One thing Michael Cuddyer can never be is the greatest hitter ever without black ink. Cuddyer colored his player page by winning the National League’s batting title, an achievement I didn’t notice happening and won’t remember caring about that will, subtly, affect how I think about Michael Cuddyer every time I look up his career stats.
There are players who have led the league in batting and nothing else, ever: Alex Johnson, Bill Mueller, Billy Goodman, and so on. There are even better players who have led the league in some other prestige category and nothing else, ever: Troy Glaus in home runs; Bret and Ray Boone in RBIs. There are even better players who have led the league in some trivial category, or even a negative category, and nothing else, ever: Ivan Rodriguez, Tony Perez, and Jorge Posada are among the players who led the league in double plays without ever leading in anything good. Carlos Beltran’s only black ink: games played, if you can believe it.
But that doesn’t answer the question: Who is the best player without black ink? Who is now safe, forever, from Michael Cuddyer? “Best player” becomes subjective for this question, but going back to 1950 I’d rank them like this:
5. Tim Salmon
Qualifications: Same career OPS+ as Sammy Sosa;
Disadvantages: Late start, early finish, tough ballpark, never hit 35 homers in an era when literally dozens of players did so every year.
Closest he ever came: In the strike-delayed 1995, he finished in the top five in all three slash stats, including third in batting. Edgar Martinez hit .356/.479/.628 that year, though, so it wasn’t all that close.
4. Eric Davis
Qualifications: Same career OPS+ as Fred McGriff; five consecutive years as MVP candidate, with what basically amounted to Mike Trout’s 5×5 numbers.
Disadvantages: Never played more than 135 games in a season; Vince Coleman.
Closest he ever came: In 1987, he slugged .593; one more double, or one double turning into a home run, would have topped Jack Clark’s .597 that year. He was three runs behind the league leaders, too.
3. Jim Edmonds
Qualifications: Same career OPS+ as Juan Gonzalez, Rafael Palmeiro; more career home runs than Larry Walker, Jim Rice.
Disadvantages: Five-year .298/.410/.593 stretch coincided with another NL outfielder’s .339/.535/.781 stretch, though he also never finished second in any category.
Closest he ever came: One run behind the leaders in 1995. Got one extra shot to get that run in a one-game playoff, but the Mariners started Randy Johnson against him.
2. Scott Rolen
Qualifications: Same career OPS+ as Paul Molitor, Ernie Banks. Only post-War third basemen with more 100-RBI seasons: Mike Schmidt, Alex Rodriguez, Chipper Jones, and Aramis Ramirez.
Disadvantages: Hit doubles in a home run era.
Closest he ever came: From 2001 to 2004, finished second in at least one category each year: doubles (two back), triples (two back), RBIs (seven back) and sac flies (one back).
1. Barry Larkin
Qualifications: Same OPS+ as Roberto Alomar, more offensive WAR than Tony Gwynn or Edgar Martinez.
Disadvantages: Notable more for the bad things he didn’t do (get caught stealing, strike out, or make errors) than for putting up big numbers; half of his eight best seasons, offensively, were shortened by injuries.
Closest he came: Missed leading by five stolen bases one year, seven hits one year, one sacrifice fly one year, and one hit-by-pitch one year. But the closest was probably 1999, when he played the first 110 games of the season, then sat out a game in mid-August. From a news account at the time: “Barry Larkin expressed one pre-game desire for his Cincinnati Reds teammates Sunday: ‘Get a lead early and win big, so I don't have to get in.’” They did, winning 8-2. Larkin finished the season with 161 games played, one short of the league lead.