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Picking the “10 greatest living baseball players”

Nov 22, 2010, 11:48 AM EDT

hank aaron and willie mays

In honor of Stan Musial’s 90th birthday Derrick Goold of the St. Louis Post Dispatch wrote an interesting article laying out his picks for the “10 greatest living baseball players” (retired only, with no active guys).

Here are his 10 picks: Hank Aaron, Yogi Berra, Barry Bonds, Rickey Henderson, Sandy Koufax, Willie Mays, Stan Musial, Frank Robinson, Tom Seaver, Mike Schmidt.

Goold is one of my favorite mainstream baseball writers, so not surprisingly his list is a good one and his reasoning behind the picks are sound, but I disagree with a few of his selections.

However, instead of focusing on my opinion I thought it would be interesting to select the “10 greatest living baseball players” based strictly on the numbers, and more specifically their career totals in Wins Above Replacement. In other words, which 10 living, retired players were worth the most runs and wins above a replacement-level player at their position.

Here’s the WAR-based list: Barry Bonds, Willie Mays, Hank Aaron, Roger Clemens, Stan Musial, Rickey Henderson, Mike Schmidt, Frank Robinson, Tom Seaver, Joe Morgan.

The only difference between Goold’s list and WAR’s list? Goold has Yogi Berra and Sandy Koufax, while WAR has Roger Clemens and Joe Morgan. Greg Maddux wasn’t on Goold’s list and also narrowly missed the WAR top 10, which surprised me as he’d probably crack my top 10.

And, of course, Neifi Perez.

  1. uyf1950 - Nov 22, 2010 at 12:09 PM

    …and with the exception of Bonds and Clemens each one of the others played their entire career and didn’t make as much money as one of today’s “superstars” and “so called superstars” make in one or 2 years. In some of these players cases they didn’t make as much as a one of today’s “journeyman players” make in a year. Makes you wonder, doesn’t it?

    • churchoftheperpetuallyoutraged - Nov 22, 2010 at 12:17 PM

      Wonder about what, that there’s no correlation between salary and ability? A few of those players [based on bWAR] are going to get knocked off the list when Arod and Pujols retire, and both of them will make a pretty penny.

    • Glenn - Nov 22, 2010 at 12:27 PM

      Today’s players owe their riches to huge TV contracts both nationally and through local cable deals. That money just wasn’t around for the stars of old. Plus without free agency, the players couldn’t even get their fair share of the smaller pie that was available.

    • Adam - Nov 22, 2010 at 2:20 PM

      Are you suggesting that players today should take smaller salaries because players didn’t make much back in the 20’s?

      If you are, that’s a) disrespectful to all the players who worked to get salaries raised, b) just ridiculous since baseball has been a huge revenue generator and c) another example of people somehow rooting for billionaire owners over millionaire players.

    • Detroit Michael - Nov 22, 2010 at 3:39 PM

      It makes one wonder how the players were so short-sighted that they delayed hiring a capable union leader for decades. They were underpaid by millions and millions of dollars by the owners in the 40’s, 50’s, and 60’s.

      Was that your point?

  2. Jack Marshall - Nov 22, 2010 at 12:14 PM

    Ten is clearly not enough if you have to leave off players like Bob Feller and Cal Ripken. Let’s play with 20. That will open up some genuine debates.

  3. BC - Nov 22, 2010 at 12:14 PM

    What? No Armando Benitez?

  4. BC - Nov 22, 2010 at 12:15 PM

    In seriousness, where’s Whitey Ford? Or is he dead?

    • tomemos - Nov 22, 2010 at 1:01 PM

      I think he’s alive, but who would you take off the list for him? He’s not the greatest living pitcher by any measurement.

      • BC - Nov 22, 2010 at 2:37 PM

        Ford won 6 world series and his ERA is completely ridiculous. And, he had relative longevity. Would likely have had even better numbers if not for losing 2 prime years to the Korean War. Yes, his team was dynastic, but he was the ace of the staff for 15 years.
        Also surprised that Maddux and Big Unit aren’t somewhere in the hunt. I would also have mentioned Warren Spahn but I checked, and yes, he’s quite dead, I must have missed the memo. It’d be interesting to see what a Top 30 list would look like.
        On the lists above, I probably would take Seaver or Morgan off. Ford was better than Seaver (not by much, I’m splitting hairs and don’t object to Seaver being there, and they were different pitchers, with Seaver being much more of a strikeout guy), and Robbie Alomar was better than Morgan (again, splitting hairs). Makes for great debate though, doesn’t it.

      • tomemos - Nov 22, 2010 at 3:53 PM

        The six World Series are almost entirely due to his good choice in teammates, and anyway he didn’t “win” them singlehandedly. Tom Seaver’s ERA was nearly as good, even though he pitched over 150 more games than Ford. Then there’s Clemens and Maddux… Ford was great, no question, but I wouldn’t say he’s close to being the greatest living pitcher.

    • largebill - Nov 22, 2010 at 1:25 PM

      Ford is still alive. Problem is he wouldn’t make the list of top 30 living players. Just considering pitchers, there are quite a few players before he makes the list. Clemens, Seaver, Maddux, Johnson, Perry, Niekro and Blyleven just to name a few. Ford was a very good pitcher who had to good fortune to play for a great team and for a manager who used in such a way to maximize his wins. Ford never made more than 35 starts in a season until after Stengel was fired. Back in the day of most teams using 4 man rotations he regularly skipped Ford to allow more rest which meant he was fresh in October.

  5. Charles Gates - Nov 22, 2010 at 12:27 PM

    Jeter was voted a designation onto the team, and there’s a rumor that Bobby Valentine is in line to manage it.

  6. sdelmonte - Nov 22, 2010 at 12:32 PM

    Koufax is a special case, I think. As usual, those six years where he was unhittable seem to overwhelm any memory or suggestion that he was mortal before that or that his career came to too sudden an end.

    How does Bob Gibson compare with Seaver or Clemens? Stats of any sort aside, if I were to pick one man to start a game for me with everything on the line, it would be him.

    • hackerjay - Nov 22, 2010 at 12:43 PM

      The thing about Koufax is that his numbers really aren’t as good as they look at first glance because he was pitching the most forgiving stadium in the best pitchers era of the last 100 years. Obviously he was a great pitcher, but he isn’t even the best left handed pitcher alive (that honor would go to Johnson IMO).

  7. georgeanderson2 - Nov 22, 2010 at 12:34 PM

    Brooks Robinson over Mike Schmidt. What about Pete Rose?

    • largebill - Nov 22, 2010 at 1:28 PM

      There is no objective measure that would lead one to see Brooks over Schmidt. Rose was a very good player who was very durable leading to high counting stats in some categories. Definitely not a top 20 player.

      • BC - Nov 22, 2010 at 3:13 PM

        I agree. If you call their fielding a wash, Schmidt is clearly better. With the HR’s he hit, people tend to forget that Schmidt was a very strong fielder – I think he won like 7 Gold Gloves (if that award means anything at this point after l’affaire Jeter.

  8. mekons5 - Nov 22, 2010 at 12:47 PM

    Gotta agree with the Bob Gibson comment. And how about Steve Carlton? After Aaron, Mays and Musial, it gets pretty murky.

  9. cintiphil - Nov 22, 2010 at 12:50 PM

    The problem with these sorts of lists, is that they always leave off obvious great players. Any pitcher who is on this list, has to yield to Gibson. No one pitcher carried a team as he did. All he had to do is throw his glove on the mound and you were beaten. Teams scheduled their best pitchers around him not to lose while throwing their best man. I would replace any of the pitchers on this list with Gibby.

  10. BC - Nov 22, 2010 at 12:51 PM

    No love for Whitey Ford on this board, huh?

    • tomemos - Nov 22, 2010 at 1:06 PM

      As the greatest living pitcher? Absolutely not.

  11. The Baseball Idiot - Nov 22, 2010 at 12:56 PM

    Does it always have to be about the statistics? Why not leave the numbers out of it and go on what we think, and not what we calculate.

    In this instance, perception is much better than reality.

    • BC - Nov 22, 2010 at 1:01 PM

      You obviously didn’t vote for Felix Hernandez then. ;-)

      • tomemos - Nov 22, 2010 at 1:04 PM

        BC, are you under the impression that CC and Price supporters weren’t going on statistics? The entire reason you don’t think Hernandez should win is because of a statistic: wins.

      • BC - Nov 22, 2010 at 1:16 PM

        Felix won the award based on statistics alone, so what’s your point?

      • tomemos - Nov 22, 2010 at 1:28 PM

        I agree with that. I’m saying that supporters of Felix and supporters of everyone else were using the same basis for their arguments: stats.

      • The Baseball Idiot - Nov 22, 2010 at 2:07 PM

        The phrase ‘this instance’ would show that my comment had nothing to do with the Cy Young vote.

    • largebill - Nov 22, 2010 at 1:38 PM

      TBI,

      What are statistics? Statistics are nothing but a record of what happened on the field. It is physically impossible for anyone to have seen every game played by every player. So, what we started doing was keeping track of what happened in all the games so we would have a better understanding of how to compare players. As time went on we realized we need more information to fully evaluate how a player performed. For example, instead of just tracking stolen bases we started also counting time caught stealing. The reason to do this is obvious. 35 SB’s is less impressive if the player was also caught 23 times. 22 SB’s become more impressive if you see that player was only caught once.

      Perception is NEVER better than reality. No reason to do these lists at all if you are going to ignore reality.

      • The Baseball Idiot - Nov 22, 2010 at 2:20 PM

        Wow, you have absolutely no imagination at all. I feel sorry for you, because perception trumps reality all of the time.

        By the way, I don’t need a course in Statistic 101. I know much more about them than you ever will. Also, I have learned something about baseball that the stat-heads and traditionalists both have forgotten in their silly battle for supremacy: its entirely possible to enjoy the game without any numbers at all, excepting the final score.

        It’s about the game, and the people who played it. Its entirely possible to say someone was a great player without knowing what his Wins or WAR were.

      • largebill - Nov 22, 2010 at 4:04 PM

        TBI,

        You just made the same mistake made by “real” writers when they decry those bloggers in their mother’s basement who ought to go watch a game. I’ve never met a baseball blogger who did not enjoy going to a live game. I go to between 50 and 100 games a year. Some are high school, some little league, some minors league and some major league. This little exercise and how one evaluates players does not prove whether any of us enjoys games just for the game itself. This is not about having imagination. This is about evaluating players based on what they actually accomplished. If I used imagination I’d be listing Tony Horton on this list assuming he didn’t have a mental breakdown and instead had a wonderful 20 year career. Problem is, as great a physical talent as Horton was, he had his demons and they derailed his career. Better yet, my top ten living ball players includes Babe Ruth because I’m imagining he is still a live. I hope that gives you some idea why imagination has no place in ranking players. If you want to write articles that explore the “What if” questions then using your imagination is appropriate.

        You are right that it is possible to say someone was great without knowing stats. I think my 14 year old son is a great player. Thing is Aaron’s column was about ranking the ten greatest living players. And to do that one must use some measure. Just saying “he’s great” doesn’t do much to narrow down the list of thousands of living players to just a top ten.

  12. airedale1950 - Nov 22, 2010 at 1:30 PM

    when did Pete Rose die? …and the Chairman of the board?

    • largebill - Nov 22, 2010 at 1:39 PM

      Pete Rose has not died. However, he also isn’t a top ten player.

  13. tomemos - Nov 22, 2010 at 1:56 PM

    What do the players people here are suggesting (Ford, Gibson, Brooks Robinson, Rose) have in common? They all played in the 60’s and 70’s. No one here is talking about the case for Maddux or Randy Johnson, because those guys played in recent memory. “Greatest Player” lists always favor long-ago players, because those guys have taken on some of the status of myth; they’re more exotic than recent players. It’s hard for us to think of someone as an all-time great player when we saw them on ESPN just a few years ago.

  14. metalhead65 - Nov 22, 2010 at 1:57 PM

    how can you have that list and not have the greatest catcher of all time on it?Johnny Bench is that player and make up all the stats you want but he was the best ever at that position. I rerfuse to even listen to a list that has steroid users on it. both were great players without cheating but did it anyway to get richer and set records they did not deserve. as for your steroids can’t make them hit homers or throw the ball your right but it can and did help them hit further and throw it faster or how else do you explain going from 50 to 75 or whatever homers?or suddenly going from being thought of as over the hill to winning cy young awards?

  15. anythingbutyanks - Nov 22, 2010 at 2:11 PM

    perhaps a position by position list would be ideal, then, with the best at each spot and a rotation of 5 pitchers and 1 or 2 relievers. Who were the best to play at each spot on the diamond?

  16. xpensivewinos - Nov 22, 2010 at 2:19 PM

    Koufax is the baseball version of Jim Brown. Didn’t do it as long as others, but for a specific period of time they were so dominant that they almost achieved mythological status.

    If Sandy Koufax pitched today and people saw what he can do the way they’re exposed to players now, he would be regarded as the greatest pitcher of all time.

    Any Top 10 list of greatest baseball players (and certainly pitchers) living or dead that doesn’t include Sandy Koufax is ludicrous.

    • ss - Nov 22, 2010 at 2:37 PM

      Here’s the thing – Pedro was better than Koufax. He has a considerably higher ERA+ and threw more innings than Koufax. And I find it hard to believe that Koufax could top Pedro when it comes to intangibles/guile/spectacle. Every time he took the mound it was an event.

      If you argue that Koufax is one of the ten best, then Pedro’s got to be in the top nine.

      • churchoftheperpetuallyoutraged - Nov 22, 2010 at 2:53 PM

        He has a considerably higher ERA+ and threw more innings than Koufax

        The ERA+ is right, but wait what on the IP? Koufax blew Pedro away in IP. Their top four seasons are:

        Pedro ’97 – ’00
        241.1
        233.2
        213.1
        217.0

        Koufax ’63 – ’66
        311.0
        223.0
        335.2
        323.0

  17. tomemos - Nov 22, 2010 at 2:40 PM

    “If Sandy Koufax pitched today and people saw what he can do the way they’re exposed to players now, he would be regarded as the greatest pitcher of all time.”

    If he were pitching today he’d be pitching in a less pitching-friendly environment and wouldn’t look as good.

    “Any Top 10 list of greatest baseball players (and certainly pitchers) living or dead that doesn’t include Sandy Koufax is ludicrous.”

    Oh come now, this is hyperbole. The ten best players ever?? Ruth, Gehrig, Williams, Mays, Mantle, Johnson…and a guy who had five excellent seasons?

    • tomemos - Nov 22, 2010 at 2:41 PM

      Meant to be in response to xpensivewinos, natch.

  18. brianmatusz17 - Nov 22, 2010 at 4:54 PM

    hold up, pedro better than koufax??? i want what ur smoking!!!!anywho, u really cant make these as someone already said u leave alot of players off, so mays,aaron, gibson, koufax, and if ur gonna put rose in that dont forget about rod carew or ichiro, im serious ichiro has had 200 in every season he played in the mlb so living hes up there but not top 10 and fukk jeter i hate that mofo and jeff mayer that lil boy that stole the orioles chance at the world series

  19. takemytalentstosoutheuclid - Nov 23, 2010 at 7:22 AM

    2 words: “Bob Feller”

    in 1946, he registered an incredible 348 strikeouts while pitching in 48 games, starting 42 of those games. That year Feller was 26-15 with an ERA of 2.18 while pitching 36 complete games. He led the American League in strikeouts seven times and had 200 or more strikeouts five times. Feller pitched in 570 games during his career, and pitched in 40 or more games six seasons. Feller also threw three no-hit games including the only opening day no-hitter in baseball history in 1940. He had 46 shutouts during his career with 10 of those in 1946. Many baseball historians have speculated that Feller would have won perhaps 350 games with well over 3,000 strikeouts had he not joined the military.

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