Monday, October 17, 2011

Top 5 Hitters of the Past 30 Years

Last month, when Manny Ramirez shamefully made it back into the news, our Already Missing Manny blog post received a bunch of page views. It was mostly a quick tour of humorous photographic moments of Manny being Manny. The post included a rash statement that Manny was one of the Top 5 hitters I've ever seen, which got me thinking, and got me into a whole lot of trouble...

Before there was Robinson Cano,
baseball had Rod Carew.
The story of best hitters in my lifetime begins with Rod Carew's MVP season in 1977, where he batted .388. I was born during Spring Training of that year, so I only saw the Panamanian Hit King play during the past-his-prime mid-80's. Years later, I would see video of his swing, with scouts and coaches at a baseball camp, as we all marveled at Carew's ability to make each and every swing look like an instant replay of the one before it. Even with a camera angle behind home plate  Carew would invariably hit a line-drive into left-center field.

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.
In 1982, I remember Robin Yount had an inspirational season in Milwaukee and Mike Schmidt, coming off back-to-back MVP awards in '80 and '81, was the best hitter in the National League. Al Oliver hit .331, Dale Murphy won the '82 MVP, but I still thought of Schmidt as the best. Admittedly, this may be attributed to my decision to be a Cubs' fan.

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.
62 vs Pirates
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.
Cubs fans older than me remember 1984 as a great season to be a Cubs fan.Heck, until 1984, the Cubs hadn't been in a postseason game since World War II.

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.
Tony Gwynn was simply tuning his instrument, warming up for a Hall of Fame career that would defy our eyes. He struck out only 3.4% of the time and lead the league with a .351 average and 7.3 WPA.

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.

Don Mattingly won his American League MVP award in 1985, but Wade Boggs and 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?
The Summer of 1986 had more of Mattingly and Boggs leading the way. Donnie Baseball, hit a career high .352 but failed to win his second batting title. Wade Boggs batted .356. Jim Rice also had an outstanding season for Boston, leading the Red Sox to their destinies in October.

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.
One of my favorite summers as a Cubs fan, and growing up in general, was in 1987. My favorite player, to this day, Andre Dawson signed a blank contract to play day baseball in Wrigley Field, asking the Cubs to fill in the salary for whatever they think it's worth. Dawson went on to hit 49 home runs for the last-place Cubbies, winning the MVP award in what can incredibly be considered both undeserved and inspiring. Andre Dawson brought a level of professionalism, ferocity, and class that the Cubs have not seen before nor since.

Dawson deserves his own post(s).

Alan Trammell lead the Tigers past
George Bell's Blue Jays late in '87.
Some of the better pure hitting performances of 1987 belonged to Pedro Guerrero, Paul Molitor, George Bell, and Alan Trammell. In fact, Alan Trammell had a Hall of Fame season in 1987 but narrowly lost the AL MVP vote to Toronto's Bell, who hit 47 HR's, while batting over .300, scoring 111 runs, knocking in 134, and leading the league with 369 total bases. As far as top hitters of this time go, we're still talking about Gwynn and Boggs. Tony Gwynn batted .370 in 1987 and finished 8th in MVP voting. It was a strange year.

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.
Closing out the decade, Wade Boggs again lead the way in the American League, hitting .330 with a .430 OBP. To get an idea of how times have changed, Wade Boggs lead the league in on-base percentage but finished just 21st in MVP voting. Robin Yount won his second MVP award in 1989, and it's difficult to say why. The Brewers finished 81-81 that year, and Yount didn't lead the league in any offensive categories that would have made sense to voters in 1989. According to Baseball-Reference, he lead the league in Runs Created and Offensive WAR. The guys who voted for the MVP award, while sitting around their typewriters smoking cigars did not vote based on Runs Created or Offensive WAR. Perhaps the voting was for sentimental reasons, a good story. Afterall, Yount was a 33-year old class act who was transitioning from shortstop to center field for the betterment of his club. Sportswriters eat that stuff up; the story can write itself. Why hasn't Jeter moved off of shortstop, yet?

A single up the middle on this
swing ended the '89 Cubs season.
A post covering great hitters of the late '80s must at the very least have a mention of Will Clark, who had some very good seasons in 1987 and '88 before truly becoming Will the Thrill when leading the Giants to the World Series in 1989. Cubs fans from back then will not forget how Will Clark destroyed Cubs pitching in the NLCS. Clark batted .650, yes .650, with 8 runs scored and 8 RBI in 5 games. His OPS was 1.882.

The 1990's were a time of offensive explosion across baseball, with smaller ballparks, diminished pitching talent from expansion, Chicks Dig the Longball campaigns, tighter baseballs, and juiced-up players. Interestingly enough, the best performance during the first year in the decade was not by a slugger, but the greatest leadoff hitter of all time. Rickey Henderson didn't come to mind when I thought of the best hitters in my lifetime, but he was so much more than a slap and go speedster. While he had power that was previously unseen in the leadoff spot, it was Rickey Henderson's batting eye that made him so difficult to get out. Rickey new the strike zone well enough to walk his way to Cooperstown.

Rickey dominated games.
In 1990, by batting .325, having an OPS over 1.000, and stealing 65 bases, Rickey Henderson lead the Oakland A's to their second straight World Series. Over in the National League, we are going to start hearing a lot about a young legacy player in Pittsburgh who just won his first of seven MVP awards.

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:

1990 22 240 7 44 54 .330 .454 .529 .983 177
1991 23 700 32 138 112 .318 .453 .553 1.006 180
1992 24 711 24 122 88 .323 .439 .536 .975 174
1993 25 676 41 112 54 .317 .426 .607 1.033 177
1994 26 517 38 109 61 .353 .487 .729 1.217 211
1995 27 647 40 136 74 .308 .454 .606 1.061 179
1996 28 649 40 109 70 .349 .459 .626 1.085 178
1997 29 649 35 109 69 .347 .456 .611 1.067 181
Provided by View Original Table
Generated 9/23/2011.

Frank Thomas / threw like
a child / hit like a beast
Big Frank wasn't done after 29, but those first seven and a third seasons were one of the best starts to any career. His most comparable player at ages 23, 26, 27, 28, and 29 was Hall of Famer Hank Greenberg. The Big Hurt was already being mentioned as a certain Hall of Famer in 1994, getting comparisons to Jimmie Foxx and Ted Williams.

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.
Frank Thomas won the first of back-to-back MVP awards in 1993. That year was also the year that John Olerud basically stopped making out. His .473 on-base percentage was achieved as a work of art.

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.

Cooperstown needs
Jeff Bagwell.
The strike-shortened season of 1994 cost fans the only postseason in baseball history. It also cost fans a few compelling record chasers. Jeff Bagwell, Albert Belle, Edgar Martines, and Frank Thomas had fantastic years, but Tony Gwynn was challenging Ted Williams. When the season ended, Gwynn was batting .396, striking out only 4% of the time.

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.
Tony Gwynn
Age 22-29: 4,527 PA's, .332/.389/.437
Age 30-41: 5,705 PA, .343/.388/.475

Or, if you prefer...

Tony Gwynn
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.
When baseball returned, in the late 90's, offensive numbers (particularly home runs) went berserk. Vladimir Guerrero, Mo Vaughn, Gary Sheffield, Alex Rodriguez, Mike Piazza, and Larry Walker joined the party.

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:

Edgar Martinez
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
One more player we need to highlight who's career began to flourish in the '90s and carried into the new millennium is Larry Walker. His greatness began in Montreal, finishing 5th in MVP votes in 1992. He flourished to astronomical performances in Colorado, and lead the Cardinals to the '04 pennant as an elder statesmen. Over a three year period, '97-'99, Larry Walker batted .369. After an injury-shortened 2000, where he still batted over .300, he won a third batting title in 2001, with a .350 batting average.

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.
Around the time of Y2K fears coming and going, baseball had phenomenal hitting performances by Jason Giambi, Todd Helton, Carlos Delgado, Manny Ramirez, and others.

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.
As Yankee fans are intimately aware, Jason Giambi's prime didn't last very long.

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"
Frank Thomas: 194
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.
Growing up following the rise and fall of Barry Bonds's career, as a conscientious observer, unfortunately lead me to detest his existence in baseball's record books. We're in that uncomfortable place where steroids can unfairly be used as a crutch. I would love to expel Bonds from this discussion for cheating, lying, and being selfish, self-centered and disagreeable since he was a child. We hear about this choice voters make every year for Hall of Fame voting, and I side with keeping steroid users out of the Hall. There's something noble about trying to improve the quality of character of future Hall of Fame inductees, even if the hall already has cheaters, criminals, and racists.

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,
storybook career.
Jim Thome is a great slugger, with Hall of Fame numbers. He, presumably by all accounts, did it cleanly and is a testament to the existence of good guys in professional sports. They say he's the nicest guy around. He knows the names of all the ushers in Cleveland, and his last season there was 2002. Thome is one of the best sluggers of all time, as deserving a hero as anyone can be for athletic achievements, but not one of the top 5 hitters I've ever seen. His strikeout rate is too high, but many of the nicest neighborhoods in America are filled with old ballplayers who's strikeout rates were pretty high.

Ken Griffey, Jr's story
leads to Cooperstown.
Another all-time hero and face of the game who isn't going to make our top 5 is Ken Griffey, Jr. Hard to believe, when considering that he had a beautiful, left-handed swing and batting numbers that put him in the company of apt Mickey Mantle and Frank Robinson comparisons. Injuries aside, we aren't talking about accumulating statistics. Ken Griffey Jr's rate stats were always excellent, but never the all-time high efficiency we'll see from the career and prime numbers of the era's greatest hitters. He's a first-ballot guy, one of the bests all around players of all time, heck, his Hall of Fame Monitor score is 235. Still, Junior didn't perform like an all-time pure hitter as his career .284/.370/.538 slash line shows.

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.
The St. Louis Cardinals new franchise player arrived in 2001, Albert Pujols. With Albert, it's almost always been understood. Mentioning anything about his excellence seems redundant because it's something everyone should basically already know. His career batting average is .329, with an OPS over 1.000. Albert Pujols is only in his 11th season, and his Hall of Fame Monitor is already 263.

Pujols in the house!!!!!!!
Put another way, this has been the worst or second-to-worst season in Albert Pujols's career. His other least brilliant season was 2002, where he finished second to Barry Bonds in NL MVP voting. Here is an 11-year veteran who's worst two seasons include one where he finished 2nd in MVP voting.

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 HamiltonPrince 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.
Miguel Cabrera: 149
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.

Pujols is ready to get PAID!
1. Albert Pujols
2. Barry Bonds
3. Frank Thomas
4. Wade Boggs
5. Tony Gwynn

Honorable mention: 

Edgar Martinez
Manny Ramirez
Alex Rodriguez
Ryan Braun
Miguel Cabrera
Todd Helton
Larry Walker

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.)

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