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Revisiting the player of the 1990s discussion

Jun 9, 2010, 6:15 PM EDT

bonds pirates.jpgSince my Ken Griffey Jr. retirement piece received so much feedback…
After the 1999 season, Ken Griffey Jr. was famously named the Player of the Decade by the players themselves, as part of the MLBPA’s Players Choice Awards. No balloting was ever announced, so we don’t know how close the vote was. The choice garnered quite a bit of publicity at the time, making it the only Players Choice Award to ever really do so. The MLBPA still hands them out every year, with Albert Pujols collecting Player of the Year awards after each of the last two seasons. Interestingly, there was no vote after last year to select a player of the aughts.
But this is about the 1990s. Let’s look at the players who should have considered along with Griffey for the award.
Ranked by OPS+, here’s a list of the top 10 hitters from the 1990s (minimum 1,000 games)
1. Barry Bonds – 179 – .302/.434/.602, 361 HR, 1,076 RBI, 343 SB in 1,434 games
2. Mark McGwire – 172 – .268/.411/.615, 405 HR, 956 RBI, 9 SB in 1,221 games
3. Frank Thomas – 169 – .320/.440/.573, 301 HR, 1,040 RBI, 28 SB in 1,371 games
4. Jeff Bagwell – 159 – .304/.416/.545, 263 HR, 961 RBI, 158 SB in 1,317 games
5. Edgar Martinez – 154 – .322/.430/.532, 196 HR, 750 RBI, 38 SB in 1,295 games
6. Ken Griffey Jr. – 152 – .302/.384/.581, 382 HR, 1,091 RBI, 151 SB in 1,408 games
7. Albert Belle – 150 – .299/.376/.581, 351 HR, 1,099 RBI, 172 SB in 1,336 games
8. Gary Sheffield – 145 – .294/.401/.517, 227 HR, 763 RBI, 143 SB in 1,189 games
9. Larry Walker – 142 – .313/.390/.571, 262 HR, 851 RBI, 189 SB in 1,278 games
10. Rafael Palmeiro – 139 – .299/.375/.534, 328 HR, 1,068 RBI, 67 SB in 1,526 games


That’s a list of the decade’s best hitters. Not quite making the cut was Juan Gonzalez, who had 339 homers and 1,068 RBI but a 137 OPS+.
As for the best players, there are a few more names that have to be considered:
Mike Piazza – 156 – .328/.391/.575, 240 HR, 768 RBI, 13 SB in 981 games
Barry Larkin – 126 – .303/.388/.466, 137 HR, 639 RBI, 266 SB in 1,293 games
Craig Biggio – 125 – .297/.386/.441, 136 HR, 641 RBI, 319 SB in 1,515 games
Roberto Alomar – 122 – .308/.382/.460, 135 HR, 732 RBI, 311 SB in 1,421 games
Ivan Rodriguez – 106 – .300/.337/.465, 144 HR, 621 RBI, 60 SB in 1,169 games
And let’s not forget the pitchers. This time, I’ll sort by ERA+, with a minimum of 1,200 innings pitched
1. Greg Maddux – 162 – 176-88, 2.54 ERA, 1,764 Ks in 2,395 IP
2. Pedro Martinez – 156 – 107-50, 2.83 ERA, 1,534 Ks in 1,359 IP
3. Roger Clemens – 152 – 152-89, 3.02 ERA, 2,101 Ks in 2,178 IP
4. Randy Johnson – 141 – 150-75, 3.14 ERA, 2,538 Ks in 2,063 IP
5. David Cone – 135 – 141-85, 3.21 ERA, 1,928 Ks in 2,017 IP
6. Kevin Appier – 131 – 120-90, 3.47 ERA, 1,494 Ks in 1,868 IP
7. Mike Mussina – 130 – 136-66, 3.50 ERA, 1,325 Ks in 1,772 IP
8. Tom Glavine – 129 – 164-87, 3.21 ERA, 1,465 Ks in 2,228 IP
9. Kevin Brown – 128 – 143-98, 3.25 ERA, 1,581 Ks in 2,211 IP
10. Curt Schilling – 126 – 99-79, 3.31 ERA, 1,561 Ks in 1668 IP
Those are our candidates for player of the 1990s offers. Only one pitcher can really be considered. Maddux not only had the best ERA+ of the decade, but he also threw 167 more innings than anyone else in the 1990s.
Here’s how Bill James’ Win Shares system rated the players for the decade:
1. Barry Bonds – 351
2. Craig Biggio – 287
3. Frank Thomas – 273
4. Jeff Bagwell – 263
5. Ken Griffey Jr. – 261
6. Rafael Palmeiro – 244
7. Roberto Alomar – 243
8. Barry Larkin – 242
9. Mark McGwire – 234
10. Greg Maddux – 231
And how WAR sees it:
1. Barry Bonds – 85.2
2. Ken Griffey Jr. – 65.9
3. Roger Clemens – 63.2
4. Greg Maddux – 61.1
5. Jeff Bagwell – 59.6
6. Frank Thomas – 54.3
7. Barry Larkin – 51.7
7. Craig Biggio – 51.7
9. Edgar Martinez – 49.9
10. Randy Johnson – 49.5
I think I like WAR’s list better than one generated by Win Shares, but pretty much any way one looks at it, Bonds was the decade’s best. He had 50 points of OBP and 20 points of slugging percentage on Griffey despite playing in a significantly harsher offensive environment. Griffey does make up some of it defensively, but only some. Bonds was an excellent defensive left fielder in his prime, and Griffey’s defense faded as the decade went on. If the talent gap between the AL and NL was as big in the 1990s as it was in the aughts, there could be a real argument between the two. However, the leagues seemed pretty evenly matched back then, even as the Yankees started treating the World Series as their birthright in the second half of the decade.
WAR’s assertion that Clemens was better than Maddux seems misguided to me, though Maddux did get a lot more help from his defense. Personally, I’d go with a top five of Bonds, Maddux, Griffey, Biggio and Thomas. Even though he spent the first two years as a catcher, Biggio played in the second-most games in the decade (behind Palmeiro). Only Bonds scored more runs than his 1,042. Some would argue that Alomar was the better player, but Biggio did have the slight edge offensively in OPS+ and he played in almost 100 more games. He played in 220 more games than Larkin.
Thomas versus Bagwell is another toughie. The two were born on the same day and they’re remarkably close on three lists here. Thomas did have a substantial edge offensively, but WAR things Bagwell’s defense more than made up for it. I’m not quite so sure. Plus, Thomas did play in an extra 54 games.
As for Piazza, the fact that he played in just 21 games in the first three years of the decade is too much to overcome. If one instead goes from 1993-2002, he’d probably be No. 2 behind Bonds.

  1. Glenn - Jun 9, 2010 at 8:06 PM

    Sad to see the list completed dominated by steroid users. There are even guys without any publicly known proof who used steroids on the list. You think Bagwell is clean? Look at his high school year book – you wouldn’t let him fly a kite for fear that he would end up on the moon.

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  3. J Rose - Jun 9, 2010 at 9:22 PM

    Good piece. You bring up some interesting points, Looking back, Bonds clearly should have won the award based on numbers and comparative skills. Makes it seem obvious that off field/locker room behavoir must have played a big factor, as Bonds was never a favorite teammate even in his pre-roid days.
    Also, I disagree that no pitcher other than Maddux should have been considered. The numbers Perdo put up, especially in a more compacted period of time with over a 1000 fewer IP, would seem to warrant serious mention.

  4. Josh - Jun 9, 2010 at 9:23 PM

    I see you chose a pic on bonds with a normal size head to support your argument…lame.

  5. Grant - Jun 9, 2010 at 9:54 PM

    To all you steroid moaners: This was a 90s question. Does anyone think Bonds used steroids in the 90s? The received narrative is that he did not. His head was small because he hadn’t (allegedly) started using yet.

    And besides, I’m going to choose to agree with Buster Olney (with whom I almost never agree). It’s impossible to separate users from not in the 90s, and Bonds was clearly the best player of the 90s.

  6. Andrew - Jun 9, 2010 at 10:19 PM

    I think you are putting far too much weight on statistical analysis – a good deal of Junior’s career transcends mere statistics. We’re not talking fantasy here. . . .
    You forget what a sorry shape baseball was in at the time Junior broke in and how he was the next great hope to return the game to its glory. A lot of weight and pressure for a young man to bear and he did so gracefully.
    You can stuff your statistics. I’ll take Griffey’s exuberance and love of the game over Barry Bond’s scowl any day of the week.

  7. MVD - Jun 10, 2010 at 12:55 AM

    Ken Griffey, Jr. is not the greatest player of the 90s. He’s the greatest player of all time. If you disagree, then you are wrong. Get over it. Bonds can suck it.

  8. General Tsao - Jun 10, 2010 at 1:46 AM

    Andrew, you think Ken Griffey Jr. single-handedly saved the game of baseball? That’s a new one.
    If you’re gonna use that argument (“a career that transcends statistics”- shoot, let’s make a movie about him), it’d be better to argue for McGwire or Sosa. Wasn’t it their home run race that “saved” baseball?
    Junior was a great player. Not the greatest, but great nonetheless.

  9. ryan - Jun 10, 2010 at 2:49 AM

    Im going with THE BIG HURT Frank Thomas & THE BIG UNIT Randy Johnson.

  10. Pat Gray, Cavendish, Vermont - Jun 10, 2010 at 7:48 AM

    Griffey is great, but for MVD to state that he is the greatest player of all time is ludicrous! Ever heard of guys like Babe Ruth and Ted Williams?

  11. Ward - Jun 10, 2010 at 8:14 AM

    I wonder about Bonds as he couldn’t even throw out Slow Moving Sid Bream at home on a single to left field? No arm and just an average fielder in left.

  12. 60eagles - Jun 10, 2010 at 9:15 AM

    Pouliot, this is why you are a sports writer and not taken seriously.

  13. Eternal Optimist - Jun 10, 2010 at 9:21 AM

    I agree that the discussion comes down to more than statistics, escpecially because of the prominence of steroids. My vote on this is influenced by the fact that I would go out of my way to watch a game if Griffey or Maddux was playing. I can’t say that’s true for the other candidates.
    Griffey took me back to the sand lot. Even with his incredible talent, he just seemed to be out there playing because of the joy and sense of accomplishment that he received from putting his best effort forward. The stories in the papers were about his performance and not overshadowed by his problems with his manager or complaints about other players on the team. I have to vote for Griffey.

  14. BIG JACK - Jun 10, 2010 at 9:53 AM

    Yeah, you’re right, Bonds had the best, including the best pharmacist. It’s Griffey, hands down cause he did it clean.

  15. JBerardi - Jun 10, 2010 at 11:31 AM

    “To all you steroid moaners: This was a 90s question. Does anyone think Bonds used steroids in the 90s? The received narrative is that he did not. His head was small because he hadn’t (allegedly) started using yet.”

    The nice thing about the steroid narrative is that no one really knows anything. This means that if you’re trying to make an argument that’s not really supported by any facts (ie, Griffey was better than Bonds in the 90s), you can just re-shape and re-define the steroid narrative. Anything that you don’t like in Baseball, steroids can explain away for you.

    Bonds was the best player of the 90s, and there’s really not much room for discussion there.

  16. Bill-SI - Jun 10, 2010 at 11:59 AM

    Here is the list without the drug users/cheaters:
    5. Edgar Martinez – 154 – .322/.430/.532, 196 HR, 750 RBI, 38 SB in 1,295 games
    6. Ken Griffey Jr. – 152 – .302/.384/.581, 382 HR, 1,091 RBI, 151 SB in 1,408 games
    7. Albert Belle – 150 – .299/.376/.581, 351 HR, 1,099 RBI, 172 SB in 1,336 games
    9. Larry Walker – 142 – .313/.390/.571, 262 HR, 851 RBI, 189 SB in 1,278 games
    Jury is out on Belle and Martinez should not be considered because, as a DH, as he only played half the game.

  17. Wetz - Jun 10, 2010 at 12:00 PM

    You have to say best ball player and total dick are two different catagories. Coming from a Pirates ticket holder. Still take Griffey.

  18. DiamondDuq - Jun 10, 2010 at 1:09 PM

    Give Griffey the same relative health Bonds had prior to breaking down from his PED use and EVERYONE would be chasing Griffey, and for a long time! The guy broke his wrist playing real defense, not some perceived quality defense played by Bonds and Manny Ramirez (who led the league in OF assists several times), in 1995! That injury started a downward spiral of bad luck in the injury department for Griffey and it was only half way through the ’90s. Griffey was the Mickey Mantle of his era. Mantle tore up his knee up in his rookie season and despite how great he was after was still never the same player, always hampered by injury, just like Griffey. Griffey was head-and-shoulders better than Bonds prior to being plagued by injury and even a short time immediately following but eventually the injuries caught up with Griffey, well that and Bond’s PED use took hold.

  19. dghuggs - Jun 10, 2010 at 1:09 PM

    Sure, Bonds hands down best in the pharmaceutically enhanced division (also for biggest jerk of the decade, maybe the century). Griffey? Not a whisper about drugs, hookers, strip clubs, etc. Just the greatest player in the game in his prime, the 90’s, who just wanted to go home to his family every night. Probably not exciting enough for sports writers whose opinions matter greatly in their own heads.

  20. DiamondDuq - Jun 10, 2010 at 1:10 PM

    Give Griffey the same relative health Bonds had prior to breaking down from his PED use and EVERYONE would be chasing Griffey, and for a long time! The guy broke his wrist playing real defense, not some perceived quality defense played by Bonds and Manny Ramirez (who led the league in OF assists several times), in 1995! That injury started a downward spiral of bad luck in the injury department for Griffey and it was only half way through the ’90s. Griffey was the Mickey Mantle of his era. Mantle tore up his knee up in his rookie season and despite how great he was after was still never the same player, always hampered by injury, just like Griffey. Griffey was head-and-shoulders better than Bonds prior to being plagued by injury and even a short time immediately following but eventually the injuries caught up with Griffey, well that and Bond’s PED use took hold.

  21. bunbun - Jun 10, 2010 at 3:23 PM

    bonds is an egotistical sh*stain doper who cheats, lies and is a greasy punk.Bonds isnt fit to drive a cab, let alone be mentioned with mlb. Kill your self barry , you da knee crawlin bitch. you earned it

  22. Mike - Jun 10, 2010 at 4:44 PM

    It’s blatantly idiotic to try to compare position players to pitchers – and so let’s not try to juxtapose them in an effort to pick the best “player” of a decade. Let’s look at them separately… The best pitcher of the decade is Maddux, by every measurement EXCEPT K/9. He had the best ERA and ERA+. The number of runs he saved over a replacement (both in raw numbers and adjusted for park/league) is significantly better than his peers. He gave his team the best chance to win a game more often than any other pitcher of that decade. Clemens is clearly 2nd best, and after that you have Unit and Pedro…
    The position player debate is mostly contrived. Yes, Griffey played a more valuable defensive position than Bonds, but the added value is marginal, at best. If we agree that Bonds didn’t ‘roid up until the “aughts” – then the numbers in his favor are staggering. But Griffey fans, don’t fret… when JR goes in on the first ballot (probably named on 95-96% of the ballots) Bonds will have been on the outside looking in for at least two years and he’ll still be counting the years when he’s a very old man…

  23. eric - Jun 10, 2010 at 5:18 PM

    this is just a bunch of fucking numbers, which makes bonds more valuable but as far as representing the game of baseball (in every manner of speaking) nothing can top a young in his prime Ken Griffey Jr. Plus nobody likes b*nds so fuck him.

  24. wallly - Jun 10, 2010 at 5:58 PM

    It should read the best player out of the two to reach the Hall of Fame… Griffey without a doubt…
    Bonds will never see the Hall of Fame!

  25. Andrew - Jun 10, 2010 at 9:55 PM

    I didn’t say Junior “saved” the game.
    But, at the time (and I remember it pretty well) a lot of people were pinning those hopes on the Kid. I certainly do not remember the same sort of attention devoted to Bonds, though their situations were very similar in lineage and how they came into the game.
    I agree that McGwire and Sosa were a huge part of Baseball’s resurgence in popularity.
    But, I’m not interested in who is/was best, especially statistically – This whole thing started with the word “overrated.”
    I suppose we can now say McGwire / Sosa /Bonds all were overrated because they had “assistance” when they were achieving their great feats…..
    I just believe that the contributions Junior made to the game both on and off the field are greater than most other players, hence “overrated” is a bit harsh and certainly and idiotic thing to say.

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