This is the post I’ve been waiting to unleash on the world.
Over the next several weeks, I will post one to two blogs a week dedicated to a single countdown: The 25 Best Hitters of the Free Agent Era.
Why the time constraint, you ask?
Well, I believe that baseball from the 1920’s is very hard to compare to baseball from the 2000’s. Are Babe Ruth and Albert Pujols comparable? Possibly. But the rules are so different, the ballparks are different, the pitchers are different, the bats are different, the training is different, the body styles are different, the science of the game is different, even the baseballs are different. Comparing every hitter from the late 1880’s until 2017 seems like an absolutely exhausting task, especially when the caveat would always be: “But the time period…”
So let’s keep it simple. Let’s keep it localized. Baseball is a sport that provides plenty of numbers, it’s sample size so large that we must treat it like a 500,000 piece jigsaw puzzle. Let’s organize similar looking pieces, then put them together from there. Besides, even siphoning off 3/4 of baseball history, we will still have plenty to argue about. That’s a promise! It also allows for future examinations of other time periods in a similar fashion.
Let’s begin with an overview of my criteria.
The Free Agent Era began on December 23, 1975 when arbitrator Peter Seitz reversed a Supreme Court ruling that baseball was exempt from anti-trust laws because it was a sport, and not a business. BOOM, MLB players had the right to be free agents.
Thus, for the purposes of this countdown: a player is eligible for this list if at least half of their career plate appearances came after that day in December. I’m making one exception to this rule, and that’s Pete Rose. Rose tallied 9,227 plate appearances before 1975, and 6,634 after. It’s much more fun to add the controversial Charlie Hustle to this mix so I’m making that executive decision. He played until 1986, well into the modern age of baseball.
Now, to the actual criteria for deciding who is better than whom. And this is not easy.
I value the following stats extremely highly: home runs, batting average, on-base percentage, slugging, and the combination of those last two (OPS).
I value the next group of stats very highly: walk rate, strikeout rate (these last two will often be referenced was walk:strikeout ratio), offensive WAR (yes, I’ll consider saber-metric stats. I’m a hybrid of old and new), weighted runs contributed plus, and total hits.
I won’t use RBI’s except in the case of a close comparison. I’ll mention a player’s total, but for the most part, the RBI is not one of my measuring sticks.
I will not be using offensive stats such as steals and runs. This is purely an “at the plate” situational comparison.
Other intangibles I’ve come across that will also play in.
Longevity: This is a tough one. Take Pete Rose again. Sure he collected 4,256 hits, and his career average was .303. That average can be looked at in two lights: He hit well enough for so long that he owns the hit record. As a math guy myself, the longer someone can maintain a high batting average, the more impressive it is. How does his .303 in 15,876 career plate appearances compare to Tony Gwynn’s .338 in 10,232 PA? If Gwynn plays as long as Rose, shouldn’t it be assumed he destroys the hit record? It seems easy to make that extrapolation, but as a hitter, how much credit to we give Rose for playing at that level for that long?
Maybe it’s best to look at Rose’s average up to that same amount of PA. Will that shed more light, or just further dilute the argument?
Blogger’s Edit: I’ve removed Pete Rose from consideration from this countdown. Recent events makes it easy to enforce the plate appearance restriction against him, so he is no longer going to be part of this list.
Then there’s the opposite side of longevity. Take Vladamir Guerrero, for example. Consensus is that Vlad will make the Hall of Fame in 2018, but he only tallied 9,059 PA. Compare that to Chipper Jones, who appeared 10,614 times, or George Brett who walked to the dish 11,625 times. Brett batted .305 and Vlad batted .318. Brett however tallied over 3,000 hits, something Vlad did not. Do we punish Vlad for not crossing this rite of passage for hitters? Or do we punish Brett for needing more at-bats to make it there with a lower average? Is hits an unfair stat, as it depends on longevity?
Ballpark and lineup: Todd Helton was a hitting machine. Whether at Coors Field or away from his friendly confines, the man could flat out hit. In 2000, he finished at .372 and an eye-popping 1.162 OPS. He also homered 42 times and added 59 doubles. No one puts up a season like that based solely on the fact that they play in the Rocky Mountain air. Helton was one of the best hitters of this era, but his stats must be examined to see how much he might’ve been boosted. Everyone has home/away splits, but does Helton lose a spot or two being aided by that elevation?
Don Mattingly was my favorite player as a kid. I’d wake up every day, open up the sports page, and seek out the Yankees’ box score. I loved seeing multiple hits in Donnie Baseball’s line. In the mid-80s, when I was six years old, my father instructed me that if I wanted to be a great left-handed hitter, watch Don Mattingly. Watch how he can hit to all fields. He was one of the most dominant hitters for a few short (too short) years. His longevity will play a role, as will the fact that he played on an awful Yankees team for many years. Sure, this list is about individual efforts, but when a player has no support around him, he won’t see nearly as much to hit as someone protected by a full cast of stars.
Neither of these factors plays are role at the beginning of my rankings, but they will likely break some ties.
Expectations: In a recent discussion with a friend, he mentioned that it’s important to way what a hitter is expected to do. How good are they at doing that? Generally speaking, this argument will come into play when comparing the Ichiros to the Thomes, the Boggs to the Arods. It’s tough to know how much emphasis to put on batting average. A base hit to center is inferior to a home run to center. Every. Single. Time. What disparity between batting averages would substitute for a 400 difference in home runs? Does it matter? Does Wade Boggs get bumped way down because he hit a paltry 118 homers? Or is his .328 career average and .415 OBP reason to put him in the top 10? Guess you’ll have to read and find out.
Let me put it another way. We have two batters. The first guy, the leadoff hitter, gets a single. The second, a power hitter, homers. These are the only two at-bats of their careers. Who is a “better” hitter? Aside from sample size, which of course is completely thrown out the window here, the nod must be given to the home run hitter.
But, wait a minute, the singles hitter did was he was supposed to do. He got on base for the guy who’s supposed to knock him in. They both did their jobs. Do we punish the great Ichiro because his slugging is a pedestrian .403? His career average is .312, and no one’s going to argue that he wasn’t good at exactly the thing he was expected each and every time he got to the plate… which is getting singles and hustling out he occasional double or triple. He led the league in hits five consecutive seasons from 2006-2010, while also breaking the single season hits record in 2004 with 262. But… his career average is .312.
Larry Walker’s career average is .313. And he also launched 383 home runs, over three times Ichiro’s total. Is it that cut and dried? Is Walker a “better” hitter because his average was higher plus the home run dominance? Did you even think I’d possibly insert Larry Walker into this list and leave Ichiro out? The numbers sure suggest I could. But there are plenty of arguments here.
Walker also had 2,500 plate appearances less than Ichiro. Shouldn’t Ichiro be rewarded for having virtually an equal average for that much more of a sample size? How much of a bump do we give him for that? Is it equal to 260 more home runs?
Do you see the task at hand here?
Writer’s Prerogative: I’ve argued with myself plenty with this list. I’m convinced of one guy, then convinced of another. You can see with the Walker and Ichiro comparison above how convoluted it is. And behind this argument, there are seven other players with similar stats, all with strength in some categories while lacking in others.
In the end, I’m going with my best understanding of how great these hitters were. Stats are a wonderful way to describe that, but the group of batsmen we’re about to read about have such a diverse combination of numbers that it’s difficult to emphasize one or two strengths.
I expect you’ll disagree with me. I expect you to voice these disagreements. It’s why, despite the daunting nature of the merciless second guessing, I’m still going through with this. Debating baseball players and their place in rankings is half the fun. It’s also one of my favorite past times. The other half of the fun is simply flying through the vast space of numbers, learning about players you thought you knew.
This is my list. I’m making all the decisions and I’ll have my reasons. Some of them grounded in stats and logic, some of them less grounded in a romantic love of the game and as a sucker for subjective approaches. Your list would be different, with different criteria and different reasons. I’m fully aware of this.
Even as I write this, I have not solidified the final positions. But I’m close. Above all, I just hope you love diving into this endless pool of baseball nostalgia as much as I do.
First up will be a list of 20 guys who didn’t make the grade, but I want to mention their success. That will be in no particular order, so don’t think of it as anything more than an honorable mention section.
Then, starting at #25, I’ll post individual blogs for each of the Best 25 Hitters of the Free Agent Era. My goal is twice a week to publish a post related to this list, between my other posts.