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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.