Posted by Andy on September 3, 2010
Here's one take on the twenty greatest position players in the history of major league baseball.
In the comments on other recent posts, there has been much discussion among our readers about what qualities a Hall of Famer should possess. Certain players like Babe Ruth, Willie Mays, and Rogers Hornsby are often mentioned as prototypical members, but many argue that average HOFers cannot be held to the standards of those all-time greats.
Numerous other readers have talked about fringe HOFers like Andre Dawson, Lou Brock, Bill Mazeroski, High Pockets Kelly, and George Kell, and their desire to have these players kicked out. Realizing that would never happen, some folks have suggested creating an inner circle of all-time greats in the HOF, or even multiple levels in the HOF.
These are interesting ideas and I started to wonder who would be on this list. My first thought was to look at the all-time leaders in Wins Above Replacement. We've had plenty of debates on WAR recently, and while there is good reason to be measured in our acceptance of it, WAR remains the best single statistic we have to analyze the full contributions of players.
Among position players, Babe Ruth is #1 all-time with 172.0 WAR. This does not include an additional 18.0 WAR Ruth racked up as a pitcher. Interestingly, Barry Bonds is just a hair behind Ruth at #2 with 171.80 WAR, and both are well ahead of everybody else. (Isn't it amazing how the two best hitters in history ended up with nearly identical WAR?)
Ruth, however, is only 42nd in career plate appearances, making his accumulation of WAR even more impressive. He has a positional WAR/PA career ratio of 0.0162, or 1.62%
Here are the top players in MLB history with a WAR at least 1.6% of their career PA total, ranked by highest WAR:
As you can see, Ruth is in a class all by himself. Despite the great achievements of many position players since Ruth, he remains the greatest of all time, in large part because of the enormous rate at which he homered compared to the rest of his contemporaries.
By dropping the WAR/PA requirement to 1.0%, we generate the list of players who, at first blush, deserve to be in the inner circle of the Hall of Fame:
|20||Shoeless Joe Jackson||62.9||5690||1332||4981||873||1772||307||168||54||785||519||158||.356||.423||.517||.940||798/3||PHA-CLE-TOT-CHW|
I carried the list to 22 because there is a significant drop-off in career WAR after that, with the next highest player after Barnes being, no kidding, Tim Lollar, with 3.0 WAR as a batter.
Anyway, the players on this list are in the so-called "1% club", having achieved a WAR that is at least 1% of their total career plate appearances. I feel, at least using this one statistic, that these are the most productive players over the course of their career. This measure definitely punishes players who hung on for a few less productive years at the end, but also drops guys who were very, very good for a long time but not necessarily an all-time great.
If you compare my list above with the all-time WAR leaders among position players, here are top WAR guys who did not make the 1% club: Rickey Henderson, Mel Ott, Frank Robinson,Nap Lajoie, and Joe Morgan. These 5 are all in the top 20 in career WAR but not the 1% club. Between A-rod and Dan Brouthers is a Who's Who of HOFers who also don't make the cut: Anson, Mathews, Foxx, Kaline, G Davis, Ripken, Boggs, Yaz, Connor, Brett, and Clemente.
After Joe DiMaggio is where it really starts getting interesting. Albert Pujols, in just his 10th season, has the next highest WAR total in the 1% club. His percentage is actually 1.23%, which is very impressive. A-Rod, by comparison, is at 1.01%. Then come two guys with relatively short but super-productive careers in Jackie Robinson and Shoeless Joe Jackson.
Jackson benefits from finishing at age 30 and never having the "opportunity" to fall out of the 1% club with the somewhat-lower productivity seasons that could reasonably have been expected after that year. Jackie Robinson benefits from coming to the majors as a well-seasoned ballplayer, having spent his years before the age of 28 segregated from MLB. (Just to be clear, I am using the word "benefits" in the previous sentence referring only to how his numbers look in this analysis--I'm not trying to suggest there was anything beneficial about segregation.)
Next up is Joe Mauer, just the 3rd active player in the 1% club at 1.10% currently. For Mauer, A-Rod, and Pujols alike, it's too soon to put them in the inner circle since there's a pretty good chance they will drop out before their career are over. I'd give Pujols the best shot of staying in since he's still pretty far above 1% with 10 years in the can. A-Rod is just hanging on, has a bunch of years left on his contract, and hasn't played anywhere close to his career standards this season.
This means that the only players in the 1% club appearing in the 1980s are Mike Schmidt and Barry Bonds, and Bonds is the only player to play in the 1990s and 2000s. The 1970s are represented by only Schmidt, Willie Mays, and Hank Aaron.
So, based on this pretty simple analysis, these are the guys I'd put in the inner circle of the HOF:
There are, of course, many other ways to make up this sort of list. I'm sure there will be many arguments with the one above. Let the debate begin.