=1011411. He turned 32 this offseason and his body will need to hold up for another five or six very good seasons to have a chance at the Hall.

#29a. Ryan Braun (3-time All-Star, 3-time Silver Slugger, 1 Rookie of the Year, 1 slugging title, 1 hits title, .304 batting average, 128 home runs, 397 runs, 420 RBIs)

Braun is in the same boat as Utley. He has been flat-out incredible in his first four seasons in the league. In addition to averaging over 30 home runs, 100 runs, and 100 RBIs per season, he is one of the best left fielders in the league according to both advanced defensive metrics and standard fielding percentage. But like Utley, Braun got a late start on his career. In 2011, he will begin his fifth season in the majors, but he is already 27 years old. If he was younger, he could afford a couple off years but at 27, he doesn’t have that luxury – he needs to keep producing to eventually make the Hall of Fame.

#29b. Dustin Pedroia (3-time All-Star, 1 MVP, Rookie of the Year, .305 BA, .369 OBP, 377 runs, 253 RBIs)

Another cop-out tie, but Braun and Pedroia are too similar to separate. Both are 27. Braun has better statistics, but Pedroia has the MVP award and a tougher defensive position. Pedroia is a tough guy. He played several games on a broken foot this season so he seems like a solid bet to have a long career playing through various injuries.

#31. Carlos Zambrano (3-time All-Star, 116-74, 3.50 ERA, 1,441 strikeouts, 1 no-hitter)

This one is a bit of an off-the-wall selection coming off Zambrano’s strange 2010 season in which he was sent to the bullpen partly for having no control but mostly for being Big Z. Zambrano is another one of those guys who feels like he has been around forever, but he is only 29 years old. He differs from most in this category in that he has never really been considered one of the best at his position, but his numbers are not bad by any means. He is very durable, starting 28 or more games in each of the past eight seasons. I just have a hunch that he will pitch consistently for another ten or so years like a Tom Glavine or Gaylord Perry and finish with statistics that voters will not be able to ignore.

G. The Way too Early to Tell Guys

These are the players that are obviously not anywhere close to the Hall of Fame. They have all played three seasons or less – not even enough to project them as on pace to make the Hall. Yet if 35 Hall of Famers are active at any given time, a few of them will necessarily be in their first seasons as a professional.

#32. David Price (1 All-Star start, 29-13 record, 3.31 ERA, 302 strikeouts)

Among players that have three years or less experience in the big leagues, Price seems as good a bet as any to make the Hall of Fame. He was the first overall draft pick in 2007, so he clearly has the natural talent. In his second big league season, he established himself as a #1 starter. He started the All-Star game and went on to finish second in the league in wins (19) and third in ERA (2.72). Not a bad start to a career.

#33. Clayton Kershaw (26-23 record, 3.17 ERA, 497 strikeouts)

Kershaw’s innings have been tightly controlled, but he is still off to an outrageous statistical start. He is only 22-years old but is a strikeout machine – his 497 total strikeouts have come over 483 career innings. Last season, his first without a cap on his innings, he went 13-10 with a 2.91 ERA and 212 strikeouts in 204 innings. He does struggle with his control, so it would not at all be surprising if he flames out early, but for now he is amazing to watch.

#34a. Jason Heyward (1 All-Star selection, .277 batting average, 18 home runs, 72 RBIs)

#34b. Buster Posey (2010 NL Rookie of the Year, 1 World Series ring, .305 batting average, 18 home runs, 67 RBIs)

Posey edged out Heyward for the NL Rookie of the Year this season but both were worthy of the award. Really, they should have made Heyward an honorary AL rookie so he could have won an award also. Both of these guys are studs. Johnny Bench considers himself a Buster Posey fan. This article found that Jason Heyard’s rookie season really had no comparison. Good enough for me.


Alomar and Blyleven in; Bagwell out

January 5, 2011

After missing by only a few votes last year, Bert Blyleven and Roberto Alomar were inducted into the Baseball Hall of Fame today. Alomar got in with 90 percent of the vote – the highest total ever for a player who wasn’t elected in his first year. Blyleven finally got in after an excruciatingly long 14 year wait. Both of these waits bothered me a little bit for different reasons. And Jeff Bagwell’s vote total bothered me a lot.

Roberto Alomar

There was no doubt that Alomar would be elected this year. He was a surefire Hall of Famer: depending on who you talk to, he was somewhere in the top five second basemen of all-time and certainly in the discussion for best second baseman ever. I couldn’t find anyone anywhere who doesn’t think that Alomar isn’t one of the ten best second basemen of all-time and he was unquestionably the best of his generation. There are nineteen second basemen in the Hall of Fame, so most thought his election last year would be a slam dunk. Yet in a shocker, Alomar came up eight votes short of election in his first year on the ballot.

So it was pretty much a given that this was his year. But the vote totals were astounding. Alomar picked up 123 votes (397 to 520). Let me repeat that – 123 writers that didn’t think Alomar was a Hall of Famer last year thought he was good enough this year. Now of course baseball fans know the real reason behind this: to many writers, election on the first ballot is symbolic and reserved only for the greatest of the great baseball players. Those 123 voters made Alomar wait a year to be elected either because a) they thought he was definitely a Hall of Famer, but not one of the best of all-time or b) they were punishing him for being a jerk, spitting on an umpire, allegedly giving HIV to various women after he retired, or a combination of the three.

This is nonsensical to me. First, I think if you’re a Hall of Famer, you’re a Hall of Famer. Making someone wait for election is just silly – if you’re good enough to be in the Hall of Fame, you should be good enough to go in when you’re eligible. And historically, how long someone waits to be elected bears no relation with how great the player is. Look at this conveniently cherry-picked list that nevertheless illustrates my point:

Players elected the first year they were eligible: Robin Yount, Dave Winfield, Dennis Eckersley, Paul Molitor

Players that had to wait three or more years to be elected: Harmon Killebrew (4), Hank Greenberg (9), Joe DiMaggio (3), Jimmie Foxx (6)

My first observation is obviously that we vote with a lot less dickish attitude than the voters did in the 1950s and 1960s. More importantly, this shows that the whole first ballot ship sailed already because those old baseball writers were way too stingy – if Joe DiMaggio took three ballots to get in, it’s pretty easy to make an argument that no one should get in on the first ballot. And furthermore, how smart do those voters look now? Is there anyone out there that would argue making DiMaggio wait three years was a good idea? Of course not. So what good does it do to make someone like Alomar wait a year?

Interesting tidbit from my research: on his second year on the ballot, Jimmie Foxx – one of the greatest first basemen of all-time – got 10 votes (6.2%). Only 10 of the 161 voters deemed Foxx worthy. Today, a player needs five percent of the vote to stay on the ballot for the next year. If that were today, Foxx would have only made it to the next year’s ballot by two votes.

That leads me to my second point about the 120 voters that made Alomar wait. These guys simply jumped on their moral high horse and told Roberto that he’d have to wait a year. But here’s the thing: what if everyone else jumped up on their moral high horse and did the same thing? He wouldn’t have made the ballot for the second year and baseball fans would have to wait at least twenty years for the Veterans Committee to elect one of the five best second basemen ever to the Hall of Fame. Basically, these writers are putting their own individual egos ahead of the good of the game. They knew full well that Alomar was a Hall of Famer but they relied on their voting colleagues to give him enough votes until the next season when he would suddenly become Hall worthy.

Why would voters do this? I’d assume every voter hasn’t a slightly different reason but I think the majority could be grouped in with power. Power goes to a voter’s head. They know that there’s a pretty slim chance that Alomar would get less than five percent of the vote so there won’t be any real repercussions to not voting for him in the first year and thereby preserving the “sanctity of the first ballot.” They know there’d be hell to pay if Alomar happened to get less than 5% of the vote, but that’s not a realistic possibility. And so the voters put individual egos ahead of the good of the game, if only for one year.

Bert Blyleven

I’m exceedingly happy that Twins broadcaster Bert Blyleven got elected in his 14th year. Of course, if I was upset that it took a year to elect Alomar, you know I’m upset that it took 14 years to elect Blyleven. As I said above, if you’re a Hall of Famer, you’re a Hall of Famer.

Mostly, however, I’m just glad that voters finally appreciated Blyleven. I never understood why this took so long. Blyleven’s candidacy really took off in the past few years (he had only 47.7% of the vote as late as 2007) because of the increased prevalence of advanced metrics. Smarter people than I have done way more in-depth looks into these stats, but the basic idea is that pitchers can only control so much (strikeouts, walks, HBP, and home runs) while everything else is pretty much pure chance. For most of his career, Blyleven was the best in the league at the stuff he can control (he gave up a lot of home runs in later years when his curve bull started hanging more). Still, it was hard for me to understand why we even needed to look past the regular statistics that most of these older writers are more comfortable with. Among eligible pitchers not in the Hall of Fame, he was second in wins (287 to Tommy John’s 288, who pitched four years longer) and was first by far in strikeouts (3,701, 888 more than second place Mickey Lolich). Seemed like a pretty clear case to me – it’s just a shame it took the voters so long to figure that out.

Jeff Bagwell

The most disappointing total on the ballot for me was Jeff Bagwell’s 41.2% of the vote.* There’s no point in me recounting Bagwell’s statistics other than to say there are 21 first basemen in the Hall of Fame and in 2001 the great Bill James broke the numbers down and named Bagwell the fourth best of all-time. There’s no question that Bagwell is Hall of Fame-caliber. Sure, some of these voters might be making Bagwell wait because of the first ballot issue I discussed earlier, but I think it’s fair to say that the vast majority of the 58.8% of writers that didn’t vote for Bagwell did so because of the steroid issue.

* I also think Larry Walker, Edgar Martinez, Alan Trammell, Mark McGwire, Dale Murphy, and Rafael Palmeiro should be in the Hall of Fame but, unlike Bagwell, I can actually understand the arguments against these players candidacies.

Now my problem isn’t with voting for steroid users. I happen to disagree with the voters who’ve taken a blanket stand against admitted users like McGwire and Palmeiro because I think the Hall of Fame should showcase baseball history. Steroid users, like it or not, are a part of baseball history. At the same time, I understand not voting for them. I understand not voting for them if you think steroids give you an unfair advantage. I understand not voting them if you think using steroids is cheating. I disagree, but I get it.

But I don’t understand not voting for Jeff Bagwell. Bagwell was not mentioned as a steroid user in the Mitchell report, never tested positive, and as far as I know, no one ever mentioned him as a user at any point. Bagwell’s only crime? Getting bigger and stronger as he got older. I’ve seen multiple articles this week comparing Bagwell’s rookie card with later years. Big surprise: he got stronger. I’m 26 and I recently saw a picture of myself on vacation when I was 20 – I’m way bigger and I barely work out and certainly haven’t used steroids. Now of course that doesn’t mean that Bagwell didn’t use, but if the two cards are your best “evidence,” I’m not sold.

Earlier this week Sports Illustrated writer Jeff Pearlman said that steroids should be held against Bagwell because, even if he didn’t use steroids, he didn’t speak out against them. Seriously. Now, everyone’s entitled to their own opinion, but that leads to my biggest problem with the Hall of Fame balloting.

At its heart, Hall of Fame voting is about kids. Cliche, sure. But the one thing that every single one of these baseball writers has in common is that they spent their childhood studying the backs of baseball cards, playing Strat-O-Matic, pouring over newspaper box scores, and listening to baseball on the radio or watching it on TV. None of these writers suddenly started caring about baseball statistics and the history of the game when they became adults – it all happened when they were kids. That’s the reason why people care about the Baseball Hall of Fame way more than other sports’ Hall of Fames. People don’t argue for hours on end about football, basketball, or hockey hall of famers because they didn’t spend their childhood pouring over the stats of these sports.

I’m no different. I learned to love baseball by studying the weekly statistics in the USA Today every Tuesday and Wednesday while computing the results of my dad’s fantasy baseball league. Jeff Bagwell was one of the best sluggers of my youth and he should be in the Hall of Fame. But not a single one of the voters come from my generation. It bothers me that a bunch of writers not from my generation get to jump on their moral high horse and keep one of the best players from my youth out of the Hall based entirely on speculation. I have not been to Cooperstown but it’s definitely on my bucket list. Sure, I’ll enjoy going to see the transcendent players’ busts like Willie Mays, Babe Ruth, and Hank Aaron. But I want players like Bagwell there too because those are the players I grew up with. Bagwell, McGwire, Bonds, and Palmeiro all resonate with me far more than Gary Carter, Goose Gossage, and Jim Rice (to name a few of the inductees of the last few years).

Blyleven was elected this year on his 14th try in no small part because of the kids that grew up playing Strat-O-Matic while he was pitching got older and became voters themselves. Inevitably, the same thing will happen with some of the players of the steroid era. I just hope enough of the current voters keep these players on the ballot long enough for my generation to earn their own BBWAA votes and vote them in.