There's not much to be gained by ranking across generations.
I have a confession. I suppose it’s not a very juicy confession. But all the same, I feel like I need to confess that I love All-Time teams. Or, at least, I used to love them. I used to make them when I was bored in school in the backs of my notebooks. All-Time Twins. All-Time Yankees. All-Time Guys Named Mike. And I was a sucker for other people’s All-Time teams too. Babe Ruth made a team of what he thought were the greatest players in baseball history back in the 1930s and named Hal Chase and Ray Schalk to it. Walter Johnson, and Rogers Hornsby and Ty Cobb published their dream teams too. Cobb put Buck Weaver at third base, while The Big Train honored both Chase and Johnny Kling. One of my first baseball books I owned as a kid was an old library book from 1963 that listed Pie Traynor as the greatest 3B in history. I’d read any of that stuff.
Which is why I was excited to hear about Graham Womack’s All-Time Dream Project, which asked fans to vote on the greatest players in baseball history and got heavy-hitting writers like Craig Calcaterra, Josh Wilker, and Dan Szymborski to write about them. Graham’s project, which is also raising money to run journalism workshops for kids, is great. And I don’t want to take anything away from it. But in the afterglow, Craig wrote about how the results illustrated that we may be overvaluing the past, saying “We get locked into older things first, and it’s that much harder for us to appreciate more recent greatness…. I think [voters] pick Rogers Hornsby over Joe Morgan because their father said he was the best and because the pictures of him are in black and white and, boy, if that ain’t history, I don’t know what is.”
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In 1941, the debate over the greatest player ever took to the links in a series of charity golf matches between Babe Ruth and Ty Cobb.
The long eyes of history may have resolved the debate in these past sixty years or so, but, when they were still living, there was plenty of debate about who was the greatest player of all time, Babe Ruth or Ty Cobb. In the inaugural voting for the Baseball Hall of Fame, for example, it was Cobb who received the greatest number of votes, not Ruth (222 to 215, out of 226 votes cast). As you might expect, it was Cobb's skill at small ball (stealing bases, bunting, etc.) that old-timers clung to in the debate while the younger crowd marvelled at Ruth's power.
But it wasn't just on the baseball diamond that these debates raged. As the two greats enjoyed their retirements, they each took up the game of golf and, apparently, became quite good. Cobb, for example, was able to play plenty of his rounds at the renowned Augusta National and even shot an 81 in a group with Sammy Byrd and Sam Snead there. Fans, as they are wont to do, carried their baseball debates over onto the links. Finally, in the summer of 1941, the retirement "feud" between Cobb and Ruth came to a head when Cobb challenged the Babe to a series of charity golf events for the war effort.
Looking at the chain of players who were the answer to the question "Who is the greatest living ballplayer?"
There was a fun little topic making its way around the web Wednesday afternoon. Sparked mostly by this post from Craig Calcaterra at Hardball Talk (who, in turn, was inspired by Baseball Think Factory), the topic asked "Who is the greatest living ballplayer for each of the 30 current ballclubs?"
Craig, and others, took the time to go through most of the candidates. For the most part, except for teams like the Angels or Rangers, most teams older than 20 years have a pretty obvious answer. I won't offer my list because, honestly, it wouldn't be all that much different than everyone else.
Rushing Bryce Harper can only hurt the Nationals, even if the tyro slugger performs well.
As meaningless as 13 spring training at-bats are, Harper’s hitting (.308/.357/.462, two doubles) has fueled calls for him to break camp with the Nats. This speaks highly of Harper’s incredible physical tools and amateur record, because outside of a brief turn in the Arizona Fall League and 13 at-bats in exhibition games this spring, Harper’s professional track record is nonexistent.
Given that frustrated Washington fans are eager to see their club finally shake off its legacy as a ward of the game and the universal desire to get to see the next big thing, it’s easy to understand all of the panting after Harper, and the rationale used to justify the lust is deceptively simple: Hey, if he’s ready, he’s ready, so what harm can there be in advancing the timetable? The answer is equally basic: the major-league game has rarely been kind to teenaged hitters, whatever their talents or apparent state of readiness.
However good Harper looks now, if he plays in the majors this season there is every chance he will not do well. There is a great deal of precedent for pessimism in the brief history of teenaged prospects who seemed to be ready but, once confronted with big-league pitching, were unable to cope. Most of them got their chance long ago, when the reserve clause meant that bringing up a player far from the center of his career didn’t mean losing him at 24. Just 14 players have accumulated 100 or more plate appearances in the majors at age 18 or younger. There are three Hall of Famers in the mix, but none of them showed off their Cooperstown-level tricks during these early campaigns:
Evaluating who was the best player in the game, starting with Ross Barnes in 1871.
Who is the best player in baseball right now? You can make credible arguments for two players-Albert Pujols and Alex Rodriguez. Who then will win the MVP awards in their respective leagues? A-Rod will probably win the American League's, but Pujols is unlikely to reciprocate in the NL. More probably, it will be someone like Prince Fielder, who is certainly very good, and who might have had the best season in his league, but is certainly not the best player in baseball.
Returning to a subject from this past winter, Dan digs in to discuss the all-time greats.
"It is the best game because the players look like us. They are not seven feet tall, they don’t weigh 350 pounds, and they don’t bench-press 650. We can relate to them. We can see them—they’re not obscured by some hideous face mask, and they don’t play behind a wall of Plexiglas—we can touch them and we can feel them. I see Greg Maddux with his shirt off, with his concave chest and no discernible muscles, and I marvel: This is one of the six greatest pitchers in the history of the game? I see Tony Gwynn with his shirt off and I see a short, fat guy with the smallest hands I've ever seen on an athlete, and I wonder: 'This is the best hitter since Ted Williams?'...They are regular guys, at least most of them, who just happen to be really, really good at something that everyone else is not."
--Tim Kurkjian, from chapter one of Is This a Great Game, or What?: From A-Rod's Heart to Zim's Head--My 25 Years in Baseball
Dan shows the relationship between quantum physics and sabermetrics before delving into Win Expectancy.
"I'm reminded a bit of the principle of superposition--each player in the game produces a contribution that has an effect on the probability of winning, somewhat analogous to a wave function. Add up these "wave functions" for each team, and you get a result that expresses how likely the team is to win with these particular sets of contributions, yet at this point it's still unknown whether the team actually wins (much like the fate of Schrödinger's cat inside the box). However, the wave function only collapses to the actual result when the game is played (or the box containing the cat is opened)."
--Keith Woolner, “Aim for the Head” October 24, 2001
The steroid scandal bears an eerie resemblance to an earlier scandal. Steven explains.
Last weekend Chris Kahrl, Cliff Corcoran, Neil deMause and I spent a pleasant evening answering questions at Coliseum Books in Manhattan. Actually, we didn't answer questions, we answered question, because all anyone wanted to talk about was Performance-Enhancing Apple Jack, Barry Bonds, and Baseball Between the Numbers' take on the latter. As we do radio spots around the galaxy talking about our vast array of spring products (Two books! Branded Horse Blankets! Will Carroll's All-Ages Slumber Party!) all anyone wants to do is engage us in judging players and handing out asterisks. We're the stats guys, after all--we must know Where They Should Go.
After last week's column, Dayn got plenty of mail about his new Triple Crown. So, let's try this again.
In last week's column, I proposed a revised hitter's Triple Crown, one that made notional improvements upon the current troika of batting average, home runs and RBI. I chose on-base percentage, slugging percentage and plate appearances as the components of the New and Improved Triple Crown (NITC). Well, the inclusion of plate appearances raised many a hackle among readers, and when that happens it's usually a sign I've fouled something up.
Every once in a while you have a day or a week that flashes back to other, older days and weeks.
Last week, the United States and Great Britain signed a treaty pledging to protect the wreck of the Titanic, which sank beneath the waves in 1912; Roger Clemens and Mark Prior faced off in a pitching match-up that was a descendant of one in 1912; and a boob from Texas mistreated a four-year-old fan in a way that made one wish it was 1912. John McCain even had an opportunity to bolt the Republican Party last week, but apparently no one told him that Theodore Roosevelt had done so with honor back in 1912, because the Senator refused to go along with the 1912ness of things. Baseball, though, was unabashedly singing
Last week, the United States and Great Britain signed a treaty pledging to protect the wreck of the Titanic, which sank beneath the waves in 1912; Roger Clemens and Mark Prior faced off in a pitching match-up that was a descendant of one in 1912; and a boob from Texas mistreated a four-year-old fan in a way that made one wish it was 1912. John McCain even had an opportunity to bolt the Republican Party last week, but apparently no one told him that Theodore Roosevelt had done so with honor back in 1912, because the Senator refused to go along with the 1912ness of things. Baseball, though, was unabashedly singing "When the Midnight Choo Choo Leaves for Alabam", hip-hopping to that non-funky 1912 groove.