Thursday, April 19, 2012

The Worst of the Best

Baseball is nothing without its history, and MLB has 16 glorious franchises with over a century of it. Each one has its share of Hall of Famers, icons and fan favorites, none of whom will ever be forgotten. While the 14 expansion franchises that have come into existence since 1961 are all special in their own ways, they just can't compare to the slightly-misnamed "Original 16" in the history department.

It stands to reason then, that each one could boast a solid all-time starting nine. As with any list of things that are somehow quantifiable though, someone has to be the worst among them. I got to thinking: Of the sixteen franchises that existed at the beginning of the Modern Era, which ones would have the weakest players representing them at each position?

In order to find the answer, I needed to choose a "best player" at each position for each franchise. Obviously, choosing such a list requires a bit of subjectivity. To compile it, I used Baseball-Reference's WAR, and weighed various factors such as longevity, peak production and time spent at the position. What I ended up with wasn't perfectly scientific, but for this exercise, it'll do. I decided that no player could qualify for two positions, since that wouldn't feel like a true "lineup." In cases where a guy might qualify as the best at multiple positions, I attempted to put him at the position where he was best-suited. I also excluded pitchers from this study, so there'll only be eight guys listed here.

Who did I end up with? Let's take a look:

Catcher: Victor Martinez, Indians

The Indians have had several serviceable guys behind the plate, but none have been outstanding for a significant length of time. The best of these briefly-shining stars is Victor Martinez, currently on the Tigers' injured list. In 821 games, the three-time All-Star slugged 103 homers and had an OBP of .369 with a 120 OPS+. Not too shabby for a backstop who occasionally played first and DH.

First Base: John Kruk, Phillies

"Oh, come on!" I can hear you saying. "John Kruk? In the nearly 130-year history of the Phillies there was no better first baseman?" I'll tell you right now: nope. Check for yourself if you don't believe me. Honestly, it surprised me too. While many men played more games than the Krukker, I couldn't find anyone whose production justified ranking ahead of him. Ryan Howard has gaudier power numbers, but Kruk still beats him in 4+-WAR seasons (three to two so far, and highly likely to stay that way).

It's actually arguable whether Kruk is indeed the worst best first baseman among the Original 16. Fred Tenney (Braves franchise) had a lower peak value and career WAR/162 rate. The only reason he beats out Kruk is because he held down the position for his team about three times longer than Kruk did for his. Kruk's four seasons as primary first baseman is just long enough to qualify for this list, but not long enough to win many battles with his peers. With similar longevity, Kruk would beat out Tenney easily.

Second Base: Bobby Lowe, Braves

Second base and the Braves have a bit of an odd history. The keystone spot has been manned by Hall of Famers (Johnny Evers, Rogers Hornsby, Rabbit Maranville, Red Schoendienst), guys who put up random big seasons (Jack Burdock, Bill Sweeney, Marcus Giles) and guys with noteworthy accomplishments (Dan Uggla's hitting streak, Mark Lemke's postseason heroics), but none of the aforementioned has been good enough long enough to be the franchise's all-time second-sacker. That distinction goes to a steady, slick-fielding guy from the 1890's, Mr. Lowe.

If Lowe belongs in any of the above categories, it's "guys with noteworthy accomplishments," as he was the first player to it four homers in a game.

Third Base: George Kell, Tigers

When I was a kid I looked at George Kell's numbers in the Baseball Encyclopedia and wondered why he was in the Hall of Fame. It turns out the Hall was looking for more third baseman at the time he was elected, and Kell was not only a .300 hitter, but a popular broadcaster. It all made sense. While modern statistics suggest that Kell's spot in Cooperstown isn't warranted, it would be unfair to his legacy to ignore what a fine player he was in his seven-year tenure with Detroit (in the first and last seasons of which he was traded).

Interestingly, his closest competitor for the third base spot was another guy whose reputation has taken a hit thanks to modern statistics: Pie Traynor. Like Fred Tenney, his longevity was the only thing that saved him.

Shortstop: Jimmy Rollins, Phillies

Color me surprised yet again. While most of us would agree that Rollins is no all-time great, I didn't realize how weak he was compared to the other all-time franchise shortstops. Truthfully, after running the numbers, it wasn't even close. As he's still active, Rollins obviously has time to add to his resume, but considering he's 33 years old, it's probably a safer bet that he'll bring his averages down rather than up.

Left Field: Billy Williams, Cubs

Hoooooooooooo boy. It really hurts me to put a beloved Cub icon here. Any way you slice the WAR though, he seems to be the most appropriate choice. This is a position with some tough competition, and it just so happens that Sweet Swingin' Billy draws the short straw, even against such forgotten players as Sid Gordon and Bobby Veach. While his durability gave him a better career than many other all-time left fielders, his peak production failed to match up to any of them.

Center Field: Max Carey, Pirates

Another borderline-in-retrospect Hall of Famer joins the list. Carey's lofty stolen base totals made him a reasonable selection 50 years ago, but in these days of WAR, he looks more like a darn-good player than a great one.

Right Field: Magglio Ordonez, White Sox

Admit it: You never knew how poor the White Sox' history in right field was. I had a hard time choosing the man for the Chisox' starboard garden, since no one really stood out. Considering Ordonez's closest competitor was Floyd Robinson, it's clear that whoever I picked was going to end up making this lineup.

Ordonez is one of those players who might have been great had he drawn more walks and/or been a better fielder, but as it stands, he was merely a solid player who proved that a .300 batting average, 30 homers and 100 RBI don't make a great hitter.

Just for fun, let's create a batting order for these guys:

Carey, CF
Rollins, SS
Williams, LF
Ordonez, RF
Kruk, 1B
Martinez, C
Kell, 3B
Lowe, 2B

Undoubtedly, this lineup would make one heck of a team. Certainly one can't take inclusion here as a knock on any of them. In some cases, it speaks to the strength of the "Original 16" that these guys are the worst at each position.

Since I'm sure you're curious, here's a table of all the players I selected at each franchise's position.

One might quibble with some of my choices, but trust me, I couldn't find a clearly-better option for any of them.

But wait! There's more! As I was putting this post together, it occurred to me that there are several active players who could realistically find a place on the above chart someday. Theoretically, any young, unproven player could wind up as an all-time great, but more likely than not, he won't. The following guys have flashed enough potential that if you time-traveled ten years into the future, then came back and told me they'd comfortably displaced their predecessors, I wouldn't be at all surprised.

Matt Kemp, Dodgers, Center Field

"What?" you ask. "You do realize the Dodgers' all-time center fielder is Hall of Famer Duke Snider, right?" I reply, "What kind of question is that? I put the above list together! Are you insinuating I have short-term memory loss?"

No, I'm being serious here. Matt Kemp was a solid, developing player until last year, when he morphed into a monster. After the hot start he's gotten off to this year, I think it might be time to say he's legit. Even if he doesn't consistently put up 10-WAR seasons, some seasons of 7 or more will keep him safely in superstar territory, and might be enough to overtake the Duke.

Andrew McCutchen, Pirates, Center Field

He's not as good as Kemp, but as I discussed above, the Pirates don't have the highest bar set for them in center. I could easily see him becoming the all-time Bucco middle fielder.  

Dustin Pedroia, Red Sox, Second Base

He's already about halfway to Bobby Doerr's WAR total, in much fewer than half the plate appearances. Speaking of war, you could also argue that Doerr deserves to lose credit for having perhaps his best year during World War II. The way Pedroia's going, he may only need a few more seasons to surpass him.

Carlos Santana, Indians, Catcher

Obviously it's a bit early to make any predictions, but Santana so far seems to be about the equal of Victor Martinez. He's a switch-hitter, he plays first base and DH occasionally, and heck, he even wears the same uniform number. It's not unreasonable to think he could eventually outperform him.

Joey Votto, Reds, First Base

One thing that surprised me during this study was the realization that many franchises have never had a truly elite player at a position for an appreciable length of time, despite many very good ones. The Reds and first base are one example. The position has been manned by Hall of Famers like Jake Beckley (who offered consistency but not a ton of peak value), Tony Perez, Jim Bottomley (probably neither of whom belongs in the Hall) and Frank Robinson (who didn't play there long enough to be a good choice). There were also high-average/medium-power guys like Frank McCormick, Hal Morris and Sean Casey, none of whom will be discussed as immortals. I went with Ted Kluszewski mainly because of his amazing five-year peak from 1952-56.

However, the Reds' current best player is a first baseman, and what's more, he's under contract for the next eleven years (with an option for a twelfth)! Joey Votto is 28 years old, and his spot on the field is apparently secure until the end of the decade. He has an MVP to his name, and has improved his WAR total every season he's been in the majors. Could he be the truly outstanding initial sacker that the Reds have been waiting for? For what they're paying him, they'd better hope so.  

Matt Wieters, Orioles, Catcher

Wieters' potential used to be something of an internet joke, but now it's finally translating into high-quality production. Chris Hoiles was probably a better player than you remember, but his career was too short and injury-riddled to be a great one. If Wieters can continue to live up to expectations, there'll be a new man on top of the O's all-time catcher list before long.

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