|Before there was Robinson Cano,|
baseball had Rod Carew.
My recollections of baseball as a fan began in 1982, when I chose to be a fan of the Cubs instead of the White Sox. My reasoning wasn't clear, maybe I just liked the name better. All in all, I'm glad with the choice. Even through the suffering and dishonesty, I'll live through this thankless, one-sided relationship of love and devotion yet to be reciprocated.
Pete Rose's last season of batting over .300 was 1981, a bit before my time. I don't even remember him as a Phillie or Expo, where he played until traded back to Cincinnati in 1984 for Tom Lawless. Pete Rose, to me, was a bloated player/manager on the Reds who would put himself in the lineup often enough to catch the ghost of Ty Cobb before fading away into the sunset in the desert.
|Yount had two SI|
covers in October of '82.
As folklore goes, Michael Jack Schmidt was the #1 Cub killer of all time. In 1982 alone, Schmidt hit 9 home runs in 18 games against the Cubs. Over his career, he hit more home runs against the Cubs than any other team.
Mike Schmidt Most Career Home Runs vs Opponent
78 vs Cubs
|Mike Schmidt loved|
the friendly confines.
57 vs Expos
55 vs Reds
49 vs Mets
He also loved, no, LOVED hitting at Wrigley Field. In 138 career games at Wrigley, he hit 50 home runs. His career batting average at Wrigley Field (.307) was forty points higher than his overall career batting average (.267).
In 1983, news from the American League echoed praises for a quirky young man in Boston showing an extraordinary command for the strike zone. Wade Boggs would famously watch the pitch as long as possible, with his face often snapping back to the catcher's glove, as he trailed the ball with his eyes the entire time. His combination of impeccable batter's eye and efficient bat control got him to Cooperstown with legendary career slash line of .328/.415/.443. Over his first ten seasons, almost 1,500 games, Wade Boggs flaunted a .345 batting average and .435 OBP.
|People who saw it still talk|
about The Sandberg Game.
The MVP in the National League in 1984 was the Chicago Cubs poster boy, Ryne Sandberg. Defense was a big part of Ryno's game, and of course, he had "The Sandberg Game" on National TV, with Bob Costas. The best hitters in 1984 were Tony Gwynn and Don Mattingly.
|We'll be talking about Tony|
Gwynn for a long time.
Over in the American League, The Yankees were a flawed team but had a couple of MVP candidates. Dave Winfield scored 106 runs, knocked in 100, hit .340, with a 154 OPS+. Don Mattingly, at 23-year olds, entering his prime, had his first of six straight All-Star seasons, won a batting title with his .343 average, and lead the league with a 156 OPS+. Mattingly's extra base hit-to-strikeout ratio of 69-to-33 was particularly impressive.
George Brett had better offensive season. Brett probably could have made this list in '82 or '83, but his prime was a bit before my time. He was a tough out in the 70's, 80's, and 90's. In fact, he had world class seasons ranging from his 22-year old 1975 campaign to his 37-year old 1990 renaissance. If George Brett's legendary 1980 season, where he hit .390, had happened a few years later, he'd probably end in our Top 5. Since I was busy learning how to speak and dress myself as a 3-year old, George Brett flew a bit under my radar until the late 80's.
|Rivalry? What rivalry?|
In the National League, Mike Schmidt enjoyed a renaissance, winning his third MVP trophy as a 37-year old third baseman. This season cemented Schmidt as a walking, talking Hall of Famer. Other notable performances around the senior circuit in '82 include performances from Eric Davis, Tim Raines, Keith Hernandez, and Tony Gwynn, who's .329 batting average wound up below his career .338 average.
As many people remember, in 1987, the baseball got a little bit livelier. There have been rumors, stories, accusations, and the truth is murky. Reasons may never definitively be known, but home runs went up, players said the balls were harder. They were "juiced" - the baseballs, not necessarily the players, yet. Baseball, in the steroids department, still had some innocence left.
|In '87, The Hawk soared at Wrigley.|
Dawson deserves his own post(s).
|Alan Trammell lead the Tigers past|
George Bell's Blue Jays late in '87.
Wade Boggs performed at the peak of his sport once again in 1988. He batted .366 with a .476 on-base, further cementing his status as a batting icon for the ages. Boggs didn't win the MVP in '88 for a number of reasons, including splitting votes with teammate, Mike Greenwell. Regardless, the Oakland A's Jose Canseco became the first person to ever go 40/40 and won unanimously.
|A player's personality|
affects MVP votes.
|A single up the middle on this|
swing ended the '89 Cubs season.
|Rickey dominated games.|
On a beautifully sunny 81-degree afternoon in old Milwaukee County Stadium, August 2nd, 1990, a very large 22-year old man, named Frank Thomas, made his Major League debut. Looking back at the box score, this game has all sorts of nostalgia. Big Frank was batting 5th in the lineup, in-between 42-year old Carlton Fisk and 21-year old Sammy Sosa. Ozzie Guillen batted 9th. The Brewers also showed a mix of young and old with Robin Yount batting second and Gary Sheffield batting third at 21 years old. In his first game in The Show, Frank Thomas drove in the game winning RBI, with a tie-breaking fielder's choice in the top of the 9th.
The Frank Thomas Show was a hit immediately.
Look at the start of his career:
|Frank Thomas / threw like|
a child / hit like a beast
After turning 30, Frank Thomas had some injury problems but still hit 39+ home runs at age 32, 35, and 38. He retired with 521 home runs and will be a worthy and well respected first ballot hall of fame inductee. To maintain some semblance of brevity, let's all mentally place a Frank Thomas mention into this post for the next seven years.
You may remember 1992 for the amazing NLCS between Pittsburgh and Atlanta, and also the Pirates' last season with Barry Bonds and last season finishing over .500 to date. While the East Coast slept, Edgar Martinez was doing things no DH had ever done before.
|In 1993, my coaches were quick to|
reference Olerud as a swing to mimic.
Olerud had a beautiful swing, stayed perfectly balanced all year, never moving his head until after contact. We've heaped praise on Olerud in the past and wish he would have stayed on the Hall of Fame ballot. His story is worthy of being retold.
The first time Tony Gwynn was brought up in this discussion was eleven seasons ago. At the age of 34, Tony Gwynn batted .396 in 110 games of a strike-shortened season. Chances are he would have ended a full season batting somewhere in the .360-.390 range, but who knows? There are articles out there saying that Gwynn is convinced to this day that he would have hit .400 in 1994. There is an amazing part of Tony Gwynn's greatness that I'm hoping to share clearly. In his prime, he stole a lot of bases (56 as a 27-year old in 1987), suggesting he had some speed. He was such a great hitter, that as he aged, he roped enough line drives to play at an All-Time Great level at an advanced age. As an example, below are his numbers around turning 30.
|Tony Gwynn was an|
All-Time World Class
athlete for 20 years.
Age 22-29: 4,527 PA's, .332/.389/.437
Age 30-41: 5,705 PA, .343/.388/.475
Or, if you prefer...
Age 22-30: 5,156 PA's, .329/.385/.435
Age 31-41: 5,076 PA's, .347/.392/.483
Those second numbers make him look even better as an old player. I wonder who the best aging players of all time were? No matter who we could think of, we'd have Tony Gwynn in right field.
|Kids, don't sleep|
on Edgar Mertinez.
Edgar Martinez was at the top of his game for three straight seasons after the strike. He routinely gets penalized for being a Designated Hitter, but that penalty does not apply to our discussion. As many of you know, Edgar didn't get a shot until much later than most ball players. His debut was at 24, and the first time he played more than 65 games was as a 27-year old. To use the Tony Gwynn illustration above:
Age 24-30: 2,249 PA's, .306/.391/.456
Age 31-41: 6,423 PA's, .314/.427/.537
Around the time the great Barry Larkin began to fade in the National league, Nomar Garciaparra, Derek Jeter, and A-Rod gave the AL a three-headed monster at Shortstop. Their all around games effectively changed the expectations of what a great shortstop should accomplish. Today's young shortstops like Starlin Castro, Manny Machado, and Adeiny Hechavarria will soon have a chance to make their own lasting impressions.
|Larry Walker lead the league with|
44 doubles in strike-shortened 1994
It's rare to say this about a great New York athlete, but the seasons Bernie Williams had in 1998 and 1999 sort of go unnoticed. Among the outstanding performances of a handful of great teammates, Derek Jeter's 1999 season - .349 batting average and 24 home runs from the shortstop position - cast a shadow from which the demure Bernie Williams would rarely emerge.
|Jason Giambi was a WWE|
Superstar who could hit.
Todd Helton finished 5th in MVP voting but was basically Mr. 2000, leading the National League in Hits, doubles, extra base hits, total bases, batting average, and the alphabet soup of OBP, SLG, WPA, RE24, and WAR. It's irrelevant to this discussion, but Helton was also the best defensive player in the National League that season.
|Todd Helton is still getting it done.|
By comparison, Todd Helton had about eight fantastic season, or certainly not Manny Ramirez, who flourished for over ten years. (just ask Yankee fans), but he was the best in the business circa 2001.
They have Hall of Fame numbers and will receive serious consideration for our Top 5 list. Our list doesn't need to only be comprised of future Hall of Famers. History is littered with stories of some of the best hitters of all time with no place in Cooperstown. John Olerud isn't the only one. Still, just for fun and perspective, let's see how a handful of these guys look when put into Bill James's Hall of Fame Monitor:
Bill James's HoF Monitor
Manny Ramirez: 222
|"Me llamo Manny"|
Todd Helton: 164
Larry Walker: 147
Albert Belle: 134
Edgar Martinez: 132
Jason Giambi: 104
Likely HoF'er = 100
Will Clark: 84
John Olerud: 68
Not unlike Giambi and Manny, Barry Bonds cheated his way into all the record books through the mid 2000's. Before the time he's suspected of using steroids, he was already one of the best hitters we've ever seen.
|Who likes me? I like me.|
Sometimes, I have to throw mu hands up in the air because erudite examples are hard to come by in matters of honor, and few things really make sense from the Selig Era. Some would say it's fair to talk about every player when having discussions of who's better and who's best. It doesn't cost anything to have good manners, and it always pays to be considerate.
We don't really know who any of these guys are. The most genial players on our favorite teams, might be lying, two-faced, 'roided up, cheating dirt bags like Barry Bonds. Albert Pujols could have been on steroids his entire career. Who knows? Are we supposed to erase them from our minds when thinking of the best hitters we've ever seen? It may be best to penalize players for whatever factors we as individuals choose. We could penalize Rafael Palmeiro, Giambi, Bonds, Arod, Manny and more for steroids, Edgar Martinez for not playing defense, Reggie Jackson for being pompous, Albert Belle for being an unpleasant person, Jim Rice for doing most of his damage in Fenway, Todd Helton for playing half his games in Colorado, on and on... Our perceptions of what players put into their bodies, fairly or unfairly, affect our overall opinions of their careers.
|Jim Thome has lived a legendary,|
|Ken Griffey, Jr's story|
leads to Cooperstown.
Moving into the past decade, from 2002 through this 2011 season, we're still subject to Barry Bonds's transgressions. Chipper Jones hits better than any third baseman since Mike Schmidt. In Missouri, a new batting force hits the scene to even grander success than the aforementioned Frank Thomas.
|I'm number 1.|
|Pujols in the house!!!!!!!|
Over the past decade, baseball fans have enjoyed a variety of tremendous offensive seasons. A few guys with historically great years since 2002 include Lance Berkman, Ichiro, Derrek Lee, Magglio Ordonez, David Ortiz, Joe Mauer, Josh Hamilton, Prince Fielder, and Jose Bautista. A few guys, like Hamilton, Prince, and Bautista may extend their primes long enough to make a grander statement, but the rest of this group seems to have stopped improving physically. Prince Fielder particularly stands out, as the youngest of the group, but he's too much of a slugger to expect him to hit like Tony Gwynn as an aging player. Joey Votto and Robinson Cano are excellent hitters, who would have excelled in any era.
Ultimately, as we try to wrap this up, there are a few active players that deserve some consideration for our Top 5, namely Miguel Cabrera and Ryan Braun. Anyone who watched them hit in this postseason is aware of just how devastating these two hitters can be to opposing pitchers. The questions are where do they stack up? And, have they done enough already to warrant being on this list? For comparison's sake, Valdimir Guerrero's career 140 OPS+ is very impressive. He didn't walk much, but he hit so well that he avoided outs like an elite batter. I wanted to see if I could make an argument for Vladdy Daddy's consideration and quickly looked up the active leaders in OPS+ on baseball-reference:
Active OPS+ Leaders
Albert Pujols: 171
Manny Ramirez: 154
|Andy Van Slyke is fooling|
around with Miguel Cabrera.
Jim Thome: 147
Lance Berkman: 146
Ryan Braun: 145
Cabrera and Braun are not a bilingual law firm. They are a couple of solid MVP picks for the AL and NL, respectively, this season. Their defense is really nothing to be proud of. Braun's ability to catch a baseball is particularly horrid. Their extraordinary abilities to hit the baseball consistently, and hit it with power, overcome the defensive escapades so much that MVP consideration is still warranted. If these two extremely talented hitters can maintain their primes for another six or seven years, there's no telling where they'll end up in the record books.
Without further ado, here is our definitive list of the Top 5 Hitters of the past 30 years.
2. Barry Bonds
3. Frank Thomas
4. Wade Boggs
5. Tony Gwynn
Let the arguments begin! Who are the best players you've ever seen hit? The spans of our lifetimes our likely different, but even if they do not, our lists should vary. (Feel free to start the discussion on pitchers, too.)