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February 21, 2006

Prospectus Matchups

The All-21st Century Team

by Jim Baker

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At what point in a given century can one start making designations such as the "Trial of the Century" or "The Fight of the Century"? While I'm pretty sure we haven't had either of those particular things yet, what if we had? Would it be presumptive to start jumping to conclusions and crowing about it already? I ask this because we may well have had a few "of-the-Century" records in baseball already. We're half-way through the first decade of the 21st Century and there's no time like the present to start speculating about how records will stand the test of time.

With only five seasons down, we may have already seen some of the finest performances that are going to occur in the next 100 years. (We're also five years into the latest millennium, but I'm not prepared to show that much hubris about current ballplayers.)

Of course, there were we all were back in 1990, our jaws dropping when Cecil Fielder became the first man in 13 years to hit 50 home runs only to be yawning at the feat by the end of the next decade. In other words, we are, to a great extent, at the mercy of decisions of babies not yet born. Who is to say some toddler who this very morning has just learned to use a toilet won't, some day, issue a decree that will raise the pitching mound by eight inches, throwing pitching records into an upward spiral of rate stat greatness?

In any event, on to the records. Oh, and sorry Rollover fans, we're starting our 21st Century count in 2001.

VORP
154.1, Bonds, 2001

Ah, the excesses of the 21st Century. We truly live in a time of plenty.

Best VORP by decade
1990s: 119.9 -- Alex Rodriguez, Seattle Mariners, 1996
1980s: 110.3 -- Robin Yount, Milwaukee Brewers, 1982
1970s: 101.5 -- Rod Carew, Minnesota Twins, 1977

On Base Percentage
.609, Barry Bonds, San Francisco Giants, 2004

Since the inception of the National League in 1876, only eight men have ever held this record. John McGraw grabbed it in 1899 and held it for 42 years. Ted Williams got a hold of it in 1941 and held it for 61 years. Bonds got it in 2002 and bettered it two years later. In other words, this is not going to be an easy one to crack. Bonds will still have this record when our century ends. If I'm wrong, I cordially invite you to come to my gravesite and laugh at me.

Slugging Average
.863, Barry Bonds, San Francisco Giants, 2001
Home Runs
73: Barry Bonds, San Francisco Giants, 2001

Talk about setting the bar early. Bonds' off-the-charts early-21st Century campaigns are formidable targets. Another hitting barrage like we experienced in recent times would give the best hitter of a coming era a good platform to work from, though--much as Bonds had. As for Bonds' 232 walks in '04, you might as well laser that record in stone.

Runs Batted In
160: Sammy Sosa, Chicago Cubs, 2001

I include this category only to raise this question: will we even be counting RBI by the end of the century? By 2030 it will be included in stat reports only to appease the ever-dwindling population of hard-liner old-schoolers. By 2050 it will be included only out of a sense of continuity and by 2070 it will be gone for good.

Stolen bases
70 Scott Podsednik, Milwaukee Brewers, 2004

This is very vulnerable. In the ebb and flow of offensive orientation over the next 95 years, many men are bound to break it. If nobody can manage it through 2010, though, then ours will be only the second decade in which the highest individual home run total will have bettered the highest individual stolen base count:

2001-2005: Home Runs up 73-70
1991-2000: Stolen bases won 78-70
1981-1990: SB won 130-51
1971-1980: SB won 118-52
1961-1970: SB won 104-52
1951-1960: SB won 56-52
1941-1950: SB won 61-54
1931-1940: SB won 61-58
1921-1930: Home Runs won 60-51
1911-1920: SB won 96-29
1901-1910: SB won 81-16

Innings pitched
266, Roy Halladay, Toronto Blue Jays, 2003

This is as close as it gets to an outlier in modern baseball. Since 1972, this is the 165th-most innings pitched in a season. The next 21st Century toiler is Curt Schilling, ranked 222nd with 259 1/3. Look where it got Halladay. He managed to match that output in the next two seasons combined.

Hits allowed per 9 innings
6.16: Johan Santana, Minnesota Twins, 2004

This figure just cracks the top 50 all-time, so we're bound to see its like--and better--again. Pedro Martinez had the fourth-best figure ever in the last year of the 20th Century.

Strikeouts per 9 innings
13.41: Randy Johnson, Arizona Diamondbacks, 2001

Good luck topping that one, futuristic pitcher units. The 10 highest figures of all-time have all come in the last decade, seven of them courtesy of Mr. Johnson.

Walks per 9 innings
0.43: Carlos Silva, Minnesota Twins, 2005

Only 10 times since 1972 has a pitcher walked less than a man per inning. Silva's remarkable 2005 showing laps the field. The next-closest is at 0.66 per nine. He has set the record for the century just five years in--unless he himself breaks it. How much of an outlier is this record? Consider that Silva ranks seventh all-time and is the first man since Babe Adams in 1920 to crack the top 25. Adams was ranked 25th and was himself the first man in 36 years to crack the top 25. That means Silva is ranked among a bunch of guys who not only threw from closer to the plate, they also needed more balls to walk a batter. All of the top-rankers in this category were either throwing 45 or 50 feet from home and getting this many inaccurate pitches before a free pass was given:

The nine-ball walk era (1876-79): 18 of the top 25
The eight-ball walk era (1880-81): 1
The seven-ball walk era (1882-83): 3
The six-ball walk era (1884): 2

VORP
88.8: Johan Santana, 2004

Only 15th-best since 1972. One of these here 21st Centurions has got to represent!

Our century has not yet had its first truly stunning pitching season. We haven't had anything like Pedro Martinez's 2000, Roger Clemens' 1997, Steve Carlton's 1972 or Dwight Gooden's 1985 to this point. It will happen, though.

RA
2.17: Roger Clemens, Houston Astros, 2005

Most of the best showings in this category over the past 35 years predate our own century. Clemens' figure is the eighth-best since 1972. These are the top five of the 21st Century to date:

2.17: Clemens
2.43: Jason Schmidt, San Francisco Giants (2003)
2.51: Pedro Martinez, Boston Red Sox (2003)
2.65: Jake Peavy, San Diego Padres (2004)
2.66: Derek Lowe, Boston Red Sox (2002)

So, it's a relative outlier so far, but not lying so far out that somebody won't come along and clip it in the near or distant future.

Best Team Record
116-46, 2001 Seattle Mariners

The Mariners may have killed all the drama right out of the gate. They may well have posted the best record of the century in the century's very first season. How soft is that record? Not very. Consider that only one team in the 45-year history of the 162-game schedule has come close to it, that being the 1998 Yankees at 114-48.

Worst Team Record
43-119, 2003 Detroit Tigers

Again, this might well be the sub-standard for the century. You never like to say never, but it would take an extraordinary set of circumstances to get a team back down to that level again. Who knows? Maybe the 2078 Havana Sugar Kings of the National League South might all come down with the dreaded Retro Plague and win just 21 games. It's hard to say from this vantage point.

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