MLB.com is running a weekly series of articles choosing the greatest players at each position for each franchise. The selections are chosen by a group of MLB.com beat reporters. It just so happens that we at A Sip of Sports did our own series of articles on the same subject last year. Third base is due out this week. They have already run their choices for catcher, first base and second base. They organized their articles by defensive positions while we organized ours by team, but the crux of the articles are basically the same, except we give a short history of the franchises themselves in our articles.
Our selections are somewhat similar so far. We agree on 71% (64 out of 90) of the choices. Sometimes the difference between two or three players is very narrow and we just disagree on the margins. That’s happened on 15 of the differences.
First base for the Dodgers for instance, we think Steve Garvey and Gil Hodges are an extremely close call. We make the case for both men in our selection piece. It’s basically just a pick-em. We took Garvey, MLB.com chose Hodges. Either one was a reasonable pick. Just as a footnote, MLB.com when discussing Hodges made a rather ridiculous comment that Gil Hodges is the best player from the past not in the Hall of Fame. That’s a pretty ill informed statement. As A Sip of Sports stated in that same section, Hodges was not, while active, considered a great player. He was somewhere between the fifth and eighth best player on his team. His top finish in MVP voting was 7th, and was never a serious candidate for the award. His career numbers are about even with Garvey’s, with a 43.9 WAR and 263 Win Shares to Garvey’s 38.1 WAR and 279 Win Shares. These numbers are not even close to the four we nominated in our Hall of Fame article in January.
Lou Whitaker (75.1 WAR & 351 WS), Tommy John (61.6 WAR & 289 WS), Dwight Evans (67.1 WAR & 347 WS), and Dale Murphy (46.5 WAR & 294 WS) are our four best players not in the Hall of Fame. Hodges trails then all badly except perhaps Murphy. Dale has other advantages, like being a 2-time Most Valuable Player. We use the BASEBALL REFERENCE WAR figures, because that’s the one MLB.com uses. The Win Shares numbers are from Bill James. This accounts for the 15 of the 26 differences.
A Sip of Sports was trying to create the best functioning team for each franchise, and not place a definitive position for each player, but slide them into any position they could reasonably handle to improve the team. This accounts for another seven.
For example, MLB.com chose Brad Ausmus as the catcher for the Houston Astros. We chose Craig Biggio. The reason we chose Biggio, despite the fact he had 1,989 games at second base, and only 428 behind the plate, is that Craig proved that he was a major league catcher in his early years in Houston. He made the All Star team, as a catcher, in 1991. By putting Biggio behind the plate it allows us to include Jose Altuve as the second baseman. What is a stronger squad, Ausmus at catcher and Biggio at second or Biggio at catcher and Altuve at second base? The answer is obvious, isn’t it. So the disagreement is more structural than factual. We’ve moved several players away from their primary positions to ones they also played significantly or otherwise proved they could handle.
We moved Ryan Zimmerman from third base to first base for the Nationals, Carl Yastrzemski from left field to right field with the Red Sox, Paul Waner from right field to left field for the Pirates, along with several others. The list of seven are; Joe Judge instead of Harmon Killebrew at first (we moved Killebrew to third), Brian Downing over Bob Boone at catcher for the Angels (Downing was primarily an outfielder and a DH with the Angels), Darin Erstad over Rod Carew at first for the Angels (Erstad had more games in the outfield, but it’s close), Jose Altuve at second for the Astros (we’ve already covered), Michael Young over Ian Kinsler at second for the Rangers (Young played all over the infield for the Rangers), Ryan Zimmerman at first for the Nationals, Paul Molitor at second for the Brewers (he played about twice as many games at third than second, but he came up a second baseman and played there his first three seasons), Craig Counsell at second for the Diamondbacks (Counsell was another who played every infield position positions). That accounts for another seven of the 11 remaining disagreements.
The next problem between our picks and MLB.com, is what to do with Designated Hitters. We didn’t rate the Designated Hitter spot on its own because it isn’t a position in the field. You can tell by our tone that we are not enamoured by the practice, but there are now players in the Hall of Fame (Edgar Martinez) who that was their primary role. We didn’t think it was right to exclude these gentlemen, so we decided to find a place for them on our teams. This explains the differences we had with MLB.com on choices for first base with the Mariners and the Red Sox. We took Martinez and David Ortiz, while they took Alvin Davis and Jimmie Foxx. Just to be clear, their picks were very reasonable. We would have chosen the same two if we weren’t finding a place for the designated hitters. We don’t think that MLB.com would dispute that Martinez and Ortiz were more valuable to the Mariners and Red Sox than Davis and Foxx.
Finally we come to the selection that we just can’t support. There are two. One we think MLB.com just made a mistake and the other is one where they take off field opinions into their decision making. They make a terrible choice because they don’t approve of the person who is obviously the most deserving.
Second Base for the Chicago White Sox MLB.com took Nellie Fox, a choice that can not be supported. Unless you issue Eddie Collins a huge penalty for the time he played (1906-1930) it just can’t be justified. Collins was a White Sox from 1915 to 1926. Fox was a White Sox from 1947-1963. That’s about 30 years between the times of their careers. Collins’ WAR with the Sox was 66.6, Fox’ WAR with the Sox was 47.5 (his career total was 49.5). It’s strange how MLB.com quotes WAR on many of their selections but completely ignored it on this one. Fox was probably a little better with the glove than Collins, but they’re close enough that we’re not sure. Bill James grades Fox an “A” and Collins an “A-”. Bill James’ defensive ratings are very thorough, but we accept the fact that he sometimes gets it wrong. By reputation both players were exceptional with the glove. The White Sox won two pennants and one World Series for Chicago while Collins was there, they won one pennant and lost that World Series while Fox was there. Fox did win an MVP in 1959, but Collins had two 2nd finishes and a 5th in the three MVP votes that were available for his time in Chicago. By any grading system Collins’ best season (1920) was better than Fox’ best season (1959). There’s just no way that the intangibles can make up that kind of statistical advantage. Our choice is the correct choice.
The final difference is first base for the Chicago Cubs. That ones also a no brainer, and it’s not Anthony Rizzo. It is Cap Anson. It is clear that Cap Anson was a racist, and he was instrumental in preventing black men from playing major league baseball for 70 years. That has nothing to do with Cap Anson’s contributions on the field for the Chicago Cubs. You’ve got a man who accumulated more than 3,000 hits in a Chicago uniform, drove in more than 2,000 runs and led them to 6 National League pennants. He was probably the best player in 19th century Baseball, and the man we chose as the greatest Chicago White Stocking/Colt/Cub of all time. He leads Rizzo in MLB.com beloved WAR 94.3 to 33.5, and Bill James Win Shares 381 to 187. There’s no way you can justify that pick unless you reduce his rating so much for the time he played that you would have to eliminate any player from consideration from before 1947.
It is a stain on Anson’s legacy and a curse on Major League Baseball that they let him bully them into the policy to ban players of color, but Anson was out of baseball in 1900, and died in 1922. Baseball let this outrage continue for another 25 years after Anson’s death. Are we going to disqualify everyone involved with upholding that policy?
This is a sports article. We do not downgrade competitors because we don’t like their views on life. If we did there are many other athletes we could diminish. Tiger Woods’ treatment of his wife, Lawrence Taylor’s abuse of underaged girls, Ty Cobb’s overt racism, Pete Alexander’s abuse of the bottle, Barry Bonds use of steroids, Joe Jackson taking money from gamblers, etc. How many more can we name. There are many people today who want to put Pete Rose in the Hall of Fame. He gambled on baseball, the single most destructive activity to the survival of the game, and he is to be forgiven and treated like a martyr. We don’t have to forgive Cap Anson for his transgressions to accept that he was a great baseball player.
Want to know more?
You can read our picks for all the greatest players by team here.
If you’d like to read more about Cap Anson, we told the story of how he bullied the Major Leagues into excluding blacks here.