ESPN published its Top 100 ballplayers of all-time last week and, through some fortuitous communications, I was able to spend a chunk of my Friday morning talking baseball with ESPN Senior Writer David Schoenfield. For the first half of our conversation, focused on specific questions of Yankees on the Top 100, head here.
Abstract considerations were also threaded through our conversation about specific players. As we discussed legends of Yankees past, questions of methodology, historical analogs, and how to think about baseball’s long history kept cropping up. First, for a rundown of ESPN’s methodology, check this out (and while you are there, check out the list and the complementary discussions that accompany it if you have not already).
For anyone who read the first part of this discussion, it should be unsurprising that one of the main questions we discussed is balancing metric value. Especially for Mariano Rivera, Derek Jeter, and Joe DiMaggio, a quick look at their career WAR might suggest they are too highly rated. But for each of them, David and I discussed externalities that counter arguments they are too highly rated.
Mariano is the undisputed greatest of all-time at his position with a mythical postseason resume. That matters. Jeter won five World Series titles. That is important. DiMaggio is a legend: The 56-game hitting streak in 1941, the “Greatest Living Ballplayer” accolade. The lost seasons to war-time service and the “what-ifs” that accompany those. Those need to be considered when trying to determine where to place players.
In a similar vein, awards matter. David mentioned the comparison between John Smoltz (#93) on the one hand and Mike Mussina (unranked) on the other. Both are Hall of Famers. But Smoltz has a Cy Young award and Mussina does not. To what extent does that affect how we might think of those two? NOTE: After our conversation, I checked Baseball Reference’s WAR leaderboard. Mussina at 82.8 has a healthy edge over Smoltz’s 66.4. So perhaps that Cy Young award really does matter…
The “it” factor, to get increasingly abstract, also affects how we think about players. David mentioned watching Pedro Martinez (#11) pitch at Fenway in Boston and the degree to which Peak Pedro just had “it.” Likewise for Ken Griffey, Jr., for example. And for the Yankees? Derek Jeter. All players who seemed to always be on television during the biggest moments. Going beyond the statistics is a necessity to build a list like this, David argued. The “it” factor contributes to the ultimate placement of players like Pedro, Griffey, and Jeter.
A conversation about Sandy Koufax provides another lens to look beyond value. There are players who are arguably overrated on the list if solely examined through the lens of WAR … Koufax, Jeter, and Tony Gwynn, for example. But, as David observed, they are all beloved players who somehow achieved an iconic status that eludes others. Koufax retired at the height of his powers with no decline phase to his career. Accordingly, he is forever the greatest pitcher of his generation. Is he really #32 all-time? Maybe not. But his career peak (remember Koufax and career peaks for the end of this article) make his star one of those that burned the brightest through baseball’s history.
How to value specific eras also came up in our conversation. David observed that without contextualizing certain eras, we end up with lists dominated by players who were born in the 19th century. But on the other hand, is comparing players across eras nothing more than hypothesizing? Ultimately, David argued (and I agree) that a timeline adjustment and a focus that goes beyond WAR is necessary. Doing so presents a more holistic look at baseball’s history, rather than an homage to a dead-ball era a century in the past.
Speaking of timeline adjustments … that concept led into one of the most enjoyable parts of my conversation with David. Mike Trout currently sits at #15 on ESPN’s list, with many seasons ahead of him. He is almost certainly the best player I have ever seen, but I worry that injuries might rob him of reaching his full ceiling. Who amongst the Yankees on the list fits that description? Mickey Mantle.
And branching out from a solely Yankee focus: Ken Griffey Jr. All three of them outfielders. David pointed out that they all put together absolutely dominant performances in their 20s. After turning 30, though? Neither Mantle (#7) nor Griffey were able to accomplish as much, and accordingly reach even higher career heights, due to injuries. Trout may be at a similar inflection point. For him to climb as high on baseball’s mountain as he can, he is going to have to play games.
What does that look like? Moving off centerfield? More time at DH? Load management? Time will tell. But it is fascinating that Mantle, who David identified as Trout’s historical analog as a player, may now also be one of his probable career trajectories.
I want to conclude up with a sneak peak at one of David’s next projects, one I am eagerly anticipating. With the Top 100 team selected, the All-Sandy Koufax Team is coming. To construct that team, he will examine the best five-year peaks. The stars who absolutely burned the brightest.
That wraps up our conversation regarding the Yankees and ESPN’s list of the Top 100 players of all-time. I would like to thank David Schoenfield for graciously spending considerable time talking with me, and Katie Hughes at ESPN for reaching out to Pinstripe Alley to facilitate that conversation.